The new James Bond movie, Spectre, makes a satisfying final chapter to the four-film saga of Daniel Craig’s 007, even if that saga turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. But it was a fascinating journey, wasn’t it? Instructive in all sorts of ways. In a world of “franchises,” tentpoles,” “reboots,” and “universes” (A world of universes? Indeed), the Craig Bonds are prime examples of what happens when brainy, intensely self-conscious fans — people who grew up with these series — get hundreds of millions of dollars to engage in a dialogue with the past. It’s fanboy culture on an undreamed-of scale.
Craig’s Bond has truly been revisionist. Whereas the 007 of yore — embodied by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan — arrived onscreen fully formed, his license-to-kill exercised to the point of being casual, his yen for women and martinis unshakable (though, in the latter case, shaken), this Bond was a stark newbie. In Casino Royale, we witnessed his first awkward, bloody kill. We saw him grieve over a lost love and deliver a signpost line, responding to a bartender who asked him if he wanted his martini shaken or stirred: “Do I look as if I care?”
The classic Bond regarded the world as his oyster, the license-to-kill the province of the ruling class — especially in the face of foreign upstarts with frankly vulgar ideas about world domination. But here we had an outsider. In Spectre, Craig’s Bond has finally learned to mimic some of the ways of the Old Boys, but you’d never find him in a Men’s Club. Partly, of course, that’s because Men’s Clubs don’t flaunt their exclusivity as openly, but mostly because this Bond was created by post-feminists with progressive sympathies who weren’t around for the Suez humiliation and never felt the stinging fear of the Cold War. He was born after Tony Blair, in concert with George W. Bush, cherry-picked intelligence to justify the catastrophic, Middle East–destabilizing invasion of Iraq. This 007 must save the world not just from archvillains but also from the government — either through incompetence or design — enabling them.
Bond’s first mission in Spectre is undertaken on his own and causes an international incident. It’s a pretty good pre-credits sequence. Director Sam Mendes executes a long, hot-dog single shot that begins in the middle of a Mexico City Day of the Dead parade and ends on the roof of a building with Bond — first seen in a traditional skull mask — treading carefully along a ledge and taking aim with his big gun at another bogus reveler, a terrorist plotting to blow up a stadium. The sequence is crackerjack until Bond and his adversary are pounding away at each other in a spinning helicopter. The editor, Lee Smith (frequently allied with Christopher Nolan), lacks dash; he and Mendes don’t deliver the nipping, slightly syncopated rhythms of the best Bond films. The cuts don’t make you laugh at the audacity — and elegance — of the stunts. Guy Ritchie out-Bonded Bond in his less earnest (and less plodding) The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which looked to me like an audition for the next Bond.
After a laughably tacky credits sequence — Sam Smith’s nonstarter theme “Writing’s on the Wall” over a shirtless Craig molested by octopus tentacles — Spectre settles into a decent detective story in which Bond is principally undermined by what’s nominally his own side. “M” (Ralph Fiennes) is under siege by “C,” a smarmy bureaucrat (Andrew Scott, the giggly-freak Moriarty of Sherlock), who’s set on eliminating the “Double-O” program and folding the tip-top-secret MI6 agency into the merely top-secret MI5. C is also going full speed ahead on an epic global-surveillance network that would drive Laura Poitras to Bellevue — and puts the priggish M in the position of playing Glenn Greenwald. Better to use the Double-Os, says M, because they can decide when to kill and when not to kill — unlike drones dispatched willy-nilly by the uncontrollable octopus of the state. In this new world, aristocratic British assassins are our last best hope for good kills.
Speaking of assassins, 007 saves Monica Bellucci from the bad kind, and then thrusts himself on her in a way that doesn’t track with his un-brazen behavior in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. It’s not Craig’s most convincing scene; he looks as if someone has a gun on him. I had a chance to interview him before Spectre started shooting, when he was in rehearsals for the Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and he admitted that his first three Bonds were on the grim side. “Hopefully we’ll reclaim some of the old irony,” he said of Spectre, “and make sure it doesn’t become pastiche. I can’t do shtick, I’m not very good at it … I sometimes wish I hammed it up more, but I just can’t do it very well, so I don’t do it.” I think Craig is a superb actor (and I like his brusque honesty), but he doesn’t reclaim much of that old irony. It’s hard to be ironic and intense. He’s best in the scene where he trains his laser-blue eyes on his old adversary, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), now himself a hunted man and not long for the world, and promises to protect White’s daughter, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), in return for another piece of the puzzle.
Christoph Waltz is the smiling archvillain who commands from the shadows, but is characterized — with a requisite shudder — as being “everywhere, everywhere.” At his best, Waltz makes an art of hammy clamminess, and he’s wonderful when his character, Oberhauser, is tauntingly cryptic. His eyes shine. The problem is that Mendes and the battery of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth) have a compulsion to psychoanalyze their villains and tie up the whole outlandish arc of Craig’s Bond with a neat little Freudian bow. Javier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall had mommy issues. Oberhauser has daddy ones. Instead of grand megalomaniacs like Dr. No and Goldfinger, Mendes gives us vengeful nerds, like the ones who write long manifestos about society rejecting them and then go out and mow down innocent bystanders. It’s not that real psychos don’t have their beefs with Mom and Dad. It’s that supervillains should be made of more mythic stuff. The Greek gods gave it back to Zeus with style.
There’s another related oddity about the Craig Bonds: They’re catharsis-free. None of the bad guys get the rousing send-off of Oddjob or Mr. Big in Live and Let Die. In Spectre, there’s a brutal fight aboard a train that echoes From Russia With Love, but the assassin is dispatched like Wile E. Coyote in The Road Runner. The Bond movies need a touch of sadism. They began — in the first scene of the first film, Dr. No — on a note of sudden, shocking violence. Mendes’s Oscar-worthy humanism is misplaced.
I could carp about Spectre for a lot longer, but I still enjoyed it more than most of the post-Connery Bonds. It’s not — as some critics have said — the worst. Not even close. Seydoux — best known for her lesbian gyrations in Blue Is the Warmest Color — is appealingly self-possessed, and I’d have put her high in the Bond Girl pantheon if she didn’t turn into one of those judgmental types who doesn’t approve of the hero unceremoniously executing the bad guy. (Connery — and even the campy Moore — would have told her to put a sock in it.) Ben Whishaw’s bushy-haired hacker/inventor Q is a nice update on what was once an assistant-headmaster type. And hurrah for a Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) who fends off Bond’s advances instead of being genially reminded that she’s too old and frumpy for his embrace.
Will Craig do another Bond? He has made his distaste plain, and Spectre does round out his story — though it leaves a dangling thread or two. But as it stands, his four-film arc is a vivid, mostly successful example of a new generation of artists trying to preserve the appeal of a pop-culture icon by bringing him into the present, upending and deepening the basic ingredients. The result is fun, even if it’s a mishmash, leaving you shaken, not stirred.