No Time To Die

For the record, I’m a casual Bond fan.  How casual?  Of all the actors who’ve played Bond, the only one where I’ve seen all of their performances in the role is Daniel Craig.  I’m nearly there with Pierce Brosnan, but I have yet to see Goldeneye.  I’ve only seen a couple of Roger Moore’s movies.  The only Sean Connery movie I’ve seen is Never Say Never Again.  I’ve never gotten round to watching From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or The Spy Who Loved Me.  Maybe I’ll get caught up after I’ve retired.  The 007 movie canon is definitely on my bucket list.

Since No Time To Die is Craig’s finale, I want to say that I really enjoyed his turn as Bond.  Craig’s entries have eschewed the desire to become live-action cartoons, an impression I’ve had with the movies that preceded him.  The raw physicality he brought to the part, coupled with an almost pathological desire to confront mayhem head-on, made even his lesser entries watchable (I’m looking at you, Quantum of Solace and Spectre).

So how does No Time To Die stack up with the previous four Craig entries?  I’d put it behind Casino Royale and Skyfall, but above Quantum of Solace and Spectre.  The pluses outweigh the minuses, but those minuses are difficult to ignore.  There is a great Bond movie in No Time To Die, but it treads water in the last act, and overstays its welcome by at least thirty minutes.  The movie is watchable and enjoyable, though, and as a grade I’d give it a solid B.  Recommended.

No Time To Die begins with a flashback to Madeleine Swan’s childhood.  (In case you’ve forgotten, she was Bond’s love interest in Spectre.)  A masked individual with a peculiar way of speaking kills Madeleine’s mother as revenge for her father killing his entire family.  The assailant first pursues Madeleine with the intent to kill her as well, but in a moment of sympathy decides to save her.  Flash-forward to a time shortly after the events in Spectre, where we find Bond and the adult version of Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) vacationing in Italy.  Bond is still exploring that monogamy concept, and the two appear to be getting on famously.  The purpose of their visit is so that Bond can pay his respects at the tomb of Vesper Lynd, and hopefully leave her and his guilt over her death behind.  (Her suicide remains the most shocking event in Bond history for me.)

Moments after he arrives at the tomb, Bond finds a calling card from Spectre.  (Yes, it’s an actual, physical card.)  Lynd’s tomb explodes, and after recovering from the shock, Bond dodges bad guys on his way back to the hotel.  Bond believes Madeleine double-crossed him,  since she was the only person who knew where he was going.  The entire opening salvo is stunning, in terms of how well the action is photographed and choreographed.  The chase from the hotel to the train station is typically exceptional.  There’s a moment where Bond pauses and considers whether he really wants to escape the bad guys one more time after Madeleine’s perceived betrayal, and it’s a scene unlike any I’ve seen before in a Bond movie.  Eventually, Bond decides to do what he does best and gets the two of them to the station safely.  He puts Madeleine on the train and vows to never see her again, but you just know that won’t last.

The song that plays over the opening credits is by Billie Eilish, and I liked it.  Her whisper-infused-with-drama approach to singing is a good fit for the Bondian atmosphere.  The credit sequence does not feature any nude women dancing in silhouette, though.  I guess time’s up for that little bit of casual misogyny!

In the present day, Bond is leading a solitary life somewhere in the Caribbean.  He emerges from the water dressed only in shorts, a callback to his introduction in Casino Royale.  Old friend Felix Leiter (an always welcome Jeffrey Wright) pays him a visit with human Cheshire cat and CIA operative Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen).  They need someone to help secure a Russian scientist named Valdo Obruchev, who helped develop a bio-weapon (code-named Project Heracles) for the British that unfortunately has fallen into the wrong hands.  Bond declines, but the fact that the CIA and the Secret Service aren’t working together convinces him to get back into the game.  He meets up with his old boss M (a weary Ralph Fiennes) and asks to be reinstated.  To which M understandably replies, you were gone for five years, we have a new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch).  She warns him that if he gets in her way, she’ll put a bullet in the knee that still works.  Ouch!  Undeterred, Bond accepts Felix’s offer and heads for Cuba.

Once in Cuba, Bond is paired with Paloma (Ana de Armas), who you’ve no doubt seen in the Bond commercials as the comely young actress kicking butt in a very low cut dress.  The commercials don’t do Paloma justice, though, as she’s quirky and charming.  Paloma adds some spark (a.k.a. youthful energy) to the proceedings, and it’s too bad she doesn’t return later on.  Hopefully the Bond producers have plans for her in the next movie.

Bond and Palmoa infiltrate a party filled with members of Spectre, and after casing the crowd, both are surprised when Blofeld’s voice is heard, even though he’s in prison.  Blofeld planned to kill Bond with Heracles, but instead Obruchev programmed it to kill the Spectre party-goers, leaving Bond unharmed.  Bond and Paloma are able to grab Obruchev and take him to Felix and Logan, but another double-cross results in Obruchev escaping and Felix not surviving.  The Craig movies have had several emotionally honest scenes, and Bond saying goodbye to his old friend is another one that choked me up a bit.

Bond heads back to London and demands to see Blofeld for answers.  Blofeld will only see Madeleine, so the idea is for Bond to glom onto her scheduled visit.  After five years, the meetup is decidedly awkward.  Blofeld emerges from the depths of the prison in a way that would make Hannibal Lecter jealous.  Bond notices that Madeleine has become nervous at the prospect of seeing her regular patient, and helps her to leave.  After a frustrating tete-a-tete with Blofeld, Bond takes matters into his own hands.  Bond accidentally kills Blofeld, leading M to explain how Heracles works.  (The nanobots in Madeleine’s body were transferred to Bond when he touched her hands.)

The second half of the film concerns itself with Bond learning Madeleine’s connection to Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), the man who killed Madeleine’s mother, orchestrated the theft of Project Heracles and Orbruchev, and finally found a way to kill Blofeld from Britain’s version of a SuperMax prison.  The crown should award Safin a medal for getting rid of Specter and Blofeld, and I mean that sincerely.  Like any devious mastermind, Safin has something even more nefarious on his to do list.  When Bond discovers what Safin’s evil plan is, I thought, what?  I honestly didn’t get it at first.  Compared to the fiendish plots of Bond villains of yore, Safin’s seems blase.  I guess I can understand why he wants to do what he wants to do, but, really?  Where is the imagination?  Sure, his plan is crazy, but it’s so fatalistic.  A Doctor Strangelove-level of insanity was needed to sell this, but it’s just not there.  I honestly felt like the script just gave up at this point and got on with what they had, for better and worse.

Safin abducts Madeleine and her four or five year-old daughter and takes him to his island base, which resides smack-dab between the border of Russian and Japanese seas.  In the last act, Bond naturally rescues his true love, her daughter and saves the world.  The same cannot be said for Bond himself, though.  The entire “let’s storm the castle, kill all the bad guys and stop the imminent destruction of the world as we know it” sequence goes on far too long, and results in Bond becoming the video game incarnation of “God Mode” that made Spectre ridiculous.  Cary Fukunaga’s direction and some good acting by the parties involved save the ending from being a complete failure, though.

As I mentioned at the outset, Bond has more pluses than minuses.  Bond movies follow a well-established template, and I can report that NTTD has:

  • A theme song that doesn’t make you giggle
  • John Barry’s Bond theme
  • Gorgeous ladies
  • Exciting car/motorcycle chases
  • Visually stunning exotic locales
  • Fun workplace banter (hello again, Moneypenny, Q and M!)
  • A villain with designs on controlling the world
  • Copious gunplay
  • Copious drinking
  • Fisticuffs
  • Requisite Bond groaners (thankfully only two)

Ultimately, what takes NTTD down a peg is the lack of a villain that is remotely interesting.  Malek does what he can, employing an odd speech pattern behind some zombie makeup, but the end result is more creepy and weird than dangerous.  Even after he monologues his motivations to Bond, the “why” of it still didn’t ring true to me.  Safin’s plan should evoke some level of concern on our part, but it just induces yawns.

I give the writers some credit for coming up with a new kind of doomsday weapon.  M justifies developing Heracles off the books as a way to take out undesirables who exist “in the ether”.  It was designed so that the nanobots would deploy a toxin only to individuals with a specified DNA.  I found it slightly incredible that M would think that this technology could be restricted so that it would only work on certain individuals.  It’s like Malware for the human body: it may have been designed to only target certain people, but changing the code to target larger groups of people is not that difficult.

Along those lines, I didn’t accept the movie’s constant insistence that once you become infected with Project Heracles, it’s “irreversible”.  Evidently the people behind this part of the plot have never heard of dialysis, or any other treatment that involves the purification or filtration of blood.  Yes, I’m trying to apply real-world logic to a Bond film, and undoubtedly setting myself up for failure.  For this, I blame the Craig Bond films, which made it possible to see Bond in a more realistic light than before.

The last act really needed to be something far more interesting than the “one man takes on an army” approach.  The movie clearly doesn’t want to let go of Craig, and has him shoot and punch a battalion of bad guys for old time’s sake.  Then, when Bond’s moment of reckoning finally arrives, there are almost as many tearful farewells as in The Return of the King.  Sure, saying goodbye to Craig as Bond is sad, but in dragging things out, the impact of what happens is nearly lost.  The “end” of Bond in NTTD is memorable for its finality, not because it came up with a novel way for him to save the day.

Daniel Craig does an exceptional job in NTTD, elevating the pedestrian elements of the story so that the entire movie remains interesting, even when the script hangs him out to dry.  Where previous Bond actors played the part with varying degrees of insouciance, Craig’s performances were marked by seriousness, intensity and bluntness.  Sure, there were the occasional quips and one-night stands, but this Bond seemed to be always “on”, always moving forward like a shark.  Whomever orders the next vodka martini will have big shoes to fill.

To her credit, Lashana Lynch leaves a solid impression as Nomi, a character the movie sets up as playing a larger part in the proceedings but is gradually rendered superfluous by the end of things.  My guess is that her character will have more to do in the next Bond, but in NTTD, she’s operating in the shadow of her predecessor, and is not happy about it.  Her performance walks a fine line, managing to be relatable while at the same time making no bones about her dislike for Bond.  Unlike everyone around her, she has no ingrained reverence for Bond, and doesn’t feel he deserves her respect without earning it first.  

I appreciated that the screenplay let Nomi react to Bond’s reemergence in a way that most anyone would relate to.  Anyone in her position would absolutely be upset when their predecessor, an old guy who has, for all intents and purposes, been retired for the last five years, comes back and demands to be reinstated when he feels he’s needed.  Bullocks!  I liked the friction between Nomi and Bond, and I wished the movie had them working together as an English version of Riggs and Murtaugh, instead of being at cross-purposes for the first half of the movie.

Seydoux has some nice moments in NTTD, bringing much-needed warmth to the movie vis-a-vis her relationship with Bond.  The scene where Bond and Madeleine reconnect at her childhood home had something that Bond movies never attempt: simmering, underlying sexual tension.  The movie presents Seydoux as classic beauty, and dresses her in white to underline that fact.

Unfortunately, when the movie separates Bond and Madeleine for a (long) stretch, it loses something.  The movie clearly couldn’t make up its mind with what to do with her character, though.  She goes from being Bond’s plus-one to a plot device.  The movie really should have centered on Swann’s character, how her troubled past has come back to haunt her, and so on.  But that approach would deviate too far from the Bond template.  Instead, Bond remains at center stage and the movie shuffles Sawnn to second-banana status.  I couldn’t help wondering if the original idea for NTTD was for Bond and Swann to work together to deal with her past, but that was scrapped for a more Bond-centric approach.

Fukunaga’s direction is solid throughout.  The action sequences are suitably crisp, but shot with a cinematic eye that lets us take in what’s happening without being overwhelmed.  Fukunaga shines in the more dramatic moments, where scenes of just two people talking have a level of drama and subtlety rarely seen in Bond films.  He frames his Bond ladies in a way that acknowledges and appreciates their physical beauty without descending to the level of ogling.  Fukunaga notably gives De Armas and Seydoux several close-ups, underlining how both are incredibly talented actors, and not just eye candy.

All in all, NTTD is a good but not great Bond chapter.  It’s an improvement on Spectre in many ways, but doesn’t reach greatness.  NTTD is an enjoyable farewell party that I’ll remember fondly, even though it carries on a bit too long.  (As if I could ever tell Bond when it’s time to leave!)

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