At the end of 2012’s Skyfall, our last outing with the unflappable James Bond, we were left back at square one with the famous spy. This series, over the course of its last few films, has been having a romantic dalliance with “grit,” which, in this case, translated to “James Bond speaks less, and then gets tortured at least once.” Bond movie lovers were shocked at the new Bond, while fans of the original novels were pleased to see a purer version of the spy finally depicted on screen. Casino Royale was largely beloved, although Quantum of Solace disappointed. Skyfall eventually (and perhaps irresistibly) led us to a classical, familiar place. When we last saw our 007 (Daniel Craig), he was once again answering to a new M (Ralph Fiennes), had once again began a flirtatious relationship with Ms. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), and was given a new chance to start receiving gadgets from Q (Ben Whishaw) again.
Sam Mendes‘ SPECTRE, the 24th chapter in the James Bond series, takes both the “gritty” setup and the newfound “classical” rediscovery of the character, and compounds them into one of the dullest, least engaging, most perfunctory action film of the year. SPECTRE is a dearth of creativity. It sleepwalks when it should sprint. An audience member could leave the movie for any random 30-minute portion, and return without having missed anything of note, able to follow it without any problems. It’s not that nothing happens during those 30 minutes, it’s just that everything that does happen is a bland echo of a thousand action films that preceded it.
To be fair, James Bond movies aren’t necessarily known for their striking creativity; indeed, the predictable patterns and rigid structures are the central charms of the series. But previous Bond films leavened their banality with awesome chases, wry wit, and knowing wink to the audience. This is serious stuff, saving the world, but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun to watch, innit? SPECTRE makes the deadly mistake of assuming we haven’t seen any of this stuff before; The revelations are presented as revolutionary, when, in fact, the audience will likely be mouthing long with the dialogue.
What’s more, SPECTRE commits an even more grievous sin: The Sin of Personal Mythology. I shall elucidate: In the opening chapter of any long-running movie or TV series, the filmmakers tend to focus on the story or the scenario, while the characters find themselves wrapped up in the adventure. Think of Harry Potter as an example. In the first Harry Potter story, Harry found himself in a new world, surrounded by new fantastical things, and had to survive a new threat in this new world. But as the series progressed, we learned that every single bad guy, every single horror, every single relationship all stemmed from Harry personally. Nothing was a coincidence anymore. If any series lasts long enough, it becomes a soap opera of interpersonal relationships, rather than an adventure.
SPECTRE, then – without giving too much away – is less about James Bond using his skills and tenacity to discover and unlock the secrets of a new ultra-maniac, but a litany of how closely he is personally connected to all the villains that appeared in the previous three films. This is obnoxious storytelling.
The bad guys in SPECTRE are the title organization, a secret cabal of nondescript evil people who wish to cause misery in the world merely for the sake of it. SPECTRE is led by a shadowy figure named Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), and he wishes to take control of a global spy camera network being installed inside MI-6. To what end, it is never revealed. Bond, true to form, has to break free from MI-6, trek the globe (as he does), and discover how he might be related to Oberhauser.
Some stir has been made that James Bond beds the comely 50-year-old Italian maven Monica Bellucci in this film; finally, some have said, a Bond girl who is a full-grown woman, and not a mere ingénue. An important question: Does equal opportunity objectification count as equality?
I’d relate more of the story, but why bother? We’ve been here before, but with more excitement, and less up-its-own-ass mythmaking. We may get a few mild thrills here and there – the opening one-shot sequence in Mexico City is pretty fun, and Léa Seydoux is pretty and effective – but overall, there is little to raise the pulse, and plenty to raise the ire. By the end of the film, James Bond seems to be at peace with his lot, has uncovered all of his past, and seems to have no path ahead of him. One could be forgiven for longing for, at long last, a long rest for 007.