No one ever thought it would take four films to complete the James Bond origin story, but then no one counted on the return of Blofeld and Spectre, either. That’s what you get with the dynamic duo of Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes: it remains personal for this Bond, and what better way of tying up all of the loose ends than with the introduction of his nemesis as a doppelganger?
At the same time, the gritty Craig era has swung back to the roots of the franchise where Blofeld/Spectre began. Having their cake, as it were. Yet despite a record-breaking UK bow and a successful domestic opening weekend, “Spectre” has already created a critical divide. While many enjoy the dark navel-gazing that began with “Casino Royale,” and others prefer a more traditional approach, not everyone likes the lighter, more celebratory tone of “Spectre.”
But then it’s always been a delicate balancing act for the Bond franchise, and Mendes has pushed the creation myth as far as he could, echoing moments not only from the Craig era but also older touchstones for emotional resonance, reminding us that the journey’s part of a continuum. Call it “Road to Perdition” meets “Remembrance of Things Past.” Bond, the orphan, finds an extended, if dysfunctional, family with MI6, but is confronted with the final piece of his past that explains his existential crisis. Now, at least, he understands what he’s up against and why.
Yet the main difference between “Skyfall” and “Spectre” is that Bond’s now in control, and Craig has never been more relaxed and confident as 007. This is most evident in the brilliant Day of the Dead pre-credit sequence in Mexico City (“The dead are alive,” indeed). The long tracking shot following Bond (escorted by Stephanie Sigman) trailing an assassin (Alessandro Cremona), whom he eventually kills after a lot of mayhem, demonstrates Bond at his most powerful, while also introducing themes of disguise and voyeurism.
But there’s a sense of fun, which carries over to the rest of this cat and mouse between Bond and his creepy childhood chum, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), the head of Spectre and the author of Bond’s pain. Information is power in this post-Snowden surveillance nightmare of a plot: a lonely Bond has truly become the protege of Judi Dench’s M. He’s still “half-monk, half-hit man,” but gives a lot more than he takes.
And Bond endures a lot in definitively proving why both he and MI6 are as vital as ever. Remember the wonderful introduction of Q (Ben Whishaw) in “Skyfall”? Bond asks why he needs him, and Q says, “Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled,” and Bond replies, “Or not pulled.” It’s a lesson repeated often in “Spectre,” as Bond reclaims his sense of purpose.
Which brings us to Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a name borrowed from Marcel Proust in reference to involuntary memories. Like Vesper, Swann represents a kindred spirit as well as a second chance for Bond, who obviously hasn’t fared well with the ladies. They’re both “damaged goods” who understand the unfulfilled life of an assassin.
In fact, their intimate train conversation stands in sharp contrast to the strangers on a train verbal jousting when Bond meets Vesper. “Is this really what you want, living in the shadows, hunted, being hunted, always alone?” asks Swann. Bond admits he doesn’t think about it but wonders if he ever had a choice. And so they sip their dirty martinis and forget their troubles for a split second, until danger strikes again.
“Spectre” is about the clash of horror and beauty, the past and the present, the ancient and the modern, elegantly designed by Dennis Gassner and gloriously shot on film by Hoyte van Hoytema. The problem with getting so personal is that Craig and Mendes have boxed Bond into a corner with all of this emotional baggage, and now the entire world revolves around Bond with Dickensian delight. And the only way of liberating him is through a more traditional course correction that puts him back on track with the rest of the franchise.
“He wants to do the right thing and I don’t think he can,” Craig explained about being thrown deeper and deeper into Bond’s origin story. “It’s his job, it’s his reason to live. What we hope will be thrown into this are some other [issues] that are equally important, and there is a love story in this film and it’s the driving heart. And to have that there raises the stakes, and I think that we have had a chance to play around with that and it’s hopefully what I did in the first two movies, and it’s what Sam brought to ‘Skyfall,’ and we have been able to continue it. And I hope we do.”
Craig might not be through with Bond after all. Or, as Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) opines: “I think you’re just getting started.”