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Josh Reviews No Time to Die

October 11th, 2021
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No Time To Die is the fifth and final film starring Daniel Craig as James Bond.  The film is excellent, with some terrific action set-pieces and also some lovely moments of emotional depth (something the series rarely saw before Mr. Craig took on the role).  While the film is not everything I’d hoped it would be, it’s definitely top-tier Bond and a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.

One of my favorite aspects of Mr. Craig’s run of Bond films has been the continuity between the films.  (I’ve heard many say this was a first for the Bond movies.  That’s not exactly the case, as the early Sean Connery films had a gentle continuity between them as Bond slowly became aware of the menace of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and things got escalatingly personal, culminating with the death of Bond’s wife.  Unfortunately, after George Lazenby’s one-and-done time in the role, the series for the most part abandoned any connections between their films, with each new movie basically being a stand-alone adventure.)  I’ve loved the continuity between the Daniel Craig Bond films.  When well done (as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), this allows for stories and character development with increasing depth and resonance.  Unfortunately, the Bond series also has shown the dangers of this approach — when Spectre (in my opinion) completely bungled the reveal of Blofeld and Spectre, the whole multi-film storyline appeared to collapse.

I’d wondered whether this new film would attempt to forget about Spectre or if it would somehow try to follow up on that film.  The filmmakers chose the latter approach, and I’m delighted that they did.  No Time To Die works hard (and mostly succeeds) at correcting the mistakes of Spectre, bringing back characters such as Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) but doing a much better job at developing their characters and their relationships to Bond.  The film is filled with references to and connections to the previous films in Mr. Craig’s run, in a valiant attempt to bring the many storylines and character threads together into a satisfying conclusion.  I’m delighted that is the approach the filmmakers took.  No Time to Die is a film that takes many big narrative swings, several of which truly surprised me.  These story twists didn’t all work for me, but I love the film’s ambition and the attempt to do what has never before been done in more than fifty years of Bond films: actually craft a satisfying ending.  (I’ll get into more details, in the SPOILERS section below, on my thoughts on these plot developments.)

A key element of the strength of the Daniel Craig Bond films has been the caliber of the directors hired to helm each film.  (This is in contrast to some of the… how shall we say it… more journeymen directors we’d seen in the previous decades of the franchise.)  No Time to Die’s director Cary Joji Fukunaga blew me away with the first season of True Detective, and he does very strong work here.  No Time to Die is a beautiful film, filled with moments of great beauty and also impressively intense action.  There’s a rough and gritty fight late in the film in a circular staircase, as Bond wades through a mess of bad guys in an attempt to get to a control room at the top of the stairs, that is one of my favorite pieces of action in any Bond film.

I think No Time to Die stands on its own, but there’s no question that it works best with a decent knowledge of the four previous Daniel Craig Bond films.  I rewatched Spectre before seeing this new film, and I’m glad I did, because the start of No Time to Die picks up more directly than I’d expected from the end of Spectre.  (There’s also an extended flashback sequence early in the film — a first, I believe, for a Bond film!! — that connects to a single line of dialogue in Spectre.  You don’t need to know that to understand and enjoy this sequence, but because I’d just seen Spectre I got it right away and was really delighted that the film chose to expand on this tiny piece of backstory.)

The best part of this film — as has pretty much been the case for me ever since 2006’s Casino Royale — is Daniel Craig himself as James Bond.  I’ve loved Mr. Craig’s version of Bond right from the start, and he has continued to impress me all the way through his run.  Even when the films he’s been in have let him down, he’s been 100% committed and compelling in his depiction of Bond.  I love Mr. Craig’s toughness but also the emotional realism that he brings to the character.  Mr. Craig’s Bond has always felt to me like a real person, even when he’s in the middle of spectacular, entertainingly unbelievable events or action sequences.  Mr. Craig’s Bond carries with him the effects of the traumas he’s been through.  And while I’ve repeatedly objected to the way his films have too often gone to the well of his Bond going rogue or leaving the service behind (only to inevitably return), I’ve always loved how Mr. Craig’s performance has shown us the bruised and battered heart that his James tries to hide deep down inside.  No Time to Die is a wonderful showcase for Mr. Craig and for that aspect to his version of Bond.  Mr. Craig’s charisma shines through the screen; his performance grips the audience and propels us through the story.

While I loved that No Time to Die tried (and mostly succeeded) in course-correcting from Spectre, the weakness of that film hurts this one.  This film would work a lot better if Spectre had done a better job at developing and making me care about Spectre, Blofeld, Madeleine, etc.  Though as I’ve been thinking about this film since seeing it, I also have to admit that this film — and, frankly, all the other Daniel Craig Bond films — have also been hurt by Casino Royale.  Albeit for the opposite reason as it was hurt by Spectre.  The problem with Casino Royale is that it was too good!!  As the years have passed, that film has cemented itself as unquestionably my favorite Bond film (even as I have deep love for many of the older Bond films as well, from From Russia with Love to Goldfinger to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to Goldeneye).  But Casino Royale was, for me, a nearly perfect Bond film.  It was a spectacular Bond adventure and also a thrilling and realistically grounded drama.  The plot made sense and was emotionally powerful.  The action was exciting and the characters were compelling and with true depth.  Unfortunately, no other Bond film — including this one — has been able to surpass (or, frankly, even equal) Casino Royale.  They all have paled somewhat in comparison, and that’s been a source of low-level disappointment for me.  I compare this, in my mind, to the best film series currently running, which is the MCU.  Those Marvel films have gotten better and better as they’ve gone on.  The sequels to Casino Royale have not succeeded in building on that film and deepening the universe and the characters to the degree that I’d hoped.  One problem has been the series’ mixed approach to continuity; sometimes they’ve seemed very interested in building connections between their films (Quantum of Solace functions basically as an extended epilogue to Casino Royale) while at other times… less so (Skyfall completely drops the development of Quantum begun in the previous two films).  It also hurts the series that there’s been so long between each film.  I know the pandemic got in the way here, but six years since Spectre is too long a wait for a film that picks up storylines and characters directly from that film.  The long waits between films have prevented this series from ever being able to really build up a narrative head of steam, in my opinion.  I’ll also comment that the endings of the films haven’t leaned into the “just wait until next time!” teases that the MCU has gotten so good at doing.  Or look at the other origin reboot that came out around the same time as the end of Casino Royale: Batman Begins, whose final scene was a delicious tease of the Joker that had the audience chomping at the bit for the arrival of the sequel.  The Bond movies have never really done that (with the possible exception of the end of Casino Royale; once again showing that film to be superior to the subsequent Bond films).  All of which is to say that I loved the degree to which No Time to Die was structured as a conclusion to this five-film series, while at the same time I look back and lament the missed opportunities along the way for this series to have been far more cohesive and ultimately satisfying.

Skyfall created a great team to surround Bond, and I was pleased to see M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and even Tanner (Rory Kinnear) — who’s been around since Casino Royale — all back for this latest adventure.  I just once again wish (as I’d also commented in my review of Spectre) they all had more to do in the story.  It’s a particular shame to see the great Naomie Harris mostly sidelined as just someone who delivers messages between Bond and other characters or delivers exposition.  Skyfall made the cool choice to establish Moneypenny as a former field agent — I wish the subsequent films had utilized that aspect of the character!  This team is great, and I wish the Bond films allowed them to do more work together as a team.  (Look how the recent Mission: Impossible films improved when they shifted from just being a showcase for Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and into more of an ensemble.)  I was pleased they gave some drama to M — which results in two great Bond-M scenes, the first an argument in M’s office and the second a reconciliation scene later in the film — even though to do this they had to make M act completely out of character.  (In Spectre, M was arguing against C’s computerization of spying, saying that nothing could replace a well-trained human operative in the field… and yet now in this film it’s M who decided that a computerized virus could make agents in the field obsolete???)  I was happy to at least get the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it acknowledgement that Ben Whishaw’s Q is gay.  (Though I wish the film had actually let us meet the fellow he was going to have dinner with before Bond and Moneypenny interrupted him at his home.)

I loved the new character of Nomi, the 007 replacement played by Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel).  I loved seeing this competent, bad-ass warrior woman added to the Bond mythos.  The film had some fun with the Bond-Nomi rivalry, once he discovered he’d been replaced as 007, but I was pleased that the film avoided any of the sexism that the Bond of earlier eras might have portrayed.  The film doesn’t make the mistake of creating a straw-man rival for our hero Bond by making this new 007 an ineffective bungler (the way so many previous Bond movies depicted any secret agent other than 007… or how, say, Star Trek: Generations made the mistake of making the new Captain of the Enterprise look like a buffoon).  They took the much-wiser tack of showing us that this new 007 is very capable — which actually strengthens the idea of a rivalry between the two characters, and makes it more powerful when Nomi early Bond’s respect.  I desperately hope they bring back this character in future films.

I was also delighted by the other major new female character, the CIA agent Paloma with whom Bond briefly teams up in Cuba.  I was worried at first, when the wide-eyed Paloma reveals she’s only been on the job for three weeks, and she seems like a bit of a bumbler.  But thankfully she quickly proves to be a great and effective partner for Bond.  Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049, Knives Out) is drop-dead gorgeous, and she’s also very funny and thoroughly engaging.  I was bummed she was only in such a short sequence in the film!  I’d love to see her character again in the future, too.

I was very disappointed that Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter (so fantastic in Casino Royale) was dropped in Skyfall and Spectre, so I was thrilled to see him back here.  I was very happy the film gave Felix a lot to do, and his final scene with Bond was very emotional.  Jeffrey Wright is always fantastic, and he’s particularly good here as a more jovial character than he usually gets to play.  Once again, I’ll note that while many earlier Bond films liked to depict any other spy than Bond as a moron, I loved that not only was Felix depicted as very competent, but that the film really leaned into his friendship and mutual respect with Bond, allowing me to imagine that the two had many more adventures between the movies that we never got to saw.

I wrote a lot above about the continuity between the Daniel Craig Bond films; I was also happy that this film had some fun references to much older Bond films from before Mr. Craig’s era.  That’s been the case in several of the previous Craig films, but sometimes those references have been a big heavy-handed for me.  (An example: having Agent Fields killed by being covered with black oil in Quantum of Solace, in much the same way that Jill Masterson was killed by being covered with gold paint in Goldfinger.)  But here in No Time to Die, I was delighted by the times in which the score quoted John Barry’s iconic instrumental theme from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service… or how the dots from the opening title sequence of Dr. No were utilized in this film’s opening title sequence.

Speaking of the score, I thought Hans Zimmer’s score was one of my favorite Bond scores in years.  I loved the way he utilized the classic Bond theme throughout the film (giving us enough of this classic music to be satisfying without overdoing it), and I really can’t express how happy it made me to hear bits of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service score woven into the music.

OK, I’m ready to dig deeper and get into SPOILERS territory, so if you haven’t yet seen No Time to Die, please stop here and come back after you’ve seen it, OK?

Still here?

OK, onwards!

The recent Bond films have played with the placement of the classic opening gun-barrel scene, and that’s been fun, but I was happy to have it back where it belongs as the first thing we see in the film.  I approve of the choice to eliminate the dripping blood at the end, which has always looked cartoony and a little silly.

Spectre’s pre-credits sequence was, I think, the all-time best Bond pre-credits sequence.  (It was by far my favorite aspect of that film!)  No Time to Die’s opening doesn’t quite top it, but it’s a great extended sequence that really hooked me into the film.  I loved that this sequence actually had several distinct elements, starting with a wonderfully tense flashback to young Madeleine Swann’s first encounter with the villain Safin.  It’s a cool idea that this film’s main villain is the man from the brief story Madeleine told Bond back in Spectre, when she describes the man who came for her father but who didn’t suspect she knew how to use the gun her father kept hidden.  I really liked the sequence that followed, with Bond and Madeleine happy together following the events of Spectre… at least until things go wrong.  I’m glad that we were once again reminded how powerfully Vesper’s betrayal and death (in Casino Royale) still hangs over this version of Bond.  The fight and motorcycle chase through the winding stone streets of Italy was very exciting.

Obviously the ending of Spectre — in which Bond and Madeleine Swann go off to a happily ever after ending — made me wonder what fate would befall Madeleine in the next film, which would obviously involve Bond’s somehow coming back to the service.  I loved how the filmmakers teased all of us classic Bond fans right away at the start of this new film, having Bond tell Madeleine that they have all the time in the world — which of course connects to the memorable last line of dialogue in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, after Bond’s wife was murdered.  Gulp!  This was designed to make us fear for Madeleine, and effectively so.  I was very happy the film avoided that easy out — and the tired trope of the death of a woman being used to incite a male character into action — and instead kept Madeleine around.  At the same time, I liked the choice of breaking the two characters up and putting them at odds, allowing for a much more complicated and interesting development to their relationship.

I was very disappointed by the forgettable main title song by Billie Eilish.  She’s got a beautiful voice, but this song just didn’t do it for me.  I don’t get the choice of such a slow, somber ballad.  I felt similarly about Sam Smith’s The Writing’s on the Wall in Spectre.  I want a song that will propel us into the film in an exciting way.  These super-slow, somber tunes feel to me like they completely dissipate the excitement of the opening sequence and bring the film to a screeching halt.  Two days after seeing the movie I can’t seem to remember or hum a single line from the No Time to Die song, which indicates a swing and a miss for me.

I was a little bummed that they brought back Felix only to kill him off, but I loved every moment that Jeffrey Wright was on-screen and I thought his death was very moving.  Like James Bond, I hope and expect that a new Felix will return in future films.

I was truly shocked by the choice to reveal that Madeleine had given birth to a son, with Bond as the father!  (What a great use of Daniel Craig’s blue eyes in that close-up shot of Mathilde’s blue eyes!)  That was a bold choice.  I’ve been a fan of this development in several other long-running movie franchises, such as Kirk’s son in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Lois Lane’s son in Superman Returns.  And I found it worked well here.  The filmmakers clearly wanted to establish Bond and Madeleine’s love affair as something deeper and more special than what we’d seen before, and this makes everything between them in the second half of the film more interesting and tense.  It’s exciting to see Bond slowly shift into a more protective mode, trying his best to keep Mathilde alive during the fantastic car chase and shoot-out in the foggy woods, and then later in Safrin’s lair.

But obviously the series’ biggest narrative swing was in depicting the death of James Bond.  I love this choice, and I was surprisingly moved by the last few minutes of the film.  I love the idea of really going all-in on making this film a true conclusion to Daniel Craig’s five-film saga.  I was expecting an ending, but not so definitive an ending as the death of James Bond!!  I love this idea, even though I don’t think this quite landed as effectively as it should have.  If you’re going to show us the death of Bond, with our hero finally finding himself in a situation in which he couldn’t heroically extricate himself at the last minute — which I think is a very cool and exciting idea!! — then I think it really has to be a do-or-die situation the likes of which we’ve never seen before.  But here, I didn’t feel Bond’s situation in Safin’s island lair felt that much more perilous than any of a hundred tight spots we’ve seen Bond in before.  Bond actually seems like a bit of a moron for not disabling or destroying the controls to the huge bay doors into the island that they needed the missiles to get through — which allows Safin to just go back in and close them after Bond left the control room.  With Bond’s child in play — and in jeopardy — for the very first time, the movie had established someone who, for the first time, I truly believed Bond would be willing to die for.  I could see Bond’s having to choose to sacrifice himself to save his daughter a moment that would force this Bond to accept death where every previous Bond had been able to escape.  But that’s not what happens — Madeleine and Mathilde were safe and off the island long before Bond’s death.  I think that was a misstep.

They also gilded the lily by showing us Bond infected by Safin, so that if he touched Madeleine or Mathilde he would kill them, just a few minutes before his death.  While that was a plot twist that seemed too silly to suit me, it did nonetheless work as a horrifying moment for the character Bond and for me as a viewer: the idea that Bond had finally found true love but would forever be separated from them was a heartbreaking idea.  Bond’s death a few minutes later almost seemed like an easy out — better to be dead then to have to live out his entire life forced to be separate from them.  This diluted the impact of Bond’s death for me.

The film also fails to establish the villain Safin as a villain with sufficient stature to be the man who killed James Bond.  I actually really enjoyed Rami Malek’s performance as Safin, right up until the end.  I loved how weird and creepy — and yet still very dangerous — Safin was!  His obsession with Madeleine was an interesting hook, and the idea that he was a man obsessed with plant-grown poisons wasn’t something we’d seen before in a Bond villain.  I also really liked his look, with that super-creepy broken white mask, and his mottled flesh beneath.  If Safin was a villain in a stand-alone Bond film, I’d be satisfied.  But this little plant-obsessed dude is the man who killed James Bond??  No way.  I’d mentioned Star Trek: Generations earlier in this review, and I’m again reminded of that film in the way it similarly failed to make the villain Soran, played by Malcolm McDowell, into a villain worthy of killing James T. Kirk.  Soran was played by a terrific actor, he had an interesting backstory and he was a suitably menacing figure in his scenes.  But the movie didn’t give him nearly enough screen-time to develop him into the fearsome villain he needed to be, in order to be believable and satisfying as the man to kill our unkillable hero.  I felt there were the exact same problems here.

Safin is also hurt because the film makes the mistake that so many modern action movies do of rushing through the important exposition at far too fast a clip.  I think there’s a line in the film that explains how Safin got disfigured, but I didn’t catch it.  (Was it an accident with one of Blofeld’s poisons, or one of his own?)  That’s an important detail for the audience to know about the main villain!  Also: what exactly was Safin’s plot?  Why did he wait 20 years before going after Madeleine?  (Or Blofeld?)

Frankly, Safin shouldn’t have been in this film at all.  This should have been Blofeld.  Right?  Blofeld should be the man who killed Bond!!  Imagine this movie if Blofeld — who, after all, was supposed to be the super-smart master of a super-powerful globe-spanning criminal organization — instead of being defeated easily by Bond at the end of Spectre and then, as depicted here, spent the rest of his life in prison, was instead revealed to have outsmarted the British and broken out of prison soon after being put there?  (Or of still managing to control Spectre even within prison, which is something the film suggests but quickly glosses over.)  What if it was Blofeld who then did everything Safin did?  I think that would have been far more satisfying, and would have been a better way to repair one of the main sins of Spectre: how easily Blofeld was beaten by Bond.

I loved that they returned to the “all the time in the world” line at the end of the film.  I thought it was extremely clever that the end of No Time to Die flipped the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with this time it being Bond who didn’t make it out alive!  I’ve already mentioned how much I loved that No Time to Die’s soundtrack repeatedly quoted the music from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service… and then I was overjoyed that, for the end credits, they used the song “We Have All the Time in the World” from the end credits of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!!  What a wonderful choice; a lovely nod to all the long-time Bond fans in the audience.

I stayed until the end of the credits to see if the usual “James Bond will return” declaration would appear… and I was comforted that it did.  I wonder what’s ahead for this franchise after this ending?  Does this mean that the next film will once again be a complete reboot?  Will we return again to an inexperienced Bond, like the Bond we met at the start of Casino Royale?  I’m not sure I want to sit through another origin story for Bond.  (Particularly considering that the first three films of Daniel Craig’s five films were basically one long origin story.  It wasn’t until the end of Skyfall that this Bond was really Bond, with M, Moneypenny and Q all assembled around him.)  I hope they don’t make the same mistake that the Spider-Man franchise did, retelling Spidey’s origin yet again in The Amazing Spider-Man just a few years after the Tobey Maguire Spidey films.  I find myself hoping for a softer reboot that will allow some/all of the supporting characters from the Daniel Craig Bond films to recur.  I’d love for Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw to all continue as M, Moneypenny, and Q, respectively.  And I desperately want to see more of Lashana Lynch’s double-o agent!  Seeing as how Judi Dench made the transition from the Pierce Brosnan films to the Daniel Craig films, there is some precedent for this.  The Bond team have put theselves in a touch place with the ending of this film; it makes a softer transition between leading men more difficult.  (In every previous transition of Bond actors before Daniel Craig, we could always sort of imagine that the previous films were in the same world or continuity as the new ones.  But with Bond dead at the end of No Time to Die, that’s not an option for the next Bond film!)

But let’s put such questions aside for now.  Overall, I quite enjoyed No Time to Die.  It’s an extremely well-made film, with spectacular action and beautiful direction.  The production values are — as they have been throughout the Daniel Craig Bond films — absolutely top-notch.  The cast was terrific, with Daniel Craig himself making the strongest impression.  (Sometimes in these types of films, the leading man can get lost.  Look at all the Batman films in which Batman was the least interesting character.  But that never happened to Daniel Craig.)  I love that these five Bond films tell a complete story.  While not everything about No Time to Die played out in quite the way I’d have hoped for, I love that the Bond team chose to craft a definitive ending for this era of Bond films.  I’m excited to revisit all five Daniel Craig Bond films, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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