“Stop talking about American things, and let’s watch the best film ever made”–
Alan Partridge: 2002
(The following review contains spoilers for Skyfall, as well as a spoiler regarding the villain character in the film. But lets face it, you’ve pretty much guessed who Christoph Waltz is playing by now, right?)
In the midst of the Sony hacking scandal last year, following North Korean furore over Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, several important pieces of information about the latest outing for 007 were leaked to the public. As well as appearing to announce that Christoph Waltz was to play franchise uber villain Blofeld, who hasn’t appeared by name in a Bond movie since 1971’s Diamonds are Forever for legal reasons, the documents revealed one ridiculous piece of information – the budget for Spectre was $300 million, by far the most expensive movie ever made. Although a Blofeld connection to the film was obvious, what with the film being named after the secretive organisation he controls, the budget news was tantalising; when given the annual budgetary funds of your average small country, the production could easily have gone off the rails, delivering a train wreck of epic proportions.
Instead, Sam Mendes proves yet again he is the best director for Bond. Not only are the set pieces bigger and better than ever, including the most spectacular explosion created using practical effects I’ve ever seen, but Mendes manages to turn a $300 million tentpole blockbuster into a personal character study, with more relevance to real world news events then any of the previous entries. It is the first time the most famous spy movie franchise has actually acknowledged the changing face of surveillance in the real world. It is the best Bond movie under Daniel Craig’s tenure in the lead role due to this feat of making you care about a previously empty character, who was only as interesting as his latest quip or death defying action scene; the emotional heft and the entirely intentional comparisons to the NSA’s questionable surveillance tactics make it the perfect Bond for our more cynical times, when action movies need to be glum and serious.
Yet this is all realised under the pretences of a spectacular action movie – it delivers ridiculous spectacle on a scale Ian Fleming would have only dreamed of. By combining heart and spectacle, Mendes ensures this is the first Bond movie to appeal both to people like me, who only like the serious Daniel Craig Bonds, as well as people like Alan Partridge, forever claiming The Spy Who Loved Me is the best film ever made, reenacting the ridiculous Union Jack parachute opening to whoever will listen.
In a bravura single take, that sadly gets interrupted halfway through due to carnage that can’t be physically filmed in a single shot, we are reintroduced to Bond in Mexico City. After the death of M (Judi Dench) he was sent a DVD where she told him he should kill a couple of terrorists plotting to blow up a stadium. Following increasing ridiculousness that eventually resembles the climactic action sequence from 22 Jump Street, Bond kills the bad guys and retrieves an Octopus ring from one of their fingers – the insignia of Spectre. M 2.0 (Ralph Fiennes) demands to know why Bond was in Mexico City causing so much destruction, taking him off duty indefinitely and ordering him to stay in London. Instead, he blackmails Q (Ben Whishaw) who is supposed to be keeping track of his whereabouts, heading off to Rome for a Spectre-related funeral order to find out more about this shadowy organisation. As Bond goes further off the grid being chased by a sinister Spectre henchman (Dave Bautista), M is being fucked over by C (Andrew Scott), leader of the new intelligence service formed after the merger of MI5 and MI6. C wants to dismantle the 00 program and introduce the “Nine Eyes” surveillance programme faster than you can say “Blimey, does this make Ralph Fiennes the Edward Snowden stand-in?”
All recent Bond movies have tried to question the central ethics of the character; after all, under Connery and Moore, the character and the films themselves were undeniably misogynistic. Yet they have done it in an undeniably ham fisted way – when M is introduced in Goldeneye, she is given an introductory speech calling Bond a “dinosaur” because of his attitudes. Which would be a lot more groundbreaking were it not in a film where a major villain is a woman whose super power is having a deadly vagina. Under the Daniel Craig incarnation, Bond has been as sexualised as the female characters, very often the damsel in distress to be saved by women; Spectre doesn’t disregard franchise hallmarks such as him bedding women who have previously claimed impervious to his charms (here portrayed by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux), but Mendes handles them in a way that suggests deep emotional unrest within the character. It even manages to resolve controversies over Heineken product placement in previous instalments with the frequent suggestion Bond is a barely functioning alcoholic getting over emotional distress – it resembles 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for how deep into the tortured corners of the character’s psyche the movie delves.
Now to discuss the political parallels of the storyline. The Bond franchise has always tried to avoid any parallels to world news events in favour of escapism, even under the grit brought in from Casino Royale. Here, not only does the storyline have more than a whiff of Edward Snowden about it, but it is the first film in a franchise about a government-funded assassin that contains an argument in favour of pacifism. M argues, in a clunky bit of exposition that a license to kill is “also a licence to not kill”, a line which eventually pays off the entire movie in a way that would make Jeremy Corbyn proud.
Skyfall may have been a 50 year celebration of the franchise, with callbacks throughout, but Spectre is conceived as a celebration of Daniel Craig’s nine years in the role – each Bond movie he’s starred in plays a vital role here. Mendes even manages to do the unthinkable thing and make Quantum of Solace seem like a worthwhile movie in retrospect, updating Fleming’s original mythology for the franchise in order to incorporate the ploddingly dull aspects of that movie into an overarching master plan. Sam Smith’s theme tune tells us the writing is on the wall and all along it has been, as age-old events from the previous movies continue to have prescience. Each storyline was conceived uniquely following the release of the last movie, so it is commendable how well they have all tied together here. If this is Craig’s swansong, it is unthinkable he could do any better.