Examining this awful cologne commercial of a movie.
So, James Bond’s latest adventure from the mind of former cinematic auteur Sam Mendes has come out and about the only thing worth saying of it is that it is really really long! I consider Daniel Craig the best Bond character mostly because I find both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace to good spy action adventures. Truth be told I’m not really a fan of wise-cracking/silly/over-the-top/camp Bond of old so the remolding of the character as a ruthless espionage/murder machine was a big win with me (one that actually feels much closer to the original Casino Royale novel (although Fleming himself launched head long into camp silliness almost immediately afterwards)). Skyfall had a foot in both camps and just about came out ahead for me (even if references to crap like ejector seats and headlight guns had crept back into the franchise). Sadly it turns out that this wasn’t just Mendes giving a cheeky nod to the history of the franchise on it’s 50th birthday, but rather a taste of the absurd retro nonsense to come in Spectre.
Mendes constructs Spectre as a conscious reliving of ‘classic’ Bond moments; the problem is that even where the original moment being referenced is bad, Spectre‘s rehashes are without exception worse. There is not a single scene that betters the ones that inspired it; this is even true when Mendes is referencing himself.
Casino Royale climaxes with an old building collapsing so Spectre starting with the same must mean Spectre is going to continue the upward trend of escalating spectacle. Except the reason the collapsing building was compelling in Casino Royale is that it was directly tied up in the emotional arc of Vesper’s betrayal and subsequent sacrifice. Spectre just uses it as an opportunity for a consequence- and tension-less explosion. The sequence also includes a truly awful visual ‘joke’ about Bond landing on a sofa amongst the rubble that sets the tone both for the poor comedy to come and the return to campy ‘Bond is magically lucky at all times’ shennanigans. Sure we know Bond isn’t going to die any time soon, but the loose illusion that he lives in a functioning world and is in actual danger is what propels the action scenes forward. When he is cloaked in invulnerability from the very first action scene then it weakens the verisimilitude of his world and the sense of danger for the rest of the picture, fatally lowering the stakes of every action scene and in turn making everything that happens seem boring and pointless.
Similarly the scenes of Blofeld and a captured Bond seem designed to evoke both traditional Blofeld stuff as well as the scenes from Skyfall where Bond and Silva first meet. Silva is a genuinely frightening presence, with an air of spontaneous manic danger that is only partially mitigated by some relatively witty dialogue from Bond. In Spectre Blofeld lacks that sense of danger and his torture methods seem absurd. In an attempt to overcome the classic Bond ‘escapes before being tortured’ cliche Mendes actually has Blofeld drill into Bond’s skull – ok that’s an interesting enough idea, but the outcome of that brain drilling? Yeah, absolutely nothing, no effect at all. Once again Bond is magically invincible and all the possible tension of the scene evaporates. Also of note here is the weird choice to remove Hinx, Blofeld’s physical threat to Bond, a good hour before the film ends – one assumes this was designed to show that Blofeld doesn’t need muscle-men and can threaten Bond with only his superior mind, but as it turns out Blofeld is an utter imbecile so that doesn’t really work.
Rather than a friendly nod to the other Craig films this all feels like Mendes et al attempting to smash them into the ground and prove why Spectre is better. Except Spectre isn’t better, it is markedly worse with a near complete lack of tension throughout; the constant call backs just highlight the gulf in quality between these films.
Casino Royale is also used as a spring-board for the romantic core of Spectre; the relationship between Vesper Lynd and Bond is frequently invoked, primarily in a failed attempt to demonstrate why new character Madeline Swann is really Bond’s true love (Bond even literally discards the memory of Vesper, via vhs tape, whilst in Swann’s presence at L’Americain). The first meeting between Vesper and Bond took place on a fancy train over drinks and it is heavily alluded to when Swanning and Bond have drinks on a fancy train. Except the former lovers meeting involved a level of witty conversation and character insight that is unmatched by anything on display in the equivalent Spectre scene or indeed this entire movie. Vesper was quickly established as Bond’s intellectual equal, with an aversion to, but acceptance of, the necessity of his violent methods, and also as having a tortured past of her own. Swann’s characterisation follows a similar path, but in a truly lifeless, by-the-numbers way that offers very little compelling depth. Rather than a slow unpeeling of the layers of Swann’s character and emotional core (as per the Vesper story approach) she announces her entire Mr White’s daughter backstory in one monologue and then simply changes character completely as the scene in question requires it – at L’Americain she is grieving, angry, and entirely uninterested in creepy James Bond, but as soon as they are on the train she is flirtatious and sexually interested (even before the adrenaline high of the fight with Hinx). At Blofeld’s really awful crater-base (an uninspired revival of the hidden villain base trope) she suddenly declares that she is in love with Bond (a mere two days after meeting him!), but by London she isn’t interested in living a life with him after all. More startling is the speed and depth of Bond’s feelings for Swann; she doesn’t challenge Bond intellectually like Vesper did, nor does she follow a sympathetic life path like Camille Montes (his semi-spy semi-partner from Quantum of Solace). In fact in all the screen time they share they seem to talk only about being and/or being related to spies and/or murderers so as a viewer I have no idea what has driven this instant love connection. Why is this ‘Bond girl’ different to any other given that there is literally nothing that distinguishes her character-wise?
Quite frankly it would have been far more interesting to have Monica Bellucci’s character Lucia emerging as Bond’s true love – she is from a similar world to him and knows how it works, they share more chemistry in their two scenes together than every Bond/Swann scene that follows, and she is much closer in age to Bond. This could have been a smart move that explores Bond coming to terms with his age and making a more mature choice as he drives off into the sunset.
The uneven characterisation of Swann, and her clear positioning as a plot point for Bond rather than a character really gave me the impression that something else might be in the wings for the finale of the film. Could Swann have been playing the long game, stringing Bond along throughout the movie changing her character to what the scene and Bond required so that he wouldn’t worry too much about her motives? Could she have actually been revealed to be a villain herself, surprising Bond with a stab to the guts and the heart on that bridge at the film’s end? Alas not, this is the one trick from the Casino Royale playbook that Mendes doesn’t reuse. Instead Swann just makes no sense as a character because that’s how she was written.
Spectre did what?
The film revels in highlighting Bond’s recent past, with several visual displays of the Craig villains Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Silva. Blofeld goes on to explain why these guys have been brought up so frequently, it turns out that he and Spectre have actually orchestrated everything that has happened to Bond in & since Casino Royale. This is a huge problem both in concept and execution. First of all, tying all of the recent villains into the machinations of Spectre shrinks Bond’s world immeasurably – MI6 doesn’t fight against all kinds of global threats it literally just fights Blofeld and his petty family motives. Similarly it gives the impression that over the last 10 years Bond has only been on 3 missions,there is no sense that he does work between the movies, that he is constantly on guard protecting us all. I guess he’s just been doing the paperwork all this time. Secondly it invites a rather unfavourable comparison for Blofeld himself – all 3 of those villains, even Dominic Greene with his piercing eyes and cold demeanour, were more threatening and compelling than boring old windbag Blofeld. Basically Blofeld’s various lieutenants have infinitely more interesting schemes and encounters with Bond; so let’s just see those interesting stories instead please. Finally, and most frustratingly, the writing takes the absolute laziest route to tying these villains into a single story – we are simply told that Blofeld did it. He never explains how he was behind them, or how they factored into his grander plan, or what he did after Bond took them out. In fact, besides several mug shots (mostly cheap-looking stills from in-movie scenes), their presence is totally wasted. They are invoked in an attempt to shock and scare the audience (“look, those scary guys were being controlled by this guy so he must be even scarier!“), but it is a heartless cheat. Maybe they would have gotten away with it if they had included some flashbacks featuring the original actors being given orders by Blofeld or offering some information about their part in Spectre’s plans, but doing it this way just comes across as lazy, boring and dissatisfying.
Quantum vs Spectre
The other negative comparison invited by bringing up those previous villians, and the inclusion of Mr White (who here has the admittedly good villain name The Pale King), is that Spectre with it’s inert boardroom and stupid ill-defined planning is nowhere near as compelling an organisation as Quantum was. All we see of Spectre is that boardroom, which is pretty nondescript and a toothless threat (Bond easily escapes despite the fact that Spectre knew he was there!), other than that Spectre as an organisation basically IS Blofeld – and all he does is have a load of people in a desert doing what, using social media or something and watching curiously specific live feeds from Bond’s super dull MI6 office. Quantum meanwhile is presented as a coalition of influential individuals collaborating on hundreds of nefarious schemes at once. Bond doesn’t just walk into a boring meeting room, he becomes part of an epic opera, has to use intelligence to surveil Quantum’s members, and engages in one of the most dramatic and beautifully constructed action scenes in the franchise’s history after coming face to face with Greene. As a threat Quantum has many powerful heads and plans that neither Bond nor the audience can fathom; Spectre just announces itself and offers nothing of interest other than empty words (“we did a bad thing in country x“, “our bad thing plans are on schedule“, “bad things up 20% this quarter“). And this isn’t even to mention the astonishing opening to Quantum of Solace wherein Mr White’s threat that Quantum have people everywhere is immediately proven true when M’s bodyguard almost kills her. This instantly establishes the level of danger involved, whereas in Spectre we know Bond is magically invincible and apparently one bullet can blow up an entire Spectre facility in a super-cheesy 80’s explosion – there is no threat in Spectre at all.
Bond’s Seduction Technique is Intensely Uncomfortable & Sexually Threatening
After the distasteful and uninvited exploitation of a former victim of sexual violence in Skyfall Bond seems to have changed tact in his seduction of women – now the first thing he says to them, with an unbroken stare and a serious, ashen face, is that he is a murderer and that their husband/father is dead, possibly by his hand. He then leaves plenty of time for that to sink in BEFORE he tells them that he is a good guy and wants to protect them. Think about that for a moment, some guy turns up and tells you that he murders people and then he just stares at you for a bit. How insanely creepy is this behaviour! I guess I’ll sleep with him then.
Lighting and the Outfits
Perhaps the only redeeming features of the film are how nice it looks most of the time. The costume and set decorating departments have done some truly excellent work, especially in their efforts to capture a period feel. As has the lighting team; the train sequence is a particular highlight on all counts (and also features literally the only good action scene in the movie). Monica Belluci’s arrival at her assassin infested home is also a beautifully constructed moment (even if it does lead directly into more creepy-sex Bond).
Other fun things:
– Police in London will instantly arrive at the scene of a helicopter crash, but will put up police tape before helping victims out of the wreckage
– Pierce Brosnan left his speed boat under the ruined MI6 building for some reason
– What was Bond’s plan when he stole that plane to follow Hinx and the kidnapped Madeline Swann? Swann’s car is driving along a cliff top road and Bond attempts to shoot the driver through the window – if that shot had actually killed the driver then the car plummets to the bottom of the valley killing Swann, excellent work Bond.
– Spectre seems to have about 18 endings; wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Blofeld at large with a desire to get revenge on Bond instead of a further 30 minutes of lifelessly running around London rehashing better bits of Skyfall?
– More than ever Bond really doesn’t care about collateral damage and it is distracting and upsetting. He is in a helicopter over a crowded square in Mexico City but will attack the pilot and almost crash it into the ground (and will also throw people out of the craft into the crowd below possibly killing innocent civilians); he flies a plane through some persons house whilst they might have been in it; he let’s buildings blow up in the street and walks off. Bond has always been a bit reckless but some of this stuff is sheer madness, as if he is willfully trying to kill innocent people. How are we supposed to root for a hero who behaves like this? Maybe Bond is the actual fucking bad guy.
– When Swann chastises Bond for letting Blofeld’s men follow him to her it actually seemed for the briefest moment like the movie might have had a smart scene planned where Bond admits that this indeed was the case and that he was using her as bait. Instead he really is just that stupid.
– The meta-gag about Bond not wanting a hand from Tanner off the boat was the funniest thing in the movie.
– Why would Q go into the field to bring Bond back rather than Moneypenny (or just calling him or whatever)? Also, why was Moneypenny totally sidelined by the movie as soon as it was revealed that she was seeing someone else – as if the film was on Bond’s side in thinking that she should be eternally available for his flirtation and objectification and as soon as she chooses to move on from him she is no longer worth spending time with.
– Wouldn’t an ending where M and C work together using the combined power of big data and old fashioned ground work to succeed have been more interesting than the guy who seemed like a villain from his first scene turning out to be a villain? Also, must every Bond film spend time exploring the idea that the 00 programme is obsolete and some new thing is better? What the hell was C going to do with all that surveillance data once he had it, presumably he would still need agents to go do the capturing/killing? Emails can’t arrest terrorists! It doesn’t make sense!