Daniel Craig, Daniel Craig, Daniel Craig, man.
It’s very difficult after watching Spectre, the fourth (and, by recent indications, final) film in the Craig era, not to consider the electric-blue-eyed heartthrob the greatest Bond of all time. And not just because the movies themselves – the scripts, the visual effects, the women – are on another plane entirely. Craig has made Bond more than just a symbol. He’s made him a human being.
Spectre pits Bond against the eponymous arch-syndicate, a criminal network that uses terrorism, human trafficking and mass surveillance as a means to global domination. Thanks to disciples in high-ranking government positions, SPECTRE will soon command the intelligence streams of the world’s leading nations.
Including Britain. James Bond goes rogue when a young intelligence bureaucrat, “C” (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott) abruptly shuts down the double-0 program in favor of big data gathered by drones and the like. MI6’s chief, M, (Ralph Fiennes), argues for the necessity of human beings in the field – a variation on the man vs. robot dilemma that filmmakers have been dramatizing for decades.
“A license to kill is also a license not to kill,” M tells C, in a scene which doubles as the movie’s moral thesis.
The chief argument in which is Bond himself. Craig has always been a more self-conscious James Bond than his predecessors – less a symbol of hyper-masculinity, executive consumerism and globetrotting espionage (in all of which he’s certainly not above partaking), than he is a flawed, lonely and violent man.
He often refers to himself as an assassin rather than a spy, a kind of self-hatred entangled in his abiding affection for Her Majesty’s government. “Wounded” has been the most popular word to describe Craig’s portrayal since he debuted in Casino Royale, and one gets the sense that those wounds are just now beginning to mend.
Casino Royale opened with a gritty kill – a bloody, sweaty, hand to hand combat sequence shot in the stark black and white of a bathroom. Bond’s violence and rage throughout the ensuing films have paved the way for Spectre, which is no less violent but which finds Bond, finally, turning to mercy.
But worry not: Bond remains every bit the spy-aesthete of the Connery years, trotting the globe in unbelievably high style; and every bit the muscular philosopher of Craig’s making. From Mexico City, to London, to Austria, to Morocco – where, oddly enough, Ethan Hunt and the IMF gang posted up in this summer’s MI:5 – Bond revels in all our favorite clichés but (as Craig) isn’t contained by them.
The story of Spectre is weaker than both Casino Royale and Skyfall, — I'm sorry to say I can't even remember what the fuck Quantum of Solace was about — and in fact serves as a farewell to Craig (though the actor is still officially contracted to play Bond one more time, in the franchise’s 25th film).
Among Spectre’s perks are the burly henchman Hinx, played by WWE alum Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and a more involved Q (Ben Whishaw). Q has long been relegated to the lab. He’s been an ad-man, basically, for Bond’s superior gadgetry through the years. But Whishaw’s quartermaster is a millennial, a hacker and a field agent as much as he is an engineer.
Some critics will no doubt gush over the understated performance of Christoph Waltz as supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofield, the famous Bond villain (as parodied in the Austin Powers films) resurrected with a new backstory for the Craig era. For me, Waltz’ Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds was so wickedly precise, so iconic, that everything since feels like a cheap knockoff. He is methodical and nonplussed as SPECTRE’s mastermind and chair. But he does not seem to particularly enjoy torturing his nemesis when, seated at a computer, he directs tiny drills into Bond's head and neck.
One remembers a furious Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), laying into Bond with a rope in Casino Royale, bleeding from the eyes, consumed by rage and fear. Or Silva in Skyfall (Javier Bardem), bemoaning how foolish the pursuit was: “all this running and jumping,” he complained. “It’s ridiculous.”
Waltz, by contrast, who’s character has been stoking his antipathies for decades, has chosen a calm brand of wrath. But the needle never seems to move in one direction or the other. You never get the sense that he’s got the capacity or the energy to best Bond in any meaningful way.
There is, when all is said and done, something generic about Spectre. We’ve got our familiar rakish double-0; our exotic damsel (Lea Seydoux), who never quite transcends the Bond-girl stereotype a la Vesper Lynd; our action sequences in both snow and sand; and our multiple villains with accents and goofy names.
The tropes, though, are what make James Bond James Bond. If he weren’t enjoying a martini in a white tuxedo on a Moroccan train, why bother seeing it at all?