On his 24th outing, James Bond is showing his age. There’s a weariness to Spectre****, clouds of regret and winds of change. In every askance look and withering aside, Daniel Craig might as well be saying: “I’m getting too old for this.”
Even the Bond girl (Lea Seydoux) doesn’t have a silly, sexist name anymore but is called Madeleine Swann. She’s practically Proustian.
That doesn’t mean to say Spectre doesn’t whip along to the familiar Bond beats. It practically checks them off, like a bucket list, and even the credit sequence features exploding shards reflecting the faces of past characters from the Craig-era Bond, including Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, Dame Judi’s M, Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre.
You have to know your Bond to enjoy Spectre because it’s haunted by so much of what has come before. The thing is, everyone does know their Bond, or at least bits of it. How, then, if you’re even bringing back the villain’s white pussycat, are you to avoid spoof and cliche? And how do you make it matter more than, say, an episode of Spooks?
Sam Mendes does it with elegant shot-making and a deepening of character. It’s as if this four-episode franchise reboot has come to an end and Craig has really built his Bond performance over time. This is the best he’s been, but then not many Bonds have been allowed the level of personal introspection he portrays here. He even lets his Martini order change, dirtying the familiar cocktail.
Skyfall peered behind the Bond facade and Spectre goes even further, at one point even penetrating right into his brain.
On the surface, we’ve got the formula. The opening sequence with its fluid tracking shot around a Mexico City Day of the Dead parade – “The dead are alive” is the film’s self-emblazoned tagline – summons up danger and exoticism, as well as a certain recklessness. There’s the meeting with Q and with M (is it official we can now say that it’s Ralph Fiennes without a massive spoiler? Everyone knows Dame Judi dies at the end of Skyfall?), there’s old cars and a new DB10.
There’s the old MI5 building and boats on the Thames (echoing that iconic opener to The World is not Enough). There are gadgets but nothing too silly – everyone’s got gadgets now. There’s a car chase through Rome with a familiar action punchline, ski lifts, snow outfits, helicopters, cable cars and planes, souks, a cackling villain and a big brute baddie fighting on trains, fingernails replacing Lotte Lenya’s spiked boots and Richard Kiel’s metal teeth this time round.
No, the shift in Bond himself, rather than in the film plots, is good. The characterisation cements Craig as one of the best but his Bond isn’t as immediately knowable as, say, Connery’s or Moore’s. He’s certainly the most serious of the Bonds, closer perhaps to Fleming’s blunt instrument in a Savile Row suit.
Technology is the villain in this one. The plot is about a sinister organisation, run by Christoph Waltz (he’s good but was better and scarier in Inglorious Bastards) who lead with way in surveillance and information. They could have called it Google. It’s the film’s least effective element. There is a feeling of mild confusion but no real threat, no global peril, no sense of dread or that Bond is going to cut the wires and save the world with seconds to go.
It’s all got very localised, personalised and internalised. Maybe that’s how it should be after 24 episodes – Bond doesn’t stand for the same things anymore. So famous for that name and the way it’s said, Craig’s Bond tries to change it several times in Spectre. “I’m Mickey Mouse,” he even says at one point, using the Italian name, Toppolino.
This Bond is worried. Worried about being replaced, outmoded, outsourced. He’s worried he might be replaced by computers, by gadgets. He’s not worried about his job (although this does seem a real concern for Q and Moneypenny) but about what this might mean for world spy craft. Is Bond a union man, after all? He may be a killer, but he’s a killer with a human brain, not a microchip or robospy.
He’s also got a heart and as such, we don’t want him to get the girl anymore, we want him to begin a meaningful relationship. And this says much for Lea Seydoux’s excellent performance as Madeleine, a girl who falls asleep muttering “liars and killlers everywhere” but who tells James off for gawping at her. “You shouldn’t stare,” she says. “You shouldn’t look like that,” he counters, nicely.
I know some fans argue that we don’t want to know more about Bond, that he should remain mysterious. But after so many years, it feels right to humanise the government agent, to see the inside of his sparsely furnished flat. Anyway, this Bond’s only got a few doubts – it’s not like he’s opened a bloody Twitter account.
I liked Spectre, but then I like Bond. Him and a new Woody Allen movie are about the only long-running franchises I look forward to (not giving a monkeys about Star Wars trailers, for example). It’s got everything but spaceships or submarines, crocodiles or sharks. But everything else is there, although I was disappointed Naomi Harris’ Moneypenny was sidelined too much. Still, we got a bit more of Ben Whishaw’s Q and that’s never a bad thing.
There’s far more to like in Spectre than dislike. And as played by Daniel Craig, nobody could hate Bond more than he hates himself anyway.