By Adam Nayman
Dir. Sam Mendes, UK, MGM
In his roles for Quentin Tarantino, Christoph Waltz acts like the cat who ate the canary; his every wry eye twinkle and elegantly elongated pause hints that he’s getting away with something—usually his scenes, out from under his costars’ noses. As the implacable Nazi Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz was basically a Bond villain—a scheming, sinisterly accented European megalomaniac who liked to discourse at length about his grand plans. It’s thus pretty easy to get excited about the prospect of Waltz as 007’s
antagonist in Spectre. Like Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, and Javier Bardem before him, he’s a master actor able to stylize himself into a cuckoo caricature of villainy. All that a filmmaker would seem to have to do is hand him a script and go from there. But instead of propelling Spectre over the top where it belongs—in the rarefied air housing Casino Royale (2006) and the very best parts of Skyfall (2012)—Waltz instead becomes its unhappy avatar, the thinly grinning face of sadly diminished returns.
Writing about mega-franchise entries upon their release means treading lightly when it comes to spoilers. But even if it’s possible for this critic to get through his review without revealing the true, Fleming-canon identity of Waltz’s global-crime-syndicate-head character (as if you haven’t guessed it already, you clever reader you), the fact is that this figure is central to Spectre’s failure, both in terms of how he’s played—this is probably Waltz’s laziest English-language acting to date—and, more importantly, how he’s been conceived and mobilized by a quartet of screenwriters in thrall to the very silly idea that James Bond movies should be bound by continuity.
Now, of course some species of continuity is central to the Bond universe. Far more detailed articles and essays than this one have been written—and rightly so—about the ritualistic nature of the series, with its laundry-list of tropes and jokes to be deployed, or else: the precredit action sequence, the splashy opening titles, the hero’s visits with his tight-lipped superiors, and so on. One of the great pleasures of Casino Royale was how smartly director Martin Campbell and the screenwriters tweaked the format—and viewer expectations—in reshuffling the order and emphasis of this stations-of-the-cross progression; one of the ambivalent delights of Skyfall was the sense that, by the ending, all of the players and interpersonal dynamics that several generations of audiences took for granted had finally been locked in, with Judi Dench’s high-matriarchal Q fatally swapped out for a more conventional masculine successor (Ralph Fiennes) and Naomie Harris’s athletic and daring Moneypenny safely ensconced in a desk job (all the better to flirt with 007, of course).
Leaving aside the essentially retrograde nature of these switcheroos—the Earth will crash into the Sun before the Bond movies become even nominal emblems of progressivism, and that’s a fact—the everything-in-its-right-place maneuvers felt like a chance to start over after three movies that made an effort to unite and unify their narratives. The rivalries that Bond began in Casino Royale rippled outwards to encompass the adversaries in Quantum of Solace (2010) and Skyfall, while his tragic romance with the late Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) hung over his head like a shroud. This meticulous integration of storylines was a genuine experiment for a series that has always had reset buttons built into its style and leading-man casting. But the weaknesses of this approach were exposed by Skyfall, which doubled down on the concept of personal motivations for hero and villain both, and limped its way through a home stretch in which action-movie spectacle (all flawlessly executed) competed with the kind of prefab pathos that belongs far away from the traditionally callow attitudes of the Saltzman/Broccoli oeuvre.
The decision, starting in Quantum of Solace, to make Bond a rogue agent operating outside the umbrella of Queen and Country—and then Javier Bardem’s Silva an ex-MI6 operative with an axe to grind—was to eschew those reliable standbys, good and evil (white and black, like a tuxedo) and instead cloak the old warhorse in those fashionable shades of grey that all the kids (and comic-book-movie-worshipping adult critics) like to rave about these days. If a spectre was haunting the proceedings, it was the ghost of Christopher Nolan, whose fanatical need to connect and reflect his good guys and bad guys off of one another typically borders on the pathological—and requires a heaping ton of convoluted backstory to boot. This all gets even worse in Spectre, where Waltz’s You-Know-Who explains to a stricken-looking Daniel Craig: “It was me, James, the author of all your pain.”
The idea of a Bond who actually feels pain was novel in Casino Royale—both in terms of Vesper’s slow-motion, slipping-away death scene and the rather great bit of ball-breaking torture conducted at the grabby hands of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre. There, the sadism was vicious but specific to the exact situation Bond had gotten himself into—the suspense was how he’d finally get out. In Spectre, though, the idea that one malevolent mastermind has been presiding over all of the events of the Craig-era Bond films retrospectively robs those stories and their characters of their fitful but welcome spontaneity. In dramatic terms, nothing is more boring than finally coming to the man behind the curtain, especially when his explanation of how and why he’d engineered his plans is finally so unpersuasive. Ideally, there’d be a real chill to these sequences, and a feeling that Bond has at long last met his match, but Skyfall already covered that in its mesmerizing, one-take midfilm introduction of Silva. And so things flat-line instead of deepening, and Waltz’s even-toned monologues taste like just so much leftover ham.
In trying to further jostle the moral and emotional order of the Bond universe, director Sam Mendes and his collaborators paradoxically succeed only in stultifying it. The script’s anxious speechifying about advanced surveillance tech and drones—the chosen tools of an unscrupulous new MI6 honcho (Andrew Scott) who wants to give robots, not debonair Englishmen, a license to kill—ring of hollow sociology (à la The Dark Knight), and as it’s never, ever clear exactly how the villains plan to use the damned things once they’re in place, the sense of threat is rather abstract. By contrast, the attraction between Bond and Lea Seydoux’s icy Dr. Madeleine Swan is too cleanly diagrammed; her status as the daughter of Casino Royale’s evil Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, back for a cameo) is meant to temper her affection for our man in the field, but their coupling lacks the electricity and tenderness of Vesper and James in Casino Royale. Instead, it’s urgent on top and totally perfunctory underneath, right down to some climactic damsel-in-distress plotting that no filmmakers—and certainly not these talented professionals—could possibly be proud of.
In light of such underlying mediocrity, what does it really matter that Mendes and his crackerjack second units handle their set-pieces with aplomb, or that cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema gilds his imagery almost as nicely as Roger Deakins? Like the Nolan Batman movies, Spectre is such an expensive presentation that its technical competency and sense of scale—never more impressive than in an opener set in the teeming streets of Mexico City during Day of the Dead festivities—seems like the sort of thing that can be appropriately noted in passing. They are hardly a cause for celebration in and of themselves. The whole reason that Casino Royale excited so many viewers—fans and casuals alike—was because it melded the de rigueur deluxe-ness to vibrant acting, writing, and staging. What little wit and verve there is in Spectre—an awful lot of it contained in the massive frame of wrestler Dave Bautista as a taciturn henchman—is offset by globs of undue solemnity on the one hand and in-jokey bloat on the other. (I counted nods to Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and there are surely others).
It’s only in theory that Spectre builds on the advances of the 21st-century Bond machine; in practice, it just keeps it spinning in neutral. Craig’s recent and terse interview statements about being sick of playing one of the most famous heroes in movie history might smack of sour grapes, and unlike James Bond, it isn’t like he’s working with a machine gun to his head. But if we can give the actor credit for helping to revitalize a character who’d finally become a punch-line on Pierce Brosnan’s watch, maybe it’s best to heed his words when it comes to where he’s ended up a decade later. The best image in Casino Royale was of Craig busting rhino-like through a wall that his sleeker, fleeter adversary had previously vaulted over; a clever parody of the path of least resistance. Either Craig needs to bust his way out of a role that currently fits him like a Saville Row straitjacket, or the overlords of the series—the old Blofelds over at MGM—need to send him (or his replacement) into the field for a slightly more casual assignment.