Film, James Bond

Film Review: NO TIME TO DIE (2021)

For the very first time, the story of James Bond has an ending thanks to No Time to Die.

This turns out to be true of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film on multiple levels. The much-delayed 25th 007 movie is, famously, the last outing for Daniel Craig’s take on Ian Fleming’s legendary spy and Craig has not only become the longest serving Bond in history (even if the official record holder of most Bond films remains Roger Moore), he has also played the role during the longest period of existential change both for the character and, more broadly, the nature of cinema. Pierce Brosnan might have last played Bond in 2002 but Craig is the first true James Bond of the 21st century and No Time to Die assures his place as the 007 who helped transform the franchise. The ending is a key part of that.

No Time to Die is a brawny, swaggering confluence of the two styles of Bond movie Craig’s era has often struggled to bring together. On the one hand, it has Skyfall’s sense of steely modern grandeur but also Spectre’s level of throwback adoration for perkier, flimsier and more colourful decades in the franchise’s history. Though it lacks the striking panache of Casino Royale or Skyfall’s emotional catharsis, No Time to Die is, in a sense, the perfect James Bond movie for the modern era for what it brings together, and one senses it could become a significant fan favourite. It frequently looks incredible, boasts the requisite stunt work and effects to (pun very much intended) die for, not to mention one of the strongest casts in Bond history, and it provides fans with many of the traditional ‘Bondian’ aspects they look for in these films.

On a creative level, No Time to Die serves as a capstone on five pictures over the last fifteen years which have elevated the James Bond franchise into something they rarely were before: fine examples of artistic, dramatic craft, as well as action, suspense, style and cool.

It is worth pausing to reflect more broadly on Craig’s era of James Bond as part of discussing the constituent elements of No Time to Die, because his tenure stands apart in a manner no previous era of Bond can claim to do.

When the series began in the early 1960s, as Cubby Broccoli & Harry Saltzman first adapted Fleming’s novels and formed Eon Productions to make them, the word ‘franchise’ simply didn’t exist. Sequels were barely part of the cinematic lexicon and the arrival of blockbuster cinema and the ubiquity of the box office driven sequel or film series did not truly arrive until Star Wars as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s. Bond was, by then, well established as the first true cinematic franchise thanks to the wildly successful Sean Connery and later Roger Moore eras, but unlike Star Wars, for instance, Bond films did not develop any kind of consistent continuity. If one did well, you made another, and if you could adapt Fleming’s work while doing so, even better.

Over four decades, even as populist cinema grew in stature and audiences came to expect sequels and continuing storylines, Bond remained steadfast in merely rinsing and repeating the same formula, with variations on a theme depending on which actor played him. Moore’s pictures became suave, fairly light sojourns into danger. Dalton’s suggested the Craig era to come but worked more to bridge Moore and Brosnan’s similar tenures in tone and style, with Brosnan’s pictures growing successively bigger, bolder and more comic-book in nature. Only with Brosnan did the slightest of character development and ongoing sense of narrative become apparent – you can place GoldenEye and The World is Not Enough, for example, in the same universe. Die Another Day, conversely, owes more of a debt to Moore’s The Man with the Golden Gun or Moonraker than Brosnan’s previous outings.

Point being, Craig’s tenure was the first to not only front-load true character development for James Bond, but back into—admittedly rather inelegantly—a modern vein of franchise storytelling. Casino Royale was never intended to work as the beginning of a five-picture arc for 007, instead operating more in the style of a comic-book origin story for Bond while playing with Fleming’s very first story—not to mention stripping Bond back to basics after Die Another Day’s overblown, campy theatrics. Nonetheless, for the first time in Bond history, Quantum of Solace is a sequel to the film that came before it. The villain and story might be different, a la the Bond formula, but it exists to pay off Vesper’s betrayal of Bond in Casino and allow him some (literal) closure on her demise. This was a first for Bond. Not even after his wife was murdered in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was Bond, at the time, allowed the chance to truly avenge her death or even reference her (which didn’t happen for another 10 years).

Skyfall attempts to reset the board, to an extent, but that film’s efforts were more restorative rather than narrative based. Quantum was a lean, cold Bond picture that audiences felt existed more as a footnote to Casino’s broad sweep, and Sam Mendes picture was the right Bond at the right time – 2012, perhaps the last year of true Western optimism with the London Olympics, Obama’s re-election, and long before Brexit, Trump or the troubling convulsions in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. Skyfall was a flag-waving, 50-year celebrating love letter to Bond’s symbolism as a British hero while playing with the deeper, existential reconceptualisation of the character that would take place across the 2010s, a decade of powerful, swift and sweeping social change. It tried to carry over primarily Bond and Judi Dench’s M’s cod-mother/son dynamic into the storytelling rather than continue specific narrative beats.

Yet at the same time, Skyfall was an example of how the Bond franchise was maturing.

Over the years, I have seen so many long-standing Bond fans (my age, pushing 40, and much older) decry Skyfall particularly as an awful Bond film, even despite providing many of the existing Bond elements the previous two Craig films rejected—Q, Moneypenny, M’s traditional office etc… The reason is often the same: it is too serious and doesn’t allow Bond to be the same kind of swaggering hero he historically was. This was a claim levelled at most Craig-era Bond films and, almost perversely, is almost levelled as a major criticism of Spectre, where Mendes returned and tried to give those fans everything they wanted – all kinds of winks to Bond’s past and Craig as more of a louche, quippy, seductive Bond, fuelled up with machismo and a hint of misogyny.

What these critiques of films such as Skyfall, or indeed Quantum before it where he is a grieving widower in essence who doesn’t even sleep with ostensibly the main ‘Bond girl’, miss is that Craig’s Bond was designed to abjectly reject these defining aspects of both Fleming’s Bond and Broccoli/Saltzman’s 007, neither of which were ever identical. Casino chisels Craig’s Bond closer to the grit of how Fleming writes his Bond, but none of Craig’s films attempt to replicate either his rampant sexism or flagrant racism, both of which mark his books—as enjoyable and otherwise well-constructed as they remain today. Moreover, Craig’s films never strive to simply make Bond the indestructible hero who saves the day and gets the girl. This only happens in one Craig film, Spectre, and that’s the girl he intends to spend the rest of his life with.

Ultimately, though Craig’s films ungainly tried to stitch together a sense of grand continuity from Casino through to No Time to Die after managing to get the rights to utilise SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld after many decades, all five have a similar thematic resonance to them in a way no previous Bond era has. Craig’s films are about the deconstruction and reconstruction of family. The blunt instrument he begins as in Casino never came to terms with losing his parents, becoming an orphan, and as a result fails to be ready for the loving relationship he sought with Vesper. In Quantum, he confronts and buries those emotions. In Skyfall, M’s death and Silva dredging up his family history forces him to confront that loss and find a way through it. Spectre then makes him face a ghost from that past and his existential position as a man surrounded by death, before allowing him the chance to make the family he never had.

The emotional catharsis is not perfect, and ebbs and flows across each films, with scripts often having to retroactively connect these dramatic points together, but by the end of No Time to Die you can see a through line, as Craig’s Bond ages from rough edged new 00, into seasoned veteran worried he is being put out to pasture, through here to retiree having to match up against a strident new generation, that underpins his Bond and makes sense. No Time to Die works to bring that together while expressly continuing many character beats specifically from Spectre—Madeleine Swann, Blofeld, the Spectre organisation—but also Casino, as Vesper is deliberately referenced, and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) returns for the first time since Quantum. It is all designed to conclude Craig’s era, both emotionally and in terms of narrative, in a manner no Bond movie has ever previously done.

In many ways, for all of the mountainous issues No Time to Die had from idea to premiere, be it directorial changes, script problems, cast issues, even the battle producers Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson had convicing Craig to return in the first place, perhaps knowing this was Craig’s final movie helped the story. Every other Bond left the franchise with the possibility of them doing more – even Moore, who was approaching 60 by his last outing, did not go into A View to a Kill knowing it was the end. Nor did Brosnan, who everyone fully expected to continue after Die Another Day & so the lore goes, he believed he would be making a Casino Royale adaptation. Craig is the first actor, up front, to make a decision to leave the role and it allows Eon & Fukunaga to craft a story expressly designed as a swan song.

There were rumours, interestingly, that Danny Boyle—originally set to helm Bond 25—wanted to kill Craig’s Bond off but this was rejected and served as part of why he left the project. It may be years before we know the true story there but, perhaps, this was one idea that survived Boyle. Bond’s death here is, in the context of the franchise, genuinely quite remarkable and at the same time, it makes complete sense. How do you give the Bond portrayed by Craig, the most tortured and emotional iteration of the character, the happy ending of Spectre where he sails off into the sunset? Bond dying to save the world, after realising he can no longer embrace his wife and child thanks to a deadly virus, is far more tragic and far more fitting.

It works for Craig in a way it never would have worked for any previous 007, except perhaps Dalton had he had the films to warrant it.

The remarkable factor is that Bond is dead… and yet will live again, with a whole new actor, in three or four years time.

What other franchise would be able to survive this without some kind of narrative continuity explanation? Eon could easily make Bond 26 with the same assortment of MI6 regulars and invoke the long-theorised ‘James Bond is a code name’ idea, allowing a new actor to take the role within the same universal continuity, but they won’t. The franchise will reboot again, albeit in a different way to Casino, and Bond will exist. Quite how this will work now, after Bond has been killed on screen, is anyone’s guess. Broccoli & Wilson almost can’t imagine Bond now without Craig and one senses his portrayal, investment and embodiment of the role is the deepest they have ever encountered. It will never have been harder to start Bond again.

Yet what No Time to Die establishes is a very clear roadmap because it solidifies the evolution of the character we have seen across Craig’s tenure. There is no ‘Bond Girl’ anymore, thanks to his 007 replacement Nomi (Lashana Lynch). It is impossible to imagine how Bond films could now present the kind of woman he would traditionally romance, work with and then later discard, and get away with it. Nomi most strongly recalled Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, arguably one of the physically strongest Bond leading ladies to match the hero, but even she fell into his arms by the end. Nomi never even seems attracted to him; she is introduced playing the role of a flirty Jamaican girl who lures Bond back for sex, only to discard her wig & her sultry accent, and confirm herself as an equal. And to his credit, Bond never treats her any other way here.

Similarly, much as Ana de Armas as young CIA agent Paloma better fits the Bond Girl template, she is more Pam Bouvier than Strawberry Fields; little more than a cameo for Armas, Paloma might look seductive in a cocktail dress and theoretically likely to fall in bed with 007, but he entirely reads her signals and actions wrongly at one point. The look on Paloma’s face when Bond questions whether she’s pulled him into an assignation is one of laughter at his misunderstanding, and the light suggestion that he is way too old for her. She is skilled in a different, more open and less combative way to Nomi, but again Bond never comes close to seducing her.

In this film, his only romantic interest is Madeleine, and she exists less as the trophy to be won but more the mother and wife to be courted.

Honestly, No Time to Die saves Lea Seydoux’s character.

Madeleine was one of the weakest aspects of Spectre, with that film’s script utterly failing to convince the audience that she was the great love of Bond’s life, and nor did Craig & Seydoux’s chemistry do enough heavy lifting. No Time to Die neither comes close to replicating the unique spark on screen in Casino between Craig & Eva Green—never bettered across the entire franchise for my money—but it owns the fact this relationship is indebted to that one. Madeleine encourages James to let Vesper and the memory of her go so she can be elevated in his mind to the kind of partner and equal she was, and he is willing to do so. Bond is more open to Madeleine about his feelings here than to any Bond ‘girl’ in history, and you feel it. Even despite Mathilde, their dynamic works so much better here.

Femininity, then, changes in No Time to Die. This is a Bond who is not focused on shagging his way through the film as a symbol of British imperialism. He is a broken tool of a system that is, itself, fatally flawed who, by the end, just wants to save his family. That’s incredible in the context of Bond, even if the idea of a child is not a new one in series lore; in non-canonical book form, 007 has a child with Kissy Suzuki from You Only Live Twice, a story heavily referenced in No Time to Die’s conclusion. No Time to Die is unafraid to break with the conventions of Bond formula while enjoying connectives back to the past – whether the score is using John Barry’s music from OHMSS or we see portraits of Dench & Robert Brown’s M’s of old; the opening scene plays like a horror film as young Madeleine is stalked by Safin, and Fukunaga’s film is unafraid to place Bond and his world in an entirely new context.

M’s portrayal, in particular, is fascinating, and he is played with ever-haunted skill by Ralph Fiennes. The villain might be Rami Malek’s creepy geneticist Safin (arguably the weakest, most under-developed aspect of the film, sadly), but M is the one who creates the Pandora’s Box that Safin and indeed Blofeld open. M developed the Heracles bio-weapon in secret and is defiant, at first, when it is stolen and corrupted for world-destroying ends. Though No Time to Die was written and filmed pre-Covid 19, it is quite striking to see a deadly disease conveyed by touch expressly devised by a Western government threatening the world as a Bond movie plot.

Craig’s era has consistently hinted at the idea of a growing moral vacuum in Western governance – be it the CIA plotting with Dominic Greene for geopolitical ends in Quantum, or Silva exposing M’s dark rendition deeds in Skyfall, or even Andrew Scott’s corrupt C in Spectre transforming the intelligence apparatus into an information gathering machine.

No Time to Die provides the icing on that cake as Leiter himself, as the CIA and MI6 refuse to communicate and chase the same people, suggests nobody knows who the enemies are anymore.

It is an idea that has been growing in Bond films over the last 15 years and could well serve to continue defining the future of the series; with Bond as the hard-edged bastion of a rather old-fashioned defence of democratic values even as the Western establishment serves to be as corrupt as the SPECTRE’s of the world. Maybe this is why the credits sequence displays crumbling British monuments, in line with the falling statues of imperial symbols in the wake of Covid & George Floyd. Bond’s transformation is also away from the defender of post-imperial security into the last line of defence against the decay of British and global democracy. Even M, here, has some culpability, and Bond films have never gone down this road before.

This could also be why the villains, in comparison, are really quite uninteresting this time around. Blofeld haunts the plot nicely but Christoph Waltz’s incarnation has never entirely lived up to the potential rebooting that character has, while Malek’s Safin just floats, appropriately, into the ‘ether’ M at one point suggests the villains live in. His screen time is limited even by the standards of Bond stories of recent years and his connective tissue to Madeleine’s past just isn’t nearly as powerful as Silva’s venom towards M in Skyfall, or even the fun of Blofeld’s albeit silly connection to Bond in Spectre. He neither turns out to be Madeleine’s secret brother nor a rebooted Dr No, both of which I suspected, and as hackneyed as both are, maybe at least one might have packed more of a punch. Safin underwhelms as a final force for Craig to go up against.

Thankfully, No Time to Die excels elsewhere beyond thematic ideas and characterisation. There are no set pieces quite as stunning or visceral as the Madagascar free running in Casino or the siege of Skyfall Manor, but the Matera pre-credits sequence has perhaps the best use of the Aston Martin DB5 since Goldfinger (Skyfall included) with a scene that drips Bond cool and excitement, and the climax evokes both You Only Live Twice and Tomorrow Never Dies in a pitched base battle—including a thrillingly shot last slice of close-quarter combat for Craig on a stairwell which almost matches Casino’s staircase fight—which feel gloriously Bond in their construction. Hans Zimmer’s score, too, is the franchise’s best since David Arnold’s Casino, while Billie Eilish delivers a genuinely great Bond theme that Zimmer beautifully weaves into the romantic theme of the score.

While the film can’t match the striking glamour of Casino Royale or the haunting, emotional, classic nature of Skyfall, it comes close. No Time to Die is the culmination of Daniel Craig’s skilled era as James Bond that we never knew we wanted; a gorgeous, assured and resonant piece of work. James Bond Will Return… but he truly now is in uncharted waters. One thing I have no doubt about, however. 

Nobody will do it better.

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