By Will Ferrer
James Bond is classic as they come; a character so iconic his movies needn’t bear his name. As the world’s most recognizable agent, 007 plays by his own rules (guns, girls, gadgets, etc…). Bond is a brand, a flavor of entertainment grounded in a decades-long cinematic narrative, yet resolved to produce something inventive and spectacular.
From this tradition emerges Sam Mendes’s “Spectre,” Daniel Craig’s fourth and (reportedly) final outing for the franchise launched by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman back in 1963.
As Bond, Craig has brought life to the series, rejecting the insipid idiocy of Pierce Brosnan’s 007 for something deeper and ultimately more resonant. With “Skyfall,” Craig and director Sam Mendes changed the game: They introduced a Bond with blemishes and imperfections, a Bond plagued by the soreness of age, a Bond that embraced tradition, but resisted the influences of a dated canon.
In turn, “Spectre,” the immediate successor to “Skyfall,” feels very much like a step in the wrong direction. Craig’s Bond has grown old – his piercing blues eyes receding ever further into his brow – but he has yet to grow up. Today, Mendes’s “Spectre” reeks of sexism and senseless violence, of foolish staging and cheap screenwriting. “Spectre” is classic James Bond, but as “Skyfall” made apparent, Bond at his best can be far more than a lazy icon.
“Spectre” opens amid a sumptuously staged Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City — marked by skeletal costumes and an appropriately percussive score. Bond is tailing a man called Marco Sciarra on a beyond-the-grave assignment from the deceased M (Judi Dench). He’s slick as ever – suit finely pressed, hair perfectly coiffed — but things soon escalate as they so often do. One frantic helicopter ride later, 007 is out of commission. Coerced by new management (Andrew Scott’s C), M (Ralph Fiennes) commands Bond to take a much-needed vacation. Spoiler alert: Bond declines. Instead he travels to Rome for Sciarra’s funeral, where he begins profiling a sinister organization by the name of Spectre.
Ruled with an iron first by the equally shady Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), Spectre aims to be Bond’s most ruthless opponent to date. As such, it’s not long before the bullets begin to fly and the fires to rage. It’s all rather ostentatious, and rather tired.
The spy gone rogue is a stale trope in its own right, but coupled with some ambiguous pressure from the higher-ups, a villain who lurks in boardrooms rendered in chiaroscuro, and an unstoppable minion (Dave Bautista’s Hinx), “Spectre” feels like a grand cliché. There are twists peppered throughout John Logan’s (“Gladiator”) script and a handful of dazzling set pieces (the aforementioned helicopter battle seems most suited for water cooler chatter), but it’s all strung together with the predictability of a cuckoo clock. Blood, sex, boom, repeat: Bond’s issues – physical and psychological – have been dramatically toned down since the days of “Skyfall,” and the result is equal parts disappointing and tedious.
Also disappointing is Logan’s inevitably old-fashioned understanding of sex. The Bond films have never been known for their just portrayal of women, but, in recent years, the franchise has made genuine advances. With “Spectre,” however, Mendes and Logan regress, relying on old habits and prehistoric ideas about gender. From the film’s opening credits – in which a naked woman engages in sexual intercourse with an octopus, it’s clear that “Spectre” has fallen prey to the same dumb myopia of its predecessors. There is no innovation, just the same comfortable dismissal of women as legitimate action heroes.
Take Dr. Elizabeth Swann (Léa Seydoux): She’s resilient and brilliant, but Logan refuses to allow her to stand as 007’s equal. When attacked by Hinx on a North African train, Bond is knocked clean through two walls unaffected, while Swann is incapacitated by a lone slap to the face. Moreover, when the conflict concludes, she sinks down next to Bond and whispers “What do we do now?” She’s still heaving with the verve of the brawl, but as is to be expected of a lady of her fine breeding, she makes certain to ask the closest man what she should do next. It’s a scene lifted from the comparably disheartening “Jurassic World.” God forbid a woman make a decision on her own.
Even Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, the best choice to fill Bond’s shoes), who broke molds and backs in “Skyfall,” fails to get a fair shake in “Spectre.” Consigned to London while Bond travels the world, Moneypenny becomes the rational voice in Bond’s ear (a sexist trope deconstructed in Paul Feig’s “Spy”), little more than a overqualified assistant. In one damning scene, Moneypenny literally mills about her kitchen while Bond races through Europe in an Aston Martin DB10.
Further, with mass shootings rising in number, it’s becoming exceedingly difficult to condone Bond’s glamorized violence. Early on, M delivers a calculated monologue about the deliberation behind an assassin’s every hit, though “Spectre” never manages to echo any of these sentiments in its execution. Before the climatic showdown, Dr. Swann tells Bond that she has no interest in weapons, so Bond literally forces a loaded gun into her hand. And, why not? In the world of Bond, there are no consequences, no blood to be spilt or shed or mourned. In “Spectre,” brutality is an art, a spectacle to be appreciated and never feared.
Even on an aesthetic level, “Spectre” fails to offer anything imaginative. Replacing Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”) behind the camera, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) struggles to find the film’s look. The focus is persistently careless, and often it appears as though Hoytema is trying to ape Deakins’s smoky elegance without any of his finesse.
With that being said, Thomas Newman’s score is possibly his greatest yet (his near-cosmic car chase is thunderously divine), and “Spectre,” despite its many weaknesses, somehow manages to go out with a bang. The climax – drawing liberally from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” – unfolds across urban London, with Q (a spot-on Ben Whishaw), M, and Moneypenny helping Bond to save the world and get the girl. It’s sumptuous and pulse-pounding in a way that “Spectre” never quite earns.
Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.