James Bond drinks a dirty martini in Spectre, the latest (and 26th) instalment of the enduring spy franchise. It’s a welcome change from his usual, famous tipple: the vodka martini, shaken, not stirred. The latter concoction encapsulated the old Bonds – those of Connery, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan – quite well. Extremely potent, yet totally uncomplicated. Those Bonds of old are actually quite boring, in my view, compared to the work Daniel Craig has done, in the three Bond films leading up to Spectre. In fact, Craig’s dirty martini Bond is the only Bond I can really stand to watch all the way through. He’s a briny, peevish Bond, more complex and compelling than the ones who’ve come before. A Bond suitable for the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era of moral ambiguity, PTSD, and cynicism about the naked use of state power. (One wonders how complex Craig’s Bond would’ve been if he’d preferred a gin martini – gin being the vastly more interesting spirit, and the orthodox foundation of the cocktail in question).
Craig’s complexity aside, Spectre is every bit the spectacle of its predecessors. It’s set in the sumptuous environs of Tangier, Mexico City, Rome, Austria, and I forget wherever else (it was beautiful, though). Director Sam Mendes knows exactly when to deploy trendy cinematic techniques, whether it’s a lingering tracking shot over a crowd in Mexico, or jarring, rattling closeups for the hand-to-hand bone cracking stuff. The usual gang is back together, too: Miss Moneypenny, Q, Ralph Fiennes’ chilly M, and Léa Seydoux joins as the Bond girl, who veers between being the damsel in distress and the damsel who can handle her own affairs quite well, thank you. There are cool suits, a cool watch and a cool car.
It’s customary at this point to elaborate the plot, but ehh, this is some fairly boilerplate Bond. There’s an über villain with a German accent. He’s disfigured later in the film, too, as one might expect (a good bad guy is usually in need of an eyepatch, if he doesn’t have one already). This villain controls a giant surveillance network that is nefariously in cahoots with legitimate British intelligence agencies. It’s a plot rooted in one of the big anxieties of our day: the rise of the surveillance state, and the social control made possible by that. But don’t worry; there’s no need to don a tinfoil hat or move off the grid, because Bond has it under control, and rather atypically, the stakes seem surprisingly low.
These movies have always been first-rate fantasies about keeping control in a violent, dangerous, unpredictable world. The superpowers could seethe and rage at each other, yet Bond kept the lid on things – albeit through some violent means – while remaining largely unruffled in his crispy, creamy tuxedo jacket. There’s a nostalgia implicit in this, too – a yearning for a simpler time and place, when bad guys all had German or Russian accents, they all controlled powerful, diabolical syndicates and they all were no match for handsome, unflappable James and his classic car, classic watch and classic beauty on his arm.
I go back and forth on the usefulness of these fantasies and that nostalgia. On one hand, they might make living in a dangerous world slightly more bearable, serving as a comforting distraction and a receptacle for some anxiety. But they can also shape our perception of that real, dangerous world, and make it look simpler than it is. Witness the way presidential candidates talk about foreign policy, all Bond-like in their machismo and eagerness to commit violence. And folks, even Christian folks, seem to go for that kind of stuff. These are seductive fantasies, and they shape us in ways we may not be aware of.
I guess that’s why I really appreciated the first three Bond movies in which Craig starred. They had all the elements of that fantasy, yet simultaneously offered a bit of a critique, some substance under the spectacle and the resulting tension between those things was really absorbing. They showed that doing Bond’s dirty work was costly, and even soul-damaging, not just to the bad guys, but to Bond himself. It’s a shame then, that Spectre breaks that streak. It ultimately regresses to the mean, back to the uncomplicated Bond. In one scene, a character assures Bond that he’s “a good man,” despite the fact that a few scenes earlier he tells her his job is to “kill people.” Spectre gives proof of Bond’s goodness in the fact that he doesn’t kill all the bad guys he could’ve killed. Seems like a low bar to set. And low bars are just kind of boring, like a vodka martini, shaken, but not really all that stirring.
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