LICENSE TO KILL
Why It’s Time to Retire James Bond (As We Know Him)
The 24th Bond film, ‘Spectre,’ is in theaters this Friday. And it’s very, very lame.
In 1964’s Goldfinger, nefarious Auric Goldfinger famously tells Sean Connery’s British secret agent James Bond—who’s strapped to a table, a laser beam slowly encroaching upon his crotch—that the purpose of this torture isn’t to make him talk. “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
He doesn’t, of course, and for the past 53 years, he’s lived on courtesy of a plethora of actors (Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and now Daniel Craig) who’ve all tried to put their own distinctive stamp on 007. But on the occasion of the character’s 24th feature, his future demands reconsideration. Because as this Friday’s highly anticipated Spectre reconfirms, James Bond and his customary wham-bam thank you ma’am sagas have grown hopelessly stale, outdated, and unoriginal. In other words, barring Eon Productions allowing for a much-needed drastic makeover, it’s time to revoke his license to kill.
As recently as 2006’s Casino Royale, that would have seemed a preposterous proposal. A blockbuster that saw the return of director Martin Campbell—the man responsible for the best Bond film of the preceding Brosnan era, 1995’s Goldeneye—and the introduction of Daniel Craig as a more rugged, animalistic 007, it was not only a smash hit commercially but an electric reinvention creatively. By transitioning the character from Brosnan’s handsome-and-I-know-it suaveness to Craig’s rugby volatility, the series was revitalized, largely because it felt as if it was reflecting a cynical contemporary geopolitical climate rife with anger, violence, betrayal, and mistrust.
Fast-forward nine years, however, and the thrill of Craig’s Bond is gone.
The 2012 entry Skyfall may have been the long-running franchise’s highest-grossing chapter, but it was a depressing devolution into The Dark Knight derivation—replete with a backstory that revealed Bond to be an orphan who, after his parents were killed, was raised by a kind grandfatherly servant in an enormous ancestral mansion, and who transformed himself into a rugged crime-fighting machine after spending a few days in a deep, dank cave-like hole. Devoid of novel ideas, director Sam Mendes opted to plunge Craig’s iteration of the character into grimdark Batman territory, marked by chilly amorality, long-buried family secrets and a Joker-esque adversary (in this case, renegade MI6 agent Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva) who functioned as the protagonist’s dark mirror image.
Spectre could well surpass its popular predecessor’s lofty box office totals. Yet in most every other respect, it solidifies the notion that the series has become out-and-out retrograde. Returning director Mendes again exhibits scant capacity to stage a fistfight or shootout with anything approaching spatial lucidity, and unlike in Skyfall, he fails to deliver a show-stopping action centerpiece to make up for the spare-parts quality of his story, which concerns Bond’s personal mission to investigate Spectre. That shadowy corporate cabal apparently controls everything, and is run by a sinister figure named Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who shares a history with the spy. Anyone familiar with Bond’s most famous villains will know Oberhauser’s true identity from the start, but in a misbegotten attempt to generate suspense and surprise, Spectre pretends he’s someone other than this memorable baddie—thereby making much of the proceedings a drawn-out waiting game for the arrival of an obvious revelation.
More grating than this narrative tactic is that Spectre’s one guiding creative thought is to harken back to past entries. This is most clear with Oberhauser and his white cat-petting true nature, though it’s ultimately felt throughout. As before, Bond is presented as a brooding rogue who’s castigated by his superior (Ralph Fiennes’ M) for not following protocol. And per formula, he beds a beauty (an embarrassingly marginalized Monica Bellucci) and then abandons her in bed, never to be seen again. The Bond series’ feminism has never extended past making some of its female eye candy “doctors,” and that holds true in Spectre as well, via Bond’s latest love-for-a-day Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Nominally presented as a tough girl who can spit venom and handle a handgun, Seydoux’s Swann is inevitably given little to do but pout, argue, and then fall out-of-the-blue madly in love with the agent—only to then become a damsel in distress.
This has all been done before, and with far greater panache and excitement, in prior Bond films starring Connery, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan. Consequently, Spectre, to a greater extent than 2008’s action-incompetent Quantum of Solace and 2012’s overlong Skyfall, leaves the entire franchise feeling hopelessly musty, a relic of an earlier age that’s now only capable of repeating itself. Even Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” theme, set to a typically symbolism-laden credit sequence (Octopuses and fire and guns, oh my!), is just a dull, de rigueur concession to procedure. Of course, what’s helped 007 endure for five decades is its signature flourishes, which unite its disparate sagas and make each installment recognizable, and comfortable. Those gestures also, however, make it safe and unadventurous—a series ferociously clinging to old tics and mannerisms like a timid child clutching his blankie during a thunderstorm.
Throwing money at the screen in a vain attempt to create awe-inspiring spectacle, Spectre offers a chase through Mexico’s Day of the Dead parade, a pursuit down a snowy mountain in a rapidly crumbling plane, and a late Bond-in-a-torture-device bit—moments that are so old-hat, it’s no wonder Craig looks bored by the sound and fury surrounding him at every turn (and why the actor recently claimed he’d prefer slashing his wrists to reprising the part for a fifth time). Rarely has the character come across as more apathetic than he does in Spectre, ostensibly because he’s both literally and figuratively retracing the same old steps, be it in terms of his derring-d—some high-wire assassinations here, some bedroom lovemaking there—and in terms of his outfits (snappy tuxedos, sharp designer suits), his catchphrases, and his general, unflappable air of cold-blooded nonchalance and ladies man cockiness.
Reversing this wayward course shouldn’t, in theory, be difficult. For one, rather than hiring directors (Mendes, Marc Forster, Roger Spottiswoode, John Glen) with bland visual styles and minimal-to-nonexistent action credentials, Eon Productions could court high-profile auteurs—think Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, or George Miller—to bring an idiosyncratic angle to the material. Similarly, they could be daring in their casting, be it by heeding fans’ spot-on demands to hand a Walther PPK and the keys to an Aston Martin to Idris Elba, or by turning Bond on his head and reimagining him as a woman (Charlize Theron, ideally). For that matter, simply plumbing the moral quandaries posed by its stories would bring welcome depth to the spy’s shallow, flash-above-substance tales.
Taking risks is exactly what’s enlivened Bond’s main modern rivals—Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible and Matt Damon’s Bourne films. In the case of the former, giving free reign to stylistically inimitable filmmakers has meant that Ethan Hunt’s every new escapade (including this past summer’s Rogue Nation) comes across as unconventional and unpredictable. For the latter, a unique handheld aesthetic and sense of go-for-broke momentum, as well as a timely fixation on surveillance-apparatus technology, has made it a fresh alternative to Bond’s old-school antics—a comparison only likely to be exacerbated by the fourth Bourne installment that’s now on the horizon.
Whereas Casino Royale established the potential for forthcoming character-study complexity, Spectre’s regurgitation proves that such hopefulness was misplaced. Bond’s caretakers are content to rehash in larger-than-life ways, even if it leads to self-parody. They want to craft expansive, imitative movie-uniting mythologies that look backwards—to past classics—rather than forwards. As a result, the Bond series has lost its sense of direction, and purpose. Now merely stirring up its familiar elements rather than shaking up its tired formula, it’s an illustrious franchise that, if unwilling to radically reboot itself, should go gracefully into retirement.