Spectre Directed by Sam Mendes; written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth; with Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Andrew Scott, Jesper Christensen, Monica Belucci, Dave Bautista
What makes the James Bond movies endure longer than any other cinematic corporation? It’s been 53 years since the first Bond film, “Dr. No,” opened at theaters, and other than during one crisis in the late 1980s, after the two movies in which Timothy Dalton played 007, we’ve gotten a new Bond film roughly every three years, and it is usually a success (the last one, “Skyfall,” broke the series’ box office record).
So what is it about the Bond movies, especially those made since the crisis, when Dalton was replaced by Pierce Brosnan? Is it suspense? Not really. The films were never truly suspenseful, because as in any other action series focused on a single figure, like the “Mission: Impossible” films, we cannot really worry about the hero: he might get knocked around a bit by his superiors or his enemies, but we know he’ll pull through. Good plots? Hardly. They usually follow a certain formula and repeat themselves (although if the repetition is skillfully handled and made ironic, it can even be fun). Some comment on the state of the world that the British secret agent represents – a world he moves both inside and outside of? Maybe, and if there is one particularly interesting dimension to the 007 movies, it is how that world, and Bond himself, have changed since he first emerged on our screens, played by Sean Connery at the height of the Cold War.
“Spectre,” the 24th movie in the Bond series, is the fourth film starring Daniel Craig and the second in a row directed by Sam Mendes, with a screenplay written by almost exactly the same team as “Skyfall.” When the Cold War ended – although perhaps it never did; maybe it just changed its appearance – the Bond films struggled to find a reason for existence, and this was one of the reasons for the crisis the franchise suffered.
The none-too-successful solution came in the rather negligible, often ludicrous films featuring Brosnan as Bond. When Craig, so different from Brosnan and all the other Bonds, first took on the role in the 2006 “Casino Royale,” the series turned in a new direction. Its creators began trying to reinvent it, focusing on a Bond who is less of a glitzy myth than he was in the past, and situating him in a world that is more global hallucination than actual reality. In “Quantum of Solace” this strategy failed badly; in “Skyfall” it succeeded; and in “Spectre” it succeeds in parts – amid an overall banality that pervades the movie, the longest Bond film to date (148 minutes).
Reality of evil
Our deeply troubled world does not really exist in “Spectre,” which makes no mention of ISIS or the current tensions between East and West. Instead, the movie contains nostalgic elements from the history of the series as a whole, adding up to a realityof evil that “Spectre” uses to deepen the figure of Bond and, like “Skyfall” before it, to add to his biography. It begins with the name of the movie, which brings back the criminal organization that has been part of the series from the beginning, along with its arch-villain and his white Persian cat.
As part of the attempt to give 007 a deeper private history, Bond this time finds himself (like Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” movies) on the verge of professional extinction and national isolation when a bureaucrat (Andrew Scott) appointed by the British government decides to shut down the double-0 program. Bond’s superior, M, has no choice but to accept the decision; he is played by Ralph Fiennes this time, instead of Judi Dench, who died in the previous movie and whose posthumous video-message to Bond sets the plot in motion. It begins with a good action sequence before the credits, which takes place in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead and features a long, glorious shot. But Bond is unwilling to accept that the double-0 agents are a thing of the past. He is helped by the young Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), the loyal secretary, also younger than we have ever seen her, and for the first time, I think, given a role in the plot that goes beyond giving Bond dreamy looks.
The main plot device is the arch-villain’s scheme to unite all the world’s intelligence services and thus to control all global knowledge. Like previous Bond movies, “Spectre” wanders through the world, from Mexico City and London to Rome and Tangiers, but it is a disconnected, touristy world, not what we see on the evening news. Every few minutes the plot halts while we are treated to an action sequence featuring various kinds of vehicles; there’s even a fight on a train, bringing to mind the action movies of old. But the action scenes, most of which are chases, seemed to me too long, a visible effort to stretch out the movie to its unprecedented length. I suspect that some effective editing would have improved them. At some point in every such scene, we wish it would already reach its predictable ending.
What “Spectre” lacks, and other James Bond movies had in spades, is humor. That lack is a direct result of casting Daniel Craig as Bond. Craig is a skillful actor, but expressing irony is not one of his gifts, and the movie does not ask him to; when it does, the result seems forced. Craig is also not particularly charismatic, making “Spectre” perhaps the most sexless James Bond movie ever made.
That is, there are two sex scenes, with an Italian widow (Monica Belucci) and with the movie’s heroine, Dr. Madeleine Swann (French actress Lea Seydoux), but they are directed like romantic scenes in old-fashioned Hollywood movies. Bond and the woman kiss, and in the next shot the deed is already done and Bond is back in his suit, ready for the next adventure.
Targeting a young audience
We feel a fresh breeze with the arrival of the arch-villain, played by Christoph Waltz, the only actor in the cast who knows what irony is and doesn’t seem to be taking what’s happening around him too seriously.
We don’t expect movies of this kind to be believable, but “Spectre” has some gaping holes in its plot. Bond sometimes emerges from predicaments too easily, and his opponents are surprisingly sloppy. The film has a somehow childish feel to it; clearly, it is targeting a young audience, and this becomes evident, for example, in the way it handles a certain family revelation, which might have been dramatic and emotional, but seems instead shallow and contrived. Still, Mendes, who won an Oscar for his debut picture, “American Beauty” and made “Revolutionary Road,” another quality film, knows how to do his job well. Occasionally we encounter a scene that shows off his talents, but that does not happen often enough.
“Spectre” is not boring to watch. The evolving character of James Bond is interesting, and the series always offers us the pleasure of getting swept up in his global adventures. In this sense, the latest installment does what it is supposed to do. Craig is signed up for another Bond movie, but he has already declared that he is sick of the part. Even if “Spectre” does not offer a distinctive film experience, it will still be interesting to watch how the series unfolds.