THE JAMES BOND RECIPE shouldn't taste good anymore. Every ingredient in the long-running franchise reached its expiration date decades ago. The Cold War? Ended. Nifty little spy gadgets? Passé. Rampant, red-blooded sexism amid a bevy of interchangeable beauties, each more than ready for casual sex? Not cool, man.
Yet here we are, on the eve of the release of the 24th Bond movie (25th if you count 1983's unofficial Never Say Never Again, which you totally should because it's ridiculous and idiotic and fun). Spectre follows 2012's Skyfall, the most financially successful Bond movie in history, and is poised to be even bigger. How is this even possible?
Ian Fleming, who originated the character of 007 in a series of actually-kind-of-terrible books, would have likely gnashed his nicotine-stained teeth at what his lizard-blooded creation has turned into. Sean Connery made him an invincible superhero; Roger Moore turned him into a leisure-suited fop. It took years—and a false start with Timothy Dalton's two promising, hugely underrated entries in the '80s—to get Bond back on track. And it's chiefly due to Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, the current keyholders to the Bond franchise, who have been flexible with the property and made intelligent, forward-thinking decisions—particularly when they revived the franchise following the dreaded fiasco of the Pierce Brosnan Years.
That international nightmare began, not too terribly, in 1995 with GoldenEye. But every subsequent Brosnan film got dumber and dumber, leading up to 2002's Die Another Day, by far the worst movie in the series (which is saying a lot). In Die Another Day, James Bond surfs a tsunami, drives an invisible car, and sword fights with Madonna. It is really, really bad.
Fortunately, Wilson and Broccoli believed—or guessed, and got lucky—that 007 contained more possibilities than dry martinis, cool cars, and questionable menswear. It's true that the character, on film anyway, has always been emblematic of his era, from the hard-boiled espionage thrillers of the early '60s to the campy, disco-fied iteration of the '70s, and onward. And while this has led to some laughably dated trappings—which I maintain are among the most pleasurable elements of the Bond back catalog—the character's supercilious heroism was never intended to blend in peaceably with a world of average joes. Stripped to essentials, he's a totem of our darker desires and a doer of our dirty work, a bloody-minded, sex-crazed man who works entirely in the shadows. The Brosnan Bonds, emphasizing the actor's dapper suavity, never really understood that we're not meant to like Bond. Just think: How many times over the years have we thrilled to see 007 get the shit beaten out of him?
Enter Daniel Craig, a blond (say what?), blue-eyed (say what??), critically acclaimed actor who boiled Bond down to his brutish, British bones. Craig's 007, as introduced in 2006's Casino Royale, was a grumpy pitbull of a spy, and the surprisingly violent movie gave us the Bond we needed for the Bush era. But the whole thing got thrown off the rails with 2008's Quantum of Solace, which contains a few cool scenes but makes virtually no sense unless you watch it back-to-back with Casino Royale.
MGM went bankrupt in 2010, so it was a little while before we got Skyfall, a decent variation on the theme. Some exotic locales in Shanghai and Istanbul aside, it's set in the rainy old UK and is suitably depressive, albeit in a stiff-upper-lip, have-a-cuppa-tea English way. And yet stretches of the movie feel like a frantic moving of the chess pieces to get Bond back to square one: a new M, a new Q, a new Moneypenny.
Which brings us to Spectre, a film that wasn't screened for critics in time for our print deadline (not a good sign). Meanwhile, Sam Smith's dreadful theme song is less a piece of music than a dribble of uncooked pancake batter; it is, quite possibly, the worst piece of recorded music in human history. These are not auspicious selling points.
All signs point to Bond, so dour in recent years, getting goofy again. This might not be the end of the world. The best Bond movies—From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty's Secret Service—contain a tricky balance of the darkly violent and the cheerfully bubbly. Will Spectre be the best Bond yet? Almost definitely not. But it remains a pleasure—and, actually, kind of a wonder—to get a chance to see the creaky old bastard take on the world's troubles once again.