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► No Time to Die is in UK cinemas from September 30.
With Casino Royale (2006), the Bond franchise re-established itself in an era when espionage action was defined by the kinetic, cynical Bourne films. Daniel Craig, rougher-edged than his predecessor Pierce Brosnan, was given a close adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, which first introduced James Bond. The Sean Connery character discovered at a baccarat table in Dr No (1962), louchely lighting a cigarette and introducing himself as ‘Bond, James Bond’, was fully-formed, in the prime of his heroic career, and needed no backstory.
That approach was retained for recastings until Craig – whom we met exercising his licence to kill for the first (and second) time, not yet comfortable in a tuxedo, and unpicky about whether his martinis were shaken or stirred. Successive Craig Bonds – Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), Spectre (2015) – give the character an arc, and in No Time to Die Craig’s tenure concludes with something Fleming tried (several times), an actual end for the hero’s career.
Casino Royale had Fleming’s tight plot to hang its reboots on, but subsequent Craig films have had to piece together elements of Fleming’s novels – often unused in the official adaptations – or come up with material from whole cloth. An irony of the 007 project, which endures despite all the critiques of the character as out of date — as far back as GoldenEye (1995), Bond was a Cold War dinosaur – is that for Fleming the point of Casino Royale was that the high-living, promiscuous, borderline alcoholic adventurer was, in the austere Britain of 1953, already a relic of the era of Bulldog Drummond and John Buchan. It was only when the book became a success that the author unashamedly had his hero exercise what Colin Watson called ‘snobbery with violence’ in an increasingly bizarre, science-fictional universe. Fleming eventually tired of the unchanging, indomitable Bond and broke him in the books that No Time for Die draws most from, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964).
No Time to Die is, thanks to Spectre, burdened with mixed-blessing backstory that has nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, locked up like Dr Lecter or the Joker) as Bond’s one-time foster brother, while Craig incarnates the dead-inside, often thought dead-entirely protagonist of the later Bond books, limping from emotional and physical wounds. It’s an issue that his two-film connection with Lea Seydoux’s Proustian-named Madeleine Swann remains less vivid than his involvement with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, whose tomb is visited. To compensate, the film reuses ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ for the couple, the theme song of Bond’s short-lived marriage in the film of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1970) – which ominously foreshadows late-in-the-film developments that shake the foundations of the series.
The Craig Bonds benefit from a terrific ensemble of supporting players who don’t get enough to do, despite an excess of running time that inspires new appreciation of the trimness of the undervalued Quantum of Solace, shortest of the series. Not content with paraphrasing the ‘we’re not so different, you and I, Mr Bond’ cliché, Remi Malek’s undercooked villain then spends five minutes listing their points of similarity but still making less headway than Dr No did with that gambit in 1962. A whole team of screenwriters (including Phoebe Waller-Bridge) come up with no punchlines to compare with No’s ‘I see you are just a stupid policeman’, though Bond dismissing a serpent-smiling ‘political appointee’ CIA agent (Billy Magnusson) as ‘Book of Mormon’ suggests the agent has broadened his cultural references since the days he insisted ‘listening to the Beatles without earmuffs’ was a faux pas akin to red wine with fish.
Cary Joji Fukunaga, taking over from Sam Mendes as hired auteur, struggles with the baggy emotional storyline but manages excellent action scenes, with screen-filling car chases in a variety of glamorous or atmospheric locations and a climactic invasion of a Bond villain lair that includes a version of Fleming’s memorable poison garden (Blofeld’s retirement project in the novel You Only Live Twice). Lashana Lynch, as the agent who has replaced Bond in the 00 program, is a potentially great character but stuck with being literally a place-holder until the hero stops sulking and gets back in harness. Lynch is not alone in being thoroughly upstaged by stylish rookie Ana de Armas, whose single evening-gown fight scene is so joyously characterful that the traditional credits promise that ‘James Bond will return’ really ought to be modified to assure us she’ll be back too.
Originally published: 29 September 2021