We Whovians have a saying, “You never forget your first Doctor” (Tom Baker,always and forever). As it is with 007, a similarly long-lived British franchise, you never forget your first Bond (Hello, Dalton!). However, the Bond we see in SPECTRE isn’t very memorable. And it’s quite the parlor trick: You forget this Bond because he reminds you of so many others before him. Rather than innovating the spy genre after all these years, SPECTRE reuses tropes and reduces Bond to parody. After 52 years of “007”, this Bond is only older, not bolder.
The first opening scenes of SPECTRE give the viewer a return to the familiar. Bond is inexplicably in some exotic local, (Mexico City during Dia de los Muertos), CHECK. Bond with a gorgeous woman on his arm, CHECK. Bond leaving gorgeous woman unfulfilled to do spy stuff, CHECK. Spy stuff results in explosions and a deadly chase with a villain, CHECK. (By the way, shout out to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema–known recently for his work on “Interstellar”–for really pulling you in that hectic helicopter chase). Bond somehow lives to fight another day after quick work with the villain, and we never know what happens to the gorgeous lady he was with a few minutes ago so end scene and just queue the new Bond theme music and title sequence. CHECK.
By the third CHECK, I began to check out. SPECTRE was running on auto-pilot. It wasn’t until the title sequence started that I started to perk up a bit. Trust, this was not due to the music–Sam Smith’s “Writing on the Wall”, while lovely, does not carry the emotional heft of Adele’s haunting “Skyfall” theme. No, there was something different to this title sequence: tentacles, writhing tentacles everywhere and on everyone. It was a pop of Lovecraft I wasn’t expecting but geekily welcomed. The rest of the title sequence was peppered with images of fallen villains, loves, and bosses in the life of Daniel Craig’s Bond. Just as SPECTRE’s Bond is unable to shake the ghosts of missions past, so is the story itself as it stirs up nostalgic Bond to disastrous effect in a number of areas:
Bond, the (Anti) Hero: The standard superhero invincibility mode can get tiresome pretty fast. I actually have no qualms about the portrayal of Daniel Craig’s Bond as slightly tragic and damaged. Craig really sold me on Bond’s vulnerability in 2006’s “Casino Royale” and carried it through to perfection in “Skyfall.” In SPECTRE, Bond comes across as serviceable but soulless–mission-driven to be sure, but you never quite get his motivations. Bond is merely going through the motions. If Bond was following some code, it’d be the Contra Code (Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start–repeat!). The fact there is very little humor in this Bond only highlights this shortcoming. British humour is noted for being dry; but since SPECTRE was so set on recycling, Craig channeling just an ounce of Roger Moore would have been an improvement on the character.
The Villains: Before Bond meets the Big Bad, a tussle or two with a good henchman or henchwoman (Grace Jones, je t’aime!) is MUST. Who can forget Bond’s first meeting with the indomitable Richard Kiel as Jaws in the “Spy Who Loved Me”? He barely said a world but he proved there was a method behind his madness blow for blow. SPECTRE’s henchman du jour is Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx. Hinx is silent but deadly dull. See, a fight with Bond is more than a deadly dance, it’s a conversation. When you have a henchman with little to add to the conversation, the fight scenes turn into nothing more than an elaborate “Three Stooges” spar. The Bond Big Bad is SPECTRE architect Franz Oberhauser (actor Christoph Waltz). For all his natural charisma, not even Waltz could escape getting tossed with the recyclables. The best-worst de ja vu moment happens between Bond and Oberhauser in the film’s Third Act: Oberhauser: “Why did you come here, Mr. Bond?” Bond: “I came here to kill you.” Oberhauser: “And, I thought you came here to die.” Google “Goldfinger quote” and you’ll see what I mean. Waltz’s Oberhauser was so underutilized and understated I started to wish Oberhauser had a mentoring tea with fellow cat loving supervillain Dr. Evil from “Austin Powers.”
The Women: Save the best for last! Let’s start with the “Bond Girls” actresses Stephanie Sigman and Monica Bellucci. Stephanie Sigman is the first Mexican Bond Girl. While her involvement marks a cultural milestone for the franchise, she barely gets 3 minutes of screen time. When we do see her, she’s mostly seen on Bond’s arm and swiftly placed on Bond’s bed with next to no lines. ¡Qué lástima! Upon learning the stunning Monica Bellucci was going to the first age-appropriate Bond Girl, I wanted to cue “At Last!” But what happened between Lucia and Bond was quite regrettable. **SPOILER ALERT**: Bond meets Lucia at her husband’s funeral (yes, this is the movie Bond becomes a funeral crasher). Lucia as a grieving widow of an underground king pin is a valuable asset to Bond and she knows this. Rather than take an opportunity to show a witty but flirty exchange between 2 mature adults–we see Bond ‘pump’ her for information in his standard way for female informants. The cringeworthy scene of a mostly naked Bellucci pressed against the mirror by a fully clothed Craig is enough to make anyone revisit British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s 1975 seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” And finally, we have Bond’s love interest Madeleine Swann played by French actress Léa Seydoux. Seydoux actually holds her own in this film as Léa–so much so, it made you wander what did she see in Craig’s Bond anyway?
Were there any saving graces to SPECTRE? Well, I can name one and I guarantee it was not at the front of director Sam Mendes’s mind. SPECTRE is one of the few recent films depicting the dynamic push and pull of an inter-generational workplace. Part of what fuels SPECTRE’s story is the old school vs the new school trope. Young bureaucrat brass and techie “C” (Andrew Scott) is set on dismantling what he perceives to be the outdated Double-O program headed by the patrician M (Ralph Fiennes). M manages quite the team which includes brash Bond, and bright younger things Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw). It’s really fun to see how this mixed ages group pulls together to accomplish the mission–when the movie hit these notes, it felt real and refreshing. Unfortunately for SPECTRE it was merely a spectral glimpse of the excitement this movie could have carried for a franchise old enough to know better.
2.75 out of 5 Cosmic Afros