The best Bond films were wise enough not to take themselves too seriously, generally aware that they were selling a fantasy package of moral escapism, aspirational heterosexuality and killer theme tunes, the majority of which have endured as richer cultural artifacts than the movies themselves. But what happens when the product decides it needs to be profound? The films have long struggled in endless identity crises, from Pierce Brosnan’s swarthy unfulfilled promise to current star Daniel Craig’s over-corrective, Nolan-era glumness. Spectre caps the latter’s awkward run of angsty self-seriousness and fan service in a cycle that’s seen the franchise chase its tail into self-reflexive infinity.
True, brand-managing a pop phenomenon as old as Bond is no enviable task, especially when the product is both fundamentally flawed, in its long history of casual misogyny and cultural imperialism, and more successful than ever, thanks to the loyalty and nostalgia of its fans. Faced with the need to appease everyone, the filmmakers have hired a respected middlebrow director (here again, Sam Mendes), ramped up the lip-service feminism in marketing campaigns, and thrown in some cheeky winks to days of old. If this approach found its sweetest spot in Skyfall (2012), which loosened Craig’s tough-guy moping in favor of 50th-anniversary jubilance, it also felt expended. “Where do we go from here?” the film seems to wonder, and the answer, unsurprisingly, is nowhere very interesting.
Spectre opens promisingly (or wishfully) on a title card that reads “The dead are alive,” and then immerses itself in a handsome long take that roams around a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, evoking Live and Let Die as it finds Craig’s Bond—in the film’s most vivid image—dressed in a skeleton mask and matching tuxedo, en route to an assassination like the cold killing machine of Ian Fleming’s prose. It’s a workmanlike piece of filmmaking, sans Roger Deakins’ splashy photography, but fresh enough to suggest a standalone adventure free from the piled-on mythology of its predecessor.
But Mendes and his familiar screenwriting cabal have grander things on their mind, of course, and it isn’t long before Spectre reverts to the superficially elaborate design of the Important Global Thriller. There’s a shakeup of British Intelligence as a new MI5 branch threatens the antiquated double-oh program with its closure, and Bond is—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—put on suspension for being a naughty boy and acting outside his mandate.
Such attempts to realign 007 with the contemporary global climate are now approaching their own sub-genre of parody. Recall that Bond was berated by Judi Dench’s M for his sexism 20 years ago now, and the series’ strain to justify its Savile Row mannequin in an era of information-based espionage has gone on at least that long. True to recent form, Spectre gestures towards depth, but that only serves to get in the way of Bond’s one traditional forte: shameless, disreputable entertainment. Mendes and co. try to have it both ways here, but their pseudo-serious musings on global security seem laughable when set against the film’s overarching conspiracy of supervillainy, in a plot that suggests the previous films’ bad guys (Le Chiffre, Green, Silva) were merely operating under the aegis of SPECTRE. When we first glimpse this organization’s mustache-twirling summit, staged in a shadowy, Eyes Wide Shut-like chamber, you half-expect the chairman to raise his glass and exclaim, “Gentlemen, to Evil!”
Spectre works when it approaches such levels of goofiness, even if it seems to have gotten there by accident. While the film fusses over post-Casino Royale “realism” and geopolitical commentary, in comes blowhard Christoph Waltz as “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Blofeld,” sporting a quasi-futuristic tunic and camped out in a desert compound where he tortures 007 with hilariously long-winded exposition. The movie should go off the rails with relish at this point, but Mendes paints himself into a corner trying to make the movie profound. The interminable fan-service callbacks to old characters and events feel inorganic here. Gone is the mysterious Bond-as-cipher character. Instead, the film engages in an unpleasant, Marvel-indebted universe-building in which all the pieces of previous films must tiresomely fit together. Still, this kind of meta-mythology might be worthwhile in the hands of more daring creators. There’s a scene mid-film, for example, in which we learn that Bond was supposedly orphaned at age 12 in 1983, and the mind races with the possibilities of a parallel dimension in which the adolescent 007 turns out to be Bond Jr., born to, say, oh, Roger Moore’s Bond and Maud Adams’ Octopussy. But this will never be that sort of film.
The mixture of straight-faced intrigue and franchise-mounting exertion works against the junky, unmannered roguishness of the series’ 1960s and 1970s halcyon period (surely the reason we’re all still here), and no matter how hard Mendes tries to class things up, the old tics and issues rise up against him. Even Craig is aware of this—and if we can’t believe 007, how can we buy the filmmakers’ poses to the contrary? For all the usual talk of strong (and in this case, age-appropriate) Bond girls (and women), both Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci are classic eye-candy for the series. One moment Seydoux, who plays psychologist Madeline Swann, is warning Bond not to touch her, the next she’s proclaiming her love. Bellucci as the grieving widow Lucia Sciarra is prestige window-dressing discarded in the most fleeting manner.
Only Waltz, who seems on the verge of laughter as he reels off pages of hoary bad-guy exposition (while scrolling through an iPad), seems to understand the beauty of the dumb and the grandiose. And yet, his shtick has gotten so tired of late that it comes across as lazy—or merely lazy casting. His desert hideaway residency is nonetheless the movie’s best-worst bit, with his singing overripe lines like “I thought you came here to die.” At one point during Waltz’s torture, Bond retorts that “nothing can be as painful as listening to you talk,” a line that resonates unfortunately with the screenwriters’ eye-glazing clunkers elsewhere in the script about democracy and global communications.
Towards the end of the film Bond actually tosses his Walther PPK aside like some rom-com princess doing the classic epiphany in which she sheds her cellphone to take a look at the outside world, and it’s meant to be a liberating, funny bit—and at a stretch, maybe even “feminizing”—but the film hasn’t earned the release. It should be time to hang up the pistol, but if the box-office receipts out of the U.K. are any indication, Bond isn’t going away anytime soon. Craig may not return, but Bond, like they used to say post-credits, most certainly will. But until they cast a woman, or a gay man, or maybe a super-intelligent pigeon in the lead, it all amounts to little more than a new coat of paint on the Aston Martin.