As a pop cultural phenomenon that’s been going strong for seven decades, nothing compares to…well, Cher, bitch, but let’s talk about our second-favorite ageless septuagenarian diva, James Bond, who has a new movie out.
No Time to Die is promoted as the final appearance of Daniel Craig’s version of James, but as with Cher, we know not to trust that. I mean, how many Knives Out sequels can he do before we start screaming for him to get back into his Speedo’s?
Plus, this movie feels like the James Bond version of a ‘Cherwell’ concert. It’s chock full of references to the Bond canon, from the original Aston Martin to a secret submarine bunker to Louis Armstrong on the soundtrack. Bond even orders the ‘shaken not stirred’ martini, which Craig’s Bond rudely kicked to the curb in his very first outing, for a Heineken and their sponsorship millions.
If we could turn back time, which a movie can, the story starts with a flashback to the childhood of Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), for whom James retired his 007 to settle down with at the end of the previous film, Spectre. Their relationship was so bland and the Spectre plot so weak that everyone involved really should have moved on. There are plenty French lesbian movies for Seydoux to be in.
Does James believe in life after love? Madeleine doubts this, so takes him to a structurally impossible Italian cliff town where his great love Vesper Lynd is buried because she drowned in Venice and female corpses aren’t allowed to leave Italy, other than Sophia Loren when she goes to Cannes. Pouty Maddy demands that James go say goodbye once and for all, but when he visits Vesper’s crypt, it blows up in his face. Everyone who’s ever tried to visit an ex while in a new relationship will sympathize.
What follows is the first of the big action set pieces we go to these films for. Like the evening dress slit up to the pudenda we know someone will wear in every Bond film, these action scenes are all the same in concept but give us just enough of a new design to elicit a fresh ‘wow’.
James thinking his new lover is so jealous she’d blow up his already-dead ex and try to take him out in the process would normally not make sense, but factor in that Craig has given his Bond layers of angst and paranoia previously not allowed in the invincible Bond character. So he puts Ms. Seydoux on a train to Bond girl oblivion and holes up in his Jamaican house, which has no walls. It’s nice to think Bond has gone eco, and sweaty clothes clinging to Daniel Craig is worth the popcorn in my lap, but for an assassin who has decades worth of targets on his back to live so exposed, uh, come on.
James is lured out by his BFF, CIA agent Felix Leiter. Let’s remember that Felix gave James ten million of our hard-earned tax dollars to gamble with in Casino Royale and call him what he is – an enabler. Felix needs James because in all this time there hasn’t emerged on the scene a single agent strong enough to match James’ prowess.
And this movie makes sure that includes the newly deputized 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch). She’s a dark lady with a heart of stone, maybe because she’s forced to wear a brown slacks and blazer combo to signal she’s not a ‘Bond girl’. But more likely it’s because she’s completely sidelined plot-wise, just like a Bond girl. She always shows up late to the party, usually just to Uber James to his next appointment. And the few ass-kicking scenes she does get are not given the same verve as the ones given the other female characters. Ana de Armas, wearing the afore-mentioned high-slit gown, gets to perform Swan Lake with an automatic weapon. Nomi gets to push a henchman off a catwalk. In slacks.
The hype about the Bond franchise moving into the future with a woman of color as our new 007 appears to be a nothing more than a gimmick for a single film, as Nomi, overwhelmed by James’ bravery toward the finale, asks M to give James his old number back, which M does, just before James dies. What’s the MI6 rule regarding this? I certainly wouldn’t want that cursed number back, Nomi.
Like all the solid Bond films, No Time to Die understands the mechanics that make this franchise work, and delivers the action and locales and plotting we expect. And Daniel Craig understands what has made his portrayal of Bond more interesting. He is constantly sneaking off the pedestal the franchise tries to put James Bond on. He brought a vulnerability that is not supposed to be part of Bond’s DNA. He’s lost as many fights as he’s won. Triumphs were never clean and never final, as his Bond’s deepest injuries were emotional.
It is Craig who made a character formerly presented only as callous, ruthless and misogynistic killable. Both in the context of this film and outside of it, he wants us to do what few mega-franchise stars ever wants their audience to do – let him go. Move on as film fans, let him move on as an actor, let the franchise move on creatively.
The jury is out on how much the filmmakers agree with this. Nothing about No Time to Die suggests a truly fresh take is to come. There’s clear resistance to casting Bond as other than male, from both the filmmakers and the franchise’s core audience. Even when they’re as well-done as Salt, female-led spy flicks just don’t get the respect they deserve.
I smell an opportunity for the next Cher re-invention: No Time to Turn Back Time. Never mind who plays Bond when Cher is the villain stealing cheekbones from all the women in Scandinavia! Bang Bang!