When it comes to James Bond movies, I’m generally an easier lay than most of the girls. Give me the old-fashioned camp and the silly names and the wacky henchmen, sure. A car with fins? I’ll take it. Connery, Moore, Brosnan? All fine with me. What about the more modern interpretations; the gritty realism, the self-serious tone, the needlessly personal narratives? Hey, I’m down with that too. It might be a tougher sell than even the swimming car, but I’m willing to meet you halfway.
A consequence of this is that even though I’ve seen all the movies they’re pretty much interchangeable in my memory. To review one is to inadvertently review about a dozen others: pretty good; girls, guns, gadgets, explosions; three out of four stars. The only way a Bond flick is leaving a lasting impression is if it’s distinctly terrible enough (Never Say Never Again) or somehow exceeds my usual expectations (From Russia With Love). Spectre manages to break this mould. It’s memorable because it’s right in the middle of the “Bond Quality” Venn diagram. Its gorgeously shot, skilfully directed, competently acted and contains, arguably, some of the best action sequences in the series’ recent history. But it’s also stupid. It builds towards a ludicrous plot twist that brushes shoulders with actual parody, and attempts to knit together the previous three Craig instalments without any understanding of why that doesn’t – can’t, really – work on any conceivable level.
That isn’t to say Spectre is all bad all the way through, and, let’s face it: all of these movies are dumb in one way or another. That’s what many people enjoy about them. How you feel about this one will likely depend almost entirely on what kind of experience you expect James Bond to provide. It might not work for others, but it could very well work for you. And, if I’m being honest, it mostly worked for me.
Is Daniel Craig’s revisionist Bond the best to ever show up on-screen? A case could certainly be made. This is a high-wire balancing-act of a role. Bond has to look good in a suit, he has to order martinis with a straight face, and he needs to be believable in sleeping with any woman who makes his general acquaintance. But he also needs to look as though he might glass you in a barroom fight. Sean Connery had that, and so does Craig. In 2015 there’s only so close you can reasonably get to the man conceived in Ian Fleming’s original novels; a quintessentially British antidote to Queen and Country’s receding imperium. Craig’s unsmiling bruiser is pretty much that guy, just stripped of the awkward 50s sensibilities. His movies brought Bond into the twenty-first century, but his performance kept him out of sync with modernity. James Bond is a relic, one whose old-fashioned ways of doing things are, in his case, inextricably linked to old-fashioned Englishness. But in keeping Bond out of touch, Craig also made him timeless.
This, then, is why it’s jarring to see Craig giving so little of a shit about the role now. He’s on record as saying he’d rather slit his wrists than play the character again anytime soon, but when being believably aloof and disinterested is most of the point, it’s difficult to tell what’s acting and what’s genuine annoyance. This has arguably been true of all the Bond movies since 2006’s Casino Royale, but especially so in Spectre, which is the twenty-fourth movie in the franchise and the fourth to star Craig.
It’s also the third direct sequel in a half-century saga which, until 2008, reliably wiped the slate clean between instalments. The underlying formula of the series is as timeless as Bond himself: impeccably-tailored suits, fast cars, exotic locations, beautiful seductresses, madcap henchmen, evil masterminds, shaken, not stirred. Each movie was superficially different but fundamentally the same, and largely immune to real-world cultural shifts because of how easily – and frequently – it hit the reset button. Dead lovers and friends didn’t upset Bond because by the next movie he’d never met them. It didn’t matter that Bond got married and his wife, a few scenes later, got murdered, because by the next movie he was quite literally a different person.
The otherwise-distinctly-average Quantum of Solace was the first to buck this trend, and 2012’s Skyfall was the first to mine the connective tissue for genuine pathos. A major character’s death in that movie felt like the most uncommonly powerful in the iconic spy’s history, simply because we knew this version of him couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. Spectre, for all its ambition, makes this feel like a terrible idea. It’s a movie that wants to wholeheartedly embrace the trend of explicitly continuity-driven franchise filmmaking, but it’s also a movie that is attempting to retroactively knit three only tangentially-related stories together. This is, I think, impossible, or at the very least difficult enough that it would take a better, more sophisticated movie than Spectre to pull it off successfully.
Another thing Spectre wants to do is lay a questing finger on the pulse of post-Snowden topicality: the small-scale stakes revolve around a stuffed-shirt in the British government, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), attempting to abolish the archaic 00-programme and replace it with an intrusive multi-national surveillance system. James Bond is less interested in duplicitous bureaucratic manoeuvring than he is in tracking down the leader of Spectre, a shadowy cabal whose tentacular reach may extend through the last three movies and, indeed, his entire life. If Skyfall was The Dark Knight, Spectre is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Another thing the Bond movies have always done is emulate what’s popular.) The eventual reveal, while painfully telegraphed and utterly nonsensical, is someone else’s plot point to spoil. Needless to say it is profoundly silly, and manages to strangle the final third within the dense thickets of four films’ worth of contrived exposition.
Still, the trail of breadcrumbs that leads to the finale is largely as compelling to follow as ever. The movie opens in Mexico City for a costumed Day of the Dead celebration which reintroduces Bond through one of those flashy extended tracking shots, and eventually culminates in a wonderfully implausible punch-up in a looping, spiralling helicopter. It’s one of several above-average action set-pieces that include a gorgeous first act car chase and a woodwork-splintering train tussle between Bond and Dave Bautista’s near-silent, hulking henchman. (The latter is a clear homage to Roger Moore’s similarly-staged brawl with Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me, and is about as good). That train’s dining car also hosts a classically flirtatious dinner for Bond and his new squeeze. Her name is (disappointingly) Madeleine Swann, and she’s a French doctor who is needlessly related to a character we’ve met before. But she’s played, with gusto, by Léa Seydoux, who’s not quite Eva Green in the sensuality department (who is?) but game enough elsewhere to not feel like the kind of hopeless ninny that Bond usually attracts. Those duties are handed off to Monica Belucci instead, who shows up early on as a grieving widow and spends her ten minutes of screen-time having sex with her husband’s murderer – which, given Bond history, is fair enough.
What works for Spectre is mostly what always works for Bond, and what doesn’t never really has. James’s fling with Dr. Swann is perfectly fine until you realize, quite late in the movie, that it’s not actually supposed to be a fling, but instead a defining romantic relationship. That’s jarring, but we’re not seriously subtracting points from a Bond movie for mishandling women, are we? We may as well penalize Spectre for ruining too many cars. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes is good enough as M that the audience doesn’t miss Judi Dench half as much as the movie does, Naomie Harris breathes a lot of life into Moneypenny, who historically has been little more than a head-over-heels front-office functionary, and Ben Whishaw’s Q strides into most scenes with the latest in exploding-watch technology and usually walks off with the movie.
The formula, as I said, is timeless. Here it’s broader and campier than even Skyfall ended up being, and it winks a lot more, but the movie does what it’s supposed to do in the manner it’s supposed to do it. Until it doesn’t.
There it is again – that final third. At one point, almost without warning, Spectre realizes it only has 45 minutes to tie up every disparate narrative thread left dangling since Casino Royale, and even though it’s clear that tugging on any of them will unravel the entire fabric, every character seems bizarrely keen to swing their way from one scene to another. This is, partly, a consequence of trying to call back to a time most of Bond’s current audience either didn’t see or don’t care about; that the current cast had nothing to do with. Mostly it’s simple bad writing. The script is by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth, competent screenwriters all. But it would take more than competence to ret-con three prior movies so convincingly that you could believe this was the point all along. Craig’s four virile outings all speak the same language, but they have nothing to say to each other.
What’s aggravating is that the Bond series has no need for a dense continuity. The few characters who were played by the same actors across several movies never seemed to notice that Bond was suddenly not Sean Connery or Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan anymore; they, and the audience, just carried on as though nothing had changed. And why wouldn’t they? Functionally, nothing had changed. The beauty of Bond as a character is that he doesn’t need an excuse to embroil himself in terrorist master-plans. It’s his job. He literally has a license for it. All Bond’s previous attempts to keep up with a terraforming pop-culture have turned out okay; his trip to space, his concern for the environment, his new-found penchant for collateral damage – these were dalliances into what was popular at the time, but they weren’t deviations from what Bond was, what he meant and to whom. Spectre’s greatest failing is assuming that audiences want from Bond the same thing they want from their superheroes, and, perhaps more damagingly, that what works for their superheroes will also work for him. They don’t and, evidently, it doesn’t, which is a shame. But hopefully it’s a lesson learned.
I don’t know if we’ll see Daniel Craig play James Bond again. Whether or not he knows himself seems to depend on which publication he’s talking to at the time. But I know we’ll see James Bond again. The longest-running franchise in cinema history isn’t going to hang up its Tom Ford tuxedo anytime soon. But now we’ve seen Bond’s past, and met his demons, and we’ve let him be vulnerable and flawed. Enough of that. Let’s get back to basics. Let’s jet off to somewhere tropical. Let’s karate chop some henchmen with steel teeth and killer hat-brims. Let’s have sex with a good-looking woman and immediately forget about her when she’s murdered a few scenes later. Why not? Bond doesn’t need humanizing. He just needs a suit, a gun and a drink. And maybe a swimming car.
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