A good film and a good James Bond film are two very different things indeed. In fact, many of the things that make the latter are things that ruin many of the former. Implausible gadgets, broadly-drawn cartoon villains, Bond’s sociopathic ability to make jokes as he inflicts gruesome deaths: these are all elements that seasoned 007 fans grow to love. Alongside Bond’s licence to kill (and as every hack reviewer ever has put it, a licence to thrill), the films hold a licence to be faintly ridiculous.
Will this change with the latest Bond, SPECTRE (Bond 24 if you’re nasty)? Here’s the trailer:
For the most part, SPECTRE does a good job of being both a good action film and a good Bond film., perhaps the first Bond film to achieve this since Goldeneye exactly twenty years ago. Casino Royale succeeded in being a great film, but the figure at its centre could go by any name and the film would work on its own terms. It was missing that essential Bond essence. Skyfall came closer, but felt like its Bondism was in development, with most of its most Bond moments feeling like they were being built up for the next film. In narrative arc terms, we come to SPECTRE then, a film that should in theory combine the improvements of the Daniel Craig era with beloved Bond history.
This is actually an incredibly difficult line to tread (there’s a reason it has taken ten years of Craig as Bond to pull off), but the film refuses to give up for lack of ambition. The result, although certainly flawed, is a real testament to both Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig
The film begins in the typical Bond mode of ripping off whatever is popular in filmmaking at the moment with a long True Detective/Birdman-style tracking shot through a Day of the Dead parade. Although some of the joins are hard to miss, it really is incredibly elegant, with a sort of poise never before seen in Bond films. It suggests a parallel world where, much like Bond books are currently being written by a series of high-profile authors, each Bond is filmed by the great auteurs of modern cinema. This opening plays like Paul Thomas Anderson directing the opening of Live and Let Die, a combination of art and Bond that is generally exhilarating.
So when the goes back to the established rhythms of Bond, it is hard to not feel initially disappointed. Even before a surprisingly homoerotic take on a Bond opening title (accompanied by a Sam Smith song we hated on in an earlier review but which works fairly well within the film itself), we go back to a standard Bond fight on board of a helicopter which is fine if a predictable Bond thing to do.
From then on, we are given what could be a crash course in standard Bond tropes and rhythms, but with modern day twists the screenwriters were definitely high-fiving themselves over. Bond is in trouble with M, but only because M is in trouble with a funhouse mirror NSA (“yeah, state of the world satire! High-fives!”), as can be seen in the following clip:
This continues. Bond flirts with Moneypenny, but Moneypenny has a man in her bed (“yeah, Moneypenny probably uses Tinder. Give me some skin, bro”). Bond orders a drink, but is given a green juice, thus continuing the Bond tradition of having at least one unbearably terrible joke per film…or in the case of some Roger Moore efforts, one unbearably terrible joke every ten minutes.
This all comes across here as rather negative, but it is at the very least an enjoyable romp of a film. Monica Bellucci nails her dark, seductive temptress role, we have grill-based torture scene that is effectively nasty, and Daniel Craig really gives it all he has got, trying his upmost with his potential last Bond film (SPECTRE does a good job of tying up his saga). If he finishes here, his shot at Best Bond Ever is actually fairly strong, so long as he does not ruin it Connery-style by coming back with a film as terrible as Diamonds are Forever.
Then there is an ending that without spoilers is a major game-changer, giving a new side to Bond in a film obsessed with reintroducing past elements, both from classic Bonds (with the locations screaming Connery so much they may as well have abundant chest hair) and the last three Craig films. So in essence, we are left with a film that can with no doubt be called a good Bond film, but is book-ended by scenes which have far higher ambitions. Hopefully we can have more moments like this when they introduce James Bond number seven, and these scenes do not just stand alone, George Lazenby-style, as an example of a road not taken.