Getting all sweaty and hot over any new James Bond movie is akin to getting excited about a new Madonna record—former glory doesn’t always translate into a coveted place in the current Zeitgeist. But expectations were riding sky high for this particular movie, after the tour de force that was the last movie, “Skyfall.”
In that particular movie, 007 suffered incredible humiliations and a massively bruised ego. Things got personal and the protagonist, who is usually in possession of futuristic gadgets, was fighting a highly formidable nemesis with handmade weapons and a sense of ingenuity that MacGyver would be proud of. It was also the most gorgeous looking Bond film to date, a masterful triumph of cinematography and visual aesthetics. Director Sam Mendes had well and truly found a heart and soul in the Bond films, capturing the essence of what makes Bond so sophisticated whilst also providing him a genuine, existential threat to fight. Bringing back Mr. Mendes for the new film was a highly laudable choice.
So you can imagine my disappointment that after two and a half hours of watching it, my first thought was that Spectre’s script felt like it was Google translated into Arabic and then Google translated back into English again—in slow motion. Yes, it really did feel that incomprehensible, convoluted, and glacially paced.
From upside down flying helicopters and planes randomly rampaging down snow-clad mountain slopes, to being chased by evil henchmen in fast cars in Rome (which just happens to be totally deserted in those scenes) while dodging bullets and calmly chit-chatting all the while, the cheesy ludicrousness of Bond is back with a vengeance in Spectre, but without a plot that makes much sense.
Just a disclaimer, the following review has spoilers.
Those who were looking for definite answers to many of the questions posed in earlier Daniel Craig Bond movies will be left bewildered. What we do learn is that a secret Illuminati-like criminal organization has been pulling the strings in all the previous Craig movies. What’s annoying is that there isn’t much more than that. I can assuredly say that Spectre is a film that is utterly devoid of surprise, rotating through a series of tired-ass beats with almost no sense of invention. We, of course, get the big reveal that Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) is the Big Boss as a result of extremely underwhelming revenge and “daddy issues”, hardly the stuff of bad guy folklore and legend.
It feels like the 4 screenwriters had deemed it fit to include a biographic angle for Bond because it made gazillions of dollars the last time. And hence, the movie plays out more like the cynical result of Gallup polling and focus- group testing, rather than a Bond movie created by bonafide 007 fans.
So we’ve regressed to the commercial formula of old, which in it of itself wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the performances weren’t so lifeless. The middle section of the movie proceeds with the pace of a tortoise trying to climb a mountain with a rock tied to its shell. Waltz, who rarely delivers anything less than a brilliant performance, plays Oberhauser, the world’s seemingly most lethargic psychopath. A much hyped Monica Bellucci only gets about 5 minutes of screen time, and while Léa Seydoux is capable of breathing fire into her role, her character is shoehorned as a garden-variety Bond girl who inexplicably falls in love with him after fiercely declaring that she won’t.
Daniel Craig’s portrayal, once an enigmatic combination of alpha-male fearlessness and soulful fragility, is now reduced to primping for the camera in a style almost reminiscent of Derek Zoolander and just outright sluggishness. Daniel Craig earlier in the year had said: “I’d rather slash my wrists than play James Bond again” and his boredom in the role that made him an A-list superstar is all too evident.
Why do we keep going back for more?
2015 marks 53 years since the release of Dr. No, which gave the world its most enduring movie franchise. One irony is that from the start, Bond was something of a throwback: a cold, hard-drinking misogynist who loved his booze and kicking some ass.
Every subsequent instalment in the franchise has been a manifestation of the culture it was born into. Beginning with Sean Connery as the world’s most beloved assassin in Dr. No, Bond has proceeded to live longer than the Cold War, survive umpteen government/woman betrayals, and neutralize complex terrorist threats. With every new Bond girl, every new mastermind villain, and every new gadget, we’re given a kaleidoscope view into the societal underpinnings of the movie. One of thee most compelling parts of Bond is his innate conservativeness. Bond has always been a warrior aristocrat of sorts, one forever bound to the code of “Queen and Country.” He wears immaculately tailored Saville Row suits as he jumps into combat, busts out puns both brilliant and cringe-worthy, and while he may be a Lothario, he is never sleazy.
Bourne this is isn’t.
Like Don Draper of Mad Men, he is the ultimate unironic manifestation of exquisite cars, top-of-the- line liquor and the days when you wore your suit for work and play. Bond comes back every three years or so to remind us that male desire will always be important and present no matter how advanced our gender relations become. Initially, there was some blow back to the hyper-sexualized yet PG modus operandi. But Bond, like the enfant terribles of South Park, is living proof that the longer you last, the more conventional you become, despite the initial shock factor.
Of course, the portrayal of women has improved with time. In the early Connery movies, he basically Jedi-mind tricks women into having sex with him (just watch the first half-hour of Thunderball). In contrast, the Pierce Brosnan/Daniel Craig era actually reinvented M (Bond’s boss) as a woman—a woman who was also a stone-cold badass, and the only person in the world he couldn’t mess around with. Additionally, the movies have mostly dumped the naming of female characters with blatant sexual innuendo (most famously Pussy Galore, and uh…Xenia Onatopp—give it about 15 seconds, it’ll come to you). The opening credits of Casino Royale also didn’t have the sexy female body montage that was a signature trademark of the series. Daniel Craig’s Bond also doesn’t touch cigarettes and treats women with something approaching a frosty indifference, a marked improvement on his forbears. In many ways, the belated respect increasingly accorded to women in Bond films is a reflection of the gender equality and social mores that are now rightfully entrenched in Western culture.
But there is something far deeper and more profound about the magnetic pull of the Bond ethos. It goes beyond the hot girls, the $20,000 watches, and the élan of jumping out of planes and firing guns; it is his ability to master everything while allowing nothing to be his master.
007 kills without remorse or any emotion for that matter. He never flips out and loses his shit in a fit of rage. He drinks in every other scene, but he’ll never get drunk nor have a hangover the following morning. In over 50 years of films, he has remained virile and healthy. He has no friends, but we never see him aching for company. He makes love to whomever he wants, but he will never need industrial strength Viagra prepared by Q. He never gets herpes. He never gets a woman knocked up. We don’t catch him with relationship self-help books in his briefcase and the women eventually all say “yes.” Fundamentally he has built up a fantasy of consequence-free sexuality, with indelible savoir-faire as the icing on Her Majesty’s cake.
Because of his secret Double-0 status, Bond’s considerable risks and sacrifices are never acknowledged publicly. Since time immemorial, M or pretty much everyone else hasn’t offered him anything but withering criticism, whether it’s for creating wanton chaos in some fictional country or indulging in an ill-advised liaison with a member of the opposite sex. This too is one of the reasons we empathize with and like him.
The need to defend, to be the warrior, to rescue your woman and your country; that is something the average male viewer loves to go watch. Bond embodies a certain mythic heroism that’s incredibly appealing — the sense of freedom and power.
And so despite the passage of time, the mocking satire of Austin Powers, and newer heroes like Jason Bourne and Katniss Everdeen, we continue in our unfettered love and admiration of James Bond even though he shills for more materialistic concerns like his Aston Martin and his Omega watch. We adore him as a suave, libertine warrior trying to save an already wretched world from anarchy and destruction, even as he brings forth anarchy and destruction in that very process. His sacrifices and thankless valour mean that he will forever live an unnatural life, void of real relationships and real love, and we just can’t help loving him for it. He is still, despite the constant troughs of an ever-morphing cultural wave, an ideal—a flawed one at that–that will forever reinforce that psychic energy derived from our instinctual needs and drive. And so, despite the disappointment of “Spectre”, he remains our Id, he remains our hero.