The Spectre of the real

Above: Daniel Craig in Spectre.

BitDepth#1016 for November 24, 2015

No, it’s not Skyfall.

Right from the opening chords of Sam Smith’s sombre theme song, it was clear that things were going to continue be a bit different in Sam Mendes’ second outing as director of a James Bond film.

It shouldn’t have been surprising. Mendes made his name finding worldly relevance in the words of Shakespeare, so sounding out sophisticated resonance in the far more quickly dated pulp thrillers of Ian Fleming must have been tempting.

The fourth outing of Daniel Craig as James Bond is the coda of a remarkable quartet of action films, and a kind of pocket universe within the largely carefree and frivolous world of Bond.

If Casino Royale (http://ow.ly/UVwGN), the well-received reboot of the franchise was The Innocence of James and Quantum of Solace was Bond in the Wilderness, then Skyfall, an unprecedented exploration of the popular anti-hero offered Bond, Broken but Undeterred.

The new film, Spectre, asks, rather insistently, Must there be a Bond?

Spectre offers fond but fleeting remembrances of other times.  The Aston Martin DB-5. Blofeld and the cat. A forgotten Hildebrand Rarities as a safe house. Train scenes that echo Casino Royale as well as From Russia with love. Fun on snowy mountaintops.

But the story, a tortured tale of youthful rivalry and a villain too close to modern concerns for comfort, is some distance from fanciful death satellites and a raid on Fort Knox.

At risk is the modern treasure, surveillance information, as the now mandatory ruthless criminal organization plots control of the world’s security feeds.

A real-world evil genius wouldn’t bother building gleaming metal installations in a crater in the desert.

He’d just buy Google and Facebook and wave for the cameras, smiling and promising “I won’t be evil, really.”

Spectre’s boardroom in a Roman castle and the casual executive accounting of death and mayhem there are probably a bit too close to the nightmares stoked in the era of Edward Snowden and the Sony hack.

Data is far too vulnerable to social engineering and skilful hacking for Spectre to seem like part of an entertaining fantasy, despite the historical penchant of the Bond producers for scanning the news headlines for their macguffins.

MI:6 is about to disappear in a ministry merger, the double-ohs are to be retired or more likely liquidated, leaving Bond, for the fourth film in a row, conducting his own violent rogue investigation, unfettered by the oversight and control of his government.

If Craig was a bit browner and wore a bushy beard, this would be the story of a feared, clever and unrelenting terrorist.

Sam Mendes does not seem unaware of this. His Bond moves through a strangely muted world of chaos and brutality.

The opening scenes, shot in Mexico during a colourful The Day of the Dead are all shades of beige. The snow surrounding the cabin where Bond meets the elusive Mr White is dingy and grey. The shining metal structures built by the villain in a bland brown desert conspicuously fail to gleam.

Every building 007 enters finds him wreathed in dull smoke, either a pall of destruction or the result of an infatuation with the fog machine.

Sam Mendes nukes the franchise. This M is embattled by an insistent bureaucracy. The solid structure of the spy agency’s headquarters, already shaken by the rot revealed in Skyfall is literally levelled in this finale.

Bond himself seems keener on romance and relaxation by the film’s end, a shot of the DB-5 roaring steadily off that’s more chillingly final than any cliffhanger scene I’ve ever seen.

All that’s missing is a line of text at the end, an inversion of the standard lead-in to the next installment, “Will Bond return?’

That would have fit right into the dour mood of it all.

Daniel Craig’s understated run of four films took us from a wary, clumsy neophyte to world-weary warrior in an insightful nine-year arc that explored a modern forging of Her Majesty’s Bastard, the garlic-laced knife that’s unsheathed when diplomacy fails.

I honestly don’t know where they go from here with Bond 25.