Monday, May 23, 2016

What's the matter with James Bond?

James Bond is ill.

Well, maybe not ill. Even though current Bond Daniel Craig has had some unkind things to say about the franchise, to the point where he turned down $100 million to continue on after the next movie, the movies still make money and people still go see them.

Still, there does seem to be something a bit off.

First things first: the Bond franchise has always been a bit uneven. They’ve rarely ever been much more than popcorn movies with lots of explosions, sexiness (refreshingly for everyone), and flash over substance. The plots, as they were, were generally secondary to making sure yet another speedboat chase got crammed in. Still, they tended to be fun movies, dripping with materialism and eye candy, and even a bad Bond film tended to be fairly decent.

When the franchise hit a bit of a lull after Pierce Brosnan and was kind-of sort-of rebooted in Casino Royale, there were high hopes. So far, Daniel Craig’s Bond has had four movies: Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre. These “new” Bond films have not only carried on most of the standard Bond formula—one evil bad guy with an elaborate scheme and a lot of fistfights and action by Bond—but also shed a lot of the things that had become almost a parody of itself, like said villain reciting the plan before an easily-escapable torture device was enabled. 

And yet something isn’t quite clicking.

Part of it could be culture—the allure of the playboy-spy is no longer strong; anyone can look up half-naked people on their phones in a matter of seconds. It could be history—it’s difficult to mine the Soviets for plausible nogoodniks, and the movies have to be able to play in Beijing so most other international masterminds are out. It could be competition from television—the networks are full of highly popular spies and investigators who use their minds rather than brawn to get what they want. Watching a spy beat up international hackers by following one easily decipherable clue to jet from one pretty locale to another just really isn’t all that exciting or fresh.

And so it is with the new movies. I’ve recently watched all four. Casino Royale holds up, mostly because it’s the reboot and they’re establishing characters. But the remaining movies leave something to be desired. The villains are lame and have vaguely defined evil plans. (I had to look them up because they were so forgettable, and they’re so forgettable they aren’t even worth typing up.) The plots are clumsily written, with Bond simply going from one city to the next following lazy clues; the only variation is how he gets there. (Will it be a private plane or a jetski? Who cares?) There are no plot twists to speak of; any unexpected thing is telegraphed in the first half hour of the movie—well, first half hour after the elongated and obligatory introductory pre-credits sequence that does nothing for the rest of the movie. And, hell, the plots are interchangeable—both Skyfall and Spectre are only minor variations of each other, which boil down to “Bond goes rogue, but only barely, and uncovers something bigger.”

The entire thins is disappointing, perhaps, in the lens of what the Marvel Studios have done—taken an existing property, coming up with a long-range plan, mapping out story arcs that last movies (and decades!), use people’s vague familiarity with the property to get a head start, write interesting characters that interact with one another, and make sure that even with plenty of action there’s a plot that people can follow and discuss afterwards. None of this has happened with any Bond movie for quite some time.

It’s not all bad, of course. The biggest asset of the new Bond is the cast of characters—Moneypenny and Q are both well-rounded characters that add to the movie instead of dragging them down. Both Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes portray M exactly as they should. Bond has always been a loner, but establishing a core group is going to be key to anchoring the series. 

But right now the Bond universe, as it were, is a bit of a mess. The days in which a movie gets by with just a bunch of car chases and explosions isn’t going to fly anymore—and the most frustrating things is that all the pieces are there, ready to be picked up and reassembled and thrown out to the audience, but it’s all squandered. For example, in the latest movie in the franchise, Spectre, Christoph Waltz played the villain—an actor people have been clamoring for as perfect for the role. And yet he’s completely wasted in the movie, with a few forgettable scenes, a lackluster torture scene that accomplishes nothing, a reveal that adds nothing to the plot and screws up the canon, and a third act betrayal that is not much more than an excuse to watch a building blow up. At best, his introductory scene is kinda cool, but I’d be surprised if he had more than 15 minutes of screen time in a movie that’s two and a half hours long. That’s shameful—especially since nothing about the movie was memorable.

It’s hard to criticize the series too much, of course—they are solid moneymakers and provide a reliable cash flow. And yet I think it’s telling when the current star is actively running away from the production. Since they just rebooted the series, they can’t really do it again, so it’s hard to say whether it’s salvageable or not. But with today’s media landscape, it’s not going to be hard to come up with cooler and better spies than the one they are all held up against, and that’s a little sad.

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