The latest 007 film delves into a useless fabrication of the agent's origins
In 1982, when producer Cubby Broccoli received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures, more than two decades had passed since his almost mythic meeting with Ian Fleming in London in 1960. He placed the award on a pedestal in his Beverly Hills mansion and got back to work on the thirteenth Bond film, Octopussy, unbeknownst to him that 33 years later the quartet of 007 films under Daniel Craig would consistently worsen from film to film, representing some of the finest kitsch in cinematic history. Still, the last entry, Brokeback Skyfall, was a massive success; but it does point to the existential crisis that, as we struggle to grasp human confusion, a vacuous movie falls through the cracks and gains reverence, its inanity covered by the dazzling light emitted from a supercharged hype machine. It all led to the sweeping, global decree: we were meant to exalt this film, to cherish it. What’s not to adore in its reference to Tennyson and its use of Batmanesque dark imagery and the backstory of an orphaned Bond and his repressed homoerotic impulses? As we bask in this enlightenment, we must implore the filmmakers for an encore. Three years later, they return with Craig as a co-producer, a wretched script riddled with plot holes, and the most expensive extravaganza in the series that drags along for two and a half hours. Yet I don’t blame anyone for the continuation of the Craig tenure, because we’re all responsible. Even those who didn’t lay down their cash for this rebooted series (oh, how dare they defy the decree!) are at least culpable of standing by, while the rest of us showered Craig The Beatified with wealth and worship, simply because he stood in front of the camera, waiting for his emotions to be rendered with intricate and expensive CGI. We can attempt to soothe ourselves by saying, “We were young then but we’re much wiser now.” But it certainly won’t offer a quantum of solace to say, “That was a different time and we’re different people now,” because, if there’s one thing this rebooted series has taught us, we can appear in different timelines and keep the same persona, as exemplified by Judi Dench’s M. Above all, we now confront the 24th entry in the series, the dismal Spectre, one of the worst things ever produced in recorded history. It’s unfathomable, I agree, that this movie would even be made, and yet it actually happened. So how bad is Spectre? Well, it has many flaws, among them the fact that it’s not watchable. It is an exceptionally bad movie.
The resounding image in the film comes even before the titles: the black screen fades into MGM’s famous logo with the roaring lion, an apt metaphor for all the thunderous explosions—not the actual explosions in the film, though it has pyrotechnics aplenty, but the rumble that occurred behind the scenes from furious studio executives. This is the backdrop to the film, as MGM struggled to grasp the explosive destruction caused by Spectre’s out of control budget. As everyone knew by opening weekend (courtesy of the Sony email leaks), the film has the final figure pointing to $350 million or so, depending on who's fiddling with the abacus. Toss in the sonorous PR machine, and we’re looking at perhaps a total of $500 million. Indeed, the marketing blitz has been in full swing, no doubt wooing the untold millions of Syrian tourists currently vacationing in Hungary. The hype is enhanced by Craig himself, a true PR expert if I ever did see one. It is he, the Anointed One, who dropped his own metaphorical bomb on the studio executives when he inexplicably snapped into a bizarre tantrum, bitterly proclaiming to “slit my wrists” (Smith) instead of subjecting himself to another Bond film in the here-and-now, while thrusting the franchise into uncertainty by revealing he’s bankrupt of ideas and eager to put the next film on ice for a year or two, though insisting he’d only return strictly for the money. What a guy. He must be congratulated for the sheer depth of his humbleness. Not surprisingly, reports surfaced about the studio brass in complete outrage, demanding the loudmouthed Craig to shut his trap and quit denigrating the franchise. Leo the Lion, in that MGM logo, has never been more suitable to symbolize majestic dignity, as manifested by these chaps. As for the production cost, I’d say the numbers aren’t bad as they look; for the producers slashed the budget on the script development, saving at least $150 million, which most likely explains why they started filming in the most efficient manner—that is, without a finished script, as the Sony email leaks have revealed, although the film crew remained dedicated to finding a storyline as they ended up tweaking with re-shoots as late as September 2015, one month before the U.K. premiere. Just as Sam Smith proclaimed it took him a mere 20 minutes to write the unmemorable title song, the screenwriters out did him by spending at least 22 minutes on the script. Nonetheless, my condolences to those who thought Spectre was based on Marx’s Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism”) and were convinced that the runaway budget was nothing more than the cost of developing an exact replica of Marx’s beard. I can imagine the puzzlement of my leftist leaning readers as they watched Christoph Waltz in many scenes, roaming dark chambers in his lair, and wondered if the depiction of a socialist utopia—funded by all the wonderful redistribution of wealth—had something to do with highly regulated usage of electricity? But, hey, if it’s any consolation, Italian actress Monica Bellucci is quite the babe at age 50—I can tell you that for free!
There are aerial shots of cities, car chases that resemble The Fast and the Furious, wide shots of explosions, the usual fight scenes and gun battles, a helicopter careening in the sky, overhead shots of crowds in Mexico City, overhead shots of action scenes in a snowy landscape, overhead shots of the Moroccan desert—all stitched together in haphazard editing but not a plot in sync. The narrative shifts are quite arbitrary, the story hurled straight out of the MGM lion’s mouth and rendered in the dark cinematography of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the de rigueur of this rebooted series since Brokeback Skyfall. It’s all about mood these days, you chumps, the filmmakers seem to say. But this approach is the deadpan spin for the production chaos that stems from the usual antics of Hollywood egos: development was slow going, and director Sam Mendes displayed an apparent reluctance to return until the pot was sweetened to his content. When a script finally surfaced, he and the producers rejected it, fired the scribe John Logan, and concentrated on explosions, car chases, and how to dismantle the Fleming canon, while screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, both fired after an earlier attempt on the script, were summoned to concoct something of a plot that could hold it all together, leading eventually to playwright Jez Butterworth jumping on board for additional rewrites. Mendes, a colossally overrated director without any sense for crafting a thriller, was making the best of a disastrous situation. But the overall struggle was enough to pull it off that he and the producers basically turned the who-cares-about-a-plot approach into a formula: slap a glossy veneer over the film, downplay the machismo/playboy sensibilities of the character to endear the PC tribunal, insert pieces of superficial drama to feed to the media elites, and sell the damn thing as a serious “arty” piece. In fact, the plot, such as it is, is essentially the same in every film: Brokeback Skyfall featured a rogue Craig-Bond. Wait, wasn't he essentially a “rogue agent” in Quantum Of Solace? Why, yes, he was! And, long ago, didn't the character already go rogue in Die Another Day and Licence To Kill? Indeed he did. Adhering to this tradition, the Craig-Bond goes rogue yet again in Spectre. The fact remains, however, that the hodgepodge script is inescapable. We’re left with a film that feels worn out, musty, and contrived. It struggles for attention at every turn, as if it’s been left on the development shelf for years just waiting for the studio to get the cash flow going. Even the striking locations and exotic sports cars are simply placed within the camera frame and shot with the bare minimum of creativity, suggesting that everyone was just going through the routine to make this drivel. Most disturbingly, Spectre is a film about nothing that attempts to be something, even resetting Fleming’s fiction to fabricate a useless origin story for Bond. Nearly a decade ago, the producers forced Casino Royale to be a “Bond begins” story, justifying (so they proclaimed) the reboot of the series. Yet here we are, four films and ten years later, with a series still grappling with the notion.
There’s not much plot in Spectre that isn’t stated in the title. There’s a sinister crime syndicate called Spectre—the film makes no reference to the acronymic meaning in Fleming’s fiction—specializing in global threats, so much so that it’s the premiere villainous organization that attracts hapless henchmen from all over the world with (presumably) an enticing benefits package. The plot does include the baffling twist of having Ralph Fiennes spearhead MI6, a man I would not trust to manage my lawn maintenance. It is the second most unrealistic element in the film after having a decrepit Daniel Craig portray a suave secret agent. The plot thickens when a staunch bureaucrat called C (named after his mediocre grades in elementary school) intends to replace the Double-O section with a security initiative called Nine Eyes. As a super duper surveillance network, the new program threatens the MI6 staff, including M, Moneypenny, and the young effeminate Q, forcing them to fight for their cinchy jobs and all those wonderful government entitlements awaiting them in retirement. The office turmoil leaves them with little choice but to argue in dark corridors with the chappie known as C, giving the latter the opportunity to overact with zeal. Played by Andrew Scott, he’s nothing more than your garden-variety asshole in any organization; and his ruthless intent to fire the Double-O agents forces the Craig-Bond to go rogue once more unto the breach. Yes, that is essentially the impetus for the “going rogue” plot device. And if this business about the surveillance network doesn’t sound all that compelling, please remember the plot was developed by Mendes and company—a plot suspiciously similar to the latest Mission: Impossible entry, Rogue Nation, right down to its use of Austrian and Moroccan locales. Even the Craig-Bond’s reliance on Q and Moneypenny for assistance recalls the team spirit of Ethan Hunt’s IMF (Impossible Missions Force). In Craig’s Bond, gone—more than ever—is the solitary nature of Fleming’s character.
It all begins in Mexico City (literally, for tax reasons), just after the gun barrel animation. Surprisingly, the Bond makers actually placed the gun barrel at the start of the film, after ten years of attempting to determine where it belongs. During the highly publicized Sony email leaks, when the script and the ineptitude of the powers-that-be were exposed, I had assumed they would insert this signature visual somewhere in the middle of the film—for example, right after an incidental shot of a dark hallway in the MI6 building. As it is, the Thomas Newman version of the James Bond theme is bombastic enough, but the sequence is sloppy: the opening bars of the theme play against a black screen well before the rolling white circles, as if the visual effects and the soundtrack are not in sync. It’s not until the famous Bondian chord progression starts to unfold when we see the white circles appear; but, alas, in comes the Craig-Bond, striding with the gait of a gibbon, and we wonder why a withered version of Vladimir Putin is suddenly in the gun barrel. Fortunately, he has enough smarts not to use a pellet gun when he turns and shoots at the camera. Mendes, however, tampers with this intro, thanks to his self-consciousness to be different: the gun barrel fades into blackness and, for several seconds, we stare at an awkward empty screen. Finally, a cheap-looking caption appears: “The dead are alive.” I thought it was a sudden reference to The Rolling Stones but then a crowded street appears, where revelers are marching, dressed in arcane skeleton costumes (the much ballyhooed on-location filming during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City). The first five minutes or so of this pre-credits sequence is full of swooping camera work, which is obviously lifted from Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman. Yet this approach—a single track shot commandeered by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema—doesn’t work for a thriller. It’s simply dull, dragging along in what seems like an unenergetic pace.
Here we find the Craig-Bond tracking down an assassin based on leftover orders (as we later learn) from Judi Dench's now-deceased M. It is, apparently, an assignment that stems from Raoul Silva—the Craig-Bond’s love interest in Brokeback Skyfall—and his attack on British Intelligence. Unfortunately, in this pre-credits sequence, the muscles from MI6 inadvertently stumbles onto the set of San Andreas, where buildings are collapsing and a helicopter is available, rather conveniently, so he can have an in-flight tussle with the assassin. The shoddy green screen effects are apparent, lingering all the way to the helicopter somersault. The frenetic camera captures the chaos in the streets, juxtaposed with aerial shots of this vibrant city. Ah, Mexico City, “The City of Palaces” (so goes it motto), a dominant financial center in the Americas with approximately 9 million people, all of whom reside in California, forcing us to wonder who, actually, are these people running along the streets, struggling to avoid the mayhem? I kid, of course; but what truly hampers our engagement is a deep sense of déjà vu: this Day of the Dead sequence harks back to the New Orleans funeral parade in Live and Let Die, the Junkanoo parade in Thunderball, even the Mardi Gras set piece in Moonraker. The Craig-Bond, on a rooftop, shooting a rifle at the building opposite, is a direct steal from similar scenes in The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill. Then again, the subsequent helicopter stunts recall the intro of For Your Eyes Only. But the entire sequence falls flat with the brown grainy tint in the cinematography, which evokes the overall look-and-feel of the horrid chase sequence during the Palio horse race in Siena, Italy at the start of Quantum Of Solace. The one bit of significance in this sequence is the ring with a mysterious Octopus symbol that the Craig-Bond acquires. It segues into the bizarre—and revolting—title sequence that makes the schmaltzy title song even more unbearable. Rendered in kaleidoscopic hues, this Daniel Kleinman design is another aspect of Spectre that I wanted to slap sharply without apology. Why anyone thought that the sight of a shirtless Craig-Bond—depicted as a demigod worshiped by hot women—with octopi tentacles slithering and wrapping around him was a brilliant idea, I’ll never understand. Unfortunately, I had eaten sooner than one week before my viewing of Spectre, and my usually stable gullet threatened to rise more than once. Yet one thing is clear: the pre-credits sequence and the titles point to a sense of aimlessness, of a mash-up of ideas executed rashly, which signals the film has nothing coherent to convey.
The narrative movement relies heavily on the Craig-Bond’s hunt for the meaning behind the Spectre symbol. It leads him on various trails, moving from London to Rome to the Austrian Alps and to Tangiers and the Moroccan desert. In Rome, the Craig-Bond encounters Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci, in a three-minute role), who just happens to be the wife of the assassin he killed in Mexico City. He manages to seduce her in another desperate attempt by the filmmakers to present Craig’s Bond in the spirit of his predecessors, who were all voracious womanizers. Unfortunately, the scene has zero credibility, even forced upon us in a jarring way, because it only reminds us of what has been established in Brokeback Skyfall: we’ve seen where the heart of this Bond lies, and it’s anchored in some sort of tortured pansexual. The misused Bellucci—quite the photogenic Italian sexpot—is stuffed in a thankless cameo consisting of the unsexiest grappling ever staged in a Bond film. Mendes simply can’t handle the brazen sexiness we’ve seen in the Bond films of yore, and he resorts to offer only a glimpse of the unzipping of the back of her dress. This reinforces one of the characteristics of the Craig films: it’s PC all the way with a quasi-gay Bond. Nonetheless, as so often happens in the gritty realism of spying, the Bellucci character quickly points the Craig-Bond towards a conference of a clandestine organization. She babbles something about a “Pale King” (no, not the Craig-Bond, who’s pale sickly pallor is so apparent in this film). Why she even offers this information is unclear, like a lot of things in this movie. Then again, if you’ve been quite the moron to be seduced by the Craig-Bond, you’d look for ways to get rid of him quickly should you desire respect from any human being.
The conference is headed by one Franz Oberhauser (Christophe Waltz), whose surname is taken from a very minor character, Hannes Oberhauser, in the short story “Octopussy.” The name of Oberhauser Sr. is never mentioned in the film but this slight allusion to Fleming indicates that the filmmakers are struggling to link their story to old Hannes. In this Sam Mendes soap opera, he happens to be Franz’s father and, as revealed later in the film, the Craig-Bond’s foster father. For those who still remember Fleming, let alone read his fiction, this Hannes Oberhauser looms over the film’s backstory, and we can't shake his name from our minds. As a result, the allusion to the character, in tandem with his son's name "Franz," inadvertently forms a ridiculous "Hannes and Franz" duo (reminiscent of the old SNL sketch); and we are unable to shake the notion that, at any moment, they would appear together and tell the scrawny Q, “We are going to pump you up!” At the same time, this aspect of the film suffers from contrived foreshadowing: the foster family is prefigured in a scene where the Craig-Bond discovers an old photograph of a man with two boys (little Franz and the Craig-Bond) in an alpine setting. It’s a faded sepia-toned photograph, as if it was snapped in the 1920s—which would put both boys in their 90s today. Either somebody at Eon Productions was asleep on this one, or the filmmakers were truly linking the photo to how Craig looks today in all his “sexy” cragginess. In the photograph, one of the boys is shrouded in mystery because the tattered photo just happens to have a hole in place of his head (oh, the suspense!). Yes, sad to say, the film confirms the stupid storyline revealed in the Sony email leaks. Here then is the crux of the backstory for the Craig-Bond: Father Hannes and his son Franz comprise Bond’s foster family, with little Franz as the jealous brother who grows up to have a fondness for white Persian cats and dedicates himself to world domination—and all because Father Hannes always favored the Craig-Bond. Hence, as showcased in the film’s trailer, Franz babbles the corny line about being “the author of all your pain” in the Craig-Bond’s life. The big revelation occurs when Franz tortures the Craig-Bond, wherein he proclaims he has changed his name to Ernst Stavro Blofeld twenty years ago, after killing Father Hannes, staging his own death, and then adopting his mother’s maiden name, Blofeld. Ah, so he lives to fight another day, under the guise of a new persona. Sound familiar? It should, because this is essentially a variation of the Colonel Moon/Gustav Graves transformation in Die Another Day—yes, that most dreadful of 007 films, as denounced by the Craigyboppers locked in the Internet forums. In my review of Brokeback Skyfall, I noted how this film patterned itself after Brosnan’s last Bond film:
There must be some sort of inverse law at work—for the more the fans despise [Die Another Day], the more the Bond makers thrust elements of that film into Skyfall.
And the more the filmmakers have thrust the essence of that 20th film into Spectre, right down to its stockpile of rehashing familiar elements from previous Bond films. Yet the greater flaw is this Blofeld revelation. To think that such nonsense gets the green light in today's Hollywood! The filmmakers have once again pulled out the Bond-as-orphan bit (mentioned fleetingly in the novel You Only Live Twice) but nowhere in the pages of Fleming does a foster family motif appear.* Nor does Fleming’s Bond have any familial connection whatsoever with the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Nor are there any relations between the Blofelds and the Oberhausers. (The literary Blofeld was born in Gdynia of a Polish father and a Greek mother.) As for the Oberhauser name, Fleming’s Bond recalls Hannes Oberhauser briefly, in “Octopussy,” as a mentor of sorts, even a guardian: “He taught me to ski before the war,” Bond explains, “when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one” (47). Apart from depicting Oberhauser as a mountain guide, Fleming doesn’t delve into the details of his life. Hence, this business of enhancing the character with an offspring and extending this scenario into Bond’s orphaned background to fabricate a foster family is an idiotic excuse to pad out a backstory for Craig’s Bond in lieu of crafting an intriguing spy thriller. This isn’t Fleming’s work in Spectre. It’s Mendes and company desecrating the Fleming canon and rebooting it for their own purpose.
The narrative movement, now shifting to the Craig-Bond’s quest for brother Franz, jumps from set piece to set piece in a long drawn out manner. For example, Austria is inserted into the story because it lets the filmmakers shoot an airplane chase with armored trucks and a Land Rover in Alpine terrain. It’s also here, in a “dramatic” scene in the snow, where Madeleine Swann comes to terms with the Craig-Bond as her ally. I’m confident Fleming would have wanted nothing more than to have Lea Seydoux exchange stilted dialogue with the Craig-Bond on a snow-covered hill in the Austrian alps. Austria, after all, is a quaint nation, although history has shown that it has a tendency to fall in the hands of totalitarian Teutons who are hell bent on taking over the world. Fortunately, for the Craig-Bond, that’s all in the past. After long years, the totalitarians have returned to Austria as peaceful vibrant beer drinkers, convincing all Austrians to be a heavily militant nation eager to take over the world.
Once again, I kid. After all, the Austrians and their German brethren are famous for their sense of humor. I imagine the Craig-Bond stopping at a pub on route to Domain Spectre and finding himself in a warm discussion with the local patrons:
Again, I kid. But if the Craig-Bond really wants to find his long lost brother, he’s better off waiting for him to show up in an Austrian pub, immersed in the maximum quantity of beer. For this region of the world is known for wonderful beer, typically served in large containers that, in other countries, would be used as international airports. Unfortunately, the potential for beery shenanigans is jettisoned because our hero stumbles into Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). Who’s he, you ask? Well, he is a shady character from Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace who has a total of eight minutes of screen time in both films. Somehow the filmmakers convinced themselves that the one thing needful was to expand Mr. White’s role for Spectre so they could stage a scene where he can mutter one of the laughable lines in a rundown barn: “You’re a kite dancing in the wind,” he says to the Craig-Bond. Yet what the filmmakers failed to realize was that they were fiddling with such a minor character who made zero impact on audiences in the aforementioned films. The endeavor is no different than, say, expanding Rob Schneider’s role in a future sequel to Grown Ups to add more “dramatic tension” in the story. In the film’s reality, the Craig-Bond promises Mr. White to seek out his daughter, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who can reveal information about the Spectre organization. This triangle with the Craig-Bond and a wily criminal and his daughter has shades of the Bond-Tracy-Draco scenario in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s not the first time the filmmakers mined that opus to rehash its father-daughter motif. For 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, it formed the basis of the film:
The writers [Neal Purvis and Robert Wade] studied previous Bond films—they appreciated the luxury of being able to view Dana Broccoli’s own prints in MGM’s private cinema—and found some clues in the character of Tracy di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Played by Diana Rigg, she is the spoiled daughter of the boss of Europe’s major crime syndicate. . . . Wade said she was a very strong inspiration for the character of Electra in The World Is Not Enough, because she is a rich man’s daughter who is out to prove herself and Bond is on a mission to look after this girl, whom he at first finds vulnerable and then not so vulnerable. (Johnstone 31-32)
Mendes, though, struggles to weave this shambling narrative together. We get the obligatory car chase (in the evening on empty streets in Rome—now there’s realism for you!), lyrical Alpine vistas, sudden jump-cuts and edits, and that tired compilation of elements from previous Bond films: Spectre is a palimpsest of sorts rehashed with modern day production values. But in this process of alluding to other past adventures and iconography (the fight on the train is so obviously a nod to From Russia With Love), the film repeatedly pulls us out of the narrative flow, signaling how it’s deeply underplotted. By the time the two storylines—the Blofeld revelation and the Nine Eyes surveillance program—converge, we realize the movie doesn’t know what to do with the theme it raises concerning antiquated secret agents and drone warfare as the new spying weapon. Some delusional ideology is also in play: the filmmakers suggest that it’s these renegade superhypervillains who seek total-surveillance schemes, while the government would oppose such tactics. Suddenly it’s government—big government—that avoids encroaching practices on individuals? Now that’s hope and change.
The lack of a solid script is evident throughout the film. The supporting players, for example, all suffer from an airy thin treatment. Much was made of Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, who the filmmakers touted as an independent strong-willed woman but is essentially a rough sketch, completely unconvincing as a Sorbonne-educated psychologist who, not surprisingly, ends up as the tag-along Bond girl. M, Q and Moneypenny have minimal screen time to make any impact as capable field agents; but Mendes has the desire to band this MI6 team together as a “family unit” of sorts. This is camp idiocy in full manifestation. It’s the Brady Bunch suddenly functioning as spies. Fiennes, in particular, is a lousy replacement as the new M. He lacks the Churchillian authority depicted in the books, and his boredom with the shenanigans is all too apparent. Moreover, with the idiocy of the script, he spends most of his screen time arguing with C about the importance of the Double-O agents—yet, in Brokeback Skyfall, he disagreed with Judi Dench's M, who advocated exactly the same idea but with pompous allusions to Tennyson. Another oddity of Fiennes’s M is that he takes part in action scenes and even drives a getaway vehicle in the finale. The real M would have had more dignity. Fiennes, on the other hand, is father Mike Brady taking on the superhero dimensions of Professor Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men. At least the filmmakers had enough restraint not to have him battle the chief henchman, Hinx (or Jinx, I’m not really sure), a name that recalls the Halle Berry character, Jinx, in Die Another Day. Yes, once again, that most horrid of Bond films—this is the inverse law I mentioned earlier, which the filmmakers keep thrusting at the Craigyboppers. Played by a burly Dave Bautista, Hinx is a throwback to Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia With Love, who stalks Connery’s Bond throughout the story. Hinx, though, lacks the ominous presence that Grant possessed and comes across as more of a cartoon villain in the vein of Jaws.
The movie plods on with bland chases and fight scenes but it’s all just killing time until the Blofeld revelation in the third act. As I had sensed in the trailer, Christophe Waltz is completely miscast as the villain and suffers the same problem that Mathieu Amalric, as madman Dominic Greene, encountered in Quantum Of Solace: with a sketchy script, he struggles to grasp the essence of the character without knowing what to find. The result is a cackling sadist who is acting outside of the film’s canvas. Not once do you believe he’s this ominous shadow haunting the Craig-Bond’s life. In the obligatory doomsday speech, he mutters metaphors about cuckoos and meteorites. He’s like a little kid playing with a new game console when he controls a robot torture machine that inserts hypodermic needles into the Craig-Bond’s brain. Waltz, known for camp acting, does what actors would do when they don’t trust the script—they simply tune out of the film and display an air of existing above it all. A big part of the character’s problem is his lack of screen time: by the time we get to the revelation scene, Waltz and Mendes are forced to cram biographical information in the space of a few minutes. To make matters worse, whatever evil scheme he has is so muddled that it makes everything about the character laughable.
As for the Craig-Bond, he continues to puzzle audiences. Is he an asshole or merely a moron? Through it all, he’s grouchy, visibly bored, and utterly disinterested to evoke any chemistry with the women he encounters. He screams too—screaming at Blofeld to turn off a secret video recording of his meeting with Mr. White, overacting with zealous screams in the torture scene, and then screaming for Madeleine Swann, in a less-than-dignified-way, near the end of the film when he attempts to find her. Critic Wendy Ide seems to be perplexed that Craig’s Bond “is permanently pissed off. His reaction to anything — shrapnel, heavy traffic, sexual attraction — is a grimace of irritation.” Um, I can explain. This Bond is miserable because, in all probability, he’s a thoroughly loathsome individual and never once does he realize that he's so miserable because he’s got a psyche layered with childhood scars and repressed homosexual leanings. The groundwork for the characterization was established since the series was rebooted: we find a brick-stupid agent gadding about in tiny light-blue swimming trunks—essentially flaunting that he’s quite the modern metrosexual—but prone to rage as he pounds the stuffing out of doughy thugs dumber than himself. By the time we see him in Brokeback Skyfall, he’s evolved into a delicate flower, calling grandmother M frequently to seek guidance and comfortably sharing with the villain Raoul Silva that he’s had gay affairs. Moreover, his reliance on grandma M is so ridiculous that he appears not to have any balls for Le Chiffre to bash way back in Casino Royale. It’s also probably why foster-brother Blofeld uses a different torture technique, bypassing the nether regions of the Craig-Bond’s anatomy by opting to stick needles into his skull instead. Of course, what’s long gone is any adherence to Fleming’s literary character. For Mendes and Craig, Bond is essentially the same damaged marine colonel depicted in Mendes’s American Beauty: a sufferer of homoerotic repression with the tendency to snap into homicidal rage.
Spectre is needlessly long but by the time we reach the climax at Blofeld’s desert lair (shades of Quantum Of Solace), everything feels rushed. This stems from a feeling of forced economy throughout the film. In Thunderball, director Terrence Young took Fleming’s cue and depicted a story on a massive canvas to convey a sense of worldwide alarm. Moreover, the SPECTRE organization he presented is truly a powerful global institution. In Mendes’s Spectre, Blofeld’s lair is occupied by a small force of black-uniformed guards and computer technicians. No wonder the Craig-Bond blows up the place all too easily. The forced economy also extends into the soundtrack, comprised mainly of cues from Brokeback Skyfall. It seems the haphazard production gave so little time for composer Thomas Newman to craft and record a solid soundtrack. This explains why, in the teaser, the Bond producers reused fragments of the soundtrack from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Newman does bring in some graceful melodrama in Rome and bright Arabic folk music in Morocco. Otherwise, it’s a serviceable but unmemorable score.
Because the plot is going nowhere, Mendes doesn’t seem to know how to end the film. As a result, he introduces a subsequent climax in London where the Craig-Bond has a literal ticking clock to race against. Strangely, though, this finale lacks urgency and suspense, and the final confrontation with Blofeld and the Craig-Bond is equally unconvincing. After all the hell that his foster brother has done to him, the Craig-Bond decides not to kill him? For this Bond, it’s better to throw away his gun and walk from the scene, holding hands with Madeleine Swann. The series has never plunged so low into kitsch. Equally futile is the final, final ending: Mendes is compelled to end it all on a happy note, so the Craig-Bond returns to MI6 headquarters to ask Q for the Aston Martin DB-5. It’s a sad excuse to have the Craig-Bond and Madeleine Swann, in the final scene, drive away into the London horizon. All that’s missing is for the car to fly, much like in Grease where John Travolta and Olivia Newton John turn back to wave at the audience as the car soars into the sky.
Spectre is the kind of movie that makes you want to take a year off from watching films and take up scrabble instead. It truly is a wonder that the filmmakers would fall for the claptrap in today’s Hollywood—the tendency to portray a personal connection between the hero and villain—by delving into the Blofed/foster brother angle. And once on this road, it’s baffling they would do so little with the Blofeld character and his relationship with the Craig-Bond. The “twist” in this Blofeld revelation is so limp that it’s the kind of twist that might have promise in a Justin Bieber video, not a spy thriller. Meanwhile, the slapdash efforts of the filmmakers to rehash old Bondian elements only magnify the problem of not having any solid direction to take the film. Spectre, ultimately, is a profound cinematic failure, and it’s made all the more useless by the fact that it struggles to tell a story we’ve already seen this year, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which essentially covers the same premise but with deeper conviction and coherence. And for all the press about how Mendes brought back the jovial spirit of the Moore Bond films, there is hardly any of it to be seen. From what does surface, Craig bungles it completely, lacking the panache and wit to pull off such Bondian style. Then again, this has been the weakness of the actor from the get-go. It’s not surprising that this Bond has scant romantic interludes with the female characters: the Bond producers can plop him into an out-of-control helicopter, they can have him parachute onto safety after being ejected from the Aston Martin, but their special-effects team cannot invent a gadget that would make him ooze with any chemistry with his leading ladies. Even more disturbing, Spectre in its very essence—lacking no plot, no characters, no originality—achieves the state of the art in cinematic nihilism: an immense exercise in telling a story about nothing whatsoever. It’s a pointless forlorn mess, self-destructing on so many levels, that 007 himself should finally call it a day and come in from the cold.
|*||If anything, Fleming’s Bond was raised by his aunt, a Miss Charmian Bond, in Pett Bottom near Canterbury.|