No Country for Old Spies

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The problem with James Bond, in the last decade or so, is that he is out-of-date. Like an 8-track in a world of MP3s, or a bulky satellite phone in the age of digital devices. He should have been retired long ago, especially when a new kind of spy in the form of Vin Diesel in XXX emerged in 2002.

And now in this digital age where espionage and war are carried out in cyberspace, Bond is even more unnecessary. Surprisingly enough, Spectre addresses this issue, with Bond literally fighting against his own obsolescence.

MI6 is about to merge with MI5, and a new kid in town, C, is about to take over operations and shut down the Double-O department, putting M and all his agents out of a job, because, as C points out, everything can be done with drones nowadays.

Which I thought was interesting, but the film doesn’t quite follow through. More on that later.

I’ve always called the Bond franchise colonialist, imperialist nonsense. Any dubious government organisation, be it the CIA or MI6 or the KGB or the FBI, should always be observed cautiously even in fiction films, not celebrated. But like how The Untouchables was a love letter to the FBI, so the Bond films have always been a celebration of British intelligence’s atrocities and ruthlessness dressed as a stylish and cool force for world-saving. But as we all know, governments are all about selfish interests.

And then came Casino Royale, where Daniel Craig’s Bond is not quite a likeable fella, but a brutal, violent servant of queen and country. Straying away from the debonair spy whose hair is never out of place (think Pierce Brosnan), who is suave and never gets too badly beaten up (think Sean Connery), this new Bond was a brute force, but who gets his balls whipped, almost dies of a heart attack and then gets all torn up over a woman. And he never thinks twice about killing someone. Still a human being, but a cold and brutal one. And there was hardly a moment when you could cheer for him. Kind of closer to the real world. Which is why I like it.

Then, of course, there’s the high emotional quotient, rising from Bond’s bond (haha) with Vesper Lynd, the first real love of his life. This made Casino Royale very out of place in the franchise, a romantic tearjerker dressed as an espionage thriller. Nothing came close ever since, and in hindsight, none of the previous films were ever close.

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Then came Sam Mendes, who really is bad news for Bond. Skyfall was ridiculous nonsense, with some of the most incongruous plot elements, basically Mendes trying to do too much within the runtime. I can’t discuss exact moments in the film, because I don’t remember much of it!

With Spectre, Mendes is once again trying on too much, blowing up the runtime with a lot of filler material and unnecessarily drawn out scenes. There was a lot of promise made in the trailers, that this was probably going to be Bond’s biggest challenge, that it could be a defining moment in his career as a spy, that he would finally come face-to-face with his greatest nemesis, the author of all his pain.

But the result is less than epic.

What Spectre is, is an overblown attempt at trying to mash up the old pre-Craig Bond with the emotional spectrum of Casino Royale‘s romantic sparks. The moment the film begins, Mendes is already trying hard to impress us, with a single-take opening scene during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations.

In fact, throughout the film, you get the feeling that Mendes is trying really hard at everything.

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But Spectre is an origin story of one of the franchise’s most memorable villains, and strangely undoes all that has been done with Casino Royale. With Mendes, Bond is once again the debonair spy who never gets a scratch on his face or his balls, even when he faces off against Dave Bautista. He is always cool, always in control, and even a falling building can’t touch him. In short, Mendes has successfully made Bond boring again.

But wait, what about Bond being driven out of MI6? Quite simply, all these classic espionage stories now have one thing in common – the organisations are always being threatened by obsolescence. Just take a look at how many times the Impossible Mission Force has almost been shut down.

But all the talk about a new world order and how everything can be done with technology now just amounts to nothing when Spectre is essentially anti-progress, preferring to continue wallowing in imperial self-importance and being in her majesty’s service without question. Weirdly, this makes the evil Spectre organisation’s idea of chaos as a necessary element to bring order seem like the more viable and realistic option. And when your villain makes more sense than your hero, you know you’ve lost control of your film.

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This makes Spectre an antithesis of the current world where authority is no longer on a pedestal, but “springs” of all sorts are mushrooming around the world to wrest control from the powers that be. This makes Spectre an archaic, old-fashioned propagation of ideals that are way past their expiry dates. It is so out of place with its cobwebby ideas that governments are always right and righteous, that it makes the Bourne series even more subversive and intelligent. In fact, put James Bond and Jason Bourne side by side, and the former will look like he badly needs crutches.

Still, heck if I know what Spectre is really trying to do to the franchise. Everything in the film seems to point towards a more classical Bond, except that there’s no real fire between Bond and his lady love Madeleine, even though Mendes tries hard to create the same firebrand chemistry as between Bond and Vesper. (Lea Seydoux must be the most wooden Bond Girl ever.) Everything in the film seems to be a tribute of some sort to the Bond films that have gone before.

And does that final shot mean the next Bond movie will see 007 back to his even more archaic ways?

If so, it must really be time to retire that old spy.

 

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