The Spectre of Bond: Jeff and Chris Debate the Merits of the Latest Film in the Venerable Series!

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James Bond Spectre debate Jeff Ritter Chris Delloiacono

The SPECTRE of Bond
by: Chris Delloiacono & Jeff Ritter

It’s time for the main event!

James Bond vs. Goldfinger?  Not today!

007 vs. 006?  See Goldeneye!

Blond Bond vs. Gary U.S. Bonds?  Uh, never!!!!

First, in the Bond corner, it’s Chris “Enjoys ‘em Shaken” Delloiacono!

And his opponent, in the corner for change, it’s “Stirrin’ the Pot” Jeff Ritter!

Chris: I've been a huge James Bond fan for many years.  It's a big event when a new Bond film comes out. I've read all the books, Fleming or not, have a nice collection of other items, and I watch the old movies frequently. I've liked most of the films in the series quite a bit, but I'm no apologist that drinks the Kool-Aid.  THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH was the most recent film I found to be pretty abysmal.  Even still, I find the worst Bond films are still watchable.

I don't want to veer off track too much, though, so let's stick to SPECTRE. I thought it had the key elements you'd expect from a Bond flick: big action, hot chicks, and fast cars. They didn't really play much with the format but they did bring it backwards a bit and gave us a very classic film. The bad guys were over the top and there was a villainous lair like we've not seen in many years.  

My favorite Bond films of all time are ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, CASINO ROYALE, and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.  They all veer towards the more realistic, for Bond films, yet I love a lot of the out-there flicks too. Here's what I don't get, why would you revile this movie? I can understand not liking SPECTRE as much as previous entries or just hating the series. It's not the greatest Bond, but I also don't see this as a low point.

Jeff: You say you don’t drink the Kool-Aid, but I suspect you’re sipping some Wyler’s. SPECTRE, with the exception of Ralph Fiennes, who simply doesn’t do bad performances, fails on every level. The characterizations are inconsistent—Bond would never mew over the mousy doctor, and Monica Bellucci is wasted with her minimal screen time. The problem with villains being over-the-top is that you’ve spent three movies firmly entrenching this particular Bond persona as being grounded in realism. You want over-the-top, bring back Christopher Walken. I’m a bit sick of the effeminate/homosexual overtones of both Javier Bardem’s and Christoph Waltz’s characters—why must Mendes vilify his rare gay characters?

Big action, you say? When? Was it when the roof of the building Bond was standing on in Mexico collapses, and he falls several floors onto a convenient sofa? At that moment I wondered if I was watching PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN somehow, with their penchant for impossibly convenient ways of keeping the hero alive. The wrestling match in the helicopter was laughable—the throng of Day of the Dead revelers seemed not to notice the whirlybird for the first half of that brouhaha so it was probably added in post-production. That fight went on way too long anyway. The huge “Death Star” explosion at the big villain lair was so obviously green-screened that it made the special effects in WB’s GREEN LANTERN look good. No mussed hair, no shockwave, no soot. And don’t get me started on Sam Smith’s lame title track.

I’m no lawyer, but if Craig signed on for five films then he can’t really ride off into the sunset at the end here. If the word of his commitment is incorrect or he was able to opt out of the final film, then they should have killed him off. After all, are we to believe Connery through Craig are all one and the same man? We’re to take a possible future Idris Elba as the same man too despite certain obvious physical differences? It’s OK to assign 007 to new agents, the same as assigning “M” and “Q” to new people as they have over the years. The on-screen death of a 007 would be huge! If this is Craig’s swansong, he ended with a dull thud rather than a triumphant bang!

Chris: I'll start with the action, but first let me mention the breathtaking, unbroken 90-second shot that opened the film.  Mendes and cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema gave us a beautiful starting point that led to a very dramatic sequence with the helicopter battle.  The scene builds slowly and gathers steam instead of losing it along the way.  To your one point, if you notice, the throngs of people lessen throughout the sequence as they are clearly running off.  Perhaps a cutaway to below would have made the scene better, but I enjoyed the fight and all the lead up to it.  And yes, that includes the couch landing which was funny, not totally implausible, and hearkened back to the olden days of Bond.

Let’s talk about Mr. Hinx.  I thought that Dave Bautista lent a tremendous presence to his scenes.  He pulled off the silent Bond villain with an air of menace that harkened back to Jaws or Odd Job.  His role was actually understated even though he squeezed a guy's eyes out of their sockets.  How often does that happen?  I thought the car chase was a lot of fun and pulled in key elements of Rome much like the Bullitt car chase did for San Francisco.  It's like a travelogue and high octane adventure all in one.  Come on, the train scene was brutal and the way it ended was worthy of Bond!  Loved it!

I liked Christoph Waltz and never thought it was an anti-gay vibe from the character.  I don't see any real connections to Javier Bardem's portrayal of Silva in Skyfall.  I probably shouldn't have said over-the-top earlier.  Bardem was completely over the top and chewing scenery while Waltz went low key but came off more larger than life.  He was simply a dorky, lunatic.  Everything from the way he walked, sat, and yes, talked, presented a window to gawk at an utterly crazy person who wants to scorch the Earth.  

Why is he crazy?  Who really knows.  Blofeld’s motivations definitely lacked strong storytelling.  But the biggest nuts in the world often don't have explainable actions, so I'm fine with that.  I agree the connections to the other Craig films lacked cohesiveness and even giving Blofeld and Bond shared origins was not well done.  It would have been enough to say the other series villains were part of Spectre and that Blofeld hated JB because he ruined their plans of world domination.  Film writers today make so many errors with convolutedness.  Everyone doesn't need a shared origin or childhood connection.

How about that villain lair?  When's the last time we saw a truly spectacular setting for a villain?  It also made perfect sense story wise.  The lair was essentially a giant server room, yet it was also an immense crater with fantastical structures.  Crazy locations is essential to Bond at its best!

I also thought the women were quite good.  Léa Seydoux is gorgeous and a capable actress, but I wish they hadn't done the damsel in distress with her at the end.  Other than that, she was enjoyable to look at and her acting was quite good.  I totally disagree on Bellucci.  She was wonderfully tragic in her short screen time, served as connective tissue to get us to the Spectre meeting, and displayed the horror of her anticipated fate beautifully.

Back to the bad.  Sam Smith's song isn't good as it lacks a big climactic flourish.  It just seemed to show off the highs and highers, to coin a term, of Smith's vocal range.  I agree a classic Bond theme can raise the level a bit, but I also don't find the song a prerequisite for a quality Bond adventure.

Jeff: I thought these “Bond Girls” weren’t even on the same level as THE GILMORE GIRLS. Monica Bellucci has acting talent but she’s not given much to work with here. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect she may have the shortest screen time of any Bond Girl to date. Much like Bautista, she’s handled as an afterthought, not as a lynchpin character. Léa Seydoux was fine in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, which should have won Best Picture if the Oscars weren’t so damned corrupt, but she’s really not stood out in much else. Granted nobody stood out in that Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott ROBIN HOOD fiasco, and I can’t bring myself to watch the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise anymore because Tom Cruise completely creeps me out. As far as being a credible actress, a French film buff would know better than I. For being a pouty tart who can make demands of the greatest womanizer in the history of Her Majesty’s Secret Service and get away with it, all the while not looking all that particularly sultry as past Bond Girls have done routinely, yeah, she pulled that off just fine, unfortunately.

I don’t blame her, or anyone else in this film for their failures--Sam Mendes has to have a vision and lead his cast down his path unflinchingly. He didn’t have a vision for SPECTRE. At best he had some leftover post-it notes on the dry erase board when they mapped out SKYFALL and tried to make the best “pot luck dinner” out of the leftovers as he could. I dare say George Lucas would have done just as well, and he hasn’t turned in a good film since STAR WARS in 1977.

Mexico was a great way to open the film, right up until the shooting starts. The couch was plausible? I’ve slept on your couch, my friend. A fall from that height would have given 007 an arse full of wood splinters at the very least, some screws or metal brackets doing even more injury. If you enjoy the silly camp of Connery and Moore era Bond—I certainly do—then that scene would be fine. Craig’s Bond is rooted in realism, more so than any other to date. The couch scene was camp, not realism.

Same with the villains. You want a Max Zorin, that’s fine, but Max Zorin doesn’t fit in the real world. Complete loons certainly do, but you still have to define that character. Why is he a psycho? What was it about his father raising James that made him evil? Even just a shrug and, “No reason, Bond, I was just born crazy!” is more of an explanation than Mendes provided. You ask “Who really knows?” We’re supposed to! That’s basic storytelling! It serves no purpose to give a cardboard standee a sweet villain lair (which realistic villains wouldn’t likely have either) when there’s absolutely no reason to care about that character. We’re supposed to dislike the bad guys and see the heroes give them their comeuppance. How can I dislike this shell of a character when I don’t get to know a single motivation? I think you misunderstood my point about Silva and Blofeld--I didn’t say they were anti-gay, I said that Sam Mendes makes gay characters villainous. at least with Silva there was a semblance of a story. Blofeld is the head of this huge criminal organization just because his pappy raised Bond? He’s got what, Middle Child syndrome over one  foster brother? Blofeld is such a piss-poor character he makes Jar Jar Binks tolerable! Meesah be thinking perennial baldy trophy man willsah be goin’ to da Razzies this year instead! Dammit--you know this movie sucked when it has me doing Jar Jar imitations in print!

As for Dave Bautista, I looked forward to his participation and found his role terribly shallow. It’s the kind of thing you do for a pro-wrestler, not a fan favorite who stole scenes in one of the biggest blockbusters in recent years. That car chase—how on Earth can you compare it to Steve McQueen’s classic? It was a set-up for another silly, useless gag: the old geezer in the tiny car. There was nothing else in that car chase that wasn’t done better in BULLITT or THE ITALIAN JOB, or even CANNONBALL RUN. I don’t think people pay money at the box office for travelogues. They can stay home and watch “Travels In Europe with Rick Steves” on TV for free.

Chris: I think you're wrong about the travelogue.  It all started with the stories by Ian Fleming in the ‘50s.  That was a time when air travel was extremely expensive and exotic locations weren't doable for most normal folks.  Fleming had traveled the world, so he brought a travelogue aspect to his writing style.  Bond films have always shown off amazing locations in the midst of the action, and I thought the car chase was a good usage of Rome.  You saw the iconography of the area mixed into a fun chase scene.

The main bone of contention you seem to have all comes down to tone. I agree, SPECTRE is an immense tonal shift from the earlier films in the series, but it makes perfect sense.  The first three pictures in Craig’s era were the origin.  They actually worked pretty well as a BOND BEGINS trilogy.  SKYFALL closes with classic interpretations of M and Moneypenny joining Daniel Craig.  When M’s door shuts at the end of SKYFALL, it's the end of Bond’s origin and the start of the classic style.

SPECTRE is a proper classic adventure for 007.  That's what Sam Mendes and writers Robert Wade, Neal Purvis, and John Logan set out to give the fans.  It is the first of Craig’s films to start with the gun barrel.  We have a true henchman in Bautista’s Mr. Hinx, there's lots of humor, and a less realistic villain.  This is where Bond needed to end up eventually.  If it's Craig’s swan song, I'm thrilled we got to see a classic Bondian romp.  

You asked before if we are supposed to believe that all those earlier films are the same person.  With some retconning, sure.  If you make slight alterations to the time periods then they could be the same 007.  I also like the idea that Bond is essentially a code name or cover identity, but in the end, if you're trying to put all these pictures in one succinct timeline, you're just overthinking it.  I believe over reliance on continuity destroyed Marvel and DC’s ability to put out quality comics on a monthly basis.  

Why steep something 50 years old with the intense scrutiny of a firm timeline?  If you need continuity with all 24 films then the first three Craig films take place before DR. NO and SPECTRE somewhere after.  It sort of works.  Hey, you could always think of Craig’s films as Post-Crisis and everything that came before as Pre-Crisis.  Better yet, forget the comic analogies.  That's a recipe for absolutely having no clue what's going on.  Sure, basic continuity is required, but going overboard just kills enjoyment.  

Jeff: Going overboard certainly did kill the the enjoyment, because, again, this is having your cake and eating it too. The reason the Daniel Craig Bonds have been so successful is that they finally eschewed most of the silly gags and made the action more or less  believable. You can’t follow up SKYFALL almost right where it left off with Dame Dench’s mission from the grave and Silva’s widow only to flip it all back to Timothy Dalton and Roger Moore style goofiness. If they hadn’t played it so straight, it would have been more palatable. They made their Craig-era continuity and then chose not to abide by it. Just like in comic books, when you just throw continuity out the window it kills the suspension of disbelief. If consequences don’t matter, then the story doesn’t matter, and if you aren’t giving the paying audience a story, you’re basically stealing from them through duplicity. You aren’t giving them what they paid for. If you are satisfied by big explosions, bad guys with all the characterization of a Piet Mondrian painting, been-there-done-that car chases, and bloody travelogues because Ian Fleming got around in his military days, good for you. I don’t think the majority of Bond fans are willing to accept so very little for their hard earned cash. Incidentally, they ran out of Fleming novels to adapt years ago, so comparing stylistic choices of Sam Mendes’ filler shots to Fleming’s prose is quite a stretch.

Face it, Chris, Sam Mendes turned in the FANTASTIC FOUR of the Bond Cinematic Universe. It is truly that bad. I wish Craig wasn’t so dutiful in his press junkets and just came out with it: “Look, I’m here because I have to be. SPECTRE is like HIGHLANDER 2. Just pretend it never happened and let’s hope that whoever directs Idris Elba or Mike Fassbender or Peter Dinklage as the next James Bond decides to either go back to the campy pulp adventures or go full-bore real secret intelligence, and whichever way he goes he sticks with it for the entirety of the next poor bloke’s contract. So, having said that, have you seen THE PEANUTS MOVIE? It’s far better than mine. Then again, so was ISHTAR.”

Chris: My wife Patti and I took my little guy Nathan to see THE PEANUTS MOVIE and we all loved it.  I'm glad that it didn't get lost in the holiday shuffle at the cinema.

Back to Bond, Connery and Moore had immense tonal differences during their runs.  Compare the early Connery films like FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE to his later work in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and the shift changes are evident.  How about MOONRAKER, the most over the top Bond ever, but compare it to Moore’s next film FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, which is one of the most grounded.  Even Timothy Dalton had a huge “grit” disparity between THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and LICENSE TO KILL.  Where Dalton got darker, the opposite was true of Pierce Brosnan’s work which started more realistic, GOLDENEYE, and got progressively more fanciful.  So, I don't think the tone needs to stay the same throughout any actor’s portion of the series.  The ability to make vastly different films is one of the reasons the Bond series has enjoyed the success it's had.

Jeff: I think they need to let the franchise rest a bit after this mess. In the meantime, I’d be delighted to see a movie about the life of Ian Fleming himself. He and Christopher Lee were among the founding fathers of British intelligence. That’s a story that needs to be told.
Perhaps Sir Kenneth Branagh could direct? Perhaps Nicholas Hoult as Fleming in his younger years? Max Von Sydow as Christopher Lee? Somebody Better get cracking on this before all the tall, gaunt deep-voiced actors are gone.

Chris: Your wish is sort of my command.  Last year, there was an enjoyable miniseries called FLEMING on BBC.  It starred Dominic Cooper and did a pretty good job of telling the story of Ian Fleming’s time in the military and his inspirations for James Bond.  If you get a chance, check it out.

As for a rest, well, we've only gotten two Bond pictures in the past seven years, so I hope we don't have to wait any longer than a few years until the next.  Whether Daniel Craig comes back or we get a new James Bond--Dinklage is a New Jersey boy, so that amongst other things would make for a fun press announcement--I'm excited for the next chapter.  I’m especially excited to see what kind of debate we can have about that film’s merits.

You hate SPECTRE, but I think it's middle-of-the-road for the series.  To be fair, I would love to see a return to the heights of CASINO ROYALE, so we are in agreement that it’s time for new blood.  After all, Purvis and Wade have been involved for numerous films.  The producers brought in John Logan and Paul Haggis recently, but neither seemed to have the time to be the go-to writer.  Whether we get new writers or not, there will be a new director for sure, and possibly, a new Bond.  Hopefully, we get a fresh take whenever the promise--JAMES BOND WILL RETURN--is enacted.