With the introduction of Daniel Craig as the ‘new’ James Bond in 2006, we aficionados have been treated to a reboot of the Bond mythology. Wrapped in the warm cocoon – well maybe not so warm, given the mayhem involved – of the four excellent films under the direction of Martin Campbell and Sam Mendes, we have discovered many of the story’s secrets. We learned about the source of Bond’s martini addiction and cut of his tuxedos; where Moneypenny came from; how M came to be; the nature of the iconic Aston Martin; and several other backstories. For those who have followed Bond from Day 1, and have read all of Ian Fleming’s books, this has been an enjoyable journey.
With the latest outing, ‘Spectre’, we now come full circle and complete our education with the backstory of Bond’s greatest foe, Ernst Stavro Bloefeld – white cat, scarred eye and all. And what a backstory it is! No, I won’t disclose any more information – you have to learn that for yourself. But suffice it to say that it is a satisfying story. What is not so satisfying is the wrapper in which the story is contained.
‘Spectre’ is a formulaic Bond thriller: there are the requisite exotic settings, car chases, explosions and collapsing buildings (three in this case), dalliances with beautiful women and hulking baddies. And therein lies the rub: it is just too formulaic. While we are working our way through the story of Bond and Blofeld, the process can actually become a bit boring – and LONG at 148 minutes. Perhaps we are becoming jaded, but we have been there and done that. For $250 million, one would think that the creators could figure out something a bit more original than recycling bits from Bond films of the past 50+ years? It is fun to be able to spot the ‘inside jokes’, but that appeals to a relatively small core group of dedicated Bond fans. To appeal to a broader audience, the film really does need a bit more originality.
On the plus side, Daniel Craig truly is an excellent James Bond – for my money, the best since the original, Sean Connery. Unlike the effete Roger Moore or the too-pretty Pierce Brosnan, Craig is closer to the Bond that Fleming described – a blunt instrument. Craig has mellowed a bit since his rough and tumble start in ‘Casino Royale’, but he is still more cudgel than scalpel. And that works, This is what James Bond is: an assassin -- with a conscience and a code, but with little time for niceties. And his supporting cast is largely excellent. Returning are Ralph Fiennes as a cold-war worn ‘M’ in an era of drones – human and mechanical; Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, equally proficient with computer and Walther PPK; and Ben Wishaw as a ‘Q’ for the millennium – part hacker, part engineer and easily the equal of Bond with a quip. Each of these provides just the right balance, not to mention support, for Bond. They are his – and each other’s -- family.
And in Christopher Waltz we have another outstanding villain, continuing a string of performances by some of the best actors in the business providing worthy foils to Craig’s Bond. Waltz has a doubly difficult job in ‘Spectre’. Not only must he confront Bond, but he must also create a character we have come to know from Bond films of the past – not to mention numerous parodies, notably Mike Meyer’s Dr. Evil. He handles the job with aplomb, matching Craig quip for quip and confrontation for confrontation. His Blofeld is almost worth the price of admission.
But then we come to the other staple of a Bond film: the femme fatales. And here is where ‘Spectre’ simply doesn’t hold up. To begin with, the gorgeous Monica Bellucci is horribly underutilized as the widow of one of Bond’s adversaries. Of course there is the requisite seduction. But it is over and done with too quickly. Here is a woman who could easily be Bond’s equal – mature, beautiful, sophisticated. But all she is allowed to do is shed her widow’s weeds, tumble into bed and give up the secrets she has kept for a lifetime after a few passionate moments. Please! It’s just a waste.
Next up is Lea Seydoux, as the primary object of Bond’s affection and his partner in the major plotline. There is no disputing that Seydoux is an outstanding actress, as her work in such films as ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ or ‘Inglorious Basterds’ attests. But not since Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist is there a more improbable casting as Seydoux as a noted doctor trying to escape her criminal father’s past. Her emotions have little nuance – from dour and sour to bright and light – and right back to dour, with little development or transition between. To suggest that this is the woman for whom Bond will give up his 00 status beggars belief.
So where is all of this going? As always, it depends on your expectations. If you want a good romp in the fields of James Bond fact and fancy, you could certainly do worse. Even with its warts, ‘Spectre’ is still among my Top 10 Bond films. But if you want something more – a film that brings together cast, story, excitement and excellence in all things Bond, you will be disappointed: there are just too many flaws, too many clichés and too many insider references. Perhaps my expectations are just too high after the quality of the recent films, but ‘Spectre’ is just good, not great.