Well, at least that’s over. Daniel Craig has publicly stated that he would rather “slash his wrists” than play James Bond again, which means that SPECTRE is likely his final film as 007. Having just spent the afternoon of my forty-fourth birthday sitting through a matinee showing of this dismal, dour, and preternaturally self-absorbed film, I can see why he is eager to quit the franchise. I’m eager for him to leave, as well.
My reasoning for this is simple: this long, boring movie isn’t a James Bond film. Dr. No was a James Bond film. Moonraker was a James Bond film. Even the absolutely terrible The World Is Not Enough was a James Bond film. But SPECTRE is not. Instead, like its predecessors Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, it’s a film about James Bond. The distinction is important, both for the future of the 007 franchise and for our understanding of why action movies have fundamentally and perhaps irreversibly changed for the worse in the past decade.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Don’t read this unless you’ve either seen the movie or can live with having a few major plot points revealed ahead of time.
It seemed like a minor, if blasphemous, detail at the time, but it was hugely significant. The title montage at the beginning of “Casino Royale”, the first film in the Daniel Craig series, ends by showing you… Daniel Craig as James Bond. This had never happened in the twenty films prior; at the most there had been a shadow of a face or silhouette that could have been whatever actor was playing Bond at the time. But Casino Royale‘s title ends with you staring Craig right in his emotionally vacant, dockworker’s eyes. Welcome to the narcissist Bond.
Casino Royale is a Bond origin story, and it’s also notable because it was the one Fleming book that never received a proper film treatment until 2006. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just that the rights to the book were tied up in various hands until someone had dump trucks full of cash delivered to all the right places. It’s this: Bond does’t need an origin story. Nobody saw Dr. No and thought: “Gee, I’d like to see what happened to make this Bond fellow the way he is.” That movie stood on its own merits and by the time it was over we knew everything we needed to know about James Bond.
The nineteen movies that followed Dr. No, and the unauthorized Thunderball remix starring Connery, Never Say Never Again, all followed the same basic theme. There’s a bad guy who is going to do something terrible to the world. He has unlimited henchmen and a secret hideout and probably a super-weapon. Bond will discover the plan, probably by getting captured, and then he will foil the plan. Having done so, he will then knock it off with a good-looking woman who finds herself unable to resist Bond, even if she started off as his enemy.
By contrast, the stakes in Casino Royale are much lower — a terrorist is trying to pay back the African warlord he defrauded — but the misery quotient is much higher. There’s virtually no joy in the film. Craig is tortured, his heart stops, he is beaten, he falls down stairs a few times. Then his girlfriend dies. It’s reasonably true to the original book, but faithfulness to the source material was never part of the Bond-film formula.
Quantum Of Solace, the follow-up film, has a villain who is going to double the price of water in Bolivia. This was based on a true story that actually was much worse than the premise of the movie but yet still wasn’t important enough to make international news. And again Bond spends the movie enduring all sorts of gruesome physical misery for no purpose. Nobody suffers like Daniel Craig as James Bond. Everything that happens in the movie injures him somehow. Couple that with his inability to comfortably wear a suit and you start to wonder — how is this guy a British secret agent at all? There’s just one scene in the whole thing that would properly belong in any of the first twenty films, and it’s when Mr. White, surveying the damage after Bond runs wild through Quantum’s meeting-at-the-opera, says, “Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone.” When your main villain is better at being Bond than your Bond is, that’s a problem.
But wait, it gets worse. We have Skyfall, the Official Bond Movie Of Emo Millennials. After his fellow agent shoots him by mistake, Bond spends a year or so feeling sorry for himself on a beach somewhere. When he returns to service, everybody’s concerned about him being up to the job because he’s so old and battered and bruised. (Age of Daniel Craig during filming: 43. Age of Roger Moore during filming of A View To A Kill: 57.) And then it turns out that there’s MORE BOND ORIGIN STORY because the final shootout happens at the estate where he grew up as a child. And everybody is just SO SAD and the bad guy is ONE OF US YOU KNOW and there are many EMOTIONAL MOMENTS and the entire second half of the film is shot in the DEAD OF NIGHT and it’s all about OUR SAD CHILDHOODS.
Now, finally, it’s time for SPECTRE. The key line from the movie is delivered in the previews: “It was me, James, the architect of all your pain.” So, it turns out that there is a THIRD ORIGIN STORY for Bond. If you’re counting, that’s three origin stories in four films. This time, we learn that “Blofeld” is actually a childhood friend of Bond’s who resents him for taking his father’s affection away. So he formed SPECTRE to make James Bond unhappy.
I repeat: the entire point of a multi-billion-dollar global criminal conspiracy was to make sure that James Bond was sad and that all his girlfriends died. It’s an idea so ridiculous that it can’t even be properly stretched and folded over the previous three Craig movies without coming apart at the seams. For the rest of the film, Bond runs around in a maze designed for him by his childhood pal. Then he makes a couple of solid two-hundred-yard pistol shots at a helicopter and then it’s all over.
Most of SPECTRE is a lifeless trudge through various “homages” to previous Bond films that just serve to make the viewer nostalgic for said films at the expense of the one he is watching. Even the much-ballyhooed car Aston-vs-Jag chase scene manages to look simultaneously slow, fake, and consequence-free. There’s no joy or excitement in the film whatsoever. Think of the relentlessly dour atmosphere of various Sixties films that were based on John Le Carre books, minus the disciplined plotting and memorable characters.
What makes this a despicable film rather than a merely poor one, however, is the fealty it swears to two particularly loathsome modern ideas. The first one: The only source of evil in the world is old white men in the established power structure. To be fair, it’s a rare Bond movie that has a nonwhite villain; the last one to have an arch-enemy who managed to remain ethnic the whole way through was 1989’s License To Kill. But this creeping notion that the only true bad guys in this world are created by Western democracies is infantile and ridiculous. It’s a story that is hugely comforting for progressive extremists and the people who swallow the progressive media: all the evil in the world is right here and we can fix it! But it’s not worthy of consideration by functioning adults.
The fact of the matter is that Western democracy is the shining light by which everything we value exists, from women’s rights to modern medicine to freedom of assembly. Every time we encourage young people to watch movies that deliberately undermine that truth, we are assisting in the destruction of our society and a return to the Dark Ages.
The second problematic idea in SPECTRE is the pure mainline injection of narcissism it brings to the Bond movies and the Bond character. Like all the post-modernist critiques of various comic books and heroic movies, it gives strength and credibility to the idea that “bad guys” are created by the presence of the “good guys”. That if James Bond had never been born that none of the terrible things done by Quantum or SPECTRE could have happened. Like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, where it is alternately suggested to, and shouted at, the viewer that the existence of Batman causes people like the Joker or Bane to choose an evil path, SPECTRE suggests that the existence of a James Bond is what brings evil organizations into being.
When children see enough of a message like this, the net effect is to convince them that traditional heroism or courage is both unnecessary and dangerous. It’s how you get the Twitter Social Justice Mob, a bunch of anonymous cowards trying to make sure that everybody who disagrees with them loses his job and home and children. Every kid in my generation wanted to be James Bond. You got to drive cool cars and nail good-looking women and save the world. But who would want to be Daniel Craig’s James Bond? You spend more time being tortured than you do behind the wheel of an Aston Martin. Honestly, my pal Matt Farah has a better life than James Bond. He sleeps with attractive women and he drives an Aston Martin and the closest he ever comes to confronting evil is when my brother stays over at his place.
It has to be said, before I close this review, that there is a brilliant movie hidden within SPECTRE. It’s the sub-plot where Ralph Fiennes and his associates are shutting down a corporate-sponsored global surveillance network just a few minutes before it goes live. That’s a great plot and Fiennes is thoroughly admirable as a pistol-packing, active-leadership “M”. It’s enough to make you wonder — hey, Ralph is only 52. Couldn’t we get a couple of movies where he was Bond? Movies in the old high-spirited Roger Moore tradition? I won’t hold my breath for that.
There is going to be a change in the future, however. No wonder Mr. Craig is eager to leave the role. He’s tired of doing these depressing, meaningless films where he has to frown the entire time. I’m ready for him to quit as well. But the Bond franchise has plenty of life left in it. Supposedly Idris Elba is the next Bond. That would please the mandatory-diversity crowd, to have a black Bond. But I think that Mr. Elba, with his sagging eyelids and morose disposition, is the wrong brother for the job. No, I think they need the other guy from The Wire: Wood Harris, who played Avon Barksdale. I’m ready for some Bond movies where Avon Barksdale kicks ass and drives cool cars and goes to casinos and whatnot. Those would be fun movies, and that’s what I want from the Bond franchise. After all, if I want to hear a story about a guy in his mid-forties coming to terms with his mortality and his sorrow and the consequences of his actions — shit, man, I can get that for free, you know?