It’s easy to forget but James Bond is one of our weirdest enduring cultural phenomenons. Each structurally and dramatically near-identical outing is a unique snapshot of the trends of its time and their concepts of traditional masculinity, which in the end are all that make up Bond as a character. Over the past few years though the series seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, in what appears to be some sort of existential crisis.
The iteration of the plot this time around is that following a personal mission-gone-wrong left to him by the late Judi Dench and opening credits featuring softcore tentacle porn (I’m not kidding), Bond and friends are introduced to Jim Moriarty from Sherlock, mugging like a jackass having clearly been told to ‘do that thing you do on TV’ and cackling about how the double-O section is outdated and he’s firing all our heroes to replace them with a worldwide surveillance system M describes as “Orwell’s worst nightmare”, just in case we missed that he’s the villain. As this plan largely sits on the backburner for most of the film it forms a sort of B-plot, whilst Bond traipses across the globe in pursuit of a mysterious man in a Nehru jacket running a global supervillain network called Spectre. An attempt is made at giving the pair a childhood backstory, but like any character whose appeal relies on being portrayed as ceaselessly cool (see also Batman) any attempt to explicitly define Bond’s childhood feels like it undercuts him as a character.
Half of this film is pointless, but I’m not sure which half. Both villains function identically running their scheme to consolidate multiple country’s intelligence services into a single world-spanning organisation, neither really depends on the other for anything and Moriarty barely has any motivation for any of this. He seems to exist solely so Moneypenny, Q and a very bored Ralph Fiennes have something to do for the climax while Bond is elsewhere. Surprisingly Spectre doesn’t feel overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but at least a third of the script could be cut without effect.
Mendes appears to have either given up or royally screwed his second go at Bond, as almost none of his splendid direction from Skyfall returns here. After a fantastic opening chase through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival the rest is weirdly flat and lifeless, beginning with a fight in a helicopter that largely cuts back and forth between near-identical interior punch shots and repetitive takes of the chopper steady over the parade, before frequently cutting away from dramatic helicopter stunts you’d think you’d want to show off. It only really comes to life again a couple of times during later action sequences, with a particularly fun train punch-up, but even a night-time high-speed pursuit through the streets of Rome feels lethargic. Tonally the film is shaky as well, repeatedly undercutting its general target of a lighter, jokier vibe than its predecessor with jarring death-obsessed moments that would make Katniss Everdeen flinch.
The biggest problem I alluded to earlier though, is that I don’t think this franchise knows what to do with itself. Both Spectre and Skyfall are weirdly defensive movies, seemingly made under the assumption there is some massive cultural backlash against the franchise against which it must assert itself. Skyfall went so far as to have M literally defend the franchise in court with terrorists bursting in at the opportune moment to prove her point, along with a running theme of Bond using low-tech means to save everyone from the new guard’s fuck-ups but Spectre takes it even further. Every five minutes for its first half it has M and Moriarty pop up to say first “The double-O section is outdated, I’m closing it down muhahahaha” and then “No, we totally need the double-O section” over and over again. The public distaste for Quantum of Solace seems to have sapped all this franchise’s confidence and while Skyfall had some Oedipal thing going on and Spectre makes an effort to be The Bourne Ultimatum both these films are essentially thematic tautologies: they exist to explain why they exist.
It’s also emblematic of the way Mendes is going about storytelling here. Whereas films like Goldeneye, Casino Royale and even Quantum of Solace created worlds from which the familiar Bond tropes naturally grew Skyfall and Spectre start with those tropes and work backwards to try and justify them. The bad guy has a secret desert villain headquarters with a private torture room not because he’s someone who would do that, but just because that’s what Bond villains do (apparently), just like Bond’s new car having exhaust flamethrowers and an ejector seat, and him and the female lead falling for each other for no discernible reason. The result is that Mendes’ Bond films are just made from bits of other movies without much identity of their own; the villain and scarred baddie from You Only Live Twice, the giant mute henchman from The Spy Who Loved Me (minus anything to make him distinctive) and even the climax feels like a riff on Craig’s first entry.
Spectre is ultimately little more than a hollow shell the Bond franchise has constructed around its own insecurities, and all its insistence about how relevant and vital it is in the modern age just causes me to wonder the opposite. Casino Royale deconstructed the Bond movie almost a decade ago to great acclaim, but you can only play that card once as deconstruction only examines what’s already there without adding anything new. In this new world where the series seems to primarily exist to explain why it exists, do we really need James Bond?