No Time To Die – the first look

‘James Bond: Bond is a blunt instrument wielded by a government department. He is quiet, hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic. In his relationships with women he shows the same qualities as he does in his job. He likes gambling, golf and fast motor cars.’ Ian Fleming in a note he sent to Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.

What is No Time To Die doing here in Midcentury Bond? Has it crept in by mistake? Well as it is largely a rehash and amalgam of themes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice – along with nods to Dr No and because it is one of the few post-1970 films that genuinely makes an effort to reflect an aspect of Fleming’s Bond. That’s why.

Craig’s Casino Royale also used much of Fleming’s Bond and, within the Craig canon, is generally and rightly thought to be the best of the bunch. No Time To Die doesn’t change that but both of these outings – I would hazard a guess – would have Fleming nodding in approval. But can Craig’s Bond claim to be the definitive version? (Particularly as he does not utter the immortal line ‘Bond…James Bond’ in this, his finale?)

There is much to enjoy in this film and many people could well do with a box of tissues close at hand. At times it is an emotional rollercoaster. Even co-star Léa Seydoux says, ‘There’s a lot of emotion in this Bond. It’s very moving. I bet you’re going to cry. When I watched it, I cried, which is weird because I am in it’.

To sum up the film’s quality in one word? Solid. And in three? Solid and enjoyable. But it is far from perfect as there are also some irritating flat spots, along with poor plotting that make you wonder why no modern director can make the definitive Bond film, one that doesn’t illicit a ‘that’s silly’ comment or a wince or a guffaw. They are fewer here but they have not entirely been eliminated. In part when they do occur, they come across as even more ludicrous because clearly much effort has been put into making Bond a real person almost living in the real world, and to eliminate some of the trite Bondian conventions that have infiltrated the films to their detriment. (Don’t worry, there are still plenty of car chases but much of the formula has been jettisoned.) There are moments when the pathos that Bond expressed in the novel From Russia With Love really rings true, ‘Follow your fate, and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-rate motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist, pickled in alcohol and nicotine…’

For those less familiar with You Only Live Twice, and The Man With The Golden Gun, it was in these that Fleming showed that Bond was a vulnerable human being, that he possessed not only an emotional side but self-doubt, and that he was becoming a broken man because of his job. He was no longer the ‘blunt instrument.’ Yet at the same time Fleming claimed on a number of occasions that he was tiring of the character and wanted to finish him off but in the end he was unable to do this before his premature death.

Most of the more critical staples are present but often muted starting with a pre-title sequence that while (re)establishing the importance of the relationship with Madeleine Swann lacks the outrageous panache of some earlier efforts. Possibly there was a deliberate effort by the director Joji Fukunaga to create something lower key using a rather predictable car chase so that it did not dominate the rest of the film. That said, we see here the most gripping scene in the film when Bond and Swann are trapped in the DB5, and the villains attempt to shoot their way into the car: a genuinely frightening moment and the best shot piece of drama in the whole two hours plus. Then there follows the first of the flat spots as the Billie Eilish theme plays over the opening titles. I enjoy the theme as a standalone song (while many don’t) but it is at odds with the dynamics and graphics of the title sequence. These themselves are lacklustre, and workmanlike. This is when it first becomes finally clear that the film will be heavily referencing past films (look out for the Thunderball reference). I ought to say this now – like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – this gets irritating in the end as it becomes an unwanted quiz as to how many films can be identified. (Perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out at Christmas it will become a game to be played after the turkey.) On the other hand as we reach the final scene perhaps all this has been done to show that as this particular sequence of films comes to close, Bond, like a drowning man, recalls all the adventures that he has gone through.

We then have to get through one of the longest Bond films ever made. This length is no bad thing and to be fair I didn’t feel that it dragged but at times it could have done with a bit of belt tightening to pull in a baggy plot even though it is clear that Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ has helped with some short-handing and, I would guess, adding a lighter less vindictive touch while retaining all the darkness of the novels and that sense of gloom that underpins the plot. Yet she is just one of four named screenwriters ( as well as the unnamed) and at time the plot has a sense of a stitching together a patchwork of differently written scenes.

Nor is the film helped by the Covid-10 pandemic. Suddenly everyone know that a villain does not need some devilishly complex bio-weapon to bring the world to a standstill. A simple virus based on one similar to flu or the common cold and concocted in a lab or by a friendly bat is all that is required. (After all it could even bring the franchise to its knees.) Yes it is a targeted weapon that according to M reduces collateral damage but the premise of how this happens is so preposterous that it rather takes the edge of what should be a diabolical outrage. That said, the way it targets the victims is essential for the conclusion of the film so we need to live with it. The other piece of nonsense is the evil artificial eye. Some reading this might recall the story of how Dr No was, in an early script, initially portrayed as a monkey. Broccoli and Saltzman nixed this immediately and it became one of those standing jokes in the office. The producers should have nixed this idea too.

Which does lead onto one of my perennial bugbears: the seemingly lack of IT savviness among the scriptwriters. At a time when elections can be rigged through social media; systems can be crashed by nefarious forces; billions of £ and $s are scammed online, the Bond writers still operate in a largely Windows digital world straight out of the early 2000s.

I seem to be getting bogged down in the negatives here – although I have not laid them all out yet so on the positive side the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is top notch and in fact this is where referencing previous cues and tracks works smoothly. Obviously unintentionally but the use of We Have All The Time In The World only serves to highlight why the Eilish theme fails. This is the track that will be remembered from this film. The film looks gorgeous too – all down to the sumptuous camera-work by Linus Sandgren and perfectly complimented by Zimmer’s score – a coming together that has not been seen since John Barry and Freddie Young.

So will Craig final performance be remembered as his best since Casino Royale? I would say a resounding yes. He is and has always been superb as Bond but now he is a Bond who is all but the broken butterfly on a wheel. The physical and emotional wounds loom all too clearly: he is scarred, mentally exhausted, he is drained, he can’t really be bothered with quips any more and when he does they are half-hearted. He is only here because Felix Leiter started dragging him out of retirement. Like the end of You Only Live Twice he is, like Fleming, living on an island enjoying the sun, sand and fishing but with no hankering to return to the life of an agent. Two new and strong characters make an early appearance: the brilliant trainee agent played by Ana de Armas who has a beautiful scene-stealing twinkle in her eye (and must be a Waller-Bridge construct), and Leiter’s side-kick, the dental-advert slime bag played by Billy Magnusson. But Safin? I’m afraid he is one of the weakest Bond villains that has ever graced the screen. Sadly it is his performance and generally not the script at fault here, although the latter gives him no motivation for his devilish plot. The Noh mask and the cliche of the reptilian skin are no substitute for inner venom. Every Bond film needs a really good baddie, a merciless antagonist. Nor does the poison garden add any drama. I wanted at least one hapless guard to have been consumed by a giant Venus Flytrap. And other than tying up an unnecessary loose end, Blofeld has no important part to play either. (And remembering this is all about referencing previous outings, here we have one from For Your Eyes Only .) No, the real villain here is Bond’s emotions. These are the vices he is grappling with.

The other players get too little to do and, surprisingly, enjoy few standout lines. Because of the nature of the film the few gadgets – perhaps that’s why Q is so downheartened – seem redundant and old fashioned. And the new 007? Yes a black women has been handed the number but there is no sense of why or who she is other than a cipher for diversity. The set-pieces though are run-of-the mill but edge-of-the-seat stuff. Except for the finale. In the closing scenes it is almost as if the production had run out of steam – ‘oh lets just have Bond shoot a few people as he runs up some stairs.’ This is also exacerbated by the plot device of a weapon that cannot be seen. There is no ticking time bomb and it fails to drive tension just as it failed in the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service where the tension comes in the ski chases not the blowing-up of Blofeld’s mountain top lair.

Japan features – a bit. Safin’s island hideaway would be part of the disputed Kuril Islands – an area that in real-life bristles with armaments and surveillance. Safin’s lair has distinct echoes of the Ando-san designed Naoshima art museum complex – the more beady eyed would see the two Monet inspired paintings, examples of which are displayed at the museum. Both the Kuril Islands and the museum feature in Raymond Benson’s The Man With The Red Tattoo but in reality the Japanese touches are cursory.

But the truth about the film? Let’s cut to the chase. It is not about Safin and his bio-weapon. This is just a subplot, which is why it is so perfunctory. The storyline is driven by the relationship between Bond and Swann, and Bond and his own inner demons. If this wasn’t a blockbuster and if Fleming had written the story as a novel this is the way he would have approached it too. But would he have used the same ending? After all in 1963 while working on You Only Live Twice, he sent a postcard to Richard Hughes informing him of the novel’s progress, the problems he was encountering, and wondering whether he needed to kill Bond off, ‘Anyway he’s had a good run which is more than most of us can say. Everything seems a lot of trouble these days – too much trouble.’ Sentiments that that perhaps Craig might have uttered. Instead the final words Fleming wrote were at the end of The Man With The Golden Gun, when Bond seems to have resigned himself to marrying Mary Goodnight.

‘At the same time he knew deep down that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him. It would be like taking “a room with a view.” For James Bond, the same view would always pall.’

So perhaps not quite the same Flemingesque ending, as Bond at the end of No Time To Die appears to want the same view. But the biggest surprise for me, was leaving the cinema and thinking that not only was this a film about Bond but also about Fleming. Of course we all know that in part Bond was a by-product of Fleming’s own persona but that’s not what I mean. Here we almost have a mini bio’ of the author. Whether this was played out deliberately or unintentionally I have no idea. If the latter then it is a product of my over-excited imagination, reading too much into the film.

So does No Time To Die surpass Craig’s debut? No but it is certainly a strong second, does justice to Craig’s take on Bond, and sees him bow out as he ought to, finally completing what Fleming was unable to do.