Features & Columns

DARK SMOKEY ROOMS: In 'Spectre,' the titular evil organization is run by a cabal of wealthy industrialists, who use their influence to achieve their evil goals.

A SERIOUS MAN

Locally, we owe James Bond a debt for saving Silicon Valley from the evil, dirigible-riding Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), who in 1985's A View To A Kill planned to nuke the San Andreas Fault and send the whole of the Pacific Ocean roaring in on us all. Though the film is admittedly one of the worst installments in the Bond canon, it may have played a role in boosting the region's tech industry. Steve Jobs' partisans give Bond props for humanizing computers—crediting the suave British spy with getting people to think that computer technology could be part of endeavors more interesting than accounting.

The influence of the Bond movies is everywhere in today's blockbusters. OHMSS was a huge influence on Christopher Nolan's Inception—Nolan has praised that less-loved Bond film's balance of action and romance. (For that matter, Nolan also pilfered the opening sequence of The Dark Knight Rises from an aerial stunt in the pre titles of 1989's License to Kill.) But if the figure of Bond himself seems obsolete, if someone calls Bond a relic or a blunt instrument on screen, it is we, his die-hard fans, who wince. Because we know James better than that.

We've known Bond to be an orphan ever since Ian Fleming wrote his obituary in his 1964 novel You Only Live Twice—the same place we learned that our hero is of Scottish and Swiss descent.

In the last installment of the Bond series, the artistically and commercially successful Skyfall, we see for the first time an exterior shot of Bond's former home—a severe and austere estate in the moors of the Scottish Highlands. And in Spectre, we see Bond in Stanley Gardens of Notting Hill. It is a tony address, to be sure. However, inside we find it filled with half-unpacked boxes. Bond isn't the kind of person who has time to hang up pictures. Giving Bond a home beyond hotel rooms, casinos and airport concourses was part of the innovation of the Craig-starring and Sam Mendes-directed films.

NEVER SAY DIE

Craig is peerless in highlighting Bond's suffering. Homely yet handsome, like Clark Gable, well-built and bemusingly human, Craig wears the mask of Bond perhaps better than any actor, though Connery's particular heft in the part keeps drawing you back beyond the technical limitations of the 1960s Bonds and the awkward sexuality. And yet Craig may be on his way out.

It's a good thing that Craig has sworn off the Internet, so he didn't see the kerfuffle over whether or not Idris Elba should be replacing him, even before Spectre was released. Elba, Oscar bound after his acting as an African warlord in Beasts of No Nation, would be a first-rate Bond villain. He's a man of great size, organ-like voice, and serpent-like subtlety. This opposes the qualities in our longtime hero James Bond—a resourceful, iconic but sometimes limited character, a man who often likes to go unseen.

Time Out London's Dave Calhoun recently asked Craig about his plans for the next Bond movie. Craig reacted like a man discussing the prospect of Monday morning's work during a Friday night at the pub: "I'd rather slash my wrists" than revisit the role, he said.

On the Internet and, as always, three days later on TV, everyone quoted the mock-suicidal threat, sans context. Craig cares about the role—a sentiment he makes clear later on in the less frequently quoted part of the interview. Giving hypothetical advice to the next actor to take up the mask of James Bond, Craig said, "You've got to step up people do not make movies like this anymore. This is really rare now you've got to push yourself as far as you can. It's worth it. It's James Bond."

While James Bond may be a relic of the last century, a shameless shill for Dutch lager and Omega watches, he's a modern mythical figure. The negative space of Bond's character—a character he reveals through action, just as they say to do in scriptwriting school—is what makes him haunting, food for rich reveries.

"The dead are alive" says the title card before Spectre's brilliant Day of the Dead sequence. And while this refers to the resurrection of Blofeld, it's also true of our hero's ability to cheat the grave. The flesh fails. People die. And yet one Englishman keeps escaping, avoiding the bullets, crawling through the heating ducts, leaving better armed, better manned opponents swearing in rage.

They shoot him and peel the rubber mask off the corpse—as in the pre titles of From Russia With Love, in a gambit ripped off by five movies and seven TV seasons of Mission: Impossible. The corpse is an imposter. Bond escapes again. Of course the actors playing him change. This combo of Buster Keaton and Cary Grant is the movies as much as a figment of all movies: a Western gunman, a military commando, a lover by night, the fantasy intruder in a vault of gold run by an ogre. You can have The Wizard of Oz; I'll take Goldfinger, swapping the tornadoes and emerald streets for women of gold and flying hats that kill.

CRAIG: Craig wears the mask of Bond perhaps better than any actor.

Bond mirrors what Robert Warshow said was the essence of the Western movie hero: "He has his own kind of relevance. He is there to remind us of the possibility of style in an age that has put on itself the burden of pretending that style has no meaning."

And Spectre is rich with style. Maybe the best moment besides the Zocalo scene is the one that gives Craig's Bond and Léa Seydoux's lovely Madeleine Swann some negative space, when they wait at a train station in the desert, soon to be the guests of the natty, cheerful and criminally insane Blofeld. The madman has his musings about the best way to torture, in uncredited dialogue by Kingsley Amis. (Amis wrote a very good Bond novel once, Colonel Sun.) Waltz is a sterling Blofeld, the living embodiment of the eye that never sleeps, the ear that hears all.

Even just leaving the movie, I am stopped in my tracks by the image of Craig on the Spectre promotional poster—so magnificently insolent and slouching next to the splendid Seydoux—and I think of Shakespeare: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?

The studios make blockbusters, but they don't make larger than life movies. Craig was right: "People don't make movies like this anymore." When was the last time you saw a movie star hold his space like that, without irony or apology? The posters, lining the ever-emptier hallways of multiplexes, do what a movie ought to do. That is, to summon its fans from whatever morass life has caught them in, to provide wickedness and peril.