Over the past twenty years, James Bond has faced an existential crisis. His superiors insist he is obsolete, due to the end of the Cold War or the rise of the surveillance state. Since Bond invariably saves the day, the franchise then serves as an argument for his continued importance to the movies. But the there’s a flip side to that argument: if a Bond movie is bad, then the character edges toward obsolescence. This is the problem with Spectre, a staggering mediocrity that wallows in the franchise’s worst clichés. No one expects airtight plotting or plausible action from our celebrated superspy, but when the actors are also bored with the material, their ambivalence extends to the audience.
We find Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) in Mexico City, sulking through a Day of the Dead celebration while wearing an elaborate skull costume. Director Sam Mendes, returning to the franchise after Skyfall, seamlessly transitions from a crane shot to a handheld camera: the long opening shot ends with Bond abandoning his costume for a suit and gun, then firing at his man. The assassination attempt goes awry, leading to a helicopter chase – of course it does – so back in London M (Ralph Fiennes) demands answers. Turns out Bond is tracking down a lead from his past, and it points toward a clandestine organization that’s responsible for the events from Casino Royale through the present. Said organization has a shadowy leader (Christoph Waltz), and his connection to Bond is more insidious than Bond could have imagined.
Mendes’ eye for composition is the best thing about Spectre, and he creates gorgeous imagery with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. While Skyfall was all about crisp, elegant transitions between light and darkness, Spectre has more texture. Whether it’s through a fog or a dust cloud, the frame in Spectre is brimming with particles, as if Bond’s crisp attire is the last vestige of sophistication in a world fraught with decay. And like Mendes’ debut American Beauty, his latest is full of unlikely symmetry, whether it’s intimate (e.g. at a dinner table) or on a macro scale (e.g. mandatory explosions). There is visual artistry here that the material does not require, and Mendes must know it since nothing else in his movie has the same level of care.
Skyfall ends with Bond going “back to business.” Unlike the tortured hero of Casino Royale, he’s once again a ruthless killer who spies and fucks on behalf of Her Majesty. In this way, Spectre regresses even further, and the pivot is a colossal misstep. Absolutely nothing about this film feels exciting: if anything, it might inspire Mike Myers to reboot Austin Powers. There are two improbable hideouts that Bond infiltrates – one in the mountains, the other in the desert – and they serve no purpose beyond architecture porn. There are at least three examples of the Talking Killer Fallacy, and even Bond seems embarrassed that the bad guy makes it so easy for him. In the climax, Bond wanders through an elaborate maze that would embarrass The Man with the Golden Gun. Sure, there are sensational action sequences, such as when Bond chases after the bad guys in a plane or a tricked-out sports car, except they only lead to questions like, “If Bond wants to rescue the captured young woman, why does he keep attacking the car she is in? Why does the train continue to its destination after three passengers engage in hand to hand combat? Could the villain explain the point of his plan?” You get the idea.
Now if you’re a diehard Bond fan, maybe you’re thinking that these scenes are part of the fun. Normally I would agree with you, except this time the cast has no interest in selling it: Craig and Waltz practically sleepwalk through their performances, as if they cannot bare the indignity of leading an action film that primarily exists for product placement. The support characters do not fare well, either: Léa Seydoux’s is the Bond Girl, who has the unenviable transition from independent professional to subservient vixen, while Ben Whishaw appears again as Q, a nerd who seems more inconvenienced than scared. Spectre has four screenwriters, and here it seems like they wrote with the spy edition of Mad Libs and an atlas mounted to a dart board. I have no idea whether the jokes are any good, since the actors deliver them with the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of Thursday Night Bingo.
There have already been several good spy films this year. Kingsman: The Secret Service is an energetic, pitch black satire of the genre, while Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation is all about Tom Cruise engaging our need for spectacle. The biggest departure is Spy, which proves that an overweight American woman can bring the goods just as well as a chiseled, middle-aged Brit. All those films brim with energy and creativity: they create semi-plausible reasons for the hero to be in danger, and write clever ways out of them. In Spectre, Bond wanders into a hideout with no plan whatsoever, trusting he will survive simply because he hasn’t been wrong yet. Sony has a lot riding on Spectre, as it might be the most expensive film ever made. It is ironic, then, that there is so little enthusiasm in front of camera, and it relies on the cynical idea that audiences will eat it up, anyway. At his best, James Bond is part of our culture and not just a commodity, so maybe it’s time we show Sony we can tell the difference.