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Review by Timothy Lawrence
Leading up to the release of the twenty-fifth James Bond film, No Time to Die, Travis Kyker and Timothy Lawrence collaborated on a retrospective of Daniel Craig’s first four outings as Bond. You can read that conversation here. What follows is their discussion of the new movie, which brings Craig’s run as Bond to a close.
LAWRENCE: James Bond movies are always products of their times. We’ve already discussed how 2006’s Casino Royale was part of a wave of blockbusters, together with Batman Begins and Superman Returns, that made a concerted effort to invest their iconic pop culture heroes with emotionally plausible motives. One can draw a direct line from 2012’s Skyfall, with its studious resuscitation of classic Bond tropes, to the nostalgia-fueled Star Wars: The Force Awakens; and then there’s 2015’s Spectre, which tries to cash in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe craze by pulling plot threads from all of the Craig films together into one overarching narrative.
It is too early to say what the blockbusters of this new decade will look like, but No Time to Die fits neatly alongside Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as a conclusion to a long-running franchise. (It was originally scheduled for an April 2020 release, which would have put it within a year of both those films.) All three bear the responsibility of wrapping up a serialized narrative, and all three are rife with callbacks, parallels, and so on, recapitulating their predecessors so deliberately and self-consciously I like to call them “victory lap” blockbusters.
This is not necessarily a criticism; I like all three of these films, to varying degrees. Nonetheless, watching No Time to Die, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something overly tidy about it, something a little focus-group-tested – and this in spite of the audacious risks it takes with its iconic hero. Before we really dig deep, though, maybe we should start at the surface, because there is a lot to like there. On a technical level – as an action film with the globetrotting prestige of the Bond name attached to it – what did you think of No Time to Die?
KYKER: On those merits, there are long stretches of this film that couldn’t be any better. The first hour specifically offers perhaps the best – and, in a way, the most – Bond action of anything in the Craig films. The massive opening set piece (which lasts so long that by the time it finally winds down, the traditional title sequence that follows comes with something of a shock) operates as a nearly flawless compound of formal brilliance, synthesizing the unique attributes of each preceding film into one scene. Here and elsewhere, Sandgren’s camerawork recalls the elegance and style of Mendes’ entries, but Cary Fukunaga’s direction is sturdier, more tactile; the result is action with the aggressive heft of Quantum of Solace just given a little room to breathe. If there’s any moment from this stretch that stands out as especially emblematic, it’s Bond sitting calmly in the driver’s seat as an antagonist drills the bulletproof windows of his Aston Martin. Like the car, No Time to Die is almost mechanic in its precision and durability.
I say that with the intention of praise, but you’re right – it insinuates, perhaps, being too precise. If true, though, it’s hardly surprising. Like Skyfall, No Time to Die has the task of winning back audience goodwill following a poorly received predecessor (this series just loves its patterns), and so in that vein, I find the elements here which could be labeled accusingly as fan service to be less egregious than simply fun. The first half is packed with most of the film’s action, but as I said above, it’s so pristinely conceptualized that the breakneck pace is exhilarating rather than exhausting. Carrying its momentum even further is a supporting cast that really makes for a good time: Ana de Armas stops the show for every minute of her too-quick appearance; Léa Seydoux contributes a steady emotional weight far more effective than her turn in Spectre; and Jeffrey Wright once again reminds everyone that any movie becomes quantifiably better the moment he steps onscreen. And of course there’s Rami Malek, in a performance that’s almost weirdly un-weird considering both his historical tendencies and his character here, whose incredible name couldn’t be more on the nose if it tried.
Lyutsifer Safin, whose plans for world domination include a harnessing of the mysterious Heracles Project – if it wasn’t already obvious that this one intended on going big, that might’ve just queued you in. Turning inward a bit, what’s going on with these grand, mythic connotations? Would you say these elements fall more in line with the film’s swipe at bold profundity, or do they end up diluting into something more banal; “focus-tested,” as you put it?
LAWRENCE: Speaking of elements synthesizing into a flawless compound – No Time to Die is a happy convergence of collaborators I wouldn’t necessarily have picked myself. I would not have pegged the man who shot La La Land as an ideal cinematographer for a James Bond film, but there’s something wonderfully artificial about Linus Sandgren’s deep blue twilight skies that perfectly fits the glamour of the franchise. And I certainly wouldn’t have gone for Hans Zimmer; when he was first attached, I was immediately afraid this would sound like a Chris Nolan movie, but I like the way he loops phrases of preexisting themes to create a sound that’s new and old all at once. (It’s similar to what his protégé Lorne Balfe did with Lalo Schifrin’s iconic themes for Mission: Impossible – Fallout.)
In the same vein, I didn’t have especially high expectations based on Fukunaga’s other works, but I’ll second your praise for his direction here. As you say, No Time to Die is both stylish and grounded, consistently striking a fine balance between the ‘00s films and Mendes’ later entries. Sure, it may be a bit “all things to all people,” but Fukunaga brings his own unique flourishes, too. I love how, when the Aston Martin is cornered in the town square at the end of that terrific, lengthy cold open, the camera pulls out through the bell tower, as if we are about to witness an Old West shootout. I like the way the camera turns upside down when the goons are rappelling down the side of the lab building (again, with that Sandgren dusk in the background) – and of course, later on, there’s that gripping extended one-take sequence following Bond up the stairs.
Speaking of the film’s pleasures, particular praise is due to the Cuba sequence. What a delight! Next to the cold open, this is the film’s best sustained stretch, but for entirely different reasons. There’s such a lovely lightness to it, massacre by nanobots notwithstanding; by the time you reach the doom and gloom of the last hour, it comes as a little shock to think back and remember how much fun Cuba was. I’m thinking, in particular, of the giddy moment where Ana de Armas consecutively shoots three goons in the head, synced to Zimmer’s score, like it’s some kind of Old Hollywood musical number.
Here and elsewhere, Daniel Craig is doing something different as James Bond that initially threw me for a loop, but the more I reflect on it, the more I love it. The Bond we meet in this film really has mellowed with age. He “stopped to think about it,” as Spectre suggested he would. He’s older, sadder, wiser, even a little sillier; he’s lost his edge more completely than he did when he briefly “retired” in Skyfall. When he cracks wise or tries to intimidate, he seems a little flustered, a little less tightly wound. In any other Bond movie, de Armas’ character would be one more conquest of the hero’s virility; here, he becomes a kind of gentle, hands-off mentor, letting her take the lead. He is bemused by her, but never contemptuous. There’s a wonderful sweetness and easiness to their rapport.
All this brings us back to the big swings the film takes: I’m not totally convinced by all of them, but Craig is absolutely doing his best to make them connect. I also realize I sidestepped your question about Lyutsifer Safin, whose evil lair is, yes, in a garden. The film makes its share of big, mythic gestures, but I think it’s most successful when it keeps things intimate, conflicted. One of the directorial flourishes that’s stuck with me the most is a small one: that single drop of blood falling into the water during Bond and Safin’s fateful final confrontation. Bond’s last act of redemptive self-sacrifice is de rigueur for movie heroes; Tony Stark did the same thing in Avengers: Endgame just a couple years back. Then again, is No Time to Die as cut and dry as all that? The more I think about the ending, the more bittersweet I think it is – and the more bitter there is mixed in with the sweet, the more I think I like it. What do you think of the way the film concludes the story of James Bond?
KYKER: I’m with you, I think. Initially, everything following that wonderful first hour seemed a tad flat by comparison; even though I appreciated what was being attempted, it all seemed a bit blasé. (Can you get any less innovative, after all, than building up to a mega-climax at some villainous lair which threatens to unleash a world-ending weapon? It’s far from unique territory, especially within this very franchise.) But, like you, I’ve found myself warming to it in the days since. There’s a “one more time” element of intentional repetition that recalls those “victory lap” blockbusters you mentioned, which, once recognized, lends the formula itself a kind of bittersweet finality. But even more than that, the gradual realization that the formula isn’t foolproof – that, for the first time, maybe this won’t end like all the others have – carries an unexpected weight. On a purely emotional level, I’m coming around to a real admiration for the lack of a conventionally satisfying ending here. For a series that, at times, seemed concerned with narrative and thematic congruity only in fits and starts, it closes with a finale impressively faithful to a character who spent much of his arc systematically destroying every chance he ever had at a happy ending. There’s a sense in which his character never seemed to mind this; Bond’s essence both in this five-film run and in the franchise as a whole is predicated on his indestructibility, his seeming immortality. Happy endings were out of the question anyway; it’s not like he’d ever need one. But here in No Time to Die, when we’re suddenly given a Bond film in which he does, his chips have all been played, and he’s holding a blank hand.
More than the effective pathos, though, I really like the grandiose directions this film gestures towards. As I mentioned above, giving your deadly virus the name Heracles certainly provides some interesting connotations, and in fact provokes what I think is the most interesting thematic construct in the film. Heracles (or Hercules, as the Romans called him) was of course the ancient Greek hero of unmatched intelligence, physical prowess, and amorous disposition – an apt parallel to Bond himself, as Daniel Craig’s run gave special emphasis to his character’s surplus of all three. It’s intriguing, then, that this character to whom Bond is very easily equated lends its name to the weapon which ultimately seals his fate. There’s an Oedipal quality of destiny and self-fulfillment in equal measure: Bond, at the end of a lifetime spent facing and defeating the deadliest of enemies, taking on one last adversary that is but a reflection of himself. The greatest tragedy of the film isn’t that he can no longer escape death, but that he finally seals the fate he’s been building since the very beginning. According to Greek myth, Heracles succumbed to mortality when his lover Deianeira, seeing a romantic rival in a foreign princess, sent him a garment dipped in poisoned blood which would kill him if he proved unfaithful. Heracles fell in love with the princess, triggering the poison, and swiftly died. In No Time to Die, Bond is doomed in a similar manner, yet almost reversed: poisoned by the Heracles virus infected not with his DNA, but Madeleine’s, such that a single touch from him would kill her. As long as he keeps himself from her, she lives; as soon as he touches her, she dies. The physical weapon Bond has always been is no longer an attribute, but a curse; the erotic conqueror he was before is pushed to its logical end, which turns lovers into corpses at the brush of a finger. In the face of such a dilemma, immortality loses its luster. Heracles stumbled into his death by betraying his lover, but here, Bond has a choice. The question is, does this make it more or less of a tragedy?
If that sounds grim, it’s because it is; I can’t think of any recent icon in popular culture which has been so soundly interrogated and, in a way, condemned. But it’s not, in my eyes, an entirely merciless ending. You called it bittersweet before – where do you see the balance between the two, and what stops this from falling wholly into tragedy?
LAWRENCE: That’s a really great catch on Heracles. I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the impressive bleakness of the ending: while Bond is, at least in part, a victim of fate, there is also a persistent insinuation that he made his own bed and has to sleep in it. It initially sounds like generic supervillain bluster when Safin describes Bond and himself as “two heroes in a tragedy of our own making,” but the more I think about it, the more it rings true. It seems like a telling detail that Bond is ultimately killed by the British Navy – his own people! – in a ruin of old wars (Safin’s base is linked to both World War II and the Cold War). It fits with the motif of cyclical violence and unending, ultimately pointless retribution: Mr. White kills Safin’s family, so Safin kills Mr. White’s family, and so on. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and Bond is most definitely a man who lives by the sword. Think of the blithe, casual, resigned way he ends Safin’s life after realizing he cannot be with Madeleine and Mathilde. This is who he is. The poison is a cruel twist of fate, but not an arbitrary one; it is a judgment on Bond’s character, on what he has dedicated his life to. (To quote Tony Soprano: “What am I, some kind of a toxic person or something?”)
Christians like to find Christ figures in movies, and I almost want to say movies like to bait them by constantly giving heroes sacrificial deaths. I said above that Bond’s sacrifice is formulaic, but it adjusts the formula in some striking ways; Bond “becomes a curse,” as St. Paul said of Christ, but he does not overcome original sin, he succumbs to it. Q uses the word “eternal” to describe Heracles, and it is almost as if Bond goes to hell in Madeleine and Mathilde’s place, sending them to a heaven he cannot enter into himself. (I’m thinking of that shot of the two of them disappearing into blinding golden light as they leave the island.) His death takes place in a dangerously blurry middle ground between martyrdom and just plain suicide.
If there is any hope here – and I think the film certainly wants us to believe there is – it is in the love that Madeleine and Mathilde extend to Bond and, reciprocally, the love he extends to them. As played by Craig, Bond is a man who has thought himself unworthy and incapable of love ever since Vesper betrayed him. In No Time to Die, we see that wound at least begin to heal in Bond’s tender, protective interactions with Mathilde and the surprisingly sentimental declarations of love that he exchanges with Madeleine. Spectre linked the eyes to the soul; in Bond’s final moments, Madeleine reminds him that Mathilde has his eyes. There is almost a suggestion of the immortality of the soul here, though it is no more than a suggestion.
Like The Green Knight earlier this year, No Time to Die is preoccupied with the question of how one ought to order one’s life in light of one’s impending death. The film is constantly returning to the theme of time, from the Billie Eilish song that opens the film (“There’s just no time to die,” which is to say, no time to prepare oneself for death) all the way to the Louis Armstrong song that plays over the closing credits. M’s eulogy suggests that Bond made the best of his limited time: “The purpose of man is to live, not to exist. I will not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” Louis Armstrong, however, seems to disagree. “All the Time in the World” is an ironic lament for all that Bond missed out on while he was on Her Majesty’s Secret Service: “We have all the time in the world / Time enough for life / To unfold all the precious things / Love has in store.” The film lives in the tension between these two assessments of Bond. Should we praise him for using his time well, or grieve that he used it poorly? There is truth in either answer, but I don’t think I would like the film as much as I do if Louis Armstrong did not get the final word.
- Release DateOctober 8, 2021