Spectre, the latest installment in Daniel Craig’s incarnation of the James Bond character, opens with an eerie sentence spread across the screen: “The dead are alive.” The camera then plunges into an elongated opening shot of Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival, with Bond appearing in a skeleton costume. The message is clear: Bond, himself practically a walking dead man, will have to confront the ghosts of his past, the many men and women whose deaths were mile markers on his path. After all, in the previous film, Bond remarked that his hobby is “resurrection.”
Following this theme of death, the Sam Mendes-directed Spectre deliberately draws on previous films to bring Bond full circle from his origin story in Casino Royale, where he earned his license to kill and lost his first love. To this end, the film focuses on the connections between the deaths for which Bond was responsible in some way or another.
In fact, Bond’s role as a killer seems central to the plot of Spectre. When the new M, head of MI6 (Ralph Fiennes) discusses the threatened dissolution of the Double-0 program, he points out that the license to kill implies the ability “not to kill”—the human decision on the ground as to whether killing is the right choice. When you look a person in the eyes, M insists, the decision whether to pull the trigger is one which a drone manned by surveillance teams miles away cannot make in the same sense. And, typically, that is exactly what Bond does: pull the trigger, ever since he first earned his license to kill and learned that killing gets easier with time.
Bond himself has no illusions about his work. When asked about his occupation, he replies simply: “I kill people.” Yet when Madeleine Swann, his new love interest, probes into whether this life is really what he wants, he is ambivalent: “I don’t think I ever had much of a choice… I never stop to think about it, really.” But as Swann reminds him, there is always a choice. Bond must come to grips with the decision that was ruined for him in Casino Royale: life with the girl, or life with the gun.
This is precisely why Sam Smith’s haunting opening song, “Writing’s on the Wall,” perfectly sets the film’s tone:
“I’ve spent a lifetime running,
And I always get away
But with you I’m feeling something
That makes me want to stay
… If I risk it all
Could you break my fall?
… I want to feel love
Run through my blood
Is this where I give it all up
I have to risk it all
Because the writing’s on the wall.”
Much like the scarred, dilapidated MI6 building scheduled for demolition, Bond’s days as an agent on the run are clearly numbered. The end of MI6’s “obsolete” Double-0 program, and the repercussions of his past, mean that Bond’s unsustainable lifestyle may well be doomed. The writing is on the wall, prophesying (as in the Book of Daniel) the end of an era.
However, in the attempt to tie together Bond’s past, taking careful account of every death that shaped him, Spectre fails to measure up to the creative promise of some of its predecessors. Where Skyfall was breathtakingly unpredictable within the Bond framework, Spectre is rife with Bond clichés; in fact, it falls back on one of the most stereotypical climaxes in action-movie history (the hero must rescue someone from a building about to explode, complete with a countdown timer). Still, some of these reliable conventions are played with engaging panache.
There are, for instance, the usual stunning locales, established with indulgent detail: from the festival in Mexico City, to epic pursuits through the snowy Alps, to a high-speed car chase through the narrow streets of Rome and along the Tiber. There is the typical womanizing, including an Italian widow (Monica Bellucci, perpetuating the Hollywood myth that its stars never age), whom Bond seduces early on for no real reason. There is also an unnecessarily (and, in retrospect, confusingly) hyper-sexualized opening credits sequence, as well as Bond’s signature martinis, high-tech gadgetry, and impeccable suits.
Yet, when it comes to Bond conventions, Spectre‘s weakest spot is, sadly, its villain, Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). In fact, there are almost too many villains, diversifying the nefarious activities too far, so that their collective effect is less compelling. Blofeld, for instance, is both the head of the international organization of evildoing, Spectre, intent on gaining access to all the world’s top secret information, and has an unrelated personal vendetta to wage against James Bond. But there’s also “C” (smug Andrew Scott) spearheading MI6’s destruction and the launch of the new global surveillance program at a political level. Then there’s the nameless Spectre assassin hunting down Bond.
The main problem with this multiplicity of villains is an undermining of the main one. Waltz’s Blofeld, with his (initially) almost boyish face and arrogant manner, though the filmmakers do their best to make him sinister and sadistic, can’t really hold a candle to Skyfall‘s sincerely unsettling Silva, especially not when competing for attention with other threats in the film.
An otherwise solid supporting cast, however, make this villain’s dullness somewhat forgivable. A breath of fresh air is certainly Léa Seydoux who plays Madeleine Swann, daughter of Mr. White (another echo from Bond’s past) and target of Spectre. Winsome and emotive, providing an avenue for the more sensitive moments in the film, she plays a fitting counterpoint to stiff-upper-lip tough guy Craig. Her refusal to “fall into Bond’s arms” at the first opportunity is likewise refreshing (even if they eventually bed together—because, after, all, this is a Bond film—absurdly immediately after they are both badly beaten up by an assassin). Yet overall, her charming damsel-in-distress is evocative of an older era, from the classy 40s vibe of her costumes to her principled rejection of agent life.
Then there is Ralph Fiennes, playing the new “M” with indomitable Britishness. In a carefully consistent expansion of his Skyfall character, M is a bastion of democracy and resists any program unsanctioned by the people; he bluntly calls the proposed global surveillance system “undemocratic” and “Orwell’s worst nightmare.” Fiennes fills every line with a formidable sense of duty and personal sincerity. At times, his battle with villainy at the governmental level is more intriguing than Bond’s escapades in the field. Rounding out this dependable supporting cast is Ben Whishaw as Q, Bond’s sardonic tech support, and Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny, his sometime partner and loyal assistant inside MI6.
By the end, Spectre brings a satisfying character arc into play, yet falls back on rather conventional action set-ups that feel nearly anti-climactic. Still, if this is indeed, as rumors would have it, Daniel Craig’s last Bond film, Spectre would provide sufficient closure to the journey of his character from hunted-and-haunted Agent 007 to simply Bond . . . James Bond.
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