The secret of the Bond franchise’s longevity is not just in the fundamentals – the slick spy, beautiful women, grotesque villains and outrageous stunts. It’s how damn reactionary the series is.
Adapting Ian Fleming’s novels went out of vogue in Sean Connery’s day, despite the occasional revival (the second half of Casino Royale) or borrowed title (thanks for Quantum of Solace). The series has always remodelled itself based on what’s hot in pop culture – more the insecure high-schooler than the assured spy.
It has always been this way. President Kennedy names From Russia with Love as one of his favourite novels; the producers announce it will be their first sequel. Audiences love the gadgets in Goldfinger; in Thunderball Bond gets to play with a jetpack. Blaxploitation is big in the USA; Bond heads to the Bayou to battle drug traffickers and voodoo priests. Star Wars fever takes off; Bond shoots into space, and battles with lasers. Jason Bourne is lauded as the super-spy for the 21st Century; Bond can fight in shakey-cam too, thank you very much.
If audiences complain the series has become too ridiculous (lasers, invisible cars), the next instalment will inevitably be a darker, back-to-basics spy thriller. And if the Bond of the day isn’t popular, and box office receipts are dipping, it’s time for a recast (Lazenby and Dalton, we hardly knew ye). Fittingly for a franchised centred on a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic from the cold war” (their words, not mine), Bond has always been playing catch-up. The results are rarely original, or even very good, but they ensured 007 has survived a very long time.
So how do the producers follow up the massive success of Skyfall, the series’ most lucrative instalment to date?
Which means everything you loved about Skyfall is back in Spectre. And bigger. Sam Mendes in the director’s chair? Check. An A-List cinematographer? Check (Hoyte van Hoytema subs in for Roger Deakins). Nostalgic call-backs aplenty? Check. A Bond who is haunted by the past? Check. A near-omnipotent evil mastermind who’s making things personal? Check. Bond gone rogue and in hiding? Check. Musing on the relevance of spies in the drones & digital age? Double check. All we’re missing is an original song from Adele – thank goodness 25 is out this week.
The patchwork plot finds Bond (Daniel Craig) going rogue to investigate a shadowy evil organisation (guess who), led by an equally shadowy villain played by Christoph Waltz (guess who). Meanwhile M (Ralph Fiennes) fights to keep the ’00 Program’ afloat in the face of a security services merger and the launch of a new global surveillance system.
Mendes and his team offer up some audacious set-pieces; the Day of the Dead pre-credit sequence is an all-timer, featuring a staggering four-minute single-take that the creative team seem to have tackled for the sheer challenge. There’s also a great train rumble with Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista, perhaps the best henchman since Jaws), a thoroughly creepy chat between Bond and old nemesis Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and expanded roles for the charming supporting cast in London (M, Q & Moneypenny) to be savoured. Daniel Craig, for all his off-screen grousing about the role, is still in fine form as the titular spy.
If only there was more. Unfortunately Spectre is at the mercy of a script more malicious than the black tentacles molesting Bond in the opening title sequence. It borrows its beats from older, better Bond films, without giving them a life of their own.
Despite being built in Skyfall‘s image, Spectre fails to deliver on the promise of its predecessor. Skyfall ended with with Bond’s past blown to bits (literally), and a new supporting cast for the Daniel Craig era finally in place: Q was at work in his lab, Moneypenny manned the desk (and hatstand) and the new M was back in Bernard Lee’s office from the 60s. The reboot cycle that began with Casino Royale appeared to be over; there was a new status quo, and a reaffirmed, heroic Bond.
But Mendes does not move on. Instead, he retraces Skyfall‘s steps, plumbing Bond’s past and the legacy of M16 decision-making. Yet to that somber personal and political journey, Mendes adds a decade’s worth of franchise clichés last lampooned by Austin Powers in the 90s: quips, secret bases, gadgets and evil monologues. The result, predictably, is a mess that jumps from plot point to plot point (often with little logic) without articulating what it wants to say.
The personal stakes for Bond come courtesy of the twist that – gasp – Spectre head honcho Franz Oberhauser is Bond’s long-dead foster brother and – double gasp – Oberhauser is actually Ernest Stavro Blofeld (he of the facial scaring and white cat fame). Yet as hackneyed as the twist is (Austin Powers did it in Goldmember dammit!), what’s most embarrassing is that the script never goes anywhere with it. It is used as a lazy way to tie together all of Bond’s recent villains, propping up Blofeld as “the architect of all [Bond’s] pain”, and that’s about it. Bond and his nemesis never even get a decent verbal sparring match. Christoph Waltz, seemingly born to be a Bond villain, has very little to do beyond gloat. I’m still unclear on what exactly his evil plan was.
Mendes’ insistence on an emotional arc for Bond is a laudable attempt to keep the super-spy grounded, but the result is to tack a deadly serious tone (it is rough being a government assassin after all) on a ridiculous series of events. Casino Royale beautifully handled the question of “how does a man get that way?”, but its sequels have not been able to stop picking at that scab. The romance that the plot relies on to pull Bond out of his revenge spiral is particularly undercooked. We have to be told multiple times that Bond has found love (even Blofeld chimes in to dub Madeline Swann “the only woman who could understand you”), because you would never guess based on the handful of brief, chemistry-lite scenes shared by Daniel Craig and his leading lady Lea Seydoux, another great actor left adrift by the script.
Does James Bond need to have an emotional arc at all? Connery’s Bond suffers no crises; he breaks the rules occasionally and inevitably seeks revenge when his latest lover or ally is killed (usually about an hour into the film), and that’s about it. In classic Bond, it’s the love interests – think Tatiana in From Russia With Love or Tracy in OHMSS – who have the character arcs (flimsy as they may be) and the change of heart that saves the day. Making the mission personal for Bond again to drive the plot adds more bloat to a script that is already coming apart at the seams. Why can’t Bond just get the bad guy because it’s his job?
Whilst many of Bond’s contemporaries – Bourne et al – rage against the system, 007 is an establishment hero. Continuing the interrogation of government tactics from Skyfall, it is clear that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with the character’s inherent conservatism (or, as John Le-Carre puts it, “at the root of Bond there [is] something neo-fascistic and totally materialist”), and how to pit him against the ills of the modern world. The script strains to have it both ways, keeping the series’ M16 roots intact whilst positioning Bond and his allies as underdogs fighting to limit the modern surveillance state. M, of all characters, inveighs against the multi-national surveillance and drone program championed by C (Andrew Scott, handily telegraphed as evil). Sure, there is a good argument to be made against total surveillance, but it’s a bit rich coming from the head of M16, who still champions handing the privileged few a license to kill. The same goes for the film itself; the critique of state violence may be well intentioned, but it’s an awkward fit with Spectre‘s exploding bases, faceless henchmen and countless off-screen civilian casualties.
In keeping with the predictability that’s as much of a hallmark of the series as vodka martinis and a ticking-clock climax, Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond has gone sour in a familiar way. Spectre falls into the long tradition of overblown and backward-looking fourth instalments, taking its ignominious place alongside Thunderball, Moonraker and Die Another Die. It is a disappointment for a series that appeared to be on the cusp of something new. True to form, whatever follows will attempt to replicate Spectre‘s perceived successes, over-correct for its failures, and crib from whatever else is popular. This reactivity has always ensured the franchise’s survival, but also ensures that great Bond films are few and far between. The world’s most prolific secret agent will be back – he always is – but he may wear a different face.