The James Bond franchise has been suffering an identity crisis for a nearly a decade now. How does Spectre tie into it?
Bond established himself in earlier cinema as the quintessential gentleman spy. A stylish and very British hero who fought against indecent and uncivilized villains. As time went by, the world changed and the Bond character turned into a caricature. The first nail in the coffin was the Austin Powers (1997) movie that ridiculed all the tropes and clichés. Allegedly, Daniel Craig blames Austin Powers for ruining Bond, but a Bond parody akin to Austin Powers was simply waiting to happen.
The essence of the gentleman spy is now forever a figure of history that only exists in exaggeration, much like a Caribbean pirate. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) is the only kind of movie that can still pull off this cliché, and only by exaggerating it. The second nail in the coffin were other successful spy franchises that focused much more on action, such as the Mission Impossible and Jason Bourne series. In reaction, Daniel Craig the action hero became Bond, and everyone lamented that he didn’t look like a gentleman spy but like a thug.
Ever since, modern James Bond has tries to compete with modern action movies, while the Bond legacy drags behind it like a baggage, because that legacy raises all sorts of expectations for Bond movies that the modern Bond can no longer fulfill. Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall (2012) walked a tightrope between paying lip service to the Bond tropes while Daniel Craig was playing action man.
Then Spectre. Spectre feels like a conclusion; a final part of the Daniel Craig era of James Bond. Story-wise, it ties together some plot points of all the other Craig Bond movies and all the villains and Bond women of the past films are pulled into it. I rather like that, although it feels a bit forced and lacks impact on the audience. There is also a surprising amount of humor in the movie. I suspect though that the humor is added because Daniel Craig still lacks some charisma. With earlier Bond actors such as Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan, we liked their charm and it made us interested in their characters, but Craig feels distant and inaccessible. The humor is necessary to make him likeable, and it is a welcome element in the movie.
I am relieved to see that there is still a sense of vision and class behind the James Bond films. Spectre, and Skyfall too, have a gravity to them that make Mission Impossible look more like a cartoon and James Bond like a character study. Having said that, the plot and the locations are all too familiar to us. There is this big brother surveillance plot that feels chewed out because so many movies have dealt with something similar. Also, all the locations in the movie bring back echoes of other spy movies of the last decades. The familiar suspects of London, Rome and even Morocco all pass by, places where so many action heroes have paid a visit in the last decade.
There is not so much that really stands out in Spectre in terms of impact, besides Christoph Waltz as the villain. If I would summarize the movie in one word, it would be ‘solid’. Everything in the movie, the action, the dialogue, the storyline, I’d rate everything between ‘adequate’ to ‘quite good’. No serious mistakes or jarring choices in the film, although Rome looked suspiciously deserted at night. Only the villain, played by the delightful Christoph Waltz, is truly memorable. I’d love it if he would return in the future. I want a good villain in Hollywood. One that doesn’t rely on a scary mask.
James Bond needs another fresh start after this. I fear that Spectre will be forgotten quickly, even though it is quite good. It is strong filmmaking, but a bit confusing and lacks impact. As I walked out of the theatre, I heard a woman say that she didn’t understand half the movie, and I have sympathy for that. There were scenes where I wondered what James Bond was actually doing there and what his objective was. There is this tendency in spy movies lately to sacrifice a clarity in storytelling to make a movie look fast and deep, and Spectre is part of that trend. This will also cause people to forget the movie quickly.