Who is James Bond? Furthermore, why is James Bond? These philosophical questions have been posed time and again not only in the recent press about the character and the franchise, but within the Bond films themselves. Ever since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of 1995’s Goldeneye, the meta narrative of every Bond film has explored the character’s relevancy and right to exist in a world that isn’t sure if it needs him any longer, at least not in his classic mode. During the Pierce Brosnan era it was a matter of seeing if Bond could adapt to changing political realities and cultural attitudes, and now every third article about Bond is a think piece (or clickbait, if you’re not being charitable) about whether the next iteration of the character should be another sex, or another ethnicity, or homosexual, or (blasphemy!) American.
Interestingly, many of these articles fail to mention that Bond’s longevity is kept through production company EON/Danjaq’s aping of popular cinematic trends while maintaining a continuity of character. Bond will always make a quip and get the girl, but he could star in a Hitchcockian thriller (From Russia With Love), a blaxploitation film (Live and Let Die), a sci-fi adventure (Moonraker), a Joel Silver-style Die Hard-ish late 80s action movie (License to Kill) and, most famously, a Bourne film (Casino Royale). That film began Daniel Craig’s run as the character, a “back-to-basics” affair that played the ultimate trump card of a reboot, finally and definitively adapting Bond creator Ian Fleming’s debut novel. From there the filmmakers continued to maintain the gritty, grounded, and somewhat dour tone of that film through Craig’s next two adventures while experimenting with and modernizing the franchise by hiring two directors whose prior films had been highly stylized prestige pictures (Marc Forster and Sam Mendes, respectively). Forster’s Quantum of Solace was (unfairly, I believe) ill-recieved, but Mendes’ Skyfall was a hit. Skyfall continued to turn up the dourness, as Craig brooded through an encounter with a charismatic yet disturbing villain and the death of Judi Dench’s M. After that, would Bond ever get to have fun again?
Spectre, the latest Bond film, again directed by Sam Mendes, answers that question with a resounding “yes,” and yet it can’t seem to justify that answer at any point. This time Bond goes rogue (a favorite pastime of his), acting on posthumous orders from Judi Dench’s M (to the chagrin of this film’s M, Ralph Fiennes; do pay attention, 007) to see what vermin scuttle into the daylight after assassinating an assassin. This leads Bond to discover a shadowy international organization of terrorists whose leader (Christoph Waltz) has very personal ties to 007. Bond must stop his insidious plot while protecting/partnering with/bedding the lovely Dr. Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux). If that outline sounds like vintage classic Bond, it is, and all the trimmings come with it, remixed for a modern era in order to avoid any snickers at anything that might resemble a certain Mike Myers character. There’s even a hidden secret villain’s lair that blows up real good! The stunt work is practical for the bulk of the film and it looks spectacular. Free of the disgusting CGI of Die Another Day and more outrageous thanCasino Royale and Skyfall‘s (very well done, of course) intimate one-on-one chases and fistfights,Spectre‘s set pieces are the most fun I’ve had at an action film that didn’t have “Fury Road” in the title this year. This is a film where the opening shot is one long unbroken bravura take just because it can be.
The issue is that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. This isn’t unusual for a Bond film, as every single one has a convoluted or outrageous plot. Typically, however, the writers can find agreeable reasons for things to happen the way they do, and bizarrely they don’t even bother this time. I’m not saying the reasons given are poor, but it’s more that they’re not given at all. When Blofeld (and yes, Waltz is playing Blofeld, which is handled far better than the “reveal” in Star Trek Into Darkness but is still a pointless misdirect) reveals that he and Spectre have been behind Bond’s villains and girl troubles over the last three films, Bond and the audience are expected to take it at face value. As any good comic book geek knows, a retcon only works if you show your work and explain how ‘so and so’ was really ‘such and such’ the whole time, because if you don’t, the twist has no impact. This isn’t the only whiff the movie makes, for at another point a character attempts to leave the film for reasons so abrupt and vague that I expected that development to be setting up some last minute twist or reveal, only it never comes. Another character is shown to be sleeping with someone whose identity is deliberately obscured, another red herring, as this person’s identity is never revealed and thus the moment is made irrelevant (and although this could be another instance of simply illustrating a character’s romantic private life outside of the spy business, as it was with Judi Dench’s M in the previous films, it’s done so ineptly that it makes a fleeting moment a confusing issue). Finally, an otherwise very well done torture sequence is needlessly complicated by the introduction of concepts regarding what the torture device will actually do to Bond that never pays off. The overarching plot of an evil organization attempting to take over worldwide surveillance is clear enough, but there are so many holes around it as to be distracting.
Fortunately the actors and director do what they can to smooth things over. Craig not only knocks his fourth time at bat out of the park, but he has a visible blast while doing it, and it is refreshing to see him and the character have such fun. Christoph Waltz does what he can as Blofeld, bringing an imposing intelligence to a villain who never raises his voice. Monica Bellucci is fantastic and sadly underused in a brief role, progressive (for the series) as a woman Bond’s age who doesn’t suffer the sad fate that many first act Bond women do. Lea Seydoux is given an underwritten female lead to play (not a first for the series at all, but still unfortunate). That being said, she has a sultry, strong quality that keeps her from being forgettable or mere eye candy. Andrew Scott wears his character’s bureaucratic smarm well, and Bond’s support team of M, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw) are uniformly excellent and given a lot to do. Dave Bautista creates a new iconic Bond villain out of sheer will, as his Hirx has the best fight scene in the film. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema can’t reach the highs of Skyfall and Roger Deakins’ stunning work on it, but they do an admirable job, creating a bevy of attractive compositions.
The film begins with a title card reading “The Dead Are Alive,” tying into the opening sequence’s Dia de los Muertos setting but also referencing the secret origin of Blofeld and the accompanying sins of the past, as well as Bond’s nature as a man with a license to kill. That sentiment is echoed by M in the best line of the movie, where he explores the idea of what having such a license really means. To kill or not to kill? The film’s climax has an answer, but as with the rest of the plot we’re left to wonder why it is what it is without much help. The Bond producers spent years in legal wrangling to finally get the rights to Blofeld and Spectre and this film finally brings them back to life, but the reason why is missing. However, though the answers may be confused or nonexistent, at least it’s one hell of a lot of fun. And after all, James Bond, in some form, will return.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Nov. 7th, 2015.