Spectre, Sam Mendes’ latest entry in the James Bond franchise, is a real oddity: the first 007 film that’s more enjoyable to think about than to watch. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t offer up some visceral pleasures, via the customary action beats and cool cars and the rest of what we see a James Bond movie for. But it’s also weirdly off-pace, uncertain and unsteady, and it’s worth contemplating why. Put simply, thanks to its current team, the latest run of Bond pictures has become atypically self-reflexive, questioning assumptions — theirs and ours — about who this man is, and what we’re to make of him. Spectre isn’t the best of these films, but it may well be the most thought-provoking, because there’s always something fascinating about art at war with itself.
From the very beginning, we’re on shifting ground. Were it not for the de rigueur theme blasts and gun-barrel images, we might not know we were watching a James Bond movie at all; Spectre begins in Mexico City, during a Day of the Dead parade, and as our man James (played, for the fourth time, by Daniel Craig) is initially clad in the customary mask, a fair amount of time passes before his identity is actually made clear. (Kudos to the clever way composer Thomas Newman sneaks the Bond theme into his geographically appropriate score, as Bond reveals himself and what he’s up to.) Soon enough, we’re in the midst of a customary big Bond opening sequence, which gives way to a spectacularly terrible theme song by Sam Smith, and off we go.
One of the ways the Craig-era Bond pictures (all co-written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with other, shifting collaborators) have separated themselves from the earlier films is in their essentially serialized nature — a reflection of contemporary blockbuster norms, to say nothing of the cultural capital currently held by television and its offspring. Recurring supporting characters and (very occasionally) villains aside, earlier efforts were essentially standalone adventures, whereas the films since 2006 have fed into each other, giving the feel of a continuing narrative, which is even more the case this time around.
Bond is spurred into action by a missive from beyond the grave by Judi Dench’s M; this leads him to discover not only the titular organization, but its leader Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who reveals himself as the orchestrator of all the earlier films’ events, “the author,” as he puts it, “of all your pain.” SPECTRE, which goes back to the Ian Fleming novels, is a kind of shadowy clearinghouse for all the world’s evildoing, given some conspiracy spice in its new iteration; the broad allusions to Internet-forum boogeymen like the Bilderberg Group couple nicely with the glancing political commentary on the increasingly distressing surveillance state, and between the false flag business (“A terrible event can lead to something wonderful”) and the discussions of a surveillance facility paid for by shadowy private sector interests (“George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” volunteers Ralph Fiennes’ M, helpfully), this will certainly, if nothing else, prove to be Alex Jones’ favorite Bond movie.
But what’s riveting, intellectually if not always narratively, is the increasing ambiguity with which these films regard Bond himself. That ambiguity has been clarified somewhat by Craig’s entertainingly no-fucks-to-give media tour of late, in which he cut to the quick in response to an interviewer’s comment about Bond’s “way with the ladies.”
“Let’s not forget that he’s actually a misogynist,” Craig noted, a rather startling indication of an actor playing a character with more contempt than you might imagine. He also notes a conscious effort in the recent films to surround the character “with very strong women who have no problem putting him in his place,” which also goes for Oberhauser; he sneers, “Of course, the faces of your women are interchangeable, aren’t they, James?” and chalks up his current paramour (Léa Seydoux) as “just another passing phase on the way to your grave.”
It’s not just that the Craig pictures provide Bond with a supposed motivation for his (to borrow the current, overworked verbiage) “commitment issues” in the death of Casino’s Vesper Lynd, or that they’ll construct moments in which his sport-banging is seen as anything less than an enviable lifestyle. It’s that they’ve complicated the simple character, treating him as less of a globetrotting, fun-loving, sniff-chasing super-spy and more of a haunted, drunken killing machine, whose entertainingly unflappable demeanor in life-threatening situations is less a result of winking cool than espionage ennui.
That jaded approach, that notion of peering into Bond’s soul and finding someone who’s a little bit dead inside, makes for some of Spectre’s moodiest scenes (his quiet conversation with a shell of a nemesis over a dusty chessboard is a highlight); it also makes for some of the draggiest, the kind of interactions that will bore even the most patient of audiences, and which result in an indisputably bloated 148 minute running time. And there are plenty of other problems as well — most obviously, there isn’t nearly enough Christoph Waltz, and the bait-and-switch concerning his TRUE, SUPER-SECRET IDENTITY earns every one of the unfavorable comparisons to Star Trek: Into Darkness it’s received (seriously, how do you make this movie and not learn from that one).
But in general, the clunkiness of the picture and the unevenness of its execution seem directly tied to its ambivalence about its protagonist — which is also what makes it interesting. Late in the film, when his new lady love tells him, “You’re a good man, James,” he looks at her as if he’s not so sure. That’s not the kind of moment that sticks with adrenaline junkies and franchise fans, but it’s the kind of moment the character might need more of to stay relevant, or at least clear of the realm of relics. It’s taking them a while to figure this stuff out. Nobody ever said growing up was easy.
Spectre is out Friday.