A long time ago in a business meeting far far away, Clint Eastwood was offered the role of James Bond. He turned it down because he believed that Bond should only be played by an Englishman (Albert Broccoli obviously thought an Australian would do as George Lazenby was ultimately chosen as Sean Connery’s replacement). Eastwood, of course, went on to have a distinguished directorial career, and one of his recurring themes is that of haunting. This conceit also informs much of Sam Mendes’ second contribution to the 007 franchise, Spectre. As John Barry’s iconic theme plays at the opening, super text informs the viewer that “the dead are alive.” And thus they prove to be across the film.
Haunting is emphasized from the opening shot, a bravura four-minute (trick) long take by director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, that follows a skull-masked James Bond (Daniel Craig, “Cowboys & Aliens”) through Mexico City’s Day of the Dead festival, en route to making a deadly delivery. Bond’s appearance is one of a spectre himself, the film’s title referring both to the shadowy antagonistic organization and to our hero, an agent of death doomed to carry a morbid burden. As he tells Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, “The Lobster”), Bond never stops to think about what he does, but the film does think about it, creating a sober and intriguing engagement with the character and his legacy that builds upon the concerns of “Skyfall.” Figures from Craig’s previous films frequently intrude upon the narrative of Spectre, including Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, “The Debt”), Silva (Javier Bardem, “To the Wonder”), Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, “Dark Shadows”), Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and, of course, M (Judi Dench, “Philomena”). Rather than opting for a disorientated/disorientating style á la Paul Greengrass in the Jason Bourne franchise, Mendes and Van Hoytema keep Bond’s turmoil internal, Craig only hinting at the torment behind his strikingly bright blue eyes. This subtlety ensures that the viewer is in constant awareness of Bond’s carefully contained pain, the “author” of which proves to be criminal mastermind Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained”).
This concern with the past is unusual for Bond, as the character is largely a tabula rasa, moving from woman to woman, villain to villain and vodka martini to vodka martini with scarcely a look back. There are exceptions, such as references to the late Mrs. Bond in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “For Your Eyes Only,” as well as the rather confused grief and anger in “Quantum of Solace.” But Spectre also interweaves another theme with its interest in haunting. Bond is haunted by the deaths he has caused, but he is also given a goal beyond the functional completion of his mission, that of redemption. His conversation with Mr. White as well as interchanges with Swann indicate an awareness that he could find something else, and part of the film’s development is Bond’s pursuit of something beyond one murderous mission after another. Van Hoytema renders much of the film in bright yet diffuse light, which suggests an alternative for Bond should he make the choice to grasp it.
Due to its interest in the past and the (potential) future, Spectre ties together plot strands from previous films, acknowledging Bond’s (recent) history. In doing so, the film reflects contemporary production practice of linking multiple films together. While this could be read as a cynical marketing ploy to get Spectre viewers to buy DVDs of “Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace” and “Skyfall,” it also creates a richer viewing experience, as the viewer gains considerable pleasure in recognizing these broader references, as they are drawn into an elaborate fictional world.
A further aspect of this referentiality is continuation of characters. Introduced in the previous film, the new incarnations of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, “Southpaw”), Q (Ben Whishaw, “Suffragette”) and M (Ralph Fiennes, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”) prove important allies for Bond this time around, especially against the threat posed by Max Denbigh/C (Andrew Scott, “Jimmy’s Hall”), head of the newly created Joint Intelligence Service. M’s political grappling with C and the shift from human intelligence to all-encompassing digital surveillance and drone warfare gives the film contemporary resonance, and allows for some witty interchanges. However, the humor is part of the film’s major problem — a discomfort between tradition and innovation. Craig’s tenure as Bond has been characterized by emphasis upon physicality and psychology over gadgetry and flippancy. When Spectre follows this pattern it works, especially with its interests in haunting and surveillance. At other times, however, Mendes and screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth seem to feel the need to include more classic Bond aspects, such as hulking henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), an elaborate base for Oberhauser complete with private army, and an over-reliance on gadgetry. As a result, there is sometimes a distance between action and viewer, making parts of the film rather hollow. Some sequences feel too much like homage, especially a train fight that recalls those in “From Russia with Love,” “Live and Let Die” and “The Spy Who Loved Me,” rather than creating the visceral thrill and genuine sense of danger in the opening sequence of “Skyfall.”
Overall, Spectre is a mixed bag, one that works best when it asserts its own identity but fumbles when it winks at the audience. But perhaps that will prove to its advantage in the long run. While “Skyfall” will be remembered as Bond’s 50th anniversary that changed things and stands out from the pack, Spectre can be considered a return to business as usual, a continuation of the franchise that blends the old and the new. Mendes and Craig may be done, but if so they have left the franchise in fine shape for whomever comes next. For as always, there can be no doubt that James Bond will return.