With the opening of Spectre there have now been 24 “official” James Bond films made—26 if you count the “unofficial” ones (the original Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again). The first Bond film, Dr. No, was released in 1962, so that’s 53 years they’ve had to perfect the formula.
And Spectre is certainly a testament to the efficiency of what we might call “The Bond Franchise Ltd.” Nothing gets in the way of its forward momentum; everything in the film is about advancing the … well, I won’t say “the story,” but rather the audience. It’s like a ride in a funhouse. You get strapped into your car at the beginning and it keeps pushing you forward along its motorized track, turning you this way and that, making sure all the thrills and chills are in your full field of vision.
Director Sam Mendes helmed the last Bond film, Skyfall, so he clearly knows what’s expected and does not fail to deliver in Spectre. He moves us from one set piece to the next, from this stunt to that, from one cliffhanger to another. His precise, even intelligent, direction keeps the track well oiled and invariably succeeds in keeping the funhouse car gliding smoothly from start to finish. It’s like Ol’ Man River—it just keeps rolling along.
If this sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, I’m really not. Or, maybe, mostly not. I assume fans of the Bond series not only know what they’re getting, but wouldn’t have it any other way.
I remember when Daniel Craig, the present James Bond, stepped into the role back in 2006, and there were howls of protests from fans furious that a blond would be playing 007. If hair color could elicit such an outcry, imagine how they’d react if Mendes—or one of the four writers—dared to introduce something like depth or moral ambiguity.
Such a thing would be unheard of. So if you’re going to make a movie so completely defined by its set-in-stone formula, it’s a blessing that such a technically and directorially proficient director as Mendes is on hand to bring it to fruition.
A Voice from the Past, a Journey to … Somewhere
And so Spectre picks up where Skyfall left off. I don’t remember much of that except at the end there’s a big fire in a church and Judi Dench, playing M, dies. In Spectre, Bond receives a video message from her, recorded before her death, warning him of some international crime syndicate and saying that he needs to track down somebody to find out something about someone else or something else or … something.
Thus begins the usual Bond travelogue of beautiful international locations and beautiful international actresses—along with the usual assortment of henchmen and helpers and one very nasty lead villain. Here it’s Christoph Waltz playing his evil overlord character like something out of a Hitchcock movie. He’s witty, suave, and urbane, and works well with Craig’s underplayed, steely-eyed secret agent.
Naomi Harris is back as Miss Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw, as techno-nerd Q, gets to do more in this one than just dispense high-tech gizmos. Ralph Fiennes is Judi Dench’s replacement fighting to keep the “00” program from being shut down by Andrew Scott (who’s the nefarious Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock reboot) playing an officious functionary who may have an ulterior motive.
As it turns out, the “Spectre” of the title is a multinational spy network or information system or cyber cartel or … something. I wasn’t quite sure what the goal of “Spectre” was; I just knew it was bad and a lot of people would die trying either to stop it or to see it succeed.
And, really, that’s all that matters. Mendes and company don’t spend a lot of time filling in the details because … they’re not important.
Ten minutes into the film you know who the goodies are and who the baddies are, and you’re just there to watch them battle it out. And since you know the good guys are going to win anyway, what’s the point of getting bogged down in detail about a plot device that’s going to be destroyed by the end of the movie? I mean it’s just like what happened in the last 23 Bond movies—25 if you count the unofficial ones.
But Is There a There, There?
People go to Bond to see fast cars and groovy stunts, and if something blows up now and again that’s gravy. I will say that Mendes does a really fine job with the destruction element. All too often the violence in these types of movies is extravagant and ridiculously over the top. Mendes keeps the action (and there’s a lot of it) laser sharp and to the point. Where another director might need a shower of bullets to kill someone, Mendes (very much to his credit) accomplishes the same end with one precise gunshot. The physical stunts are similarly controlled—rather than using a logic which exists only in video games, what happens on screen appears to at least be rooted in something approximating the physics of the natural world. I appreciate the restraint.
The problem with Spectre (and I may be the only sufferer) is that the movie is utterly empty. The net result of all this technical acumen is that after a while it becomes old hat and you realize there’s nothing underneath. It dawns on you that those spook-house cars will continue along their track whether or not anyone’s in them. They’ll continue pushing through to the end even if nothing inside the spook-house is particularly fun or scary. The forward motion becomes the sole purpose of the exercise and when you reach the end you’re not relieved or surprised or satisfied. You’re simply back where you started, back where you always knew you’d end up.
You might be grateful the ride was smooth, but maybe next time you’ll try the roller coaster.
Photo images courtesy of MGM Studios Inc., Danjaq LLC, and Columbia Pictures Industries Inc., © 2015.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.