Wednesday 6 October 2021

The farewell: "No Time To Die"

This year's contender for the title of The Film That Saved Cinema,
No Time To Die, is better placed than was last year's Tenet: there are many more cinemas open, we now have vaccines in the system, and - this being a Bond film - it has more idea of what draws people to the multiplex than a self-serious sixth-former's physics homework. It also, lest we forget, has a sentimental value that its ever-canny producers realised might have been diminished had the film been shuffled onto streaming at the peak of the pandemic, being Daniel Craig's farewell as 007. In as much as anyone should care about such matters this deep into the 21st century, Craig has been a good Bond: he carried two of the better recent instalments (2006's Casino Royale and 2012's Skyfall), where he was invited to elaborate on the effects a licence to kill might have on a man's body and soul, and he even brought a measure of aloof, cuff-checking class to scenes and moments in the far flimsier Quantum of Solace and SPECTRE. Still, you get a sense from that of just how difficult this series has found it to move forward; for every entry that felt like a step in the right direction, there was another that seemed to take a step back. Naomie Harris's Moneypenny was promoted to Bond's almost-equal in Skyfall, only to be reduced to typing her way through SPECTRE (she has even less to do this time round); after being deprived of Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, the closest any Bond girl yet came to feeling like a fleshed-out character, 007 had his head turned by Léa Seydoux's pouty-girly Madeleine Swann. For his part, Craig has often appeared trapped within both the series' vast, clunking infrastructure, and the contradictory impulses of successive films; he's worked hard to find things to interest and amuse himself within the confines of a role conceived 60-odd years ago as an invulnerable fantasy figure. (You don't get BAFTA nominations for playing Leisure Suit Larry.) 

Well, time's up. Ever since Judi Dench's M labelled Pierce Brosnan's Bond a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" in 1995's GoldenEye, the Eon creatives have been wrestling with the challenge of dragging a largely unreconstructed white male into our ever-changing present. Much has already been read into the addition of Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the new film's writing staff, and the recruiting of the Black British actress Lashana Lynch to play a replacement 007. The question hanging over No Time To Die is this: does the film put the old boy out to pasture, or throw him to the wolves? And my feeling was this: that this is as good a send-off as the series could have afforded Craig, given how absurdly freighted with baggage the new film seems. Evident thought has gone into how best to end this cycle (and this particular Bond's miseries), although you'd have to be a real thicko not to spot the general direction of travel. During one early hot pursuit, a distraught Madeleine turns to Bond and says "I'd rather die than-", only for the pair's car to be T-boned by pursuers; displaying the same non-lightness of touch he forced upon HBO's god-it's-hard-to-be-a-man slogfest True Detective, director Cary Joji Fukunaga then cuts to a high-angle shot of the local church bells tolling. You ready yourself for 163 minutes of no less clangy foreshadowing when a plot of some shape kicks in. Rami Malek's Russian nogoodnik Lyutsifer Safin - crazy name, crazy guy, like a Red Army Thanos or something - absconds with a biological weapon, killing Hugh Dennis in the process, a wanton breach of international diplomacy that prises Bond out of the short-shorts of early retirement and back into the old tuxedo. His pursuit of Safin will involve several top-of-the-range action setpieces, likely overseen by Eon's in-house stunt team rather than Fukunaga himself, which provide much the same brain-in-neutral pleasure in 2021 that they would have done back in 1962. An eternal selling point of these New Bonds is that you can plainly see where the money went, much of it on the best damn storyboard artists and stunt drivers in the business.

There are obstacles to enjoyment, however, not least the form No Time To Die has been obliged to take. On one level, the film wants to function as elevated escapism, to generate the same two-hour runaround we expect of our Bond movies. ("Just the usual," as Ralph Fiennes' M pitches the new mission to Craig's Bond in a nice, quiet scene on the banks of the Thames: just two seasoned pros enjoying a spot of fresh air amid the hoopla going down elsewhere.) Yet it also has to tie up the loose ends set to straggling in the four previous Craig Bonds, before getting to the notional main event of the world's most expensive leaving do. It's always been at the back of my mind watching the 21st century Bonds, but I don't believe I've ever been quite so conscious of how patched together these productions are: the multiple location shoots, the half-dozen assistant directors, the ideas-atop-ideas-atop-ideas. (Waller-Bridge comes to be just another voice in the mix, sporadically audible in the film's goofier swings.) Some of those are good ideas - or good ideas for a million-dollar event movie - but it's hard to maintain a fix on a film's central character when he appears to be walking through three or four films simultaneously, set running in parallel either to attract multiple demographics (the Bond diehards and the Fast & Furious faithful, gammon and woke alike) or out of some near-Johnsonian indifference to narrative coherence. No Time To Die spends nearly three hours attempting to reconcile these broadly irreconciliable aims, and mulling over the extent to which it really has to reconcile these aims, given that it's a Bond movie and people will turn out for it anyway. The attempt is welcome, and heroic in some ways, but it's also doomed, which may be why certain stretches seem barely less cracked than Christoph Waltz's Blofeld, the film's most illustrious loose end, rejoined gibbering in a maximum-security prison facility.

Certainly, the (relative) New Bond Realism of Skyfall - which had the reliably sober Sam Mendes as its controlling intelligence - looks to have been abandoned. That film would have had no time at all for an oddball like David Dencik's rogue scientist Valdo Obruchev, a comedy sociopath who assumes a Borat-like accent and is spared from liftshaft catastrophe by, erm, magnets (?), nor for a third wheel as obvious as Billy Magnusson's fresh-faced double agent. Just one of the contradictions the new film is struggling with is that more writers means less quality control - that the cash gets spunked on any idea, however superfluous or feeble. The maximalism on show - the desire to throw everything at the screen, to make this a properly big send-off - ensures you'll more or less get your money's worth; a lot of targets are hit here. Yet it's also frequently exhausting, a Bond movie seemingly made to be fallen asleep to on an overcast Bank Holiday weekend, when you can convince yourself it's your own doziness that's the issue, and not that of the writers. It's a rare contemporary blockbuster that has to be 163 minutes, because there's almost certainly no other way of cutting all this together; and yet the sleepless nights faced by editors Tom Cross and Elliot Graham look to have factored into the film's peculiarly frazzled, fagged-out quality. We get muttered nods in the direction of the "We Have All The Time In The World" refrain of 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service (irony!), yet if No Time To Die sparks nostalgia, it's really for the clean, straight lines of those earlier Bond movies, where the hero was assigned one clear mission, got it done, and had time for a zipless fuck and a cigarette before the closing credits scrolled. (Different times.)

Battling any fatigue of his own, the generally smart Fukunaga ensures the resulting film holds onto moments of ingenuity and (again, relative) daring, particularly as we go into the fateful final reel. The script borrows one obvious move from the Nolan playbook, opening a door for future spin-offs by insisting 007 is "just a number", much as The Dark Knight Rises insisted, at comparable length, that Batman was finally just a mask. And the conclusion - obviously laboured over in the writers' room - does succeed in finding a way for our hero to appear selflessly heroic while also allowing him to continue evading exactly the kind of personal responsibility he's ducked ever since Dr. No. Here, as elsewhere in No Time To Die, you may be set to considering the thorny relationship between Bond and national self-image. It's astonishing to think that it was less than a decade ago that the resuited-and-booted Bond made such a triumphant appearance as the crowning glory of the London 2012 opening ceremony, an avatar of an at least temporary British confidence. No Time To Die, the first post-Brexit Bond, presents as greatly more ambivalent about its hero's place in the modern world, right from Daniel Kleinman's ever-imaginative opening credits, in which the last vestiges of moribund Empire are seen crumbling into a thousand pieces on their descent to the seabed. (The mumbled melancholy of Billie Eilish's theme song works better in this context than it has as a standalone.) At this week's Tory conference - the annual circus of horrors that just so happened to coincide with No Time To Die's stellar opening weekend - culture minister Nadine Dorries was predictably quick to seize on the film's success. Viewed with even a little distance, though, large parts of Bond 25 invite alternative interpretation: as a distress call from a drained, beat-up, horribly addled old island, now best nuked and left to sink to the ocean floor.

No Time To Die is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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