Cinema Dispatch: No Time to Die

No Time to Die and all the images you see in this review are owned by United Artists Releasing

Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Even without the year-long delay caused by a global Pandemic, there was a pretty long wait between this film and the last one which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence as Spectre turned out to be rather disappointing, and this coupled with Craig’s public comments about continuing to play the part made it hard to assume anything other than a troubled production as a studio scrambled to find out where they went wrong after Skyfall was such an overwhelming success.  That, and the Bond franchise is not exactly known for quality swansongs for their stars.  I mean I liked Diamonds Are Forever quite a bit, but that’s still a ludicrous movie to end the Connery era, and A View to A Kill is only saved from being the worst of the Moore era by Octopussy being such a disaster right before it.  Heck, even Pierce Bronson’s final film is so off the wall that some speculate it’s all just a dream sequence!  So yeah, with a disappointment preceding it, a wonky track record for the franchise, and a five-year production cycle when the Craig films usually only needed three, there were a lot of auspicious signs even without COVID coming to upend the entire film industry!  Still, you can never count James Bond out as every failure inevitably leads to another success down the road, and the Craig era has been a definite standout in the franchise’s fifty-year history.  Does Craig’s final film buck the conventions and become a standout in an already impressive run, or will we need to wait for another Bond to bring this series back to life?  Let’s find out!!

Following the events of Spectre, James Bond and Madeline Swann (Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux) are enjoying their hard-fought victory over Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Chrstoph Waltz), but as with any Spy story, paranoia starts to creep in and an attack from Spectre leads James to believe that once again he has been betrayed by the woman he loves.  With little ceremony and huge amounts of salt, James cuts Madeline out of his life and spends the next five years bumming around on a beach until an MI6 scientist (David Dencik) is kidnapped with a secret weapon that MI6 VERY much doesn’t want to get out into the world, but even more so wants to keep it under wraps.  M, Moneypenny, Q, and the new 00 Agent Nomi (Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, and Lashana Lynch) are doing what they can but Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) of the CIA is well aware of what’s going on and convinces Bond to come back for one more mission and perhaps show the new recruits Logan and Paloma (Billy Magnussen and Ana de Armas) a thing or two about this line of work.  All is not as straightforward as it seems however as the kidnapped scientist is just the smallest tip of the ice burg for a mysterious plot devised by an even more mysterious man (Rami Malek) that is in some way connected to Madeline.  Can James Bond return to the life he left behind for one last mission, or has the years of hard drinking and heartbreak taken their toll?  Was Madeline a deep agent the whole time for whomever this mysterious man is and Bond was right to mistrust her?  Never mind the NEW bad guy; what’s Blofeld up to these days?  Has he gotten that eye looked at?

“Well, James… have the lambs stopped screaming?” “Have you gotten tired of telling that joke?”

Well shoot, it looks like I had nothing to worry about!  I’ll definitely have to see it again, but even if it’s still not the best of the Craig era, it’s probably the most interesting and the most willing to take chances with the character and with the formula that has worked for Bond for over five decades.  It wants to say something about James Bond that few films if any in the franchise really wanted to touch upon; the humanity beneath the untouchable visage that’s been built over each successive film in the series.  Perhaps it falls a bit short of the better films in the cycle (Casino Royale and arguably Skyfall) as its flaws are a lot more prominent in here than they are in the others but I applaud its ambition and it feels like the perfect capstone to everything that the Craig films tried to do differently.  A Bond that, for all its ups and downs, did manage to shake up the franchise in positive ways and made him relevant again at a time where he could have easily been dismissed as a relic of the past with no future to speak of.  Perhaps that fate is still inevitable as no one is immune to the ceaseless march of time (despite Disney’s best efforts to prove otherwise) but if this movie did anything right, it’s how it embraces its own ending and bows out with a fair amount of grace; a satisfying note to end things on and clearing the way for whatever comes next.

“No backseat driving, Bond.” “I’m not gonna say anything! I’m just here to enjoy the ride.”

On the nuts and bolts story level it definitely manages to do what it needs to with solid action scenes, a convoluted spy plot full of twists and turns, and perhaps the strongest character drama out of any Bond film since… well I guess Casino Royale, but if we’re talking non-Craig movies then as far back as the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  The action is a lot of fun and a definite improvement over the last film which was a bit too indulgent in big scale CGI spectacle and this brings things down with a stronger focus on ground level person-to-person shootouts and fight scenes.  It adds a lot of the weight back to the danger these characters find themselves in and they find some fun ways to keep the momentum up such as a shootout in a stairwell that’s mostly shot in one take.  What I really want to talk about though is how this compares to Spectre and the unique relationship it has to it that is yet another thing that sets this apart from the other Bond films; even within the Craig era.  While Craig’s films have had more continuity than any other era of the series (they all take place in a clear chronological order), this is the first of ANY Bond film I can think of that is a TRUE sequel; not just taking a plot thread here and there as a minor through line stringing them together, but a movie that you really can’t watch if you haven’t seen Spectre.  In some ways, that’s kind of a flaw as it means you have to watch a not so great movie to understand this one, but I’m glad I took the time to rewatch it before seeing this one, and the fact that it DOES tie so strongly means that it gets to do things that no other Bond movie has done.  I mean the fact that Léa Seydoux is the first Bond Girl since Eunice Gayson from all the way back in Dr. No and From Russia with Love to be in more than one James Bond movie is notable enough, but the film takes a lot of time dealing with the fallout of that movie and how it ties into Bond’s own personal flaws.  It’s frankly what Spectre was TRYING to do with the character of Blofeld and it ended up being the biggest flaw of that movie.  In trying to backfill an entire franchise worth of lore into one movie with Blofeld being a mastermind with a SPECIFIC grudge against Bond, it undercut what could have been a much more interesting villain plot and it honestly just felt like the studio was chasing superhero movie trends; yes, even more so than when Skyfall took most of its cues from Batman movies.  Here, the connection to Spectre is completely organic and honestly a refreshing change of pace for the franchise.

“Wait, so you’re back? You don’t just… disappear when the mission’s over?” “I… no? Is that a thing that happens!?”

Because it ties so closely to the previous film, Bond has more opportunities to confront his past and reflect on the mistakes that he made as well as come to terms with how the world has moved on since he started his super spy career.  It’s a much more contemplative movie in that regard with Bond’s relationship to MI6, Blofeld, and ESPECIALLY Madeleine Swann, being put uncomfortably into the foreground in a way that he’s unable to ignore.  MI6 has new agents and he has to face the fact that he’s not the focus of everyone’s attention.  Blofeld’s machinations may have had a bigger impact on Bond than he cares to face even though he DID win the war between them at the end of the last movie.  His relationship to women which has always been an underexplored aspect of the Bond series actually gets explored to an extent and the consequences of his constant vigilance and mistrust are coming home to roost; not something you can easily do if each movie starts off by hitting the reset button.  Because of this increased focus on Bond’s relationships, it means that Léa Seydoux has a lot more to do and she handles her role with a lot of intensity and grace that allows Craig to really shine in the moments where he has to plumb the emotional depths of his character.  She’s not the only one giving a solid performance for Bond to bounce off of as Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch as an American agent and a new MI6 agent respectively give Bond a run for his money as far as being effective spies and the more antagonistic nature between him and Lynch creates a few fun moments throughout.  Similarly, Jeffrey Wright who’s been hanging around since the first Craig film gets a lot more to do here than he has previously and Billy Magnussen as something of a protégé probably doesn’t have enough to do in the movie but I always liked that guy and he brings a bit of levity to the scenes he’s in.  Now sure, some of the changes to Bond and a few of the choices they make could be considered controversial to longtime fans, but while I won’t go into what some of those are as that would venture into spoilers, I will say that on the whole there’s nothing NEW here that I found objectionable.  I liked the places in which Bond had his ego checked.  I liked that he had to confront some of his own flaws and it’s obvious that doing so doesn’t make him any less compelling or effective of an action hero.  Bond can work as a nigh untouchable badass spy and we have PLENTY of examples of that, but a more humanized version of the character doesn’t rob him of what makes him great in the first place.

“Uh… dang it, I had something here. Hold on.” … “’Well this is what happens when you don’t clean the office fridge!’ Ha! Nailed it!!”

The movie is not without its flaws and the most obvious one is probably easy to guess since I haven’t even brought them up yet which is the villain played by Rami Malik.  He’s just not interesting of a character and his connection to Madeleine Swann, which looked to be one of the primary plot threads, is pretty tenuous as she’s literally only needed for one thing which in the grand scheme of things simply doesn’t matter; a mere cherry on top of his evil sundae if you will.  The plan itself isn’t too great either and I can definitely handle outlandish evil plans, but only if the villain is motivated and engaging which Rami Malik is not.  Motivation wise I guess you can argue he just wants to see the world burn and that’s why he’s doing all this, but that’s such a lazy and halfhearted way to characterize a villain leaving no room for nuance or compelling character work.  It also doesn’t help that his superpower is basically being rich enough to spend all his money on evil lairs and competent henchmen, but that’s already what most Bond villains have going for them, and adding a few extra zeros to his bank account doesn’t make him any more threatening.  Where’s the ambition!?  The obsession!?  The only deluded like that he tells himself is that “people want to be controlled” or some similar half-baked sheeple line and it just doesn’t sell as legitimately motivating or the slightest bit interesting.  Say what you will about Hugo Drax’s plan to poison the entire planet or Karl Stromberg’s scheme to start World War III so he can live peacefully under the sea, those guys at least did a good job convincing us that they actually BELIEVED in their plan!  Christoph Waltz, for the ten minutes or so that he’s in this movie, is easily the better villain; really coming into his own in a way that he never quite did in Specter.  I still don’t think it was necessary for him and Bond to be brothers, but the interplay between them works MUCH better here and it’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie.  Aside from the villain, PERHAPS I wouldn’t have done is the LAST thing the movie does if it was up to me.  On the one hand, it is something that has never happened in a Bond film and it does carry a certain weight to it.  On the other hand though, it feels like too clean of a cut; an ending to the story that feels definitive and has some punch because of it, but also one that feels too easy.  If the idea of this movie is to cut through the layers of Bond to find the very human man underneath, I don’t think this helps its case because, if anything, it kind of feels like trading in one unobtainable fantasy with another.  Not a big issue and I’m interested in how other people feel about it, but I certainly felt a bit mixed at the very end.

“Do you wanna know how I got these scars?” “I’m sure it’s a lot more mundane than you’ll make it out to be.”

Now that we can look at the Craig era of Bond films as a complete cycle, the general rule seems to be that, much like the Star Trek movies, every other movie is a standout.  Bond has been pretty good at reinventing himself over the years but only in certain ways; updating the technology and the spycraft but never really going any further with the character than needed.  Casino Royale definitely set us on that path with Bond’s origin story going to great lengths to tell us why he became the cold untouchable badass that we know Bond to be, but this is the one that finally gives us closure on that; a genuine endpoint for the character that’s been put off for over fifty years now.  I can’t imagine that this is the end of Bond, but it’s definitely the new standard by which we approach the character and probably how each Bond actor’s series should end; with a definite bang instead of waiting for the next person to fill in the shoes.  I definitely recommend seeing this movie any way that’s safe for you to do so and I’m excited to see what they do next.  As long as they don’t try to bring back James Bond Jr, I think we’ll be good!

4 out of 5

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