By Paul Sawchuk
James Bond is a fairly big part of my childhood. I’ve seen all of the Bond films and there’s something about each James Bond film and actor that I appreciate. I don’t rank them, I don’t have a favourite and I don’t generally disparage any representation of the character. James Bond is a cultural icon for post-modern times and in each Bond film he represents large portions of western ideology, whether we like it or not. Look back to From Russia With Love and the other Sean Connery films and you’ll see strong ties to the Cold War anxieties and Russia as a serious threat. Yet, in 1969, at the height of tensions in Vietnam, a new James Bond (George Lazenby) took the series in a different direction. Lazenby’s Bond and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service kept the iconic Bond villain intact, being Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and eschewed the common cold war era fears of Nations as villains. It was an important shift in a time when we decided not to display nations as villains and focused on the maniacal machinations of one man, but the producers weren’t happy with this Bond and it now has a sort of “ahead of it’s time” feel to it.
Spectre does something similar by bringing us back to this era, but it’s role is different.
Daniel Craig returns for his fourth outing as James Bond. We find him working rogue — how often is Bond working against the wishes of MI6 these days — opening with a stellar single-take shot akin to Birdman at a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. Who he’s tracking and why is unclear, but the scene itself is fun to watch and will surely be the most iconic thing about Spectre that will linger, which is itself unfortunate.
Bond eventually tracks down an international cabal called Spectre and discovers many ties between this cabal and the events of the previous films, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and even Skyfall. Though expanded universes are fun and can work well (see Marvel), bringing all things together under the notion of “it was me the whole time” can actually detract from the impact of the previous film (see The Dark Knight Rises).
While the action scenes are well shot and the drama and intrigue are serviceable, Spectre is overall a bland affair for Bond, for purists only, and even then, purists will likely be offended by certain plot reveals. For instance, this may be the first time when a film series borrows from its parody when Spectre shamelessly borrows a key plot element from Austin Powers in Goldmember.
For those who haven’t seen Spectre and would still like to keep some of the intrigue intact, stop here, spoilers follow.
When it was announced that Christoph Waltz would be joining the cast of a James Bond film titled Spectre it became very obvious who he would be playing. An important rights issued regarding an iconic Bond villain (the aforementioned Blofeld) had recently been resolved in favour of MGM, and despite the producers’ claims that Waltz was portraying “Franz Oberhauser,” it was clear what was really going on. A high calibre actor like Waltz known for his chops as a villain, in a film named after an iconic villainous organization in the Connery era of films?
No long-time Bond fan was surprised when Waltz uttered the name “Ernst Stavro Blofeld.”
The whole affair felt a little flat. Where Skyfall felt modern and tongue-in-cheek it at least felt present. Spectre feels like a relic. It follows very closely to the “Bond formula”, a formula that’s been written about as far back as the 60s with Umberto Eco, who nailed it down to a list of plot points, most of which surely show up in Spectre more than in the previous Craig iterations.
In this way Spectre is the truest “Bond” film of Craig’s career, and unfortunately I mean that as a detriment. It’s cheeky, follows the formula (there’s even a mute henchman played by Dave Bautista), and features the iconic Bond villain. After so much effort by Craig and Co. to break the mold and go outside of the Bond formula, returning to it should have featured some more grandeur. Visually, Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema create a striking film, and Spectre is nice to look at, yet Spectre lacks in it’s story.
All the modern criticisms about The 00 program’s usefulness in the modern age of intelligence is a poor rehash of the same subject which was handled more carefully in Skyfall. In ways it echoes the shift from Connery to Lazenby. Skyfall pushed the mold as much as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Spectre is like Diamonds Are Forever, a return to the camp and a “safe” formula. It’s disappointing. If Spectre’s role is to set up Blofeld again, then we have to ask why? Why do we need supervillains again? I wanted to like Spectre more, but Blofeld as a villain perhaps should have been more The Joker and less Talia Al Ghul.