Whether you are a James Bond addict who knows all 24 films nearly by heart or a reluctant cinemagoer who wishes that the series would just mercifully end, you will likely agree that Spectre starts promisingly enough. A long, impressive tracking shot establishes 007 in Mexico City as he takes in a Day of the Dead Parade with a woman on his arm. He nimbly climbs over some rooftops, assassinates several terrorists, and finds himself in a helicopter that is spinning around like a fighter jet. Cue the opening titles and a visit to M’s office, where it initially appears as if we may be returning to the old Bond formula: “minimovie” teaser, mission briefing, mission.
But Spectre, like Daniel Craig’s other three Bond outings, is more complicated than that. Over the course of the film’s 150 minutes, it becomes clear that nearly everything we have witnessed in the previous trilogy was merely a lead-up to this latest adventure. Bond’s personal history is explored in great detail; the doings of great nations and even greater terrorists depend upon old grievances; plans for world domination come second to settling scores. How did we find ourselves, once again, knee-deep in James Bond’s backstory?
For much of the past two decades, the creators of the James Bond films have been suffering a crisis of confidence. By the mid-1990s, the Soviet Union had gone the way of the British Empire. Because Ian Fleming had originally envisaged the character combatting the former and upholding the latter, the producers feared, perhaps understandably, that Bond was an irrelevant, Manichean hero from another age, unequipped for a politically correct, post-imperial world.
It didn’t matter that none of the early filmic Bond adventures actually featured the Soviets as villains. Bond himself was still dismissed by his critics, onscreen and off, as “a relic of the Cold War.” Indeed, those words were spoken by Judi Dench’s M in Goldeneye (1995), the first post-USSR Bond movie. When Dench, in the same in-joke of a scene, refers to Pierce Brosnan’s Bond as a “misogynist dinosaur,” she was both echoing critiques of the series and trying to disarm them. The filmmakers were assuring the audience that they, too, partially disapproved of their hero.
For those of us who want our escapism to provide an actual escape, the Brosnan years were a slog, marred by meta humor and increasingly slapdash directing. The Craig films that followed—the glorious Casino Royale, the dreadful Quantum of Solace, and the overrated Skyfall—made a different error: They delved too deeply into Bond’s psyche and backstory, saddling the character with uninteresting baggage, and, like so many of our era’s blockbusters, confusing darkness for depth.
In an age obsessed with antiheroes, it made sense that Bond would evolve in this direction. The attempts to humanize 007 have long felt inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but it was the portentousness and self-seriousness of Nolan—and not the technical skill—that had leaked into the franchise’s filmmaking. Rather than a man without a past, Bond became a man who could not outrun his past. If you are going to present modern audiences with a misogynistic, violent hero, you better make him a tortured soul.
Today, 20 years after Goldeneye and nearly a decade after Craig’s tenure began, no one seems to doubt James Bond’s relevance. The brand is stronger than it has been since the mid-1960s; box office grosses are astronomical; even critics, who traditionally have greeted 007 with good-natured if wary shrugs, have gushed over two of the previous three films. If ever the series could afford to settle back into its original groove—superb locations, excellent stunts, a sense of fun that overshadowed any unpleasantness—now would seem to be the time.
This felt especially likely because Skyfall ended on a note of finality: Bond’s childhood had been detailed and its traumas seemingly transcended; his womanizing (partially) explained through a catastrophic loss; a new M (replacing the murdered—and avenged—Judi Dench) had taken residence in what appeared to be the office M occupied in the early films of the series; and Moneypenny had been introduced in such a way as to explain the flirtatiousness she and Bond would go on to exhibit throughout the series. Even those of us who had been disappointed in the trilogy found a small glimmer of hope that in the next film Bond would, as M stated in Skyfall’s penultimate line, get back to work.
But in Spectre, Bond can’t really get back to work: As in the previous Craig films, his office is still a mess. Bond is immediately dismissed from his job for his bad behavior in Mexico. At the same time, M (Ralph Fiennes) must reckon with another bureaucrat in British intelligence who not only wants to end the double-0 program but who is intent on establishing a worldwide surveillance system, clumsily referred to by Fiennes as “George Orwell’s worst nightmare.” (Wasn’t Orwell’s other nightmare clichéd writing?)
Meanwhile, Bond sets off on an unofficial mission sparked by a final message from Dench’s M, with the help of only Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (an excellent Ben Whishaw), and all the gadgets money can buy. After bedding Monica Bellucci in Rome, Bond attends a meeting of mysterious international criminals that breaks up in shocking fashion. As the film unspools, it’s clear that Bond has a secret he is keeping from everyone and that the villain (played by Christoph Waltz) has some sort of unexplained vendetta against 007. Eventually Bond meets up with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, impressive in an underwritten role), the daughter of a former adversary, and the two of them soldier through an attempted kidnapping in snowy Austria, a sojourn in Morocco, and a superb fight scene on a train somewhere in North Africa.
Spectre is far from a disaster: The locations are impressive, the Bond-Q relationship works wonderfully well, and the first two-thirds of the movie generally go down easily enough. But by the time Spectre reaches its conclusion, the backstory has become so fraught, the motives so unclear, and the layers of scheming by the villains so convoluted that it’s exhausting. Bond and Swann arrive at Waltz’s lair with absolutely no plan. Their eventual escape is nicely executed, but rather than closing credits, we get another half-hour in London, with an unsurprising twist, and several more plodding, fun-free encounters between heroes and villains.
The plot keeps bogging the characters down: After trying to kill Bond for the entire film, the villain reveals that he actually had planned to keep Bond alive for a final showdown. Did he fail to communicate this to all of his employees, who spend the whole movie nearly killing Bond? (Dave Bautista, playing a psychotic killer who, in his dark outfits, resembles an oval-shaped ball of steel, memorably contributes to the series’ long history of grotesquely menacing henchmen.)
More egregiously, it’s revealed that Waltz’s villain—yes, it’s Bond’s nemesis from the Connery era, Ernst Stavro Blofeld—has been “the author of all [Bond’s] pain” for the entire run of Craig’s films, and only because of a silly childhood vendetta that is woefully underexplained. Why was Blofeld aiming to kill Bond through the first three films if his ultimate goal was to confront him and reveal his identity?
Sure, the earlier films in the series had gaping lacks in logic, many of which were gleefully exposed by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers movies. (Anyone who can explain the plot of The Man With the Golden Gun is smarter than I am, and I’ve easily seen it 30 times.) But those films were not trying to be “serious” movies. Blofeld was always a camp figure, but here he feels out of place. Even worse, the film literally stops dead with several boring debates about the merits of drone warfare and NSA-like surveillance vs. good old-fashioned spying. The script’s idea of being pro–civil liberties is to romanticize the notion of British secret agents going around the world killing anyone they please.
It’s more than a stone’s throw from earlier Bond adventures and even from Casino Royale—which, despite being a weightier film than its predecessors, is nonetheless full of lighthearted moments. If you compare the romantic train scenes in that film and in Spectre, you will notice that Spectre’s is weighed down by an exchange in which Swann predictably asks Bond why he is an assassin. The last few Mission: Impossible films have been superior to the last couple of Bond films not only because they have had superior action scenes but also because they don’t seem to have any ambitions beyond exciting their audience.
If Spectre has any saving grace, it’s Craig, who remains the best non-Connery Bond. It is not merely his physical presence, which is formidable enough; he has a unique ability to make peevishness dramatically compelling. And the subtlety of his sense of humor is one of the better aspects of his 007.
The tougher question is whether Craig is so good an actor that he has inadvertently hurt the series. Even in a cultural era obsessed with moral complexity, it’s hard to imagine that the mood of the franchise would have gotten quite so dark or that there would have been quite so hard a push to make its protagonist more complicated if an actor of Brosnan’s limited abilities had stayed in the role. Craig has recently declared his annoyance at having to play Bond—the orneriness that he shows onscreen doesn’t seem entirely a matter of acting—and so it’s possible that Spectre will be his last outing. Whenever people talk about who the next Bond will be, the discussion tends to focus on Idris Elba.
But that could be the problem: for those of us who yearn for a James Bond film that recalls the more lighthearted Bond of our childhood rather than Bond’s childhood trauma, an actor with Elba’s dramatic chops might be a mixed blessing. No one wants to see Vin Diesel grunt his way through ordering a martini, but maybe an actor incapable of more complexity would force the filmmakers to return to their original mission of making purely entertaining movies.