_REVIEW.   it’s about _FILM.   words _LUKE WHITTICASE.
dir. _CARY JOJI FUKUNAGA.   rating _12A.   release _30th SEP.

October 28, 2021

images © Warner Bros. 2021

For a while there, it looked like the 25th outing for Ian Fleming’s James Bond would be trapped in cinematic limbo forever. If not only for the prolonged delays of the film’s release courtesy of COVID, but also the changing of hands throughout the course of production from filmmakers and writers, an initial reluctance from Daniel Craig to return to the role, and of course the MGM buyout that now leaves the franchise in the hands of Amazon.

But there were of course other uncertainties to take into account. For the first time in the franchise history, a leading actor was stepping away from the iconic role with open acknowledgement that it will be their last outing as the fictional British MI6 agent, and as such a production and marketing hype machine could be crafted around this very ‘farewell’ to the Craig era.

There’s other concerns, too, particularly regarding said era’s narrative path. One of the defining divergences from 2006’s Casino Royale onwards has been an interconnectivity between the plots for the various films, the results of which have felt mostly inconsistent and retroactive in nature to say the least. So with that in mind, how does a film operate as both an accessible James Bond film, a farewell to Craig, and a narrative conclusion of sorts for the ongoing narrative that the series has written for itself?

No Time to Die is at its best when playing to its stronger feats of simply being a globetrotting, gun-firing, double entendre dipping James Bond adventure. The gadgets, the cars, the exotic locations, the henchmen, the girls, the evil mastermind with a plot to destroy the world. These very core components – staples practically hardwired in to the 007 brand – are here and present to varying degrees of success, and really where the film feels like it should have been focusing more of its attention.

It’s spinning a lot of plates; there’s Bond coming out of a five-year retirement to find he’s been replaced by Lashana Lynch’s Nomi as the new 007, the continuing meddling of evil organisation SPECTRE and his step-brother Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, once again being given nothing to do), tensions involving new love Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) and her own secret past, which happens to tie into the plans of new villain Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin and his own inevitable plans for global catastrophe, this time round involving a biohacking virus stolen from MI6.

The plot as it is feels wildly disparate in components, as it spends too much of its time dealing with both the immediate fallout of Spectre, and tying up as many of the lose ends as it can before getting on with being a more traditional ‘stop the bad guy’ Bond outing. There’s an entire excursion to Cuba that serves almost nothing but to close off the narrative of the previous film, and which frustratingly ends up raising more questions than it answers regarding the shadowy organisation.

Which comes to an issue that has haunted the Craig era as a whole – the fact that while there has been some fun to be had at the changing of gears for the franchise to suit a new and more contemporary take on the character and his world, the series’ ongoing focus with introspection has been the crutch that it has been holding itself up on. Not content with merely just updating the formula or softening the edges of the characters more imperialist/misogynist/occasionally racist and semi-abusive roots, writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who have who have had a hand in every one of the Craig films) became so preoccupied with the very ‘idea’ of James Bond and his place within popular culture as a narrative, thematic and metatextual device that they seemingly forgot to actually do much of anything else with the series.

As with so much from his debut outing in Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006), that film’s ‘Bond Girl’, Eva Green’s femme fatale Vesper Lynd (both pictured above), has proven a tough act for Craig’s subsequent films to follow.

The result is an entire story structured as a ‘conclusion’ to what has been mostly an afterthought of continuity, with disparate elements that rely way too much on an intimate working knowledge of a franchise that was ultimately always supposed to be light, vicarious escapism. Bond was always at its core a series of jaunts across the globe with a suave superspy, and here, as has often been the case in the preceding few instalments, so much of its other components end up coming across as strangely half-baked.

None of which would be of greater issue if the storytelling wasn’t so vague and confused half the time, to boot. The much-hyped Safin makes little sense, ether as a character or indeed his overall plans. As well as being barely in it, Malek carries his time with a bizarre accent and clothing choices cribbed from Dr. No. There’s yet another “author of all your pain” moment of revelation from Blofeld, but it concerns information that we and the characters already know. And that is is all without mentioning the one stonking, major development in the film that’s been conspicuously hidden (yet teased from the marketing), but one which should be a genuine shock that could not only raise the stakes but alter the entire field of play for the film’s ongoing drama. Instead, this huge pivot is bafflingly botched by a very non-committal obfuscation of said reveal, playing it off as more of a running joke, and leaves the whole plot point utterly bereft of functional dramatic status until a last minute confirmation that sadly winds up feeling like too little, too late in what should be a heart-rendering climax.

Amongst the rubble of the narrative and intentions, there is still plenty of good to be taken in here. The direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga is confident enough in the action sequences to maintain a sense of thrill and engagement in the moment, and they’re certainly a step-up from the lacklustre squandering of the last one, and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is genuinely handsome and imaginative at points.

The performance from Craig is committed and solid, as he always has been – even if it feels like this version of his Bond is a far cry from the man and performance given in Casino Royale. He still shares shockingly little chemistry with Seydoux, which is even stranger considering they’re supposed to be passionately in love with one another. As with so much of Craig’s tenure, the standard set by Royale – in Eva Green’s femme fatale Vesper Lynd – has proven a frequently unattainable bar for its successors to reach.

The return of the likes of Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes and Jeffrey Wright are all welcome presences, and Ana de Armas turns a bubbly CIA agent experiencing her first time in field alongside Bond into a delightful scene-stealer (her entire role feels as though co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge plonked a character from Fleabag into this world and watched her react).

Much has been stirred-up and churned over regarding Lashana Lynch’s role as the new 007, but beyond her evident charisma and chemistry with Craig, she actually ends up getting very little to do, beyond serving as both a generational stand-in who generously allows Bond to continue in his service of queen and country in spite of their apparent differences, but also as a strangely tired mouthpiece for studio virtue signalling, one who goads the audience as much as Bond concerning her status as a black woman in a traditionally white man’s role. It’s both slight and heavy-handed at once, culminating in a big moment for her at the climax involving another tone deaf comedic character that comes across as the falsest beat in the entire film.

These are the good in an otherwise decidedly mediocre, overlong and somewhat tiring production though, and as well as this may go down with audiences, it’s also maybe a sign that it’s time for us as a collective to let James Bond go. Maybe its that we have simply outgrown this character, his gun barrel and gadgets. More likely, the sophistication with which contemporary television (and, a few yards behind in most cases, cinema) is presenting us with an abundance of layered, nuanced and fresh characters – some even in the mould of Bond – means that in trying to tow the line between honouring the series’ heritage and the needs of a contemporary audience, the franchise is ultimately compromising on both and satisfying neither.

With less navel-gazing and a willingness to lean into what ultimately works for the character and brand, there could be hope. But unless the next incarnation – whoever and whenever it may be – is able to deliver on what makes this series so appealing from a building blocks perspective, instead of constantly trying to work around it with deconstruction and reflection on the mind, the future feels somewhat uncertain.
For now, this at-times wildly inconsistent chapter in the 007 saga draws to a close, with an occasionally satisfying, but mostly diluted last gasp. Let’s hope for some spark of invention and confidence in what follows, lest Fleming’s book be finally – and definitively – closed for good.

Much akin to Craig’s run as a whole, No Time offers thrills, spectacle and solid performances, but its meandering, uninspired storytelling and frequent navel-gazing sacrifices too much of the franchise’s spirit and appeal.


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