On Sunday I went to see Spectre, the most recent James Bond and the fourth starring Daniel Craig. I didn’t expect much, not after having been rather disappointed with Skyfall, and sure enough I thought it was pretty ordinary.
My main gripe is that the story was too damned complicated (spoilers follow). The actors lurch from place to place on the flimsiest of pretexts, with each new location serving to raise more questions rather than advancing the plot. We start off in Mexico, then go to London, then to Rome. We do all this because after her death M (the Judy Dench version) had left a message for Bond telling him to kill an Italian in Mexico and then attend his funeral in Rome. Now M died at the end of Skyfall in Bond’s childhood home in Scotland, to which they’d driven together from London. She didn’t go there to die, so she must have recorded the message before their journey. Rather than just mentioning it in over breakfast at the Little Chef on the A1 outside Darlington. In fact, the whole premise of Bond going to Mexico on a rogue mission is completely unnecessary: Bond “going rogue” has been done multiple times already, and twice by Daniel Craig himself, so they’re not doing anything original. It only serves to ask why M didn’t tell Bond about this startling new threat when she was still alive, and why she didn’t handle it in her official capacity as M. We’re never told the answer.
But never mind that, we’re already in Rome and Bond is banging the widow of the bloke he offed in Mexico before the funeral music has died away. Through her he finds out about a secret meeting taking place that very night in Rome between the members of a shadowy cabal which wants to hold the world in its iron grasp, or something. We’re never quite sure what motivates these people (other than their leader) but it is implied they want to control the world’s information, and presumably make money. But judging by the fleet of Ferraris parked up outside this meeting, they have plenty of that already. Once again, Bond villains are motivated to spend tens of millions in order to…make money? I’ve never been convinced that world domination offers itself up as a better alternative to fatten the wallets of those who are already multi-millionaires than investing in pork belly futures. Jeez, even the cabal’s hired muscle drives a super-Jag. What’s he still in it for, the final salary pension?
Anyway, this meeting is taking place because the person dispatched by Bond in Mexico was the cabal’s assassin, and they need to select a new one. Apparently this requires the entire membership to assemble on the evening of his funeral, leaving standing room only. Why this must be we don’t find out, because the new assassin selects himself by striding out of a back room and murdering one of his pals. A democratic selection process there was not. Oh, and this took place in Rome because the previous assassin just so happened to be Italian. Either that or it’s purely a coincidence and…oh, look over there, a car chase!
Back in London, Bond finds out that a cryptic name he heard at the meeting refers to a bloke in Austria so grab your passports, we’re off again! In some lodge in the middle of nowhere Bond catches up with a man who we saw in Casino Royale and then (so I thought) was shot and killed in the early stages of Quantum of Solace. But I was wrong, and we learn he is
alive and well dying of radiation poisoning, dealt out by the leader of this shadowy cabal we saw meeting in Rome, which we learn is SPECTRE. SPECTRE had this chap – Mr White – poisoned because he went against their leader. Mr White explains he was fine with the guns and drugs but not with what they were doing with “children”. We’re never told what this refers to because the rest of the film presents SPECTRE’s main mission as controlling information, and their leader later confirms as much. But potential plot devices upon which we must concentrate are being thrown out by the shovelful, leaving us with no time to wonder whether the mysterious leader of SPECTRE is in fact Jimmy Saville. Mr White has a daughter, who happens to be young, fit, and French. I tried to figure out why she was French but couldn’t come up with anything more plausible than the actress chosen to play her was French. Mr White fears for her life and is reluctant to divulge her whereabouts to Bond, but in return for 007 promising to keep her safe he reveals that she is working in a clinic sitting atop a mountain in Austria, and that he should ask her about L’Americain. At this point the audience is led to believe this refers to a person, but in fact we later find L’Americain is a hotel in Tangiers with a hidden room behind the honeymoon suite set up by Mr White. So why did Bond need to see the daughter to find this out? Mr White could have simply told him not only the existence of this hidden room, but also the information therein – the location of SPECTRE’s hideout in the North African desert. Yet instead, he puts his daughter’s life in considerable danger by using her as a conduit through which to transmit information which he could have passed to Bond directly. And then he blew his own head off.
In writing this it occurs to me that the only reason Mr White tells Bond to go and see his daughter is because the scriptwriters somehow needed to shoehorn a fit, young French girl into the plot. Looking at it this way, her actual contribution to the story as it panned out was minimal. But the script does give us the opportunity to witness a thrilling car chase through the Austrian Alps, and then to visit Tangiers, whereupon Bond and his new bird board a pretty bog-standard African train which nevertheless features a dining car in which people eat their meals wearing tuxedos and ball gowns. Look, I know Daniel Craig looks good in a suit, and suits look good on him, and the French chick looks good in anything (or, I suspect, nothing) but having the two of them turn up in the dining car dressed like this was preposterous. Obviously the script called for the two to be dressed up in evening attire somewhere, and somebody thought if the plot doesn’t really allow it then let’s just shove it in anywhere.
During the dinner, SPECTRE’s assassin shows up and wrecks half the train, before inevitably dying at the hands of Bond with a little help from mademoiselle. Now, bear in mind that when his predecessor died the entire membership of SPECTRE had to assemble in Rome in order that a replacement be picked (or rather observed murdering one of their number). But this time? Well, we meet half of SPECTRE the next morning and they don’t even mention it, let alone jet off to whichever city the great brute’s funeral is being held in.
Then we find that SPECTRE exists partly to control all the world’s information and partly to piss off Bond because when he was a kid he was orphaned and another family took care of him and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…sorry, where was I? I nodded off there. Is the Bond film still on? Or is this a remake of Party of Five? I think the latter, because Bond is still pining over Vesper Lynd who died 3 (three!) films ago. Jesus, either make her death a major plot point driving Bond’s murderous desire for revenge, or have him actually move on after he’s shagged his way through a platoon of seriously fit replacements in the intervening films. One or t’other, please!
Apparently Spectre employed no less than four scriptwriters, all working at the same time. And it shows. What’s that proverb about too many cooks? That’s a major criticism I have with a lot of modern films: the plots are overly complicated, as if they are trying way too hard. A good story does not need to be complicated, and some of the best are brutally simple. A good film doesn’t need half a dozen false leads, red herrings, twists, and potential plot devices blasted at the audience in every other scene. If you’re going to take up the challenge of a complicated plot, it needs to be as tightly structured as The Usual Suspects or L.A. Confidential to work, otherwise the result looks like a high-school kid trying his hand at writing his first novel. The plot of Spectre looks as amateurish as hell, with so many plot holes and inconsistencies that I’m wondering whether its complexity was a deliberate attempt to distract the audience from its shortcomings. But I think I’ll go with my less conspiratorial opinion that the modern plot serves merely as an excuse to flit from one set-piece to another in rapid succession in order to serve up nice cinematography.
By far the best film I’ve seen recently was Mad Max: Fury Road. It wasn’t just the stuntwork, action, and visuals that pleased me but the conspicuous lack of storyline. Perhaps knowing his audience well, the director chose a plot with just about enough backstory and exposition to provide an excuse for the convoy to go from one point to another, turn around, and come back the way they came. If you’re going to rely on the action to carry the film, then it is best to keep the plot as simple as possible. If you’re going to rely on the plot to carry the film, then you’ll need to start with a decent story, and that probably means taking one that has already been written. The films adaptations of books sometimes don’t work, but when they do it is often because the screenwriters are working with solid source material. Spectre didn’t do either of these, and we had entertaining albeit sometimes cartoonish action mashed together in almost three hours of torturous, nonsensical plot.
There was still plenty of life in James Bond when they rebooted the franchise with Casino Royale. Nine years later, Spectre must surely have killed it off completely.