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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Reel Critic: “No Time to Die,” Bye-Bye Bond

The datedness of James Bond is a puzzle “No Time to Die” tries to address. As Dame Judi Dench’s M once put it, Bond really is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” 

In “GoldenEye,” Pierce Brosnan’s Bond shrugs after this assessment, responding, “point taken.” Daniel Craig, in contrast, has transformed Bond into a more vulnerable secret agent over the last 15 years. In “No Time To Die,” Craig’s swan song to the 007 franchise, he and director Cary Joji Fukunaga have doubled down on this mission to modernize the character. In this film, Bond has gone from being a tuxedoed, murderous “gentleman” to a truly gentle man. 

Almost, anyway. 

We’re in Italy. Bond, retired from MI6 and madly in love with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, returning from the last 007 installment, “Spectre”), has finally found some peace. One romantic night, Swann tells Bond that he needs to come to terms with the trauma of his past: namely, the death of his former flame Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who died at the end of “Casino Royale” after she betrayed Bond. In an unexpectedly melancholy scene, the usually taciturn secret agent drives to Lynd’s grave in Matera and soliloquizes. “I miss you,” Craig says.

And you believe him.

Compare this scene to when Roger Moore’s Bond visits Teresa Bond’s headstone in “For Your Eyes Only.” The camera kept Moore out of the frame as he louchely dropped a bouquet in a lonely churchyard, a vaudevillian Bond trying to maintain a sense of gravity. Fukunaga, in contrast, keeps us right on Craig as he delivers the monologue. You realize that Daniel Craig may be one of the most underrated English actors working today. 

Then Lynd’s grave explodes. The explosion is the work of criminal organization SPECTRE. Several minions start shooting at Bond, leading him to believe that he has been yet again betrayed by a lover. While they drive away from the assassins, Swann receives a phone call from a certain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), congratulating her for her service to SPECTRE. Bond dumps Swann and finishes off most of the bad guys. 

Everything that works well in “No Time to Die” is in its first fifteen minutes. The action sequence thrills, particularly a segment where Bond does doughnuts with his machine-gun-enhanced vehicle after having Tarzaned off of a scenic Italian bridge.

But how could a trained intelligence officer such as Bond find Ernst Stavro Blofeld to be a credible source? “Why would I betray you?” shudders Swann to a seething Bond. What would have helped Swann’s case more is an anachronism, but certainly not a gross one. Who are you going to believe: French Belle or a voicemail from a meddler who sounds suspiciously like Hans Landa from “Inglourious Basterds?”

A distraught Bond retires in Jamaica for five years, only to be called back into the spy game by his American colleague Phoelix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). We learn a missing Russian scientist has been abducted by a group of SPECTRE operatives headed by Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). Safin’s scheme (from what I gathered) is to use the scientist to spread a formula of nanotechnological biobots that could kill one third of the world; his motive is that SPECTRE agent Jesper White — father of Bond’s ex, Swann  — murdered Safin’s whole family, which caused Safin to murder Madeleine's mother when she was a child.

Look. This is a Bond film. The plot fumbles like a very tired Brett Favre. But there are some moments of grace in “No Time To Die.” One is a segment in Santiago de Cuba, where Bond links up with Paloma, a seemingly ditzy CIA agent played by Ana De Armas from “Knives Out.” We learn that Paloma has only had “three weeks training.” 

But once a firefight with SPECTRE assassins begins, Craig takes a backseat as Paloma dispatches villain after villain — in an evening gown to boot. Mixing a 1960s “Bond Girl” aesthetic with combat skill equal to 007’s, de Armas’s brief appearance hints at some new directions the franchise could take following Craig’s departure.

Another addition is Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who becomes the new 007 after Bond retires. An apt spy and a young Black woman, Nomi offers a redress to the sexism and racism that the Bond series has sometimes displayed over its 60 years. At one point in the film, Nomi calls Bond an “old wreck.” You get the feeling that the screenwriters are trying to move the Fleming/Connery archetype of Bond into a more enlightened era. This stuff, especially in the first half of “No Time To Die,” plays smoothly. 

“Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty,” Oscar Wilde once lamented. Unfortunately, the “No Time to Die” screenwriters — Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the film’s director — reminded me of Wilde’s opinion of James when they dutifully constructed this three-hour gray mass out of what should have been a caper. All of the scenes where M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) direct the field agents and argue as they stare at computer screens and discuss Bond’s whereabouts, employment status and relationships are especially lethargic. Even Waltz’s cameo as a fettered Blofeld cannot liven up this baggy monster of a film. 

Yes, we eventually get the martinis. The tuxedos. The femme fatales. The mad scientist. The villain’s lair with face-masked minions. But it’s all done so joylessly. 

Everyone seems to be using long guns instead of the classic Bond Walther PPK, meaning that we are deprived of action sequences where James Bond and his assailants duke it out in the same frame à la legendary train scene in “From Russia With Love.” And aside from its opening, “No Time to Die” often takes place at twilight in the outdoors or in dimly lit rooms, meaning that Craig and Lynch essentially pose with their firearms as they shoot at enemies emerging from the foggy ether. 

After an explosive finale in a Pacific island where some surprising things happen, M gives a little speech that I think highlights a problem with this film compared to the first three Craig flics. (The less said about “Spectre,” the better). Fiennes reads a passage from Jack London in memory of Craig’s tenure in the role, and the gang clink whiskeys, weeping. “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist,” Fiennes says. “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.” 

At 163 minutes filled with nonsensical dialogue and too many subplots, “No Time to Die” certainly “existed” rather than “lived.” To heavily paraphrase “Anna Karenina,” all good Bond films are to some degree dumb, but each bad Bond film is dumb in its own painstakingly dull way.

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Editor's note: A version of this article incorrectly stated that a segment of the film was set in Santiago, Chile instead of Santiago de Cuba. The article has since been corrected.