No Time to Die
British critics have been going bananas over No Time to Die, doling out 5 star reviews like they’re a limited resource post-Brexit, and I’m not sure why. The temptation is to psychologise. To speculate that in both a post-COVID and post-Brexit Britain, a straightforward Bond film with some action, some melodrama, and a sense of humour is a big, warm hug. That’s great, if true, and I wouldn’t deny them that pleasure if I could. I’m just curious about how well this film would have been received if it had come out five, even two years ago. My suspicion is that it would probably have gotten positive reviews. It’s a big improvement on SPECTRE and better than Skyfall, though I didn’t personally care all that much for Skyfall anyway. But I don’t think that it would have been quite as acclaimed as it has been in the British press.
The plot is in more traditional Bond film territory. A facially disfigured, quasi-religious terrorist steals a bio-weapon from a secret laboratory. Meanwhile, a weaselly Russian scientist is bandied about between warring factions, from the CIA and MI6 to SPECTRE and the terrorist’s cult. James is pulled out of retirement to do... something or other. Trace the scientist, I think. He seems to be pulled out just so he can be rudely told by M (Ralph Fiennes, balding and in a two-piece suit, like a High Tory MP) that his services aren’t needed, right before being told that his services are needed.
No Time to Die’s first half is better than its second. The cold open is admittedly fantastic, almost perfect. It begins with a snowbound house on a frozen lake, as a troubled woman and her young daughter are stalked by an assassin in an opera mask. It’s thrilling, creepy, and mysterious. Then we segue to Bond and his bride in the Italian city of Matera. Their honeymoon is cut short in another brilliant, and brilliantly daffy sequence, with bike stunts, car chases, and even an exploding tombstone. Director Cary Fukunaga takes full advantage of the winding and narrow Italian stradas, lonely squares, and religious processions.
This tone continues throughout the first half, making up for a rather dreary Billie Eilish song for the opening credits, and prepared me to love this last hurrah for Daniel Craig’s Bond. The plot is suspenseful and just the right sort of bonkers. This part of the story is clearly just having fun, like one sequence that had me hooked, where a gathering of SPECTRE’s agents swill champagne and chuckle malevolently at a Cuban nightclub, watching as Bond appears to be targeted by a bioweapon.
I was impressed by the amount of intrigue built up in the plot, when you consider that Bond films of late have lurched between lazy template jobs and just Really Bad Ideas. (SPECTRE’s plot was ripped from Austin Powers in Goldmember. Seriously. Look up the similarities. I totally believe that it was accidental on the part of SPECTRE’s makers, but that kind of makes it worse.)
There’s a fair amount of humour in the script, of a corny and self-parodic sort usually seen in superhero films. You can see comedy writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s positive influence on the script. Given Bond’s roots, the films tend to have a laddish and punning sort of humour, famously parodied in the Austen Powers trilogy. At least one pun that Roger Moore would have been proud of sneaks through, but thankfully the laddishness is toned down. The humour is more rooted in character and situation, as opposed to sexual innuendo, and all the better for it.
Midway through No Time to Die, however, its exciting and self-aware tone starts to turn brittle and fall apart. I’d say it starts with the death of a recurring character in a way that feels weirdly unceremonious. The atmosphere grows turgid, more like that of a generic action film, the plot gets too convoluted and arbitrary to really care about, and suddenly it’s all very somber, no longer fun.
Which is a shame because Rami Malek only really shows up in the second half, and he gives it his all as the main villain in the relatively few scenes he’s in. He’s sinister and deeply wounded, a bundle of neurotic affectations. He doesn’t shout or scream, never seems to even raise his voice, but speaks in a soft and insinuating manner reminiscent of Bela Lugosi in the black-and-white Dracula films.
Unfortunately, he suffers from a similar problem to Javier Bardem’s in Skyfall. The main reason I disliked Skyfall was because its villain made little sense. Bardem’s a great actor and probably the best thing about that film, some set-pieces aside, but his role’s clearly written in the style of “he’s crazy, so we don’t need to give him a thought-out motivation.” Instead you get a lot of Freudian nonsense about Judi Dench’s M as a tortured mother figure, a dollop of gay panic stuff where the bleach-blond Bardem ties Bond to a chair and feels him up, and a final confrontation between Bardem and Dench that seems to negate the whole point of the plot we’ve just spent two hours watching.
Malek isn’t that cringeworthy, probably because he doesn’t get much time to be. But like Bardem, after an exquisite opening villain-speech, filled with venomous and utterly insane self-belief, he drifts into vague motivations and rambling.
The love plot between Bond and his bride (Léa Seydoux) feels appropriately fraught and tragic at first, yet doesn’t convince in any way after that because the female character just isn’t drawn with any depth. Why did Bond make the unwise decision to fall for her? Beyond the obvious, that she looks like a Hollywood actress, I dunno. The romance stuff might be the weakest part of the film. Even in the excellent prologue you can see that there’s not much there besides looking sexy in an oversized tee, and really anything she wears. Characters in big, bombastic spy films don’t need to be Shakespearean, but a little bit of something would have been helpful. She’s a psychiatrist, her father was a villain, and she loves Bond. That’s really all you get.
Compounding the problem is that there’s at least two other female characters who’d have made a more sparkling romantic pairing. Lashana Lynch plays the agent taking over the 007 role in Bond’s retirement. She’s strong and truculent, but reveals a more loyal side over time. Ana de Armas is cute and funny in her scene as a newly minted Cuban spy. Either of these woman would have been a perfect love interest, Lynch providing a verbal (and physical) sparring partner, or de Armas light-hearted humour. The point is that they have independent personalities off of which Bond could have played. Seydoux, by contrast, is probably a good actress, but sparsely characterised outside cliches of female strength and attraction to Bond.
Though on the latter point, who can blame her? Seydoux is 36 and Daniel Craig 53, but at no point do we get anything like the uncomfortable cringe of Roger Moore pawing Grace Jones in A View to a Kill, the 57-year-old man looking like a randy old tycoon who’s been gifted a twentysomething woman. Craig’s sex appeal only deepens as he ages. Maybe when he’s 93 it will have worn off, but right now he exudes it like a scent, from his burnished blond hair to sardonic pout and abs that make me feel funny inside.
No Time to Die is half a very good movie and half an average one. If it had lived up to the promise of its first half - and successfully resolved all those wonderful, theatrical plot threads - it would have been a great film. Instead, it lapses into incoherence and mawkishness. But that’s okay. It's still the second-best Craig Bond after Casino Royale, still engaging for just about all of its nearly three-hour runtime (though my legs were going numb in the cinema; whatever happened to intermissions?), and often funny. It's just a shame that Craig spent it wearing clothes. Okay, that's a quibble only I and a few other queers would have. 3/4