03 December 2021

First Impressions: No Time to Die

Believe it or not, I watched No Time to Die (2021) as a double-feature at a drive-in with Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021). That was two months ago. Let's talk about it! SPOILERS for every Bond movie ever from here on out. To sum up - I liked it. Now let's get into details.

First, superlatives and history and all that stuff. Dan Craig is the longest-tenured Bond by a wide margin, having played the role for the better part of 15 years now. And even if NTTD had come out in 2020 like it was supposed to, he would have still held on to it for longer than Roger Moore, who played the role for a mere twelve years. However, he only made five films, which is well short of both Moore and Connery (even if you count Never Say Never Again [1983] or not). Is it weird that Never Say Never Aagain came out the same year as Octopussy (1983)? Can you imagine having like, a Pierce Brosnan knock-off Bond also coming out this year?

Anyway, the less movies in more years thing is assuredly a product of modern movie-making that takes quite a bit longer than just throwing up whatever on a sloppy green screen. This film feels like it's fighting for attention and relevancy amidst all the other modern blockbusters, while it's always good to remember how Bond lead blockbuster filmmaking in so many ways. It was the original franchise, of course, and continually smashed box office records in the 60s and 70s. Somewhere along the way it assuredly started chasing trends rather than creating them - from Moonraker (1979) trying to be Star Wars (1977) to Casino Royale (2006) trying to be The Bourne Identity (2001) you see it over and over again. So, No Time to Die comes at an interesting crossroads - it is both the culmination of the Daniel Craig era, but it's also trying to acknowledge that the Daniel Craig era was an important thing amidst the simultaneous Era of Reboots, Era of Superheroes, Era of Disney Hegemony, and hell, Era of COVID!

The Craig Bonds seemed to eventually find their niche by just making really good movies. It's the Planet of the Apes method - just straight competency porn. Now, I am actually pretty divided on the Craig Bonds - all the odd ones are pretty good, and the even ones are pretty not. They exist in this weird zone where there's actually an attempt at a coherent storyline through all of them, but through a combination of not having a plan, forgetting the plan over fifteen years and four directors, or just the audience forgetting what the hell happened last time (or we didn't know we were supposed to be paying attention), this all got muddled. How many times can we reveal a secret bad guy that has an even more secret and more badder organization than last time? Every time. That's what's up.

No Time to Die centers around Bond and some French woman who I vaguely remember from S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (2015) combatting a dude worse than S.P.E.C.T.R.E. who wants to kill S.P.E.C.T.R.E. There's some fun here and the latest movies have certainly struggled to find a way to bring Bond out of the 60s and into the modern age. That was always the weirdest part of SkyFall (2012), how the progressive female M was killed to pave way for an old fashioned man to take back control. That's a really great movie but the ending is insanely regressive.

Anyway, remember when Bond was old and washed up in SkyFall? That was like nine years ago and he just keeps trying to either retire or die. I love when he's shot on that desert wall and he doesn't care. Like he's been shot so many times it's just annoying to him. But this movie pulls out all the stops and finds a way to be very Bond-like but also break a lot of the mold. He has gadgets and fun tricks, which have creeped their way up through the Craig Era as it became less ashamed of its pulp, but also Bond has a kid, loses his 007 designation, and then also he dies. Spoiler, although I think he plausibly escaped. Or at least this iteration of Bond is dead forever. Someone keenly pointed out it's the exact same ending as The Rock (1996), which is just great.

So, Rami Malek is a poison-loving dude who makes a nanobot virus that insta-kills specifically coded DNA in close contact. There is some fun when he gets revenge on S.P.E.C.T.R.E. when you think S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is going to kill Bond, although for a major villainous organization that's been supposedly behind everything in this whole franchise, they go out like a bunch of punks. So does Blofield, but I was never that hyped about Christoph Waltz being Bond's long lost brother, so whatever. Bond has to save the day, but for once in his life there isn't an escape. There's no raft to make out with the girl in as it floats away. It's very clear that Craig is so done with this franchise and unabashedly had no desire to return. But also, it's certainly been long enough.

It makes me consider the Era as a whole, and like I said, most of these films have been very good. But Casino Royale feels downright ancient. Remember when they just tried to capitalize on the poker craze? Poker and parkour with a ton of shaky cam - that is such a mid-2000s escapade. I mentioned the competency, this, SkyFall, and to a lesser extent S.P.E.C.T.R.E., really reveled in breathtaking vistas, unique lairs, and a huge sense of scope that I REALLY noticed after watching Venom 2. SkyFall probably still has an edge, but NTtD is easily the second-best looking cinematic Bond of all time, which is saying something for this franchise that is not dying any time soon.

So, how did everyone do? Daniel Craig is fine, he really knows the ins and outs of this character by now, and I've liked the bent that this series has taken where we're not totally letting Bond get away with his trauma and alcoholism. There are the wry one-liners of course, but in this context he's always hiding some significant pain that creates this underlying sadness. Or you can just take the surface level fun.

Lea Seydoux is fine. I guess. It's not much of a role and she's mostly pouty. Ana de Armas is so underused, she really just bursts in, kicks a bunch of dudes in a slit dress and then bounces. I don't totally know why she was even there, but I will always take some Ana de Armas in my life.

Let's spend a little time talking about Lashana Lynch, tho - she takes over the 007 mantle from Bond, and she's fine and all, but I never really got the sense that she was suave or charismatic enough to handle that responsibility. I didn't think she was that great in Captain Marvel (2019), either and thought she was a weird choice here. Now, it's become tough to criticize this diversity move, and I am sure that I will come off as an old racist, but if Lynch is the person to pull this off, the film never gave her a chance to show what she can do. It's ultimately another regressive film flaunting its diversity in an attempt to appear progressive. She even kowtows to Bond near the end, rescinding her 007 designation back to him, which was wholly unnecessary. She needed a bit more to do if she was going to earn this mantle transition. Ultimately the movie was just too packed with Craig goodbyes to make it a transition film, and I'm not sure that's even what they wanted to do.

I don't think they are moving towards having a black woman Bond, I mean, I guess they could, but what makes Bond Bond is the fact that he's a privileged womanizing asshole. I mean...Archer. And I'm not saying this as a way of complementing the character or saying his maleness and whiteness are sacrosanct, but they do inform that specific character, for better or worse (and the Craig Bonds have done a better job highlighting the worse), and it'd be hard to have the same character played by a different gender or ethnicity. I know I'm going to get in trouble for this. That's okay. A black female spy movie would be great, but create a character that's informed by that background. Ultimately it comes down to brand awareness more than anything, so we as loyal manjamunching consumers need to just consume a product with a new character and we'll be all good.

Finally, there's Rami. He's a good actor, I guess, but even though he's a great natural villain, he seemed miscast here. I think the producers were excited to get him hot off an Oscar win and again, he was just born to be a Bond Villain. But he's a little too young here, especially for someone who supposedly encountered Lea Seydoux as a young girl. Malek is only four years older than Seydoux. I remember that's what took me out of Oldboy (2003), too. The ages just don't line up. Also, Malek is 40?! I lowkey thought that dude was like 25, although yeah, I guess he's been around for a while.

But I also struggled to understand his motivation, like, yeah he was pissed at Blofield for killing his parents, but why did he want to destroy the world? They kind of brush past that, and it never seems that strong. Or how he got his face scars. I guess he got burned at some point. Probably got too close to some hamburgers on the grill and they jumped up and got his face.

So, anyway, I really liked this movie. It looked great, it had an engaging, if not convoluted plot, but this is James Bond after all. The character work is solid, even though I complained, and they find a way to make a sixty-year old regressive dinosaur character feel relevant and interesting. It's cool. The Craig Bond just spanned so many eras of blockbuster filmmaking, and we're headed into the murkiest post-COVID world yet.

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