No Time to Die (2021)
The mission that changes everything begins …
In the end, it was a romance all along.
I don’t strictly mean a love story, although love — or at least sex — has been an integral part of the James Bond formula since the year dot. I mean in the literary sense, the legendary sense, almost the medieval sense: Commander Bond as knight errant and loyal servant of the crown, slaying dragons (or at least monstrous villains — the deformed visages of Bond’s rogues gallery puts them on par with the ogres and goblins of myth) for Queen and country. Bond’s adventures, especially on the screen, have existed on the other end of a spectrum on which John le Carré’s works have been the counterbalance. 007’s exploits are heightened, operatic, grand, and measured in emotion rather than that most useless of cinematic yardsticks, realism (imagine a “realistic” James Bond film). Bond might turn a double agent, expose a mole, or indulge in any number of other lowkey bits of tradecraft, but only as an element of a greater goal: get the girl, kill the baddie (preferably in his volcanic or aquatic lair), and save the world.
In No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s fifth and final outing as James Bond, our hero gets to do all that and more. He gets to do everything James Bond should do, and he gets to do things no James Bond has ever done before. It’s a remarkable bit of business. Everyone involved — director Cary Joji Fukunaga; screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge; the exceptional cast, cinematographer Linus Sandgren; all the way down to craft services, for all that I know — understood the assignment.
Craig’s tenure has weathered accusations of unevenness, but to my eyes, the output hasn’t been any shakier, film for film and pound for pound, than any prior Bond. I’m actually out of step with the critical consensus on it, anyway; loved Casino Royale (2006), didn’t mind either Quantum of Solace (2008) or Spectre (2015), didn’t rate Skyfall (2012) at all. For that latter opinion, my issue was that, to me, the stakes in a Bond flick should never be personal, or at least only secondarily so. He’s an instrument of the state, completely bound to his duty, and his great strength as a hero has always been that dedication. Indeed, many of his better villains have been villainous because they failed in their duty. “For England, James.” As Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) once said. Skyfall, with its indebtedness to Bond’s personal history, its climax at Bond’s ancestral home, contravened that. So too did Spectre, with its insistence on giving arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) a personal grudge against Bond, but that bothered me less at the time.
Now, No Time to Die reveals that making it personal was the point all along, so more fool me. No Time to Die contextualizes what has gone before, revealing that it’s the first time that a single Bond actor’s films have been a complete arc with a satisfying resolution. The Bond movies have largely operated free of continuity except for the occasional Easter egg for fans and to fuel the insane ramblings of the “James Bond is a code name” crowd. We were with Craig’s Bond when he made his 00 bones at the beginning of Casino Royale a full fifteen years ago, and we now follow him through to …
… look, there are going to be spoilers here. Big ones. There have to be, in order to talk about No Time to Die with any real meaning or authority. But this is a great film, mark my words, and I say that as someone who has, historically speaking, considered maybe one out of every five Bond movies worth watching more than once, on the average. So, you can take that to the bank or to the box office, whichever you like. But after this paragraph, the gloves are off.
When we catch up with James Bond (Daniel Craig) after the events of Spectre, he’s retired to Jamaica (I like how they’ve committed to making Jamaica, creator Ian Fleming’s long-time home, central to at least this Bond’s story) and living a life of beach drinking, sailing, and fishing, which sounds pretty good to me. We’ve seen in a sequence that directly follows Spectre that he survived an assassination attempt at the tomb of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green in Casino Royale, you’ll recall) and that it seems it was Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), his love interest from Spectre, who sicced the villains on him. Bond, ever the gentleman, puts her on a train rather than killing her, which means when old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, superb) comes calling five years or so later for some help on a little job, he’s available to lend a hand. This does not please MI6, who send a 00 agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch, effortlessly cool), to warn him off. Her number? 007 — there are only so many digits to go around.
Step by step, we’re brought closer to the villain of the piece, terrorist Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek, effortlessly creepy — well, some effort, I guess, regarding the prosthetic scars). Safin, a prodigy of poisons, plans to infect the world with a nanobot virus that will allow him to target individuals for assassination. He’s a classical Bond villain; he’s got a scarred face (there’s a definite need for a piece on facial differences being used as signifiers of evil, but I’ve got other fish to fry), a world-domination plan, and even an island base. Like many figures in the Craig era, he’s also a product of generational dysfunction, a “sins-of-the-father” cat; his family was murdered by Madeleine’s father, who was a Spectre agent. He, in turn, killed Madeleine’s mother, perpetuating a cycle of revenge that is still rolling. In this iteration of Bond, everybody is dealing with the horrors committed by their parents, or at least their elders — even MI6 daddy M (Ralph Fiennes) is far from guiltless in this regard.
But the plot in these flicks only matters insofar as it allows the films to do things — chiefly, to string together stirring action sequences, visits to exotic locations, glamorous clothes and accessories, sex, violence, and all the other things inherent to Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. We get all that in No Time to Die — and I’ll tell you what, this is a film that really demonstrates why location work will always trump the digital backdrop — but the film also has other things on its mind, in particular that generational trauma.
So, when the plot inevitably brings Bond back into contact with Madeleine, she’s got a kid, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), a button-cute little girl who … well, she’s about five. And she’s got her father’s eyes.
What a smart choice.
We’ve seen Bond get married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), even though it didn’t last long thanks to a prior incarnation of Blofeld. And we’ve seen Bond in love before, notably in the Craig films — the death of Vesper Lynd has been a kind of primal wound and injury more debilitating than any of the physical battering Bond has taken in the line of duty. We’ve seen Bond reckon with his ancestry in Skyfall and his childhood in Spectre. Now he has to deal with something else, something larger and more frightening than anything he has faced before: the possibility of a future — the possibility of fatherhood.
This shit is important.
Way back in the day, Alan Moore wrote a very good introduction to a trade paperback edition of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, a four-issue miniseries outside of normal DC comics continuity that moved Batman forward in time, positing an aged crimefighter coming out of retirement to battle his villains one last time in a dystopian near-future Gotham City. While what Moore says about James Bond isn’t exactly germane to my point here, he does say something very important about endings.
Stories rarely get the luxury of ending these days. Actually, “luxury” is the wrong word; endings are a necessity, and we’ve forgotten that in a culture that privileges longform, endlessly franchisable, and extendable story forms, largely derived from comic books both in terms of content and in terms of structure. Endings are a Bad Thing because once something has ended, it’s harder to profit from it. Art and commerce have always had a very uneasy relationship in film, but it’s generally commerce that wins out, even when the artistic imperative is clear; anyone with half a brain can see that the obvious endpoint of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Avengers: Endgame (2019), but the MCU will limp along in a much-reduced form for a while now, with TV keeping the lights on while Disney execs grapple with the terrifying notion that the Marvel logo is no longer a license to print money and that some kind of narrative direction is necessary. And that direction? It always points to The End.
Moore put it this way: “The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarok, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo,” before conceding that comics are purposefully designed to forego that vital final chapter in the service of infinitely extendable serial storytelling.
The Dark Knight Returns gets to have its cake and eat it, telling one possible final Batman story outside of mainstream continuity (well, before Miller ballsed it up with his terrible later sequels). And No Time to Die gets to pull off a similar trick. We know that there have been Bond stories before, and we know that there will be Bond stories after, but this particular Bond arc, this particular continuity, is ending. Bond, the apotheosis of the aspirational bachelor, has a child — that’s one thing we never thought we’d see him do. There’s essentially only one other thing we’ve never seen him do, and it’s really the only thing left for him to do: Bond has to die.
For England, James. For Queen and country.
I cried. And I never expected that. Bond, stuck on Safin’s island base where the villain has been manufacturing his plague, knows the missiles are coming in. He’s saved the girl, and he’s saved his child — even pausing to pick up her stuffed rabbit that she dropped while evading Safin. He’s been beaten and wounded and generally put through the wringer (Craig’s legacy as the Bond that got fucked up the most is secure), but he’s been injected with the nanobots and is now poisonous to those he loves. Besides, he has to make sure the blast doors are open so that Safin’s poison factory is completely obliterated.
And so he does. No big speech to speak of. No big fanfare. He watches the missiles swoop in, and he almost looks relieved. What else is there for him to do?
It’s fucking heart-wrenching. Not just for us in the audience, but for the in-film audience as well — the MI6 crew, including M, Nomi, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (the brilliant Ben Whishaw), even Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear) are all listening in, and they know the score. When it becomes clear that there is no escape route left, no exit strategy, no last-minute rescue possible … well, it’s something we’ve never seen in a Bond movie before.
The game designer, author, and narrative theorist Robin D. Laws has written a lot about the notion of iconic characters, which Laws takes to mean characters who don’t change. Your average protagonist is changed by their experiences in a narrative, making choices and learning lessons — they leave the story a different person to who they were when they came in. Iconic characters, by and large, do not. Any changes are minor or cosmetic. Batman remains Batman, Sherlock Holmes remains Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond remains James Bond. Except here (or in The Dark Knight or … you get the picture), where Bond gets to be both the iconic hero of Fleming and producer Albert R. Broccoli, and a man who has undergone considerable growth and development since Casino Royale, and here gets his final — literally final — act of metamorphosis. With his death, Bond becomes legend, and he becomes fully human. In the annals of MI6, which seems to have legacy on its mind a great deal in this film (keep an eye out for the portraits hanging on the walls), he joins the honored dead, even if his memorial is a simple toast from M before the team gets back to work. As a man, he makes the world safe for his lover and his child, and when you get right down to it, a safe world has no need for a James Bond. Indeed, his presence in their lives would always draw danger — that “poisonous to anyone he touches” thing is an obvious but potent metaphor, really — and so there is only one possible ending. The final blind bowshot to mark the gravesite becomes a missile launched from HMS Dragon.
There is so much more.
I could talk about how Ana de Armas’ Paloma playfully skewers the “lethal lothario” aspect of Bond. I’d love to dig into Q as a character and how our visit to his apartment at one point tells us so much about him. There’s a nod to Escape From New York (1981) at the top of the final act that made me smile. There’s a concerted effort to completely negate the “Bond as codename” fan theory without overshadowing the actual narrative mechanics in play. There’s Jeffrey Wright as Felix and how quickly and convincingly he and Craig sketch out the deep friendship between Felix and Bond. There are all the baroque, OTT touches that remind us that we’re in the heightened world of 007, from the Spectre party in Cuba to Safin’s poison garden, a wonderfully arcane bit of story-dressing that puts the character on par with the best of Bond’s eccentric villains. The way the score by Hans Zimmer nods to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and other callbacks.
But that’s all detail, and we have all the time in the world to talk about the details.
No Time to Die is the ultimate Bond film in every sense of the word, a culmination of all that has gone before both in the Craig tenure and the entire history of the franchise. As an action movie, it’s unlikely to be bettered this year. As a send-off for Craig, well, he simply could not ask for better. As an evocation of Bond as a character and an icon? The film does things with Bond that have never been done before, and in doing so reminds us why the character is so popular, so important, so vital.
That’s a pretty neat trick. Going in, I had my doubts about Bond’s viability as a character in the modern world; we’ve been joking about his status as a Cold War relic since at least Goldeneye (1995), for crying out loud, so surely it was a matter of time before 007 really outlived his usefulness as a cultural tool. With this, all doubts have been removed. In killing Bond, even while we know it’s only a prelude to his coming reinvention, No Time to Die has proven that there’s still room for experimentation and innovation in this most venerable of franchises while honoring the character’s essential appeal. For England, James.
5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson