As you may have noticed the countdown is now on. We are only a few weeks away from the big day and everyone is getting rather excited. Shops are filled with merchandise, adverts are all over the TV and people can’t stop talking about it. Christmas? No I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about possibly the most anticipated film release for a decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But while plenty of enthusiasts and fanboys are flocking to cinemas on 19th December to get a first glimpse of what will no doubt be a huge spectacle, I am more interested in the most recent addition to another famous film franchise, the latest James Bond film Spectre.
I’ve always been a lover of the James Bond series. I watched them with my dad, as a little boy. I experienced the humour of Connery, the chauvinism of Moore, the vaguely ridiculous but still rather charming Lazenby, the streetwise Dalton and then the gentleman Brosnan. At university I studied film, and even wrote my dissertation on Bond, and when I left university in 2006 Bond returned from a four year hiatus with Daniel Craig and Casino Royale. It is safe to say that Bond has always fascinated me. I love to get immersed in the spectacle of the films but I also enjoy looking at how the films have evolved and how each film mirrors our contemporary society in some way, in almost every facet; the plots, the sets, the villains, the henchmen, the cars, even Bond himself. And as a purist Bond fan, seeing the reinvention of Bond in Casino Royal and then the other Daniel Craig films, was both interesting and largely disappointing.
The Daniel Craig era of James Bond films saw a shift in the approach to our favourite spy. The films felt more like a version of a Jason Bourne film than a James Bond film. The Daniel Craig bond films had to be different and draw a line in the sand. Towards the end of the Brosnan era things had gotten a little silly. The previous outing for Bond, and last for Brosnan, was the rather farcical Die Another Day film, which lost the plot a little with supercharged weapons, laughably unrealistic gadgets and a storyline that was clearly more focussed on getting spectacle into the film than grit and interest. Die Another Day, it is safe to say, probably brought the Bond franchise as close as it has ever come to ending. Certainly many people were suggesting maybe it was time for Bond to retire the Walther PPK and take a well earned beach holiday. So when Daniel Craig burst onto the scene in Casina Royale, in a paired back film that had grit, determination, panache and action abounding, it was a breath of fresh air. It was a modern interpretation with intrigue and plot twists, relying on the complex and in depth script and characters rather than gimmicks to make it a great film. But there was a problem, and one which has persisted in all the Daniel Craig films to date…it just wasn’t quite Bond.
I won’t dwell on the previous films now, I’ll leave that for my book on Bond (which I may write one day). Instead lets look to Spectre, a film that I have been looking forward to for quite some time. To frame this particularly episode in the Bond series and particularly in Craig era, Sam Mendes returns as the Director following Skyfall in 2012 – a massively disappointing Bond film in my opinion. This film features the mysterious organisation Spectre, who have popped up many times over the 53 years Bond has been appearing on our screens, as the villainous opponents. As the focus for a storyline it is one that has been screaming to be made for sometime and finally it has been done. The film completes a story that they have been developing over the four films since Casino Royale and wraps up a number of plot strands and ties everything together in a neat bundle. Or at least that is the intention.
The major criticisms levelled at Bond since Craig took over are that it is not true to the James Bond we know and love. It has lost the quintessential nature and character of a Bond film and has been dulled down into just another action film – Jason Bond/James Bourne. For fans there are some defining things that set Bond out as different and these things seemed (in part) to be missing:
- A dry British wit, poking fun at his adversaries and making light of the situation he is in
- Grotesque / Unique / Freakish henchmen/women
- A culturally significant super villain
- Beautiful and desirable Bond girl(s)
- Q, MoneyPenney, M, Felix Leiter
- A villains superbase / secret lair
- A race against time
- A chase (often car chase)
- Set piece confrontations and fight scenes
- Above all else, a storyline that is contemporary (although not always entirely believable)
The argument for the new Bond is that it needed to change and modernise otherwise it would fade into nothing and become an unappealing relic of the past. But the problem is in modernising they lost the heart of Bond, and as much as I liked Casino Royale as a film it just didn’t feel like a Bond film. And nor did Quantum of Solace or Skyfall. Great films yes, great spectacles, but not great Bond films. I could spend ages focussing further on the reasons for this, or the criticisms about Bond going back to anti-feminist ways with Skyfall etc etc, but that is not for now.
So we get to Spectre. And with much trepidation I went and saw the film. My trepidation was mainly because Spectre as a concept is up there with the very best Bond plots. To make it badly would be to miss the biggest opportunity in the Bond franchise and with the relatively poor outing that was Skyfall, and hearing some criticism of Spectre generally, I was not convinced the film would be any good. But to my surprise and utter delight, what I watched was Bond back at its best. In fact I would venture so far as to say it lived up to all my expectations. I would even go so far to say that it surpasses most other Bond films. It is excellent (with a couple of caveats).
But why? Why is this film so good where arguably all of the previous Daniel Craig Bond’s have failed to hit the mark? Well without giving any spoilers – quite simply because it has reintroduced every one of the facets of Bond that we have come to know and love. The film re-establishes Bond as the witty character that pokes fun at his situation. It re-establishes the working dynamic between him and his surrounding contributors (MoneyPenney, Q and M). It puts Bond back in the environments we want to see him in; real cities and locations. More significantly though it has a storyline that is contemporary and that we can all relate to, which is being enacted by villains that are characterised in the Bond way; they are outlandish, bigger better and stronger than the norm, they are sinister and believable in the power they establish and wield and intimidating in their menace. Where the previous films have been almost comic book in their characterisation, these characters return to the principles that created henchmen like Jaws, OddJob and Rosa Klebb and super villains like Dr No, Scaramanga and Ernst Stavro Blowfeld. And the story is as complex and involved as you would expect from the best Bond films, rather than the sometimes paper-thin stories such as that of Skyfall – which frankly could have been from any Bond / Bourne / Mission Impossible film, to name but a few. But maybe it was necessary to have those rather soft films before. Without giving anything away, Spectre draws upon all of those three previous films and makes you suddenly realise what was actually going on there, which in some ways goes against the Bond principle of standalone films with standalone story lines, but is something that actually I don’t mind.
For me Spectre finally delivered on the promise we have know Daniel Craig has as a modern Bond. It stayed true to the modern elements he brings to the character; a daredevil action man, more solemn and detached than those who came before him. A somewhat lonely and unfulfilled / lost individual searching for answers for his inner demons. But what they have finally done is wrap that up with the wider James Bond surround that we expect. The film has huge and spectacular set piece action sequences, subtle and realistic gadgets, great car chases, a seemingly unstoppable and freakish henchman, a sinister super villain who has a classic villain superbase, a plot that twist and turns and keeps you riveted a beautiful Bond girl and a dashing MoneyPenney, a clever and resourceful but rather despairing Q and a dynamic and demanding, but ultimately supportive M. It even has a race against the clock with an actual timer and of course, some great interplay and intense staring between Bond and his arch enemy. In short it has everything you would expect, want and need from a Bond film.
Any down sides? Well a couple. There is one strand to the storyline which is unnecessary in my view. It reveals an existing relationship between Bond and the villain that borders on the cheesy and the film would have worked quite happily without it. It works with it as well but the consequence of the extra complexity is a film that is 30mins too long and left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. But I can accept that for all of the positives. So in answer to all the critics, this time I think they’ve done it. This Bond is not just a great film, it is one of the great Bond films.
So where does this leave us? Sam Mendes ends his association with Bond at this point. This also presents a convenient opportunity for Daniel Craig to hand over the reins to another actor. He’s already said that the role is very physically demanding on him but he is contracted for one more film. The other consideration is that he has been Bond for 10 years. A lot has changed in that time and the one thing we do know about the man who inhabits that role is that he has to be current. He has to be a Bond for the people of that time. Is Craig’s time done or can his dynamic Bond live on for another couple of year? Will he retire the Aston and the PPK or will he continue? That is a story for another day. Only time will tell, all we know is that Bond will return…and I can’t wait!