No Time to Die
(SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre, the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.
Nomi: I have a thing for old wrecks.
By far the movie’s most egregious act is the use of Louis Armstrong’s all-time-high Bond song We Have All the Time in the World and Bond uttering as much, not once but twice. Whatever claim the Craig era has to have struck out in an individual direction – and charmless yobbo Bond was certainly a break with his predecessors – is dashed by the makers kneeling to the memory of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the one really moving, affecting Bond movie (the reason that one works is because George Lazenby is willing and able to play vulnerable; Craig, in contrast, continually begs the question, rather like his vodka martini’s preparation, of why you should give a damn). It’s quite appallingly lazy. Bond has never stooped to feeding upon itself in quite such a shameless, brazen way before, to admitting “Yes, this one is so much better than we are, so we’ll have some of it”.
Particularly since it further underlines how lifeless No Time to Die’s central romance is. As with national-treasure Judi’s M, the Craig’s era just can’t help banging on about things better left buried, so the ghost of Vesper dutifully follows him around everywhere he goes, forgetting that James looked far too thuggish at the time to get hopelessly lost in a romance (whatever the makers tried to tell us otherwise; again, go to OHMSS for the one that worked). Vesper’s replaced by Madeleine Swann, Eon compounding the errors of Spectre by making her the love of Bond’s life (or is it really Vesper, I’m never quite clear due to the harping on), and neither Seydoux nor Craig can do anything to convince us Bond and Maddie have any chemistry. Which made the initial prospect that she might have been working for Spectre all along – we know it’s a slim chance, but we hope so all the same – an appealingly schismatic one.
It’s very telling that the parts of No Time to Die that work for Swann – and there aren’t many – involve her dark secret or her interaction with Rami Malik’s Beelzebub Mephistopheles. I mean Lyutsifer Safin (seriously, WTF?) And then further, Madeleine Jr’s (Coline Defaud) prologue encounter, possibly the best sequence in the movie, as she shoots his diminutive Michael Myers alike before heading out on a frozen lake (what happens next, we never discover, since their relationship over the years is left more than vague. The same as how Abaddon Belial looks about Madeleine’s age, even with that makeup, despite being a good two decades older than her). Running about with a mortified moppet is rarely a good look for a movie, unless you’re Sigourney Weaver, and you know, the moppet has a glimmer of personality (which is why Old Nick leaving her after she bites him is amusing in more ways than one, as it’s a signal the writers are just dog tired with this dispensable plotline). Yet the backend of No Time to Die is pretty much that.
It’s another case of don’t tell us. Invest us. Don’t tell us Bond loves Maddie, make us feel it (without resorting to We Have All the Time in the World). Don’t tell us Bond cares about his new-found moppet (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet); give them some kind of er, bond, beyond a stuffed toy. And don’t tell us Bond’s self-sacrifice is profoundly affecting; make us weep for the loss. Rather than, you know, breathe a sigh of relief.
Knowing the outcome to No Time to Die was at Craig’s behest rather puts me in mind of sourpuss Harrison Ford’s attitude to Han Solo. Except that Han really had nowhere to go once he’d been derogued and domesticated. I guess neither did Craig Bond, even after they’d done every damn thing they could to give him some additional dimensionality and still come up short. It’s been suggested Danny Boyle fell out of directing this effort because he wanted a light-hearted romp with Russkies as villains (perhaps as a break from all that soul-shredding 2012 Olympics predictive programming). But Craig wanted to die.
Probably because he’d seen Logan or something (it can work to kill a hero, but only if you have an idea. Rather than, you know, a Purvis and Wade script with some spot welding from Fleabag). Toasting Bond simply emphasised there was no power to his send off. If they really had to riff on OHMSS, they should have had Craig exclaim “This never happened to the other fellow” just before he exploded (I’m doubtful Dan is overly bright; I suspect he took the part in Logan Lucky simply because it had Logan in the title. Making a Soderbergh movie tends to benefit no one, not even Steven’s CV).
The most affecting sequence in No Time to Die comes much, much earlier, and relates to a character short changed not only in the Craig era but Bond generally. Previously, that had much to do with an almost perverse desire to recast the role each movie (and when they did return to an earlier actor, that seemed almost perverse in itself). Jeffrey Wright is one of the unqualified highlights of the Craig era, and every time his Felix Leiter appeared on screen, I wanted to follow his adventures rather than the spy we’re lumbered with. Obviously, if they were going to kill Bond off, they’d kill of Felix first. As a taster. And for weight. Gravitas. All that stuff. On the plus side, though, Wright makes every moment count and reverberate in a manner Craig couldn’t dream of, so his exit is genuinely upsetting; I was just glad to see him again, after he’d been so rudely ignored in the previous two movies.
Q: Can I just have one nice evening place before the world explodes?
So we’ve dealt with the deaths and returns, largely, and I’ll address the plotline shortly. What of the other supporting factors? The irony of the Craig era is some very good key casting. Ben Whishaw returns as Q, but this time as GAY Q, in case you hadn’t realised that Ben only ever plays fey characters (except for Paddington, who’s merely bear-curious). Moneypenny’s role is a bit thankless, but the whole treatment of Naomie Harris’ version has been positively perverse, so making her final stint borderline redundant is about right. Rory Kinnear is very likeable as Bill Tanner and like Wright’s Felix, the indelible version of the character. But in Bill’s case, well, entirely inessential. M…
Q: Blofeld's eyeball unlocked.
What exactly happened to M between movies? He’s suddenly become entirely inept and morally unconscionable. He’s basically Homer Simpson, with a “Doh!” response to how the deadly DNA killer developed at his invitation was misused, allowing Swann to see Blofeld because she’s the only one he will see (that’s EXACTLY why you shouldn’t let her), and somehow letting Blofeld’s bionic eyeball pass undetected in a hyper-security facility.
That’s the returnees. We also have the new 007, in the form of Lashana Lynch, most remarkable because she’s the first chunky 00 – there’s no other explanation for trousers approaching one’s neckline – rather than for having assumed the 7 mantle, and clearly not built for speed, hence the mostly carefully curated camera angles. Ostensibly, she’s the “woke” part of the movie, taking over the franchise from the toxic male, although in any other era (you could easily see her in the Moore to Brosnan run as an amusing intrusion upon the status quo), she’d hardly raise an eyebrow.
Mostly, she suffers from that self-same problem the series currently suffers in any area; whenever it attempts to hit a mark, be it romance or emotional baggage or sexual politics, in looks a bit silly. Lynch is fine in the way Seydoux is fine; forgettable, a bit bland, nothing you’ll remember apart from the cheap shot ducking David Dencick’s Valdo Obruchev in a nanobot vat for making a racial slur. That, and relinquishing her 007 status because she sensed through the aether it wouldn’t do to have Bond die without his designated number attached.
The contrast to this vague sense of hopelessness, cast wise, is trying to have a simple, breezy good time. No Time to Die scores in exactly the same way A Quantum of Solace (Gemma Arterton), Skyfall (the Bond-Moneypenny rapport) and Spectre (the Bond-Belluci lust) did. The entire gamut of Bond and Paloma (Ana de Armas) is an absolute highlight of the movie, as she introduces herself as a bit of a klutz before revealing she’s devastatingly effective (you’re never remotely convinced Nomi is). The whole section of the meet up, segueing into the ultra-weird and very obviously evocative of Rothschilds circa-1972 dinner parties Spectre/Elite meet up, followed by her turning incredibly kick-ass, is a delight. When Bond offers a farewell “You were great”, you can but concur. She really was. You want a female Bond movie. Make Paloma. She’s a gift.
Elsewhere, there’s Billy Magnussen, a much more serviceable bad guy than either of the (inevitably, despite the prejudicial connotations) disfigured ones. Malek can’t get over looking about fifteen, which means, once he’s shorn of his mask, his impact diminishes. Waltz is simply a bit shit as Blofeld, once again, which means that, even though he has a glorified cameo, he helps to collapse the overall import of this 00-edifice.
During the first half of No Time to Die, I was pretty convinced it was the best-directed Bond movie. The staging and editing of the action sequences is superlative, from the Italian graveyard bomb to the first of several enviably versatile car chases, to the Cuba encounter and poor Felix’s demise. But let’s not forget Cary Fukunanaga, who did such a grand job on the first season of True Detective, also has a story and screenplay credit, so is at least partly responsible for the third act drudge that follows, failing to turn the series into an effective first-person shooter and falling on tired and pedestrian devices and plot developments that ultimately do for both the movie and the sense of continuity he was carrying from scene to scene and act to act, instilling a palpable internal tension to the proceedings. Fukunaga fumbles it, and even employing the reliably “building” Hans Zimmer score cannot redress the balance.
As to balance, we have to wonder about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s contribution, deemed as it was important enough to garner a screenplay credit. One has to guess she refashioned much of the dialogue, but much of it could easily have been written by “lesser” luminaries. You know, Hugh Dennis making “small pox in a lunchbox” gags and Bond joshing that Swann’s next revelation, post his child, will be “another child”. Proponents of the Craig era will make a case for his burly wit, but I’ve found him mostly rather dour and self-serious, and this is no different when his character “arc” gets in the way of the story, which was ever thus (he has a producer credit).
Safin: People want oblivion and a few of us are born to build it for them.
Of course, Phoebe is not simply an Elite stooge, no matter her woke-ing of Bond (apparently, she turned departed Donald Glover’s TV spin on Mr. and Mrs. Smith on the grounds of, and I quote, his being a “fucktard”). One has to look more broadly at who dictates Eon’s content to pinpoint the plot expediencies here. Who feeds Eon their MacGuffins? Are Purvis and Wade as immaterial as Chris Carter when it comes to submitting to and facilitating a broader agenda?
Last time out, Bond was injected full of nanotech (smart blood), and we barely batted an eye in the face of the bigger threat (a NWO engineered behind the scenes by Blofeld that only the stalwart MI6 could fend off). Was this a stealth manoeuvre, such that it isn’t the smart blood that kills Bond – he’s injected again this time – but rather smart missiles? Either way, No Time to Die is in retreat. M (per above) is now making all the wrong moves, and Project Heracles, “a bioweapon containing nanobots that infect like a virus upon touch” (per the Wiki summary) developed by British government is, shockingly, misused by the bad guys rather than those who would use it for morally upstanding purposes. This is a well-worn trope, naturally, so there’s little point spending much time on it (again, it seems early on as if Bond might discover the whole world to be corrupt – in the way at-odds nations can unite suddenly in response to a global “threat”, almost as if powers are only nominally at odds and really cajoled by octopoid tentacles behind the scenes – the only surprise being the movie mustered even that level of doubt).
It’s telling that the scientists at the opening are joking about notoriously deadly and transmissible smallpox (and Ebola) before revealing via Obruchev – David Denick, as your comedy foreigner par excellence, see also Alan Cumming in Goldeneye – a contagion that actually is transmissible in the manner of the Pasteurian disease model. This one still requires direct exposure (via a “mist”) but once in one’s system, others can be “infected” (so, see shedding for a comparison). One can also be an asymptomatic carrier (hence Bond's self-sacrifice).
No Time to Die embraces popular DNA science for its MacGuffin, able to target an individual, a family, or entire ethnic group. Fortunately, this is very easy to control and blow up its manufacturing base, enabling a trad third-act finale. The movie was initially due for release just as the plandemic was taking hold, of course (and before even: 2019, when Boyle was still attached), and some commentators have suggested its engineered viral outbreak plot may be a little too close to home for some viewers. The movie’s a hit, but it looks like a very limited one in the States, and its sure not to recoup its considerable costs on its cinema release alone. Plus, even given this is *just* one incarnation of Bond – while the framed portrait of frickin’ Dench M was no surprise, it was nice to see Bernard Lee, previously on a wall in The World is Not Enough – thanks to Daniel it’s still a Debbie Downer of an ending. If Bond can die, anyone can…
Generally, my take on the Craig era – and I know there are those who will strongly disagree, claiming there’s bags of gags – is one of dour self-importance that diminishes the series’ best virtues. As if Licence to Kill had been a hit and remained the franchise template. That approach, the Bond Identity, served Casino Royale well, but nothing since has offered a sufficiently robust plot for the two modes –excess of scheme and budget versus studious character arc – to marry successfully. As such, I don’t mourn this Bond’s passing. Indeed, I think it’s really quite alright.