Worst theme song ever.
Not hardly! Does no one remember Madonna’s “Die Another Day,” or Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die”? “Moonraker?” Probably not, and probably no one will remember Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” as a Bond theme, either. But, lush and pretty and falsetto-y as it is, it works just fine as a Sam Smith song, and it’s the kind of song I can picture the Grammy winner singing in concert. (From what I gather, many artists who aren’t Shirley Bassey walk away from their themes.) And, by debuting at No. 1 in the UK, which has never had a Bond theme reach the top (not even our chart-topping “A View to a Kill”) it did what it was supposed to do. (Here it debuted at No. 71, then fell off. Still, Smith has the last laugh on numerous Bond themes that failed to make it that high (“Another Way to Die,” Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name”), “bubbled under” Billboard‘s Hot 100 (Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye”), or didn’t chart at all, as you can extrapolate from here.
And I’m OK with that, finding that mega-hit contrived and in too much of a funk to really connect. Some of what may not work for you in Spectre goes right back to its predecessor, like hiring “the male Adele” to follow in the footsteps the Oscar-winning female one. And some of what did work, seems affected this time: in emphasizing aesthetics over adventure, Sam Mendes is the Sam Smith of action filmmakers, making assassinations in Shanghai and car chases in Rome look as lovely as spring dew on flowerbeds and blowing up a villain’s lair in Spectre in one voluptuous long shot. Gorgeous–but don’t you miss the “ticking clock” detonations of villain’s lairs, as the floors and ceilings buckle and collapse, jump-suited henchman fall to their deaths, and Bond rescues his Bond girl in the nick of time? I do. (The heinous Die Another Day, with its melting ice palace and crashing plane, was the last one to really luxuriate in this destruction.)
The filmmaking is weaker this time.
That said, Mendes and his team infuse the opening chase in Spectre with a superb sustained tracking shot that ends amusingly, as if commenting on sustained tracking shots, and however they were achieved the ensuing helicopter antics look incredibly dangerous. Complemented by Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, blown in from Interstellar‘s dust bowl, here Mendes gets his hands dirty. The director doesn’t really do light (other than the black humor of American Beauty there are few laughs on either his screen or stage resumes, ditto Daniel Craig’s) yet I appreciated some of the nods toward humor, including the resurrection of that old Roger Moore standby, reaction shots from passers-by caught swept up in the action. Thomas Newman’s score has more “Bond” to it, and the production has hints of Ken Adam to it besides. Plus: the “gun barrel” opening is back! (Sort of.)
I didn’t like the misuse of Monica Bellucci and Dave Bautista, who could easily have done more with less attenuated roles. (It’s a mixed message to employ “the world’s oldest Bond girl,” and give her nothing to do.) Overall I was fine with Spectre, bumps and all, as I was with Skyfall. For me, though, Craig’s tenure as Bond has been in perceptible decline from the unexpectedly outstanding Casino Royale. (Does it help to think of Spectre as the best movie of the Brosnan epoch, the one he didn’t get to make?)
Spectre can’t quite come to terms with Spectre. According to last year’s Sony hacks the suits there were rolling their eyes over the whole family tree thing, a device already parodied in the Austin Powers movies. For once they were right, but by then the whole clanking train had left the station, with multiple screenwriters aboard to keep it on track. Other than the cat, the wheels come off whenever it gets to the title organization, which due to rights issues has been almost entirely sidelined since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. For one thing, its absorption of everything we’d see prior in the Craig era is clumsily tacked on, a “Marvelverse,” everything-is-related move. (We already have a “Bond-verse,” one the movies draw on regularly.) For another thing: signet rings? Maybe in the 60s, but surely retinal codes or something is how operatives from the world’s most secretive counterespionage organization would ID each other today. I mean, what? Is Spectre some sort of social club? “Goldfinger, how are ya? Doing fine, Largo, yourself?” Forget signet rings, just issue jerseys.
Mendes says he won’t be returning for Bond 25. Isn’t it time to get Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, or Christopher Nolan in the director’s chair?
Ask producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson–and hear them answer with a polite “no.” Bond is their baby, and practically their birthright. They’re not (entirely) risk-averse: After the enormous success of Die Another Day they could have continued the death-by-tedium approach that characterized Brosnan’s tenure. Instead they jumpstarted the franchise, with spectacular results. They are the only auteurs of the Bond series. And they were right to let Mendes reboot it back to its original incarnation at the end of Skyfall, and right again to have him have the first crack at what it might be with Spectre…with mixed results. The pieces are in place, requiring reshuffling–who will do it is an interesting question, that will only be answered by someone willing to defer to the front office. That’s not those three filmmakers.
I’m sure Craig will return for Bond 25. (It’s Bond 25.) And I’m sure the next Bond will be…another Caucasian male from the British Isles. Why would the producers choose to disrupt their empire? Has any other long-running franchise changed the race and/or sex of their lead character? (There’s talk of Will Smith in a Dirty Harry reboot, which is not the same thing, Harry having hung up his Magnum in the waning days of the Reagan presidency.) Maybe Elba, a thoughtful sort, could revive Michael Caine’s more pensive Harry Palmer movies. And didn’t we just have Melissa McCarthy in Spy? (OK, not the same thing either.)
What critics want, or say they want, isn’t Elba as Bond or Theron as Bond–what they want is something other than James Bond. Which isn’t what audiences want. Audiences also want Mission: Impossible, Bourne (Matt Damon only), and, God help them, Kingsman. As another iteration of Bond develops there’s room to invent new adventures for Elba, Theron, etc.–and if there isn’t, that isn’t the franchise’s fault.
You can say that about any franchise; see, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and the prequels. We’ve certainly been there before with Bond, yet I’m not nearly as pessimistic about things as I was after Die Another Day. As the writing on the screen says, “James Bond Will Return.” I can wait.