How do you take a beloved yet bloated franchise rife with indelible iconography and rescue it from the depths of self-parody hell? Strip away the invisible cars, exploding pens, and creaky puns. And, more importantly, mine the likely psychopathic tendencies of what it means to have “a license to kill”.
Daniel Craig’s now four-film-long stint as the only bleeding James Bond has brought a dire grittiness to the character. In creating an almost mythic history to his incarnation, we have discovered what makes Bond tick and what his mysterious origins actually are. This has discredited the popular fan theory that James Bond was never an actual man but rather a position in MI6, hence the changing roster of men who played him all shared the same traits. “Shaken, not stirred.”
Unfortunately, the latest bombast Spectre cannot even begin to scrape the sweeping scale and emotion of director Sam Mendes’ previous effort Skyfall. And the most criticized aspect of the entire franchise remains frustratingly prominent: the exceptionally lousy treatment of women.
The de rigueur opening action sequence is typically breathtaking: a showdown in a helicopter ricocheting over the vibrant Dia de los Muertos festivities pounding beneath. Then comes the mesmerizing titles which suggest clues to the “cryptic” plot and should thrill tentacle fetishists. Alas, Sam Smith’s paint-by-numbers crooning/crying withers when stacked against Adele’s effortlessly classier package.
It’s business as usual, with Bond being reprimanded for his reckless ways and MI6 facing the termination of the 00 program entirely. You’d almost expect a montage of Bond having to turn in his badge and gun.
After having received a posthumous message from the former M (Judi Dench), Bond is sent on an international quest to discover the identities of those behind a massive terrorist intelligence organization known as Spectre, while the current M (Ralph Fiennes) fights interior corruption at home base in London. Could the two be connected? Clearly.
Craig’s burning charisma may keep this overlong film afloat, but Fiennes cannot fill the massive void left by the absence of Dench. Her ghost looms large over the narrative as not only is she one of the finest actors in the world, but her M was arguably the only prominent woman in the history of the franchise who wasn’t commissioned to look desirable and then die.
Spectre also signals the unwelcome return of some ludicrous gadgets. Bond is injected with “Smart Blood”: a synthetic serum of microchips that can allow him to be tracked anywhere in the world. This scene has all the charm of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on for too long.
Bond’s hunt takes him to Rome and an encounter with the epitome of Italian glamour, Monica Bellucci. Much has been made of Bellucci’s role as a Bond Girl in that — for the first time ever — an actress was cast who is older than the actor playing Bond. Scandalo!
Of course, that amounts to Bellucci’s character being harassed by Bond at her husband’s funeral and then being bullied/seduced into an offscreen tryst after Bond breaks into her house.
Lea Seydoux (known best for controversial Cannes hit Blue is the Warmest Colour) doesn’t fair much better, though at least she is allowed some significant screen time.
This narrative would burst into flames if placed near the Bechdel Test.
The dots and loops eventually lead Bond to the long-thought-deceased Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, finally showing some restraint after over-enunciating his way to two Oscars under the ever-subtle direction of Quention Tarantino). Evidently Waltz makes a fine villain (all smarmy, oily smiles) but he lacks the unhinged urgency of Javier Bardem or Mads Mikkelsen. His proper meeting with Bond occurs in a immaculately manicured compound within a gigantic Moroccan crater (the locales are as inspired as ever) and then the fun begins.
The explanation behind Oberhauser and Spectre’s motives are shallow and a tad on the obvious side, but they intertwine with the previous Craig films in a satisfying way that will feel rewarding to the legions of fans who have followed the franchise for most of their lives.
This continuing narrative also bestows Bond with some badly needed confidence by celebrating the story it wants to tell, rather than sweep the previous film under the rug. Who really remembers the Pierce Brosnan era other than Goldeneye?
While its heart has a murmur, its action is riveting and stunningly well choreographed. Here’s hoping that whatever is being concocted for Bond #25 will reunite the two.
Craig is contractually obligated to appear in the next film, too, despite his flagrant public disdain for the character and stating he’d prefer to “slash his wrists” than commit to another grueling and problematic production.
The Red Bulletin asked him what could we learn from James Bond that would help us in our day-to-day lives. His response? “Nothing.”
All photos courtesy of Sony Pictures.