SPECTRE  * 1 / 2

Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Monica Bellucci and Ralph Fiennes. Screenplay by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth. Directed by Sam Mendes.

One of the only dude stereotypes I’ll cop to is “commitment issues.” I’m terrible about making long term plans and I don’t have any tattoos. I tend not to start reading books with the words “Part One” in the title and I used to hesitate before renting any film that was on two VHS tapes. In fact, one of the reasons I love movies so much is because they end. (Or at least they used to.) I find few things quite as satisfying as that feeling of a story well told – the finality of the closing credits and then we’re done with it and free to get on with our lives.

007 movies used to be great for this. Even though they all promised at the end that “James Bond Will Return” that didn’t mean it mattered at all what order you watched any of the films in. There were always different girls, different villains, even different James Bonds.  There were different actors playing the same characters, and sometimes the same actors playing different characters. Bond could fight Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and then two years later they meet again for the first time in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That kind of continuity just didn’t matter.

The kind of continuity that did matter was more of an emotional one; an adherence to a formula that made the films feel like comfort food. They’d always open with a cool action sequence having nothing to do with the rest of the movie, there’d be silhouetted naked ladies in the opening credits, Bond would get laid a few times, kill a henchman or two, and eventually foil an elaborate plan to take over the world. The movies would all land somewhere on a sliding scale between lousy and pretty good, and almost without exception run at least twenty minutes too long.

The other vital component of the Bond formula was trend-chasing. The producers’ panicky desperation to glom onto the latest crazes — always adorably a year or two behind the times — is part of what gives the films such a nostalgic kick when marathoned on cable channels during Thanksgiving weekends. It’s like taking a tour of long-passed fads during your tryptophan snooze.

Bond’s been through his blaxsploitation phase (Live And Let Die), gone kung fu fighting (The Man With The Golden Gun), ripped off Miami Vice (License To Kill) and Moonraker even followed Star Wars into space. 2012’s inexplicably acclaimed Skyfall was for all intents and purposes a remake of The Dark Knight, co-starring Javier Bardem as The Joker and spending a rather baffling amount of screen time on Bond’s dead parents, even giving James an Alfred the Butler of his very own.

Spectre — probably the lousiest Bond picture since the Roger Moore era, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna watch those Brosnan blunders again to make sure – latches on the most insidious trend in movies today and pretty much sinks the franchise. Fifty years and some twentysomething films into his run, 007’s adventures have suddenly become a serial.  Yep, they’ve gone and tried to make a fucking Marvel movie out of this.

2008’s unloved Quantum Of Solace was the first direct sequel in Bond’s history, picking up mere minutes after Casino Royale ended and following 007 on a formula-breaking rogue revenge mission that I found thematically interesting but nobody else seemed to like very much, and by Skyfall it seemed like everyone decided to pretend it never happened and just make a Batman movie instead. But now, in a screenwriting decision so feverishly inane I still can’t believe it’s real, turns out all three of those Daniel Craig 007 movies were all part of a single plot by a fiendish, unseen supervillain who has been hiding behind the scenes this entire time.

You’re probably wondering how three disparate baddies with their own explicitly stated, totally unrelated motivations could all also have been working for one dude these past nine years, a question answered by this film’s army of screenwriters with an indolent: “Because we said so.” Christoph Waltz turns up giving that same performance he always gives as Franz Oberhauser, Bond’s long-lost stepbrother (!) who claims to have secretly arranged every damn thing that happened in all of these movies as part of a pointlessly protracted revenge plot because (are you sitting down?) his father liked James better than him!

Look, this is all so stupid I feel like I’m getting dumber just sitting here trying to explain it, but that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the movie had a sense of humor about its own stupidity. Instead, we have Sam Mendes returning to the director’s chair for his second Bond film in a row and once again making sure that nobody’s allowed to have any fun. Mendes is an extremely serious, Academy Award winning filmmaker and his movies make Chris Nolan look like a barrel of laughs. Spectre is even visually dour, all underlit, shadowy rooms and dingy shades of taupe. If Craig looked any more openly contemptuous of the lousy movie he’s trapped in, he’d be Tommy Lee Jones.

This serialization gimmick that every blockbuster seems to be trying these days is I suppose meant to make the movies just part of an even larger story. But I think it makes everything feel smaller.  Retconning the three previous pictures into stepping stones in Bond’s massive family squabble does nothing but diminish the earlier films. This grand-scheme, franchise-first mentality is poor storytelling that leads to awful exercises like Avengers: Age Of Ultron existing only to provide connective tissue in between installments.

Maybe it’s my commitment issues talking here, but I don’t go to the movies to watch episodic television.

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