No Time To Die            Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021,   UK

How should an end begin? In the first scene of Daniel Craig’s last film as MI6’s top agent a lone gunman stalks a snowy landscape before entering a house and killing a woman; her young daughter resists but is ultimately taken. In the second, set decades later, that girl is revealed to be Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), holidaying with a retired James Bond in an Italian hill town after the events of Spectre. It’s an atmospheric sequence from director Cary Joji Fukunaga and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren that has paper wishes burned at dusk, twisting roads negotiated in an Aston Martin DB5 and an arresting long shot where buildings nevertheless feel startlingly present thanks to careful use of the high-resolution IMAX 15/70 celluloid format, here making its Bond debut.

Striking, too, is the music, an orchestral version of Louis Armstrong’s ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This echo of the past is also a portent of the future, though, as an easy familiarity between the couple is soon undermined.  Madeleine is reluctant to speak of her own history and Bond wishes to pay his respects to Vesper Lynd at a nearby cemetery; his visit promptly explodes into a car and bike chase along and amongst the town’s bridges, roads and squares. Proficiently done and benefiting from another smart IMAX shot in which the camera pushes slowly between a church’s bell towers as they ring in stereo, the action does finish somewhat abruptly and segues rather gracelessly to Bond, feeling betrayed by a lover once more, forcing Madeleine to board a train on her own.

Transition to the opening titles is elegantly done, however, co-opting the graphic language of Dr No in the process and so enhancing the Fifties flavour. Daniel Kleinman’s imagery includes a fallen Britannia, a double helix of Walther PPK pistols (Bond’s DNA, as it were), flowers blossoming like rust and the sands of time, a fresh selection even if the theme song performed by Billie Eilish is a little too close to that from Sam Smith in that previous entry in the series.

As the body of the film – set five years later than the second part of the pre-credits sequence – gets underway the real trouble arrives, for Bond but also for this reviewer. An acrobatic assault on a bioweapons laboratory is initially staged for comedic effect despite the brutal lethality of what follows, and appears lifted from the Mission: Impossible franchise in any event. The prize is a targeted nanobot weapon, sending Bond to Jamaica on its trail. There he meets old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who muddies the waters before exiting unexpectedly, and Nomi (Lashana Lynch), his replacement, which might have been a positive but Lynch is a little awkward in the role and her character is immediately placed in opposition to Bond in the sequence that follows. Centred around a Cuban club, its grotesque guests, disembodied host and enucleated bionic eye on a cushion shift the film’s tone firmly into Sixties camp, another jarring choice. Revelation of a plot to wipe out SPECTRE that pits it, MI6 and the CIA against each other is early overcomplication; that an entirely new criminal mastermind is responsible simply baffles, given recurring antagonist Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) was only recently returned to the franchise in a screenplay that applied significant narrative torque to all of Craig’s films retrospectively to justify the effort. The one moment of relief is a hugely winning turn from Ana de Armas as enthusiastic CIA trainee Paloma. No ditzy incompetent, de Armas succeeds in making her warm, engaging and funny as well as breathlessly efficient.

By this point my attention was drawn to Craig’s own performance. Dull and inert so far, he also looked to be uncomfortable; by contrast he plays several later moments very broadly considering his style to date. Neither helped me make the connection needed to buy the main storyline, let alone its often intransigently complex byways. The constant nodding to earlier Bond films, surely redundant after both Spectre and Die Another Day, also produces variable results. Having Bond progress through the Aston Martins of past assignments (he drives a V8 Vantage from the Dalton era next, followed by a DBS; the new Valhalla is seen later) is subtle and amusing, but another sinking trawler (For Your Eyes Only) and another floating life boat (The Spy Who Loved Me, The Man With The Golden Gun) are pedestrian.

Back in London, we find that MI6 is now headquartered within the Ministry of Defence building on Whitehall, a curious move notwithstanding Bond being a Royal Navy Commander. Taken together with that secret laboratory existing as a glass tower within sight of the Shard, Madeleine’s psychology practice apparently positioned just off the Mall and a riverside meeting at the humble Hammersmith bridge, it’s a strangely off-centre capital that is presented throughout the film. An evening house call on a Q (Ben Wishaw) preparing to welcome a date and Bond’s confrontation with the now-imprisoned Blofeld are, frankly, silly, the former making much of a cat and the latter featuring a cell closer to Austin Powers than Hannibal Lecter.

Safin (Rami Malek) intrigues when eventually unmasked and benefits from a line accusing people of advocating independence whilst secretly wanting to be told what to do, but he never really frightens. The idea that his chosen method of death-dealing involves those nanobots but also poisonous plants and was developed by M (Ralph Fiennes) for reasons I cannot now recall, coming on top of a daughter for Madeleine who may or may not be Bond’s as well, surely exceeds the recommended storyline limit of a single film.

Norway’s dramatic Atlantic Ocean Road, five miles of lithe concrete bridges spanning a series of coastal islets, is an original and impressive location and bodes well at the start of another car chase yet the action itself (much of which was actually shot in Scotland) is somewhat bloodless. This finds redress of sorts in the more visceral twilight foot pursuit that follows, but it’s hard to believe that an entire night has passed when this quickly concludes in daylight.

The third act changes tone once more; now we are in the flashy Seventies, as a reinstated Bond and Nomi drop from a military aircraft in a glider/boat/submarine (that neither knows how to fly, a redundant line of dialogue tells us) to penetrate Safin’s island base, this a former military bunker manned by a private army and containing a farm for his flora. More retrograde than reverential, this fails to convince on its own terms. The supposed need for an injection of ‘smart blood’ and a bulky scanning device merely for MI6 to track the agents’ movements further demonstrates the degree to which the film is overwritten, not least as Bond received just such a dose in Spectre.

What follows is a confused and confusing set of confrontations, separated by bursts of derivative action and watched from the sidelines by M, Q and Moneypenny (Naomi Harris, shamefully underused), as the final steps in the story play out and Craig himself bows out.

How should an end begin? Bond could indeed have sparred with a new 007, or questioned M’s loyalty, or unravelled SPECTRE completely; he could even have discovered a family he never knew. Any of these were worthy of incorporation, but not all, not with other sub-plots in addition and not, most vitally, when Craig’s portrayal was already planned to conclude in a manner that required careful attention to achieve successfully. The result of ignoring these strictures is a horrendous excess of material and a loss, for me, of involvement in that climax when it ultimately arrives.

Had instead the strong, simple scripting of Casino Royale been employed, writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fukunaga might have tipped the inconsistency of the Craig era from a two-two draw to a three-two win. As it is, that score is reversed and No Time To Die must be placed alongside the forgettable Spectre and the calamity that was Quantum of Solace as a wholly inadequate conclusion to an era that started so promisingly fifteen years ago.

 

_____________________________________________

Posted 11 November 2021, originally on 16 October 2021 via Facebook

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture