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Non-Review Review: No Time to Die

There is perhaps some irony in the fact that a movie titled No Time to Die is the longest movie in the James Bond franchise.

No Time to Die is an interesting mess of a movie. It’s a film that contains a variety of interesting and intriguing elements that never coalesce into something completely satisfying, and are often lost in a mess of continuity accrued from the previous four entries in the franchise. As the final film in the franchise to star Daniel Craig, No Time to Die finds itself tasked with turning off the lights at the end of the night, serving as something of a series finale to the actor’s previous adventures.

Drinking it all in.

The biggest challenge facing No Time to Die is the simple fact that the previous four films in the franchise don’t really form a single or cohesive narrative. They were four separate movies, with each shaped and informed by the reaction to the prior entry. When Casino Royale proved that audiences could accept a modern take on the James Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace doubled down on tweaking the character to fit into the modern action thriller landscape. When that didn’t work, Skyfall course-corrected for a more traditional approach. Following that success, SPECTRE tried clumsily to tie it all together.

No Time to Die spends far too much of its impressive runtime trying to reconcile these films to each other. As a result, the film never really finds space to play with its own more interesting and compelling ideas.

Given his public-state ambivalence about the role, it’s no small irony that Craig is officially the longest-serving James Bond. The various delays to the release of No Time To Die mean that Craig has been playing Bond for fifteen years. If one discounts Sean Connery’s brief reprisal of the role in Never Say Never Again, Craig is the only actor to play Bond in three different decades. So it makes sense that his departure is a big deal, comparable only to the weird funereal atmosphere of something like the similarly bloated and messy (but also compelling) A View to a Kill.

One of the big innovations of the Craig era has been a push towards tighter continuity between the films. To pick an obvious example, Quantum of Solace is perhaps best treated as an extended postcredits scene for Casino Royale rather than as a satisfying narrative of itself. After all, Casino Royale was both the twenty-first film in the larger ongoing series and a long-overdue origin story for the suave secret agent. Unlike earlier iterations of the character, Daniel Craig’s version has a clear beginning. It makes sense that he should also have an ending.

Of course, there have been recurring characters in the earlier films. Bond has an established supporting cast, including characters who are iconic in their own right, like Moneypenny, M and Q. However, the earlier films tended to play fast and loose. Returning in No Time to Die, Jeffrey Wright becomes the first actor to play Felix Leiter three times on screen and Christophe Waltz becomes the first actor to play Ernst Stavro Blofeld twice on-sceen.

Earlier films did feature their own continuity nods and references. The death of Tracy Bond at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is perhaps the most obvious example, even if the franchise only touched on it in the most clumsy of ways, relegating the resolution of that plot thread to the teasers of both Diamonds Are Forever and For Your Eyes Only. It often feels like the franchise regrets that it fumbled the ball in dealing with the fallout from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, course-correcting from the divisive film straight into the high camp of Diamonds Are Forever.

Missing the window.

It is notable that many of the more recent entries in the franchise have circled back around to trying to recapture some of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is reflected superficially in the mountain retreat from SPECTRE, but also in terms of the plotting of movies like License to Kill, The World is Not Enough or Quantum of Solace, all of which are built around an emotionally naked Bond. One of the more interesting aspects of No Time to Die is that it feels like another bite at that particular apple.

In the opening sequence, as he drives around Europe with Madeleine Swann, Bond assures her they have “all the time in the world.” The phrase, taken from a bitter moment at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, echoes through No Time to Die. Hans Zimmer borrows several classic music cues from the franchise for his soundtrack. John Barry’s score to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service haunts the film, creating a strong sense of thematic connection. (It helps that No Time to Die borrows a lot of plot elements from Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice, which dealt with the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.)

It is clear that screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have been with the franchise since The World is Not Enough, understand and appreciate the history and the legacy of the films. No Time to Die is saturated with ironic echoes and callbacks that extend beyond Craig’s time in the lead role, finding interesting ways to layer additional emotional weight onto the standard tropes and conventions of the James Bond franchise.

To pick one example, the extended opening sequence includes a sequence of Blofeld trying to murder Bond at a former lover’s grave, like the opening of For Your Eyes Only. Similarly, the opening of No Time to Die plays on the classic opening to Goldfinger. At the start of Goldfinger, Bond discovers that the woman he has been sleeping with has betrayed him to his enemies. He is cold and aloof about it, dispatching the assassins and walking out the door. No Time to Die images a much more emotional riff on that same premise, when Bond is confronted with the possibility of Madeleine’s betrayal.

Flight of fancy.

Unfortunately, No Time to Die struggles when it has to shift from these broader and more abstract references into the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of tying together the previous four films. No Time to Die inherits a lot of baggage from the previous four films, and frequently finds itself trying to fashion those elements into compelling emotional stakes and engaging character arcs. The film feels an obligation to pay off various debts to these earlier four films, with even absent characters like Vesper Lynd and Mister White getting focus within the larger narrative.

The biggest problem with this approach is that the continuity of the Daniel Craig Bond films is a mess. The era starts by teasing a new mythology built around a mysterious organisation known as “Quantum”, only to jettison that for the nostalgia of Skyfall, and then trying to fold that back into the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in SPECTRE, which also provided a secret history for the lead character. The continuity of these four films was written on the fly, and it becomes difficult to reconcile them to one another. Taken together, they are a mess of contradictions and deadends, stops and starts, which never completely cohere.

Much of No Time to Die’s extended runtime is given over to elements ported over from the earlier films. The film is built around the relationship between James Bond and Madeliene Swann, as played by Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux. The idea of a “returning” Bond girl is interesting, playing on the idea that the relationship between Bond and a lover might evolve from one film in the series to the next. It’s a novel idea, that plays into that idea of continuity and baggage. It potentially makes Bond feel like a real person.

The biggest problem with this approach is that Craig simply lacks any real chemistry with Seydoux. This is neither actor’s fault. Certainly, there are plenty of examples in the franchise of movies where the lead failed to connect with his supposed love interest. In those cases, the one-and-done format was a relief, meaning that the next film was free to start over. The problem with the dynamic between Craig and Seydoux is that Craig never really sparks with Seydoux in the way that he did with Eva Green in Casino Royale, and No Time to Die makes a point to emphasise this by bringing the character of Vesper Lynd to the fore early on.

Feeling blue.

Similarly, the movie lays a lot of emotional weight on the relationship between James Bond and his American counterpart, Felix Leiter. At one point, Bond even refers to Leiter as his “brother”, both an explicit callback to their introduction in Casino Royale and a way of hammering the theme of family that tied Bond to Blofeld in SPECTRE. However, Jeffrey Wright was entirely absent from Skyfall and SPECTRE, so audiences haven’t seen the two characters together in thirteen years. Their last scene together in Quantum of Solace found Leiter drunk and disillusioned, hardly the start of a lasting and eternal bond.

(It is some weird irony that even the continuity-lite earlier entries in the franchise managed to more convincingly sell the idea of a lasting and enduring relationship between Bond and Leiter despite the fact that Leiter was played by a different actor in almost every movie. License to Kill goes out of its way to show Bond and Leiter just enjoying one another’s company before weighting the plot on their personal relationship, with Bond attending Leiter’s wedding in a personal capacity. There is no real sense in No Time to Die that the pair share any equivalent closeness.)

The worst example of this continuity approach is the hour that No Time to Die has to spend dealing with the organization SPECTRE before getting to its own business. There’s an interesting fascination with secret societies and conspiracy theories in these films. Of course, the franchise has always been obsessed with the idea of sinister men who want to rule the world from the shadows. However, the Daniel Craig movies are weirdly preoccupied with the relationship between these various men who want to rule the world from the shadows, the competing agendas and shadowplays wrestling with one another in the dark.

After all, SPECTRE was about how the capitalist conspiracy “Quantum” was really just a single facet of a more occultish organisation known as “SPECTRE.” In No Time to Die, that “SPECTRE” finds itself dismantled and demolished by an even more sinister opponent. It’s a very strange structure, one that suggests the history of the world is nothing more than shadow organisations vying with one another for control, trying to assert their agenda before being toppled by the next challenger.

A clean sweep.

Narratively, it is just a way to ensure continuity. After all, previous entries in the franchise would likely have destroyed “SPECTRE” in a single line of exposition, with the action taking place off-screen. The decision to devote an entire extended setpiece to that destruction is a clear effort to reassure the audience that “it’s all connected”, to insist that there is a larger architecture and structure to these four films instead of a strange series of course-corrections and realignments.

However, it also suggests something interesting about modern conspiratorial thinking. After all, the modern world is too chaotic to really credit any single over-arching author. In a small but revealing touch, No Time to Die reveals that Bond enjoys a half-decade retirement between the opening scenes and the bulk of the movie. It seems like much of the chaos of the previous five years can be blamed on the fact that James Bond took a holiday. Things like Trump and Brexit, let alone the pandemic, happened while Bond wasn’t looking.

As interesting as this is, there’s still a sense in which this is all dead weight. Christophe Waltz reprises his role as Blofeld simply for the sake of reprising his role as Blofeld. Outside of some security camera footage, Waltz only has a single scene in No Time to Die, and seems to be there more out of a sense of obligation than out of any particular enthusiasm. There’s something grimly absurd in a sequence where Blofeld, locked in a square cage, is effectively rolled into an interrogation room like he’s being delivered from some expensive supervillain vending machine.

The result of all of this is that anything unique to No Time to Die has little room to breathe on its own terms. Rami Malek plays the villain Lyutsifer Safin, but Safin is undercooked to say the least. No Time to Die has a notoriously troubled production, even before the pandemic forced the various delays, and the film reportedly had difficulty getting Craig and Malek’s schedules to line-up. As a result, the film has to work around the fact that the two spent little (if any) time together on set.

Better Safin than Sorry-in.

Crucially, Safin isn’t really a character. His motivations are murky and hazy. He seems like a collection of tropes loosely assembled in the shape of a Bond villain: he has a facial disfigurement, he has a cool isolated island base, he has colourful henchmen, he has a genocidal plan seemingly for the sake of it. This is one of the big problems with No Time to Die. So much of the movie is anchored in a very specific and very personal motivation for Safin, with his obvious reasons for dismantling SPECTRE. However, the film’s last hour requires a pivot towards world domination that isn’t really explained or articulated.

The film hints at some big and uncomfortable ideas. Much is made of the capacity of Safin’s ability to wipe out “entire ethnicities”, if he so wishes. Similarly, a lot of Safin’s rhetoric is peppered with vague allusions to racial purity, like how he wants the world to be “a little tidier.” There’s a more overt moment with one of his henchmen, who talks about “the West African diaspora.” However, this angle is never really explored, perhaps for obvious reasons; it would be a lot to put in a family-friendly blockbuster, even if would add a lot of interesting shading to the legacy and history of the franchise.

More to the point, it’s interesting to wonder if some of the Safin stuff may have been tempered in the editting bay owing to the pandemic. After all, there is a lot of debate over whether or not audiences are ready for stories about fictional viruses ravaging the world. There are rumours (denied by the production team) that Falcon and the Winter Soldier was reshaped because of that concern. Certainly, No Time to Die is careful to make it clear that Safin is dealing with anything but viruses. The movie’s “weapon of mass destruction” is “nanobots”, while Safin lives in “the Poison Garden.”

Without any clear definition, No Time to Die tries to present Safin as a mirror to Bond. “I could be speaking to my own reflection,” Safin boasts. “We both eradicate people to make the world a better place,” Safin tells Bond, perhaps the most facile equivalence since Francisco Scaramanga asserted, “Come, Mister Bond. You disappoint me. You get as much fulfillment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?” Safin is a much less convincing or engaging counterpoint to Bond than, for example, Alec Trevelyn in GoldenEye or Raoul Silva in Skyfall, and it feels like the movie is struggling for depth that it never really earns.

Dial M for State-Sponsored Murder.

Safin often feels like a mouthpiece for the themes of No Time to Die, which would be more compelling if he actually embodied them in any substantive ways. “I want the world to evolve,” Safin states, “while you want it to stay the same.” This is perhaps the most interesting central theme of No Time to Die, which concerns the question of whether James Bond can actually change and evolve, and what it means to be James Bond in a world that has perhaps left him behind somewhat.

Indeed, No Time to Die returns wholeheartedly and uncompromisingly to the question of Bond’s relevance. Skyfall dealt with the theme in a compelling and engaging way, acknowledging that its character was a romantic and nostalgic fantasy, and that the fantasy itself serves a purpose in the modern world. Unfortunately, both SPECTRE and No Time to Die get weirdly literal with the question of Bond’s enduring relevance. In SPECTRE, “Nine Eyes” was a metaphor for surveillance state overreach. In No Time to Die, it is the programmable nanobots known as “Heracles.”

There’s a clumsiness to this. In SPECTRE, M was smart enough to realise that “Nine Eyes” was a grotesque violation of civil liberties. In No Time to Die, it’s revealed that M had been supporting research into a bioweapon. However, both SPECTRE and No Time to Die make the same essential argument for Bond’s enduring relevance: the importance of having somebody look an enemy in the eye before shooting them. “We used to be able to get into a room with the enemy,” M laments. “And now they’re just floating in the ether.”

As with SPECTRE, this is a weird and unconvincing justification for the continued relevance of James Bond. After all, James Bond is not a real spy. Real spycraft has never worked like this. No Time to Die leans heavily into the gadgets and gizmos of the Bond franchise, reinforcing the heightened reality of it all. James Bond doesn’t endure because this is the way that espionage should be done. James Bond endures because he’s a really cool character and these movies are fun.

A step up.

To be fair, No Time to Die handles the theme better when it steers away from the clumsy metaphors for modern statecraft and into broader cultural questions. There’s a compelling dynamic between Bond and his replacement Nomi, played by Lashana Lynch in the movie’s standout performance. Bond retired and stepped aside. Nomi has been classified as “007.” There’s a palpable tension between the two, which inevitably grows into a grudging respect. There’s an implicit understanding here that the world is changing, and that maybe the future doesn’t look like Daniel Craig.

Unfortunately, No Time to Die hesitates to embrace the opportunities presented by the character of Nomi. Extended sequences in the middle stretch of No Time to Die find Bond doing small-scale and personal stuff, having conversations while meeting old friends and new companions. It would make sense to crosscut these sequences with action scenes that would accelerate the movie’s pacing, and Nomi would seem to provide a logical basis for doing this, parallelling her spywork with Bond’s personal drama. However, No Time to Die seems terrified of any action sequence not built around Bond himself.

There is a tension that No Time to Die skirts, but never resolves. The movie’s climax is daring and ambitious for what it seems to suggest. It radically plays with the question of how much James Bond can change while still remaining James Bond. Is there a point at which the character ceases to be himself, where his DNA is so fundamentally rewritten that he becomes unrecognisable? Do the laws of these narratives mean that James Bond himself must become toxic to anybody he loves and cares about, and what does that mean for the character going forward?

These are big ideas, and it’s great to see No Time to Die grappling with them. It’s just frustrating that so much of this is couched in continuity and references, and that it is given so little room to breathe amid the blockbuster demands of the modern franchise film. There’s a sense that, like The World is Not Enough before it, No Time to Die would probably work a lot better if it had the freedom to be as quirky or eccentric as something like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or For Your Eyes Only.

“No Mister Bond, I expect you to meditate on your place in a changing world.”

This is reflected in the film’s obvious influences. The last hour of the movie takes a lot of its cues from both the film and the novel You Only Live Twice, as if trying to reconcile the two extremes of the James Bond franchise. After all, Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice is one of the oddest novels in the series, a meditation on grief and death following On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In contrast, Roald Dahl’s You Only Live Twice is a radically different story, a camp and abusrd adventure movie that demonstrates the appeal of the franchise formula.

No Time to Die takes several cues from the novel You Only Live Twice. Safin is a master poisoner. His island base is known as “the Poison Garden”, a place where everything is toxic. He is based in Japan. The film’s meditations of loss and grief lend it a melancholy tone that fits with the novel. However, the film also lifts a number of cues from the cinematic adaptation, with a modern take on “Little Nellie”, a version of Blofeld with a disfigured eye, and a grand cinematic lair. There’s a sense in which No Time to Die tries awkwardly to reconcile these extremes of what James Bond can be, not always successfully but at least interestingly.

Similarly, there’s a recurring sense that No Time to Die is about how hard it is to make a James Bond movie. Characters are constantly watching events on screens. A robotic eyeball is a major recurring element. Blofeld is receiving a live stream of outside events. There’s an early car chase where a farmer receives a call to release the sheep into the road on cue. At one point, Bond has to prompt a younger agent for their line. (“Something about Paris and hats?”)

It’s even possible to read the film’s troubled production into its scripting. In SPECTRE, Blofeld made a big deal of being “the author of all [Bond’s] pain”, but No Time to Die finds Blofeld being summarily dismissed from the project and replaced by a much more traditional and generic architect. It seems like a metaphor for Danny Boyle’s troubled departure from the film, and the arrival of director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who has made a career out of insisting that he is not a “difficult director.”

Firing on all cylinders.

The metaphor becomes more overt at the end of the opening sequence, as Bond is glimpsed through train windows. The effect is to suggest celluloid film passing through a projector, similar to that wrapped around the MGM logo. It is fitting, then, that No Time to Die closes with a character telling the story of “Bond, James Bond.” This is a very reflexive and self-aware entry in the franchise, although it’s notable that this sort of stagecraft has long been part of the Bond franchise.

Frustratingly, there’s none of the flair or passion of director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s best work. Fukunaga established himself as one of the most promising young directors of his generation with his breathtaking work on the first season of True Detective and compelling features like Jane Eyre or Beasts of No Nation. The most interesting aspects of No Time to Die play as an extension of the most interesting aspects of SPECTRE, with a conscious reframing of the franchise’s iconography through the lens of horror.

The movie opens with a flashback and nightmare sequence that could easily have come from a slasher movie, as a monster in a mask lays siege to a family living a peaceful and isolated existence. The action sequence that bridges the second and third acts takes place in a foggy forest, with danger and chaos reigning over the action. It’s an approach that favours atmosphere over action, and it works well. The least satisfying action beats in No Time to Die are the most conventional, lacking the imagination or energy of the best beats in Skyfall or even SPECTRE.

No Time to Die is a mess of a movie, a host of interesting ideas lost in a sea of unnecessary callbacks and unsatisfying continuity.

One Response

  1. “The question of Bond’s relevance” is honestly one of the most played-out aspects of the franchise at this point.

    The Watsonian question is “do we still need Men In The Shadows to do our dirty work?” This was an interesting question when Goldeneye came out; the Cold War was over, there was no new enemy on the horizon, there were people seriously wondering if the CIA should be disbanded, all that talk of “peace dividend” and “end of history.” After 9/11, the debate is over. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. Nobody seriously questions the need for Men In The Shadows; even things like the Afghanistan withdrawal come with the assurance that, if any terrorists in the region get out of hand again, the West’s trusty old black ops units will sort them out.

    The Doylist question is “is there still room for James Bond in the modern pop cultural landscape?” This, too, is absurd. We’ve had nine movies released since the end of the Cold War. Two of them were conscious modernization/restarts, which were such resounding successes that many fans cite them as their favorite Bond movie. The question “can Bond movies still succeed in the modern world” has been asked and answered; the real question is “can YOU, [director], make a successful Bond movie.” I’m at the point where I increasingly wonder if questioning the franchise’s relevance isn’t the directors’ way of lowering expectations for themselves.

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