If you’re a Spectre henchman just trying to make ends meet, James Bond must feel like a big ol’ jerk.
Imagine: You’ve got a mortgage to pay, kids’ college funds to feed. You lost your job at the local call center, and you come across a “help wanted” posting on the Internet. “Excellent pay!” it reads. “Great benefits! Work in exotic locales! Training included! Experience with automatic weapons and death lasers a plus!”
Wow, you think to yourself. I’ve used lots of automatic weapons! And I’ve got a laser pointer on my keychain! Sure, it’s not exactly a death laser, but Mr. Mittens did conk his head pretty good while chasing it that one time. So you start working for Spectre. Maybe it’s not exactly the most upstanding international conglomerate around. Maybe search functionality on the corporate website is hinky. Maybe upper management’s habit of executing staffers after poor performance reviews is a little extreme. But it’s a living, right?
But then, just when you’re finding work particularly stimulating inside a fake volcano or undersea weapons base, who comes along? Bond. James Bond, leading a bevy of Japanese paratroopers or Swiss special-ops forces or missile-toting dolphins. Even when he just comes alone, he still manages to destroy years’ worth of dastardly due diligence. Like clockwork, the guy bursts in, kills your boss and blows up your workplace, necessitating yet another cubicle relocation and/or emergency medical care.
Yet you stick with it and, after many years of loyal service, you’re given the plumb assignment of being a lackey at a Spectre board meeting in Rome, where you might even catch sight of the Big Boss, Mr. Oberhauser himself. You slip into your obligatory black gear, check your automatic rifle, tell the babysitter you’ll be back by 2 a.m. (hopefully), and carpool to Oberhauser’s über-swank boardroom.
At first, the meeting goes according to routine: Someone offers an update on human trafficking operations. There’s some brief discussion about a nefarious global monitoring network. A guy gets his eyes gouged out.
Then, suddenly, Oberhauser—draped in shadow, naturally, as these meetings are always horribly lit—genteelly intones, “Welcome, James. It’s been a long time.”
James? As in that James Bond guy again? And you’re once again thankful you have U-Haul’s number on speed dial.
James Bond has made life pretty miserable for Spectre for a good long while now—saving the world countless times and looking spectacularly well-groomed while doing so. But this Bond (whom we’ll talk about at more length down in the Conclusion) also feels surprisingly human—a guy who’d not only risk his life for Queen and Country (as, of course, he always does), but also for a woman he appears to truly love. There’s fond and respectful talk of how powerful familial bonds are.
A priest officates a funeral. And speaking of priests, Bond quips that for him it was either spy work or the priesthood. He leads a car chase into Vatican City and through St. Peter’s Square. Conversely, the opening sequence takes place during an elaborate “Day of the Dead” ceremony in Mexico City. The title and chorus from Sam Smith’s theme song, “Writing’s on the Wall,” stems from the story of Belshazzar’s feast in the biblical book of Daniel.
It must be a requirement that in every James Bond movie, the guy has to sleep with at least two women. He dutifully meets this quota here. He hooks up first with a newly widowed woman, Lucia (whose husband, incidentally, Bond pushed out of a helicopter). The two kiss passionately in Lucia’s bedroom, and Bond unzips her dress. (We see her exposed back). Later, Lucia lounges on the bed in stockings and negligee.
Madeleine Swann is Bond’s next conquest. After a vigorous fight on a train with towering evildoer Hinx, Miss Swann asks, “What do we do now?” The answer is, apparently, go back to a private berth, kiss madly and strip off encumbering clothes. (The camera leaves before too many garments have been shed.) Madeleine also wears curve-hugging eveningwear and a silky nightgown.
James seems to almost have another sexual encounter with a lady who keeps her hotel key in her cleavage. Moneypenny, meanwhile, has a man sleeping in her bed.
Spectre is engaged in human trafficking on a massive scale; a board member announces that 160,000 women have been transferred into the “leisure sector.” Indeed, the trafficking of women and children is horrific enough that it makes one Spectre agent leave the organization.
The opening music sequence features apparently naked men and women writhing around in the midst of octopus tentacles.
Oberhauser drills holes into James’ head while the spy screams. When one of the thin drill bits is removed, we see it dripping with blood. As mentioned, one man gouges out another’s eyes with his thumbs, killing him. A guy is nearly strangled and sent flying out of a moving vehicle. Scads of folks are shot and killed. Several fall to their deaths. Others fall from great heights but survive. Cars plunge into water and otherwise crash, sometimes sending people through windshields. Cars, planes, buildings and secret hideaways are blown up, sometimes spectacularly so. Someone survives one such explosion, left with a grotesquely marred face. Crows are seen pecking at the corpse of a man who shoots himself.
Madeleine slaps Bond. A rollicking fight destroys seemingly half of a passenger train: Combatants are thrown through walls and hit by various objects. There are other instances of fisticuffs, too. Someone’s head is slammed against a table. Bond looks at pictures of the people he has killed or have died in his protection. We hear references to how Bond’s family died.
Three s-words. We hear “a–,” “b–tard, “balls” and “h—.” God’s name is misused once or twice; Jesus’ is abused twice.
Bond goes to a health resort in the Austrian mountains and is asked about his habits. Does he exercise? “When I have to,” he says. Is your job stressful? “At times.” How much alcohol do you consume? “Too much,” he admits.
The vodka martini has been a fixture in Bond movies since the very beginning, and he orders a few here. When he and Madeleine begin tearing apart a hotel room in Tangiers, he uncovers (perhaps) wine in an alcove. He drinks straight from the bottle. We see Madeleine get tipsy and tell Bond she now sees two of him. Bond also guzzles beer. Others sip champagne and wine.
Bond disobeys direct orders and takes a car that’s been assigned to another spy. He cracks a wry joke about health drinks being destined for the toilet.
It’s no secret that I’ve seen more than my share of James Bond movies. They were a fixture in my life long before I became the discerning critic I am today, and I’ve reviewed three of Daniel Craig’s four entries for Plugged In. That’s why I noticed how many nods to the 007 ovure Spectre makes. Bond’s skeletal outfit in the opening sequence reminded me of the spooky Voodoo bad guy in 1973’s Live and Let Die. The fight on the train recalls 1963’s From Russia With Love. The strangely cordial final showdown—complete with sumptuous guest rooms, chilled champagne and ridiculously drawn-out execution plan—feels a lot like Dr. No … and Goldfinger … and Man With the Golden Gun … and, well, practically all of those old flicks.
But Spectre’s conspicuous turn to the past also gives us a new opportunity to notice how Bond has changed over the years. And in some ways he’s changed for the better.
Sean Connery’s Bond—the quintesential Bond for many—was an unrepentant killer while on the job and an incorrigable cad off it. He was unquestionably sexist, and a couple of his trysts feel, certainly in the 21st century, uncomfortably close to rape.
In Spectre—reportedly Daniel Craig’s last turn as the character—Bond is very different. He treats women with at least a modicum of respect. He bears scars from his bloody line of work. While you get the feeling that Connery’s Bond slept quite soundly after a long evening of henchman-killing, thank you very much, Craig’s Bond suffers for his job—and not just when a villain is torturing him.
“He’s the good guy who kills for a living,” Craig told Parade magazine. “I have always thought you have to answer questions about that. You have to be comfortable with it. How does killing make Bond feel and how does it affect him?”
As his boss M says, “A license to kill is also a license not to kill.” And there are times in Spectre when Bond could pull the trigger … but doesn’t. Clever gadgets, villainous lairs and beautiful women are a dime a dozen in Bond movies. But mercy? That’s a rare thing indeed. And in an era in which Superman kills, Miss Piggy dates Josh Groban and every former Disney starlet seems to be posing nude, it’s gratifying to see that James Bond—like the Cabernet he might quaff or the Caciocavallo Podilico he might nibble—is getting better with age.
Of course, all of these positive-sounding elements are only good by way of comparison. 007 is still a deeply flawed superspy with a penchant for drinking too much and sleeping around. He still approaches the slaughter with semi-reckless abandon. He is no role model. I hesitate to even call him a hero. And Spectre is a rough movie.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.