Junk Bond — No Time to Die
Every era of the James Bond franchise has its own unique qualities and characteristics, both for good and ill. The Sean Connery years framed the Cold War against the backdrop of a suave and sophisticated super spy. The Roger Moore era leaned heavily into camp value. Pierce Brosnan’s run relied heavily on grandiose spectacle. George Lazenby and Tim Dalton existed.
But Daniel Craig’s time in the tuxedo will be most remembered for its commitment to serialization. Sure, previous eras referenced past films within a loose continuity, and we even had recurring villains (Ernst Stavro Blofeld chief among them), but the Craig years were all about weaving one overarching story for this particular version of 007. Some of those elements worked really well, like Bond gradually becoming “too old for this shit” as his time went on, and even transitioning between Dame Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes as “M,” giving Bond’s support structure more depth and development than any other iteration.
It also made for some of the worst decisions in franchise history, like using this era as a hard reboot for the character, including retconning the origins of Blofeld and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). It was a good idea to give Bond a conscience, but it was horribly misapplied, in a) having him mourn for four movies for Vesper Lind, who died after knowing him for a matter of days, and b) making half the scenes in between action pieces basically boil down to Bond brooding. I love the thought of there being consequences to Bond’s life, but the end result was more often than not monumentally boring. For the entirety of the Craig era, there were only two good movies, Casino Royale as a stand-alone before we knew Eon was going to attempt a true timeline, and Skyfall because it was the least deferential of the sequels, mostly because that would have meant acknowledging Quantum of Solace.
This leads us to the denouement of this version of Bond, No Time to Die, a movie that I fully admit I wasn’t looking forward to seeing, even including it in last October’s edition of TFINYW. But as I predicted back then, it is highly likely the film will get nominated by the Academy next week, almost certainly for Original Song — because they think pandering to pop music trends will raise ratings, even though they don’t and we ended up giving an Oscar to Sam Smith for one of the worst Bond themes of all time — and it’s shortlisted in several other tech categories, which means I had to bite my lip and give it a go. I will say that it’s not completely terrible, and it’s certainly better than Quantum and Spectre, though that’s not saying much. But even with those qualifiers, this is a boring, formulaic Bond film that should have aspired to so much more given that this is a finale for this version of the lead character and the longform story that the production was apparently so invested in for over a decade.
The main problem here is that the film is framed — at least from a plot structure perspective — as the swan song for Craig that we already knew it was. The vast majority of character moments are just thinly-veiled farewells to Daniel Craig himself, setting up the only logical narrative ending possible, only to undo that at the end of the credits by assuring the audience that the character will return, thus rendering the preceding 2.5 hours utterly moot. Whether it’s the opening trip to Italy just so Bond can go to Vesper’s grave and get attacked by Spectre, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux returning from the last movie) having a baby in secret and insisting that it’s not Bond’s to prevent attachment, emotional goodbyes from the likes of M and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), or the one-sided professional rivalry with the “new” 007 played by Lashana Lynch (ironically all the dick measuring comes from the one without a dick), it’s just manufactured pathos to try to emotionally prepare us for an ending we all know is coming. Again, one that is nullified by the promise that the character will be back.
The issue is compounded within the action sequences, where Bond survives all manner of circumstances that would kill any of us instantly. Now, this is nothing new for the character, and sometimes part of the fun of other eras is seeing how nigh-immortal the man can be. But that’s not this version of Bond. This version has spent years slowly becoming more grizzled, cynical, tired, and worn down by the dangers he’s faced and the lives he’s both taken and lost. So when we see him go up to Vesper’s grave, only for it to explode and knock him back several feet, having him be slightly disoriented with a bit of tinnitus before immediately kicking ass and beginning a two-part chase sequence takes you right out of the movie, taking a moment that might seem silly to other Bonds and making it downright insulting to our intelligence. The man takes a full-force explosion at point blank range and gets pummeled with stone to boot. He is dead, movie over. At minimum, he is severely injured and cannot possibly fight. But nah, he’s totally fine and will still beat the shit out of everyone else. How are we supposed to feel anything in his final actions when THAT is the setup?
And the thing is, when you botch these major moments, all it does is leave the audience sitting there, bored out of their skulls, and so easily susceptible to pointing out all the other little flaws that add up. For example, Madeleine and Bond’s daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet) only speaks French, because that is what her French mother speaks to her. However, whenever she’s in a scene with Bond or the film’s villain (we’ll get to him shortly), they speak to her in English, and she apparently understands perfectly with no explanation, especially since she’s apparently raised in Norway. Speaking of Norway, a mid-film chase scene sees Bond dispatch two SUVs that are pursuing, and literally the moment they’re gone, several more pop out from a nearby forest, along with motorcycles and a helicopter. Couple this with a climactic climb through the bad guy’s hideout where minions instantly appear whenever Bond takes one out, even though they’re not within earshot, and you turn this into the most video game-looking Bond movie ever, and that’s saying something, considering GoldenEye was turned into one of the most successful video games of its time.
Even the grand evil scheme falls victim to this. In an unintentionally prescient turn, the plot is to use DNA-coded nanobots to have people transmit an instantly deadly illness and kill millions, sort of like a combination of the Borg from Star Trek and conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus, even though this was written and filmed before COVID was a thing. The villain thinks he’s won when Bond himself is infected with these nanobots, because they’re not coded to kill him, but everyone he cares about. That seems devastating until you remember that Q (Ben Whishaw) gave him a wristwatch with an electromagnetic pulse, a device he uses against one of the major henchmen (played by Dali Benssalah) who has a mechanical eye. Well, why not use that on yourself to kill the nanobots? An EMP deactivates and/or destroys ALL electronics within its radius, including microscopic ones. How do none of the highly-trained and intelligent MI6 agents not realize this DUH solution?! Again, this kind of lazy attention to detail robs us of any emotional payoff because director Cary Fukunaga (the genius behind the first season of True Detective and Beasts of No Nation) apparently cared more about giving us the appearance of pathos without any substance to justify it.
Now, with all that said, this movie isn’t beyond saving. I’ll even admit that I was completely wrong about one of my pre-complaints in the “Not Yet Watchable” column. Rami Malek as Lyutsifer (come on, you couldn’t just call him “Lucifer?”) Safin did make for a convincing villain. His motivation is simple — revenge against Spectre for the murder of his family (then Bond, Madeleine, and the world for interfering). Despite the silliness of his makeup job (I think it’s meant to represent chemical burns, but it just looks like bad acne), he does make for an intimidating presence because of his demeanor and line readings. Even his connection to Madeleine works (her father carried out the hit on his family), because we only met her last movie, and didn’t really have time to explore her background beyond the “Bond Girl” minimum, so there were plenty of directions to go with her, and creating a phantom from her past isn’t all that far fetched. It does beggar belief that Malek, who is only four years older than Seydoux, could play an adult antagonist in the flashback introduction while Madeleine was only a child, and I really wish they had gotten more mileage out of his mask, but those are minor imperfections in an otherwise surprisingly compelling turn. It just goes to show how great of an actor Malek is that he could make something out of this when all indicators from the trailer showed that it couldn’t be done.
And there are fits and spurts of quality to be had throughout the rest of the film. Some of the effects are well-executed, even though the overall action is bullshit. Seydoux gives a fine performance in a sadly limited role. Christoph Waltz returns briefly as Blofeld, doing his best to redeem his wholly ill-advised use in the last movie. Ana de Armas is a lot of fun for her one scene. In a better, stand-alone film, she would make for a super fun Bond Girl.
Even Billie Eilish’s eponymous theme song isn’t objectively awful. It might even be the best song she’s ever put out (again, not saying much), because at least 50% of the lyrics aren’t unintelligible mumbling. It is not a great song, or even a good one, but it is functional, even though several of the melody lines very closely mirror Smith’s theme for Spectre. It certainly shouldn’t be nominated for an Oscar, even though it almost definitely will be. If you need more proof, just look at the shortlisted documentary about her, which I have now seen because of my annual goal of running all 15 films on that list. There is a late sequence where she’s commissioned to create the song, along with brother Finneas. In that portion of the film, she makes it clear that she’s basically just trying to clone Smith’s song, and during recording, she frequently says that she hates it, mostly because she thinks “belting” during singing is dumb and everyone who does it is stupid. It should be noted that to her, “belting” is just singing slightly above a whisper and at a recognizable register. Most of us would just call that, well, singing. That alone should tell you that it doesn’t belong and should not be considered. She only got the gig to pander to current pop, it isn’t that good, and even the performer acknowledges how fake the process is and how much she hates the product. So why are we even entertaining this nonsense? I’ll get into how this fits into the larger issue of her fame when I review the documentary once the shortlist is complete, but this serves as a nice little microcosm of why we as a society shouldn’t be deifying her and why this particular song is not worthy of an Oscar.
So, okay, fine, you wanted to bid a fond farewell to Daniel Craig, even though he basically sleepwalks through the entire film. I get it. His interpretation of the character was unique, and the multi-film arc of him was an interesting attempt at serialization. But way too much focus was spent on saying goodbye rather than giving us a reason to care that he was leaving the role in the first place. The entire way through, Craig looks as worn out as all the new tropes the series misused throughout his tenure. He clearly moved on from the role years ago, and this was just making it official. It’s not the worst film of his era, but it’s also far from the best. I’m glad he’s finally free.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What is your favorite film of the Craig era? What the hell was up with that Russian guy’s accent? Let me know!