Monday, November 30, 2015
"You're not going to let me in there, are you? You've got your armor back on. That's that."
- Vesper Lynd, Casino Royale
The pathology of James Bond's various personality quirks has always existed in the deep, deep margins of the film franchise, rather than in the text (or even subtext). The films have first and foremost presented a version of lifestyle porn for the Playboy-era man, a vision of a dashing, debonair man with exquisite taste in clothes and booze and cars and girls who, in between indulging his own personal appetites, also manages to save the world from malevolent, stateless actors. A person has to work pretty hard to form anything remotely resembling a fully-formed character out of the bits and pieces of Bond we're given in these films, partly because Bond films are infamously overstuffed with all that lifestyle porn and jetsetting, and partly because the films don't have anything resembling a coherent idea of who Bond actually is.
The miracle of the Daniel Craig era, the hardest reboot in the franchise's history, is that he, and the producers, managed to find new things to say about this character after 20 film outings. In particular, Bond's relationship to Vesper Lynd and to Judi Dench's M helped to give the character something resembling human emotions as he grappled with the loss of both of those women from his life. The clothes and the cars and the exotic locales are all still there, but by allowing Bond to be an agent at the beginning of his career rather than a perfectly attuned and efficient killing machine, he has been given vulnerabilities that inform the character in rewarding ways.
But it couldn't last. Sooner or later, the franchise-ness of this multi-billion dollar film franchise was probably always going to overwhelm the interesting new bits, as everyone involved starts to get weary of this character and the necessary bits of business expected of a James Bond film. When Vesper told Bond that his armor had gone back on in Casino Royale, she could have been talking about the film series as a whole - eventually, the series finds its way back to all of its old tricks and tropes, a set of armor that it puts on so that it can avoid asking the hard questions about who Bond really is, and whether the series' conception of him as the avatar of post-Cold War Western benevolent hegemony actually makes any sense, instead choosing to marinate in all the superficialities that it probably rightly believes has turned it into said multi-billion dollar franchise. Mendes and company ask the question of what this modern version of Bond would look like in an old-fashioned Bond picture, and the answer turns out to be an absolutely catastrophic clash of tones.
We begin in Mexico City, where Bond, after a pretty interesting single-take scene that takes him from the streets up to the rooftops, gives chase to and eventually kills one Marco Sciarra, a man who he kills (we later learn) at the posthumous behest of Judi Dench's M, who also tells him to attend the funeral. This brings him into the orbit of Spectre (they've ditched the SPECTRE acronym since they last appeared, which makes writing this review actually more difficult, since the film and the organization share the exact same name) which is headed by one Franz Oberhauser, a man who, it is later revealed, grew up with Bond when they were children and who was believed to have died decades ago. After barely escaping from Spectre's goons, including the silent Mr. Hinx, Bond makes his way to Austria to find the dying Mr. White from both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, and Bond promises that he will protect White's daughter, Madeleine Swann, in exchange for information that will lead him to the Spectre hierarchy. With said daughter's help, Bond manages to track down Oberhauser who, in the film's worst kept secret, has refashioned himself one Ernst Stavro Blofeld and who, in league with Joint Intelligence Service head and M's current boss Max Denbigh, has created a program called Nine Eyes, which unites most of the world's intelligence and surveillance information and allows Spectre access to it. After some light torture by Blofeld, Bond and Swann manage to blow up Blofeld's base, and they head back to London to stop Denbigh from activating Nine Eyes. Denbigh and Nine Eyes both meet their maker at the hands of M and Q, but Swann and Bond are kidnapped by Blofeld's henchmen, and just barely manage to escape the demolition of the old MI6 building, after which Bond brings down Blofeld's helicopter and M arrests him.
I'm going to need a minute after that recap, God. Hang on.
Bond films generally do little more than glance at current events, holding them up to a funhouse mirror where whatever is currently in the zeitgeist is simply another step on the path towards the villain. SPECTRE, in its original incarnation, was a way for the film series to nod towards Cold War politics before revealing that whatever plot had been set in motion was the work, not of the Soviets or the West, but of an extra-national terrorist organization that was happy to allow either side to blame the other. The upside of this sort of sleight of hand is that it means that the films are rarely explicitly political, which helps them from becoming complete relics. When they have ventured into the political realm, like they did with 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies and its thinly-veiled Rupert Murdoch stand-in, they are dated almost instantly, because this series is just not built to say anything terribly interesting about global politics. The fact that Spectre's plot takes on, pretty directly, concerns about the surveillance state, does not work in its favor, because the film has essentially no perspective other than "minute, global surveillance is bad if it's explicitly conducted against the people who need to root out the villains controlling it". M hand-waves towards the idea that it's better to live in a world in which assassins have to look their victims in the eye rather than pushing a button on a drone, but his case isn't particularly convincing considering that his own assassin has been responsible for just an absolutely uncountable amount of civilian deaths and property destruction.
But the meat of this film has very little to do with Spectre (the organization's) plot, and everything to do with the cat and mouse chase between Bond and Blofeld. Blofeld, as per his usual custom, is a barely-seen figure through the first two-thirds of the movie, before he and Bond finally meet in the third act. It is at this point that Blofeld exposits that everything that has happened through the first three movies of the Craig era, from the death of Vesper Lynd to Mr. Green's South American water scheme (whatever it was, I can't even remember now) to M's assassination at the hands of Raoul Silva was Spectre's doing all along, explaining that Quantum was nothing but a smaller piece in the larger Spectre hierarchy. Which, I get why they insisted on putting everything under the Spectre umbrella retroactively after acquiring the rights to use it, because Quantum was never anything but a thinly-disguised Spectre analog anyway, but the whole thing really reads as Blofeld pretending to be responsible for shit that he had nothing to do with. Blofeld doesn't lay out missing pieces to the puzzle so much as say names and say, yeah, that was me, and that was me, and that other thing was me too. It is, in a word, stupid.
And it is also predictable, which could describe every single beat of this movie. Bond beds the widow of a man he killed, extracting information from her. Bond meets a much younger woman who at first rejects his advances but is eventually worn down by his charms. Bond defeats the villain but the villain survives because there are still 30 minutes left in the movie. The man heading the new intelligence agency, played by the guy who plays Moriarty as a snivelling little weasel on "Sherlock", turns out to be a snivelling little weasel in league with Blofeld. The girl gets kidnapped and Bond has to save her. The villain is brought down by his own hubris. Not a single beat of this movie takes even so much as a tiny deviation from where you think it will ultimately go.
It would be hard to overstate just how disappointing the return of Blofeld turns out to be. Now, the dirty little secret about the original version of Blofeld is that he isn't really all that menacing as a bad guy, which isn't helped by the fact that he gets slowly neutered over three movies of having his plans foiled by James Bond. So even in his original incarnation, his menace is more implied than actualized, and the previous movies in the series leading up to his reveal in You Only Live Twice, from Dr. No through Thunderball, where he was named but not seen, do a lot of the heavy lifting there. But they do ultimately do that heavy lifting, and they put us in a place that, when we finally do meet him, we can fill in a lot with our imaginations, because the ground has been previously laid. So sticking him in this movie, with neither him nor Spectre having ever been mentioned before, provides a challenge that the 1960's movies didn't have, to make Spectre and Blofeld menacing in a single film's space of time, a challenge that could have been overcome if Blofeld was as well-realized as Le Chiffre or Raoul Silva had been. But, with all due respect to Christoph Waltz, his performance is so dull, and so dependent on the revelation that he was secretly responsible for everything bad that has happened up to this point, that Blofeld makes almost no impression. Instead of being the culmination of four movies' worth of intrigue, he ends up deflating not only his own movie, but in a small way the three films that have come before.
The torture scene is a perfect reflection of everything that went wrong in the making of this movie. Start with this - a chair, a pocketknife, and a leather whip. That is the entirety of the arsenal that Le Chiffre needs to torture Bond in Casino Royale, and the pocketknife is only needed to cut a hole in the chair before Le Chiffre goes to town on a naked, bloody Bond. That scene is visceral and raw and fits the aesthetic of Craig's Bond to a T. Compare that to Spectre's Blofeld, who has an elaborate, computer-controlled dentist's chair that he uses to drill holes in Bond's skull. That's gruesome on paper, sure, but it's also complicated and weird and never once seems like the sort of thing that would, or could, ever exist in reality. That's Old Bond, and some things in the past should stay in the past.
And that brings me to the triumphant return of the sexist/racist axis. Because this movie is deeply sexist, in the insidious way that certain modern blockbusters that think they are enlightened are actually just old-fashioned, sexist throwbacks. Sure, the film would never do anything as gauche as what they did to Britt Ekland's Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun, turning her into an absolute bumbling idiot. What they do is simply constantly pull the rug out from under Lea Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, whether it be in the scene on the train where she saves Bond from Dave Bautista's Mr. Hinx (yay!) and then immediately has to be saved from Hinx by Bond (boo!), or in the finale where she is literally the damsel in distress that Bond has to save. The theme, as always, is "predictable". Bond always deals the final blow to the villain, Bond always ultimately saves the girl more often, and in more impressive ways, than she saves him.
I am genuinely unsure of where Bond goes next, which is in stark contrast to my optimism post-Skyfall. The new status quo, with Blofeld's Spectre as the overarching threat, is boring and untenable, and needs to be fixed or written out, whether Craig returns or not. Starting over with a fresh actor wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, except another reboot of the series this soon after Casino Royale would be a real step backwards. I would prefer to see Craig go out on a high note, with a film that allows his Bond to end on a note of grace, but Spectre botched the arc of his films so deeply that I'm afraid it might be too late. D+