As I said on Twitter, that was more or less the shambolic hoot I had hoped for. A rollicking, incoherent, dumb, infuriating, joyful, and exhilarating mess. Fukunaga, Craig, et al identify and transmit the pleasures of Bond films while gesturing at bolder things, and sometimes even clutching them, while grounding their work in the mindless but alluring celebration of British imperialist surveillance and sabotage that Bond and Fleming embody. In short, it’s a James Bond movie, with all the delights and vices that epitomizes.
The heart of that agony and ecstasy is the departure of Daniel Craig, whose meaning and impact on future movies any review of No Time to Die worth its salt has to decrypt. Craig has crafted self-evidently cinema’s finest James Bond portrayal, constantly asking “what if this character were actually a human being?” and being personally responsible for much of the character’s story (Craig has co-producer credits on Spectre and No Time to Die, and apparently had greater creative control of his last Bond film). The films that have resulted have been a strange and often poorly fused mess of differing filmmaking styles and aesthetic values, but with a brilliant lead actor at their center crafting a compellingly fucked up character out of one of the most oversignified characters in cinema.
Naturally Craig’s departure is celebratory, buying that James Bond is a good thing for the world, so that his departure is sad yet triumphant. His imperialist project is accordingly celebrated, with some repudiation of Bond’s earlier rape culture tendencies in the form of neoliberal feminism (James Bond enforces manufactured consent. Shocking. Positively shocking). Ideological coherence is largely irrelevant to this; after five movies, Craig’s departure is deeply moving.
And the movie sells Craig’s departure shockingly well. There are appropriate callbacks to previous movies, particularly Casino Royale and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Fukunaga seems to have taken inspiration from the “grounded/down-to-earth” Bonds (the ones where Bond gets a few scratches from explosions rather than none at all). In tying itself to Casino Royale and OHMSS (still the unruliest title ever) through callbacks to Vesper and several OHMSS soundtrack cues, No Time to Die plugs itself into the tradition of movies that traumatize Bond. Some early scenes made me think the movie was headed towards a Casino Royale/Quantum of Solace-esque characterization of Bond as a fucked up, neurotic mass of flesh, booze, and thanatos. That tendency dissipates as the movie progresses, with mixed results; depending on the scene, Bond is either a tender man seeking redemption or a stone-cold assassin. The two aren’t irreconcilable (I say this as someone who has in the past experienced personal kindness from high-profile members of the fucking Iraq Survey Group), and Craig sells both, but the rewrites, delays, and sheer number of writers who contributed to this script are felt heavily.
And yet the discordance does the movie some favors. For one thing, it deemphasizes Bond in his own movie; the opening scene (at least after the gunbarrel shot, Craig’s only gunbarrel to kickstart a movie) and the ending both center Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, who the movie salvages into an actual character with interiority and commonalities with Bond after her role in Spectre as “Bond girl whose dad Bond shot and kidnapped 2-3 movies ago”. It’s easy to speculate Phoebe Waller-Bridge emphasized this aspect of the script in her dialogue polish, but it also seems like the sort of thing Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose only other directorial work I’ve seen is True Detective’s first season, would push for. The movie feels different from its predecessors; it executes measures and cadences that its predecessors have rarely touched on, of which James Bond’s adorable daughter Mathilde is only one. There are sequences which feel unrestrained by the expectations of Bond movies, and having Madeleine and Mathilde survive into the last scene uplifts this significantly.
Much of this is rooted in tautological sentimentality. Bond is good because Bond is good, and thus his death is sad; write your manufactured consent theses here. But strangely, it works. Giving Craig’s Bond an ending where, at the end of a hedonistic, avaricious life in which he’s worked to get everything he wants, he voluntarily walks to his own death to give the family he loves the life he wanted, is a genuinely good idea. Yes, every franchise needing its own Wrath of Khan is exhausting, but Wrath of Khan a la a gender-subverted OHMSS/Casino Royale ending is new. It’s an ending that works on the particular strengths of Craig’s Bond. Maybe the Bond beat has broken me, but I sobbed over the ending to this one, and I hardly ever cry over movies. That almost certainly frames me as a sad sack rather than saying anything profound about No Time to Die, but clearly the movie did something right.
That’s quite a feat when the script is a trashfire. Bond movies have a low ceiling of quality, as blockbusters generally do; Casino Royale is the most finely crafted of them and it feels like two or three movies bolted onto one another. The “two or three movies in one” line applies to No Time to Die as well. One of those movies, the presumably Fukunaga/Waller-Bridge/Craig helmed one, works quite well, while the stuff around it ranges from tolerable to dreary. Rami Malek’s Safin is another one of these movies’ disfigured, ambiguously Foreign baddies who wants to change the world and thus is also a terrorist with a genocidal plan (say it with me now: manufactured…). How his plan works is even vaguer than the average: is he trying to enact total equality with a DNA-based nanotech MI6 bioweapon? Does he just like it when people go boom? The movie’s indictment of MI6 for developing a bioweapon goes little further than “M is an alcoholic schlub who sucks at his job”, rendering its performative critique of British espionage contentless as well as incoherent. There are upsides to the shambolic plot: Safin’s disposal of Spectre is incredibly funny and rectifies Spectre’s mistake of assuming Spectre and Blofeld are terribly interesting, and ultimately plot is far from the core concern of these movies, but when the movie is aiming for hard-hitting character drama and can only do so by getting Blofeld to split up Bond and Swann for entirely unclear reasons, it’s harder to go “wow, Lashana Lynch was cool when she kicked that eugenicist into the Dr. No-homaging acid pool.”
But Lashana Lynch is cool when she murders genocidal nerds, and watching Craig making Bond as a family man with integrity work is interesting. Everything looks good, there are several brilliantly shot action scenes, and Bond gets a genuinely compelling redemption arc that would have seemed impossible to execute right a couple years ago. It’s difficult to begrudge such a talented team their passionate efforts on reactionary trash. It’s not good, but it is compelling, which is always the height of a James Bond movie. The purpose of James Bond isn’t artistic depth, or to encourage a critical mindset in its audience, but to breed joy in complacency. Whether that’s a noble goal is a different question altogether, and one you can answer yourself.
Can the future bear endure another James Bond? After producing 25 of these films, it’d be nice if Eon simply packed in the character, but he’s far too lucrative for such a suicidal move. The Broccolis, the cast, and the filmmakers have all been incredibly selective in their words on the future, to the point that when I learned of Bond’s death, I naively wondered if it was a permadeath for the whole series. Lashana Lynch as the new 007 seemed like a potential future for the number, but in the movie she clearly exists to prop up Bond while still suggesting a future (I wouldn’t be surprised if Nomi appeared in other media). Ana de Armas is a similarly fleeting presence, explicitly a Bond movie character rather than some future CIA alternative to him. Perhaps the Broccolis will jump on the exhausting trend of *sigh* multimedia expanded universes. Craig’s tenure as Bond constituted a hard reboot of the series (sans Judi Dench’s role), and No Time to Die feels like the end of the road for Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, and Rory Kinnear. Perhaps Eon will return to basics and simply recast. I hope not. But when has Bond ever offered hope? At its core the series is an engine for complacency with the most powerful interests in the world. Most likely we’ll see yet another reset to the status quo. Until then, farewell, Mr. Bond. You were a complete motherfucker, but you had our attention.