No Time To Die
Written by Tathagata Banerjee
The name’s Bond. James Bond.
For a generation, Daniel Craig has been synonymous with that name, arguably the greatest Bond of all time. The terrific actor’s 15-year long run as Ian Fleming’s iconic spy comes to an end with director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s ‘No Time To Die’. It’s a complicated task to bid farewell properly to such a prolific character, and the film stumbles at times in the attempt. The end result is midway through. It fails to reach the heights of a ‘Casino Royale’ or the masterpiece that was ‘Skyfall’; neither does it fall in the same frustrating category of ‘The Quantum Of Solace’ or the fumbling ‘Spectre’. The last saga succeeds in being a moving narrative of James as a person – a closer look at Bond’s psyche like never before. Craig is extraordinary as he goes out in style, guns blazing and eyes misty simultaneously. The pacing of the narrative, the story itself and an unfortunately non-fleshed out villain that even the great Rami Malek can’t save weakens the film.
‘No Time To Die’ picks up soon after the ending of ‘Spectre’, where Bond retired from the MI6 following the arrest of his arch-nemesis and adoptive brother Blofeld and settled down with the love of his life, Madeleine Swann. The short-lived peace that the two find is soon uprooted by the shadowy agency Spectre launching attacks and Bond being led to believe that Swann betrayed him to the criminal organisation. As the two protagonists part their ways, the story jumps five years in time and the audience follow the characters picking up the pieces in the wake of the incident.
As the trailers hinted, the large portion of the narrative deals with Swann’s past – and the connection of the character with the antagonist, Safin. The connection is explored from the opening scene, shot gorgeously to present a snow covered Gothic nightmarish sequence. The cinematography is fantastic through and through, as Linus Sandgren’s camera shows equal excellence in a tightly shot action scene or a slow pace slice of life moment as Swann and Bond walk through picturesque city roads. A lot of comparisons had been made between Craig-era Bond and Nolan-era Batman films, as both took two pop-culture icons out of campy films and put them in gritty narratives. The comparison comes to mind once again as the great Hans Zimmer, who scored the Dark Knight Trilogy, composes the chilling and beautiful music for ‘No Time To Die’. Speaking of music- Billie Eilish’s haunting titular song, accompanied by extraordinary visuals, might be one of the finest openings any James Bond film has ever provided.
Where the film succeeds, is getting the right tone for Craig’s last hurrah. The sombre atmosphere is claustrophobic in a positive way, keeping the audience on their toes and at the edge of their seats. There is a sense of an ending that looms large over the film. ‘No Time To Die’ is an action movie at the end of the day, but its also a very well realised tragedy that stops the punches to let you feel the emotional gutpunch. Daniel Craig stands tall as the linchpin of the narrative – personifying Bond not only with slick suave demeanor, but also with the sense of a man who’s too tired to continue the battles; the battles which are the only things that he had known all his life. At one point of the film, he introduces himself to a stranger as ‘James’, sharply deviating from using his legendary catchphrase. It’s a subtle but clever look at Bond trying, and wanting even more so, to be more than the assassin he was trained to be. Craig’s Bond has been incredibly humane through his run, a scarred and incredibly grounded figure in these larger than life stories, and the actor embodies Bond one last time with all the charisma and all the heart. The Craig era films have changed how Bond is perceived, forever. The stoic emotion-less flamboyant figure that he was during the Pierce Brosnan era is overshadowed by the Bond we have known for the last decade and a half. Him confessing his love for Madeleine while being visibly vulnerable, or accepting that Felix – a returning and criminally underused Jeffrey Wright who still manages to pull on your heartstrings – had been a brother to him remains the highlight of not only this film, but also Bond pantheon as a whole. Like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘No Time To Die’ is far more interested to tell the story of the man behind the mask, only this time it’s metaphorical.
One of the most powerful performances of the film comes from Léa Seydoux, playing Swann for the second time here, following up her incredible turn in an otherwise weak ‘Spectre’. The plot revolves around her character, and Swann goes through a number of ups and downs which showcase Seydoux’s tremendous acting range. From gunning down the secondary antagonists, to conversing with her clients as a psychologist, or telling James that he needs to let go of the past haunted by Vesper’s death back in ‘Casino Royale’, the actress is at the top of her game. It’s unfortunate, especially then, that a number of times the film turns her character into the stereotypical damsel in distress who needs to be rescued. The Bond films had always been highly problematic in portraying the woman characters, dripping in toxic masculinity and overt misogyny. Swann’s character was a breakthrough in that cycle, going toe-to-toe with 007 all the while not being swept off her feet by the charming super spy. She was taking down people left and right. A number of times in ‘No Time To Die’, Swann is shown helpless and characters both male and female save her. There’s a sequence where Madeleine saves Bond’s life, and a number of action sequences where she towers over the antagonists – but the flawed presentation of her character remains a major drawback in the otherwise well realised script.
It’s interesting to see the supporting cast light up the screen, despite essentially becoming glorifying cameo appearances. The film is almost 3 hours long, and feels a slowburn spy thriller before suddenly becoming a packed action orientated confrontational outing in the third act. Tremendous performances by Seydoux and especially Creg keeps one invested till the last frame, but one has to wonder why a number of terrific actors like Wright, Ana de Armas or Christopher Waltz have been sidelined in a very long film’s screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga and the mega talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the woman behind the masterpiece ‘Fleabag’ and Queer thriller ‘Killing Eve’. Armas and Craig had a tremendous chemistry in Rian Johnson’s lovely Christie-adjacent whodunit, ‘Knives Out’, where the actors shared the screentime for a long period. Armas drops by for a while in ‘No Time To Die’ and immediately makes everything better. Whether in an elaborate action setpiece, or just a conversation – Craig and Armas brighten up the screen in the brief time they get to share here. There has been much discussions about spin-offs creating a Bond Cinematic Universe, and her character seems so much full of potential – and the film seems to insinuate a future for her, especially – that one has to wonder if we would indeed be meeting the character again in the coming days. The brilliant Waltz reprises his role as Blofeld, the mastermind of the titular organisation from ‘Spectre’. It’s a brief moment, and the handling of the character’s arc feels disappointing – but Waltz is bone-chilling, at times reminding his oscar-winning turn as Standartenführer Hans Landa.
The key players who get to play a more substantial parts add interesting shades to the story. Lashana Lynch is an absolute riot, playing Nomi – a new double-O agent for the MI6 – who initially finds herself at crossroads with Bond. From a smooth spy to a cheerful wisecrack – Lynch is a joy to watch. Ralph Fiennes’ M, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, or Ben Whishaw’s Q are all terrific, but seems sidelined as characters and underused as actors.
The Bond films had struggled with a good antagonist forever. So much so that the phrase ‘like a James Bond villain’ has become a common figure of speech to describe an over-the-top, generic mustache twirling villain. In ‘Casino Royale’ and to some extent in ‘Spectre’, and especially in ‘Skyfall’, Bond went up against complex characters. ‘No Time To Die’ frustrates in that front. The story of the film is dependent a lot on Safin, the main villain of this Bond’s last onscreen adventure. Safin falls short in comparison to good villains, motivated by generic themes of revenge and God-complex. Malek is a powerful actor – taking the world by storm during his celebrated performance in ‘Mr. Robot’ – but there’s not much for him to do with a character who would fit more in the Brosnan or Roger Moore era than Craig’s. Despite that, Malek is so deeply interesting an actor that even with that limited script he infuses Safin with brief interesting shades of depth and complexity. It doesn’t redeem the character completely, but Malek’s chilling sociopathic portrayal makes Safin a figure who makes you sit up straight in your seat everytime he appears onscreen.
At the end, ‘No Time To Die’ is a messy but loving farewell to this version of Bond. Being the twenty-fifth film of the franchise, it works on another level as a nice bookend to the Spy-Saga. Craig has been phenomenal in his run, and the scenes between him and Seydoux are the heart of this tale here – a subtle but deep study of the psychosis of scarred characters with a beating heart. ‘No Time To Die’ often – and this is a compliment – does not feel like a Bond film. Here’s to hoping that the eventual re-imagining of the character keeps on evolving. There are a number of Easter Eggs in this film – referencing Bond’s ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ to the first adventure of the spy on silver screen, ‘Dr. No’ – and one would like to believe that the future of the Bond franchise builds on the goodwill from the Craig-era and learns from its mistakes. The 007 franchise had been deeply racist and sexist – the film ‘Octopussy’ remains a prominent example of both of those – and that needs to change. With Lynch, there seems to be a step on the right track, but Swann’s portrayal seemingly returns to the familiar territory that needs to be left behind. Calls for the next Bond to be a woman or a Person of Colour had been loud and clear, and one can hope the studio makes the right decisions.
‘No Time To Die’ closes out the chapter with an incredibly moving conclusion, an absolute cathartic moment that will be discussed for a long time. It’s a provocative and bold move that dares to go where no previous Bond films had ventured towards. There are so many novel aspects in the film that it undoubtedly takes a special and important place in the Bond canon as a whole. Farewell, Daniel Craig. It’s been an honour. It’s been a joy. You’ll always be Bond. James Bond.
Photograph: Courtesy Universal Pictures HK