Spectre and the Terminal Insecurity of the Bond Franchise

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Spectre
Directed by Sam Mendes
Opens November 6

It brings me no pleasure to report that Sam Mendes’s Spectre is a bloated, stodgy and on-the-large room-temperature affair, content to reiterate the same formulas that gave Skyfall a surprising, ultraluxx spryness even while its every narrative back alley was flushed with still more needless exposition. And exposition is that on which Mendes and his team of screenwriters (and, one has to assume, script doctors) have bet the house: Spectre takes it upon itself to wrap up the plot strands from Daniel Craig’s three previous Bond outings—the love interests, the antagonists—in what Homer Simpson would call “a nice little package-uh.” It’s a curious choice—as curious as the decision to stretch a franchise of paperback potboilers into some kind of operatic “mythology” on the modern security state and the fragility of British manliness, at least.

Bond is no longer just Agent 007—that’d be “problematic”—but also a sweat-beaded postmodern attache for the Bond Brand, a relic of 20th century imperialism, a transnational beat cop whose means of collateral damage (which includes a solid chunk of Mexico City in Spectre’s stirring opening shootout-cum-chase scene) always manages to somehow justify MI6’s ends. The oppressive aura of franchise insecurity means, more than ever, telling the audience what you are going to tell them—and, if possible, providing easy context for the times you might have told them same before. It’s the same reason why, without a glimpse of his face or an utterance of his name in the Spectre ad campaign, you know Christoph Waltz’s shadow-cloaked superheavy is gonna turn out to be Ernst Stavro Blofeld; every new beginning is just a chance to reboot bygones with bigger explosions (and, it’s implied, the ever-diminished body count).

Bond next turns up in Rome, where he seduces the widow (a badly squandered Monica Bellucci, as a character who barely even gets to look at a gun, much less pick one up) of the man hired to kill him in Mexico. From her, he borrows a gold ring with a toxic octopus engraved upon it, and infiltrates a meeting of Spectre’s titular criminal organization, the power handily revealed as responsible for every last terrorist attack (and pharmaceutical price-fixing in the Global South) the film mines for its pale phantoms of topicality. With every plush interior and languorous BMW ride filtered through cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s alternating scrims of drab murk and blinding white light, Mendes is as comfortable luxuriating in the Bond legacy as he is interrogating it. At least, this is what Spectre’s obligatory digs into Bond’s cynicism—ostensibly character-revisionism that yields, as all screenplays apparently must, to an unhappy childhood—would like you to believe. Through it all, we’re reminded time and again that this is a vulnerable Bond, world-battered and introspective: once his cover is blown by the organization’s heretofore unnamed CEO (Waltz), he opts to seek down a SPECTRE member gone rogue, then swears to protect his estranged daughter Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) moments before the withered assassin takes his own life.

Having thrown her life into imminent danger, Bond takes Madeleine to Morocco; the duo duly fall in love (real love, not the transactional Bond movie kind) before they trace Blofeld to a sleek surveillance-gathering outpost worthy of the 1960s Ian Fleming adaptations starring Sean Connery. A tender subtext emerges about good mass surveillance vs. bad: Bond’s boss M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself staring down early retirement courtesy of political operative C (Andrew Scott), who introduces a new program to phase out double-oh agents in favor of drones and wiretaps—a false dichotomy if ever an action movie was built on one. The final London-bound set piece sees M jousting surveillance ethics with C atop a skyscraper, intercut with Bond’s pugnacious endeavor to save Madeleine (by now transitioned from a hotheaded feminist to the obligatory woman-in-a-fridge) before Blofeld can detonate a bomb in the old M16 headquarters and kill them both.

Mendes has more than found his footing as an action director, but it hearkens inevitably back—as did many of the best and worst things in Skyfall—to Christopher Freakin’ Nolan. Spectre leaves precious little to chance or figurative interpretation: like Nolan’s, the picture is overeager to prove its own substance at every turn—ergo, it’s incumbent on Blofeld to deliver a speech on semiotics before Bond explodes a smartbomb from his front-and-centered Omega watch. There’s a nihilistic streak that winks cleverly (and/or desperately) backwards at previous Bonds—no moreso than in a train-set brawl between Bond, Madeleine and Hinx (Dave Bautista), the musclebound SPECTRE heavy replacing Javier Bardem’s unstoppable steroidal super-agent gone rogue in Skyfall. Is it an homage to From Russia With Love, or a mini-remake? Why not just go full tilt and cast a new Jaws as well? As long as Spectre glistens and makes back 3/4ths of its budget, who cares?

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