No Time to Die (Review)

As time pushes forward, the relevance of Bond is always questioned. These are films firmly rooted in the past, with a back catalogue full of dated moments but also old fashioned charm. The Craig era of Bond (as it now truly is an era) has been a process of answering that question, of trying to make the films converse with fears of irrelevance while also pushing their very own raison d’etre. Casino Royale and Skyfall are the notable releases here: the former inflected Bond with Jason Bourne and morphed the franchise into a contemporary thriller with great success; the latter took advantage of the 50th anniversary of the franchise by reflecting smartly on the past while still existing firmly in the present. And then there is Quantum of Solace — a turgid continuation of Casino Royale’s very much completed narrative — and Spectre — a bloated and unsuccessful attempt to once again weave these dissonant films into a connected narrative. Sadly, No Time to Die fits firmly with these two film and is far removed from the heights of Daniel Craig’s other outings.

Here, we open in jarring fashion: an establishing sequence retro-actively alters the plot of a key character and the proceeding film relies entirely on this clumsily implemented moment. To a great extent, No Time to Die feels like a sequel to a film they did not actually make. Yes, for some bizarre reason, it follows a lot of loose story threads from Spectre (threads that did not need even readdressing, never mind tying up). Yet all of this content could be easily excised from the film, reducing the exhaustive length and minimising both both contrivance and stupidity. The majority of the film, though, is predicated on this new detail. It is a classic example of retro-active continuity as a character is carried forward but reshaped to make this new idea make sense. The gulf here is large though, as so much of the later plot relies on a sense of history and established knowledge — the abrupt telling of this only hindering. Here is where the film’s bloat also gets in the way, when we make it out of the muddled second act that is too busy trying to crowbar all the Craig Bond films together in a way they were never meant to be, we become even more removed from what could have been a clear inciting incident. It is, fundamentally, a film made up of several films that are all vying for attention and firmly getting in each others’ way.

This aside, there is some promise at the start of this film. An early sequence involves the continuing relationship between Craig’s Bond and Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine (reprising her role from Spectre). The film is aware of a similarity to On Her Majesty’s Secret service, here, and even flirts with that film’s theme in its score, pleasingly but bluntly. What really doesn’t work is the on the nose reference in the dialogue to having ‘all the time in the world’. This makes the connection laboured but is also a key example of the unbelievably clunky script that underpins this film, probably its core issue. Lines feel leaden, jokes don’t work and any attempt at cleverness or self-awareness is at odds with the narrative directions it ultimately follows. Yet, despite the uncomfortably obvious age gap between Seydoux and Craig, and despite a lack of both chemistry and believability (it tries to sell to you Bond still being troubled by the death of Vesper from Casino Royale whilst also being smitten with Madeleine, to the extent he’s giving up everything), we do segue into one of the film’s few good sequences. We are in a stunning locale and it is used for a creative, and often quite weighty feeling, action sequence populated by imaginative touches and dynamic cinematography.

In general, the look of the film lags behind the last two features (especially Skyfall). The locations are inherently beautiful but they aren’t always captured in memorable or interesting ways. It all feels very functional, the camera often consistently moving: sweeping quickly to fit the film’s obsession with constant movement. At the heart of No Time to Die is a real contradiction, as the film is very boring but is also very fast paced. The issue is that the constant movement is linked with the film’s identity crisis, as it flits between different purposes and clumsily smashes together lumbering narratives. This propulsion gives the film enough time to die on screen but not enough time to breathe. It is immediately evident in the photography, where lingering moments of well framed beauty are rare, the sense of momentum overriding everything else. Occasional parts are striking or pretty but, really, they just serve as reminders that much of the movie is just functional filmmaking in nice looking places.

Early on is where this frustrating energy really starts to sting. The film sets up a premise more truly reflective of the world we live in: a world in which the intelligence agencies are forces for harm and in which secret operations are nothing to be celebrated. We have a promising new perspective with Bond on the outside now able to see the system for what it is. These early moments of the film are diluted by the continually rocky writing (themes are spoken at characters and every line is far too obvious) but the idea being pushed is interesting. From here, we get to by far the best scene of the film: a thrilling sequence in Cuba involving a new character (played by Ana de Armas) who steals the film completely (by being the most interesting, compelling and fun character) but is relegated only to this brief scene. This part works as it places Bond adjacent to the system, he is not completely outside of it here — as he is assisting the CIA — but he is working in opposition to MI6 and doing things for his own reasons. It is an interesting tension and the resulting sequence is a wonderful cat and mouse moment as two intelligence agencies go after the same target. We shift between them with dexterity and this dichotomy is not only conceptually interesting but actually very fun. The film lets loose, forgets the weight of lore and continuity and tries something different.

After this, the film is never like this again. It is overtly set up that the real problems in the film are caused by the institutions Bond has been working for or with; but, rather than following that to its obvious conclusion, we revert to traditional Bond for the rest of the film. In a two hour and forty minute film we have twenty minutes of genuine interest and novelty, of a valid direction, then it is just poorly handled re-tread. Watching the rest of the film is an exercise in frustration as it back peddles on everything interesting. We have a new 007, Lashana Lynch in the role, who is brilliant casting and the character should be great. Alas, the need to have her as cool and exciting cuts into any sense of societal and systemic critique, which would be fine if the film hadn’t pretended to be doing this. The arc of the film is: aren’t these all the real baddies, if you think about it, but at the same time, don’t you just love them? Aren’t they all really fun and, you know what, let’s join them and fix everything, complicity be damned! Lashana Lynch being a Black woman is also a pointed critique at the overt racism and sexism that has been evident in the franchise since Dr. No. Again, it is great casting and a good performance, but the film does nothing with it. Actually, it does worse than nothing.

Lynch’s 007 becomes another plot device through which to validate Bond rather than to critique him. It is a politically off-putting move that the film keeps on doing. The narrative brings up obsalesence and Bond belonging to the past but ultimately concludes, through dialogue and narrative, that the old ways are the best. Bond is not a pejoratively framed dinosaur, he is never allowed to be a sexist relic: he is a redeemed character that redeems all around him. All others exist to validate him and while jokes are told around him, the film never actually lets him be the butt of the joke. Bond comes off as pristine, given a light psychological exploration but always passing with flying colours. The film so overtly conjures up the past of the franchise, populating the film with these actually really well played (though not always well written) female characters, but does so as a way to prop up the patriarchy. As the film continues to keep going, with no respect for the audience’s time, it boils down to a story of the good weapons beating the bad weapons and the need for the Bonds of the world to get the gosh darn job done. Again, a storyline that is expected and wouldn’t have stuck out as an overt critique (though maybe still a tired cliché) if the film didn’t spend so long pretending to be what it isn’t.

This leaves us with the film’s other major issue: Rami Malek’s villain and the continuing legacy of ableism and wider prejudice in this franchise. Before dealing with Malek’s awful turn (rivalling Eddie Redmayne from Jupiter Ascending in the most acting — and most overacting —category, but in a film that is an even worse fit for this style of performance), the tiresome Cold War inflected prejudices are worth noting. One of the key figure’s in the villain’s ultimately nonsensical plot is a defected Soviet scientist. The Russian accent is used as a denotation of evil, and this overall ideology reaches its nadir in the cumbersome finale set in a uncharted territories Cold War bunker decked out with Hammer and Sickles as well as specifically Japanese theming. The other, or the implicitly foreign, is always the real evil here: thinly sketched boogeymen relying on regressive stereotypes. We then have Malek. He’s terrible and the way the character is fit into the story is similarly bad. He never makes sense; he never clearly belongs in whatever narrative it is ultimately trying to do and there is no substance to him. There’s not even anything interesting to him. He is the key part of the film’s stupidest plot point and feels like a parody of a Bond villain without the jokes. He is also part of the film’s abhorrent trend of treating facial difference (or atypicality) as a sign of evil. This echoes throughout multiple characters and is easily evaded. It is here because it has become a Bond expectation and is the true indicator of the real misfire that is this film; if you want evidence that nobody here is really thinking about how to move Bond on, or how to make it relevant, look no further than these disgustingly framed representations.

But it is par for the course in No Time to Die. It is a leaden affair, a succession of bloated sequences that only exist to justify the next. Craig is okay as Bond but ultimately seems bored, a far cry from his wonderful performances in Knives Out and Logan Lucky. Really, it is a reminder that we never got the Craig we should have had, that he’s had not time to really act and his career is perhaps starting to die. Because, this film is a dinosaur. It is so heavy, so laborious and completely stuck in the past. Yet, it wears a poorly implemented veil of progressivism, slapping it on to court an audience before ultimately betraying them (or, at the least, misleading them). It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes situation and once you’ve realised everything seemingly interesting is an empty façade, all you are left with is a naked Bond film. But an old feeling one, with no substance and only surface level flair. Its tiresome repetition of expectations makes it feel beyond perfunctory, a sterile instalment in a once vibrant franchise.

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