Meditative, brooding, imperfect, also remarkable, the new James Bond adventure Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes, marks the third time the series has reached the status of a breathing, ambiguous work of art. The last two heights, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and 2012’s pop dream Skyfall, combined the sleekness of franchise cool—cars, world travelling, sexual indulgence, action—with human personality and resonant entanglements.
They created a utopia of franchise tropes and thematic richness, culminating in the fusion of past and present in Skyfall’s masterful climax at Bond’s childhood manor. Quoting the unlikely sources Les Vampires and Under The Volcano (book and film) Spectre didn’t leave me walking on a cloud like Skyfall but it isn’t trying to be the previous movie. The Bond films have turned Mendes, previously a middlebrow hack, into a possibly great director. He interrogates and celebrates Bond in equal measure. If not the most notable instance of an auteur doing new, creative things with a recognizable icon since Godard took up Lemy Caution, Mendes’ extraordinary 007 films offer mainstream lift and an autodidact’s hermetic concerns.
Start with Under The Volcano. Spectre begins with a ravishing vista of Mexico City on the Day Of The Dead, the enormous skeleton parade float recalling the opening credits of John Huston’s adaptation of the Malcolm Lowry novel. In an illusion of sustained tracking the camera cranes down to find Bond wearing a skull mask and walking towards another dalliance with a woman. Like Lowry’s Consul (and Albert Finney’s definitive drunkard walking dead performance in Huston’s film) Bond is a man living in extremes and always threatening to die. He also admits to drinking “too much.” Recalling Timothy Dalton’s actorly professionalism, Craig is never likable, always fascinating. Who is this guy? When Spectre’s oneiric story unfolds and we find that a shadowy villain (Christoph Waltz) has been the cause of all of Craig’s Bond’s losses and heartache over the previous three installments—“I’m the author of all your pain” being a line so genius Sorkin could never think it up—Craig’s, and the series’, continuity reveals itself to be one Rivette-length epic. Spectre begins by aligning Bond with one of the great characters of British literature and then goes further, enmeshing him into a secret society that recalls Feuillade’s cloak and dagger trickery and, by extension, Rivette’s. The action scenes are good and serviceable in the Mendes Bonds—Spectre includes a dazzling train fight and boat/helicopter showdown climax—but the cultural recalls and sheer invigorating pulse given to the material makes these recent movies singular classics.
Since rebooting the series with 2006’s Casino Royale, the Craig Bonds have reimagined villains, plotlines, images and characters from the Broccoli series in ways that make Bond contemporary and mythic. 2009’s Quantum Of Solace was a largely failed attempt to make Bond Bourne yet it contained the forever-haunting image of a nude female conquest covered in oil, a response to the classic lover’s death in Goldfinger and a prescient reminder of where Bond stood in today’s uncertain quagmire of terrorism and politics.
Quantum was made by a director, Marc Forster, who possessed neither movie sense nor a love for Bond. Mendes has both. Beloved characters like M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) are given showier roles and become integral to the narrative melee. The Bond Girls (Lèa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci) are fleshed out women yet still filmed with sexy radiance (a shot of Bond introducing himself to Bellucci while in front of a mirror questions the series’ history of objectification). Traditional Bond scenes like the car chase, the pursuits by the henchman, the aquiring of gadgets and journey to the villain’s lair are shot with high cinematic standards, true pop immersion and love. Yet Mendes and his writers (among them John Logan, author of the classic screenplays Any Given Sunday and The Aviator) don’t forget that Bond is, like Geoffrey Firmin, a man living with death and loneliness. Spectre is airier and more deliberate than past Bonds; an almost funeral essence hangs about its edges. It might be the art film of the year.
Though the final scenes aren’t as inspired as perhaps they should be, and the showdown with Waltz’s major character lacks catharsis, Spectre brings Craig’s Bond story to a rousing conclusion. His movies as the character click together like no other Bond actor’s. So what if, as early reviews have charged, it doesn’t “Make sense”? Neither does Feuillade, most Hitchcock, most De Palma, most movies. Neither does Under The Volcano. The aestheic rush: Now that’s a neat trick.