And that is it, Spectre has come and gone turning a page on yet another chapter in the James Bond franchise. With Daniel Craig having publicly stated he would rather slice his own wrists open with broken glass than do another film, it would seem we have seen the last of our latest incarnation of 007. This will bring joy to some, undoubtedly. Among James Bond fans, the Craig films are controversial. People either seem to love them or hate them. Admittedly, the most recent four films of the franchise reboot did offer some departures from their predecessors in quite a few ways and to certain hardcore fans of our beloved English assassin this has been seen as base treason.
Admittedly, however much devoted followers of the genre might bellyache, there seems to be no question surrounding Spectre amongst the general public. The film has set new records of success at the box office, and for all the mixed comments from professional reviewers, surveys of those who have actually seen the film for the sake of their own enjoyment and nothing else have averaged at a level of A-. Critiques and criticisms of the Craig films seem largely to be the domain of the very tiny portion of the population who consider themselves to be Bond uberfans (of which I count myself one), and it is to them that this review is largely aimed.
For my part, I have always enjoyed the Craig films and also Daniel Craig himself as James Bond (that puerile and unfocused disaster that was Quantum of Solace
being excepted of course). And I would disagree strongly with those who claim that they have represented a grotesque perversion of what a “true Bond film” should be. Yes, there are some big differences in the most recent films from their more classic counterparts. There are fewer gadgets and wacky villains. Staple characters like Q and Moneypenny are absent from the initial films. But while certainly significant, these departures from the traditional Bond formula have much more to do with appearance, in my view, while leaving the essence of James Bond unchanged.
And what is that essence? At its heart, the Bond films have always been an encapsulation of their times, projecting the fears and aspirations of their fans onto first the pages of Flemming’s books then later the silver screen. For the bulk of James Bond’s history, this meant living in the shadow of the Cold War. Against the backdrop of nuclear annihilation, Bond deliberately took a lighthearted tone. The villains were never ideologues or rival intelligence assets, but instead megalomaniac psychos or comedic crime bosses, all dispatched with relative ease by our handsome hero often without him either breaking a sweat or creasing his suit. To a world scared that it was on the brink of apocalypse, and more specifically an island nation unsure of where it fit into the new order now that it was bereft of empire, James Bond said to not worry for good would always win out in the end and things were not so solemn and serious as they seemed.
Then as the world began to change, so too did James Bond, and it started not with the Daniel Craig films but the ones of Pierce Brosnan. The fall of the Berlin wall and international communism brought a renewed sense of optimism to the world but also uncertainty as to the form the future would take. In response to this question of “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?”, the Brosnan films answered with its own departure from the its earlier predecessors, admittedly one more subtle than that which would come under Daniel Craig. 007’s villains became more random, ranging from rogue nation states to multinational corporations to turncoats from MI6s own ranks. The slapstick of past films was gone, replaced with a more serious, if still light hearted, and pensively inward looking reflection, balanced by Brosnan’s confident assurance that whatever the answer may be we would still be up to the task.
The films of Daniel Craig certainly offered an even greater break from the past, but that was because the atmosphere they were created in was also very different itself. In a world of terrorism, non-state actors, and the ever grappling question of how far one can go to defeat an enemy without destroying oneself in the process, James Bond’s response was to take on a darker and grittier tone; a world filled with uncertainty where there were no good answers, just degrees of bad. Our battles are now fought in the shadows against unseen foes, as M reflects in one monologue, and there is no magic exploding pen that can niftily get us out of a jam. Instead all we have are very human men and women making a judgement call and hoping it is the right one.
What I truly enjoy about the Craig films, however, is its introduction of something we have never seen from Bond before, which is continuity. For the first time ever, the filmmakers made a conscientious effort to tell a story that carried over across multiple films. Continuity is not something that has ever been present to any real extent in James Bond before. Certain characters reappear from time to time, sometimes even played by the same actor, but what happens in one film never has any real influence on the goings on in the next. No one ever grows, or changes, or is ever affected in any meaningful way by anything that happens to them. The closest thing to a storyline we are ever presented with, ironically, is the recurring appearance of the Spectre crime organization, and Bond’s vendetta against its leader Blofeld. Even this never really amounts to much, with Bond’s final confrontation and defeat of Blofeld being a side note shoved into the beginning of a film (totally unrelated to the main storyline) with Blofeld himself not even being directly identified.
The Craig films change this. They set out to tell a story, beginning with the tale of how Bond himself becomes the Bond we were introduced to. When we first meet Craig’s Bond, he is undertaking his initiation into the 00 program with his first kill mission. Fans moaned that he wasn’t the Bond they had known in previous films, and he truthfully isn’t. He’s brash and cocky, and still finding his footing in this world of espionage he inhabits. There’s no Q and no Mon
To be fair, can you blame him?
eypenny, and his relationship with M is very much that of a new minion still very much on probationary status. In Casino Royale, Bond is
even confronted with the question of whether he wishes to fully commit to the life of spy with a license to kill due to the temptation of his romance with Vesper Lynd, a British Treasury official, and it is by her eventually betrayal and death that Bond is set firmly on the path to become the perfect 00,
unencumbered by weakness or personal feelings.
The best that can be said about Quantum of Solace is that it allows Bond to finally move past his betrayal and loss of Vesper by uncovering and thwarting the secret society of Quantum that was ultimately responsible for both, symbolized by him casting aside her necklace into the snow after he confronts the Quantum agent who was her handler at the end of the film. In Skyfall, however, we finally see James Bond come into his own as the secret agent of previous films. He is no longer the rookie finding his way, but instead is M’s most trusted asset. We’re introduced to both Q and Moneypenny, and the final scene symbolically mirrors the one in Doctor No (the first Bond film) where Bond receives his first mission from M; the message is clear that Bond has now become the Bond we knew before.
If the first three films are the story of Bond’s journey to become 007, Spectre is the tale of how everything comes full circle (as all good conclusions do). The aforementioned mentioned shadowy organization is unmasked as the puppet master behind all of Bond’s previous challenges, and its leader, Ernest Blofeld, is revealed to be Bond’s childhood foster-brother. Blofeld admits he has been Bond’s unknowing adversary this entire time, as Bond would thwart his schemes and Blofeld would retaliate in kind, by killing first Vespar Lynd and then M herself; “the women in your life” as Spectre’s maniacal head puts it. Now, this message is put across a bit heavy-handedly at times (the corridor of pictures of past villains and allies that Craig walks through in the final confrontation in the old MI6 headquarters is way over the top – we get it, the past is coming back to haunt him!), and it doesn’t always work in its execution (so Quantum the secret criminal organization was just a puppet of Spectre the secret criminal organization? Were they their farm team or something?) but it does ultimately provide a satisfying end note to the film series.
Which is ironic given that probably the most controversial note of the Craig films is the ultimate ending of Spectre, with Bond seemingly walking away from the spy life altogether. However in context this really shouldn’t be so much of a fuss. One of the longest running fan theories about Bond is that the name is actually just a pseudonym passed down from agent to agent (thus accounting for the changes of appearance between actors), so realistically all Spectre does is both confirm that theory and offer some hint at what comes next for 007 when he decides to hang up his boots (or in this case throw his gun into the Thames). In fitting with the Craig films darker theme, Spectre deconstructs the romanticism of the life of an assassin, showing that the glamour and suave adventures are just a distraction from an abysmal home life, with Bond living in a sparsely furnished flat with no friends or even acquaintances beyond his colleagues, and that the endless lashing of martinis are merely self-medication against the ghosts of past missions.
Again, fitting with the symmetry of the movie, Spectre
provides the catalyst behind Bond’s eventual decision to “retire” in the form of Doctor Madeleine Swann, the daughter of one of his first adversaries, Mr. White. While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with all the hype put forth by the filmmakers on how she is “Bond’s equal” she is
ultimately shown to be Bond’s match. Bond girls typically have fallen into the category of either damsel-in-distress there to provide Bond with his “hero’s reward” or tough-as-nails James Bond in a female form (like Halle Berrie inDie Another Day
). Madeleine Swann is neither of these stereotypes, ultimately. She no weakling, saving Bond in one fight scene against a Spectre
assassin, but while she understand the espionage world she is not part of it and has no wish to be, telling Bond in the build up to the finale she is walking away because she understands the world he inhabits and feels he will never be able to put it aside. She manages to be both confident and capable while still remaining very much a woman (and as I have previously noted
, I always enjoy a female character that manages to be both strong and
feminine at the same time) The closest we get to this in previous Bond films is Vesper Lynd’s character in Casino Royale
, and even there it’s an imperfect comparison. Vesper does aid Bond by knocking a gun away from a warlord he is strangling to death, but she spends the majority of the fight scene desperately fleeing before the two fighting men and afterwards falls to pieces in a near catatonic state (in hindsight the message actually is quite clear, she may have some understanding of 007s world but she isn’t cut out to survive in it).
Indeed, the Craig films actually take a new take on Bond’s relationship to women. Following Vesper’s death all of his interactions with women are methodical in nature. He seduces to acquire valuable intel, or acquire a target’s trust, or otherwise manipulate them in some way for the good of the mission (it’s even hinted at very subtly in Skyfall that this might have been a tactic employed against both sexes, not just the fairer one). None of his conquests appear to be for their own sake, until he meets Madeleine Swann. Now, this again is not without problems. The relationship does feel a bit rushed at times (Madeleine’s declaration of “I love you” to Bond in Spectre’s desert headquarters was completely unexpected on my part) but honestly one side effect of the rise of premium television has been that all movie storylines feel rushed to me these days; after getting used to having ten to twenty hours to flesh out two and half hours comes across as swallow at best. However, she does ultimately challenge Bond with the question of why he continues to do what he does, and his inability to give an answer reveals it truly is because he has nothing else. He puts down his gun in the ending, because finally Bond “has something better to do”.
Now, a franchise will always be different things to different people. If to you James Bond is gadgets and wacky storylines and mad villains, than my defense of the Craig films will likely ring hollow, and that is perfectly okay. To me, Bond has always been the story of a man on a mission for Queen and country and “for England James” (bonus points if you can name the film that last one was from), and the Craig quartet was an enjoyment for me because for the first time they explored what doing so entails and the price that in doing so is paid. It is with regret that I bid Daniel Craig goodbye as 007, and I’ll raise a martini (stirred not shaken) at his passing.