Over the past decade I’ve gotten used to talking about a post-Bourne bond. The Bourne Identity represented a seismic shift in how “we” thought about the action spy. We moved from the total impervious quipper into something a little more visceral and a lot more personal. When Craig’s Bond took a beating in Casino Royale it showed. Craig’s the least fun Bond we’d ever had, playing the franchise straight, almost as if it Bond were a real character instead of a satire. His opponents were remarkably human-scale too – what was le Chiffre’s big plan? To blow up an aeroplane prototype and win at poker. Casino Royale was a distinctly human-scale story, with human-scale characters. They had no choice; after 50 years of Bond, virtually everything had become a cliche, and what hadn’t become unutterably worn-through is often politically untenable – the scene in Octopussy where Moore’s Bond canoodles with one girl while telling another in a closet to wait her turn couldn’t even make it into a satire these days it’d be such a hot button. It seems to me that the basic trajectory this has established is that Bond can’t be Bond, but the vestiges of the 00 program hang like weights from the other things he could be instead, as rivals and contemporaries occupy the surrounding crowded space. In a lot of ways the big challenge faced by Sam Mendes’ writing team was that they were trying to do Bond in a post-Bond world. They resorted to making a simulacrum of the Bond of old, and in doing so, disconnected it from the underlying necessary emotional structures that have powered his archetype for two generations.
The moment that’s stayed with me as the exemplary moment of Mendes et al losing faith in their simulacrum and not understanding the original comes mid way through the film in the confrontation between M and C over the future of the 00 programme. Working himself up into an emotional state, M asks C if he’s ever killed a man – because the licence to kill also means a licence not to kill, something an unmanned drone could never do. This is rank sentimentalism that flies in the face of everything that defines Bond’s identity: Bond is a tool that M uses to kill people who’re beyond the reach of the law. The whole point of Bond is that he and his cohort represent the razor-sharp cutting edge of British Real Politik, and C demonstrates exactly that ruthless use of his purpose-made tool when he attacks Cape Town to trick the South Africans into voting for instead of against the Nine Eyes shared intelligence network. When there’s a dirty, nasty, illegal and amoral job that needs doing, Bond is the man for it. This version of M is a far cry from Judi Dench’s calculating and brutal manipulator, who when meeting Bond over the murdered body of his recent lover simply remarks that “I would ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but that’s not your problem, is it, Bond?” or who summarises the role of the 00 program as pure efficiency: “They don’t care what we do; they care what we get photographed doing.” The animating fantasy of James Bond is not that someone in his position could go past his training and forgive – that’s Jason Bourne – the fantasy is that someone like Bond is necessary. The romantic notion that animates Bond is that the ends justify the means. When Bond withholds the killing blow at the film’s end, it’s nothing short of the suicide of his Iconic nature.
The mere existence of “Blofeld” is the clearest symptom of the second major problem with Spectre. Bond is an agent of the state, and even when it’s personal for Bond it really isn’t personal at all. I think this is the real reason Licence to Kill is so poorly rated the basic schematic of the revenge tale is that revenge is a bottomless spiral leading inexorably to the destruction of both parties – the means destroy the ends – which is precisely the opposite of Bond’s animating fantasy. Retconning Blofeld to be a mysterious antagonist attacking Bond virtually before he was 007 makes all of world espionage personal for Bond, which makes no kind of sense – neither logical or emotional. It in fact destroys precisely Bond’s value as an Iconic character in an attempt to make him fully Dramatic – but Bond isn’t supposed to grow and change and have an arc, that’s, again, Jason Bourne. The level on which Bond is affected is purely pragmatic, such as being forced at the start of Dr No to forgo his beloved Beretta and take on the Walter PPK. Ethan Hunt never changes, and Bond needn’t either. As both the books and the films progressed that line blurred, but you can see it’s at least somewhat steady in the best Bond films, even Casino Royale. As soon as Bond begins to make his mission personal in Casino Royale, Lynd’s betrayal becomes obvious and in the most brutal way possible he’s reminded to keep his eye on the ball, as it were. This is Silva’s basic problem before Skyfall – M kept it professional, and when it was time to expend him, she did. Unluckily for her, he survived – but don’t suppose for a second that M couldn’t or wouldn’t dispose of Bond in the same way. Bond is not some bad-ass loner vigilante travelling the globe and dispensing “justice” as he sees fit. He is an instrument of the state.
The penultimate thing that really bugged me was the complete portrayal of Bond as a killer, when in the books and many earlier movies, he’s really more of a lethal problem solver. Think about Dr No, where MI6 has these mysterious deaths and attacks on their assets in Jamaica? They don’t send a mindless killer, they send off a guy who’s alert, tough, and who can be trusted to kill if the problem is beyond the law to deal with. Bond was never a spy in the le Carre sense, but a mix of detective, agent provocateur and assassin. The difference between Bond and a drone isn’t moral, it’s practical – Bond gets his man. C and M frame this discussion in moral terms, whereas morality has nothing to do with either, it’s efficacy that’s in question. I’ve recently re-watched Dr No and re-read Live and Let Die, and while Bond is unquestionably lethal, the greater danger he poses to the villains is in unravelling the wherefores of their plans. Bond in Spectre doesn’t even scratch the surface of the organisation – even allowing the slight retconning this script does, he’s chopped off a few heads, but in one fell swoop moves from having no idea they are part of one organism to stabbing it in its Blofeld. Bond learns nothing, detects nothing, makes no deductions, he is a simple thug.
All of which, if I’m honest, I could probably live with if the film were fun, but for me it just wasn’t. My review for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation appears to have gotten lost in the warp, but it stands as such an obvious recent contrast in terms of pacing and excitement. There’s nothing in Spectre as spectacular as Ethan Hunt’s dive into the swirling super-computer, or as tense as his just-in-time rescue by the femme – and for that matter, nobody Spectre has as much to do as Rebecca Ferguson, which is surely a criminal waste of Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. I left Rogue Nation wanting a full-on Ilsa Faust spin-off movie series, because she was just as fun and badass as Hunt, and without diminishing in any way how great that character has been fun (the only thing that nearly ruined the mystique for me was Alec Baldwin’s endorsement in the final confrontation). This was a film that just didn’t understand how to make any of its ingredients fun – from the dullest car-chase in movie history, to the least sexy Monica Bellucci has ever been, to the absolute failure to generate a romance plot or a tense torture scene.
I think the simplest summary of my problems with this film is that it seemed afraid of truly embracing Bond’s iconic identity. In Casino Royale, Bond sleeps with the wife of his enemy and doesn’t even frown when she pays the ultimate price for it. In Spectre as soon as he’s cum he’s phoning Leiter to make sure she’s okay – which rather than any kind of non-misogynist growth is simply the film trying to have its cake and eat it (and without calories). Nobody is fine with Bond’s casual using and discarding, but the answer here is not to half use and discard, the answer is that the means justify the ends, the answer is that if you’re going to make a Bond film you need to commit to it. Maybe Bond’s time has simply passed – in which case we should just let him die rather than try and keep this travesty of a mockery going through the motions.