There are very specific things we want in a James Bond film. Great action, dastardly villains who are larger than life and twice as buggy, and Bond girls who have evolved over the years to be a bit more than merely a pulchritudinous interlude. In Bond, as incarnated by Daniel Craig, we want a steely eyed agent, unequivocal about his license to kill; committed to the task at hand, be it murder or romance, and with a peculiar, but equally, steely sense of honor. In SPECTRE, we get most of them. This Bond, though still steely eyed, et als, is not the same 007 of SKYFALL. Perhaps the powers that be are injecting character development into the Bond mythos after the traumas he suffered with that adventure. That’s a mistake.
It’s fitting that Bond’s post-SKYFALL adventure should begin at a Day of the Dead parade. Aside from the arresting visuals the spectacle affords, it also provides the metaphor. Bond will be spending the film dealing with the ghosts of his past, from his one great love, Vesper, to the villains he’s bested, to the formidable M (Judy Dench), whose hold on 007 didn’t end when she died. The film, too, is haunted by ghosts of previous Bond films, slipping back into the formulaic action/adventure genre with a script that’s a little creaky, but there’s enough wit and panache to keep it chugging along.
Director Sam Mendes, as in SKYFALL, takes the story in a more elegant direction. If he isn’t quite the master of the numerous and effulgent action sequences that litter the film, he is nonetheless a fine visual storyteller. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force of a tracking shot that takes Bond, and his requisite beautiful companion, from the organized chaos of the ci-mentioned parade, into a hotel, up an elevator, into the beautiful companion’s room, and then across the rooftops of Mexico City as Bond’s dalliance must wait until his appointment for an assassination is done. This being the opening sequence, though, things don’t go quietly. Buildings explode, bad guys scurry, and chases are not necessarily earthbound.
But the sound and the fury do signify something. There is that ring with the familiar octopus engraving on it, which leads Bond to a not un-merry widow (Monica Belluci), a dressing down by the new M (Ralph Fiennes), and a pact with an old enemy made in the interests of the greater good. In this case, saving the world from the evil machinations of a cabal out for, what else, world domination. Alas, only Bond believes in the cabal’s existence, a belief made a certitude when he infiltrates one of their super-secret meetings and lays his icy blue eyes on its leader (Christoph Waltz), the only man who can make 007 flinch just by looking at him. This is, of course, not what we want in Bond. The vulnerability is disconcerting. Bond being emotional as he is coming to terms with his past may be an original, maybe even interesting, thing to do with a character, it’s not, well, it’s not BOND.
Being still mostly the Bond of our dreams, he of course goes rogue. Of course he convinces M’s smitten assistant, Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), to help him. Of course he convinces gadget whiz Q (Ben Wishaw) to risk his mortgage and the future welfare of his two cats in order to also throw in with 007’s caper. Fortunately, M is otherwise occupied, caught in the middle of a department merger at British Intelligence, and a snarky upstart (Andrew Scott) bent on ending the 00 program and replacing it with surveillance devices and drones.
An integral part of the caper, and of the pact with his old enemy, involves the old enemy’s toothsome daughter (Lea Seydoux), a psychiatrist who loathes Bond on sight, and through her snap analysis provides a pale ghost of hearkening back to SKYFALL’s sharp deconstruction of what makes 007 tick. Seydoux is delightfully pouty, and certainly luscious in a lemon custard way, but as a woman of science with a deep inner life, she is somewhat lacking. Never mind. She looks very good in the slinky dress she wears as she and Bond rediscover the romance of train travel.
SPECTRE takes the chance of offering us a new sort of Bond, one less gritty, less the blunt instrument that M described him as. True, for most of the film he is the man who breaks a sweat when taking down a helicopter single-handed, but one who never loses his cool. Perhaps it is the uneasy contrast between this new, introspective Bond and the story that embraces the idiom of fantasy, where evil masterminds have exquisite manners and formidable secret installations in the middle of nowhere. Waltz is divine as the evil mastermind in question, certainly insane, but only crazy like a fox, and positively giddy about his grandiose plans.
SPECTRE also does a neat job of integrating the paranoia of the current zeitgeist, casting as it does a baleful eye the limits, or lack thereof, that exist in the loss of privacy inherent in the technology available to conduct covert surveillance of everyone and everything on the planet. It certainly affords Fiennes excellent opportunities to declaim in somber, sober tones about the pitfalls of taking the human touch out of the spy game. Kudos for that, and for being so wickedly entertaining when Bond is being his smooth and lethal self. It’s enough to make SPECTRE a minor part of the Bond oeuvre, and to whet our appetites for the next installment.