Back to Bond, baby.
The opening tracking shot in Spectre is masterfully filmed and beautifully consistent, following our subjects smoothly through the chaos of a celebratory crowd like an artist’s hand running down his sculpture. What follows after that is a film less consistent, less smooth, and less artistic, but to hell with being artistic. This is a fun movie.
Following up a few months after Skyfall, Spectre places our hero, James Bond, a.k.a. 007 (Once again portrayed by Daniel Craig) in the middle of a hidden conspiracy of overthrowing the world government and taking over the planet. We can’t go a few decades without Bond dealing with one of those every once in a while, now can’t we?
This time, Bond is after the villainous organization called S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which we’re never told what it stands for in the film (Although in Dr. No, it stood for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). At first, Bond doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, only having a clue by the deceased M (Judi Dench) to go by. But as he continues to investigate the organization further and further, he finds deeper connections to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in his enemies from the past, until finally, he finds the deepest connection to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of all: himself.
What do you think of when you think of James Bond? When I think of Bond, I think of a movie icon who is the penultimate vision of masculinity. He’s physically astute and sexually appealing. He’s smooth, suave, and has a way with words that is both comforting and edgy. He drinks a lot, but he can hold his liquor. He can fire a gun better than any marksman, a punch better than most fighters. He dresses up in nice suits and bow ties, although he does a great job at mucking them up on missions. When I think of Bond, I think of a character that men secretly idolize and women not-so-secretly desire. If he were any more larger than life, he would be a superhero.
Spectre continues the trend of Bond being a stylish action hero, and it continues the trend well. I mentioned in my lead that the film isn’t very artistic. That’s because it doesn’t need to be. After the impressive tracking shot at the beginning, Bond gets into a firefight, dodges a falling building, chases a suspect through the streets, gets into a fist fight, then highjacks a helicopter after it flips over on its axis in the air. And it’s not even the first 15 minutes.
This is something I’m impressed by in a lot of Bond movies, which is the action sequences. Minus the mediocrity of Quantum of Solace, the most recent Bond films have always found new ways to make old conventions interesting. For instance, how many times have you seen Bond take a sip of a martini? How many times have we seen him charm a young woman into the bedroom? How many times have we seen him get into chase, fighting, and action sequences involving all sorts of weaponry and vehicular manslaughter? You think we’d get sick of it by now, and yet, the series has lasted past 24 films. The series is doing something right.
I think part of it is because of how well Craig inherits the role of of James Bond. Sean Connery is always going to be regarded as the most significant Bond actor, because he was the first to take on the role and the one to exemplify most of Bond’s characteristics. Yet, Craig is nearly equal in iconic status because he too portrays Bond with multiple layers, and he does all of those layers well. He’s charming and sincere when he needs to be, manipulative and deceptive when otherwise.
Most impressive to me is that, even in the action sequences, the biggest thing I notice is Craig’s mannerisms. Not the explosions. Not the gunfire. Not the people he’s punching in the face. I’m noticing Craig. Why? Because I’m buying him as a character, not as an actor. I see the anger in his face when someone hits him and he’s getting ready to hit back. I see the cold calculation in his eyes as he’s deciding which targets to shoot first. I’m noticing the surprise on his face as his eyes widen, the panic that sets in when he’s discovered, and the fear piercing through his body when someone he loves is in danger. It’s hard to notice someone’s performance in the middle of an action sequence. Craig makes it seem like a cakewalk.
Of course, director Sam Mendes is also credited for the style of the film as well, with the action and the incredible set pieces making up for most of the excitement of the film. Yet, I’m a little disappointed that, after making one of the most definitive Bond films ever in Skyfall, Mendes reverted to a few conventions of the franchise that worked against it.
Take the characters as a primary example. Who do we have here? A secretive baddie hiding in the shadows, a big, burly baddie that walks and fights like a tank, a mentor figure of Bond’s that ushers him a profound warning, and the Bond girl, who is as beautiful and visually striking as ever. Their actors deliver just what is expected of them and what has been delivered before. The secretive baddie hides in the shadows, the big, burly baddie beats up Bond before he is killed, the mentor dies, and the girl hooks up with Bond. Not very original, now is it?
And this isn’t a criticism so much as it is a notice. Casino Royale and Skyfall were significant entries to the series because they saw Bond not as an action hero, but as a human being, dealing with his own hurts and pains by taking it out on the mission and his enemies. Here, Bond goes back to hero mode while we just tag along for the ride. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re used to seeing one thing, it’s a little bit of a let down to see the franchise take a step back on itself.
In the end, Spectre is like Bond’s rebuilt Ashton Martin after it blew up in Skyfall. It may have the same frame, but it doesn’t have the same ride.