Joe Lynch is a director working in various film genres, from horror to action to comedy (both intentional and unintentional). His feature credits include Everly with Salma Hayek, Knights of Badassdom starring Peter Dinklage, Steve Zahn and Ryan Kwanten, the anthology film Chillerama, and Wrong Turn 2 with Henry Rollins. Lynch also co-stars and executive produces the TV show Holliston and co-hosts the popular podcast The Movie Crypt on Geek Nation with fellow filmmaker Adam Green (Hatchet). He loves jump cuts, practical blood and making his days.
Full disclosure: I am not a James Bond obsessive.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’ve never liked the Bond series – many of the films I’ve enjoyed and still do, especially recent titles like Casino Royale and Skyfall. It’s just that I am merely a casual James Bond fan. Maybe it was because I didn’t have a father or older sibling who loved the films and passed that adoration along to me, or maybe it was my aversion to dressy clothes and olives. But for me, the Bond series was a franchise that just slightly eluded my tastes. In the era of Han Solo, Indiana Jones and John McClane, my heroes were a little rough-n-rumble, blue collar, middle class(ish… Dr. Jones’ tenure at Marshall College seemed cushy), kinda like my own upbringing. My hero was my dad, who owned an auto-customizing shop in Long Island (Automotive Trik, RIP), where grease under the fingers and a stubbly grin after work was the norm, and in hindsight, it seems that’s where my tastes lean into cinematic heroes as well.
To me, each Bond movie was a “translation” of the cinematic tastes and trends of its time. The stories were generalized enough that they could translate between the swinging ’60s, the fractured ’70s, the new wave ’80s (e.g. Grace Jones’ hair) all the way to the tech-saturated modern day. Bond films adapted to their surroundings, and in doing so created a pop culture time capsule, most revealing in the selection of the opening title song (I don’t think Tom Jones, Garbage or Duran Duran would be a sound choice for a new series entry) and even the Bond girls themselves, as whoever was “hot” at the moment was likely going to get a shot with Jimmy B in the bedroom at some point. And the stakes and action setpieces felt like a reflection of their particular eras, from the Disco Volante fight in Thunderball to that amazing parkour sequence that opened Casino Royale. Bond films grooved with the times and, for the most part, were enjoyably accessible to those who occasionally dabbled in the series.
Recently however, with the introduction of the new post-9/11 (and Jason Bourne-influenced?) Bond, Daniel Craig, a funny thing happened. When Casino Royale was released, the new era was marked by a reboot that severed all tendrils of Bond’s mythology other than his usual circle of friends and colleagues and his ever constant quest to exploit that license to kill. The film reintroduced (for the third time!) a familiar storyline from the Ian Fleming novels, in which Bond is still in his professional infancy, but with a new “modern” spin, including a more vulnerable Bond who has all the feels when he loses someone he loves. (Note: Everyone should have said feels when losing Eva Green in their third act.)
Breaking with the series tradition, in Casino Royale – and subsequently Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and now Spectre – plotlines, characters and actions seemed to have a more immediate cause-and-effect, with the films focusing for the first time in the effects of Bond’s actions on those around him and his career. To this casual Bond fan, Casino Royale was almost too perfect. The mix of rough, intense action (Martin Campbell has always been a Bond VIP director) and acting that felt both classic (Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre screams old-fashioned Bond villain, down to the bleeding eye) and new school (Bond has feelings!) made me crave more. Sadly Quantum of Solace did not scratch that itch, but that’s a discussion for another day. (Just don’t get me started on those horses…)
Though recently Bond’s producers have not hired the same director on consecutive films, after what many would argue to be the “best” (or at least biggest) Bond film, Skyfall, its director, Sam Mendes, indeed returned for the follow-up. As a result of that, I went into Spectre more excited than I have for any other Bond film yet. I was expecting a clever balance of new and old, a deepening of the Bond mythology coupled with thrilling setpieces, fueled by the latest in both in-world tech and advances in movie-making magic.
Yet…something felt off.
Maybe it was me and my own baggage. Because of the previous three films, I was now anticipating (or was supposed to anticipate?) that “all will be revealed.” And there was the promise that more mythology would be introduced, including classic nemesis Blofeld and Bond’s past connections to the shadowy international group SPECTRE. If I could, I would tell you how it all cleverly tied together in a neat, satisfying bow and that the shocking revelations were gasp-inducing. But they weren’t. They washed over me like so much techno-babble exposition that just got in the way of the next setpiece. The film made every bit of dialogue, exposition and revelation feel important like its life depended on it, which felt almost un-Bond like. Our guy Jim (and his movies) never seemed to look back to the past, yet Spectre kept grabbing him by those ears and wrenching his head around to marvel at all the connections.
Not that I was averse to what the film had promised; I wanted answers, I wanted big reveals that would alter how I saw the previous films. But every time a shot of Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale flashed on a computer monitor or there was a whispered mention of Mr. White from Quantum, I was lost. Or at least emotionally disconnected. Whereas in series like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or even Bourne, the storytelling always keeps you informed, connected, invested, anytime Spectre mentioned anything connected to Bond’s past or even previous films, there was the image of a shoehorn in the back of my mind.
Now for a movie junkie like myself, I love branching storylines, adore feeling like I’m invested in a larger world with characters that didn’t necessarily need only 90 minutes to feel like fully fleshed-out people with arcs and nuances. I grew up in the Star Wars generation, so seeing how a story can evolve over the course of multiple films is super gratifying to me. When something happens in a later film that connects to previous elements in the larger story, you feel like you’re part of the club, the inner circle and this revelation was just for you, like a secret handshake. And with the coming of Marvel and DC developing huge multi-plot sagas where it’s almost mandatory to see the previous films or other films in the world of the franchise, it’s only getting deeper.
Yet for the Bond series, or at least Spectre, this approach feels stilted, forced. Do we really need to know so much about this guy? Isn’t Bond supposed to be (to steal a phrase from Austin Powers) an “international man of mystery”? The more the onion layers were peeled back, the less I was interested. Especially in a modern, Big Brother, information-age world where privacy is evaporating (which is essentially a subplot in Spectre, with the new Joint Intelligence Services head “C” proclaiming the “00” program dead in favor of drones and techno surveillance), all this information didn’t feel vital. For once, I wanted to know less. Give me more of the expensive action setpieces, like Bond flipping choppers in Mexico City or driving real fast down the (oddly empty) streets of Morocco; you can save all the twists and reveals, because they never once felt genuine in my eyes.
In a pivotal moment when the “big twist” is revealed, there was a smattering of applause from the packed audience I saw it with. There were also groans, just like I heard when Khan’s identity was yanked out of J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box.” Both instances felt like the filmmakers were only trying to harness goodwill from the fans by dropping names like Ari Gold at the Ivy…“Holy shit he said ‘Blofeld’!” My reaction as a casual fan? I just thought, “Hope they’re happy!” rather than “No way! What’s gonna happen next!?!” It felt like fan-service, not servicing the story. I think they were going for an “I am your father” type of emotional bomb dropping (trust me, it’s nothing like that so this isn’t a thinly veiled spoiler), but it felt more like revealing the killer in the movie adaptation in Clue.
Putting all the mythology stuff aside, Spectre is a fine enough film. Big action, massive spectacle, dry wit, cool tech, hot women in slinky dresses to reinforce Bond’s masculinity/borderline misogyny – it’s all there for you. Frankly, the best sequence in the film for me was when Bond and Blofeld’s henchman, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), literally beat the set dressing out of each other on a train. A scene with little music (till the end, when it’s almost ruined with a hammy one liner) and just two guys beating the crap out of each other after a long pursuit over multiple continents. There was more at stake here than the previous hour, and every hit landed. Did we need to know Bond’s childhood to feel the impact? Nope. Sometimes cinematic spectacle is best when the filmmakers remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Funnily enough, 2015 spawned two other spy films that borrowed heavily from the Bond formula to the point of near-parody, yet without the story baggage the current Bond films seemed to be stuck with: Paul Feig’s Spy and Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. I’ve seen both films multiple times now and they continue to win me over. They position their stories as if we were already familiar with their worlds and jettison the murky exposition in favor of more visceral thrills while still having the familiar spy movie “cool.” Both of them felt more like the Bond films I’ve enjoyed over the years than the official installment.
So, would Spectre have been a more satisfying experience if it was a standalone storyline and not trying to delve deeper into Bond’s past? Possibly, and it would at least have been shorter, as this was the longest Bond to date. But hell, for the price tag of more than $250 million, I guess we should get more Bond bang for our buck. Yet the very worldbuilding trend that is helping franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Avengers, Bourne, etc., seems to be holding the world’s most famous superspy back from just being that cool motherfucker who knows how to shoot a gun, plant a kiss, save the day and order a drink. For casual Bond viewers like myself, maybe that’s all we need – and with the hint that Craig wants out of the tux, maybe another hard-reboot is just what the world needs.