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15 Oct 2021

Review: No Time to Die and the end of an era – The Saturday before last, HJ and I went out to see another film; this time it was No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s last spin behind the wheel of the juggernaut that is the James Bond franchise. At the bus stop on our way out we ran into a humanities colleague of mine who was heading out to lunch. When HJ mentioned that we were going to see a “007 film,” he waved a hand dismissively and replied, “Ah, I’ve never seen a Bond film in the theater.” When I asked him why, he said, “Well, I already know what’s going to happen, so I just wait until it comes out on TV and watch it then.”

“Craig’s Bond is the first Bond that feels like a real human being and not a comic-book superhero.”

I nodded, but I was confused. Is that why people go to see films in the theater? Because they don’t know what’s going to happen? One of the most intense cinematic experiences I’ve ever had was watching Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in the proper IMAX setting—and I knew exactly what was going to happen, at least in terms of the bigger picture. I go to the movie theater not to be surprised by the plot, but to be dazzled by the spectacle and immersed in the experience. Bond films, with their over-the-top action and exotic locales, are the perfect candidates for cinema viewing.

Of course, my colleague was not wrong about knowing what was going to happen in a Bond film. They follow a relatively predictable pattern. We start off in medias res with an action sequence that sets the mood, then the trippy opening credits come in, followed by the introduction of the world-threatening crisis that James Bond must deal with. There is a big baddie and his main henchman; the henchman provides good boss-fight fodder before the final climax of the film and the confrontation with the main baddy. Bond also has allies, sometimes found where he least expects them; occasionally allies are not what they seem and turn into foes. Throw in Q with his fancy gadgets and tech, a beautiful “Bond girl,” and some corny one-liners, and you have the recipe for the perfect Bond film.

There is something comforting in this well-worn path—or, at least, there used to be. When Daniel Craig took over as Bond from Pierce Brosnan, the series took a darker, grittier turn. Brosnan’s Bond was more in line with the traditional image of the agent, leaning into the camp with that trademark smirk of his. For the record, though, I hated Brosnan as Bond (sorry, Mom). I just couldn’t take him seriously. But he gave it the old college try, and I could see why they chose him. Then Craig came onto the scene and kicked over Brosnan’s sand castle. With his tenure as the famous agent now over, I wanted to take a (relatively) quick look back at his incarnation of 007. (Keep in mind that my last entry was 8500 words, so “quick” is indeed going to be relative.)

I know that it says “review” in the title, but I’m not all that interested in doing a review specifically of this film. I don’t think I ever write “reviews” unless I feel like I have something to say that goes beyond the film (and/or unless I am very invested in the source material, as was the case with the Hobbit films); today, that something is a musing on James Bond in general, and where the series might go in the future. That being said, I will be talking about things that happen in No Time to Die (NTTD), and I will be spilling some major spoilers that you really might want to avoid if you are planning on seeing it. Unlike with Free Guy, I would recommend not reading the rest of this until you’ve seen the film. Well, maybe just take a look at my ranking below to get a rough idea where I place the film in the Craig-Bond pantheon, but that’s about it.

So, to fulfill the “review” part of the promise made in the title, I will start with my ranking of Craig’s Bond films (beyond which will be spoilers). They are, with #1 being my favorite and #5 being my least favorite:

  1. Casino Royale
  2. Skyfall
  3. No Time to Die
  4. Spectre
  5. Quantum of Solace

To be honest, the top two spots are very close, and on a different day I might very well give the top spot to Skyfall instead. But those two are definitely my favorites. Quantum of Solace was a weird aberration of a film with very weird stakes, a villain that failed to be all that compelling, and a forgettable plot. To add insult to injury (not that it really matters), the title makes no sense. It does come from an Ian Fleming story, but that story is so far from the film that it might as well be in a different universe. (For the curious: The entire story consists of Bond listening to the governor of Nassau tell a story at a dinner party; the titular “quantum of solace” is defined by the governor as the bare minimum of comfort two people have with each other that is required to sustain a relationship. In the film, the “Quantum” is reimagined as an organization, a precursor to Spectre.)

Spectre was, I think, originally supposed to be the last Bond film with Daniel Craig at the helm. It makes sense if you think about it—it was a very natural way of ending his tenure, with Bond turning his back on his life as a secret agent to be with someone who was more than just a “Bond girl.” I liked Spectre quite a bit more than QOS, but it is still relegated to the fourth spot because I didn’t like how it tried to shoehorn all of the previous films into this single, overarching narrative. I’ve often wondered if the people behind the franchise felt some pressure to create a “Bond Cinematic Universe,” as cinematic universes were very much in vogue at the time (The Avengers, the first film in Marvel’s Infinity War saga and the culmination of years worth of preparation for the MCU, was released in the same year as Skyfall). But it all felt wrong to me. There are recurring characters in Bond films, of course, but the films have always been more or less one-offs—you didn’t necessarily need to have seen any of the previous Bond films to understand the latest one. But if you walked into Spectre with no knowledge of the three films that preceded it, you would have been somewhat confused by the final act. For that reason, even though I did still enjoy the film when I saw it, Spectre has to be near the bottom for me. (In fairness, all of Craig’s Bond films felt connected—it just felt like Spectre was trying too hard.)

That leaves us with NTTD firmly in the middle. I’ve deliberately sat on this entry for longer than is reasonably necessary, just to see if my feelings about it changed, but I think NTTD is pretty secure in the number three spot. I don’t think it will ever overtake my top two, but it certainly does a much better job of wrapping things up than Spectre did. I also appreciate how it returned to the idea of a single main villain (the sinister and creepy Safin, played to perfection by Rami Malek) and did away with the shadowy organization of Spectre. In fact, I was quite amused at how the writers wiped out the entirety of the organization in one fell swoop, and they did so in a way that both (sort of) made sense and impressed upon the audience the seriousness of the main threat.

And the main threat is indeed serious, although it does seem to be yet another product of the “technology is magic!” mantra—a vague nanobot weapon that can be keyed to as many DNA profiles as you want. The evil scientist at one point turns to one of the good guys (girls, actually) and says, “I could wipe out your entire people!” (Satisfyingly, her response to this threat is to kick him off a catwalk into a huge vat of unprogrammed nanobots that eat him alive.) The fact that the nanobots are transferred by contact sets up the resolution of the story, in which Bond chooses to sacrifice himself rather than endanger Madeleine and their daughter. (Yeah, that’s a huge spoiler, but if you’re reading this now and haven’t seen the film, that’s on you.)

To my knowledge, this is the only time that Bond has actually died. Well, wait—I take that back. I think he might have technically died in Casino Royale, before he was revived by Vesper. But this time Bond is gone for good—he is at ground zero when a missile strike hits the nanobot factory. This did not come as a surprise to me. I didn’t necessarily go into the film thinking that Bond was going to die, but it became obvious at the beginning of the final act that Bond was not going to survive. I can point to the exact moment when I realized this. When Safin is holding Madeleine and her (and Bond’s) daughter Mathilde hostage, he shows Madeleine a vial containing some nanobot solution coded to her DNA, and thus her daughter’s DNA as well. He calls it an “insurance policy,” but I knew exactly what it was: Chekhov’s gun. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, it is the idea that if a crucial element (like a gun) is introduced in a play, it must be used before the final curtain falls. The introduction of the nanobot poison is a clever trick—you can’t kill James Bond, because he’s always the hero, but if you can figure out a way to back him into a corner where heroic self-sacrifice is the only option, he will fall on his own sword.

I hesitate to pick on this, because it is one of those plot contrivances that is absolutely necessary for the story to resolve as it does. I am reminded of when James Cameron was on the Mythbusters, and they tested whether Rose and Jack could have fit on that door together at the end of Titanic. Adam and Jamie concluded that they in fact could have (because of course they could have), but Cameron’s response was something to the effect of: “No, they couldn’t, because Jack had to die.” And that’s really all that matters. Jack has to die (so Rose can live and continue to be an absolutely horrible, self-centered person). Just like Bond has to die here—a development I suspect was at least partly driven by Daniel Craig’s desire to put the final, definitive nail in the coffin.

That being said, I’m going to nitpick anyway, partly because that’s what I do here, partly because I really did want Bond to live happily ever after with Madeleine and Mathilde, and partly because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about it. A very big deal is made early on about how the nanobots are “forever.” Once they are in your system, you can never get rid of them. (This was probably the first clue to the resolution of the film, but I wasn’t certain until I saw the Madeleine-specific nanobots.) This makes no sense to me. I can maybe buy that the nanobots can find a way to stay in your body, but they are still robots, no matter how tiny—there is going to be some way to disable them. I imagine that a high-energy EMP (electromagnetic pulse) device would be pretty effective, as such a high-energy pulse would disable all electronic devices in the area. Imagine if Bond had a miniaturized high-energy EMP that he could carry on his person, like in a watch or something... oh, wait. (In case you haven’t seen the film and are reading this anyway—yes, Q gave Bond just such a device before his mission.)

Technological inconsistency aside, though, I also find it very hard to believe that M would commission the creation of a super weapon, one that could theoretically destroy the entire population of the earth if it fell into the wrong hands, without building in a fail-safe. We’ve seen before that the spymaster is fallible, but I just do not buy the idea that he doesn’t think of building a kill switch into his weapon. Even if action films do often hinge on its main characters being monumentally stupid, this seems a little excessive.

But, like I said above, Bond must die—this is what the writers (and Daniel Craig, most likely) decided. Regardless of whether it makes sense in terms of the plot, it definitely does make sense if you look at Craig’s Bond oeuvre. There is something that sets Craig’s Bond apart from previous reincarnations, and it isn’t the dark, gritty grimness of the character. It’s not the fact that this Bond is the first you can believe is genuinely competent in hand-to-hand combat, either. Both of those things are true, of course, but they are not at the heart of the matter. No, what really matters is that this Bond is traumatized. He experiences physical trauma, of course, and lots of it, but more importantly he is also psychologically traumatized.

This may seem only natural, but it is very much not, at least not when it comes to Bond films. In Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan’s final spin at the wheel, Bond is imprisoned in North Korea and tortured for fourteen months, yet when he is released you would be forgiven for thinking that he just got home after a long day of work and sitting in rush-hour traffic. He looks ragged and worn when we first see him, but once he’s had a shave and cleaned up, he’s back to the same old, unflappable Bond, as if removing the grime and the superfluous facial hair somehow also washed away the trauma. PTSD just isn’t something that existed in the Bond world before Daniel Craig came along.

One moment sticks in my memory from the end of the otherwise unimpressive Quantum of Solace, when Bond tracks down the man responsible for Vesper’s death (in Casino Royale). Considering that Quantum is a revenge film, we fully expect Bond to avenge Vesper and kill this man. He does not, however, and instead allows MI6 agents to arrest him. Not only does this run counter to our expectations, it also shows emotional growth, another thing we are not used to seeing in Bond films.

As he walks away into the night, he drops Vesper’s necklace in the snow. If memory serves, this is the last thing we see as the credits roll. The symbolism here is obvious: He has let Vesper go, just as he has let go of the need for revenge. Unfortunately, in real life, letting go of someone is not as easy as symbolically dropping something that once belonged to them. It’s not a thing that you do once and then never have to worry about again. And the later films are true to this; in the opening of NTTD, Bond goes to visit Vesper’s tomb as a way of finally saying goodbye so he can be with Madeleine. All those years later, he’s still in the process of letting go. But that’s the way emotional attachment works. It isn’t just a switch you can throw and be done with.

The sources of Bond’s trauma are also important. Vesper is just the beginning. We also see Bond mourn the death of M in Skyfall. And in NTTD he sends Madeleine away when he suspects her of betraying him. There are two very important developments in Bond’s character that connect all three of these sources of trauma. Firstly, before Daniel Craig, Bond never had a truly meaningful relationship with a woman. Women in his world—the so-called “Bond girls”—were just eye candy, good for a quick shag, maybe, but nothing serious. After all, you had to have a new Bond girl in the next film. But think about the women in the past five films. We’ve already established that Vesper was someone incredibly important to Bond. Camille in Quantum never becomes a love interest, and there isn’t even any romantic tension between her and Bond. Madeleine spans both Spectre and NTTD as Bond’s true love. Only Sévérine in Skyfall and Lucia in Spectre come close to fitting the traditional mold, but in both cases the trysts are definitely not light-hearted encounters (Sévérine is a former sex slave and Lucia is the widow of a terrorist that Bond killed).

NTTD plays with expectations in this regard by having not one but two women appear to be Bond girls but end up being Bond’s equals. The first is Nomi, disguised as a local on the Caribbean island (Jamaica, maybe?) Bond has made his home after dropping off the grid. She gives Bond a ride home from a bar, and as soon as they arrive at his house she walks into the bedroom. When he follows her, though, she takes off her wig and identifies herself as an MI6 agent—in fact, the new 007. The second such character is Paloma, a CIA agent in Cuba who helps Bond. When they enter a cloakroom and Paloma tells him to undress, Bond assumes that happy fun time is going to follow. But Paloma waves him off with a look that says, “Oh, no, that was the last thing on my mind, but it’s cute that you think I was interested in you.” Paloma turns out to be more than just a pretty face (she’s played by the beautiful Ana de Armas), and after proving herself in battle she and Bond part with words of mutual respect and admiration.

So, aside from the rare exception, the films subvert our expectations for “Bond girls” and show Bond having meaningful relationships with the women in his life (including Judi Dench’s M). The second important aspect of these traumatic relationships (namely those with Vesper, M, and Madeleine) is that Bond feels responsible for or otherwise guilty about his treatment of them. He assumes the worst of the two women he loves, believing that they have betrayed him. He doesn’t learn the truth about Vesper until after she is gone, and this no doubt contributes to the trauma he carries with him for so long. He does learn the truth about Madeleine before it is too late, though, and he does his best to make amends. When they are finally reunited, he tells her that the only thing he ever regretted in all the time he knew her was sending her away. In other words, he made the same mistake with her that he did with Vesper—which isn’t terribly surprising, as field agents find it hard to trust people. His relationship with M is different, of course, but he still feels guilty for not being able to save her. This is really the first incarnation of Bond that we see dealing with the trauma that would naturally accrue living a life such as his. In other words, Craig’s Bond is the first Bond that feels like a real human being and not a comic-book superhero—at least, psychologically speaking. Physically speaking, of course, he’s still a superhero. But I guess even our comic-book superheroes are now real human beings with real trauma, too, so maybe it’s just part of a larger trend.

The question now is, with this Bond dead and gone, what’s next? When we were talking about the film afterward, HJ mentioned that she hoped the next series of Bond films would be a little less gritty, and a little more like the James Bond films of old (namely, those starring Sean Connery and Roger Moore). My initial reaction was that this was never going to happen. At first my justification for this was: “We can’t go back to those halcyon days of yore, not in a post-9/11 world.” I still think that’s part of it, but upon further reflection I realize that it’s not all of it, and maybe even not the most important part. After all, those early Bond films were all made during the Cold War, where one wrong push of a button could have brought about the end of the world in a nuclear holocaust; it wasn’t as if there weren’t pressing geopolitical crises back then. You could argue that the Cold War and our post-9/11 world are two very different things, and I would have to agree with you, but I suspect that trying to explain the mood of Craig’s Bond oeuvre by falling back on 9/11 is a bit lazy, even if the timing is convenient (Die Another Day did come out in November of 2002, but principal photography began in January, which means the script was well underway before 9/11—making Casino Royale the first true post-9/11 Bond film).

No, I think more than anything else we’ve just moved on. We’ve (mostly) moved on from the way women were portrayed in those early films. We’ve moved on from heroes that don’t suffer psychological trauma. In many ways, the latest Bond films are an improvement over what might now be considered outmoded ways of thinking. But I am very sympathetic to HJ’s point of view as well. The truth is that watching a Bond film now is emotionally taxing in a way that the Bond films of old weren’t. Those older films were silly, campy fun. I don’t think we can ever fully return to that, but a change of tone is not outside the realm of possibility. Take superhero films, for example. For a while there, we were getting a lot of dark, gritty, realpolitik takes on our heroes. Then Guardians of the Galaxy came along and people remembered that, oh yeah, superheroes can actually be fun. I said in my last entry that Thor: Ragnarok was the best Thor film, and ultimately the reason I think that is because it was the most fun (the first one was fun, too, but the third one really leaned into the humor and camp).

I’m not saying that I want the next Bond to be like GotG or campy Thor. We don’t want to give viewers whiplash. We can still have a hero who is a real person, who suffers psychological trauma, who grieves. (My biggest gripe with Thor: Ragnarok was that stupid joke Korg makes at the end after Asgard is destroyed. The heroes just watched their homeworld be completely destroyed—let them grieve!) But I think it is also possible to have some humor in there. I’m not saying there isn’t humor in Craig’s Bond films, of course. You still get the corny one-liners (which, honestly, often feel incongruous when uttered in very serious situations), and you still get some comedic banter between characters (Q provides a lot of that, for example). But the overall worldview is not comedic, it is tragic. Like Frodo in the LOTR films, Bond saves the world, but not for him. To quote Gandalf, there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured. Bond does indeed seem to be at peace just before the missile strike hits, and that’s great, but we’ve seen Bond seemingly at peace before, only to later realize that he is still struggling with his demons. Was that look of peace on his face in those last moments of his life there because he had finally put those demons to rest—or because he knew that he wouldn’t have to fight them anymore? I’d like to think it was the former, but the five films as a whole don’t make that answer the likelier one.

So what exactly do I want from the next series of Bond films? I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I do like the action, the convoluted plots that sometimes don’t make sense, the globe-trotting intrigue, and even the technology that might as well be magic; I’m pretty sure I won’t be let down on any of those counts, as I can’t see the James Bond formula changing too much. I suppose the real question is who do I want to be the next Bond. I actually have a ready answer for that: Tom Hiddleston. He’s an extremely versatile actor, he rocks a suit like nobody’s business, and he’s got suave charm oozing out of every pore of his body. Plus, thanks to his turn as Loki, we know he can be very funny. He’s also a little... um, softer? What I mean by that is that Daniel Craig is very masculine. Tom Hiddleston would be able to step back from that a little bit and offer us a Bond who maybe relies more on his wit and charm than his parkour and fisticuffs prowess. And he’s still got the emotional range to play Bond as a real person.

I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Craig as Bond. I genuinely enjoyed his portrayals, and I appreciated the emotional nuance he managed to convey through his stoic facade. He’s also the most badass Bond we’ve ever seen, and there’s something to be said for that. But I wouldn’t mind going in a different direction for the next Bond. And—OK, I’ll admit it—I also kind of have a man crush on Tom Hiddleston. There, I said it. I mean, come on. Have you ever seen him in an interview? Funny, well-spoken, smooth, and yet not full of himself. So maybe I’m not being completely objective here, but is anyone really objective when speculating about who the next Bond should be? I don’t think so.

OK, I think that’s enough. I said this was going to be relatively short, and we’re already well over four thousand words here. It is a bit sad to see the era of Craig-Bond come to an end, but it was a good run, and I appreciate the Bond he gave us. Now, if you want to see something completely incongruous, go watch this Wired interview with Daniel Craig and Lashana Lynch, where Craig is a complete goofball... who looks very pleased to finally be hanging up the suit and the Walther PPK.

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