In the outstanding “Skyfall,” director Sam Mendes and writers John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade appeared to have found a solution by leaning into Bond’s supposed disconnect with modern methods and modern politics. But in “Spectre,” that team, plus writer Jez Butterworth and minus cinematographer Roger Deakins, seems to have lost insight and nerve. After a magnificent sequence set at a Mexico City Dia de los Muertos parade that deftly dresses up Bond as both Sex and Death, “Spectre” turns into a disappointingly conventional Bond film that’s all the more depressing for its claims to be something more sophisticated.
“Skyfall” had a clear idea animating its action and visuals: the blowback to the British Empire, particularly to the merciless way M (Judi Dench) treats her agents. The film begins with M ordering Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to take a shot at a fleeing villain, even though there is a risk the younger woman will hit Bond, which she does, leaving him presumed dead. While Bond ends up returning to duty and the service of his country after a bombing, his adversary turns out to be one of M’s former agents (Javier Bardem), whom she gave up in a prisoner exchange, and who was deformed by an ineffective cyanide capsule meant to kill him.
The British flag is everywhere, and everywhere in danger: draping the coffins of MI6 employees dead in the bombing, decorating a little china bulldog on M’s desk, repurposed for the hacker’s grotesque, taunting videos.
The dog figurine finds its way to Bond’s apartment in “Spectre,” and a tattered Union Jack flies near the end of the movie. But “Spectre,” in addition to not necessarily making much sense from scene to scene and within individual scenes themselves, lacks a similarly compelling animating idea. There’s some incoherent nonsense about the morality of the surveillance state and drones vs. double-0s (about which I’ll have more to say on Monday). Surveillance is bad, apparently, unless you’re Q using nanobots in Bond’s blood to track him.
And the villain, yet another fey-voiced, stylish fellow meant as a contrast with Bond’s virility, this one by the name of Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), has motivations that turn out to be personal and not terribly interesting. His titular organization is one of those oddly effective criminal conglomerates of action movies past, with an updated mandate to sell fake HIV vaccines in Africa and to traffic women into “the leisure sector,” capital-e eeevil in whatever way the filmmakers think will resonate with reasonably sophisticated viewers of the moment. They also, in a nod to professional wrestling’s infiltration of the action-movie business, employ a henchman played by Dave Bautista with a nasty habit of gouging out his targets’ eyes.
All of these throwback tendencies would have been disappointing on their own, but they’re particularly vexing for the way they interact with another bit of backsliding on the part of “Spectre.”
The Bond franchise’s disposable women are a wearisome tic, not just because of the rise of actresses such as Emily Blunt and Jennifer Lawrence as credible and compelling action heroines who could capably serve as Bond’s colleagues, but also because the franchise itself has demonstrated what it’s able to do when Bond gets a sparring partner like Vesper Lynd (Eva Green in “Casino Royale”). But this trope looks especially stupid in a movie where the emotional climax is built on the idea that Bond has deep and enduring connections with the women he truly loves, among them Vesper and M, who died in “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall,” respectively.
“Did you think it was coincidence all the women in your life ended up dead?” Oberhauser asks Bond as he monologues on and on about being the author of Bond’s pain. Later, he posts pictures of M and Vesper in the ruins of the old MI6 offices, along with photos of Bond’s other notable antagonists. This might have been a powerful conclusion to Craig’s tenure as Bond, and to the way the franchise sometimes managed to reinvent 007’s bonds to women during this period. But in one of its central plots, “Spectre” undermines the supposed depths of Bond’s connection to Vesper.
In the course of the movie, Bond tracks down his old antagonist, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who he finds, in a nice touch, in a secret lair concealed behind a mirror. Shortly before White commits suicide, Bond pledges to protect his daughter Madeleine (Léa Seydoux). In the course of Craig’s time in the iconic dinner jacket, Bond’s had a true love in Vesper, and a mother in M; it might have been interesting to see him have a daughter, given that Seydoux is 17 years younger than Craig.
Of course, that’s not what happens. The ghost of Vesper hangs over Madeleine and Bond’s subsequent adventures, but “Spectre” doesn’t really grapple with the idea that Bond was once genuinely in love. “What is it?” Madeleine wants to know, when Bond discovers and lingers over a VHS tape labeled “Vesper Lynd — Interrogation.” “Nothing,” Bond tells her flatly. After Vesper died in “Casino Royale,” Bond told M that “The job’s done, the b—- is dead,” a line that tried and failed to use malice to disguise the depth of Bond’s feelings. Bond’s reaction to Vesper’s name here has no such depth either in the scene’s writing or Craig’s acting. Over dinner on a very fancy train, we see Bond drinking dirty martinis rather than the cocktail he named after Vesper in “Casino Royale,” but that seems more like a sign that he’s fickle in his drink orders than that he’s actually found a new love.
It doesn’t help, I suppose, that Seydoux and Bond don’t have much physical chemistry, and the “Spectre” script gives them none of the crackle that surged between Bond and Vesper in “Casino Royale.” When the pair fall into bed after a bruising battle on that same train, it feels like they’re fulfilling the requirements of their genre rather than being genuinely drawn together. And while telling someone you love him while he’s having needles driven into his skull might be merciful but ineffective, that’s not the same thing as Madeleine’s profession feeling true.
She acquires temporary cold feet: “I can’t go back to this life. And I can’t ask you to change. This is who you are,” she tells him before the final action set piece in “Spectre.” Inevitably, she changes her mind. You can make a James Bond movie where nothing anyone says or does means anything or sticks for more than a few moments if you don’t aspire to anything other than disconnected spectacle. But you can’t do that if you want to make a smart, credible action film. And you especially can’t do it if your characters insist that Bond is supposed to have real attachments and interior life that carry forward from one movie to the next.
None of this is to say that I want James Bond to get married, or even to repent his misogyny, which has become more interesting in the films as outside society has found it less admirable. But if each actor’s tenure as James Bond functions as a separate series of films, it would be nice to see a Bond cycle that actually takes the character somewhere. Given that Bond audiences are accustomed to seeing the character reset each time a new actor takes up the role, there’s actually more room to have Bond grow and change (than, say, Iron Man), because successive actors and directors won’t be saddled with previous Bonds’ plot and character developments.
The Daniel Craig era had the potential to offer us a Bond who truly matched the character’s supposed sophistication. Given the work of previous films that is undone by “Spectre,” a subsequent Craig Bond film would have to be a truly remarkable accomplishment to pull it off. James Bond may be one of fiction’s greatest lovers. But once again in “Spectre,” the films about him are unable to reach a satisfactory climax.