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The Spectre of Mediocrity

Bond franchise takes a slight step back in latest installment

James Bond is a real son-of-a-bitch. Emotionally withdrawn and given to bouts of depression, the agent known as 007 is a classic anti-hero — sadistic, taciturn and misanthropic, he is an assassin driven by the icy requisites of duty but given to the thrill of stepping outside the lines when he smells a rat within his own intelligence organization.

Bond, in creator Ian Fleming’s dour vision, is no burly action superhero. He is a burnt romantic, a vicious lone wolf. If he is to be admired, it is as the lesser of two (or three or four) evils. His integrity is conditional and complicated. His womanizing carries the taint of vengeance, and when he kills it is swift and utilitarian, approaching a kind of functional sociopathy.

In this sense, actor Daniel Craig has fit the Bond bill better than anyone in the franchise’s 24-film history. He reconstructs and, in a sense, de-romanticizes the rosy cinematic glow of Bond’s past, brutalizing the sensual smarm of Sean Connery and roughing up the royal aplomb of Roger Moore. Since his debut in 2006’s Casino Royale — the best Bond movie yet — Craig has proven that, when it comes to Bond, less is more. With his pugilistic good looks, hooded eyes and pinched lips, he is the portrait of reluctant obligations furiously fulfilled.

In Spectre, the fourth installment starring Craig and the second directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall), we get less of the brooding, anguished Bond and more of the man of action — not a terrible thing, but disappointing, given the darkly sophisticated atmosphere of the previous three films. Spectre centers on a complicated and layered struggle for the very nature of international counterintelligence. The Cold War, with its implications of mutual annihilation, is over; now surveillance and terrorism are the prevailing threats, with the global criminal syndicate Spectre at the center, infiltrating even British Joint Intelligence in the person of C (Andrew Scott), who struggles with M (Ralph Fiennes) to do away altogether with the supposedly antiquated 007 program.

Taken off field duty for defying orders, Bond and Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the daughter of a deceased Spectre functionary, follow Spectre’s labyrinthine trail, leading to a confrontation with his old nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (a perfectly cast Christoph Waltz). Kidnappings, torture, escapes and more kidnappings ensue, leading to a revelation on the level of “Luke, I am your father.” But I’ll spoil no more.

With its extravagant budget — at upwards of $300 million, said to be one of the most expensive films ever — Spectre seems a kind of coda for the Craig-era of Bond. Mendes relies heavily on the tropes of the franchise (car chases, big explosions, impossible stunts) while doing away with the character-driven psychology that distinguished the previous films. The movie is at once satisfying and underwhelming, familiar in a way that does nothing to advance the genre. Craig, always impressive, seems nonetheless lost in a zigzag of plot twists. Spectre is no Casino Royale, but it sure beats Moonraker. (Valley River Center, Cinemark 17