By Kyle Turner
No Time to Die
Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga, U.S., MGM/Universal
In the original series of books, James Bond was as blunt as the prose that brought him to life. He is an alcoholic, a womanizer, a killer, a tool. Those core elements have never really changed. But with the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, the 50-year franchise is going through some unusual transitions.
No Time to Die, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is the closing chapter of Daniel Craig’s cycle of Bond films, which began in 2006 with Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale. The Bond films have always embodied a certain reactive tendency in cinema culture: early Sean Connery entries like Dr. No existed within a landscape of Hitchcockian thrillers and hard-boiled noirs, Live and Let Die jumped on the blaxploitation bandwagon, Moonraker the sci-fi one. The Brosnan films tried to keep up with James Cameron, and the Craig films have had 9/11, The Bourne Identity, and Christopher Nolan to contend with. In shape and tone, the Bond movies have been unable to exist in a vacuum as they are preoccupied with a man who is in the eye of a geopolitical storm. Thus, Craig films have developed their own language, more distinct than, say, the entries directed by journeymen Terrence Young or John Glen. They’re stylized now, less interchangeable, evolving into a detailed overall portrait of an icon who has traveled through multiple significant cultural moments, while also remaining decontextualized from them.
The time and place in which these moments exist have little space for Bond now. As these films have gestured toward a more assured aesthetic lexicon, they have been haunted by an unavoidable reality: the agent’s role in the world—both ours and the fictional one—has shrunk. Bond is (once again) in retirement early in the new film, healing his broken heart in Jamaica. But his friend and CIA ally Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) calls him back into action, seeking him out fto capture a scientist (David Dencik, his energy recalling Alan Cumming in GoldenEye) who has disappeared with a world-threatening secret weapon, one that may make his existence even more irrelevant.
Regardless of whom he works for throughout No Time to Die, Bond remains a man without a country. Craig, who has a bruiser of a body, is the actor who has most seriously considered Bond’s increasingly fraught relationship to Mother England. While this has much to do with the tonal direction producers and masters of the Bond franchise Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli wanted to take when rebooting the franchise in 2006, it’s a crucial component within the context of Craig’s tenure and the series at large. If James Bond has largely been defined in relation to his job, and his job is basically as the Queen’s foot soldier, the films, No Time to Die in particular, take on the particular tension that exists between man and country. The stakes recontextualize who James Bond might be in the cultural imagination, once the right-arm of the British Empire, but now just a guy, a tool to be used by anyone.
Fukunaga, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bond alums Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, thus leans into Bond’s displacement, which is amplified by Craig’s solemn, hollowed-out performance. Through the lens of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, all interpersonal relationships carry with them an uncertainty, the glare of a light blooming in the frame like a warning against blind devotion. Bodies are uneasy in proximity, racked with hesitance. Additionally, shots of Bond alone in the frame either dwarf him in comparison to the vast spaces he occupies (a WWII era missile silo hallway, the diffuse field of vision in a foggy forest), or, in close-up, drink in the spectacle of Craig’s rimed cerulean eyes.
Five films into his tenure, Daniel Craig has authorial control over the character as much as anyone does. To borrow from Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in Spectre (2015), it is Craig whois the author of all Bond’s pain, transforming him from cardboard cartoon to bullet-riddled soul. It may have been Craig’s charisma and actorly gravitas that incentivized producers to diverge from the series’ usual anthological and self-contained format to give the actor a fuller, more narratively driven sequence of films, allowing him to deconstruct Bond’s mythology and persona. In No Time to Die, he keeps searching for the thorniest contradictions with which to plumb the depths of the character. He will snarl orders in one line reading, spit venom in another, and leave himself open to emotional vivisection in the next. His movements, mannerisms, gestures, and intonations as Bond have fundamentally changed the form of Bond and its language. It makes sense that directors with more prestige have been brought in to tête-à-tête with this Guildhall School of Music and Drama trained actor, as Craig is the raw material with which the director will build his film.
While it’s difficult to entirely disentangle No Time to Die from its forebears and from this sequence of films, Fukunaga manages to create his own specific Bond film grammar. The bizarre literary pretensions these films tend to embrace have bled into their direction and cinematography, and No Time to Die splits the difference in its capable and red-blooded action sequences and its more ostentatious moments, with chilly blue industrial and sterile spaces and uninviting moss greens made expressionistic through misty haze. In these shots, No Time to Die seems to make claims as a Bond movie with an elevated aestheticism. The camera every so often announces itself in arduous pushes and pans or dizzying and disorienting rotations. Its Acropolis-set opener is an adrenaline-addled high point, beautiful in its bombast and emotional (and spatial) clarity, melding good action filmmaking and satisfying narrative implications as it continues to build from Craig’s previous entries. It’s immediately less aesthetically compelling than, say, Spectre, but it’s entirely adequate, even as it’s showing off. Though, crucially, as the film wavers between stylistic competency and bravado, it seems like an ideal representation of Fleming’s tough yet brutish style, which was never quite as scalding as Dashiell Hammett or as intelligent as John le Carré.
At its core, the film role-plays as a movie about a bad breakup between Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), colored by bereavement. No Time to Die is less about grief than the ceaseless journey of recovery. Sorrow pulsates in each moment of the film, Billie Eilish’s somnambulant title song fitting for Bond’s walking corpse. The spirit of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, his lost love from Casino Royale, hovers over everything, the insult to his dangerous job’s injury. This emotional relationship baggage makes for a propulsive dramatic and emotional device, giving No Time to Die an affectof emotional anxiety: his awareness that his relationships will always be transient creates a broken shard forever lodged in the film’s side.
The film is undermined, however, by a fairly important component: Seydoux’s Madeleine, who made her first appearance in Spectre. Bond’s paranoia is sparked by Swann’s secrets, their possible danger augmented by the fact that she’s the daughter of a late high-ranking officer in the international terrorist organization Spectre. But Seydoux is boring in the part, vacant despite visible attempts to bring a self-seriousness to the character, even more so here than in Spectre. Despite Swann’s essential duty as the woman intended to make Bond forget Vesper, she gives the audience little reason to believe she could fulfill that role. Their lack of chemistry serves as unstable ground upon which another dynamic is built, which itself makes the pivotal existential question Bond faces feel restrained and lackluster. Vesper’s memory, and the strength of the blunt unpretentiousness of Casino Royale have cast a long shadow over the Craig films, which, though impressive and innovative, have struggled to reach the same authentic melodramatic heights. That the arc of that film is doomed to repeat itself over and over appears intentional, each subsequent dynamic resulting in a carbon copy, going through the motions of calcification, disarmament, betrayal, calcification. One could argue, though it would be a stretch, that the artificiality of Bond’s relationship with Swann is the point, as he pines away for Vesper until his own death, 007’s version of The Age of Innocence. Regardless, Bond’s path to a newfound commitment to Swann, to vulnerability and a life better lived, is Sisyphean, and No Time to Die’s many pleasures struggle valiantly to paper over the contrivances of their relationship.
This question of existence is right in the title, a fatalistic smirk that Bond himself would probably give. The question is considered with a stark honesty that sees Bond, and his franchise, come to terms with his waning importance, even as a prestigious aesthetic approach tries to justify its continuing existence. The contemporary world is asking different things of its heroes: who they are and how they are to act. So, No Time to Die is a bet, the river card in a long, self-reflexive game of Texas hold ’em that began with Casino Royale. The bet, the franchise having gone all in on it, is that you will grieve this character, this cycle, this vision of the past. James Bond is always a man of another moment reconciling with the one he finds himself in, in and out of time. The changes made from page to screen, from one era to the next, have made Bond more psychologically, emotionally, and cinematically complex, a mosaic of social, cultural, and political contexts. As mortality hangs above Bond’s head, and the relevance (and/or necessity) of the franchise grows more uncertain, Bond continues to look both ways, to past and future. Whether or not this is the end, Bond’s legacy will remain rich and multifaceted. As Shirley Bassey once sang, “For when love’s gone, they’ll luster on.”