Spectre review

I’ve been trying to review more things, just because it’s good for the old brain. There’s plenty of words available on Bond at the moment, and this one wanders around a bit, but you might find it interesting.

Perhaps you can review Daniel Craig’s Bond films simply by looking at the theme songs.

“You Know My Name” from Casino Royale is not a revelation – it’s a hard rock number straight out of the late 90s/early 2000s – nor is it without precedent in the lumbering old Bond franchise. However, it’s a shot in the arm from the diminishing returns of the Brosnan era, and repositions this film back into contemporary culture (the old “Bond film in response to Bourne” argument). Lyrically, Chris Cornell does some interesting things. It writes from the perspective of Bond, and reconstructs his character through the things he says and does. This, combined with the ongoing metaphor of the card game, manages to add complexity without sacrificing drive, so this song is a success against which subsequent efforts will be judged.

However, Quantum of Solace fell completely flat. There are extenuating circumstances that explain why “Another Way to Die” seems like such a rush job, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it immediately saps all the good will built up from the previous entry. The style is retained, but the precision has been replaced by an all-consuming clatter unbefitting of sharp suits and Aston Martins. There are some good touches – the riff is a Jack White classic – but overall, it must do better. (In truth, I think the song’s a bit stronger than the film, but it’s still not that great.)

Skyfall, then, inherits some unusual pressure, due to the failure of the previous entry, and the film’s release in an anniversary year. Happily, “Skyfall” is a complete success. Adele is a phenomenal talent, and with Paul Epworth she constructs a classic Bond theme. There is a lot of attention given to the instrumentation, the arrangement surging and drifting away at all the right moments, and tonally it resonates with the dark seriousness that permeates the Craig reboot. However, there is some intelligent self-awareness at play within it. In an interview, Epworth reveals that the minor ninth is used as a reference to the earliest Bond films, where it is a uniting presence, and thus this song slots itself happily into those memories. The more obvious references are the appearance of Monty Norman’s immortal James Bond Theme after the first chorus, and the lyrics, which brings back the interpolation of the title into the song, and feature the same balance of allusive and plot-relevant/complete bobbins that is a chief enjoyment of the early Bond songs. Yes, it has drifted away from the contemporary intent of Casino Royale, and the series has once again turned in on itself, but you can’t argue with quality.

So we go into Spectre with something approaching confidence. Sadly, we are faced with “Writing’s On the Wall”, which is broadly like the previous entry, and has some nice touches – the strings in the intro, for instance – but is ultimately lacking. Actually, I think the film is a bit stronger than the theme song – I certainly enjoyed it more – but it shares its faults. Whereas Skyfall was precise in its use of allusion to the previous films, Spectre makes broad jokes about tricked-out cars and modified watches. Where Skyfall reintroduced literary backstory well – I enjoyed Home Alone in Bond’s family estate – the Oberhauser storyline in Spectre feels forced.

The drift away from specificity, combined with the increased interest in tying up the continuity of Craig’s films, had other effects. The way in which the film combined the plot threads of multiple entries was much more skilful than in your typical superhero movie, but it crowded out the spaces that Craig previously used to explore Bond. Many of the moments that were taken – the discovery of a videotape interrogation of Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale, for instance – had the undercurrent of ticking a box. Efficient storytelling, but lacking. As for the ending, it shares similar beats to The Dark Knight Rises, which is appropriate given the debt Casino Royale owes to Batman Begins. In both instances, it’s contentious as to whether retirement is in fitting with the character we’re familiar with – death in the field seems much more likely. However, in Christopher Nolan’s film there was conclusive weight throughout the film, and it felt like the culmination of a project. In Spectre too, threads get tied up, but there was no sense in the storytelling that this was anything more than the next logical mission for Bond to take. Thus, the climactic moment felt more like a left turn, and the ending a fantasy that will soon be reverted – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service without the sting. Nolan also had the advantage of not being immediately undercut in the end credits by BATMAN WILL RETURN.

To invoke another film series, it seems that the Bond films have adopted the Star Trek maxim: a strong one, a weak one, rinse and repeat. The film even copies the principal fault of Star Trek Into Darkness: a twist that can be seen a mile away by anyone familiar with the earlier films, but relies so heavily on the knowledge of them that it can have no real effect on anyone who hasn’t seen Thunderball. And it seems that the self-referential tree has born some unsavoury fruit. Since Judi Dench’s casting as M in Goldeneye, the character of M has had an increased role in Bond films, never moreso than in Skyfall. Indeed, her presence is felt throughout the film, as is her absence. Ralph Fiennes is a fine actor who looks good with a gun, thus enabling the double-0 branch to believably exist out in the field. However, he can’t match Dench’s wit, and his casting has the unfortunate side effect of reverting Bond back to the tiring “men talking to other men in rooms” nonsense that plagues the series. A problem with women is inherent in any series with a misogynist as its lead, but for every step it takes towards decent representation, Spectre takes another back.

In a Bond film, the principal way you show your worth and agency is with your proficiency at violence. Obviously, this is its own can of worms, but let’s accept it for now. Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann is introduced as a damsel in distress, which is then somewhat subverted by her ability with a gun, and her presence in a fight scene (reminiscent of From Russia with Love) against Dave Bautista’s silent thug Mr. Hinx gives some hope, but the film soon puts her back in her place. Moneypenny, though, is given no opportunity to prove herself in the field – she is simply a secretary, following the orders of men, and completely loses the agency she enjoyed from the opening shots of Skyfall. As for Monica Bellucci’s brief turn as Lucia Sciarra, simply casting an actress more appropriate to Bond’s age doesn’t excuse the sin of letting Bond get away with having sex with a woman just to get information – I would almost claim it to be an attempt at masking the problem, rather than solving it. If the presence of this trope is inherent to the construction of a Bond storyline (and I’m not sure it is), then surely by Bond’s 26th outing a filmmaker should at least highlight the more dated parts of Bond’s character. By ignoring or masking them, they can come off as celebratory.

(I don’t personally have a problem with the celebration of violence in a typical Bond film. Mostly, it is cartoonish and non-imitative –fighting on helicopters, firing rocket launchers – or shown as brutal and excessive, such as Mr. Hinx’s first entrance. The only area I can identify where Spectre shows the same blasé acceptance of violence in the same way it does with Bond’s exploitation of women is the videogame-like dispatch of anonymous henchmen – still jarring, and you should expect better storytelling, but it’s endemic to Hollywood blockbusters rather than a specifically Bond problem. Also, I wouldn’t expect people who don’t enjoy violence to watch a Bond film, so in that sense they will always be somewhat exclusionary. But it is certain that they’ll be watched by women.)

Overall, Spectre is a Bond film, no less, but no more. I’m not sure we expect more simply due to the strength of Craig’s portrayal, and that of every other film he’s in. It may be more to do with the expectations of quality placed on a film series that spans generations, and that every new entry is compared directly to the film the viewer holds in highest esteem. Perhaps it’s a victim of its own success – Bond must be seen as a large influence on the Hollywood blockbusters we are saturated with, and it must now not only compete in a crowded market, but continue to hold the prestige position it certainly enjoys in British film culture. Spectre is perfectly enjoyable, and better than half of the other Bond films, but it shows the franchise in its comfort zone. And comfort is unbefitting of James Bond.