Thoughts on and around the new 007 movie, reportedly the last one starring Daniel Craig.
Is Spectre worth watching? On one level, absolutely. Consider the mind-boggling pre-credits sequence in which a building explodes and the aftershock prises loose a portion of a roof across the road, which angles downwards and comes to rest, rather nonchalantly, over a rubble-strewn couch in a floor below. A little later, a helicopter takes off over a piazza, its flight patterns clearly modelled after a sparrow that has run into a hurricane after drinking twice its body weight in liquor. These are the “situations” into which 007 is thrust – and you wonder what this section of the screenplay looks like. Does it just say “Bond battles villains in a series of hair-raising stunts” and leave the rest to the action choreographers, who then decide the exact nature of those stunts? (“Let’s blow up a building…” “Let’s have a runaway helicopter…”) Or do the writers sit down with the action team and thrash everything out on paper first? Either way, you come away thinking: Institute an Oscar category for these guys, already.
If there’s a downside to this stretch of action, it’s that it isn’t as thrilling as it is fun. For white-knuckle thrills, we need to feel that the crowds of innocents in those buildings, in that piazza, are in danger. But with the great exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, there isn’t much collateral damage when Bond is around – we’re talking billions of moviegoers here, and they don’t want blood on their popcorn. And until Daniel Craig came along, it appeared that they did not want their Bond movies to be very different either. But Casino Royale knocked the living daylights out of the franchise. For the first time, we saw Bond as a character – the dangerous spy created by Ian Fleming, not the well-equipped (and well-quipped) superhero created by the films, the man with the golden pun. And for the first time, we sensed the investiture of myth – the film ticked off everything from Bond’s first cold-blooded kill to his first brush with the specifics of a vodka martini. In consonance with a movie culture increasingly in thrall to origin stories, we witnessed the birth of Bond.
Craig’s second outing, Quantum of Solace, could be called “Bond: The Growing-up Years.” The film continued to develop Bond as a character, a tortured soul trying to pretend that his lover’s death (in the earlier film) didn’t mean anything. And Bond, instead of treating the Bond girl as just something to be shaken and stirred between the sheets, becomes some sort of mentor, imparting to her some hard-honed wisdom about loss and retribution. At times, the quiet ambition in Quantum of Solace reminds you of The Godfather: Part II. As with Michael Corleone, Bond, due to his immersion in a blood-soaked career, alienates or loses the ones closest to him. The villain smirks, “Everything he touches withers and dies” – prophetic words, considering the following film, Skyfall. M dies. Bond’s ancestral home is annihilated. Bond himself dies. (At least, we’re meant to think he does.) And yet, the film ends with images of birth – the birth of the Bond universe as we knew it before Craig. M is a man again. Ms. Moneypenny is back. As is the hat rack.
And Spectre is the first Craig film to slip into the relaxed silliness of those older adventures. In Skyfall, when Bond met Q – the ritual that’s the espionage world’s equivalent of a child hopping onto Santa’s lap – he got the Bond world’s equivalent of socks. “A gun and a radio. Not exactly Christmas, is it?” he complained. Q replied, barely suppressing a sneer, “You were expecting an exploding pen?” But here’s Spectre, with an exploding watch – in a torture-chamber scene reminiscent of the one in Goldfinger where a laser beam, positioned between Bond’s legs, almost divested him of his double-ohs. The film abounds with homage, right from that pre-credits helicopter sequence, recalling the pre-credits helicopter sequence in For Your Eyes Only. It’s as if they decided to appease fans who bemoaned the serious turn Bond had taken, with a license to kill every spark of campy enjoyment.
But Sam Mendes is still a Very Serious Director. He isn’t the first Very Serious Director to take a shot at Bond. There was Michael Apted, for instance, who landed on the sets of The World Is Not Enough after Oscar-nominated dramas like Gorillas in the Mist and Nell. But Mendes is the first director whose Bond movies feel like Oscar-nominated dramas. M isn’t just a boss. She’s Mother. The villain isn’t just a villain. He’s Bond’s brother figure (for the second time; this was the case in Skyfall as well.) Bond doesn’t just have a conversation with someone who possesses information he needs. The conversation is staged around a chessboard – because, you know, they’re making moves, trying to outwit each other. At times, Mendes appears to be nudging the casual spy thriller into the realm of Shakespearean drama. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely slayers.
Again, we’re reminded of the Godfather movies – in a mission that, in its staging, echoes Vito Corleone’s killing of Don Fanucci; in a carefully lit, burnished-sepia boardroom sequence that echoes the Meeting of the Five Families. (Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is staggeringly gorgeous.) And even amidst the revelry, death is never far away – the film opens with the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, with a virile Bond outfitted in a skeleton costume. (Does this mean he’s perennially poised between life and death? Twenty points.) I came out of Spectre asking the same questions I asked after Skyfall. Should major artists (or artists with major ambitions) handle minor movies? Or put differently, should minor entertainment be aggrandised with major themes? Of course, you might say – rightly – that it’s the handling that determines whether a movie is “major” or “minor.” After all, until The Godfather came along, no one thought a pulpy, romantic gangster saga could be Great Art.
Mendes’s Bond films are like Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies – they’re interesting on many levels, but they hover in a twilight zone, neither the pop spectacles they could be nor the great dramas they strive to be. Spectre has more Bond-isms than the other Craig movies, but some of them don’t survive Mendes’s funereal staging – like the mysterious woman played by Monica Bellucci. She’s not fun enough to be a Bond girl, but neither is the character weighty enough to justify the tragic overtones. And what about the titular organisation itself? The acronym blows up to Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – and what do we see in the film? Something as abstract, as thoroughly un-cinematic as government surveillance. At least give us the scene where Bond races to retrieve recordings of the White House bedrooms, circa Clinton. For my money, the Bourne movies have come closest to marrying thrills and tragedy the way the new Bond films so desperately want to. On the other hand, I say axe the angst and give us something like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., directed by Guy Ritchie’s inner ballerina – so lithe was this supremely entertaining spy story. It’ll be interesting to see where Bond goes next, now that Craig has pressed the ejector-seat button on his Aston Martin. Or has he? Never say never again.
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