Movie Curiosities: No Time to Die
At last, it’s finally over.
After fifteen years and five movies, each one longer and more costly and with more production difficulties than the last, I look back at the Daniel Craig era of 007 and see a franchise perpetually spinning its wheels. With every subsequent movie came another promise that this would be the movie in which James Bond finally stops moping over Vesper Lynd. This would be the movie in which we finally dispense with the origin story and get back to the over-the-top spy thriller action we all know and love from James Bond. Instead, all we got was another Bond villain with a lengthy monologue about how he and Bond are fundamentally the same. We get more hand-wringing about how the world has changed so much since the Cold War and Bond has become obsolete, yet the franchise keeps one foot firmly in the past and never actually commits to any kind of direction toward the past or future.
It’s bad enough that James Bond’s drunken womanizing schtick has thankfully fallen out of favor in the past 70 years. It’s bad enough that (depending on how you count) there are now at least two living generations born since the Berlin Wall came down. But what really pisses me off is that the James Bond franchise can no longer offer anything that hasn’t already been done and done better by other franchises.
Yes, I’m aware that Casino Royale (2006) broke (and apparently still holds, as best I can find) the world record for barrel rolls in a single car flip. Kudos are also due to Spectre, which also set a world record as the largest practical stunt explosion in film history. (It still amuses me to no end that the record didn’t go to Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, but freaking Sam Mendes!) Impressive, yes, but there’s no creativity to those accomplishments.
Seriously, for all the $200 million spent on each movie, show me a stunt or an action sequence in the past five Bond movies more exciting or memorable than anything out of Mission: Impossible, John Wick, Jason Bourne, Atomic Blonde, or any of the umpteen other globetrotting action spy movies/franchises we’ve seen in the past decade. Hell, pick out a stunt from any of the five movies and show me somebody who could correctly identify which Daniel Craig 007 film that stunt came from.
No Time to Die is no exception to any of this, though it deserves particular scrutiny as Daniel Craig’s firmly established final outing in the role. The film could’ve played out as just another entry in the franchise. The next movie could’ve picked up with some other actor in the role, as five other actors did before Craig.
(Side note: You might say that Sean Connery doesn’t count, as he was the first and therefore didn’t take the role from anyone. I’d counter that he picked the role back up from George Lazenby for Diamonds Are Forever.)
But no, without getting into spoilers, No Time to Die made sure to completely, totally, even literally blow up everything iconic about the James Bond franchise. Short of another full-fledged reboot, there is absolutely no way forward for this franchise — maybe a spin-off with a few returning actors, but nothing worthy of recognition as a James Bond picture. Which effectively means that after five movies, this iteration of Bond never gets to grow past his origin story, and Bond’s most iconic nemeses — namely Spectre and Blofeld — are taken off the board almost as soon as they’re established. The whole thing is such a damn waste. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For all of that being said, this movie does feature a few crucial firsts. To start with, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) is now distinguished as the first actor/character pairing to ever be featured as the primary Bond Girl for two consecutive movies.
(Side note: As a reminder, the secondary character of Sylvia Trench appeared in both Dr. No and From Russia With Love. And of course we’re not counting the perennial would-be love interest Moneypenny.)
Anyway, the story picks up shortly after the events of Spectre, in which Bond and Swann are taking R&R together somewhere in Italy. Yes, this is apparently the love affair that prompts Bond to finally — FINALLY — move on from Vesper Lynd’s death… just before Spectre comes to try and kill our lovebirds. Being the paranoid type, Bond concludes that Spectre caught up with him and Swann due to undisclosed secrets and unfinished business she must have. Thus Bond dumps her, leaving her on a train bound for places unknown. At the same time, Bond retreats to Jamaica, going so far off the grid that MI6 decides he must either be dead or retired. (Or possibly both.)
Cut to five years later. Spectre takes possession of “Project: Heracles”, a bioweapon that can be “programmed” to infect and kill a particular DNA sequence. Further complicating matters, M (Ralph Fiennes) very deliberately kept the entire Heracles Project off the books for fear of political blowback and/or the weapon getting hijacked by hostile forces. (How’s that going for ya, Mallory?) Thus the existence of Heracles can never be disclosed to any other domestic or foreign government entity, not even privately.
Long story short, Spectre also absconds with a mad Russian scientist (Dr. Obruchev, played by David Dencik), who’s secretly taking orders from Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a totally different madman who actively wants to destroy Spectre on his way to destroying the entire world. That said, Safin is somehow mysteriously connected to both Swann and Spectre — couple that with the cataclysmic bioweapon that no official assets can ever know about, and that’s more than enough to get Bond out of retirement.
Let’s take it back to focus on the villain for a moment. First of all, we literally have a villain named “Lucifer” Safin, and he has an honest-to-goddamn secret island lair. And he’s got a henchman (Primo, played by Dali Benssalah) with an outsized bionic eye. This is exactly the kind of goofiness that we’d expect from a prime Bond movie. Alas, that’s not what we get.
Somehow, Safin was contrived in such a way that he is simultaneously connected with Blofeld and Swann, and the film alternately holds him up as a dark mirror to both Swann and Bond. Even better, Safin is motivated by a childhood family tragedy, yet he’s also motivated by the sincerely-held belief that people want to be controlled. In point of fact, he believes that people actively wish for death, they just don’t have the courage to embrace oblivion. Sweet mercy, it’s like the filmmakers threw the MCU’s Loki and the Marvel Comics’ Thanos into a blender with ALL THE VILLAINS. This character is so far all over the goddamn map that not even Rami Malek could redeem him. I’m sure Malek has a spectacular villainous performance in him, but this ain’t it.
Oh, and as for Primo? I’m sorry to say that his most notable contribution to the film turns out to be his death scene, followed by a groaner one-liner from Bond. Again, these filmmakers clearly knew what we love from the franchise of old, but they’re almost ashamed to openly embrace it.
Then there’s the matter of this film’s other notable first: Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who inherited the 007 title when Bond went AWOL. I can’t say for sure that the inclusion of a black female 007 was a direct response to the increasing calls for a more diverse and modern 007, but if it is, I’d say this is a stiff middle finger. Lynch proves herself to be a dynamic screen presence and she’s clearly capable in an action sequence, yet she’s never given the room to really breathe and make the title her own. In fact, her character arc is all about learning how to swallow her pride and accept James Bond as a worthy partner and realize that 007 is “just a number”. This is not how you treat any kind of character who’s supposed to be a worthy successor.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Ana de Armas. She’s a beautiful and talented up-and-comer by any metric. The filmmakers absolutely deserve credit for realizing that de Armas is a spectacular talent more than worthy of the Bond Girl legacy. So they gave her a delightful character, they let her kick ass up and down the screen for a marvelous action set piece, then she’s gone from the film entirely after fifteen minutes like she was never there. WHAT THE FUCK?!
Lea Seydoux is easily the highlight of the cast. She gets a nicely dynamic character arc, she’s got a compelling interplay with Craig, and though she doesn’t get any action sequences (For the record, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol already more than proved she’s got the chops.), Swann is nonetheless a central and proactive part of the plot.
We do have some returning players, most notably Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, and Ben Whishaw, all of whom seem to be having fun, at least. Compare that to Daniel Craig, who’s clearly so over this role that they had to write the character’s retirement into the script to play into his indifference. Still, Craig’s take on the character was established early and often as a more dramatic Bond. Irked as I am that the character took fifteen goddamn years to get over Vesper Lynd, at least this Bond had a heart to break. There’s certainly an appeal to a Bond who can show pathos, even as he fights and quips his way through various action scenes.
Trouble is, Casino Royale came back in 2006, when Batman Begins made darker and grittier origin stories all the rage. But then 2008 happened, and now we’re all living in the age of the MCU. For that matter, the “Fast and Furious” series hit its stride with the fourth entry in 2009, and that series has only gotten bigger and goofier and more successful in the time since.
This iteration of James Bond was built on a foundation that aged poorly. Over the subsequent fifteen years, pop culture gradually got to a place where a modern take on the campy, colorful, over-the-top Bond might have been palatable. But for whatever reason, these filmmakers simply couldn’t adjust with the times. Maybe they were afraid of lapsing back into self-parody like Die Another Day did (which is fair enough), but again, that sure as hell didn’t stop any of the last few movies out of F&F or Mission: Impossible.
I could understand the temptation to start fresh with an iteration of James Bond more amenable to jetpacks and laser watches. And I could understand a new take on the character that allows for a black James Bond or even a female James Bond. But at the end of the day, we’re still left with a Cold War-era character in a post-Brexit London who’s expected to take a bullet for goddamn Boris Johnson. More to the point, we’re left with a globetrotting action/spy thriller franchise in a genre populated with so many other noteworthy series and movies.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of giving action movie franchises to more women and people of color. But please don’t give them the title of James Bond/007 — at this point, it would be easier and more fulfilling to simply make up a new franchise vehicle for them.
No Time to Die feels like a good place to leave the character. With this fifth movie, the filmmakers once again prove they know perfectly aware that Bond is an artifact from a bygone era, yet they’re either unable or unwilling to correct that. And when a studio spends freaking a $300 million production budget on a 160-minute movie, the end result should be a lot more creative and compelling than this.
James Bond is done. He’s past it. Politically, creatively, economically, he has outlived his usefulness to the world and we’ve all outgrown him. I’m grateful that this franchise gave us Daniel Craig’s career, but he and every other actor in this movie have so many other better projects more worthy of their time and I wish them well. Furthermore, I recognize that the globetrotting action/spy thriller/heist genre is loaded with so many wonderful films and franchises that wouldn’t exist without the Bond films of old. But until the filmmakers are willing and able to deliver something that all those other films won’t or can’t, James Bond seriously needs to stop wasting everyone’s time and money.
The film itself isn’t bad per se, but it is monotonous in a lot of places and there’s that massive screentime to reckon with. I give it a rental recommendation.
For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter. You can also make a tax-deductible donation to help my upcoming play and get your own hyperlink in the online program.
1 thought on “Movie Curiosities: No Time to Die”
This movie has gotten mixed to favorable reviews, with some saying it’s a flawed but thematically appropriate conclusion to the story that began with ‘Casino Royale’. A lot of people seem to agree that more could have been done with Rami Malek’s villain character, and that his motives didn’t make much sense after a certain point. Some wonder if some plot points were cut.
As for your comment here… ”
I think Zack Snyder didn’t get that memo when he made Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman. Anyway, you’re right in that it seems like pop culture has gotten over ‘darker and grittier reboots’. At least on the big screen. They did see some resurgence on the small screen, but Riverdale (the ‘gritty reboot’ of Archie) has degenerated into self-parody, and ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ has ended. ‘Casino Royale’ was praised at the time for breathing new life into the stale Bond franchise, but the ‘darker and edgier’ approach it and the later films took do seem a bit out of place compared to the action-adventure franchises that have become really popular in the decade since.
At this point (though there’s room for spinoffs featuring some of the new characters introduced), about the only way to do another James Bond film is with another reboot. That’s how the Daniel Craig series began, after all. The Daniel Craig films are clearly set in their own universe, and instead of being a bunch of self-contained adventures, tell one larger story that has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not sure what approach the next Bond will take, but perhaps a Lighter and Softer and less brooding approach could work if done right.
Then again, you do raise the point in that aside from the name recognition, it’s hard to see what makes the James Bond franchise special these days when there are all sorts of other globetrotting spy action/adventure movies and movie franchises around.