It is good to have SPECTRE back. The last time we saw the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion was in Diamonds are Forever (1971), when Bond was battling against Blofeld and his henchmen to save the world from a diamond encrusted satellite weapons system. The operational scope of SPECTRE compelled Bond to battle against vast criminal conspiracies encapsulating the globe. The finale of Diamonds are Forever unfolded on a remote oil rig somewhere off the waters of Baja California, Mexico. Nowhere was immune to SPECTRE’s ambitions even if it was not cited in the film itself.
Forty years later, Bond is back in Mexico but this time in Mexico City. Caught up in the Day of the Dead festival (with analogies to Live and Let Die 1973), a stunning piece of continuity shooting, Bond is on familiar ground. The festival acknowledges the recently departed family members and helps them on their spiritual journeys to other worlds. He is about to kill an individual who we later discover from a video message from the recently deceased M (played by Judi Dench) wanted dead. Informed and enraged by her death at the hands of Silva in Skyfall (2012), Bond remains in destructive mode, as part of another city in the global South is to discover. Bond does not just kill but he also demolishes the entire building. After chasing one survivor from his deadly assault, the opening scene culminates in a well crafted, if familiar, helicopter flight struggle scene, reminiscent of For Your Eyes Only (1981), with Bond hanging perilously close to death at one point. As audiences expect, he later flies serenely over the Mexico City skyline.
The opening scene is important to the Bond serial narrative. Since Casino Royale (2006) and the rebooting of Bond and his character, we have been prepared for a more complex Bond where we discover that he can and does cry, he can and does fall out of love and he can and does depend upon others including M. Silva was right about one thing – M was ‘Mummy’ but now ‘Mummy’ is no more. His great love Vesper is dead and Skyfall ended with a new management team led by Mallory, the new M. And on his return to Mexico, Bond finds that Mallory is not happy that he was in Mexico because as the old M might have said, he wanted to ‘finish the job’.
Bond’s working world remains imbued in bureaucratic politics and informed by a post-9/11 geopolitical aesthetic. Mass surveillance is the norm and the ‘enemy is everywhere’. Mallory, it turns out, is under pressure. His role as head of MI6 might not be as assured as we thought at the end of Skyfall. Moneypenny and Q remain but for how long? There is a new challenger hiding in plain sight. A rival organization headed by C that is dismissive of the OO program and field-based intelligence collection. A brave new world involving a global program of co-operation involving nine states (Nine Eyes Committee), including Britain, confronts Bond and Mallory. In a meeting held in Tokyo, which Mallory and C attend, it becomes clear that Britain is forging new partnerships. No longer centred on a special relationship with the US and Felix Leiter, this new world order is made up of bureaucrats and computer programmers. The old M warned of pencil pushers and, worryingly for Bond, C’s desk back in London has a large collection of pencils on it.
Bond’s future and that of his superior is under threat. Even the edifice that is MI6 building remains ruined from Silva’s and his attack on it and its employees. Q’s department looks vulnerable to cuts and Bond has to enter it at river level. Everything, including the lighting inside and outside the remains of MI6, seems gloomier. Moneypenny brings a chance discovery, from the remains of Skyfall, to his flat in London. A fragment of a photograph hinting at a past relationship between his adopted father and his adopted brother. But that has to wait as Bond disobeys orders and travels to Rome to attend the funeral of a man, Marco Sciarra, who he killed in Mexico City. Evading surveillance from MI6, with the help of Q, Bond uncovers not only the location of his adopted brother, Franz Oberhauser/Ernest Blofeld (played by Christopher Waltz), but also aided and assisted by Sciara’s widow, he comes closer to SPECTRE itself. Identified by his brother at their meeting, Bond is forced to escape through the streets of Rome while pursued by Blofeld’s henchman, Mr Hinx.
The car chase in Rome will be a highlight for many Bond fans, as the Aston Martin DB10 is put through its paces on the cobbled streets of the ‘eternal city’. The film sequence also demonstrates why film locations in Bond are chosen so carefully. In this case, the chase occurs late at night when city traffic is light. As a consequence, the camera work can concentrate on the cars themselves against the stunning backdrop of the city including its grand buildings and the river Tiber. With similarities to both the Jason Bourne and Taken series, the European city (e.g. Paris, Rome, Moscow, Berlin) becomes the place to enact the ‘car pursuit’. Bond, using the seat ejecting function first seen in his beloved DB5, conjures up a spectacular escape just before the DB10 ends up at the bottom of the river. He lives to fight another day.
The trail would have gone cold at that stage had not Moneypenny (again) provided Bond with some important evidence that takes him to Austria in pursuit of Mr. White, a stubborn remnant of the Quantum organization. Large icy and desert like landscapes are a staple feature of Bond, as if to remind the audience that Bond really does face considerable challenges including mountains and their coldness. In frigid Austria, in a remote wooden house, a withered White reveals a little more about SPECTRE and its relationship to Quantum, as well as conceding that he has a daughter who knows where he has stored some secrets about SPECTRE in a hotel in Tangiers.
It is at this point that we might take stock here and ponder the gender and racial politics of the latest James Bond film. By this point, Bond has had two female love interests but their role in the film, even that of Sciarra’s widow (played by Monica Bellucci), is modest. The only woman of colour, Moneypenny (played by Naomie Harris), has travelled to Bond’s flat to give him information but has not been in the field. So the relationship between Bond and Mr. White’s daughter, Dr. Madeleine Swann, is one that we can use to ‘stress test’ the Bond formula. We have seen highly educated women before in Bond (Dr. Holly Goodhead in Moonraker and Dr. Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough) and their characters have often ended up being figures of fun for Bond. But Dr. Swann appears a different proposition, she resists Bond’s clumsy attempt to seduce her in Tangiers while in search of her father’s secret papers. And tells him that he is to stand guard while she gets some sleep in their father’s old hotel bedroom.
Swann shows herself adept at handling a gun and being willing to help Bond in a murderous train based assault by Mr. Hinx. Bond and Swann, however, are not allowed the intimacy that Bond had with his old girlfriend Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. The SPECTRE assassin rudely interrupts a romantic dinner on a train heading slowly into the heart of the Moroccan desert. But it does allow Bond fans to reflect upon how the train carriage continues to provide opportunities for Bond to prove himself against the imposing assassin from Grant in From Russia with Love to Jaws in The Spy who Loved Me. And in each case, overcoming the adversary provides Bond with the necessary pretext to make love to his female companion and thus cement his partnership with her. By the time they arrive at their final destination, Swann and Bond are a romantic and strategic item. But their love making, in comparison to that of Vesper Lynd and even femme fatales such as Severine, is devoid of passion.
As Bond fans might expect, the adversary has to have a secret base or lair. But what really is secret anymore? The idea of the secret SPECTRE base inside a dormant volcano (You Only Live Twice 1967) seems preposterous now. Does the earth itself offer any such possibilities now given global surveillance capacities? Mr. White’s notes buried in the L’American hotel in Tangiers hint at a bygone era, when the secret agent still relied on paper-based maps and could point to apparently blank spots on the map, as Bond does, and say that is where the secret base might be. Aware of this apparent disjuncture, Bond and Swann are met at a remote train station by a chauffeur driving a vintage Rolls Royce. As the Skyfall gamekeeper Kincaird might have said, ‘sometimes the old ways are the best’ and here this seems apt with regard to the kind of motor vehicle favoured by megalomaniacal villains such as Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979).
Oberhauser/Blofeld’s secret base is a curious affair. Looking like a mix between a petro-chemical plant and solar power energy station, its lack of grandeur belies its importance as a global surveillance hub. In comparison with SPECTRE bases of old, there is no monorail, no secret rocket, and only three helicopters and a few cars parked at the facility. While Bond and Swann later escape in the helicopter, after blowing up the secret base, the base does not act as a finale. This is not You Only Live Twice the remake. The point about SPECTRE is to say that this place in Morocco is a giant distraction. It could have been anywhere. What matters is what happens in London not somewhere in the global South. As Oberhauser tortures Bond, albeit briefly (but without the menace we saw in Casino Royale), it becomes clear in their conversation that C is compromised, and he is in effect a secret agent of SPECTRE. British intelligence has been breached (again) and it is London that remains unsafe. But thanks to a Q watch gadget, Bond and Swann make good their escape and in typical Bond style destroy the not so secret base.
The destruction however visually satisfying is pyrrhic. The final part of SPECTRE suggests that the story does not end in the desert. As with Quantum of Solace (2008), there is another twist to the tale. It picks up where Skyfall left off. London is not safe and for all the grandeur of C’s new building, it is he as ‘C’ who is the weak link. Senior operatives working for UK intelligence cannot be trusted, and even more so now that the country is part of the Nine Eyes Committee. By teaming up with eight other countries, including China (and that might be good by the way in terms of appealing to Chinese film audiences), the UK intelligence apparatus became even more attractive to SPECTRE, which can enjoy a parasitic relationship. No need to construct one’s own elaborate spying infrastructure, when one can ‘borrow’ the intelligence gathering of others. The secret bases can be a bit less elaborate. No need to spend the money on the monorail. What counts is personal relationships and data access; and when you have the head of a newly formed UK intelligence agency at your beck and call then ‘access’ has been well and truly granted. With access to the information, you can then extort and blackmail, or so we are led to presume.
So it does seem appropriate that the film’s finale is focused around the ruins of MI6: the iconic Vauxhall building that bore the brunt of two attacks (The World is Not Enough and Skyfall) while under Judi Dench’s M trusteeship. As Bond and his team rush to stop C from enacting the Nine Eyes program, and in the process ending the existence of MI6, it becomes clear that the future of all of them is at stake. Mallory, Moneypenny, Q and Bond all play a role in stopping C and eventually apprehending Oberhauser on a London bridge. But the costs of the operation are uneven. Infrastructurally, the MI6 building is destroyed and Dr. Swann, who starts off as a highly competent professional woman, ends up being reduced to just another Bond girl who needs to be rescued from captivity by Bond (cf. Agent XXX in The Spy Who Loved Me 1977). Moneypenny’s role is very much the smallest of them all.
Where does SPECTRE leave us? Bond and his team save British intelligence from the SPECTRE ‘cuckoo’ but in the process discovered his adopted brother is an arch-villain. Bond cannot quite ‘finish the job’ and kill him on that London bridge. That then at least leaves us with the enticing possibility that Oberhauser might be back again. But let me end on a more problematic note and that is gender and race. I wanted to see a larger role for Moneypenny. Skyfall left us with a former field agent who was forced back into the office. Bond told her that ‘fieldwork is not for everyone’. He was right because the person who gets to do fieldwork is Q (played by Ben Whishaw); he follows Bond to Austria and saves Britain from being incorporated into SPECTRE’s electronic grasp. Mallory’s age proves no barrier to his fieldwork skills as he grabs a gun and confronts C. Unlike Judi Dench’s M he does not get captured and proves adept at facilitating C’s eventual death. Three white men, working across the age spectrum, save Britain and MI6. Bond’s side-kick Dr. Swann ends up being tied up and Moneypenny plays a supportive but minor role.
If Sam Smith is right that the ‘writing is on the wall’ then it is once again apparently a wall built by and written on by white men. This is a disappointing film, nowhere near the narrative quality of Casino Royale even Skyfall, and I believe that the fate of the female characters in the films explains in large part my sense of disappointment.