Spectre really is very different from a Bourne film.
A quick review
As you can probably guess, I’m writing this because I’ve finally seen Spectre. So let’s get this out of the way at the start: it’s not very good. Not terrible mind you. Craig is still a good Bond, the supporting characters introduced in Skyfall are fun especially Whishaw’s Q, the dialogue is nice and snappy and Mendes knows how to make a lovely looking shot. But the weaknesses predominate. The story is baggy and convoluted. In particular, turning Blofeld from an elemental evil into a bloke with daddy issues diminishes an iconic villain. And making out that he’s orchestrated the events of the previous films is so artificial that it jars you out of the film. That would have been more forgivable if the action scenes were as good as those in Skyfall but just twelve hours after seeing the film, I’ve largely forgotten them. I don’t want to say that it’s the weakest of Craig’s outings as Bond but only because making that judgement would require me to go back and re-watch Quantum of Solace – something I am not prepared to do.
A tale of two spies
I’m in good company in being underwhelmed. Former 007 Pierce Brosnan told an interviewer the film was “neither fish nor fowl. It’s neither Bond nor Bourne. Am I in a Bond movie? Not in a Bond movie?” Discussing the Craig era Bond films in relation to the Bourne trilogy – people tell me there’s a fourth Bourne film but I choose to believe they imagined it – is pretty much a cliché. Even Bourne star, Matt Damon, has played up to this:
“The Bond character will always be anchored in the 1960s and the values of the 60s,” Damon told reporters in London. “Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it and drinks Martinis and cracks jokes.”
“Bourne,” on the other hand, “is a serial monogamist whose girlfriend is dead and he does nothing but think about her … he doesn’t have the support of gadgets and feels guilty about what he’s done.”
Damon’s timing was unfortunate as a few months later Casino Royale came along. This was a Bond film in which Bond’s girlfriend winds up dead, gadgets were majorly downplayed and the film opens with a discussion about Bond feeling guilty about killing people.
And I would concede that at the start of Craig’s tenure the comparison was at least illuminating. Between Die Another Day and Casino Royale, Bond clearly did get more Bourne like. The films became more grounded, less camp and began engaging seriously with the psychology of their protagonist. While I can’t find any evidence that the makers of Casino Royale were directly influenced by Bourne, it would be strange if they hadn’t noticed the sizeable financial success of the Bourne Supremacy.
Nonetheless, it is probably not the case that Bond was changed to imitate Bourne per se.
The series was likely to have gone in a new direction in any event because Brosnan was hanging up his tuxedo. And bluntly, the series wasn’t in good shape. I’m not one of the people who thinks Die Another Day is the worst Bond film but it is undeniably awful. Something was going to change. And the trend at that point was to take franchises in darker directions: Batman Begins was released shortly before Casino Royale and no one thinks that got darker because of Bourne. It’s also worth remembering that Bond had been under devastating satirical attack. The Austin Powers trilogy made $700 million showing up quite how stupid most of the classic Bond tropes were. Craig himself has said that:
We had to destroy the myth because Mike Myers fucked us – I am a huge Mike Myers fan, so don’t get me wrong – but he kind of fucked us; made it impossible to do the gags.
After reading that one can almost reinterpret the darkness of Casino Royale as an attempt to stop the audience smirking because something reminded them of a joke from Austin Powers.
I would go as far as saying that if the Bourne films had never been made then we’d now have people complaining about Bond becoming Bauer.
And it’s worth remembering that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are not that Bourne like. They might be grittier than previous Bond films but they are still incredibly glamorous. There are glamorous locations, sports cars and impossibly attractive “Bond girls”. By contrast, Bourne is much more resolute in its griminess. It’s probably a long time till we’ll see a Bond film with a major action set piece set in Waterloo Station!
Meet the new boss, same as the old Bond
So I feel the Bond and Bourne comparison always had a limited value. But since Mendes has taken over directing it’s become pretty much useless.
Skyfall and Spectre have moved back towards more conventional Bond territory. Compare the interrogation/torture sequences in Casino Royale and Spectre. Back in 2006, Bond was facing a money launderer equipped with a long piece of rope. In 2015, it’s the head of a global criminal syndicate with aspirations to world domination, who has access to a machine that has purposely been designed to allow the user to insert microscopic drills into specific parts of someone’s brain. Oh and said machine is located in a secret lair in a meteorite crater. The first scene could just about feature in a Bourne film – though it would look odd – the second would just be bizarre. Mendes has thus taken the Bond films back to their (generally ridiculous) roots and thereby taken them away from the Bourne series.
There are of course, other regards in which Mendes represents a break with Bond’s previous adventures. Primarily, he’s made the series far more self-consciously artistic. Case in point, the opening sequence of Spectre that appears to have been filmed with a single tracking shot. But that only heightens the contrast with Bourne films. Their defining director Paul Greengrass came to blockbuster cinema via work on documentaries and docudramas. That’s quite a contrast with Mendes who worked in the theatre and then in arthouse cinema. This is reflected in the styles of the film. Mendes’ camera lingers, whilst Greengrass’ shudders and jolts. By accentuating the rough edges of his work Greengrass creates a sense of immediacy: he makes it seem like we aren’t watching a film but footage shot by a news crew or even a bystander with a cameraphone. It’s a similar effect as a found footage film but achieved in a less heavy handed and constraining way. In effect, rather than making his films look beautiful, Greengrass makes them look like they aren’t films at all. So the imprint left by these two directors has in certain respects pushed them further apart than they’ve ever been before: Mendes has heightened the artistry of the Bond films, while Greengrass made a lack of artistry the signature of the Bourne films.
So it’s time to stop constantly relating Bond back to Bourne. It was a somewhat useful shorthand that has been overused to the point of creating lazy thinking. Witness Brosnan’s complaint that Spectre is “neither Bond nor Bourne”. Does he really think there are only two things a spy film can? What about Tinker, Tailor or Spy? Neither of them seems very Bond or Bourne like. And is it a problem if a film goes beyond the categories created by previous endeavours. ‘Arthouse Bond film’ was not a thing until Mendes created it but it does now. There are echoes of Bourne in his films – principally in the continuing interest in the protagonist’s psychology. But it seems odd to treat the idea of three dimensional characters as an alien element that has strayed into the Bondverse from the Bourne films. The quipping caricature that Moore made Bond into is probably less like the hero of Fleming’s novels than Craig’s portrayal of 007. So I’m a little mystified why Bourne remains the most common reference point for talking about Craig’s Bond. Especially in the context of a film like Spectre whose extravagance contrasts so markedly with the minimalism of the Bourne trilogy. It’s time to think of something new to say about the Bond films.