The climax of the Daniel Craig era, playing with expectations, and what could have been.
Let me begin with stating that the new James Bond film, Spectre, is not terrible. It’s a serviceable, fun, damn good-looking Bond film. But it brings with it a pervasive sense of disappointment – and the problem is of their own making. Those responsible for the franchise in the Daniel Craig era have consistently elevated it from its resilient (if archaic) roots, to a series of strong, mature dramas which stand as great films in their own right. Elevating the Bond pantheon, first with the brutal Casino Royale, then with the stunning Quantum of Solace (which I continue to defend as misunderstood), and to the cathartic heights of Skyfall, has raised expectations going into Spectre. Fans and critics alike expect a prestige picture with strong components across the board. Unfortunately, while it can’t live up to the heights of Skyfall, Spectre actually takes a big step backwards in almost every regard.
Despite missing Roger Deakin’s gorgeous DP work from Skyfall, Spectre remains quite beautiful even if it delivers more functional lighting, traditional framing, and (aside from a few stand-out moments incl. the opening tracking shot in the Day of the Dead, Bond motoring across a still Austrian lake, or later creeping through the ruins of MI-6) largely forgettable visuals. There are the requisite breathtaking locations – especially the Austrian Alps, the sprawling desert of Morocco, and the well-photographed nighttime worlds of Rome and London – and the 007 hallmark of grand action sequences (particularly a brutal From Russia With Love-inspired train-car fight). But perhaps here is the first signal of something wrong – the action. Mendes uncharacteristically loses focus on storytelling during the overly long, incessantly loud action sequences which seem to prioritize chaos and destruction over character. Skyfall struck such a marvelous balance between spectacle and story that it’s really quite surprising to find Spectre’s action veering into Michael Bay territory.
This, however, leads us to what may be the ultimate issue with Spectre. After boldly resetting Bond, there was an odd sentiment from the producers and from Craig himself going into the new film that “hopefully we’ll reclaim some of the old irony.” But that irony, that self-aware detachment, is the very reason they needed to reset Bond in the first place. Any attempt to go back and recapture the tone of the Moore or Brosnan films (which precipitated and necessitated the Craig reboot so badly), seems woefully misguided. An assembly of writers and directors collaborated over three Craig films to create a strong, redefined character with real emotional stakes and psychological scars – essentially a modernized version of character from the Fleming novels. This new Bond has since been accepted and lauded as the new status quo – a serious Bond for our serious times. Noone asked for ejector seats, campy reactions of bystanders, old men and their airbags, and ill-timed one-liners which all completely undermine the drama they’ve fought so hard to achieve. This apparent effort started them down two irreconcilable paths – returning to the classic Bondian flavour, while simultaneously probing deep into the newly established wounded Bond psyche to establish a true origin story.
While the very skeleton of Spectre seems broken, the meat on the bones (or lack thereof) is where the film really lost its way. There was so much they could have done with the origin story, with Blofeld, with a reimagined Spectre – so much that could have used the same boldness of vision which saw them reboot Bond in the first place, and later kill off Judi Dench’s beloved M. Instead, Mendes and his team of writers created a fairly lazy exercise in predictability – a mystery that’s solved before the movie even begins. All of this is to say, despite all the set-up and all the overture, there was no turn. We’ve been conditioned to expect a turn – not just in modern thrillers, but specifically in the modern Bond thrillers. Vesper’s betrayal, the government’s complicit engagement with Quantum, M’s death… But here, instead, we’re introduced to a problem, an obvious villain, and led on a straight line to a ho-hum conclusion.
The most obvious failure here is the (mis)treatment of Blofeld. Much like Benedict Cumberbatch being cast as “John Harrison” in Star Trek Into Darkness, Christoph Waltz, a man who was born to play the traditional Blofeld role, being cast as “Franz Oberhauser” fooled absolutely no one. Waiting and revealing his identity towards the end of the second act, as though it were some big revelation, is limp storytelling. As an obsessive fan of the Bond canon and a fan of how brilliantly the Craig films have played with, subverted, and updated the traditional Bond tropes, I expected far more. I expected all-too-obvious Christoph Waltz to be a fake-out, a front-man, a face being used within Spectre to guard the identity of the true mastermind, the true Blofeld: Monica Bellucci.
Bellucci was so absurdly underused in Spectre (her screentime couldn’t have exceeded four minutes) that I was genuinely shocked when she didn’t return in any capacity in the film’s third act. She seemed like a perfect Lady Macbeth turned full-on Queen of Vengeance, Chaos, and Power. For Craig’s well-attuned, updated, 21st century 007, who better to play the infamous womanizer’s ultimate nemesis than a beautifully aging Black Widow? Setting up an antagonistic dynamic between the continually remade picture of “masculinity” and the lifelong target of the male gaze-turned-agent of feminist domination would have further elevated this new Bond canon from its traditional, misogynist, campy roots.
But even if you were to keep Waltz as Blofeld, he’s still criminally underserved as a character. He’s deprived of the memorable moments and monologues which endeared audiences to Javier Bardem’s Silva (who owns perhaps the greatest entrance ever for a Bond villain), Mads Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre (whose cold menace was given full reign in his gruesome torture of Bond), or even Mathieu Almaric’s Dominic Greene (who, while admittedly underwhelming, still had a memorable moment while fighting Bond in the fiery finale, mocking 007 that he had just led another woman to her death). Each had a perspective, each had motivation, each was allowed time and space in the script to develop and exude their presence. You would think that with this being the first usage of Blofeld in over 40 years (his last legitimate appearance being in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever) they would give him at least as much development as the previous Craig villains. This is The Joker. This is Darth Vader. This is Bond’s greatest foe. But Waltz is limp – his Blofeld is given nothing into which he could sink his teeth – as though the great, charismatic actor were being kept on a leash. Add to that an ineffectual torture sequence in which consequences of the torture are stated, the torture is conducted, and then inexplicably those consequences never materialize, it renders him totally inert and unworthy of the name. And beyond all of this, Blofeld’s motivation is embarrassingly thin. The writers go to great lengths to push the tension, mystery, and terror of Bond digging into his childhood trauma to figure out the identity of the man in charge of Spectre. And yet, when he gets there – Blofeld is not responsible for the death Bond’s parents, nor was Bond’s family wrapped up in Spectre in any way. Blofeld was just jealous that his dad spent more time hunting with the recently orphaned Bond over the two short years Bond lived with them. So, naturally, Blofeld kills his father and sets out to create the largest terrorist network the world has ever known… What? How the fuck does that work? This backstory (to which so much anticipation was built) is utterly mind-boggling in how truly mundane it is. And if the argument is that Blofeld was always a straight-up psychopath just waiting for a catalyst – that’s fine – but make the case for that. Tell us of how his psychosis was displayed when he was a teenager sharing a home with Bond, how it led to some sort of trauma for Bond, or precipitated Blofeld’s own presumed death, or even that he himself was sadistically responsible for the death of Bond’s parents. The real secret of Blofeld and Bond’s shared past is just so inexcusably lame that it cannot be reconciled with the great work the very same filmmakers accomplished with Bond’s past in Skyfall. And that is one of the biggest frustrations embedded in all of the complaints I have about Spectre – we know of what these filmmakers are capable. When they offer up such seemingly thoughtless storytelling, it is without excuse.
A subsequent failure that goes hand-in-hand with Blofeld is their inability to effectively portray how pervasive Spectre’s reach is as an organization. While they pay brief lip-service to how Spectre had been responsible for everything in the past three films, they needed to make a bigger deal of that connection – dig the knife further into James’ heart – push him to a psychological breaking point. I honestly felt more chills in Quantum of Solace when Mr. White calmly suggested in his interrogation that they had people everywhere, or when Bond discovers at the Bregenz Opera House that the Prime Minister’s right hand man is actively complicit in the plans of a terrorist network. Those moments really struck a nerve, struck at the core of the safety we perceive in our institutions. The idea of Spectre’s tentacles reaching into every single corner of society is a very powerful one. But the film failed to land this argument. There were no chilling, unsettling revelations that everything we believe in is wrong. The villains were the villains and the heroes were the heroes.
Which brings us to Andrew Scott – the gleefully maniacal Moriarty in the BBC’s consistently brilliant Sherlock. When such an actor is cast in a James Bond film – similarly to Christoph Waltz – there is zero surprise when he emerges in the third act as an out-and-out villain. To treat such a reveal as a surprise, that the writers would actually think this would shock and satisfy viewers, is embarrassing. Set expectations, toy with them, subvert them. That, and infinite variations on that, is what good thrillers do. But the writers of Spectre set expectations and then, without any sense of misdirect, deliver exactly what they’ve told you to expect. Not to be prescriptive at all, but one could easily imagine casting the naturally antagonistic Andrew Scott and then pulling a massive bait-and-switch with a true third act shocker that sees him emerge a hero. Audiences loved Judi Dench’s M. She’s irreplaceable. Ralph Fiennes is equally brilliant – a wonderful actor who is a joy to watch. He’s also capable of anything. His range is fierce. Imagine, if you will, a version of Spectre in which Andrew Scott is introduced, built up as a disruptive, dangerous force within the British Intelligence Service – by this point Ralph Fiennes has earned our trust as M’s replacement – but in a third act turn, it’s actually Fienne’s M who is revealed as Spectre’s tentacle embedded within MI6… That his actions until now have perfectly situated him to push for this surveillance system and hand control of world intelligence to his co-conspirators at Spectre – leaving the new Q, the new Moneypenny, and Tanner all betrayed and forced to stop their boss (with the help of Andrew Scott’s genuinely motivated C – who could then step in as an oddly young M for future films). Thus providing at least one massive twist and, more importantly, elevating the impact and reach of Spectre as an organization. If the whole premise of Spectre is that they have tentacles everywhere and that you can’t trust anyone, the logical extension of that threat is that someone you do trust is a villain. But this never materializes. The writers once again introduce a character who’s probably a villain and then reveal them to be a villain… so much for suspense or dramatic pay-off.
Even the little things with certain characters seem poorly conceived. The imposing, Jaws-like Mr. Hinx is wonderfully mute until they inexplicably give him a one-liner that feels more at home in Octopussy than in the Craig-era (think of Craig brutally strangling the African warlord to death in the stairwell in Casino Royale, or calmly kneeling over Mr. Slate as he bleeds out in Quantum). Part of the new rules of Craig’s Bond is that death carries weight – it’s taken seriously – killing someone impacts your soul. Furthermore, who is Mr. Hinx? He’s introduced at the Spectre meeting in Rome as an ambitious nobody who’s trying to work his way up in the organization. Would it not have been far cleaner and more motivated, if he were simply Blofeld’s blunt-instrument right hand? Unfortunately, Mr. Hinx embodied the odd desire to return to the irony of the Moore years – to the two-dimensional, unmotivated, blockhead villains. Another misused character is the eminently creepy Mr. White – a man who has been the face of this shadow organization, the link between the Craig movies, and, most importantly, the lingering reminder of Bond’s biggest trauma, the betrayal of Vesper Lynd. That Mr. White is present in Spectre is fantastic. That he’s initially referred to as The Pale King is even better. But it ends up yet another missed opportunity. Bond’s quest to find the mysterious Pale King (a wonderfully ominous moniker) could more strongly fuel the first act of the film. And why reveal that The Pale King is Mr. White before Bond finds him in Austria? The trail of The Pale King should be a dread-inducing hunt for the bogeyman – leading Bond to a mysterious, remote location – a house in the middle of the mountains, covered in dust, filled with crows of death – until Bond finally pulls back the curtain and discovers Mr. White: the ghost from his past. Instead, Bond easily figures out The Pale King’s identity and confidently sets off to find him, forgoing what could have been palpable tension.
Lastly, the insufferable theme song from Sam Smith (of whom I’m a big fan). “Writing’s On The Wall” sounds more like a rejected ballad from the second act of a failed broadway musical than a worthy entry in the Bond canon. Aside from lacking a memorable melody or a climactic chorus – the song is completely disconnected from the themes of the film. “You Know My Name” is a shockingly aggressive statement foretelling the arrival of an altogether new and brutal 007. “Another Way to Die” (while, like Quantum, not perfect but far better than initially received) conveys the callous swagger of a reckless Bond on the hunt for vengeance. “Skyfall” carries the pathos, drama, and grandiose quality that permeates every frame of the film as everything in Bond’s world is under siege and crumbling around him. Was Smith’s theme anything to do with knowing whom to trust, original trauma, burrowing into the ghosts of the past to save the present? No. It was about risking your life for the one you love. What? Why? Is Spectre a grand romantic epic? If it is, they forget to tell the audience. While they do imply at the end that Swann’s the tonic for Bond’s scars and can help him emerge as a good man, this itself was another missed opportunity. Swann is allegedly an incredibly capable therapist – Bond’s love for her could easily have been earned if the writers had bothered to provide even a single scene in which she forced Bond to confront something about himself. She was perfectly constructed and situated by the writers to cut through Bond’s façade and expose the pain he’s hiding deep within – but she never did any of that. Activating Bond’s pathos wouldn’t have just made Swann more than a replaceable Bond-girl, and wouldn’t have just made it somewhat realistic when Bond walks away from the job to be with her, it would have also elevated the material between Bond and Blofeld – giving Bond (and the audience) better perspective into why and how Blofeld so deeply rattles and challenges Bond’s resolve.
Are there good things about Spectre? Absolutely. It’s pretty fun for the most part. It looks great (though not as great as Skyfall). And it continues to shift the threat from the periphery of empire to the centre. Classic Bond adventures have sent the ultimate agent of empire around the globe on an historically racist, chauvinist, paternalistic mission to root out threats, penetrate, and civilize foreign “culture,” whereas Craig-era films have found the greatest threat to society in the untenable centre itself – each film (particularly Skyfall and Spectre) heavily focusing on London as the source of danger. Setting most of the third act in London and constructing a sequence that has Bond working his way through the rubble of MI-6, exploring the rotting halls of empire to unmask the ghosts of the past, is some strong shit. The final moments on Westminster Bridge are exquisitely composed and have the potential to be a high-point of the entire series, had the character work of Blofeld, Swann, and Bond been better explored. The brilliance of this, paired with that of Skyfall, is really what makes the rest of Spectre so damn frustrating. If Spectre were just another Brosnan film, or if Casino Royale had never happened, the disappointment wouldn’t be nearly as affecting. But this is a Craig film. Casino Royale did happen. And Spectre should have stayed on that course.
There’s a reason the Daniel Craig era has revitalized the entire James Bond franchise. There’s a reason why the franchise was at death’s door when Brosnan took camp to absurdist levels in Die Another Day. There’s an odd tension at play here – Mendes and Craig go on at length in interviews about how much they revere the Fleming character, how they’re not interested in pastiche, how story and character are everything – and yet, Craig has stated that together they set out to make this film “a celebration of what it is to be Bond.” For Mendes, Purvis, Wade, Logan, and even Craig to willfully take Bond back to those days – after just having set the gold standard for how good, relevant, dramatic, and prestigious Bond films can be – and not just as Bond films, but as films, period – is not just misguided, it’s inexcusably selfish and masturbatory. No-one asked for a return to the old Bond. Bond has survived for five decades precisely because he has evolved with the times. Craig & Co. managed to save Bond by reimagining him as a serious man for serious times – psychologically real and damaged, with motives, gravitas, and heart. As Deborah Ross writes about Spectre in The Spectator (UK), “I wept when Eva Green died in Casino, and I wept when Dench died in Skyfall, but I wept only with frustration here.” The potential of reimagining Blofeld and Spectre in the Craig-era mold was immense – and while the film delivered some solid excitement, some pretty nice cinematography, and really great stunts – I can’t help see it as anything but a missed opportunity. Hopefully the ghosts of this film won’t haunt the next one and Craig (under contract for one more) will be re-energized enough to return and deliver one final, masterful send-off that locks his arguable position as the best Bond ever.