Welcome to Sundays with Bond … James Bond! Over the next five weeks, as we ramp up to the (hopeful) premiere of the 25th James Bond Movie, No Time to Die, I’ll be looking back at Daniel Craig’s illustrious career as British Secret Service agent 007. I’m rewatching all four of his previous films and writing about them here. Please follow along for my stirred (but never shaken) look back at Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre, and—in early October—No Time to Die.
While Spectre isn’t quite as bad as Quantum of Solace, it feels almost the same to me … a missed opportunity with lousy casting, at least as it pertains to two of the leads. Director Sam Mendes was persuaded to come back after the huge success of Skyfall (the most successful Bond film ever), but it’s almost like his heart isn’t in it. While the film starts with a bravura “Day of the Dead” sequence in Mexico City, it meanders after that, and even strays into ridiculous Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan material with the sequence where Bond pursues Madeline Swan’s kidnappers’ cars in a plane. There are plot holes and head-scratching moments (Bond is tortured and told he won’t recognize anyone, but then proceeds to kill everyone and escapes right after needles are stabbed into his brain).
The Bond producers finally got back the rights to Spectre, the Ian Fleming-created terrorist organization that was featured in the earliest, Sean Connery-starring 007 films, including From Russia With Love, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice, plus the one-off George Lazenby film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the Connery return movie, Diamonds Are Forever. YOLT introduced Bond nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, first played by Donald Pleasence, then Telly Savalas, then Charles Gray (who had already appeared in YOLT as a different character). Along with Felix Leiter, the Bond producers seem to have no guilt in recasting certain supporting characters and a recurring villain, as in the case of Blofeld (they were consistent with M—Bernard Lee—and Moneypenny—Lois Maxwell throughout the Connery-Moore eras). It’s baffling at times why they did this. Maybe it was purely financial, maybe it was actor availability (the original Felix Leiter, Jack Lord, went on to great success in Hawaii 5-O). But as I’ve mentioned in my previous posts on the Daniel Craig era Bond films, casting has always been the Broccoli family’s curse.
It’s apparent again in Spectre, with the producers’ penchant for casting wimpy white guys with accents as villains is once again on view with Christoph Waltz as the “new” Blofeld. His portrayal is that of a calm, quiet type who should be referred to as “Doctor Google,” since his main passion in Spectre is information. His secret desert base reflects that (endless computer terminals with similarly dressed operators), along with his conspiracy to start a global intelligence network, along with his British government lackey, “C”, played by Andrew Scott (Fleabag). Lea Seydoux, Spectre’s love interest, is also horribly miscast. Her Dr. Madeline Swan pales next to Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale, and we’re supposed to believe that Bond falls truly, madly, deeply for her and will leave his life as a secret agent. M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Tanner (Rory Kinnear) all return, as does a cameo appearance from Dame Judi Dench’s M. And Jesper Christensen is back as Mr. White (from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), who turns out to be Madeline Swan’s daddy.
And that’s where Spectre goes wrong, using the thin thread of Mr. White to shoehorn in this new menace—Blofeld—as the root cause of all of Daniel Craig’s Bond character’s problems and create a whole, consistent continuity to the Craig films. It was Blofeld all along, from Le Chiffre to Dominic Greene to Silva in the first three films. All of their DNA is found on a ring (that ring got around!) Bond procures when he kills off an assassin in the Mexico City sequence in the beginning of the film, a man named Sciarra. M’s ghost shows up on a video sent to Bond after her death, urging him to hunt down Sciarra, kill him, and then go to his funeral. While in Rome, Bond meets and instantly seduces Sciarra’s widow, played by Monica Bellucci, who underwent the painful publicity of being touted as the oldest Bond girl ever, like it was some kind of badge of honor. (Bond of course immediately seduces her … and this business of dresses dropping mere minutes after Bond meets an attractive woman has got to stop.) Bond finds out about a secret meeting to replace Sciarra in a mysterious organization (which used to be Quantum, now it’s Spectre) and Drax himself, Dave Bautista, shows up and gets the job, in a thankless—and speechless role—as a sort of quasi-Oddjob-cum-Red Grant character (there’s a requisite train fight, but no razor-edged bowler).
There are some great moments in Spectre, including that opening sequence in Mexico City, but I think that whole scene shows just how bored Sam Mendes was in directing this film. The beginning is an eight-minute unbroken take, and while it’s thrilling, the problem with it is that filming that way does nothing to advance the storyline; it’s just an exercise in filmmaking, a kind of movie masturbation done to satisfy the director. Who cares if it’s one long take? Orson Welles already did that in Touch of Evil in 1958. (Mendes actually went on to do the World War I film, 1917, which consisted of numerous long takes … again more an exercise in filmmaking than in storytelling.)
Spectre was a disappointment, a film with a lot of promise just wasted. Here was a chance to return a major part of the Bond legacy to the films, Blofeld and Spectre, the ultimate world-dominating evil genius and his terrorist organization, and they blew it. Blofeld is just Mark Zuckerberg, who, in the inevitable torture scene with Bond, comes off with all the menace of an evil eye doctor who doesn’t wear socks with his loafers (at least they brought back the cat, too, but Waltz’s Blofeld seems awfully uninterested in it). The Aston Martin DB5 once again makes an appearance, as Bond rides away with Dr. Madeline into the future. It seemed like this was the end of the Daniel Craig era, and it almost was … but as they always say at the end of each film … “James Bond Will Return.”
Next time: Finally … it’s No Time to Die.
As part of my work for the Comic-Con Museum, I hosted a Zoom discussion with Mark A. Altman and Ed Gross about their Bond book, Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized History of James Bond. If for some reason the linked video below disappears, go to YouTube.com and search Comic-Con Museum James Bond.