I’m fascinated by James Bond movies, have seen every one, and none is more fascinating than the latest: Spectre. It doesn’t so much feel like a Bond film than as a deconstruction of Bond films. The final big action scene, in which Bond (as always) has to rescue the girl, involves him solving a maze through the Bond past. Clues include photos of Bond villains and Bond girls from the past. At the end of the film, he asks Q for his old Aston Martin, and rides off into the sunset with his latest flame. It feels valedictory, like the end of the series. So much so that I watched the closing credits to the end, to see if Barbara Broccoli finished with the usual ‘James Bond will return in . . . (new film title). No film title this time, but a promise that Bond would return, undoubtedly with a new actor (Idris Elba!) in the role. But if the decision were made to end the series, this would be a pretty good film to end it on.
What fascinates me about Bond films are the Bond villains. Taken collectively, they’re a wonderful indicator of American/Western anxieties and fears. First, of course, Bond villains were sort of about the Cold War. The bad guys were often either former Soviet or Nazi counter-intelligence agents. Initially, the films softened the Soviet threat, replaced it with a criminal conspiracy. The Soviet equivalent of MI6, SMERSH, provided villains for the novels, but generally, the films replace SMERSH with Spectre, as in Goldfinger, Dr. No, and You Only Live Twice. Spectre got its start with an equivalent fictional organization with Nazi origins. One of the most famous Bond villains was Ernst Blofeld, head of Spectre, played with such benign menace by Donald Pleasance. Remember, the white cat, the wheelchair? Well, in Spectre, in 2015, the Bond villain declares that he is, in fact, Ernst Blofeld. And he sits in a wheelchair and strokes a white cat. He’s Blofeld, but he’s also Bond’s foster brother. And he’s been manipulating Bond all these years. See what I mean by deconstruction?
Christoph Waltz plays this Blofeld, which is, of course, preposterous. He’s far too young to be, you know, Blofeld. But Bond, who fought for Britain in WWII would be, what, in his late eighties by now? My wife believes, with good evidence, that James Bond is actually ‘James Bond,’ that just as Q or M are titles, with new guys filling the posts, so is James Bond a title. (So, it seems, is Miss Moneypenny–also a title, with new women filling the role). There’s always a Bond, he’s always 007, but different guys (different Scottish orphans, apparently) have always taken on that persona. So there’s now a replacement Ernst Blofeld.
And what does Blofeld want? He’s working with a British politician with intelligence experience, C (Andrew Hall). C essentially is in the data collection business. Blofeld is a criminal mastermind. They’re working hand-in-glove to use all that metadata for criminal purposes. To get funding for this scheme, Spectre stages terrorist events from time to time, to keep pressure on governments. So imagine that ISIS is in cahoots with the NSA, and you’ve basically got the gist of the plot.
Well, that’s spooky. ISIS is actually more about criminality than ideology? And in league with the NSA? Nicely played, Bond film! We’re all anxious about the NSA, after all, and terrified of terrorism. You get to play off both those Western obsessions.
Except it’s not scary at all. It’s a Bond film. This is just the latest Bond villain. Just another good ESL actor with a gift for flamboyant comedy. To take this evil plot seriously would suggest that we have ever taken the evil plots of Bond villains seriously, and we don’t. Because Bond is a cartoon.
And of course, this is the central problem of the whole Bond franchise. The films (especially the Daniel Craig Bond films) have moved towards a greater realism. The West is engaged in a War on Terror, and so the villains have become more plausible. In Skyfall, Judi Dench’s M gave a great speech to Parliament where she made the case for Bond. In a dirty war against psychopathic terrorists, we need someone to do the dirty work. We need the 00 program; we need Bond. Judi Dench is an international treasure, and she delivered the speech with admirable conviction. But it’s still just in the context of a Bond film.
And Bond fans come to the films with certain expectations. They expect the womanizing, they want the wisecracks after he kills someone, they want their Bond girls hot and (preferably) vacuous. (And they don’t come more vacuous than Lea Seydoux in this one). They want ‘shaken, not stirred.’ They want Bond in a tux, in a casino. They want all the elements that make Bond look non-serious. They want another exciting cartoon.
The two worlds–Bond and counter-terrorism–don’t mesh, and never will. Watching Spectre, my wife kept laughing out loud. The fight scenes really were ridiculous, frankly, laugh-worthy. Juxtaposing those fight scenes with semi-realistic approach to fighting the War on Terror just highlights the ridiculousness of Bond.
And even if we grant M the premise of her speech, let me ask this; in what sense do governments today not have 00 powers? A licence to kill (without due process, killing in the national interest, as determined by one guy), has already been granted. President Obama has ordered drone strike executions that have, by the most conservative estimate, killed 2400 people during his Presidency. If we do, in the fight against international terrorism, need a guy with 00 powers to kill bad guys, that guy is not James Bond, a good looking womanizer with a Baretta or Walther handgun. That guy is sitting in a command center in Phoenix, directing a drone with a joystick. Or, it’s Barack Obama. That’s who James Bond is today.
So how do you do it? The biggest challenge James Bond ever faced was the Austin Powers films, which skewered the Bond tradition so neatly the franchise went on a four year hiatus. When Bond came back, Daniel Craig was the new star, and the films took on a darker tone. That coincided with the TV series 24, with Jack Bauer as essentially an American Bond. Bond had to get darker to compete. It worked; the Daniel Craig Bonds are, I think, the best in the franchise history (excepting Quantum of Solace, which is best ignored, I think).
Sam Mendes (who directed American Beauty) directed Skyfall, and now this. He’s a smart and interesting director, and I think his choices made this both the most interesting Bond film, and also contributed to those lingering moments of silliness. It’s a fascinatingly stylized Bond. There’s an early scene, for example, where a woman, wife of a baddie, has been targeted for assassination. She stands on a balcony, looking pensive. Behind her, on either side, two killers. They approach in sync. They raise their guns. Then two silenced shots, and they both fall. Bond has killed them.
That scene, so choreographed, so deliberately anti-realist, points up Mendes’ take. Sure, there are action sequences, and yes, Bond almost immediately sleeps with the widow in the previous scene. But there are also moments with a kind of grim beauty. Which in turn highlights the cartoonishness of, well, James Bond.
Deconstruction. Assume any text is, intentionally or no, ideological, but also that all all ideologies carry the seeds of their own destruction. We’re in a War on Terror. James Bond-like tactics are necessary tactically as we fight that war. James Bond is essential/James Bond is ludicrous. This is a smart film by a smart filmmaker, daring enough to make a film that falls apart, cynical enough to know it doesn’t matter, that it’s still going to make three hundred million dollars. It’s not just another Bond film. It’s hard to imagine that there will be another, or what it will look like.