The Bond Craigslist (Review: No Time to Die)
I once read that a person’s preferred 007 can be determined by when their father showed them their first Bond movie. This is not a concept that’s supported by any kind of rigorous scientific method, and I know that because of my own experiences. My father was a product of World War II and the Cold War. The exploits of a gentleman spy were right up his alley, and to the best of my knowledge, he never missed a Bond movie either theatrically or on television.* He loved Bond, and Roger Moore was his Bond.
My first full Bond experience was us trooping to the theater to see A View to a Kill.** Dad was into it, and I was young enough that I was just happy to be seeing anything. As I got older, I saw more of the franchise. I learned that
- Roger Moore was a great guy, but his Bond was too goofy for me.
- Sean Connery’s first three Bond movies are all I need.
- I need to give Timothy Dalton another try.
- I need to give George Lazenby another try.
- Pierce Brosnan made one good Bond movie, which was Goldeneye.
Most importantly for me, I learned that the James Bond franchise was one that I had no personal connection to. Sure, I dutifully saw every installment, but it was ultimately a way to feel a connection to my father, particularly after he passed. Those movies weren’t for me, and I was at peace with that fact.
That is, until 2006. When I saw Casino Royale and saw Daniel Craig portraying Bond as a blunt instrument with a wounded heart, a cinematic door opened. To my mind, despite the lack of gadgets and quips, Casino Royale is the best Bond movie ever made. Craig was my Bond, and I followed him through the nearly incomprehensible Quantum of Solace, the solid Skyfall, and the frustrating Spectre. But playing Bond is a (mostly) young man’s game, and at 53, Daniel Craig has decided it’s time to hang up the Walther and Aston Martin. His final outing is No Time to Die, and by and large, it’s a fitting conclusion to his era that, amazingly, acts as a conclusion.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: this film is a direct sequel to Spectre. If you haven’t seen that, I’ll bring you up to speed. Bond (Daniel Craig) does battle with the loquacious Blofeld (Christoph Walz), head of the mysterious criminal organization Spectre. Shockingly, Bond does not kill Blofeld. Even more shockingly, Bond begins No Time to Die gallivanting through Italy with Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), whom he fell for in Spectre.***
Things seem to be going just swell for these two crazy kids until Bond visits the grave of Vesper Lynd, his previous one true love. Her loss puts him in a bad mood. Her grave exploding and Bond’s pursuit by hired killers makes him downright cranky. He concludes, absent much in the way of evidence, that Madeleine must have betrayed him. So he plunks her on a train, breaks up with her, and proceeds to quit MI-6.
Five years pass. The Russian scientist Obruchev (David Dencik) is abducted from an MI-6 lab. Turns out he was working on Project Heracles, an experimental bioweapon that can be coded to specific genetic codes. Intelligence reports show that Obruchev is being held by the dastardly Spectre in Cuba. Conveniently, Bond is getting his drink on right next door in Jamaica, and that’s where CIA officer Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) finds him. Felix asks Bond for help, and as so often happens in these films, he immediately refuses and then nearly immediately changes his mind. He also meets Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the new 007, and I’m sure that meeting must have been awkward for both of them.
Anyway, the hunt is on for Obruchev and Project Heracles. Bond discovers that the mastermind behind it is the impressively named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), whose ill-defined plan involves revenge and world domination/destruction. Now, Bond must (deep breath) reconnect with M (Ralph Fiennes)/Q(Ben Whishaw)/Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), discover the connection between Safin and Blofeld, protect Madeleine, reckon with his place as 007, and maybe save the world if time allows.
Since the dawn of time, there have been certain immutable laws. Humans will squabble over their petty differences. Time moves slowly for the young and positively sprints for the old. James Bond movies are a little too long and don’t make a lick of sense. That was true back in 1962 with Dr. No and it’s just as true today with No Time to Die. With a challenging 163-minute runtime, you’d think you’d have plenty of time to consider the plot. Plotting doesn’t matter with 007. It’s all in the execution, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga understands that. His action scenes are propulsive, clever, and creative, and I particularly enjoyed a one-take sequence of Bond killing his way to the top of an underground staircase. He also allows the landscapes to do much of the heavy lifting for him. While lesser films lean heavily on green screens, Fukunaga’s crew went to locales such as Italy, Jamaica, and the Faroe Islands. Part of the fun of these films is to lean back and think to yourself, “God, that landscape is beautiful. I can’t wait to see Bond destroy it.” Fukunaga also found somewhat of a sweet spot between the grit of Craig’s previous films and the gadget-heavy yukfests of lesser installments. For example, I appreciated the smokescreen and Gatling guns concealed within Bond’s car. I equally appreciated that his car never turned invisible.
Did No Time to Die need to be so friggin’ long? The screenplay by Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge works mightily to keep track of multiple characters, plots, and subplots. You can’t help but appreciate its ambition, particularly the time it takes to share the inner lives of its main characters. I liked that, but the main story is convoluted. How convoluted is it? I defy anyone to see this film and, without checking the synopsis on Wikipedia, explain the plot to someone else while not sounding like they experienced a head injury. A large problem is that it didn’t need to be quite as dependent upon Spectre as it is, and there’s a tradition in the 007 franchise of each film being a stand-alone affair. I suppose my complaint misses the point of the Craig era, where we’re meant to experience a beginning, middle, and end to this variant of Bond.
Let’s take a moment to talk about that, the concept of Bond ending. I’m not giving away spoilers, mostly because I don’t want my editor to detonate the bomb he’s planted somewhere in my office. What I will say is that the 25th film in the Bond series will go down as perhaps the most divisive entry. I admire that. You might not like how this run of 007 comes to a close. That’s okay and bear in mind that a year from now, we’ll all know who the new guy playing Bond is and be able to obsess over that..**** Respect should be paid to Fukunaga and his team for taking a risk, doing something that most corporate franchises would scuttle away from.
Does the cast deserve that same level of respect? Yes, when they’re actually given something to do. On the one hand, Lashana Lynch feels like an extremely cool choice as Bond’s replacement. I like her slick professionalism, but her scenes frequently feel like she’s brought onstage just to get shoved off a moment later. Along similar lines is Rami Malek. The film wants us to believe that Safin is Bond’s most dangerous foe. In reality, he’s a guy that wears a mask for a bit and monologues in his admittedly awesome island lair. He never feels like a physical threat to Bond, and he often comes off as just another psycho who likes to talk. While Lea Seydoux doesn’t have the kind of smoldering chemistry Craig had with Eva Green, I appreciated that her Madeleine humanizes Bond and feels like an emotional equal. Ana de Armas shows up briefly as a bubbly CIA operative assisting Bond, and her scene pops with energy.
There’s usually a point during an actor’s swan song as 007 where you can feel that they’re happy to leave. Connery was checked out in You Only Live Twice, Brosnan was too slick to be a relatable human being in Die Another Day, Moore was simply too damn old in A View to a Kill. Daniel Craig escapes that trap. You can feel the mileage on him, yet Craig takes his leave from the role with panache, energy, and wit. While I think he’s played this character enough, Craig never seems to be relieved to leave the tux behind.
It’s a strange thought that James Bond movies existed before I was born and will likely be around after I’m gone. Perhaps that’s as it should be. No Time to Die is the end of a specific era. At times, it nearly hits the highs of Casino Royale. Craig, Fukunaga, and the rest of the cast and crew effectively bring the curtain down on an iteration of James Bond that was simultaneously grittier and more sensitive than the ones who came before. I don’t know how my son will feel about the next Bond, good, bad, or mediocre. All I do know is that he’s certain to have an opinion about it.*****
*One enduring memory I have of my father was the consistency of his reactions. Without fail, any time Bond would do something that either stretched or sprained credulity, Dad would explode laughing and utter, “Oh, come on!” The more absurd the moment, the better he loved it.
**That’s like introducing someone to the concept of Batman by showing them Batman and Robin.
***There’s a tradition in the 007 films that Bond’s love interest from the previous film goes away, leaving him single once more. I get why all the other women peaced out because if he makes a big deal about martinis being shaken, not stirred, what else is he obsessive-compulsive about?
****Personally, I think that Eon Productions should give Henry Golding any amount of money he wants to play Bond.
*****So far, my kid hated Goldeneye and loved Casino Royale.