The new James Bond movie “No Time to Die” promises a number of changes that upend Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the British superspy. It’s out soon, so it’s an ideal time to go back to Craig’s last foray into Bond and figure out what that mess was. The two movies link together, after all, with several key characters returning. How was re-watching “Spectre”?
1. Sam Smith or Radiohead?
That Sam Smith theme song. Oof. I have no idea why producers went with that over Radiohead’s version. I like Smith, but their version is about as safe as you can play it. Given that the rest of “Spectre” has very little interest in playing it safe, it’s hard to tell why producers chose that over something far moodier and more foreboding.
Here’s the opening credits edited with the Radiohead theme instead of the Smith one:
2. This is a Different Character
One thing I liked about the new Bond in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” is that he did the calculations in his head. If he could get the bad guy but too many civilians were at risk, he’d back off and wait for another opportunity. You felt he had a duty, and that was often to be a wall between himself and the deaths of others. He’d risk one or two people and consider that the price of business, but never an entire crowd.
The tension lay in watching him back off and seeing how he found a way to create a new opportunity. That took good writing that sometimes established a set piece and then denied us that set piece, making us wait and wonder about how a confrontation would evolve.
It’s completely nonsensical then that in the film’s opening scene Bond chooses to have a fistfight that sends a helicopter wheeling about and nearly crashing into a crowd of hundreds. It doesn’t feel like I’m watching the same character. Or rather: it feels like the character is servicing the script rather than the other way around.
3. The Political Statement is Window Dressing
You remember the problem everyone had with the “Star Wars” prequels? That they focused on trade wars and the Galactic Senate and political machinations you could read a mile away, but you still had to wait and wade through them when they finally happened exactly as you predicted?
My problem isn’t that they felt Bond needed more of that – it’s fine to make political statements. The problem is that the political statement is made so clumsily that whole stretches of the film are devoted to a simple idea. Remember “The Dark Knight” for a second – Batman develops a tool that hacks into every cell phone in Gotham. He puts it into the hands of Lucius Fox, along with a way to destroy it when it’s served its purpose. We see a political commentary made, it’s employed into the plot, and then a solution for how to handle it is given. It doesn’t take over the movie.
“Quantum of Solace” had some problems, but one thing it did very well is it created an effective and moving plot around water rights in developing countries. It did this by asking us to inhabit that world and that experience for a time.
The political statement in “Spectre” is never inhabited. It’s part of a set, it’s a backdrop. Nothing is taught, nothing brave is said about spying on citizens beyond, “This is wrong.” Even then, it’s stated only in the broadest sense. There’s no nuance, there’s no real world impact to its existence or lack thereof. I agree with the film’s broad argument wholeheartedly, but we’re told spying on citizens is wrong by a spy who can defeat the plan to spy on citizens because he’s so gosh darn good at spying on citizens.
The good guys believe it’s wrong, and since they’re good guys and it’s a Bond movie, you know they’ll be OK…but the good guys never defeat what’s most important when making a political statement – they never defeat the argument or the ideal that they’re fighting, since the movie itself never bothers to fight it.
4. “Hudson Hawk” Editing
There’s a scene in “Hudson Hawk” where characters are saved from a fall because they literally fall into the next scene. Then they pick up the scene as if it’s perfectly natural for them to be there.
“Spectre” feels a lot like this, except it’s not supposed to be a spoof. The most basic elements of how Bond gets from place to place, and more importantly why he goes from place to place, are either mumbled, dropped out of conversation, or never explained in a context. Bond’s in an entirely new country, in a new climate. Why? Cause we’ve had an action scene in two other climates but we haven’t done one in the mountains yet.
“Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” had intricately winding plots, but they were made exquisitely simple by the scripting and filmmaking. The plot of “Spectre” is on rails the entire time: A to B to C. Yet you can hardly ever follow why something is happening.
Compare this especially to the last four “Mission Impossible” movies, which have delivered spider webbed spy plots and globetrotting set pieces, yet somehow managed to make these complications extremely sleek and accessible to the point of elegance. “Spectre” can barely get a scene change right.
5. Perfume Commercials
There’s a compact and far more entertaining hour and a half movie in here somewhere. I usually want my movies winding and long, but interrupting your spy action for sequences that feel like perfume commercials every 15 minutes makes zero sense.
There’s endless focus on the sets, the locations, and the atmosphere. It all forgets to keep the plot moving. You expect Daniel Craig to turn around at any moment and whisper, “Wingardium Leviosa by Calvin Klein” before spritzing himself with a bottle – and honestly, that would make more sense because it would at least fit the tone of what’s presented throughout the middle of “Spectre”.
6. James Bond is Bad at Sex
“Hi, I’m Bond. James Bond. I just killed your two assassins.”
“We literally only have five minutes before more come to kill me.”
“Let’s have sex.”
These aren’t direct quotes, but it’s pretty much how the Monica Bellucci scene plays out. Look, you see each other and want to jump each others’ bones, that’s fine. But there’s no chemistry here, there’s just a sort of borderline “Is this about to turn into a sexual assault?”
It doesn’t, she’s into it, another “Skyfall” moment barely dodged – although it’s worth noting that he killed her husband and she might be terrified of him. I’ll take it on faith that this is a consensual moment the movie communicates really badly.
There’s not an ounce of chemistry anywhere to be seen, but that holds true for any two people sharing a scene in “Spectre”. I’m not even going to address that mess. What I’ll address is scripting. Scripting, guys. Scripting. Get it together. You’re essentially telling us Bond gets off in, like, 90 seconds. That doesn’t seem that, uh…I mean, ignoring the 70s Roger Moore, misogynist claptrap a scene like this hearkens back to (which you shouldn’t, though), let’s be purely logical about what Bond’s communicating:
Bond’s supposed to be like the Superman of sex, and you’re telling us through your scripting, “Don’t worry, Bond literally takes less than five minutes.” Sounds, uh…I mean, it doesn’t seem like Monica Bellucci’s going to be having that much fun in this equation.
Sean Connery’s Bonds weren’t exactly forward-thinking about gender equality, but at least he’d ditch work for the day to take women on picnics. Daniel Craig’s just like, “All I need’s a minute, ninety seconds tops.” That’s not encouraging, James.
7. This is Severely Miscast
Rarely have so many strong actors been wasted. Christoph Waltz is doing a B-grade version of what we’ve seen him do better in other films. Bellucci’s there for five minutes and barely does a thing. Craig seems routinely disinterested (especially in his co-actors). Lea Seydoux is a far more enigmatic actress than just playing the straight-up Bond girl who falls in love. Dave Bautista isn’t a natural actor, but at least he showed he has charm for the screen in “Guardians of the Galaxy”. Here, they don’t even let him speak.
Yet the most inane casting choice in this whole mess was made in the last film – replacing Judi Dench with Ralph Fiennes as M. Fiennes is an actor whose specialty is hiding his characters, protecting them from the audience. He can create very real, very troubled characters that way, characters who draw you in because of the walls they’ve built to keep you out. In fact, he would’ve made a phenomenal villain for this. Yet as a bureaucrat with a gun, Fiennes is boring. We’re not tempted to draw in because the archetype he’s playing is intentionally uninviting.
So you end up with an actor protecting his character from an audience who’s not interested in penetrating the depths of that character. This creates a narrative wall in front of a character who’s already being performed with walls, meaning you could pretty much replace Fiennes with a wall and nothing about the film would change.
8. You Came for a Gunfight, but Have You Seen our Set Design?
That first climax. No, not the one that took Bond only ninety seconds. I mean the one in the desert that…also takes Bond only ninety seconds. Maybe if you spent less time showing off the production design for the perfume commercial you’re going to shoot right after this, you could have left the space for an actual gunfight, or fistfight, or anything more than Bond shooting a few people who – as the gunfight escalates – increasingly stand still doing nothing, and then magically destroying the entire base with one shot.
9. Time to Save the Wor- ooh, a Maze!
That last climax. The Sam Mendes Bond films are built around the villain planning for Bond to escape traps directly in front of their elaborately designed maze. This then requires Bond to completely ditch his plan to save the world and instead decide, “Ooh, a maze! This looks fun!”
10. Retcon Theater
The tie-in to what “Casino” and “Quantum” established with the Quantum group isn’t fleshed out. It just so happens Bond killed all of Blofeld’s Lieutenants in the previous movies by complete chance, even though the first one was basically about some schmuck who owed a warlord a lot of money and needed to win it back in a poker game. Seems that if Le Chiffre were secretly one of the most powerful people in the world, he wouldn’t need to do all that, he’d just be like, “Fuck it, I’m part of Spectre, I’ll just blow that guy up with a drone or send Dave Bautista after him.”
“Casino” and “Quantum” were about Bond working his way up the line of a powerful organization through villains who that organization considered expendable, not tripping over the key bad guys like he’s Chris Noth falling over evidence in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”.
To retcon the villains of those movies into Blofeld’s top Lieutenants isn’t just dismissive of Bond’s work and the story evolution of the first two Craig films, it also just doesn’t make a lick of sense for anyone paying attention. Of course, that’s kind of a running theme for “Spectre”.
With “Skyfall” and “Spectre”, Sam Mendes has taken the much-needed re-invigoration and modernization of the Bond movies “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace”, dismissed everything successful they did, and dialed their sensibilities back by decades. We’ve traded off complex characters, layered mysteries, and meaningful consequences (even for Bond’s sexual escapades) for set pieces that occur with the haphazard logic of a “Transformers” movie, and trivial titillation that doesn’t even seem to understand the most basic fundamentals of what human sexuality involves.
In the first two Craig movies, Bond was a globe-trotting superspy who had to prove his chops and was tempted by trauma and the sociopathy of revenge. He lost people close to him due to his single-mindedness and high opinion of himself, yet eventually found some brief access to peace and balance by turning someone else away from the path he’s taken. That’s compelling. That’s a reason to keep watching. For whatever other issues “Quantum of Solace” had, what it added to his character was complex and moving.
Mendes has taken that and made Bond into a sometimes-efficient, sometimes clumsy braggadocio who lucks into plot points and dei ex machina instead of uncovering them through any skill. He’ll risk hundreds of people for a fist fight, he takes 90 seconds to have sex, and villains can effectively distract him from saving the world by presenting him with a lame maze he has to solve for no reason.
Mendes took a revolution that made a character compelling who hadn’t been for a very long time, completely failed to understand it, and thought spending lots of money on cinematography and production design was a good replacement for a plot.
I’m thankful that the franchise has been handed off to a new director in Cary Fukunaga and the screenplay’s reportedly had a proper thrashing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but my excitement for “No Time to Die” is tempered by the fact it has to build atop the structure Mendes so completely broke.
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