"Bond has such a long history and has the novels, and it's fun to play around
with those ideas. But we always try to make surprises in the pictures, things
that will surprise the audience; but there has to be elements in it that that
are Bondian, in the sense that the people won't be disappointed in the
picture when they go see it. That's the fine line we've got to tread."
Producer Michael G. Wilson*
In short, Spectre delivers. The verdict may still be out on Sam Smith's vocal contribution but as I was so bloody wrong dismissing Chris Cornell's smart and relevant 'You Know My Name' from Casino Royale, I'm shutting up on 'Writing's On The Wall '. Spectre delivers on action despite our knowledge that Bond is pretty much invincible. It delivers on humour and gives a great deal of that aspect to the supporting players who revel in their performances. It delivers a strong performance from Daniel Craig, which is everything we've come to expect; vulnerable, brutal, loyal, vengeful, sardonic and romantic. The VFX, practical effects and stunt work are world class. Sam Mendes' direction is unfussy and at times leisurely which makes a pleasant change. The opening shot is a real "Look what we can do, Orson!" virtuoso effort, an unbroken four minutes of Bond following his mark through the crowds during Mexico City's Day of the Dead celebration. I never realised Romero was that big south of the border. The eclectic roster of locations is what's expected from a globetrotting Bond movie and the supporting cast is, to a man and woman, excellent. The clichéd sacrificial lamb, usually a woman killed in the course of the adventure to put a rocket up Bond's lassitude, is at last deemed unnecessary. It's implied that this character is rescued from SPECTRE off screen by Felix Leiter, which makes a very refreshing change. It's also a welcome deviation from the norm that she's Bond's age for once. The 'mystery' of who the villain is from the trailers is paid off – of course it is. It was fairly anti-climactic to see the sky fall on all the intriguing guesswork the Internet threw up. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is interesting but I was puzzled by some of the lighting choices. The movie sometimes felt like it had been shot with gauze over the lens producing a uniformity of pastel light over the whole frame. But this is a small complaint. Most of the movie looks like a fortune was spent on it and I believe it was. So why did I leave the cinema with a soupçon of "Yeah, OK, but..."
It's obvious really. Despite Wilson's quote above, there were no real surprises, nothing to raise eyebrows, nothing to bark out in amazement to. It was by the numbers, granted big effing numbers, tremendously impressive and all that but it lacked the two or three occurrences of "Ah, nice!", moments that act as emotionally satisfying tent poles sending you hurtling from one action scene to the next with a sense of a needed pause for breath in between. Skyfall had its fair share, Spectre, not so much. And what is all this unwarranted fuss about bloody Blofeld? You really want a summary of the story? OK. Bond is acting independently assassinating certain terrorists in Mexico. His superiors are not keen on his 'off the leash' behaviour. Certain upstarts in the Service are promoting the closure of the 007 division against M's wishes. Bond's asked to step down (again with the license revoked cliché!) but with Q's reluctant help, carries on his mission given to him by an old friend unbeknownst to his superiors. It seems he's starting to uncover a sinister criminal organization (duh) that has, as its literal shadowy head, a man with a very personal connection to Bond himself. Bond follows each country-hopping clue until he gets to finally face Franz Oberhauser, an evil, sockless genius who may or may not be Bond's father. Not really. I just needed a segue to the next paragraph.
I belong to the original Star Wars generation (I was sixteen when I queued for four hours in late December 1977). But once the fuss had died down and both original sequels had exhausted their run, the juggernaut kept on rolling forward with two fringe characters (OK, maybe one fringe and one less so) muscling themselves into popular culture. Bounty hunter Boba Fett's peculiar allure I just did not get at all. A zero character destined to do hardly anything before being served up to a desert monster with intestinal wind. Neither was I too concerned about Darth Vader. He was a two dimensional villain with no goal more subtle than ruling the universe. Yes, a legless, asthmatic with a real name that sounded like 'A Napkin Skywalker' (not much mystery there, huh?). There weren't too many shades of black in that character. So I was even more unimpressed to find that Lucas was planning a trilogy to show how Vader began life as an unconvincing and nails-on-blackboard annoying moppet, ending up in the mask and the black suit after a sulky teenage phase of unmotivated murderous psychopathy. I didn't understand the magnetism of the character at all. So, in 2014, it's announced that Christoph Waltz (of whom I am a fan) will be playing a character called Franz Oberhauser and no, not Ernst Stavros Blofeld at all. The trailer puts him in Blofeldian costume (that Nehru jacket) and we all know that a few years ago the rights to use Blofeld and SPECTRE have finally been wrested from the Kevin McClory estate into the hands of the current Bond producers. So start the rumours, the conjectures, the guesses and the frenzied 'whatever' bullshit of whether Waltz is playing Blofeld or not. As Marvin said in Midnight Run, while smoking a cigarette asked if he wanted a smoking or non-smoking seat... "Take a wild guess."
Who the hell cares? I mean really... What happens when we find out that it is or isn't? Do worlds collide? Is it Andrew Scott cornering the market in big and small screen villainy? It was a kick to see Voldemort and Moriarty going at it – not a spoiler, it's in the trailer. Or is it Monica Bellucci, someone to really throw us off the scent. Ernesta V'ros Blofeld, perhaps? The trailer and pre-release hype blatantly sets up a mystery and despite Spectre delivering on the action and humour front, there are no real surprises and the movie is as mysterious as primary school arithmetic. Bond has always been straitjacketed by expectation and the need to deliver thrills of the kiss kiss bang bang variety. But the reinvention of the birth of a blunt instrument in Casino Royale had the Bond filmmakers acknowledging Jason Bourne for ripping James Bond off in the first place. But the story was solid, the action and character dynamics exciting and fresh (Bond actually had a character). Quantum of Solace was a little bit of a misfire but still as fast as a bullet (in some cases to the detriment of the story and understandability). Skyfall seemed like a fluke. Bond fails, M dies and for some extraordinary reason, Bond holes up in a house waiting for legions of armed men to come and insert metal into him and his friends at very high speeds. I enjoyed the film but its über-success baffled me somewhat. It had a pall cast over it. Skyfall uncovered a little of Bond's backstory, something none of the other entries has really delved into, maybe for a damn good reason. Bond beds beautiful women, uses his wits to beat the bad guys and has a licence to kill. He's darkly witty and enjoys the finer things in life. And there are explosions. To be mercilessly honest, that's really all he is. Or was.
I think I've figured out the cause of the latest overwhelming success of the last run of Bond films and the reason that Spectre feels like Daniel Craig's swan song. And not just because of those dodgy but misunderstood interviews. With the possible exception of On Her Majesty's Secret Service in which Bond loses his bride on their wedding day to a vengeful Blofeld, Bond has never really been emotionally driven by anything (OK, Felix Leiter's toothy near-demise in Licence To Kill motivated Timothy Dalton a tad). But Bond has always been the agent (pun intended) inserted into dark machinations and with gadgets galore and explosions a-plenty, saves the day. To be blunt, he became a simple, supremely confident empty vessel, devil-may-care, always-can-do with skipfuls of good fortune. With the audience on his side, he came up smelling of roses more often than not throughout the entire franchise. But Bond was never real and more importantly he was never intended to be real. He was an old Etonian's ideal man, Fleming's wish fulfillment, and through the screen incarnations, he became almost meta-fictional. Who needs the backstory of such an anti-hero, a Cold War relic like James Bond?
Connery's unflappable and dangerous feline grace was only ever really tested by Red Grant on the Orient Express. During Connery's reign we got to know almost nothing about Bond the man except for his frankly ludicrous tastes. Lazenby had his moment in the spotlight and was script-gifted being able to play an emotional Bond, a Bond in love, a Bond with Scottish ancestry, a facet added in the On Her Majesty's Secret Service novel by Fleming in respect to Connery's portrayal. In terms of who got to play that Bond based on that book, well, that's just mistiming. He was a Bond wronged and personally defiled. That was a first. Again with a few exceptions, Moore's Bond was a bumptious buffoon, personally unaffected by anything and about as believable a secret agent as Mr. Bean. Timothy Dalton got a raw deal script wise but was still no closer to playing a real character and not just an empty vessel. To be fair to Pierce Brosnan, he managed to mix the humour and action deftly. He could deliver a line and a punch with equal zest. But he was still ultimately emotionally void. Daniel Craig, however, invested Bond with character from the off. But then the script allowed him to. Over the four outings, he falls in love, shuts down emotionally, let's 'M' into his inner psyche and finally in the latest, he has to acknowledge that he might have created the monster than seeks to destroy him. Craig has said in interviews that this was the only way he knew how to play him (as a real human being) and there's no doubt that audiences have responded to this aspect of Bond almost completely unexplored by any other incarnation. So it's 'new' Bond but not just in the casting.
Problem is, that's it for Bond's past now, I hope. I have no idea where the filmmakers are going to go next, if anywhere with Craig. What a thrill to imagine Idris Elba as the next Bond as much as I admire Craig in the role. I just can't see where Craig is going to go emotionally with his Bond in the next installment. In the older entries, Bond was a constant, a non-character, so they could go anywhere with him, do anything to him and still wipe the slate clean before the words "And James Bond Will Be Back In fill in the blank". In Diamonds Are Forever, Connery is back and starts the movie looking for Blofeld (a nod to its predecessor, Diamonds is a nominal sequel to OHMSS of a sort). But now that Craig's Bond's past is spent, I really wonder where the filmmakers are going to go next. Ultimately, Spectre delivers for now which, for most, will be exciting enough.