Imagine climbing inside a private jet piloted by Sir Roger Moore. His blood alcohol content is 30% above the legal limit because he has been drinking vodka martinis all day. He declares his intentions to fly around the world, thwarting evil wherever he can – from Mexico City to the Swiss Alps – and occasionally crashing funerals in order to keep the British end up inside Monica Bellucci. Then imagine Sir Roger ranting and raving about Edward Snowden’s heroism halfway through the journey. His drunkenness settles into broken record mode: that moment when you fail to realize you’ve made your point fifty times prior and insist on repeating yourself with ever increasing volume and incoherence. Presumably, the trip would lose its novelty once the surveillance slurring started. By the time Sir Roger passes into Eugene O’Neill theatrics, howling into the night sky about his tortured past, you find yourself searching for the ejector seat that Q hopefully installed so you can make an easy escape before the imminent messy landing. When you finally touch down and realize you’ve survived, you brush yourself off and stagger onto the tarmac thinking to yourself, “Well that wasn’t so bad.”
This is Spectre in a nutshell—except they swapped out Sir Roger Moore and put a Daniel Craig in it.
Little about Spectre makes any logical sense. It casually disregards the laws of physics, international diplomacy, and gender politics. In other words, it’s a James Bond picture. I couldn’t help but enjoy it, but according to the internet, I was wrong to do so. Spectre has been dismissed by elitists and fanboys alike. For some, the twenty-fourth official entry into the franchise spells the end of the series. It is the worst thing to happen to cinema since Zack Snyder. It insults the intelligence of men, women, animals, dustbins, and the ghost of Richard Kiel. It is a shocking waste of its cast, most notably walking Bond villain Christoph Waltz who had the audacity to adequately play a walking Bond villain. It doesn’t communicate the grim realities of life as an British spy to the attention-deficit masses who don’t have the patience to make it to the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s probably problematic, too, but I daren’t check Tumblr to find out.
I suppose I should hate James Bond as well because apparently I’m a snob who only likes “serious” movies. It’s true I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of Marvel, Star Wars, or any of the other myriad franchises maintaining a chokehold over multiplexes. Indeed I do prefer three-hour black-and-white Russian films about parallel planets stuck in the Renaissance. But James Bond is the franchise for me. I unabashedly love with the fantasy Ian Fleming created and Cubby Broccoli augmented—a fantasy about an alcoholic, sex-addicted secret agent who refuses to die and go the way of Flint. My enthusiasm was reignited when Daniel Craig introduced his devil-may-care approach to Bond in the excellent Casino Royale, which managed to simultaneously update the character and return him to his roots.
But how exactly has the Daniel Craig era updated the character? Most agree it did so by reintroducing realism after the invisible car incident. But is it even possible to make a realistic James Bond picture when the very notion of James Bond is ludicrous? This is a secret agent who is instantly recognizable by villains and damsels alike; I thought the point of a secret agent is that nobody knows who you are. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) knows exactly who James Bond is, knows about his dead wife, and even knows how he likes his martinis. Daniel Craig may have adopted a more naturalistic approach a la Timothy Dalton but this doesn’t necessarily enhance the realism of an inherently fantastic franchise. Name one Bond film in which his reckless actions wouldn’t have sparked off an international incident.
But I still love Bond movies and I suspect I always will. I just don’t make the mistake of taking any of them seriously. Even the terrific Skyfall, imbued with the veneer of high art thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, is every bit as absurd as the average Sir Roger Moore adventure. Precious few Bond films can be considered legitimately great films. But why expect anything more? Bond is a franchise built on a tested and proven formula. Thus every entry stands or falls on how successfully it adheres to the formula, which is why there’s only one On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And because the one George Lazenby film broke away from the formula so radically, it took years before anyone recognized how unique and powerful it truly is.
This formula is also the reason so many Bond films serve as time capsules, each illustrating the evolution of the modern blockbuster. In the Sir Roger Moore era alone, Bond tips its hat to Blaxploitation (Live & Let Die), kung fu (The Man With The Golden Gun), and Star Wars (Moonraker). When Bond relaunched in 2006, its reference point was clearly the Bourne franchise. At this point, Bond is emulating two major Hollywood trends: introspective superheroes trapped in their boring pasts, and extended universes.
If Spectre has one major problem, it’s that the film tries to have its cake and eat it. The first half of the film is satisfying if, like me, you enjoy the James Bond formula of yore and recognize that the vast majority of Bond movies are mixed bags anyway. But the second half of Spectre insists on bringing us back into Bond’s private sessions with the MI6 therapist—something I thought we were done with after Skyfall. Thus when Sam Mendes and his committee of four screenwriters aren’t boring us with their overstated opinions about surveillance, they’re cramming your overpriced popcorn tubs with references to the past three pictures in a half-assed effort to imply an extended universe and set up a plot twist so embarrassing that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Bond and/or Austin Powers could anticipate it coming a mile away.
But how can I blame EON Productions for doing what they’ve always done? They took a popular Hollywood trend and introduced it into Bond. Look at the extended universes of Marvel and Star Wars. Look at the insistence on ponderous origin stories and belabored plot twists involving iconic baddies (Star Trek: Into Darkness, anyone?) Spectre integrated all these elements into what should have been a standalone James Bond adventure in the vein of a Sir Roger Moore entry; unfortunately, due to myriad production problems, the process was delayed and the film came out at the exact moment when audiences started growing weary of these trends.
Spectre also had to answer to a brand new audience. This new audience seems to consist of two camps: millennials who are only familiar with the Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan eras, and casual moviegoers who only saw Skyfall after the critics raved about it and now believe it represents the Bond template. This new audience doesn’t understand that sometimes a James Bond movie is just another James Bond movie. This new audience looks to experience art and enlightenment where there is none. They expect depth from Bond because they’ve never seen any of the truly intelligent, sophisticated, and resonant spy films in existence—most of them involving John Le Carre in some way.
But as Christopher Nolan demonstrated when he resurrected Batman, we live in a cinematic culture in which movies about children’s characters saving the world must go beyond sheer entertainment and aspire toward Shakespeare and Nietzsche in ways that do not remotely resemble the sophomoric writings of my teenage years. Bond mostly resisted this tiresome trend—both Casino Royale and Skyfall are much more self-aware and playful than anyone gives them credit for. Spectre, sadly, succumbed to it.
Again, I love James Bond. But I don’t require these films to be transcendent masterpieces. They are commercial enterprises trading on an aesthetic that no longer exists in order to take my money. But that’s all I’ve ever needed them to be. If the odd On Her Majesty’s Secret Service comes along, I couldn’t be more thrilled. But Spectre is the James Bond standard. It’s one I’ll revisit in the same way that I’ll revisit You Only Live Twice or For Your Eyes Only. In other words, I’ll watch it again only when I’m hyping myself up for the next Bond.
I liked Spectre despite all its faults. It’s not as good as Casino Royale or Skyfall but it’s a lot better than Quantum of Solace or most of the Brosnan films. Because it adhered enough to the old formula, I had fun with it. Even Daniel Craig seemed to be having fun for once. Hopefully, he’ll stay on for one more Bond movie – one a lot more like the first half of Spectre and a lot less like the second half of Spectre – and quit while he’s ahead. All things considered, he’s had the best run since Connery and I’d hate for him to overstay his welcome. He made James Bond a tangible fantasy in a confused post-9/11 world and we’re already taking for granted how cynical and lame the franchise became before he fired back into the gunbarrel.
Alas, like 007 himself, I am alone. I’m a solitary gun-for-hire who can never find meaningful companionship or happiness. I’m not cynical enough to join the elitists in the infinite sneering contest and I’m not persnickety enough to whinge about depth in a pond alongside the fanboys. There’s nothing left for me to do but continue pretending to be James Bond, always compensating for the fact that I’ll never be as cool as Daniel Craig, I’ll never senselessly gun down a rival secret agent who probably has children to feed, and I’ll never get the chance to attempt reentry inside Monica Bellucci.
Please take me aboard your private jet, Sir Roger.