Oddjob’s steel brimmed hat in Goldfinger, the tense poker game in Casino Royale, the brawl on the train in From Russia with Love, and, of course, the Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me. The British institution that is the James Bond franchise has been built on these sort of special moments. It’s never been about character driven drama or compelling storylines for Bond. Beyond 007 himself, the appeal and excitement has always come through breath-taking set pieces, absurd villains and, occasionally, the theme song. When speaking of Bond’s greatest moments rarely do people pick out specific films, almost always the conversation turns to picking out flashes of inspiring brilliance that live long in the memory.
The latest instalment in Bond’s timeless story features all the hallmarks of the suave spy; Aston Martins, martinis (shaken not stirred, obviously), cheeky one liners, exotic locations, sharp suits, sassy Bond girls, novel gadgets and a wholly absurd storyline. Yet disappointingly Spectre doesn’t amount to something greater than the sum of its parts. Most damaging is the absence of that special moment capable of holding up in the pantheon of 007.
Thematically Spectre sees Bond at his most relevant since the early films that played on the omnipresent anxieties of the Cold War. This time round the biggest threat to Bond (Daniel Craig), and the nation, is the growing threat of cyber terrorism. Under the stewardship of Max, or C by his codename (Andrew Scott) the UK government wish to abolish the outdated institution of MI6 in favour of a new digitally driven enterprise capable of monitoring the nation’s every digital movement. As Bond faces impending decommissioning, a mysterious organisation lingers in the shadows seemingly intent on personally destroying 007. The film carries on from Skyfall and entwines elements of both Quantum of Solace and Casino, which is tricky since Bond has always played fast and loose with continuity. Bond rarely live and let dies by its plot and Spectre is no different, but the dabbling in prior films only muddles the plot.
In a week when Home Secretary Theresa May proposed a bill to legitimise mass surveillance online Spectre’s plot couldn’t be more frighteningly prescient. Max, or C, states he’s going to take British security “from the dark ages and into the light”, essentially its an analogy for Bond’s place in the world – he’s an outdated relic, a throwback to a different era, one where shooting first, and probably never asking questions, was the norm. While the world, and Bond himself, questioned his identity in Skyfall here the anxieties are gone. Instead Bond is back to swigging booze, womanising anything with breasts and a pulse, as well as blowing up buildings through his own volition. In a way it’s a refreshing shift back into the maverick agent, but it’s also a shame that internal strife that plagues Bond isn’t expanded on.
Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) pressed Bond in Goldeneye with “I might as well ask you if all those vodka martinis ever silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed. Or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” Spectre’s Bond is too busy fighting, philandering and shooting to contemplate such trivial matters. Daniel Craig, reprising the role for the forth time, revels in this less refined incarnation giving his best performance yet. The icy detachment that typified his early performances is gone, replaced by a swagger and arrogance that Bond has historically exuded. Craig has grown into the part and now seems capable of shifting between the sharp charm of Sean Connery and his own unique brand of thuggish aggression. It’s taken Craig awhile to fill out the famous tux, but in Spectre his oxen shoulders certainly fit the cloth.
Bond’s villains have become as renowned as the man himself and Spectre reinvents one of the most iconic, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The serial cat stroker is back in much younger form with Christolph Waltz taking over from Donald Pleasence. Much of Spectre’s mystery and narrative unfolds around who the shadowy crime syndicate head honcho is. His appearance is guarded in shadows and obscured shots, but of course we know it’s Waltz. He himself gives a classically oriented villain performance, think creepy megalomaniac rather than campy Bardem-esq oddball, which is fine without ever threatening to go down as legendary. The casting of former wrestler Dave Bautista as silent but deadly Mr. Hinx is a predictable one and fails to move beyond the generic bruiser.
The supporting cast all fill in well and add their own personalities which were cultivated in Skyfall. Q (Ben Whishaw) and M (Ralph Fiennes) are afforded a greater prominence amongst the action which mixes up the story successfully. Bond girl Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) is feisty and not immediately submissive to Bond’s charms, which makes a change, but by the next film she’ll just be another notch on Bond’s colonnade of a bed post.
As is often the case with Bond the settings are as much personalities as the characters. In true Bond fashion the film globe trots seamlessly; Austria, England, Mexico, Italy all without so much as a hint of an airport security queue. The closest the film comes to a truly unique addition to the series is through an operatically staged opening scene. Set in the eerily sinister Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico, Bond enters into an exhilarating, vertigo inducing, duel after a slick one shot opener that tracks Craig’s literal ascent through the skyline. It’s a top draw icebreaker and worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Goldfinger or Casino Royale’s mesmerising set pieces.
Once you’ve seen Craig swashing round a helicopter, fists flying like a cat misplaced into the washer, above swathes of skeletal Mexicans then the rest of the film’s action seems rather bland. There’s an urban car chase, a snowy rampage through the Alps and fisty cuffs on the Orient Express – sound familiar? This is Spectre’s overarching issue, it feels like we’ve seen it all before. The film serves as pastiche of everything Bond. Director Mendes seems to have fallen in love with the classical romantic notion of what James Bond is, hence Spectre’s desire to recycle rather than revolutionise. Skyfall took the classic Bond and stirred it with a modern twist, Spectre merely regresses to a watered-down martini.
If you’re looking for a wonderfully entertaining highlight reel of Bond then you can’t really go wrong with Spectre. It’s an adequate addition to the franchise, certainly not in the same trough as travesties Quantum of Solace or Die Another Day, but there’s nothing on show that hasn’t been iconically reproduced before. We’ve had the one with the cracking theme, the one with Jaws, the one with Pussy Galore, Spectre is just the one with a bit of everything.
6/10 – Neither Shaken Nor Stirred