Daniel Craig’s hit-or-miss fun with the Bond franchise continues; Spectre is a squeak compared to Skyfall‘s shout (6.0/10)
Here’s a Euthyphro dilemma for the modern cinematic age: is James Bond cool on his own merit or is he cool because he is James Bond? It seems like a no-brainer at first, doesn’t it? After all, how can someone who swaggers into a mansion, shoots up a bunch of assassins, fixes himself a strong drink and then woos a newly widowed woman into bed not be considered cool? The truth is, since Ian Fleming first created and then popularized the super-spy genre in 1962, there has been no shortage of men who fit the Bond mould. Men like Tom Cruise and Ethan Hawke have led franchises that serve the same function as Fleming’s and while none of them have had Bond’s iconic polish or enviable longevity, they have nevertheless raised the bar for what audiences have come to expect from the genre’s preeminent special agent. Yet, in an era of ever expanding budgets, if James Bond expects to retain his position as the quintessential super spy, he will need more than stale stories and tired reliance on sex and visual effects. He will need, in other words, more than Spectre. Calling Spectre, the 24th Bond movie, a disappointment would be a gross understatement but at the same time, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for director Sam Mendes. His previous Bond outing, Skyfall, propelled the franchise to loftier heights than ever before; it was the highest grossing Bond film ever made and critical success as well. Yet, as always, there was unrest among Bond’s legions of fans as they clamoured for a return to simpler times. There was no need for such complex themes and ideas in a James Bond movie, they declared haughtily; well, I hope they’re happy.
In literally every conceivable aspect, Spectre fails to match the sophistication and vision its predecessor aspired towards. Even if topping Skyfall is a big ask, there is still little excuse for what Spectre ended up being. From the individual performances to the script to the cinematography, Spectre doesn’t just fail to deliver, it fails to even attempt to deliver. This isn’t the case of a film shooting for the stars and failing to reach them, it’s a case of a film refusing to even launch; almost like Mendes realized that he could never top Skyfall and decided then that he wasn’t even going to try. The result is a film that has undone all the forward progress of its predecessor and introduced a malaise into the franchise that its successor will have to fight long and hard to overcome. The film’s biggest flaw lies in its unoriginality. Every aspect of the film’s story can be traced back to genre staples; if not in the exact execution, then certainly in its broader conception. There is the eternal question of whether Bond still has it (if you have to ask so often, you probably already know the answer), the ham-fisted attempt at topical relevance (drones and internet surveillance) and a magic bullet cure for all the problems that the plot presents. The various Bond tropes – the hallmark phrases (“Shaken, not stirred), the cars and the shiny toys –once charming eccentricities that served as icing on a solid cake, now form most of the cake itself. Yet, in the few aspects that the film did break from tradition, the results were disastrous. For instances, where Bond films once had a dry, subtle wit in them, Spectre introduced a more gag-based physical comedy that felt uncomfortably at odds with the tone of most of the film.
Mendes will shoulder the bulk of the blame for this outing – and deservedly so – but that doesn’t mean we should let Daniel Craig & Co. off the hook so easily. Craig has made no secret of the fact that he wants nothing more to do with the James Bond franchise; a fine thing to say after the franchise gave him the relevance he had never had without it. Watching his performance in Spectre, however, you wouldn’t just think that he had lost interest in the character but rather that he was playing the part of a double agent, stealthily trying to undermine the whole endeavour without being too obvious about it. Where Bonds of the past displayed a certain degree of masculine stoicism, Craig offers only indifference. Where Bonds like Dalton and Connery were collected and self-possessed, Craig looks like he honestly couldn’t be bothered. In each of these cases, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for those expressions to resemble each other yet, when seen on screen, the difference is plain for all to see. He wasn’t alone in this though, he was easily the worst offender; Christoph Waltz’ ability to only play a single character is fast being exposed for all to see. Like his previous efforts in Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds, his character in Spectre is the ever affable villain who relies on oddly timed humour to build tension. Compared to Bond villains of the past however, Waltz offers little menace, whether physically or narratively. It took Bond literally walking through the front door, a number of times, for Waltz’ character to even get a hold of him – if that doesn’t indicate narrative impotency, nothing does. James Bond movies were never the best places to look for strong female characters (you could argue that they were never the best places to look for strong characters period, but that’s beside the point), but it is honestly depressing how little progress the franchise has made in this area in fifty years. Bond girl Lea Seydoux’ character, one Madeleine Swann, tells us how smart and tough she is – before repeatedly being captured and used as emotional leverage for Bond. Moneypenny, despite her name, is supposed to be a capable, if retired, field agent but in the department’s dark hour, finds herself still doing the spying equivalent of paperwork while the men go out and shoot things. Then there is Monica Bellucci – her much anticipated role turns out to be nothing more than a very uncomfortable cameo. Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes, playing Q and M respectively, do what they can to make their scenes watchable but neither get enough screen time to really make a difference.
It should come as no surprise after all this that the film ends up feeling like a generic, formulaic Hollywood action offering. Spectre is in fact, little more than a vote of no confidence in the audience’s intelligence. It expects the audience to buy, for example, that James Bond is truly in love after a quick, interrupted dinner on a train. It attempts to elevate itself above the level of a merely visual spectacle by attempting to incorporate recent discussions regarding government surveillance and privacy concerns. In both cases, there was room aplenty in the film for these plot lines but they were denied the time, space and nuance they needed to succeed. Casino Royale and Skyfall both owed their success, in part at least, to the emotional sophistication (relatively speaking, of course) of their stories and Spectre had enough material (the death of M in Skyfall, for example) to go that route. Likewise, there was plenty of opportunity to engage the difficult topic of government surveillance and in doing so, bring James Bond into the 21st century, force him to reconcile his Cold War origins with modernity and re-evaluate the role that the British super agent plays in a world where Big Brother is slowly becoming more and more of a reality. Of course, that would have meant less sex and fewer explosions – a trade-off that no one seemed willing to make.
Every creative endeavour carries with it some degree of risk. There is always a possibility that an innovation doesn’t take off and is decried in every quarter. This is a risk that every creative has to bear – whether actor, writers, director. Yet, the overwhelming sentiment emanating from Spectre was that it was a safe film. In everything it did, it took absolutely no risk. There was action but nothing new or special. There was a story, but nothing that audiences haven’t already seen dozens of times before. There were special effects but nothing stunningly picturesque. There was a script, but it clung firmly to the narrow grey area between light and fun, and dark and heavy. There was sex but nothing too graphic but enough that fans of the eye candy wouldn’t be disappointed. Essentially, in every way, Spectre seems like a movie created by people who decided that this would be their last project and if there was ever a time to cash in on the Bond name, this would be it. They aren’t wrong. For many of them, this will likely be the last time they work on a James Bond movie and furthermore, the box office will prove them right – the name of Bond will steer this film into the safe harbours of commercial success. Yet, the film will damage the Bond franchise and each Spectre sized hole in the franchise makes it that much harder for James Bond to remain culturally relevant.
Daniel Craig – James Bond
Christoph Waltz – Oberhauser
Lea Seydoux – Madeleine Swann
Ralph Fiennes – M
Monica Bellucci – Lucia
Ben Whishaw – Q
Naomi Harris – Moneypenny