No Time to Die

Back in 2002, Die Another Day was the highest-grossing film in the James Bond series. However, despite its box-office success, it was poorly received by Bond enthusiasts and critics who felt the series had devolved into pastiche with outlandish elements such as an invisible car and kite surfing over a tsunami.

The gravitas and subtext that Ian Fleming had conceived had long been absent in the series but it became most apparent in the indifferently made Die Another Day. It also seemed anachronistic for the post 9/11 era to have a comedic spy thriller.

Thus, the forty-year-old series returned to its roots. Casino Royale. Fleming’s first Bond novel was faithfully adapted but adeptly updated for the big screen.

Casino Royale emerged as a huge success both critically and commercially. It was also a total triumph for Daniel Craig, who delivered a brave new interpretation of Bond.

Casino Royale was followed by the relatively lackluster Quantum of Solace that had Bond going rogue seeking vendetta. Next was the extraordinary Skyfall, which was a psychological thriller with a Nietzschean subtext. Then came the enjoyable but contrived SPECTRE where big tech attempts to take over the British secret service and the sinister organization SPECTRE remerges.

In all these films, the essential elements of the Bond series such as the megalomaniacal villain, the henchman, the outlandish gadgets, the heroine with the double entendre name, and the one-liners were skilfully reinvented. There was copious action, wit, and thrills, but it was grounded in the violent, gritty, and dark world of espionage.

Daniel Craig’s exceptional and nuanced performances worked magnificently in humanizing Bond, who was usually played as a quasi-superhero. Beneath the stoic heroism of Craig’s Bond was pain, fear, moral conflict, uncertainty, and grief that seemed to be consuming Bond from within. The last time this was successfully done was when Timothy Dalton played Bond during the late 80s.

There were some who missed the fun adventures of the Roger Moore and Sean Connery era, but considering the success of the films, they were probably among a minority.

To sum it up, the films were a perfect blend of the old-school Bond with a bold and fresh approach.

After being postponed five times due to COVID-19, Craig’s last outing as Bond, No Time To Die, finally hits cinemas across the world.

The film opens with Bond retired, on holiday, and in love with the beautiful Dr. Swann (Léa Seydoux). Their peace is rudely interrupted when ghosts from his past remerge and thrust Bond back into the midst of the action.

There are fistfights, leaps, bruises, chases, explosions, heartbreak, deceit, intrigue, peppered with humor, and even subtle references to past Bond films. It was perfect synchronicity with what we have come to expect from Craig’s Bond films.

Alas, after an enthralling setup, the film loses its way.

The production was marred due to the last-minute replacement of director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge, which is most noticeable in the tonal inconsistencies, and the lack of development in both characters and plot.

The film swings incongruously like a pendulum between spy thriller and serious romantic melodrama which makes it appear fragmented and disjointed. It’s almost as if writers Purvis, Wade, Fukunaga, and Waller-Bridge were involved in a relentless tug-of-war about the overall tenor and direction of the film. 

The core of the problem is the scar-faced villain unsubtly named Lyutsifer Safin, who seems to suffer from an existential crisis. We learn of his early life, but the purpose and details of his nefarious grand plan are not clearly explained. Hence Bond’s mission to thwart them is devoid of the usual heroic fervor and urgency.

Rami Malek as Safin whispers his lines at a slow pace in a non-specific accent but fails to convey menace or derangement that could make him compelling or memorable. The writers probably intended to paint him with shades of grey to explore the complexities and contradictions within him, instead, Safin appears lame, hackneyed, forced, and inconsistent.

Bond’s arch-nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) makes a brief and uneventful appearance in a Hannibal Lecter fashion.

Adding to the woes is the romance between Bond and Swann that lacks plausibility, probably owing to the lack of chemistry between Craig and Seydoux. There seems to be no genuine affection, attraction, care, and trust between them. It must be remembered that the heartfelt love story between Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale was the emotional backbone that elevated that film.

A great deal was made about Bond’s quasi-successor (Lashana Lynch), she too suffers due to lack of material to play with. Despite a promising first few appearances she ends up sounding insipid and is eventually relegated to the periphery.

Bond’s allies such CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffery Wright) and Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) have little to do, but make the most of it. The always excellent Ralph Fiennes adds gravitas as M while Ben Whishaw adds some lighter moments as Bond’s tech whiz Q.

The true revelation is the ravishing Ana de Armas as agent Paloma in Cuba.  She provides the sexual verve and comic relief to the proceedings. She is stunning and sprightly, especially during her action scenes. Alas, she appears on screen for around ten minutes.

Daniel Craig, with his solid screen presence and acting talents, makes a valiant attempt to hold the film together. He embraces his age with grace which means several subtle changes to Bond. He does well during the action scenes and is effective during the emotional moments. He almost succeeds in rising above the mediocre script.

The cinematography of Linus Sandgren is absolutely stunning, this visual engagement is so impactful that often distracts you from the lack of depth in the writing. The background score by Hans Zimmer is enchanting.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, in a recent interview, opined that Sean Connery’s Bond was 'basically a rapist'. This lack of regard and understanding of the series and its protagonist should have disqualified him from directing a Bond movie.

Unsurprisingly under Fukunaga’s watch, myriad inviolable elements of the series, cultivated over fifty years, were disdainfully subverted. Fukunaga, who also co-wrote the film, seems unclear about the overall direction and tone. There are some very serious moments immediately followed by an attempt at humor which is most baffling. 

Perhaps this contempt for Bond caused them to infuse the script what they thought of as depth and gravitas, unfortunately, it ends up looking awfully contrived. In the quest for the sublime, the obvious seems to have been forgotten. 

It truly is a disgrace that, unlike Casino Royale and Skyfall, this film doesn’t offer Daniel Craig rich material that would have made this a momentous farewell.

We hence have a film that opens impressively but meanders and eventually descends into mediocrity. It certainly doesn’t help that the film runs for 163 minutes.

So is this watchable?

Perhaps if you are a staunch fan of Bond and Craig. But it is essential that you elevate your patience and lower your expectations considerably.

Image: MGM

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