Spectre

Warning! This post contains spoilers for the new James Bond movie. If you don’t want to learn about any plot surprises, do not read on.

Daniel Craig has had a strange tenure as 007. It began with Casino Royale and promised a new, tougher, more realistic Bond, one with far more in common with the blunt instrument of government policy that Ian Fleming saw his creation as being. Craig’s Bond was a lot more human than most of the previous incarnations and yet he managed to keep the glamour associated with the character. Quantum of Solace was an odd disappointing film, then Skyfall was commercially the most successful movie of the franchise. It too was a reboot of sorts, looking back towards Bond’s tortured childhood.

Now comes Spectre and we’re once again delving into Bond’s murky past. The movie looks beautiful, has great settings and awesome set pieces and yet, as with Quantum of Solace, it ultimately disappoints. It’s let down by a number of factors, the biggest of which is lazy storytelling.

In Spectre things happen because the plot needs them to happen. Usually there is no more explanation than that. The movie opens with Bond on an unauthorised mission to Mexico. There is a spectacular assassination attempt during the Day of the Dead. Things explode, for no reason other than to set up the spectacular setpieces.

Bond eventually gets his man but not before laying waste to large sections of the city in a way that will get him suspended from duty when he gets back to London. The jokey, uneven tone of the film is set by a stunt in which he falls through a collapsing roof and lands in a sitting position on a sofa amid the rubble. It’s a moment worthy of the late-period Roger Moore incarnation of Bond and I don’t mean that in a good way.

After this we are back in London and Bond, yawn, is suspended from duty. We learn that he performed the Mexican mission at the behest of the late lamented Judy Dench version of M. She left him a recording containing instructions to kill that guy back in Mexico City and then pay close attention at his funeral. That’s it. M does not tell him why. It never occurs to our hero to question instructions from a VHS tape. SMERSH could have photoshopped the whole thing to send him on a rampage but who cares.

Then it’s off to Rome. Apparently M’s plan was that Bond find the assassin’s wife at his funeral and sleep with her. She would then reveal the location of Spectre’s HQ. The collect-the-coupons nature of the plot is fully revealed. Everything is a paper trail that leads to the next set-piece. There’s no human connection or any hint that the plot is going to make sense. Everyone exists in a fictional reality where people serve only to act as milestones in the storyline.

At the Spectre meeting we first encounter Christopher Waltz’s soft-voiced Ernst Stavro Blofeld, possibly the least frightening Bond villain ever. He’s about as menacing as an incontinent hamster. Later we will discover that Bond and Blofeld are sort of adopted half-brothers and young Ernst offed his dad because he was jealous of his old man’s affection for the orphaned Bond.

Yes, the script is really that lazy. Its a parody of Screenwriting 101. You know, everything has to be connected with family and childhood and we need to know the reasons why the villain is doing these unspeakable things. Except that it’s tosh. Blofeld has daddy issues– boo-hoo. I prefer my comic book villains a bit more comic book villainish. But I get ahead of myself.

At the Spectre board meeting we learn its a sort of cartel of international crime run in a business-like manner. Except that people apply for the position of assassin by walking into the room and poking other people’e eyes out. During the board meeting Bond discovers his next plot coupon, the location of the Spectre renegade who will lead him to the plot token beyond that. Bond is discovered, flees through Rome in an Aston Martin which he manages to crash into the Tiber, having flamethrowered his pursuers.

Next comes Austria, where Bond accepts a commission to protect the Spectre renegade’s beautiful daughter, Madelaine Swann. He tells her he is there to keep her alive, after ramming the car she is being kidnapped in with the airplane he crashes. She understandably has trouble beleiving his claim at this point.

Together they set out for Tangier to discover the next plot coupon. This consists of a drunken night destroying their hotel room, as if Led Zeppelin were playing at being secret agents. Then it’s off on a train where they are attacked by the super-assassin from Rome again. Bond and the hit man destroy half the train during the fight, yet no one else seems to be present at this point or thinks to pull the emergency cord.

The Spectre HQ is so secret, it has its own train stop. A Rolls Royce wafts our heroes to Blofeld’s luxury spa cum base in the middle of nowhere. You wonder why they bothered to send the train assassin as Bond and Swann cheerfully hop into the Spectre limousine. The baddies could just have put a bomb in the boot of the Rolls and saved themselves some trouble.

Anyway, it’s off to Spectre Central for a spot of being tortured. Mostly this consists of excruciating dialogue where Blofeld claims responsibility for every bad thing that ever happened to Bond. This is intended to make him seem omnipotent and omnipresent but just makes him seem really, really sad, as if he had nothing better to do with the gigantic international criminal conspiracy he had built. Get a life, Blofeld!

Blofeld then claims he is going to start the torture by destroying Bond’s sense of balance. The net effect of having robotic torture needles drill into Bond’s brain is to make him a better shot. Out he gets from the dentist’s chair, and off he goes to slaughter the mooks. He then destroys the Spectre base by looking at it. It’s the least thrilling destruction of a supervillain hideout I have ever seen.

Back to London for the grand finale. In theory it’s about Spectre taking control of the 9Eyes global surveillance program but actually it’s about ESB taking revenge on Bond again. Ms Swann walks off announcing that she can’t take this life anymore. She might just as well have said, “See you in 15 minutes, James. I’ll be the one strapped to the ticking bomb.”

So then we have countdowns and bombs and computer hacking. The denouement comes with a boat chasing Blofeld’s escape helicopter down the river. Bond tries to take it down with a handgun. It looks like Mexico City all over again. Our hero apparently intends to protect the citizens of London by crashing a blazing helicopter in their midst, right next to the Houses of Parliament. Which he does. With a handgun. At night. From a moving speedboat. At considerable distance. He then confronts Blofeld for the last time and refuses to kill him. Apparently the scriptwriter thought this proved Bond was a better man.

It’s Screenwriting 101 time again. There has to be an arc. The character has to change. Bond has gone from being a man who would kill a complete stranger on orders from a videotape to turning down the chance to kill the man who claims to be the author of all his miseries. Of course, there’s no visible reason why this change has occurred. It just happens because well, that’s what happens in movies. If ever there was a villain who deserved to be offed with a headshot and a crass quip, its Blofeld, if only for his annoying voice. Bond doesn’t bother. Love has made him a better man. Or something.

Don’t get me wrong. Spectre was very watchable most of the time, and not just in a train wreck, I-can’t-believe-I-am-watching-this sort of way. I like Craig’s Bond. The backing cast were great. The locations made me want to visit them. But at the end of the day, the story was a letdown. The Daniel Craig incarnation of the Bond franchise has not lived up to its early promise and that’s sad. It could all have been so much better. Hopefully next time they’ll give the script as much attention as they gave the set-pieces and the locations and the clothes.


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Comments

  1. Jeff Rubinoff says:

    Probably not a coincidence that Casino Royale was based on a Fleming story, however loosely.
    A colleague has a similar opinion, and adds that whenever Bond ‘goes rogue,’ you can be sure that the script stinks.

    • Both of those are good points, Jeff. I had not considered the lack of a Fleming base story, mostly because so few of the modern Bond films have them.

  2. Totally agree here…

  3. George Douglas says:

    The thing is that Bond films have always kept a careful eye on what’s popular right now. In the Connery days, it was the Cold War, and the films were technologically jacked-up thrillers of that time. In the Moore days, it was more campy, reminiscent of the old-school science-fiction and superhero movies – but without the cape and tights.
    Come the Craig years, they’ve moved on to the 21st Century superhero mode, with darker, more realistic tones. Craig’s Bond, (as good as his performance is) is an English version of Christopher Nolan’s Batman if he worked for MI6 – without the costume and unwillingness to kill.
    Dead parents and shady past? Check.
    Owns a manor? Check.
    Villains getting personal? Check.
    In some ways, the Bond films are superb cultural barometers – they gauge the genre of film the public is interested in without seeming overt pastiches. The trailers promised SPECTRE would be a new and avant-garde Bond film – perhaps the closest the franchise has ever come to a horror movie with its eerie cinematography and the all-knowing, all-seeing antagonist.
    But no, it ends in plush explosions and stereotypical, if well made, action movie gimmicks.
    I suppose this happens over time, really. 53 years is a long time for a franchise to run.

    • I agree that the Bond films have always been an interesting cultural barometer. Connery with his classless Scottish accent was an interesting take on 60’s social mobility, even if a subliminal one.

      I also think that the Nolanesque reboot of Bond’s origin in Skyfall tells us something about the times we live in. It’s back to the Screenwriting 101 thing I reference above. The character has to have an arc, and the easiest arc to show because it’s the longest journey is how the hero comes to be. I think that’s why we get these constant reboots and origin stories. Hell, we even had one in the (excellent) Solomon Kane.

      Back in the day, nobody cared how Bond or Solomon Kane or Conan or Captain Kirk came to be. They just *were*. They showed up, did what they did, and that was that. These days even Blofeld needs to have daddy issues. Honestly, I thought Doctor Evil was more convincing. He would probably have made a better villain in Spectre too.

      • George Douglas says:

        You’ve got a point there, Bill. Screenwriting 101 isn’t original anymore. Time for a change. These Hollywood moguls have got to start thinking outside the box – there are only so many clichés you can run past an audience before they think: “Enough! this is rubbish, these films are out of touch. I’m not going to see the next one”.
        But the thing is, there’s always that little hook that wheedles away, saying “Come on, maybe the next one will be better. Give it a shot”. Sometimes it’s true (Skyfall coming after Quantum of Solace), and sometimes it’s not.
        There is nothing wrong with having a character arc in novels, but the film is a different medium. Shroud a character in enigma, and give little glimpses from time to time to their past, but nothing ever concrete (like Graham McNeill with Ardaric Vaanes in his excellent Ultramarines series), but let them develop. That’s an easy to make recipe for an interesting character, but it’s harder to pull of than it sounds.
        The way you market something can result in a huge success or a colossal flop. There have been many excellent films which’ve flopped from poor marketing, and many awful ones which have made millions. The original SPECTRE trailer was brilliant, but those who hung back cautiously and watch the reviews might very well have got the last laugh.
        Maybe it’s time for some postmodernism in screenwriting…

        • I think we’re seeing screenwriting ideas infiltrate everything. Three act structure, character arcs etc are the new orthodoxy. There’s nothing essentially wrong with this but more and more you come across the idea that this is the ONLY way to do things. It’s not. It’s a template which will provide a certain kind of fictional structure and experience. The danger comes when editors, publishers, movie producers etc assume that anything that does not fit the template is somehow not good or commercial. In order to sell things, writers need to fit into this orthodoxy. It leads to a homogenised “product” and a kind of dull conservatism. At least in fiction we now have indie publishing to provide some balance against this.

  4. Have just seen it and completely agree except that after the great Mexico City opening number the movie became not so much watchable as boring as far as I was concerned. So disappointed after ‘Skyfall’.

    • I got to admit the Craig Bonds are very hit and miss. There a bit like Windows releases, the alternate ones are good. I liked Casino Royale, was less than impressed by Quantum of Solace, liked Skyfall, was less than impressed by Spectre. A sinister pattern emerges!

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