James Bond, at this point, is practically a political seat. Nearing the end of his term, Daniel Craig is, you’d think, free to do whatever he likes: say, ignite, consume whatever. In actuality, with such an extraordinarily large range of interests to represent, there’s very little room to move. Is it possible to satisfy, at the same time, the addicts seeing their twenty-fourth Bond entry in a theatre and the marginally curious youth who don’t read the news or care how many movies there have been in the series? The obvious answer is no, but, under the speed-limit obeying direction of Sam Mendes, that’s what the series has attempted: every check beside a corresponding descriptor in the Bond ingredient list, as well as the not-exactly-seamless integration of lessons learned from neighbouring series reboots (Nolan’s Batman, Feige’s Marvel, Abrams’ Star Trek). Like any over-administered institution, James Bond is a slow-moving vessel, always reacting, never anticipating (to the unknown-origin prequel, then chaos cinema, then, with the diptych of Skyfall and Spectre, the re-establishment of new company players in old, musty roles, reacting, as ever, to the headlines of ten months ago).
There is something, in its consistency, that makes the Bond series of particular interest. While the needle has moved from “embarassing” to “serious” of late, it’s still a very carefully monitored formula whose main variation (the enemy of the year) turns each movie into a marker of current geopolitical fear. But in any case, there’s something to this formula, or there must be: on the one hand, the Bond movies are unimaginative nonsense with excellent advertising qualities (the cars, the technology, the fashion on the temporarily fashionable actors and actresses, none of whom are, when they find their way out of the series, typically given much of a lift into future roles); on the other hand, perhaps the Bond plot structure is, like Aristotle’s perfect tragedy, Hollywood’s perfect melodrama, Poverty Row’s perfect noir, and Cavell’s comedy of remarriage, having passed through so many iterations, now sanded down, at its base, an instinctual, ever-renewing format in sync with its purpose: the perfect anti-climax action film.
Well, even still, that would only explain why people see these films, not what they end up being as works of craft, and where Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were, above all, distinctive works (one driven by characters, patience, suspense, the other by impatience, circularity, and artificiality), Mendes’ work with the series, the first director given two in a row since the days of Timothy Dalton, is conservative, the type of realism that will, before long, look as dated as Brosnan’s horrible fun does now.
Consider how the whole thing is situated: while it won’t appear on the posters, Mendes is, first and still, a theatre director. And what he repeatedly brings out, what he seems most focused on getting right, is that Bond tradition that will never die: the part where the sinister would-be dictator talks and talks and talks. Across a cavernous board room, locked inside an operating room, on either sides of a glass divider, they mutter things about the past, gesture toward heroic clichés, and close with, what else for this series: “Where is she?” All is cast in the oranges and browns of artificial light (Hoyte van Hoytema is the cinematographer, he of that other surveillance-as-love fiction, Her), and no exposition scene, from boat or on train, can be trimmed (Lee Smith, editor of every Christopher Nolan film since Batman Begins, can’t be a coincidental choice). Contrast the stately, lengthy, shot-on-film Spectre with another 2015 release about the vulnerability of physical agents in a digital world (Michael Mann’s Blackhat), and you’ll see the difference between a filmmaker following, and one who, embracing the limitations of a format, bumps up against something visceral. Here, cars drift and crash, and, even projected across a square mile of screen, nothing is surprising.
And then there’s Craig. The skin around his eyes tighter than ever, his mouth moving as little as possible, so as not to break the image of the surly, permanently pissed-off off-agenda agent, he’s a model with a psychological past, no longer much of a character. In the low, unfavourable light, he looks, at times, like a Roman bust of himself. In a minor twist on Dalton’s The Living Daylights, he’s protecting/endangering a Dr. Swann (Léa Seydoux), travelling from Vienna to Tangier and beyond. It’s a Bond movie, so it’s hardly news to point out the boring misogyny of the premise. To change, apparently, would be to sacrifice the ideals of the whole enterprise, and this is what the series was voted in to do. This is why it doesn’t matter if Idris Elba plays the next Bond, and it doesn’t matter that Barbara Broccoli, two decades ago, moved into the role of producer, succeeding her father, and why it might as well be Sam Mendes as anyone else: as a proudly throwback franchise, expecting anything different (like more than one good movie per actor in the role) goes against the very nature of James Bond. Here is a man, manipulating machinery and women under the pretense of politics, and, in a tip of a hat to modernity; this one inspected his wounds a little more closely.