Human Bondage

When did you last hand over your white dinner jacket to be pressed? To be precise, when did you last hand it over on a train, to an obliging steward? That is not, as far as I am aware, a service that is regularly available on the 5:53 from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie. If you are James Bond (Daniel Craig), however, such niceties come with the territory. His latest adventure, “Spectre,” finds him travelling on a Moroccan railroad, from Tangier to the dusty middle of nowhere, in the company of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), his new best friend. They meet for dinner in the restaurant car, where she rolls up sheathed in silver satin and orders a vodka Martini, specifying that she wants it dirty. They never get to eat, being rudely interrupted by the mountainous Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), who tosses Bond around like a sack of potatoes. Once the battle is over, Dr. Swann inquires, “What do we do now?” To which the obvious answer is: have sex.

Such is the average day of 007. This is the fourth occasion on which Craig has strapped himself into the role, transforming it into a strange amalgam of the savage and the fantastical: a thug let loose in a daydream. Casting Craig, in “Casino Royale,” was a de-facto proclamation that the officer class need no longer apply for the job. Craig resembles a staff sergeant who’s left the army, nicked and scarred, and found himself frustrated, as veterans often are, by the soft edges and the moral dithering of civilian life. Bond has always boozed, but never has the drink seemed less of a pleasure and more of an urgent fix. As for that tux, Craig looks deeply uncomfortable in it, like someone who has been dragged to a wedding against his will, and the most noticeable feature of the Tom Ford suits, in “Spectre,” is the compulsive extent to which Bond keeps them buttoned up. That’s cool enough at the start, as he strolls along a lofty ledge in Mexico City, toting an assassin’s rifle, but by the time he attends a funeral, in Rome, boxed into a short, dark, and double-breasted coat, you wonder what he’s hiding, apart from a gun and an armored heart, and why the thought of hanging loose should fill him with such alarm.

Bond films, even at their most nonsensical, tend to graze against political realities. Back in 1974, in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” Bond remarked to M that “the energy crisis is still with us,” which suggested that he had at least glanced at a newspaper during the previous year. Likewise, a thin gloss of topicality has been added to the story line of “Spectre.” M (Ralph Fiennes) is under siege from a new superior, C (Andrew Scott), who plans to merge MI5 and MI6, and to make common cause with eight other nations in a global intelligence network. (Scott is known to millions of TV viewers, having played Moriarty in “Sherlock”—too much baggage, I think. Also, he has a mean stare; we need someone more affable, to keep us guessing.) Worse still, 00-agents are to be scrapped in favor of digital surveillance. From now on, one presumes, Bond must perch in a cubicle and browse glumly through the Snapchats of major villains rather than do the decent thing and shoot them in the head.

The reason for 007’s presence in Mexico is a tipoff from M’s late predecessor—death being no excuse, in spy stories, for ceasing to contribute to the plot. Bond leaves the city in (a) a state of structural chaos, (b) a helicopter, having wisely discarded the pilot in midair, and (c) possession of a super-special ring. As any Baggins could tell him, the ring will lead him on a lengthy quest, although his destination will be not Mordor but Spectre. This excellent organization, whose name stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, is pretty much like the U.N., but with fewer vaccination programs. It was devised by Ian Fleming and made its first screen appearance in “Dr. No,” in 1962. For decades, however, Spectre has been on sabbatical. Now it is back, its tentacular reach indicated by the opening credits, in which an octopus tries to molest a loaded firearm.

For scholars of Bond, all this may be too much to take in. None is more fanatical than Sam Mendes, who directed “Skyfall” (2012) and now “Spectre,” and who loves to rummage in the lore of 007 and to summon up remembrance of things past. The things include an Aston Martin with an ejector seat, as in “Goldfinger”; a boat emerging from MI6 headquarters onto the Thames, as in “The World Is Not Enough”; and a lunatic’s lair inside a crater, as in “You Only Live Twice.” Then there is Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who squats at the heart of Spectre, cocooned in shadow. “Welcome, James,” he says to our hero, adding, in a wounded tone, “What took you so long?” In broad daylight, he sports a collarless jacket: the school uniform of megalomania, in the Bondian wardrobe. All roads lead to Oberhauser. He is the baddies’ baddie, and we spot images of his forerunners, from the previous three films, on a Moroccan wall. But you can’t help asking, Who will trump him in future installments? Must he swear allegiance, in turn? Might we finally arrive at the heart’s heart, to find a flustered little crank behind a curtain, meekly admitting that he’s not a bad man at all, just a very bad wizard?

Source: The New Yorker, November 16, 2015

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