James Bond is BACK!, to the sound of ringing box-office tills everywhere. Ricky Young ponders the latest from the franchise that refuses to hang up its Walther and do the decent thing.
Let’s be kind to Daniel Craig’s time as Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007™ and call it ‘patchy’. His once-fresh take on Bond was designed to be part of a wide-ranging – if ultimately half-hearted – reboot; an attempt to pull away from the latter-day nutso Brosnan era and reposition the character with at least a hint of modern-day realism.
Craig’s debut, Casino Royale, managed to succeed on its own terms; its follow up, Quantum Of Solace, manifestly didn’t. Ditching the journeymen and hacks previously at the tiller, EON Productions hired Sam Mendes to direct the 50th anniversary film, Skyfall, which a lot of people liked – we, on the other hand, did not. Meant as a celebration of the character’s five decades of state-approved murder and wobbly attitude to sexual consent, the film ended with everything wrapped up in a nice bow; as we said at the time, ‘the series has been reset to the familiar bank-holiday-afternoon image of a man in a suit in a wood-panelled Whitehall office, getting his orders from gruff-yet-twinkly boss as an adoring popsy waits in the hall.’
We wondered what that meant for the franchise, going forward. Well, if you’ve seen SPECTRE, then you’ll know that not one person involved, from Barbara Broccoli down to the teaboy, has the slightest fucking clue.
They will, however, quite happily take your money. You’re not getting it back either, although you knew that. The real crime is you’re probably not even going to see it up on the screen.
SPOILER WARNING: There’s only one thing to spoil, really, and we’ve all known what that was for about eighteen months now. Nevertheless, don’t come crying to us if we piss on your chips. You’re a goddamn grown-up. Look at yourself. You’re embarrassing us both now.
Mendes clearly had decent dalliance in the blockbuster world, as despite what he said at the time, another couple of years planning and then filming attractive people doing fun things in an atmosphere of self-congratulation and self-reference appealed a damn sight more than poncing off to do the usual middlebrow wank he made his name with.
As we noted, the end of Skyfall was the perfect point to set out exactly what the Bond series now is and wants to be. We know what he’s been over the years – at points thrilling, shameful, hilarious, creepy, prescient, hidebound, revolting, brilliant, boring, imaginative-as-hell and stultifyingly crap. That’s what you get when you’ve been going this long, you can be all these things and more. EON, on the other hand, weighed down as it is with more baggage and history than can be comfortably jettisoned, is like an ocean-going tanker – it’s not very quick, and it keeps on sailing, but changing course is a hell of a problem. Hence the choice to keep their big old team in globe-trotting employment; being welcomed around the world wherever they go, sucking up product-placement cash, doubling down on the franchise legacy and taking absolutely no risks whatsoever – it wasn’t a hard decision to make.
Is it churlish, then, to ask if the actual films themselves, as content, or product, or real-world pieces of entertainment, could be a tiny bit less rubbish? A smidge less ‘Will This Do?’
Join us, then as we trot through SPECTRE and criticise it from the depths of our armchair like the dismal keyboard warriors we are. You think Babs Broccoli gives a fuck about you? Dream on, sucker.
SPECTRE opens in Mexico City with a long, one-take shot of Bond in a skull-mask reminiscent of Baron Samedi out of Live And Let Die. This is but the first in a reference-festival as long as Tee-Hee’s metallic arm (See! We can do it too!).
The producers must have sat in a room, remembered the gasp in the cinemas when That Fucking Car showed up in Skyfall, and decided that structuring a movie around a whole shit-ton of those was the whizziest idea since not having Bond actually rape anyone this time. And thus it’s allusion after callback after hint after suggestion after wink; strip-mining the previous 23 films for their good bits, but funnily enough never having Bond trap a midget henchman in a big suitcase, or applying yellowface to pretend to be Japanese.
It turns out Bond is following up a posthumous lead his mother-figure gave him, as luck would have it. After cocking up the surveillance, Bond chucks the Mafia dude out of a helicopter in a fight that goes on too long and isn’t that exciting anyway.
We cut to the tentacle-drenched credit sequence, and Sam Smith’s theme song. God knows in isolation it sounds like they’ve filled a piñata with tearful kittens and handed it over to a dozen wrench-wielding infants, but when set to the hentai-nightmare visuals it almost works.
But back to the story. Bond arrives home to a dressing-down for going off-message yet again, overshadowed by the whole department being under threat from Andrew Scott’s weak-chinned techno-mandarin, in a vague stab at post-Snowden politics. Creepy and invasive technology will never be as good as old-fashioned spywork, is the message, which would be fair enough if Bond hadn’t spent half a century using the very latest kit to his one-sided advantage. And let’s not be coy, he’s never been shy about being creepy and unnecessarily invasive either, especially when it comes to other people’s genitalia.
Talking of which, after a bit of workplace bullying towards Ben Whishaw’s jittery Q, Bond lopes off to Italy to the Mafia dude’s funeral (a bit like the one in Thunderball!), pausing only to inform the dude’s widow (while he’s pressing her against a wall, and holding a gun) that since his actions have condemned her to death, she might as well drop her drawers.
Everyone cheered when Monica Bellucci was cast in SPECTRE, what with her being kick-ass and age-appropriate and everything, but she’s given the shortest of shrifts here – less screen time than Bond’s Aston Martin, fewer lines than on her paycheque and existing only in the film to be quite literally pumped for information. Still, she looked good in the adverts, eh, guys? Trebles all round.
Working on Bellucci’s tip, Bond then goes to a big meeting of evilness (just like the one in Austin Powers, er, I mean Thunderball!) where he – and crucially, not the audience – recognises the bloke in charge. It’s at this point that SPECTRE, which until now had been a typically average Bond movie, shrugs and gives up any pretence that it cares about anything.
Plot-wise, we’re done. The film’s over. I mean, the characters in the film don’t actually tell the film this, but for some reason that’s never addressed. But there’s still ninety minutes of running time to go, so off we trot (after a big car-chase around Rome that looks like a video-game cut-scene – for a £300m film, you would have thought they could have re-hired Skyfall’s greatest asset, cinematographer Roger Deakins) after another handy tip, to Austria.
For in a shack on a mountain sits Mr. White, him out of Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace, who’s been given the full Litvinenko treatment, and coughs up the convenient facts that a) he’s been a puppet for a higher power, and that b) his hot daughter will lead Bond to the truth of the matter. The truth of the matter being, and this can’t be made clear enough, something Bond already knows.
To a mountaintop clinic, then (just like the one out of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!) to pick up li’l miss White, played by Léa Seydoux, who spends the film 50% spunky and cool, and 50% in a valium haze. She’s kidnapped by the bad guys first, of course, so Bond has to hit the bad guys with an airplane he just finds lying around somewhere. But after that, filming tax-break fans, we’re off to Tangier!
Bond and his new friend spend an uncomfortable night pointedly not shagging in Léa’s parents’ favourite hotel room, before the great blond lummox discovers a secret annex filled with info about where to locate That Person Bond Knows But Isn’t Telling Anyone About.
The pair get tarted up for a train journey into the desert before being set upon by a massive henchman and a big old brutal fight ensues (just like the one in From Russia With Love!). Definitely the film’s brief highlight, everything about SPECTRE perked up here for about four minutes, capped off with a nice punchline and the attractive leads deciding that, yes, after all of that rough-and-tumble, they might have a bout of consensual coitus after all.
And then, in the morning, they get off the train, and in a suitably appropriate fashion, SPECTRE derails spectacularly.
After being driven to the villain’s crater-based hideout (just like the one in You Only Live Twice!) in a vintage Rolls-Royce (just like the one in Goldfinger!), and after a sequence of mind-numbing tedium where the bad guy – Christoph Waltz, a one-man carnival of tics and mannerisms – prepares to torture a trussed-up Bond, he drops the big one.
He’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
The entire movie exists to revolve around a plot point that doesn’t matter a jot in the movie itself. It’s staggering in its arrogance, equalled fairly comprehensively by Blofeld’s admission that since their shared father-figure liked Bond a bit more than Blofeld, the little psycho killed ol’ Pops, and has since devoted his life to destroying Bond bit-by-bit, up to and including arranging the events of the last three movies.
Daddy issues, that’s what it boils down to. Bond doesn’t deal with daddy issues. You know who’s got daddy issues?
If it seems like it’s a lot to swallow, then that’s because it’s complete fucking bullshit. All 393 minutes of pre-SPECTRE Craig-era movies just happened because this bare-ankled midget wanted them to, and nobody listed in the film’s credits thought it worth telling you how or why.
Of course Bond then blows up Blofeld’s base (just like in….all those other ones!) after surviving the torture thanks to a devotion of love from Seydoux, even though they’d spent the morning acting like one person didn’t really want to talk to the other person because someone slipped a finger somewhere without asking.
And then they all go back to London, where, despite the declarations of love she leaves Bond because it’s too dangerous. She’s right, mind you, as she’s captured by Blofeld and trussed up in the remnants of the MI6 building. Guess what? She gets rescued.
Bond is given the chance to shoot Blofeld through his fresh Donald Pleasance scar, but declines in favour of justice being done – another left-field addition to the canon that makes no sense in the slightest. Someone has to carry the can, however, and that’s poor rat-faced Andrew Scott (who had been working for Blofeld all along), dealt action cinema’s most dreary hand, the We Had To Kill You But Didn’t Have The Balls To KILL YOU, So We Let You Fall Off Something And Die That Way Instead.
EON fought for years for the rights to use Blofeld again, and it’s understandable. There’s a lot there to use, in the correct hands. But given the chance to delve deep into what fifty years of Bond could mean to today’s audiences, to take a chance on a juicy story filled with exotic images and exciting characters, EON served up the laziest fuck-you possible, a gloopy and unthinking melange of boring, faux-nostalgic dogshit, aimed at easily-pleased, Clarkson-loving, Omega-coveting bores.
Broccoli, Mendes, Craig, teaboy, the lot of them. Dangle them from a helicopter and drop them down a massive industrial chimney. It’s all they’re good for.
Ricky can be found on The Tweeter.