No Time To Die (2021) Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
“Hard to tell the good from the bad, heroes from villains these days…”
(Fair warning, spoilers ahead:) The twenty-fifth installment of the James Bond franchise carries some timely narrative plot-points, in particular the idea of a highly dangerous bio-weapon unleashed on the world from a strange remote factory that may or may not have ties to both foreign as well as Western governments. With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused numerous delays for the release of the film, No Time To Die was primed to touch on the biggest global issue facing our age. Despite being an engaging improvement from Spectre, which was not hard to do, and some gorgeous cinematography and terrific action sequences rife with allusions to Dr. No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice, and The Spy Who Loved Me; the ending of No Time To Die is easily the worst in the whole franchise –unnecessary, frustrating, anticlimactic, ridiculous, and simply a sad pathetic end to the Daniel Craig era, it is a complete disgrace to the classic Eon James Bond legacy. Will James Bond return? Who knows. Like so many other beloved franchises –think The Terminator or Star Wars— Eon has decided to finally kill off all of its essential characters. Why? My cynical perspective suspects there are shadowy political pressures at Eon to significantly revise or subvert the entire James Bond saga, or perhaps there is a business agreement in the works between Eon/MGM and Amazon to create a spin-off series replacing James Bond with another character (perhaps a Bond-adjacent series). Either way this film is sure to please elite circles and twitter-verse who generally despise James Bond while largely snubbing true fans of the series.
At any rate, despite loudly proclaiming his wish never to appear as James Bond again, here we see Daniel Craig once again reprising his role for the final time –a tragic, more romantic Bond for the post-Jason Bourne era. This is not the confident, capable Bond of Casino Royale, nor the roguish secret agent with a dark familial past as in the brilliant meta-narrative of Skyfall. After the disappointment that was Spectre, and then the sudden departures of the initial director Danny Boyle as well as initial writer John Hodge, No Time To Die was off to a rocky start. Eon then turned to a new director, the first American director of a Bond film: Cary Joji Fukunaga (perhaps best known for his 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre) and familiar Bond writers were coaxed back (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who worked together on every Bond film since The World is Not Enough). In addition, Daniel Craig requested that feminist writer Phoebe Waller Bridge be brought in to offer perspective and re-writes, leading many fans to grow suspicious of yet another popular franchise being degraded or subverted into mere political ideology.
No Time To Die is mostly reliant on the narrative arc established in the previous four Daniel Craig films. The film begins with an extensive backstory for Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). We see her as a child living at a remote lake house with her alcoholic mother while a creepy Japanese kabuki mask-wearing villain slinks up out of the snow and brutally empties a clip into her mother. Madeline shoots the intruder several times in the chest but somehow he survives anyway (this is never explained) and she runs away over the icy lake as it cracks and she falls below into the frigid water. She nearly drowns but then she is saved by this masked man for inexplicable reasons.
Fast forward, the film picks up where Spectre left off. Bond and Swann are living out their retirement by traveling the world, and Swann chooses their next destination: Matera, Italy where the gravesite of Vesper Lynd is located. Madeleine wants Bond to finally stop looking over his shoulder and release himself from the past –I thought his letting go of Vesper Lynd was previously accomplished at the end of Quantum of Solace with Bond dropping Vesper’s necklace in the snow? (The various quotes at the outset smell suspiciously like the recycled drivel from The Last Jedi and other contemporary trash sequels –“let the past die, kill it if you have to”). Anyway, when Bond visits Vesper’s grave he says “I miss you” and burns a little note that reads, “Forgive me.” But suddenly a bomb explodes right in his face at Vesper’s grave (he survives fully intact, the first of many grenade blasts to Bond’s face in the film) and he is led along on an extensive car chase by henchmen of the Spectre organization. Believing Madeleine has betrayed him, Bond puts her on a train promising never to see her again. Cue the emo-teenaged tortured power ballad by Billie Eilish –a disappointing, melodramatic title song.
Next, we see a group of Spectre assassins invading a secret bio-laboratory to retrieve a volatile disease that can be directed to kill particular targets based on their unique DNA pattern. The assassins brutally murder everyone in lab, however the lead Russian scientist named Obruchev receives a phone call moments before they arrive which directs him to secretly double-cross Spectre. We learn that MI6 has covertly greenlit “Project Hercules” intended to create the nanobot bio-weapon virus that has now been kidnapped. Meanwhile, James Bond has retired to Jamaica (in a nod to Dr. No) where he is tracked down by his former CIA counterpart Felix Leiter and a smiling, young bureaucrat named Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen). They ask Bond to help infiltrate a Spectre gathering in Cuba to celebrate Blofeld’s birthday, and Bond is also tracked by his replacement 007 named Nomi (Lashana Lynch) but MI6 instructs Bond to stay out of the situation. Ever the contrarian, Bond teams up with the CIA and heads to Cuba where he meets up with the best “Bond girl” in the film named Paloma (Ana de Armas) but she rejects Bond’s overtures and is simply revealed an all-too-perfect assassin, killing something like 30 henchmen in hand-to-hand combat while in a dress and high heels, duel-wielding machine guns. As soon as the job is done she disappears and we never hear from her again. At the Spectre gathering the virus is unleashed but in a surprise twist it is targeted to kill every member of Spectre. Bond captures Obruchev and takes him to a remote CIA ship on the ocean where they are betrayed by the new young CIA operative Logan Ash and Felix Leiter dies in the resulting explosion as the ship sinks (I’m not sure why they killed off Felix Leiter, it just seems they were hoping to burn down the James Bond legacy in this installment).
Back at MI6, after some odd finagling, snarky condescension, and tension between Nomi and Bond, Bond is granted access to Blofeld in his high-security prison cell. Meanwhile, Madeleine is approached in her psychiatric office by a sickly, bulging-eyed villain named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) who is revealed to be the intruder from her past and also the man behind the recent virus heist. He tells Madeleine to wear a perfume laced with the disease to kill Blofeld, but she leaves while Blofeld is being called up, but Bond touches her arm where the virus has been spread. He interrogates Blofeld –but then Blofeld unceremoniously and disappointingly dies with little commentary (this was the classic Bond film, but here we see him quietly dying with no dramatic tension or purpose). Bond regroups with Madeleine and learns that she has a daughter Matilde that looks an awful lot like James Bond. Madeleine explains the backstory of Safin whose whole family was killed by Spectre when he was young and now he is exacting vengeance on Spectre, but then for some reason he is also hoping to unleash the virus on all of humanity. His reasons are not totally clear. Safin’s thugs chase Bond, Madeleine, and Matilde and then Safin kidnaps Madeleine and Mathilde, so MI6 launches an infiltration of Safin’s remote island lair located in disputed waters between Russia and Japan. There they find a factory producing the nanobot virus intended to be unleashed on the world. Bond and Nomi lead the attack, and there is a great stairwell shoot-out scene, Madeleine escapes her imprisonment by herself, and for some reason Mathilde is willingly released by Safin. So they all escape, but Bond returns to the control room to open the island hatches and he orders a missile attack on the island. However, Safin shoots Bond several times in the leg and back, but in the fight scene Bond savagely snaps Safin’s arm in half and Safin infects Bond with the nanobot virus directed toward Madeleine and Mathilde so that he can never come into close contact with them again. Bond then kills Safin, but in the end Safin proves himself victorious over Bond. So for some reason Bond essentially gives up at this point (can there not be a future antidote developed?? Is there really no hope?). Bond decides to simply die when the missiles strike the island, and in some of his last words Bond quotes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service –“we have all the time in the world.” And so James Bond is killed off along with all the other beloved classic characters of the James Bond franchise in this film. There is a brief memorial to Bond back at MI6, but then they quickly brush past it and get back to work, and we see a bland clip of Madeleine and Mathilde as they drive away.
Two-thirds of this movie built up a fun and engaging adventure, it was far better than Spectre and thankfully minimized the identity politics, but in the end the ultimate suave, intelligent, survivalist English gentleman spy James Bond is sacrificed on the altar of this bloated modern franchise-killing film, and I am left to ask myself: where does James Bond go from here? Will Eon add continuity in a future film by attempting to clone Bond? Will he be regenerated somehow? Or will he be merely replaced by a non-white-male actor? Will there be a spin-off with Bond’s daughter? Will they attempt a pre-story prequel James Bond narrative? Or an alternate reality a la J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot? Or will the producers simply ignore the Daniel Craig story arc and move forward with a new Bond film anyway? I had to wait until the end of the film’s credits to confirm the famous recurring line: “James Bond will return” –and sure enough it was there but I’m not sure what that means with Bond now deceased.
Somehow Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli violated the number one rule of James Bond: don’t kill James Bond. Now he is dead and we watched him die for no reason in No Time To Die. We have entered a new era for this “misogynist dinosaur.” There are several new rules for James Bond: he must be wounded and battered yet trudging along; he must be endlessly hoping to retire from MI6; he must be hard-drinking with a damaged past; he must be emotional and sentimental yet also a brutal assassin; he must not successfully seduce anyone; and lastly he must not be allowed to save or rescue any female characters –they should all be just as skilled with a gun and hand-to-hand combat as Bond, and they must show themselves to be capable of freeing themselves from any sort of captivity. Gone are the days when James Bond represented the cool, triumphant, gentleman aristocrat, albeit a reckless hero of the West –the ultimate symbol of confidence and class. Now the world seems morally ambiguous, villains could just as easily be anti-heroes, and in an effort to appease international audiences (which make up most of the revenue for this franchise) antagonists cannot even remotely represent existing foreign communist governments. Now the villains are more often than not internal enemies, traitors within the CIA or the head of MI6 who has has created the super-weapon that ultimately kills Bond (perhaps the intelligence agencies are the true villains in the film). Our expectations are subverted constantly in this film as the only potential “Bond girl” turns out to be just another violent, aggressive, assassin just like Bond with no interest in repartee or courtship; Q is revealed to be gay (in a briefly dubbed line that will no doubt be edited to appease certain international audiences); the 007 moniker is replaced with an equally powerful -if not more powerful- female agent; Bond snuggles with a child for the first time (and the child is then used as a melodramatic prop); and in the end Bond dies for no apparent reason other than the ultimate subversion of the audience’s expectations.
The more I think about this movie, the more I view it is as a catastrophic disappointment mainly for its terrible ending, but also I think there could have been far more explanation about Safin and his motivations (who exactly is he?), more tone-setting for both Blofeld’s and Felix Leiter’s deaths –not to mention the shrugging unceremonious death of James Bond himself, and why is Madeleine suddenly the center of operations at MI6? How are we supposed to believe Bond and Madeleine are star-crossed lovers when they have minimal on-screen chemistry? Why does Safin simply allow Bond’s daughter to escape? And why does Bond not escape in the end with the hope of an antidote being developed? The first half of this movie sets up an intriguing adventure, which I did very much enjoy, only to ruin it all in the end with a strange mixed bag of great action followed by a terrible ending. I miss the days when a James Bond movie used to be fun escapist entertainment mixed with some smart film-making as in Casino Royale and Skyfall. Now it seems to be little more than a franchise on its last gasp reaching for a fabled middle ground between being an explosive, thrilling ride and at the same time a politically correct, morally ambiguous world that is just itching to kill off its protagonist. Perhaps the only person who can save this franchise is Christopher Nolan. I would love to see him direct a Bond film one day though admittedly it would be tough to top Sam Mendes’s Skyfall.