Monday, July 15, 2024

‘No Time to Die’ A Fitting End to an Era

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No Time to Die is a Bond film for Bond fans, those who mark their lives by the changing of the 007s. As for everyone else, it is a beautifully shot action film filled with pathos and hobbled by a stock villain. For myself, I fall somewhere between the two.

Cary Joji Fukunaga is a cinematographer and a director, so it’s no surprise that his Bond is far and away among the most visually breathtaking. Much like the other Craig Bond films, Fukunaga’s is emotionally compelling while still maintaining Bond’s classic air of aloofness, allowing for his kills to have a more brutal edge to them. But more than that, No Time to Die serves not just as a coda for Craig but as a final chapter for the Bond franchise itself.

Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux in No Time to Die

I’ve never had the love for Bond that my friends and others have had. Yes, I’ve seen my fair share of Bond films and have a favorite Bond, sure. But I haven’t seen all of the Bond films and tend not ever to find myself going, “Wonder what I’ll watch tonight? How about a Bond movie?” Still, all that being said, I appreciate Craig’s Bond for how they’ve dragged the character into the 21st century-or tried to.

Bond is a relic of the 60s, the Cold War era. Any story with him that takes place afterward always feels largely out of sync. However, this is not necessarily a flaw. On the contrary, it’s what makes the Bond movies so unique; they are movies about characters that seem plucked from the past and put into the present, all while dealing with the current social mores and political climate by treating it as if it is comparable to the one in which they were borne. 

You can tell Fukanaga is trying to blend the past and present together in No Time to Die. New characters are introduced, old friends are buried, yet the mission and even the danger, however well crafted, still feel like a relic from the bygone era. In the current landscape of comic-book movies, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. should feel right at home. It’s no World Crime League, but nobody’s perfect.

Yet, that’s part of the charm of No Time to Die. Fukanaga and his co-writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, have a helluva time mixing the old with the new. Lashana Lynch as the new 007 is a breath of fresh air, the cocky, arrogant, and stoic younger replacement to Craig’s Bond. “It’s just a number.”

Lashana Lynch as 007

Ana de Armas all but steals the show in her brief appearance as Paloma, a C.I.A. agent with who Bond has to work on a mission. Armas is one of Hollywood’s best secret weapons. She is so good, so often, so reliably, we’re oftentimes left wondering why she is not the star of the movie she’s in. Paloma is new to the field but, despite her nerves, seems more than competent in a crunch. Her fight scenes are vibrant and kinetic, and while her dress may be slinky, it allows for higher and deadlier kicks.  

The problem is that No Time to Die is introducing all these new and exciting characters, who are also not white, in a movie that, for all intents and purposes, is the cap to the long-running franchise. The next Bond will likely restart or build its own narrative without these characters. So it feels almost cruel to give us a taste of these characters and hints at their rich inner lives, only never to see them again. If I’m honest, I’d much rather see films about Armas’s Paloma and Lynch’s 007 than any other Bond movie. 

Still, as ambivalent as I am about Bond, I must admit I smiled when Jeffrey Wright showed up. I’ve always loved the sort of mischievous big brother way he had of playing Felix. Wright is the type of actor who makes it all look so easy it’s astonishing. The interplay between Craig and Wright is some of the best of the film. The two have a rapport that hints at a history that we aren’t privy to, and Fukunaga is blessedly uninterested in telling us about it.

Ana de Armas kicking butt in No Time to Die

Fukanaga and his co-writers are much more interested in Bond’s perceived betrayal by Madeleine (Lea Seydoux), his new bride. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. attacks while they are on their honeymoon/getting over Vesper (Eva Green) from Casino Royale. The most exciting and effective material in No Time to Die is the fraught romance between Bond and Madeleine and how Bond’s trust issues have left both of them damaged and yearning. 

It almost feels like Fukunaga is less interested in making a Bond movie than a movie about a doomed romance. This could explain why the most Bondesque aspect of No Time to Die, Rami Malek’s Safin, feels hollow and dull. Safin is from that school of villains who suffered a tragedy and then grew up to be a deranged mass-murdering disfigured egotist with a messiah complex, all the while smirking at Bond and extolling about how he and Bond have more in common than he realizes.

I’m not against well-worn tropes, but Malek, a fine actor, has little to work with here, and his Safrin is a little too quiet for a movie stretching into its third hour. I remember once saying a movie needed a scene with the villain in his layer, just one, so we could understand him. But here, I couldn’t help wish that we could get a little less time with the villain in his lair.

Luckily Linus Sandgren’s camera always manages to frame a gorgeous panorama. Bond films are often polished and slick, but Sandgren tosses in a helping of ennui into his framing to give the movie a little kick. He doesn’t like shaking the camera about; instead, it’s rooted to the ground from a slight distance, allowing us the freedom to see into the distance, leaving us aware of what’s coming and anticipating. 

Lynch and Craig representing the new and the old

But more than that, Fukunaga and Sangren allow the action to happen in the background and foreground, letting us decide where to focus. As a result, the stunts in No Time to Die have an almost laissez-faire style to them, as cars leap bridges, and necks are broken, all of it impressively choreographed and filmed, while Craig’s Bond strides cooly towards the camera. No Time to Die is a beautiful action movie, but Fukunaga’s style and Sandgren’s compositions make it, so it’s less pulse-pounding and more eye-witness.

Still, as much as I loved a lot of No Time to Die, I couldn’t help but feel as if Fukunaga’s heart wasn’t in it. There’s a lot of talk about how the “world is changing,” and how men like Bond and M are a dying breed, and of how love lost is better than never to have loved, but Fukunaga never feels all that interested in it. For all its riches, there’s an almost hermetic feeling to the last Bond film that, while emotionally resonant at times, is left feeling largely prettier and technically proficient but thematically bereft. 

This is a Bond film, after all, the final Craig one at that, but still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that as much as I enjoyed No Time to Die, that the film itself was essentially hollow. Strangely enough, of the scenes I remember of the film, few if any of them have Bond himself. Perhaps that is by design. Craig was a new bond for a new era, but even Craig seems stifled by the iconic character at times. 

Craig and de Armas enjoy a drink in No Time to Die

Maybe the desire to move on is part of my nagging apathy. No Time to Die is a well-made film in a franchise riddled with gems and flops. It’s a sly action movie with uncommonly good dialogue at times. The scene between Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and Bond being among my favorites. The way Waltz tosses off “Everybody cries on their birthday” is simply sublime. But in the end, impressed as I was with how they ended Craig’s Bond era, I was also ready to be done with it. 

Images courtesy of United Artists Releasing

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