On the weekend edition of The Mark Steyn Show, I noted the endlessly postponed new James Bond film - and looked back to the last such hiatus, via the Steyn archives, with the late John Sessions. That prompted a bit of back and forth in the comments on where the franchise is headed. So I thought for this weekend's movie column I'd take a look at the story so far - Spectre:
In the summer of 2012 my daughter and I spent a few days at a bleak and isolated Highland hunting lodge, which, as I said to her at the time, felt like John Buchan's Scotland - the place where a thriller chase winds up. I had the wrong author, but right genre. A couple of months later, the new Bond film reached its denouement in a similarly desolate Caledonian haunt - the eponymous Skyfall, the name of 007's childhood home.
It was an innovative end for a Bond movie, at least to those of us for whom - for half a century - the most boring bit in 007 has always been the final twenty minutes when Bond and the girl run around the hollowed-out volcano shooting hundreds of tinfoil-suited extras in golf carts while looking for the big red "Off" button that disconnects the space laser. Personally, I only sit through it for the final quip after Bond and the dolly bird are making out in a dinghy or space module unaware that M and the distinguished guests from the Ministry are watching every move. Gadgets come and go, so do Q and Moneypenny, but the exploding-lair finale had somehow managed to survive every single retooling of the formula – from campy Roger Moore to clunky Timothy Dalton, smooth Pierce Brosnan to rough Daniel Craig. Until Skyfall.
It was a very great Bond film, from Adele's title theme (the least worst Bond song this century) to that mournful rooftop shot with Bond and Moneypenny right at the end, overlooking a London drained of all color except for a fluttering Union Jack. Save for Albert Finney in a role obviously intended for a Sean Connery cameo, Skyfall was hard to fault: its stunts were inventive and its plot was tragic.
By those high standards, Spectre has to be accounted something of a disappointment. It opens, as is fashionable these days, with a single tracking shot through the Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico City, as director Sam Mendes and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema follow Daniel Craig and his bird as they weave through the street parade, into an hotel lobby, then the elevator, up to the room, and then (007 only) out the window. The shot is impressive, but the window exit is an allusion to Thunderball, and it isn't even the first such in the picture: Bond is wearing, as his costume for the Day of the Dead parade, the same get-up Baron Samedi favored for Live And Let Die. The train fight is an hommage to From Russia With Love, the Alpine clinic is likewise to On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the shooting gallery to The Man With The Golden Gun. There's even an hommage to the late Jaws in the similarly supersized and taciturn (if rather less dentally alarming) strongman Hinx.
At what point does "allusion" become a polite evasion for "lack of ideas"? Or "going around in circles"? The difference between Spectre and the back catalogue it's riffing off is the money. This is, according to some, the most expensive film of all time. Not the most expensive Bond film, the most expensive any film. And, when you're blowing through 300 million bucks, you don't linger - Mexico City, London, Rome, Lake Altaussee, an Alpine peak, a Moroccan railway... When you're spending that fast, nobody's going to settle in and play golf for 20 minutes, as Sean Connery did with Gert Frobe in Goldfinger all those years ago. The opening helicopter battle is technically impressive, but, like so many of the other set-pieces, it doesn't seem entirely essential to the story. And so, after a while, it all becomes (by comparison with Skyfall), a bit episodic. This happens, then that happens, then something else, and a certain lack of internal logic and narrative drive become increasingly apparent.
The plot? Well, if you saw Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, it'll all ring a bell. Bond gets back from Mexico City to find he's suspended and that Her Britannic Majesty's Government is doing some bureaucratic streamlining of the intelligence services, under which MI6 and M will now be coming under a new centralized national security apparatus headed by C. As it happens, C is the real-life name for the head of MI6 - Ian Fleming fictionalized it to M. The fictional C is putting together a global security alliance of nine nations to institute the 24/7 real-time surveillance operation "Nine Eyes". In real life, as noted on this weekend's Mark Steyn Show, there's an actual "Five Eyes" security alliance, the intelligence sharing the US has done with Britannia and its lion cubs since the Second World War.
So the details have a kind of verisimilitude while seeming more and more disconnected from any reality - whether real reality or the internal reality of fiction. The nub of the matter is that, as C tells M, old-fashioned field agents like 007 are obsolete dinosaurs in the computer age. Oddly enough, this is the sort of the thing the new M (Ralph Fiennes) used to say to the old M (Judi Dench) during Skyfall.
Long-running series can run on without a lot of innovation: look at Bond in the Roger Moore era, which was a gleeful celebration of a beloved, unchanging formula. But the Craig/Mendes 007 has pretensions to originality and invention, and so the thinness of its ideas is somehow more noticeable, particularly now they're trying to connect up every film to its predecessor. In the first Daniel Craig outing, Casino Royale, it emerged that behind LeChiffre was "Mr White". In Quantum of Solace, we learned that behind Mr White was the sinister organization Quantum. Now it's revealed that behind the sinister organization Quantum is the even more sinister organization Spectre. Presumably in the next film we'll find out that behind the even more sinister organization Spectre is ...the new Doctor No? The new Goldfinger? The new Oddjob? The new Sheriff J W Pepper?
For the moment Spectre is headed up by ...well, let's just say you'll recognize the fluffy white Persian cat, even if the guy stroking it (Christoph Waltz) doesn't seem to get quite the gleeful pleasure out of the role that Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray did. This is a somewhat earnest Ernst Stavro Blofeld in a characterization which, like others in the reinvented Bond universe, confuses solemnity for seriousness.
By comparison with his immediate predecessor, Daniel Craig is a hard, cruel, cold 007, which is certainly part of Ian Fleming's conception if not Roger Moore's. But he's not terribly charming, and, while he has a certain chemistry with Monica Bellucci in their brief legover interlude after the funeral of her husband, one can't honestly detect much with Léa Seydoux in a relationship that consumes much of the film. Nor does he have, compared with Connery or Brosnan, any sense of real connection with the new M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner, who seem to be transforming from the chaps with the desk jobs to a Mission: Impossible-type team. Formula is a very delicate thing: you can monkey with it very occasionally and send Q or Moneypenny out into the field once every decade or so. But Fleming's jest is a particular one: a man who is licensed to kill reports back to a very boring British bureaucracy. And the scenes here of M and Q running around loosing off shots and shaking off cable-car hit-men paradoxically makes Bond's world more ordinary. After moving MI6 back into Bernard Lee's old digs (apparently unchanged since the Eighties, except, as far as I can tell, for the absence of Moneypenny's hat stand), Mendes takes the decision to have Ralph Fiennes tieless for half the picture, from the moment we glimpse him dining solo at Rules. It is oddly discordant.
Equally disturbing is Thomas Newman's disdain for the Bond theme, aside from a few allusions to the swingin' middle section (featured in my own version of "Goldfinger"). Otherwise, it's banished to the closing credits - which, as with M's missing tie, seems somehow a diminution.
Of course, I've been watching 007 a long time, but my younger boy expresses similar reservations. We enjoyed the self-parody of the conventions: Q shows Bond the new Aston Martin only to reveal that it is, in fact, for 009. When Bond, having nicked it and in mid-chase through the streets of Rome, starts frantically pushing the ejector-seat buttons, all that comes up are 009's pre-programmed music selections. Very droll. But for all the money-no-object lavishness there is even less at the heart of this film than of the silliest late-period Roger Moore.
If Daniel Craig wants to play 007 hard and cruel, then there have to be hard and cruel truths underpinning his performance. For all the gizmos and Nehru suits, Bond films of yore managed at least to acknowledge the Cold War, the nuclear stand-off, the Afghan insurgency against the Commies, post-Soviet Russia, etc. Since the grittiness of Casino Royale, Bond's world has shrunk to the point where the entire British intelligence and security budget is devoted to the pursuit of enemies who have no greater motivation than that, back when he and Blofeld were both lads, James got more attention during skiing lessons. For this, they build desert lairs and detonate MI6 headquarters and threaten Armageddon.
It was unfortunate that the new Bond should open a week before the Paris attacks. As I noted back then, Isis merits that octopus signet ring more than this revived Spectre. The "T" in Fleming's original acronym stood for "Terrorism", which was a rare use of the term in the pop culture of six decades back. In this film, nobody mentions what Spectre stands for at all, and we're asked to believe that the greatest multinational evildoing conglomerate on the planet exists simply because Bond pantsed Blofeld in Sixth Grade. That's more ridiculous than anything in A View To A Kill or Moonraker.
The ending of this film suggests strongly that Daniel Craig will return for one last turn as 007 with its central events derived from the final moments of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I'm not giving anything away: it's telegraphed with the subtlety of Hinx pushing out some guy's eyeballs and snapping his neck. I've followed Bond ever since I first read Casino Royale as a boy, and I've never doubted the strength of the franchise even through the wobbliest moments - like the Timothy Dalton years. But for the first time one senses intimations of mortality - that a series that's run for two-thirds of the history of talking pictures may one day come to an end. Spectre turns the Bond series into one unending set of Russian dolls in which, with each shrunken revelation, the certainty of one big nothing inside the final doll becomes more and more inevitable.
~In lieu of the new Bond film, SteynOnline has its own quantum of Bondage, including Mark and John Sessions discussing License to Kill on this weekend's Mark Steyn Show. We also have Mark's take on Ian Fleming's original 007 novels; a celebration of M's iconic secretary, Miss Moneypenny; a tip of the hat to Christopher Wood, the man who gave Roger Moore all his best double entendres; and an audio salute to John Barry, the composer who was Bond's music man for a quarter-century and along the way invented a whole new genre: spy music.
If you are missing, as we all are, our peerless picture columnist Kathy Shaidle, do check out our new Shaidle at the Cinema home page for the full archive of our late friend's work: It's a grand collection of the best writing on films and film-makers.
Mark will be back here later to conclude his current Tale for Our Time - The Scarlet Plague by Jack London. If you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, do please share your view of our movie feature in the comments section. If you're not a member of The Mark Steyn Club, we're fast approaching our fourth birthday and would love to welcome you to our ranks.