In almost every James Bond film our hero prevents a psychotic supervillain from realising his dream of world domination. For the makers of these movies world domination is an ambition fulfilled a long time ago. The trick nowadays is to maintain their iron grip on the hearts and minds of the viewing public.
For a franchise that began in 1962, which has now clocked up its 25th entry, the most difficult moments arrive when new actors are introduced to take on the roles of familiar, beloved characters. Some of these characters have been replaced several times over, including the central figure of Secret Agent 007. Sean Connery, the original Bond, who appeared in the role officially on six occasions is still widely regarded as the best. Roger Moore would make seven appearances, and Pierce Brosnan four.
Aussie George Lazenby made only one film as James Bond before leaving of his own volition. Timothy Dalton quit after two movies and has hardly been heard of since. With five appearances spread out over 15 years Daniel Craig has played Bond for a longer period than any other actor, imprinting his image on the minds of a generation of viewers – viewers conditioned by social media to have the shortest attention spans in history.
So when Craig announces that the new Bond, No Time to Die, will be his last, it sets up a huge buzz of speculation. Will they kill him off? Will they reveal a successor? And for the actor himself, is there life after James Bond? One suspects he’ll come through more successfully than Lazenby or Dalton.
The knowledge that this will be Craig’s last fling exerts an influence on the way the plot unfolds, and the way we view the film. It’s not an entirely happy influence because it makes the action seem more than usually mechanical, and allows little scope for other characters to develop convincing personalities.
Over an epic span of 163 minutes, director Cary Joji Fukunaga has given us a fast-moving entertainment that won’t disappoint the majority of fans, but it’s one of the most dramatically uninvolving of Bond movies. The story is all about planet James, with everyone else relegated to the role of satellites. Because this planet is on an inexorable trajectory towards oblivion, every sequence plays out as one more step on the path to the final revelation of Bond’s fate – which is easy enough to predict long before the credits roll.
This feeling sets in gradually as the film progresses. The pre-titles sequence is spectacular, beginning with a creepy flashback to Madeleine Swan’s childhood, as her snow-bound family chalet is invaded by a crazed killer. Next we’re with Bond and Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), on holiday in the picturesque Italian town of Matera, where they are waylaid by a group of murderous villains. By the time the reliably amazing titles appear, we’re on the edge of our seats. As the story progresses we slide back into the comfy chair.
Suddenly it’s five years later, and Bond is pursuing his lonely retirement in a villa in Jamaica. Even though the plots of these films – being so relentlessly formulaic – tend to disappear quickly from my mind, I had a sense of déjà vu. Haven’t we already been down this path in Skyfall (2021), with Bond retired from the service living in a secluded semi-wilderness? When being lured back from retirement becomes a standard plot device it’s clear why Craig felt it was time to call it a day.
It’s worth pausing to note that viewers are expected to know who Madeleine Swann is, and a whole lot of other stuff in James’s backstory, which suggests that the Bond films are being visualised as a sequence rather than as stand-alones. We’ve seen this in the never-ending succession of Marvel and DC superhero flicks made for diehard fans with an insatiable appetite for sequels.
Madeleine was introduced in the previous film, Spectre (2015), and has progressed to the point where she is the new light of Bond’s life. We are expected to see the liaison of James and Madeleine as a tragic love story, but they spend so much time apart that there’s no romance, no electricity, in this relationship. Indeed, Bond often seems more attached to his old comrades in the service.
Following a raid on a top-secret laboratory in which the villains steal a deadly biological weapon, Bond is contacted by his CIA friend, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), to help recover the goods. This leads to some inevitable mayhem at a party in Havana, given by the criminal gang, Spectre, that Bond infiltrates in company with a new character named Paloma (Ana de Armas). She turns out to be one of the few bright sparks in this industrially-produced story, but her entry and exit are brief.
Another new character who looks set to hang around, is Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a brassy young black woman who has been given Bond’s old designation of 007. Immediately it seems as if the future of the franchise has been revealed: the new 007 will be black and female! But is it really possible? Could a woman be the same kind of practised seducer as Bond and get away with it?
The filmmakers appear to be testing the waters. While Nomi will get a rousing cheer from the PC brigade this is not the standard demographic for Bond audiences who have traditionally favoured the same old blend of hyper-masculinity, dry wit and aggression. If Nomi were locked in as the next Bond she might have commanded a bigger, more prominent role in No Time to Die. Instead, she is hardly more than a supporting character, missing from most of the big scenes. She is a tease rather than a certainty.
Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld is still in the mix as a supervillain, even while imprisoned in a maximum security cell in London, but he is not Bond’s major nemesis. That distinction belongs to Rami Malek, as the wonderfully named Lyutsifer Safin, who has his own complex backstory and the kind of Count Dracula accent that is de rigueur for Bond baddies. The same applies to the nasty scientist, Dr. Obruchev (David Dencik), who also seems to have taken elocution lessons in Transylvania. It’s nice to know some things never change.
With a James Bond movie what’s important for most viewers is not the story, but the unchanging recipe of car and motorbike chases; gun fights and martial arts contests; seductions; explosions; split-second escapes; gizmos and gadgets; and the moment when 007 says: “Bond, James Bond”. No Time to Die has all of the above, but not much else.
There is a small nod to the present state of the world in the dreaded super weapon being a biological agent designed to target a particular person’s DNA and spread on close contact. In the fantastic, exaggerated Bond universe this vision of a world overcome by a viral menace felt almost comforting in its plausibility.
No Time to Die
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Rami Malek, Ana de Armas, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Jeffrey Wright, Ben Wishaw, David Dencik, Billy Magnussen, Christoph Waltz
UK/USA, rated M, 163 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 November, 2021