How do you trump the most successful British film in history? That&’s the challenge facing the new Bond movie, Spectre, which received its first screening in London yesterday. Thankfully, as an action movie, it is every bit the equal of its predecessor, Skyfall. For at least half its running time, this is as good as Bond gets — a rip-roaring and very stylishly made thriller with tremendous production values.
The hitch is that, in its latter stages, Spectre struggles to reconcile its own internal contradictions. The filmmakers want to have it both ways: to provide slick entertainment while also giving us new insight into Bond&’s emotions and into his past. This leads to some strange contortions. One moment, we are being told that 007 is an assassin: a hard-headed killer. The next, we hear — in one of the most trite lines in the history of the Bond series — that “you’re a good man, James”.
In his second film at the helm, director Sam Mendes has upped the budget (reportedly to more than $300 million) and added to the itinerary. Whereas Skyfall, released shortly after the London Olympics, had a very British flavour, Spectre sees Bond roaming far further afield, albeit returning to London for the finale.
As ever, there are those in Whitehall who feel Bond is an embarrassing anachronism and should be consigned to the scrapheap forthwith. Andrew Scott (Moriarty from Sherlock) plays Max Denbigh (“C”), the new boss of the Centre for National Security, who takes a very dim view of Bond&’s gallivanting and Errol Flynn-like approach to spycraft. The casting of the two main female leads is intriguing. These aren’t the typical Bond “girls” — both are played by formidable European actresses. Léa Seydoux, as young doctor Madeleine Swan, is best known for her role in Abdellatif Kechiche&’s Palme d’Or-winning lesbian drama, Blue Is The Warmest Colour. The 51-year-old Italian actress Monica Bellucci is cast as Lucia Sciarra, a mobster&’s widow, hiding dark secrets.
Craig, in his fourth outing as 007, gives a double-edged performance, tackling the action and romantic scenes with a boyish relish while trying to convey Bond&’s anguish at the death that surrounds him. Spectre is full of references to earlier 007 movies. There is a fight aboard a train that rekindles memories of From Russia With Love. We have references to Blofeld (and his cat), the usual torture sequences and even a moment in which Judi Dench speaks from beyond the grave (she is not the type to let death get in the way of work).
Bond is described as being like “a kite in a hurricane”, a description that cutely sums up the cinematic mayhem that Mendes unleashes. The only disappointment in what is an exhilarating movie is the surprisingly clumsy and sentimental way in which Spectre ends.
Christopher Hooton adds: I found myself wondering whether to fist-pump of palm-face while watching Bond being Bond. “I don’t know, because James Bond is cool but it&’s also kind of lame isn’t it.” Touché for the stranger who stood beside me and had been asked by a friend what he made of Spectre shortly after the first preview. How to give a film the requisite one-sentence, gathering your coat and spilled belongings as you exit the cinema, “so what did you think?” review when you’re feeling pulled in so many directions?
There were too many versions simultaneously trying to take in Sam Mendes’ exhilerating ending to his Bond tetralogy so I’ll attempt to break them down thus:
The would-read-GQ-if-it-was-in-front-of-me, cliched male: James Bond is f***ing cool, man! He travels all over the place and doesn’t seem to need love or meaningful human connections or food. Have you ever seen James Bond eat? James Bond doesn’t eat, he just drinks vodka either very particularly or straight out of the bottle, processes it into brawn throughout the day and punches guys twice his height in the head until they fall into shredders/out of moving vehicles. He has such cool clothes! How does he have an outfit that compliments every location even though he has apparently no baggage or time to browse ASOS? Does he wear them all at once and shed them each scene like an onion so actually there&’s like a four-stone Daniel Craig under there somewhere? Damn, if I emerged from a demolished building in a suit my top button would not still be done up, how does he maintain such high sartorial standards during fairly largescale disasters? Man, James Bond
literally only has four activities – f***ing, driving, walking very precisely and shooting machine guns one-handed, and it looks pretty fun.
The guilt-racked liberal: Wow, James Bond is a massive douche, huh, and the franchise as a whole is just very archaic and misogynistic and faintly embarrassing. Yeah, the “Bond girls” (ugh) aren’t just damsels in distress anymore, but giving them one or two cutting one-liners and letting them lamp a henchman in the head with a nearby urn occasionally doesn’t exactly amount to a rich character either. I don’t like it when he talks about cars, how it makes me think of Top Gear, his right wing, vigilante outlook on the world or the way his only interrogation method is kissing women against glass after looking wounded when they ask about his parents.
The eight-year-old boy: OMG he has punched a guy in the head on literally every single method of transport! If Bond realised he’d never punched a guy on a catamaran do you know what he’d do? He’d tell M to suck it and board the next flight to the Med. I am 100 per cent behind the level of explosions in this film and it is a real thrill when his nice, fast car jumps over a regular car and when he goes round a corner in a provincial town real fast and upsets an old man eating a baguette.
The aesthete: Wow, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has excelled himself this time, I want every shot to be my new desktop wallpaper. The really long take during the Day of the Dead opener in Mexico City! The train rolling through dusty Tangier! The symmetry! The lighting in the hotel scene! This is like watching a series of really expensive, beautiful and well-executed perfume ads. I mean that in the best possible sense. I would buy all of the stock of the perfume. I wouldn’t even bathe in it or anything, I’d just pour it down the drain while shaking my head and doing a low whistle and thinking about how stunning that funeral in Rome scene was choreographed.
The “plane movie” guy: This is easy to watch and engrossing. I could happily get mildly sauced to this.
The critic/realist: This movie teaches me nothing about what it means to be human.
So how to reconcile these antithetical (and horribly self-indulgent, sorry) thoughts? Is film criticism inherently false in its out-of-five-stars single-mindedness? Should I be sad that a film with deep and nuanced themes didn’t get made because of this one hogging cinemas, the message of which seems to be “you can have your surveillance state, there will always be a place for punching evil-looking dudes in the head”? Is it okay that Bond is a lonely misogynist and we can learn something from it a la Mad Men? Is it okay that he&’s a lonely misogynist simply because not every single film needs to be socio-culturally right-on?
I’m not sure yet, it&’s too early to say. But I do know this — I respect the hell out of Mendes for being able to make such an elegant, captivating film from such limp subject matter, and I don’t envy the next director who must try and accomplish this feat.