I’ve mentioned a couple of times here at Film Grimoire that I have a partner named Adam who is a James Bond superfan. He first started watching the Bond films at the tender age of 7, but became obsessed with the series at age 11. He’s such a superfan that he’s participated on a James Bond forum for approximately 12 years, almost 13; and in doing so, has had the opportunity to interview a lot of actors and people involved behind the scenes in the franchise.
So it goes without saying that a) he has a lot of opinions about anything Bond-related, and b) that he certainly had a lot of opinions about Bond’s most recent outing, Spectre (2015). He saw Spectre five times in five days. I knew I had to get him to write a piece on the film for me to post on his behalf, and here it is!
Warning: Many spoilers!
So Spectre, the 24th James Bond. I must preface this filmic rant with the fact that I am a massive James Bond fan. “Well, I’m glad we got that out of the way”.
I’ve read reviews around the traps that diss Spectre and to be honest it seems to be in vogue amongst some critics, particularly in Australia and the US. Interestingly, the large number of reviews in the UK were overwhelmingly positive. I suspect this is because the UK understands what Bond means and is. This is a series that is ostensibly escapist fantasy. Bond films are generally dark, witty action/spy films. I’m not exactly sure what critics in Australia or the US were expecting from Spectre. They seemed very capable of heaping praise on the plot-holey Skyfall, a film more about M than the protagonist of the actual film, but then they criticise a film that is actually driven by its central character and whose plot is entwined with its protagonist’s backstory. I’m not sure what more this film could do.
It has a director who is on the top of his game, his shot-making is on point and executed to perfection by BAFTA-nominated cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. A Bond who is focused and determined, and embodies the role more than ever, but because some critics feel they have to clamber to be heard in the saturated critical space, they sprout controversial one-line rubbish like ‘Bored, James Bored’, whilst nothing could be further from the truth.
Anyway, let’s discuss what was great about Craig’s fourth Bond.
NOBODY DOES IT BETTER – “The name’s Bond… James Bond”
I’ve now seen the film five times in five days and the same delight and excitement that I derived from it during the advanced screening remains. This is a classic Bond film. The quintessential cinematic villain? Check. The silent, physically imposing, but clearly psychotic henchman? Check. The beautiful woman and in the case of my feminist views and 21st century Bond, a strong, intelligent and empowered Bond girl? Check. Breathtaking action set pieces? Check. Outrageous production design? Check (special mention has to go to Dennis Gassner for his stunning work on Blofeld’s crater lair, a nod to 1967’s You Only Live Twice). In truth, about the only thing missing from the classic Bond winning formula is a memorable Bond song, although I’ll admit Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ does grow on you. It works very well in combination with the title sequence from visionary genius Daniel Kleinman, as well as during various instrumental leitmotifs scored by the much improved Thomas Newman.
Plotwise, Spectre really is a return to the 1960’s, but with a modern twist. The surveillance subplot is a resonant and very inspired-by-real-events story, while Bond’s A-story very much draws on the beats of the classic Bond literary formula and indeed the earlier films.
Highlights for me included the dazzlingly staged and shot pre-title sequence during Mexico City’s Day of the Dead Festival; the incredibly creepy SPECTRE meeting in Rome, followed by the immediately iconic car chase; the brutally violent train car fight; and the fantastically surreal torture sequence, along with the fist-pumping reveal.
THE IMPERFECTIONS – “Well, it just proves, no one’s indestructible”
Alright, Spectre isn’t perfect. I would have preferred that Skyfall’s villain Silva was not linked with SPECTRE. Not only was his character a cheap knock-off of GoldenEye’s Alec Trevelyan and Donald Pleasence’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld from You Only Live Twice, I never bought his ridiculous plot-holey plan; yet interestingly, Skyfall received near-universal critical praise. What does that say about listening to the critics? Anyway, that’s a nice tangent. If they were going to link Silva, this should have been seeded during the scene in Skyfall where Silva explains that he chooses his own missions. It would have been very doable.
Another element of the film that has come under a bit of scrutiny is the relationship between Bond and Dr Madelyn Swann (played by the irresistibly brilliant Lea Seydoux). Now there’s a couple of things to be said about this. During Bond’s torture at the hands of Christoph Waltz’ Blofeld, a scene lifted from Sir Kingsley Amis’ first continuational Bond novel (which makes me just a little bit nerdy and excited), Swann says ‘I love you’. The conditions under which this line is delivered are important to note. She has spent the last few days running from various people intent on killing her. Bond has stopped them at each turn. She’s no doubt psychologically exhausted and in a state of panic and desperation, she provides what she hopes will be a kiss of life of sorts. This is the way I interpret it anyway. It is never explicitly stated again after the heat of this moment. This enables Bond and Swann to properly engage in a relationship off screen, post-Spectre, before Bond 25 plays out the remaining arc in its homage to fan-favourite On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – many of that story’s beats having been played out in Spectre already.
However, if it was their intention to craft a proper love story (i.e. Tracy and Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Vesper and Bond in Casino Royale), they needed to spend more time together. They simply didn’t due to the constraints of the Blofeld story.
Finally, it’s clear that Sam Mendes likes his villains to harbour a personal connection with our heroes. Silva with M and now Blofeld with Bond. This element, as a Bond purist, I should probably hate. The Blofeld of the books and the original five Connery/Lazenby films had absolutely no connection to Bond whatsoever, however, one must accept that this is a re-imagining of the Bond universe. For starters, this cinematic Bond was born in the 1980s, rather than the 1920s. So for this reason, I’m quite happy to afford a certain leniency to the rebooted franchise, as long as some of the basics remain in tact, such as Blofeld’s Persian kitty, his facial scar and his maimed legs. Imperfections, indeed!
THE FINALE – “Six minutes and counting…”
For a Bond fan, the return of SPECTRE and Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld is as good as it gets. Having two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz playing the super villain only makes things more exciting. And you’d be foolish to think Waltz is only contracted for one film. Craig will return to fulfill his contract for a fifth Bond film and no doubt come up against the Austrian again.
Spectre brings all the key Bondian elements together and completes the arc that explains how Craig’s Bond became Bond. We’ve had him ascend from a mere field agent, to Double O status, and finally to an experienced, cynical and hardened blunt instrument. Along the way, we’ve met re-imagined Bond staples in Moneypenny, Q, the return to a male M, and now the return of the shadowy S.P.E.C.T.R.E organisation. And with Spectre in particular, the sense of adventure, swagger and true escapism, which is what drew me to the Bond novels and films in the first place, has truly been reinstated.
On top of all of this, the rebooted series (the Craig era) has been lead by a master team of filmmakers, from directors like Sam Mendes and Marc Forster, to DOPs like Roger Deakins and Hoyte van Hoytema. Combine this with Oscar-winning actors regularly appearing in supporting roles and a Bond who can actually act (sorry, Pierce), and the future of the longest running franchise in cinematic history is bright.
Even when Craig moves on after the next film, the Bond franchise, helmed by the amazing Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli will be in great hands. This is a team that has proved it can deliver consistent commercial success and assemble teams that create Bond films that resonate with a wider audience than any of their Hollywood competitors. But in the meantime, we still have Craig’s last Bond offering to look forward to. Given what has been set up in Spectre, I for one cannot wait to see Blofeld’s return in Bond 25.