|Bond (Daniel Craig) brings a plane to a car chase in Spectre.|
★★★ Spectre. Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, & Jez Butterworth. Directed by Sam Mendes. At local theaters.
Most criticism of the James Bond franchise emphasizes how the series stays relevant by adapting to the times. And sure enough, in Spectre it officially enters the post-Snowden era, as our hero fights a Big Data cabal plotting to turn our planet into a digital panopticon. But what’s equally important are the ongoing legacies—the “product DNA”, as developers like to call it—that make the Bond films stand apart. While people have been predicting the demise of the franchise for decades, it won’t truly be dead until it is indistinguishable from those Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne movies.
In the nine years since Daniel Craig donned the Savile Row suit, the series has veered all over the map. 2006’s Casino Royale rekindled the class and excitement of the franchise, and remains the best. Quantum of Solace (2008) seemed barely a Bond film at all, while Skyfall (2012) seemed too earnest to recover the nostalgia Solace had jettisoned. Its other flaws and virtues aside, Spectre at last seems comfortable being what it is, and sees no reason to strain for anything different.
Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) opens the film with a visually stunning sequence, set in old Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, that is heavy on sugar skulls and foreboding and the kind of sledge-hammer irony not approached since Roger Moore donned clown makeup in Octopussy (1983). Indeed, the dead cast long shadows here, as Bond goes maverick to fulfill a posthumous “contract” from his dearly departed boss (Judi Dench as “M”).
The cause sends him from London to Rome to Austria to Morocco in a quest to stop a secret organization called SPECTRE from hijacking the world’s electronic intelligence. As in the scene here where Bond comes to a car chase with a large airplane, it all seems like a lot invested to modest effect. While this is the most expensive 007 movie in history, rumored to cost $350 million, its hard to say all that money reached the screen. (Edward Snowden, by contrast, thwarted Big Data for the cost of a thumb drive and a ticket to Russia.) Mostly, it seems that the makers of Spectre spent hard not to fail, and as far as that goes, succeeded.
No Bond film can truly be judged without looking at the villain and the women, and in these departments Spectre is sturdy but not spectacular. Christoph Waltz (The Zero Theorem, Django Unchained) seems to fulfill his personal destiny to play a Bond adversary. And while he conveys a certain satiny menace here, he’s nowhere near as compelling as he was as the two-faced Nazi fixer in Inglorious Basterds. Nor does the film need the overwrought psycho-backstory that somehow implicates his character in all of Bond’s misfortunes since his orphanhood.
At fifty years old, Monica Bellucci (Matrix Reloaded, The Passion of the Christ) made headlines for being the oldest actress to be cast as a “Bond girl”. (The previous record holder was Honor Blackman, who appeared in Goldfinger at 38.) No doubt, Bellucci still looks terrific. It’s just too bad the writers forgot to give her anything much to do except tumble in the face of Craig’s savoir faire. While the Bond films give a good impression of worldly sophistication, Bellucci—if given the chance— could have delivered more than an impression.
Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) fares best of all as Madeleine, the daughter of one of the Bond’s former adversaries. There’s nothing in Spectre as torrid as the Sapphic kisses in Blue, but Seydoux presents a combination of freshness and worldliness that is hard to resist. She also benefits from the possibility that Craig may not return to the series, in a way that won’t be spoiled here.
An essential part of that “product DNA” is Bond’s roots in the Mad Men era, when gender roles were first beginning to transition to whatever place we are going now. For women, the narrative is relatively straightforward—toward more freedom, more options. For men, the story isn’t so simple; while they are also promised more options, it isn't clear those are ones most men would want to take. Not a few of the men who come to see Spectre might send their days pushing strollers, keeping house for their wives, not exactly sure what a “dirty martini” really means. They’re told—and perhaps even mostly believe—that what they have is “freedom.” But they wonder.
Bond embodies the old virtues of strength and purpose and lack of debilitating self-consciousness. (In Spectre, when Madeleine asks how he copes with his life, “…living in the shadows? Hunting, being hunted? Always alone?”, Bond replies “I don't stop to think about it.”) Old virtues, but also divisive, because they are lately presented as brutality, narrowness, and emotional inertia. As sex roles converge, perhaps 007’s larger cultural role is to keep those old virtues on ice, ready for when the times demand a different kind of man.
© 2015 Nicholas Nicastro