Whatever they try to do with James Bond, however they try to update the archetype with those familiar post-Bourne trappings of propulsive action/espionage mayhem intended to reflect the modern world, there’s always that nagging sense that Bond as a character is trapped in the past — the guns, the girls, the cocktails, the sense of macho imperialist entitlement. It’s certainly acknowledged here with plenty of hat-tips to the supposed old world charms of this retrogressive character, but despite Judi Dench returning to provide a strong female presence, by the end it feels like the series has been firmly returned to its cosy blinkered stasis.
Part of my antipathy is just with the modern action thriller template, with all its chases and explosions and steely professional sheen. The laconic one-liners are still there, but they don’t really add any recognisable levity; at their worst, as during a rather grisly William Tell-like contest in a deserted island city, they become actively offensive. I don’t doubt that in this particular scene the quip was intended to be Bond trying to hide his emotions while wrong-footing his opponents, and yet with the emotional investment severely underplayed, it comes across flatly — the best I can say is that the one-liners bring to mind the classic era of this type of action hero, a grimly 1980s fantasia of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, one man armies reaffirming entrenched establishment values.
So women are returned to the sidelines; the one agent in the field fluffs her role and resigns herself to a menial secretary’s work. Bond meanwhile seems to be the sole person capable of thwarting the terrorist plot, one of those elaborate villainous schemes that hinges on the good guys doing specific things in specific places at precise times so as to allow the bad guy’s plot to be advanced (ridiculous screenwriter conceits up there with having your boffin tap some keys while muttering pseudo-technological nonsense, even if Ben Whishaw does very well as Q). However, Javier Bardem at least brings a welcome campness to the villain; it’s just a pity he doesn’t show up until more than half the film has gone by.
That overextended running time allows for lots of longueurs — mood-establishing quiet scenes, the filmmakers might have intended, but they just come across as unnecessary to this viewer (and I like slow films). To me, Bond’s character isn’t really given any depth here; there is some Rosebud-like hinting at his murky past, and yet as a character played by multiple actors over the last 50 years, the idea of a backstory and family history just seems odd. And those places where the action stops to shoehorn in a product placement: why do Bond films seem to do this so much more clunkily than others?
I didn’t hate this film, despite all I’ve said. It does what it needs to do rather well, and as a Bond film it’s one of the better recent ones. Perhaps I just feel weary at this type of film now. Certainly, by the time we’re ushered into the office of government bureaucrat Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the series appears to have decisively stepped back into a world of old boys’ networks and chauvinist back-slapping, and that just leaves me underwhelmed.
Director Sam Mendes; Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 28 October 2012 (and on Blu-ray at home, London, Wednesday 10 July 2013).