Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The SPECTRE of defeat?: Why Bond 24 is the movie I am most/least looking forward to this year

And so the time approaches. A new Bond movie is on the horizon, in its traditional end-of-year release slot.

First, a short personal history. I consider myself a James Bond fan. The first Bond movie I saw was GoldenEye on video. The tape broke just after the tank chase, so for a couple years I had no idea what happened. Regardless, I thought it was great and over the next couple of years I saw all the other films. There was a great period in 1999 where we were renting a Bond movie a week. It was awesome. I was too young to figure out which ones were 'good' and 'bad', 'Connery' and 'Moore', and for some reason I got it into my head that George Lazenby was the first actor to play James Bond.

The first Bond I saw in the theatre was The World Is Not Enough. It was not great. The next one I saw was Die Another Day. This was the first Bond movie I saw after having read Ian Fleming's original novels. After reading the books, my interest in the film series took a dive, and Die Another Day only cemented my dismissal of the films. To me most of them lacked stakes and an investment in the characters. While the novels have problems (sexism, racism, classism), they also have characters and stories and atmosphere. These were things I wished were in the series. Sure, occasionally you would watch something like On Her Majesty's Secret Service or The Living Daylights, which made an attempt to humanise Bond and adapt Fleming's stories, but they were few and far between.

When Casino Royale came out, it was not what I expected. It was better. It took the best of Fleming, stripped out the racism and the sexism, and made James Bond a human being with flaws and weaknesses. Suddenly, I could believe that this guy could bleed and feel. And the relationship with Vesper Lynd was the most real and affecting thing I had felt in a Bond movie since I had been traumatised by Diana Rigg getting a bullet to the brain in OHMSS. Suddenly I was back in. The films since have varied in my estimation. While I can appreciate it a bit more now, Quantum of Solace is still a slog (basically, I loathe the action scenes, and appreciate everything else). Skyfall was more enjoyable, but felt like a retreat. Where Casino Royale had broken out of the prison of the Bond formula, it felt like Skyfall, as well made as it was, was rebuilding the walls.

Which brings me to Spectre, and my reasons for writing this piece.

  1. The teaser trailer was amazing. 
  2. The cast - I have no complaints. The additions of Lea Seydoux and Monica Bellucci fill me with excitement that we will see more fully developed female characters along the lines of Eva Green's Vesper Lynd.
  3. Hoyte van Hoytema as DP. If the teaser trailer is anything to go by, Spectre is going to look gorgeous.   
  4.  The return of Jesper Christensen's Mr. White from Craig's first two films means we will get some kind of closure to the Quantum story arc. While they were not onscreen for very long, Quantum was one of my favourite aspects of Quantum of Solace and I am glad that we will see something of them in the new film, even if it is only to act as a bridge to the revival of the SPECTRE group.
  5. Blofeld might be back. After 50-something years of legal action, the lover of Nehru jackets and Persian Cats might be making his return. We'll see how that turns out, but for now I'm excited. 

The rule of four: Spectre is Craig's fourth film, which by itself is commendable. However, every actor's 4th film before now has been either a notorious bomb (Moonraker, Die Another Day) or extremely bloated (Thunderball). Largely, this is due to the producers trying to replicate their previous success. Thunderball followed Goldfinger but just went bigger, while Moonraker is a carbon copy of The Spy Who Loved Me, just in space. Which leads me to...

Repeating the formula: Spectre is coming on the heels of the highest grossing film in the franchise. Therefore, it is possible that it will suffer from the producers' desire to replicate their previous success (see 'the rule of four' for previous examples). While I enjoyed certain parts of Skyfall, there are aspects which I felt were highly suspect. One was the plot, which was both over-complicated (Silva's plan; the NOC list plot which disappears halfway through the movie) and full of holes (Bond is established as out of shape, then the movie forgets about this subplot halfway through).

The other was the revival of classic Bond tropes, which felt at odds with the movie's attempts at realism -- the crux of this problem was the character of Severine. She is established as simultaneously a femme fatale AND a victim of the child sex trade. While this initially feels like another of the Craig era's attempts to re-work an old convention with an injection of context and character development, within the context of the film's plot Severine is ultimately little more than a sex object, and then as a sacrificial lamb to establish Silva's cruelty. The attempt to flesh out her character has the unintended effect of revealing the cynicism of the filmmakers by coming off as window dressing, and casts Bond as a manipulative misogynist who will undermine Severine's tortured psyche in order to sleep with her.

While Bond has always been a misogynist to varying degrees, the Craig version of the character has been (till now) characterised as an emotionally locked down man who is in the process of re-negotiating his relations with women. First there was Vesper, who broke down his emotional armour and forced him to reconsider his views of women as disposable objects. Though she winds up betraying him, Bond is unable to re-claim his old lady-killing persona. When he recklessly sleeps with Agent Fields in Quantum of Solace, the villain sees her as a way to get to him and has her killed. At the end of Quantum, Bond aborts a potential romance with Camille, finally recognising that while he is capable of taking care of himself, his enemies will treat anyone around him as a means to get at him. Bond finally takes responsibility for his actions.

This is completely undone by the events of Skyfall, where Bond, bafflingly, decides to have a tryst with Severine, while under the watch of Silva's men. While it is possible Silva would have killed her anyway, as it stands Bond's action dooms Severine. While her subplot feels like old-school Bond, it also carries with it the misogyny of the era in which Bond was originally created, and the filmmakers' attempts to fill out her backstory only highlight the tokenism of her character.

My hope is that Spectre will find a way to be considerably more nuanced in how it renovates the old archetypes, rather than merely giving them a new coat of paint. By way of example, Casino Royale had a compelling female lead, who also fulfilled the role of an unwilling femme fatale. There is a precedent for reinvention within the new series, and therefore no reason why Spectre cannot continue in a similar vein.

The script: My issues with this are two-fold. Firstly, thanks to the Sony hack, we know that the original script was considered deficient and had to undergo a massive overhaul. This is where my second problem comes in -- the writers tasked with the revision are Robert Wade and Neal Purvis. They have had a hand in every previous film since World Is Not Enough, and have the unofficial status of being the franchise's in-house scribes. During their tenure, they have produced one great film (Casino Royale), a good one (Skyfall), two flawed ones (Quantum of Solace and World Is Not Enough) and one bad one (Die Another Day). Their record is spotty, to say the least, and is really the keystone of my reservations.

Jumping on Trends: This is a recurring theme with the series. Of course, with such a long-running franchise, re-invention and a certain level of trend-following are to be expected. Sometimes it works -- Live and Let Die with blaxploitation being the major example. Mostly, it does not -- Man with the Golden Gun tried kung fu, Moonraker went Star Wars, Licence to Kill basically copied the look of every action movie in the late Eighties and Quantum of Solace tried to replicate the Paul Greengrass Bourne movies. The Bond movies are at their most successful when they take note of a trend and then follow it in a way that feels like a James Bond movie.

Spy Who Loved Me took note of the new blockbusters and then used a previous movie, You Only Live Twice, as a template for creating a Bond movie on a more epic scale. GoldenEye was a response to Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, and yet it did so by simply updating every recognisable element of the old series to the Nineties (which would become a problem after Austin Powers). Casino Royale was a response to the Bourne films, Austin Powers and the excesses of the Brosnan era. Rather than replicating the shaky-cam style, the filmmakers simply scaled back, adapted Ian Fleming's first book and removed the reverse-engineered gadgets and lame puns. Casino Royale does not look like The Bourne Supremacy, and feels like a Bond movie because it was still based in Bond lore rather than simply copying what was popular. Quantum of Solace, by contrast, went for the shaky-cam and wound up feeling like ersatz Bourne.

While Skyfall had elements of the Nolan Batman style, especially in terms of Silva's plan, it still had its feet on familiar territory. It mined old tropes (the Aston Martin DB5), made references to earlier films (Bond jumping on the komodo dragon ala Live and Let Die) and continued the Craig era's exploration of Bond's psychology by literally going back to where he began. Where the danger lies is whether Sam Mendes and his team will be able to maintain the balance between following Nolan and charting their own course. The danger is always there that Spectre will take the character of Bond further into Batman territory by dwelling too much on Bond's childhood trauma, which, while it has its possibilities, could diminish the uniqueness of the character, and result in the same feeling of dislocation as Moonraker, Licence to Kill and Quantum of Solace.

Excess: In danger of repeating myself, but I feel like this point needs to be emphasised. The Bond series has always swung between two extremes -- on the one hand, cartoony excess in which gadgets, gags and epic set pieces take precedence. And on the other -- more down-to-earth, character-based narratives with closer ties to the work of Ian Fleming. The shift between the two is gradual but perversely consistent. In the Sixties, the swing went from Dr. No to You Only Live Twice. This film was seen as so over-the-top, the next film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service went back to basics. Through the Seventies the films slowly became more large scale until the release of Moonraker, which was a massive hit but a creative dead-end. Thus the next film, For Your Eyes Only became a small-scale Cold War thriller. The latest of these shifts was Die Another Day, which is, more than anything else, responsible for the direction the series is now on. With Spectre's budget rumoured to be north of $300 million, and the success of Skyfall still fresh, the potential for another swing is possible -- the recent production vlog detailed a car chase between Bond's Aston Martin and a Jaguar. Both vehicles are, it teases, packed with toys. Something about that rubs me the wrong way -- while I am not opposed to gadgets, the last time we had a car-on-car duel was in Die Another Day.

Gadgets: The problem with gadgets in the modern Bond franchise is that they are hard to do. Gadgets are far more commonplace now than in 1962. The other, more important issue, is how they are used in the film. My contention is that when Bond is solely reliant on hardware, his worth as a character diminishes. You want to see his tenacity and his wits. Just remember, the Bond series was doing fine before he got the DB5.

Be your own Bond: This was a major problem in the Brosnan era, and I feel like this is beginning to affect Craig. While they all play essentially the same character, each actor who has played James Bond played a variation on the character that was distinct from his predecessors. This is part of the fun of the series. The worry I have with Spectre is encapsulated by what I felt was one of the chief flaws in the Brosnan films -- the production team never figured out which Bond they wanted Brosnan to play.

The problem I had with Brosnan was that, especially in World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, his Bond felt somewhat nebulous: Was he a comedian like Moore? Was he a brute like Connery? Or a tortured soul like Dalton?  Partially this is the result of poor writing. It is also a result of the era in which these movies were made, an era which I believe extends to this day, and has ramifications for every actor that will play the role in the future. When Brosnan became Bond, the series was an established piece of popular culture and, with the rise of home video and the Internet, it was no longer possible to have an actor cement himself as Bond in the same way that Connery and Moore did. If you don't like the current Bond, you can watch another one at home. Brosnan fell a victim to this, and his movies tried to cater to everyone rather than trying to give him his own unique take on the character.

Daniel Craig managed to break out in a way that Brosnan never managed, but he did so with a creative team that had a clear idea of what kind of Bond they wanted. However, the mixed response to Quantum of Solace dented his standing and, with the release of Skyfall, we saw a return to what was termed 'classic' Bond. Skyfall was a massive hit, and so the reversion to the old style was seen as a success. This led to Spectre, which will see the return, in one form or another, of the iconic Connery-Lazenby era organisation. But where does this leave Craig's Bond?

The return of a kitted-out Aston Martin and the new teaser poster showing Craig in a variation of Roger Moore's Live and Let Die garb leave me feeling uneasy. Is Craig's Bond going to suffer the same fate as Brosnan's, and just become a mannequin for the fashions of his predecessors? This is pure speculation at this point, and only time will tell as to whether Spectre will perpetuate the sense of renewal that Casino Royale created, or stifle it in favour of pure formula.


Continuity: Before Craig, the Bond films were infamous for their complete lack of continuity. Felix Lieter changed actors every film. M, Moneypenny and Q stayed on through successive eras of Bonds. Bond and frequent nemesis Blofeld meet for the first time twice (and are played by different actors) in You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. What is even crazier is that these films follow each other, and are THEN followed by Diamonds are Forever, which pretends that OHMSS never existed. The Dalton movies ignore the Moore movies but remember Lazenby's. Bosnan's first movie begins by retconning Dalton's tenure, but remembers everything else. It's insanity if you try to work it out (I mean, the filmmakers didn't give a crap, so why should you?).

However, the Craig movies are clearly trying to do something different. And by different, I mean they are doing what every other franchise is doing now and trying to create multi-film sagas. This started when Quantum of Solace was a direct sequel to Casino Royale. While Skyfall was a standalone, Spectre, based on the teaser trailer, is going to try and bring together the unresolved plot strands left over from Quantum and Skyfall. This might be cool. It might also result in a mess.

While continuity has been a problem for the Bond series (try watching Quantum and Skyfall back to back), this (lack of a) strategy allowed each film to be its own beast, and meant any of the movies could be the entry point for new fans. By tying itself to its predecessors, Spectre might alienate new viewers and ruin its own story by making accommodations for events in previous movies.

A smaller problem with this is the transition to a new actor. Looking ahead, Craig has one more film in his contract, which means a new actor in about 8 years or so (unless Craig returns for more). I am hoping that the powers that be will simply conclude the Craig era and start fresh. It worked before, and it can work agin, allowing the Craig movies and those of his successor to be their own entities.

This is all speculation at this point. But my underlying point is this: The simple fact is that while previously the series could produce a bad movie and carry on, the stakes have been raised since Casino Royale and Skyfall. Both movies made money but, more importantly, they received an unprecedented level of critical acclaim. This puts the franchise in an interesting bind -- while they have to provide the same ingredients people have come to expect, the creative team has now set a qualitative bar that means that, for the first time, a new Bond movie is treated with the same kind of critical regard as other movies. Failure suddenly means more, when the precedent is now so high.

Enough of my ranting. I look forward to Spectre, as I do every other Bond movie -- but I do so with the full knowledge of the lows as well as the highs. The production team for Spectre is pound for pound, one of the most talented currently in the business -- they have it in their power to make the best Bond ever. I hope they do.

As the song goes, nobody does it better. Now it is just up to Sam Mendes and his team to prove it.

No comments:

Post a Comment