1 November 2015

CapX Reviews Bond: Sadly, Spectre is a turkey


You approach a new James Bond film with finely blended expectations of excitement and concern and dread. Excitement at the prospect of the second most expensive action film ever produced, concern at the health of a venerated British institution, and dread at the prospect of yet another prime turkey in the turkey-infested realm of the Bond franchise. So before we go any further let us address the turkey in the room: Spectre, the twenty-fourth film in the sequence, is a turkey. It is not an enormous great clucking monster turkey. It is just an ordinary medium turkey, the kind of turkey a middle-aged couple might order for a quiet Christmas at home without the children. How it managed to cost $300 million is anyone’s guess, but at that price it is certainly the most disappointing dinner for two in history.

This is the fourth and most likely the last film in the current Daniel Craig phase of Bond. The Craig Bond has given us one decent and teasingly different film in Casino Royale. Casino was followed by a confused piece of kinesis in Quantum of Solace (that title working too hard was the clue), and then something slightly more purposeful in Skyfall, a film that at least left open the possibility that modern Bond films might be more than halfway good as well as making vast amounts of money.

On to the film. It is a law of cinematic physics that you know a turkey within a few frames. So it is with Spectre: the opening shots – taking us to the celebrations of the Day of the Dead in Mexico City – unfold with a ponderous emphasis that instantly sinks the heart. The scenario that follows draws heavily on the supremely assured street procession scene in The Godfather Part II, right down to the swarthy villain in a white suit stalked along the rooftops above the teeming procession. The contrast between Spectre and its source film is not in Spectre’s favour, an object lesson in the dangers of quoting from a superior film. There then follows a fight scene in a helicopter that is quite thrilling, finished off with a title sequence which is amateurish beyond description, and not in the least helped by the execrable Sam Smith theme song.

By this early point you can more or less plot the action points forward for yourself. Ruined MI6 building? That’s going to collapse. Monica Bellucci stalked by assassins? That will be Bond shooting from the shadows. Rome? Car chase. Secret headquarters in a desert meteor crater? That’s gonna blow. Predictable may be the predictable word, but what other word is there?

There are also more thefts from the Godfather portfolio. The interior colour palette of deep oranges and browns belongs to the Godfather, and Bond is soon in attendance at an executive board meeting of Spectre (the baddies corporation) which echoes the Godfather meeting of the crime bosses in Havana, although the comparison between the nuanced and exquisitely-paced Coppola film and the leaden progress of the Bond scene is excruciating.

More scenes follow, unfortunately. Not content with ripping off the Godfather, Spectre proceeds to rip off Bond, remodelling the mountain-top retreat of arch-bad-person Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (with the feeble excuse that Blofeld has been re-engineered for inclusion in this latest film). The later action scenes are repetitive and underpowered, the plot-development dialogue sounds computer-generated, and it is all vaguely and fatally out of date. “What is it?” asks Bond. “It’s cutting-edge nanotechnology” says Q. Ah yes, it would be. Welcome to the 1990s Mr Bond.

Does any of it matter? After all, Bond is only a multi-market fantasy franchise, with all the pre-ordained compromises that brings. Spectre is not terribly bad, it is just terribly unambitious, and rigorously derivative. But yes, it does matter a bit. Bond is a fantasy, but a fantasy that is collective. Bond is not just an action film. It is also an exploration of British identity. This is the core story in every Bond film right from the start: how can Britain possibly be relevant? How can it play a part with an ever-weakening hand of cards in the global power game? How can Bond with his essentially imperial-era habits and attitudes get a hearing in the modern world, and not be laughed at. Running the Bond franchise means a perpetual cycle of rebooting, just to pace the changing world.

The more recent titles of Bond films have a habit of giving away more than they intend about the panic the producers must feel. Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, they all hint that no, this won’t actually be enough, that the Bond idea has already died. And Spectre – well, the spectre that haunts Spectre is of course the ghost of Bonds past.

Daniel Craig’s Bond is the most psychological Bond yet. He is all armour-plated vulnerability, a relationship-phobic mother’s boy who is actually in love with M, his now-deceased female boss – and surely it is no accident that the name ‘M’ is so close to ‘Mum’. There is a strange and atmospheric scene in Spectre where Bond is visited in his bare-walled Belgravia apartment by Miss Moneypenny. “Have you just moved in?” asks Miss Moneypenny. “No.” A grainy video of M is playing on the television like a piece of weird Oedipal pornography, and it becomes clear that Bond is living on behalf of the dead M, that he knew no parents of his own, and that he must kill his surrogate brother. There’s a story in there somewhere, if only the film-makers had grasped it.

At this point it feels like something must be done about Bond. Reboots that pull all their punches are no good. Bond needs to get ahead of the game. National pride is at stake. Bond needs some momentum.

And there’s an idea, right there. Bond is an institution – perhaps it’s time to nationalise it. Nationalisation is back on the table now, maybe this is the popular gambit Jeremy Corbyn needs. Yes, Bond is expensive, but ‘People’s QE’ would more than cover it. The Bank of England could issue special new bonds – Bond bonds.

As for casting, I can see roles for all the big players. There’s a heavy part that would be a piece of cake for John McDonnell, and something comic for Tom Watson. After only a minor tantrum Diane Abbott would grudgingly accept Moneypenny, and as for those defeated leadership candidates who won’t serve under Corbyn, I think Kendall and Cooper would come on board once they realise we are talking Bond girls. Andy Burnham? We’ll find something. The role of Bond himself, that goes without saying. This is an era of real change, so the first bicycling Bond has to be on the cards. Working title: Momentum. Or maybe Side-Eye.

It’s a wonder this hasn’t been thought of before. And there’s an inestimable added benefit, in that it frees up Daniel Craig for leadership of the Labour Party. What’s not to like?

Richard Walker is a journalist and advisor to financial companies