James Bond Retrospective: No Time to Die

I had my own retirement. There was a pandemic, I finished my retrospective of all EON Bond films. I felt like I could have peace.

We know better don’t we? I’d like to say before we begin that this review of the new film is written with the retrospective in mind. That means I’m looking at how it fits in the larger picture as well as just looking at it as a film. I will be spoiling the entire thing.

It seems as we have…

No Time to Die (2021)

This film was meant to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the film franchise. It also wants to be the finale to Craig’s run as Bond. It tries to be more personal, adding a unique kind of stakes we haven’t seen before in the series. Certainly ambitious, but does it stick the landing?

SPECTRE’s members are certainly becoming more diverse. Their human sacrifices, however? Still just as exclusively British gentlemen as ever.

The Plot

The film opens with a flashback to Madeleine Swann’s childhood. The film’s antagonist, Safin, lost his family to SPECTRE assassin Mr. White (Swann’s dad). In retaliation, Safin murders Madeleine’s mother. Madeleine escapes but falls under the ice near her home. Safin takes pity and saves her.

Fast forward many years later to the “honeymoon” between Swann and Bond following the events of Spectre (2015), they journey to Venice. Swann wants Bond to visit Vesper’s grave and forgive her. Bond goes and is ready to put the past behind him when SPECTRE agents ambush him. He survives, but blames Swann for betraying him. He puts her on a train, intending to never see her again. Intro credits.

Bond’s taken a solitary five year retirement and CIA agent Felix Leiter approaches him with a curious proposal: recover a missing scientist (named Obruchev) and secret bio-weapon that MI6 is keeping silent about from every other agency. When Bond hears SPECTRE is part of it, he’s intrigued. When he finds out the new 007 has tailed him to warn him to stay away, he’s in. The bio-weapon turns out to have originally been an ambush. Though Blofeld was imprisoned in the last film, this SPECTRE meeting has him surveying the meeting with an electronic eye. SPECTRE using a fake cyber eye? That would NEVER happen. Bond was meant to die by the bio-weapon, but it was actually sabotaged to target all SPECTRE members in attendance.

There’s a double agent in the CIA and he betrays Leiter and Bond, taking Obruchev with him. Leiter dies and Bond swears vengeance. Bond goes to MI6 and while M is keeping quiet on the ordeal (he’s apparently the one responsible for funding the top secret British bio-weapon called “Heracles”), Moneypenny and Q work with Bond to realize that Heracles is a system of nanomachines that target specific DNA, and the DNA is organized by databases. Whoever wields Heracles can target specific people such as federal agents, families, or even entire races. Bond needs to talk to Blofeld for the sake of information, but is forbidden. The only person Blofeld wants to see? Madeleine Swann.

Oh boy, ex-girlfriend drama. Been there.

Swann is a victim of extortion by Safin, who wants her to spread Heracles to the last surviving SPECTRE member (Blofeld). Swann is scared to commit and leaves, hinting to Bond that he should visit her at “home.” Blofeld taunts Bond, and reveals that Swann had nothing to do with the Venice attack and Bond sacrificed five years of possible happiness for nothing. In anger, Bond chokes Blofeld before letting go. By then, the nanomachines have gotten to him and Blofeld dies. SPECTRE is no more. Bond visits Madeleine and they passionately reunite. He learns two bombshells: 1. Safin’s identity and history and 2. Madeleine has a five-year-old child named Mathilde. According to her, Bond is NOT the father. Nobody believes this obvious lie for even a moment.

Safin’s forces ambush the Bond family. Bond avenges Leiter by killing the rogue CIA member and Safin takes the Swanns. The new 007 picks up Bond and the whole of MI6 reconvenes. Bond and the new 007 (her name’s Nomi) are meant to visit the island Safin’s hiding on, stop the renegade Heracles project, and save Madeleine and Mathilde. Before leaving, Nomi volunteers to give Bond back the title of 007. They locate the lab where they’re growing poison and realize that the Heracles project is going to kill *everyone*. Mass extinction is Safin’s goal. Bond goes up to deal with Safin and save his family, the new 007 is meant to hold the lab down for negotiations. She can’t blow up the entire lab, but they don’t know that.

Safin offers Bond his daughter in exchange for his lab, but Bond says no. Bond starts a shootout and reunites with Madeleine (who killed the fake eye guy) and they try to escape. Safin lets Mathilde go when she protests against him. Nomi, Madeleine, and Mathilde escape while Bond is the one to authorize a missile strike. He has to keep the blast doors open for the missiles to hit the lab. He doesn’t have a lot of time, as Russia and Japan are very curious about what MI6 is doing in those waters. He keeps them open, but Safin strikes one last time. This is a damning fight, though Bond kills Safin, Safin has poisoned him with a specific strain of Heracles poison. Bond can’t touch Madeleine or Mathilde ever again or else they will die. With only moments before the base blows up, knowing he won’t ever touch his family again, Bond radios in to tell Madeleine he loves them both.

Bond dies, and in the aftermath MI6 mourns, and Madeleine tells Mathilde about her father, proud of his heroism and in direct contrast to Madeleine’s own childhood shame of her father. Perhaps broken people can make for better futures.

Safin’s age is baffling to me to be honest. If somebody knows it, tell me. I’m serious.

A Closer Look

So I write this having only seen this film once. There’s a lot of details and callbacks in this film that can be captured elsewhere and will be much easier when everyone can watch it.

This film was made on the the anniversary of the film franchise. A primary location of the film is Jamaica, both Sir Ian Fleming’s home and the location of the first film, Dr. No (1962). There’s heavy influences from Bond’s other outing with someone he desperately loves in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). With Leiter and some other aspects, you see some echoes of films like Licence to Kill (1989).  

This film is about James Bond’s legacy, and the end of Bond as we know it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Bond will end. In a very basic sense, this is just the end of Daniel Craig’s run and continuity as James Bond. In a metatextual sense, it’s about much more.

The new 007’s casting of a young charming Black woman isn’t a mistake. That’s the future. Bond as an old white man is a relic, and this film isn’t even debating his relevancy (as has been done so many times before). His dynamic with women in this film are widely in the context of creepy or distanced. The only romance he has in this film is with Madeleine, both Nomi and Ana de Armas’s character (Paloma) are not interested in Bond’s…. magnetism. The outdated ideas of a heroic blunt character representing colonialist interests isn’t appealing. If it is at all, it’s in the context of the past. Certainly not looking forward.

Yet, the film is also about much more than Bond’s irrelevance, because he’s also very much relevant. Safin is a mirror to Bond (God I hate saying that). Though he’s creepy and outdated and uses violence as a beacon for morality, Bond outright says a hero is needed whenever there is something as monstrous as Safin to oppose. These stories still work, because we want them to. We want heroes still, and we can dissect a hero’s morality or problematic roots but that doesn’t mean we won’t need some form of them.

Safin also brings about an important idea of Legacy. Craig’s Bond has been troubled by a history of violence, and until this film the only record of his existence are the graves he’s made for his enemies along the way. Now, he has a family, and the daughter gives Bond more to fight for. Safin feels his identity is robbed of him, and so he would rather the world suffer than to make a better place. He would rather that suffering be his legacy, because that would endure far longer than anything Bond ever did.

What this idea of legacy and the faces of MI6 bring us as a thematic takeaway is ultimately: it’s okay if Bond goes away. M says in his eulogy for Bond that survival is not the goal, living is. While that sounds like the most generic sappiest thing you hear, it actually serves as a form of therapy for the franchise to heal. It’s okay if Bond can’t adapt to everything. The franchise will make the best of its time here. This theme of legacy? It’s reflected still in what the franchise leaves behind. 007 has left such a mark in films and the spy genre and the popular culture that even if he disappears you will always see echoes of him forever onward. There will be a young black female spy lead one day. She may not be called something stupid like Jane Bond, she may not actually work for MI6 or be 007. Yet, no matter what story this face is in she will ultimately be the evolution of the super-spy. Different faces formed with and by different perspectives. This is what the film acknowledges as the future. The world will change and grow, and there will always be a spy to save it in a story. That story will have echoes of Bond’s presence.

007 is dead, long live 007. 

That card? Eggshell with Romanian type. It’s really tasteful.

What’s Good?

The theme song is a mixed bag I want to put up here. The title sequence is a decent enough job as well as the actual song. Billie Eilish does a great job. I think after this I’ll be done with sad bond themes but this one fits.

I think the absolute best thing to say is that it’s a good enough film that retroactively makes Spectre a bit better. Not by much, on its own that film is still trash but Madeleine and Blofeld were really weak parts in that film, serving as set up for this one to function well enough. I didn’t believe Bond loved Madeleine in Spectre, and now I think it’s at least earned enough for me to go with it. Same with Blofeld. The brother plot was stupid but Blofeld doesn’t overstay his welcome here at all. He seems menacing, and even if the events of Spectre aren’t earned he’s earned everything he did in this film.

I think Geoffrey Wright has proven to be the best and most iconic Felix Leiter with this final performance. Leiter had *kind of* died in Licence to Kill, and many actors have portrayed Leiter, but with the consistent appearances and screen time it feels like this one really mattered. There’s a solid rapport between the two and you feel the history. Bond and Felix’s bromance goes beyond service to their countries, as seen when they try to interrogate the scientist for details on the SPECTRE setup.

I like the MI6 dynamic largely. They don’t necessarily have large roles, but I like thst Q is mostly admitted to be homosexual now and the new 007 isn’t portrayed as a clumsy amateur or anything. She’s strong and competent, not as good as James Bond, but who is? She’s largely portrayed as capable in her own right.

The locations look great, and the action is fun. Nothing ever breaks the mold, but the choreography goes for a different pace. I noticed a bit more John Wick-style gunplay and less hand-to-hand physicality; I’m sure Craig and his stuntman appreciate that. There can still be creativity or engaging moments within. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Bond is dealing with Safin’s men in the forest, because it’s abundantly clear how vulnerable Bond actually is there, and that’s always been something special about Craig’s Bond. The SPECTRE meeting with Agent Paloma does something that doesn’t happen often: Bond has fun. He’s loose. He’s getting back in the game and his partner is a fresh new CIA operative. He stops multiple times in the shootout itself to have drinks, deliberately changing the pace, all the while competing with his literal replacement. It’s good stuff.

Shootouts are best when there’s a lot of breakable objects and collateral damage nearby. Any gamer will tell you that.

What’s Bad?

It never rises to the highs of the best of Craig’s other films. Particularly Casino Royale (2008), but I think this is probably my second favorite Craig film? It’s not listed in what’s good, but this film avoids traps and shortcomings even films like Skyfall (2012) couldn’t resist brushing with.

I think it still ultimately flounders with Safin as a villain and some other presences that aren’t particularly impactful. Safin works about as well as I covered him above, and less in any other way. The genocidal DNA maniac stuff doesn’t play well and recalls Moonraker (1979) vibes. The Madeleine Swann romantic obsession (I didn’t mention it earlier for a reason) feels gross in a way that really doesn’t serve the character. Safin plays God and picks and chooses who he doesn’t want to kill, and perhaps Madeleine serves as the ultimate manifestation of that choice for Safin, but that doesn’t have to extend to the romantic. Near the end he even gives up that idea for instead killing her and taking Mathilde instead… until he doesn’t. The best thing to say is he has a memorable look. Rami Malek is more than capable if not enjoyable in performance, and the villain never gets in the way of the film.

I don’t know why, but the heavy presence of Ralph Fiennes’s M in these later Craig films irks me. Fiennes is also a fantastic actor, and his M isn’t written poorly. He even belongs more in this film as a presence than in something like the Spectre sub-plot with C. Yet, this territory isn’t interesting. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before. M doing dirty things for the sake of the country when everyone else can tell it’s a terrible idea? Perish the thought, and Skyfall was probably the strongest thread for that kind of idea (though with Judi Dench). Fiennes’s M doesn’t function as a patriarch telling Bond how childish he is, because he’s contextualized in just as much time as a former field agent who makes just as many mistakes now. What is provided by this M is camaraderie, when Bond dies we feel the weight of the office of franchise regulars mourn Bond and this is where continuity really pays off.

I don’t think there’s a particularly special action sequence. There’s a lot of consistently good or interesting ones. Fukunaga especially has a good sense of tension, but this film doesn’t attempt anything that hasn’t been done before. You can take this as a problem. I’ve talked before about Bond films and their action sequences going for two ideas: momentum and character. I’d say this film focuses more on character, the action stops and starts to take a backseat to the plot as they switch driver positions. The plot’s personal focus might be a different territory for long time Bond fans, but feels appropriate here.

Looking Back

I think when Spectre came out I was upset Skyfall wasn’t Craig’s last film. I take that back now. This is a better goodbye. I also think this film was a major breakthrough in the mindset of how to approach Bond films. I do think after this anything can happen. The safest, most tamest period piece or standard Bond film, or something that completely rewrites the books. It doesn’t matter.

Now that Craig is done I can probably say he’s my favorite Bond? He may not have some of the nuance of other actors, and the same can be said for the films he was in, but Craig’s impression on the character might’ve saved Bond from the clutches of some cultural damnation. Maybe it didn’t, but the films are fun. Common complaints of the Craig run include the serious tone and how imitative it was on the Bourne franchise. I don’t think Craig’s run was entirely Bourne, I think that’s dismissive. I also think it’s dismissive to say these Craig films don’t have fun. They’re not out and out wacky, but there’s still some camp anatomy to this and the rest of Craig. Craig’s run can’t help but be filled with the fingerprints of the rest of the franchise. Especially when they reuse plot ideas or locales to such a degree.

What’s Next?

I will NEVER do another one of these. The only way you could bring me back is if there was some film I forgot about. Like a non-EON production, but even then you’d have to actually have something important to note. You need Connery to come back or something. That would NEVER happen.

Ahem. Next time, I Never Say “Never” Again.

What I Drank

I was in a movie theater. It was wonderful. It was a large fountain Coke. First film I’ve seen in a theater in a long time. Best drink of the retrospective.

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