Spectre Wasn’t the Classic Bond Film It Wanted To Be
If you asked a 007 enthusiast to reconstruct a new Bond story based on his favorite parts of the first 23 installments in the franchise, it would probably look a hell of a lot like Spectre.
Well, sort of.
Let there be no mistake that Spectre was a very entertaining movie. Even for an opening night ticket purchased through ass-reaming middleman Fandango, it was well worth the price of entry. It had guns, explosions, car chases, predictable plot twists, and a brief half-baked examination of how security should be implemented in the 21st century.1 It was essentially a teenager’s wet dream, especially if said teenager spends an unhealthy amount of time pondering trust issues and heavy-handed manifestations of Freudian thought.
Spectre also made an unapologetic effort to hearken back to the “good ol’ days” of classic James Bond. In fact, there seemed to be some sort of homage to almost every film before the ill-fated Timothy Dalton era. The movie opens with Bond’s pursuit of a target amidst a busy, ceremonial parade in a Latin American country, much like scenes from Thunderball and Moonraker. He resumes his traditional rapport with Q, in which Bond recklessly plays with new gadgets and wrecks fancy cars while Q rolls his eyes and pretends to have authority to punish Bond for his carelessness. He orders a martini, “shaken, not stirred,” and drives an Aston Martin.
Certain scenes create much more specific parallels to the old films. 007’s trip to the clinic on the Alpine mountaintop could not evoke more imagery of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service if it tried. The fight scene on the train feels like it was lifted straight from From Russia With Love, with some of the shots bearing so much similarity that there could be no uncertainty about the director’s intent. Dave Bautista’s character, Jinx — a one-dimensional strongman who does the villain’s bidding — is an obvious reiteration of Oddjob, Jaws, and [breathes deeply] Mr. Bullion from The World Is Not Enough. This doesn’t even begin to discuss the resurrection of [SPOILER] Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who is undeniably the most iconic Bond villain. I could continue. The point is that there was clearly a very deliberate effort by the director to bring back more of the “classic Bond.” More seducing women, more chase scenes, more globetrotting, more ass-kicking.
And yet, the narrative style of Spectre doesn’t feel the slightest bit removed from the previous three movies starring Daniel Craig.
Allow me to digress for a moment. In my (disconcertingly methodical) examination of the Bond canon, I determined that every film can be placed somewhere on an axis graphing Style and Quality. Style refers to the extent to which the movie encapsulates the nebulous metric of “Bond Quintessence”: drinking martinis, winning at cards, seducing women and discarding them immediately afterward, utilizing absurd gadgets, and dropping corny-ass one-liners after killing an enemy. Quality refers to what we understand today to be the objective appraisal of a movie. For example, if a classic Bond movie — let’s say Thunderball — hit theaters this weekend, it would be panned by critics. In this day and age, the standards for cinematography, screenwriting, editing, graphics — they are all much higher than they were 50 years ago when the Bond series made its debut on the silver screen. Skyfall, on the other hand, is a very good film by all those same metrics.
What I discovered is that the relationship between Style and Quality is inverse. Thunderball is incredibly classic in the context of the Bond style, but falls short when judged as a modern film. Skyfall is a brilliant film in its execution, but fails to evoke much of what is considered classic about James Bond. Moreover, the inverse correlation between Style and Quality is fairly strong; no movie in the series sticks out as being particularly rich in both or particularly devoid of both.
Spectre felt like an attempt to create an outlier in this data set: a film that maintains all the cinematic focus and nuance of the Daniel Craig films, while still portraying Bond as the classic symbol.
This is where the movie fell short. What became apparent to me throughout Spectre is that the timeless, iconic feel of the old Bond movies is much more than seduction and self-aware cheesiness; it’s also the spaces between those cheesy moments which don’t try to flood the audience with gravity and introspection. Sure, I loved the moment in the opening sequence in which Bond falls a few stories and lands on a conveniently placed couch then subsequently takes a moment to survey the humor of the situation — shrugging and nonchalantly continuing his pursuit of the villain. But five minutes later, we’re in Mi6 headquarters discussing the recent death of old M, the effective disarming of the Mi6 branch of the British government, and the dreadful trajectory of government security. It brings you back into a different frame of mind, one in which you’re analyzing the situation, understanding its implications in the film, and probably applying it to the world around you.
What’s so classic about the old Bond movies is that they don’t make you think. They don’t add more drama to the plot than absolutely necessary. They simply create a world in which you get to see a handsome, suave, highly-trained secret agent run shit against villains with delusions of grandeur or dreams of destruction. It’s a world in which you never have to fear for the fate of your hero, because you know there’s no villain out there who can touch him, even if they capture him and put him in a straightjacket with ten armed men monitoring his every move.
Craig’s (and director Sam Mendes’) brand of 007 delves too heavily into more profound themes and motifs to keep up the blithe, cocksure attitude of the older Bond films. Similarly, the carefully constructed overarching plotlines defy the standalone nature of past movies. The death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale essentially dictates the entirety of Quantum of Solace. Skyfall appeared to be a departure from the previous two, but we find in Spectre that Raoul Silva, the villain of Skyfall, was in cahoots with Blofeld, the villain of Spectre, who also oversaw the activities of Mr. White and Le Chiffre, villains from Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale, respectively. The deaths of Lynd and old M continue resonating with 007 in Spectre. In fact, Spectre is the only Bond movie thus far to have characters from past movies featured prominently in the opening credits. The grand design of interwoven plotlines only further contributes to the weight of the films — the same weight that drowns out the many attempts to bring the Bond style into Spectre.
Again, I recommend seeing Spectre. It’s a great movie with some incredible action scenes and individual performances that range from competent to inspired. However, Spectre is also evidence that the perfect balance of Style and Quality may be impossible to achieve.
That being said, with the presumed exit of Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes from the franchise, there’s no way to know what’s coming next. The last four Bond films have been an unmistakeable veer toward the Quality end of the spectrum; whoever comes in next may shake things up in a visionary way. But not stir them, of course.