SPECTRE: behind a gritty and stylish front, old Bondian stereotypes return

Sam Mendes, “SPECTRE” (2015)

As James Bond films go, “Spectre” looks gritty and stylishly in a minimal way all at once, but that’s as much as can be said in its favour. After a memorable opening sequence over Mexico City – you know it’s Mexico City because the hundreds of thousands of citizens there appear to be celebrating the Day of the Dead (the day before All Saints’ Day on November 1) with their skull masks and costumes – in which James Bond (Daniel Craig) foils a terrorist bombing plot and throws the two terrorists out of their helicopter which (of course) happens to be flying over the crowds, the super spy is recalled to London by his boss M (Ralph Fiennes) who chides him over his derring-do recklessness and suspends him from espionage duties. M happens to be locked in a power struggle with C (Andrew Scott), the head of the new Joint Intelligence Service formed from the merge of MI and MI6 and who wants to shut down the old-fashioned elite “00” section. Bond meets secretly with M’s secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and shows her the video authorisation he had from the previous M (Judi Dench) authorising him to kill one of the terrorists, Marco Sciarra, after which Moneypenny agrees to help Bond find out the meaning behind a ring Bond recovers from Sciarra which features an octopus emblem. 

Bond attends Sciarra’s funeral and meets the terrorist’s widow Lucia (Monica Bellucci), saving her from being killed by two mystery gunmen. After the two make love, Lucia tells Bond that her husband had been working for a mysterious criminal organisation. Bond uses Sciarra’s ring to infiltrate the organisation and eavesdrop on a meeting but is exposed by the meeting’s chairman Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) and is forced to flee in a high-speed car chase. Moneypenny identifies a name mentioned during the meeting as being the pseudonym of a hitman thought to be dead but who may still be alive. Bond tracks down this fellow and indeed discovers the man alive in a remote Austrian hut. Bond promises to protect the hitman’s daughter and locates her – just before she is kidnapped by agents sent out by the organisation Bond had infiltrated. After rescuing the daughter, Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), Bond learns from her the name of the organisation – it is known as SPECTRE.

From then on, Dr Swann takes Bond to a hotel in Tangier where they locate a secret room that has the location of SPECTRE’s headquarters in the Sahara. The two journey there by train, but not before barely escaping with their lives from SPECTRE agent Hinx (Daniel Bautista) who himself ends up hung out to dry (literally). At the SPECTRE base, Bond learns that Oberhauser, also known as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is actually behind the plan to merge MI5 and MI6 and that C is his puppet who will give him online access to the agencies’ files. 

With a plot that meanders from various locations in Europe to Africa and then back again to London, where each and every location involves Bond in a car chase, plane chase or train chase, “SPECTRE” quickly grows stale and boring. Even those who wrote the script must have realised how tedious the action sequences are, else why would they pack so many different variations of the same thing into the film? The actual sequences themselves are not all that interesting and look as if they were lifted from previous James Bond films like “Live and Let Die”. Various plot holes and loose strings abound – how does Bond ensure Lucia stays safe after she spills the beans about her husband? How do the crooks know where Bond is likely to turn up if it is only late in the film that Oberhauser / Blofeld starts torturing Bond and probing his brain for information? With the exception of the eccentric but scientifically brilliant Q (Ben Whishaw), the characters are flat and Daniel Craig himself looks as if he is on autopilot playing James Bond. Seydoux is colourless as the psychiatrist daughter of a criminal hitman, and Bautista doesn’t have enough screen time to flesh out his character as the vicious Oddjob-style senior henchman. 

The film seems over-eager to repack all the usual Bond stereotypes – the super-villain, his curious senior assistant with the weird mannerisms, the damsel in distress with the improbable science or engineering qualifications, Bond sleeping with the enemy’s wife / girlfriend / daughter / whatever, the exotic locations – into the film without justifying their presence or continuing value to the film franchise. The reinvention of Blofeld as (improbably) Bond’s foster brother is laughable, and one might hope in vain that this theme of Blofeld wanting revenge on Bond for purely selfish and rather infantile reasons will not continue in future Bond films. Behind the revival of the various stereotypes in “SPECTRE” may lie a more sinister message: the film mirrors the return to Cold War themes and cultural stereotypes in the West, and with them a dangerous fantasy about Britain becoming a major political power again.