(Note: many spoilers ahead, if you care.)
The end of Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond is here, and we have four movies to show for it. Two outstanding films bookending an abysmal one, and now “Spectre”: a big, shiny Greatest Hits album that includes all the chart-toppers but somehow misses the actual soul of the band. It’s breathtakingly beautiful to look at, just heart-clenchingly lovely: most of this is due to Sam Mendes, who is physically incapable of making ugly things, but I’d also like to buy a drink for everyone involved with lighting this joint; each frame looks like a Vermeer. A simple shot of a newspaper on a desk manages to evoke the cloudy day outside the window, without ever showing the sky. No franchise captures cloud, smoke, heat, humidity, fog better—every room has an atmosphere, visible vapor in the air, a palpable texture and temperature. The fights, chases, and action sequences are also good news—during an initial fistfight inside a barrel-rolling helicopter, I actually gasped out loud. I, an American moviegoer in 2015, gasped. That is not easy to make American action fans do, and this movie did it within the first ten minutes.
After those first ten minutes, however, the news is not so good. A creakingly ancient Trojan plot is wheeled onto the scene—MI6 will be disbanded! New technology and ideas threaten the supremacy of white men with carte blanche to kill people they dislike! This is bad! Clearly! We should absolutely be rooting, in 2015, for the idea that a “license to kill” is something which should exist, because a Hard Man Making Hard Decisions (say, whom he will execute without trial, and whom he will loftily spare) is totally not an obsolete model for heroism, and definitely not creepily colonialist when embodied by a guy like James Bond. The first three movies worked fairly well despite these inherent structural flaws by having Bond face uncomplicated villains: arms dealers, bomb makers, psychotic louts who threaten Judi Dench (How. Dare. They.) It was easy to overlook due process for these baddies, because they were clearly terrible and immediate threats. Unfortunately, this movie aims to make a sort of One Ring to rule them all by inventing from thin air an international supervillain organization that nebulously controls all crime and also terrorism and also intelligence (because you need to diversify, obvs) and who somehow has maintained absolute secrecy, despite the fact that its members… wear identical rings. Oh, how I wish I were kidding.
And the news gets worse when we discover that the Biggest Baddest Boss Of All Time, EVER, GUYS, is Bond’s estranged quasi-adoptive brother. Funny how we never heard about an estranged, quasi-adoptive brother before: oh, how convenient. He was presumed dead in a skiing accident. Interesting how little we care, given that we learn that he was supposed to be dead after we already know him to be alive. And furthermore, estranged quasi-adoptive brother—oh God let’s just call him Christoph Waltz and be done with it, it’s Christoph Waltz, doing a bad impression of his role in Inglourious Basterds—anyway, Christoph is claiming responsibility for everything bad that has happened to Bond over the last three movies! Everything. The death of Vesper Lynd, the only woman Bond’s ever loved, was supposedly Christoph’s doing (even though we saw her drown herself in an elevator). All the bad guys who kept attacking Bond were, somehow, sort of, working for Christoph. Judi Dench—that was Christoph, too! Never mind that Javier Bardem put a lot of hard work into becoming the kind of monster who would stab Judi Dench in a church, and did, an act of scummy brutality which we all saw with our own eyes. Never mind all of that, because Christoph needs to be a credible villain, and his villainy must be made personal to Bond! Bond is sprouting family connections faster than his backstory can be retrofitted to accommodate them, and the result is a thoroughly milquetoast villain. We know perfectly well this guy isn’t a threat. He’s a plagiarist, cribbing off everyone else’s tests. Bond could take him armed only with a snap bracelet.
Or, in this case, an exploding wristwatch. (Still not kidding.) This movie bills itself as a return to the Bond franchise’s roots, “roots” being here defined as:
Q’s new gadget
M’s latest headache
Monologuing villains, eye injuries, white cats, bad puns, elaborate deathtraps, women in peril, martinistuxedosOmegaAstonMartinSonyBondJamesBond.
The makers are so busy genuflecting towards these obligatory Stations Of The Franchise that they seem not to have realized that the best parts of the Craig Bond tenure were the moments when he undercut the routines: think of “Casino Royale”, when a waiter asks him how he wants his martini and he snaps, “Does it look like I give a damn?” Think of “Skyfall”, when Q hands him a radio and a handgun and he grumps, “It’s Christmas come early.” Craig’s Bond felt fresh and dynamic precisely because he didn’t seem beholden, as a character, to the trappings of Bond-ness: he wore the tuxedo, not the other way round. His Bond could fall in love, quit and wander off to Figi, show a little vulnerability, because he was an actual character, not a checklist of trademarks and mannerisms. Now, in the last gasps of his reign, the writers are beating a hasty retreat back to the safe ground of the franchise’s most hallowed rhythms and routines—but that ground isn’t safe any more. “Austin Powers” killed the Bond franchise over a decade ago, and we don’t genuflect to the martini anymore, regardless of whether it’s shaken or stirred. Do we look like we give a damn?