Thoughts on No Time To Die…

*Spoilers abound!*

So, I think I’ve been in a quiet state of shock, or possibly trauma, since I saw No Time To Die at the end of September after it was finally released. The continual insistence on the part of the producers that the film absolutely had to be seen on the big screen, and they couldn’t release it on streaming platforms (despite the need for the world to try to prevent COVID becoming endemic), meant the film might not be released for years on end – risking crucial spoilers, or the entire film, being leaked on line – was becoming extremely frustrating and making them appear mean-spirited, and not least a bit desperate to recoup their investment.

The eventual release marked the longest gap between Bond films in the series’ entire (nearly 60 year) history – even longer than the hiatus that resulted in the loss of Timothy Dalton after License to Kill in 1989 and the eventual (retrograde) change of direction with GoldenEye in 1995. It’s fair to say I was becoming desperate to see this film especially after watching the same footage of set pieces and wow-moments repackaged many times over and the longer the promotional carousel ground on, the harder I found it to manage my expectations. It didn’t help that the marketing team, who did an excellent job, and who were forced to shut down and restart three times over must have found it harder to restart the campaign each time the movie was pushed back – I’ve never seen so many poster designs for a single Bond film prior to the film’s release (and it was a shame to see them nail it with one especially good version before settling on a much weaker design).

In his review of No Time To Die on Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, Mark Kermode explained how Danny Boyle was originally on the project as director, with a script by John Hodge (Trainspotting). I’d been aware of this from the moment it was announced. I’d been thrilled by this news, not least because Danny Boyle is one of the directors I most admire but also because it represented a continued commitment to director-lead filmmaking; a trust in the instincts of someone with an established record in producing genuinely excellent films – and to an extent because Boyle had been the person largely responsible for James Bond’s appearance with the Queen for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony being, far from the national embarrassment it could so easily have been, an audacious stunt that exploded with the chutzpah the event needed. Kermode goes on to say that hiring Boyle would have been, “…a very daring move for Bond. I mean, it’s [as] daring, I think as getting in Sam Mendes to be a Bond director…” but I do wonder if given the massive success of Skyfall and Spectre, and the Olympics stunt, whether by “daring” he was suggesting this could be viewed as “risky” in terms of box office, or just the style of the piece, or the direction Boyle and Hodge might have taken, because the ultimate direction the film took is about as daring as you can go for Bond. This led me to speculate why Boyle and Hodge departed the project and whether they disagreed with the eventual ending. Did, for that matter, Sam Mendes not want to be the person whose name would be forever associated with killing Bond? We may never know. Either way, it’s possible the producers, who included Daniel Craig, may have opted for a less well-established director who would be more of a “team player” and facilitate more of a producer-led project. Kermode goes on to say, “Directorially, I think it’s solid, if somewhat unsurprising… I did find myself [wondering] what Danny Boyle would have done. When you think about the opening of Trainspotting, when you think about the street scenes of Slumdog Millionaire, when you think about… the sheer visual extravagance of Sunshine. I do wonder what he would have done.” It’s possible this wondering coloured my viewing of the movie, that my expectations had been originally set up for a Danny Boyle Bond film and were not sufficiently modified. I’m not very familiar with Cary Joji Fukunaga’s work, other than the 2009 movie “Sin Nombre” which I remember as being an unremarkable and tedious Romeo-and-Juliet-style, doomed teen-romance. Since then Fukunaga has become better known for the successful TV series “True Detective” and the favourably received “Beasts of No Nation” so it’s fair to say he’s as safe a pair of hands as say, Marc Forster, who might well have helmed a spectacular Bond film in Quantum of Solace if he’d had a better script to work from; and as we know from the disappointing QOS (something Kermode repeatedly refers to as “Pond of Wood” in his review), the script is everything. So, Kermode wonders what Boyle might have done and I also found myself wondering what Boyle might have done; and also what Sam Mendes might have done, had he been in a position to follow through with a third Bond film. It is somewhat unfair on Fukunaga, to compare his film with the work of other more established directors but this was the mode of filmmaking to which the producers had been subscribing with Mendes, and it was proving phenomenally successful.

Another director whose shadow looms over the project is Christopher Nolan whose movie Inception is influenced by elements of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (most overtly in the alpine mountain fortress dream) and which is clearly referenced in NTTD. The producers must have intended some associations with Nolan because they hired Nolan’s go-to composer Hans Zimmer. The score was something else I was had high hopes for. After being disappointed with Billie Eilish’s insipid theme (that somehow managed to be even weaker than Sam Smiths’ offering for Spectre) I was excited to hear that Hans Zimmer would be reteaming with Johnny Marr (the pairing of which had really made the Inception score fizz), to produce the score. Zimmer’s scores for Nolan’s movies, in particular Inception and The Dark Knight Rises had been really exciting and innovative and he built on these further for Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and most recently, Dune. All Kermode had to say on the subject was, that the soundtrack, “…is Zimmer doing Bond, which is very much what you’d expect Zimmer doing Bond to sound like…”. Which is to say that there’s nothing special about it. And it did sound utterly unremarkable, nothing like as good as Thomas Newman’s scores had been for Skyfall and Spectre, which was a huge disappointment, given how exciting Zimmer had been in his other film scores. At times Zimmer’s score was reminiscent of David Arnold’s weaker moments in the longer action sequences towards the ends of the latter three Brosnan Bond movies – they kind of run out of ideas but are still there pounding away, all sound and fury, signifying “Non-specific Action!”. It’s impossible to ignore moments in the NTTD score that are lifted from John Barry’s 1969 score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that Kermode describes as, “…[hanging] over the movie like an inspirational cloud…” but they feel nowhere near as light as a cloud, almost intrusive in their insistence that we recall this film and its themes without really knowing what emotions it is they are seeking to invoke, other than perhaps foregrounding Impending Tragedy. Sadly, Zimmer has nothing fresh to offer and ultimately it sounds as if his brief was just to fill in the gaps between snatches of classic Barry score.

The references to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are there again in the title sequence which uses the same colour “palette” from the OHMSS titles (well, red, white and blue) and which also appeared at times to eschew 3 dimensions, depth, sophistication, innovation and all the things we’ve come to expect from Daniel Kleinman. Some of the references to past credits were clever and playful but when the representations of DNA and the missile strike begin it gets tiresome and repetitive. The titles for NTTD ultimately felt like watching mid-Moore era titles, the only thing missing were the naked women dancing in silhouette. Again, this was shame given the amazing title sequences produced from GoldenEye onwards.

Elsewhere the film alludes to OHMSS early on, with the hit-you-with-a-brick-in-the-face subtlety of Bond suggesting to Madeleine Swann that they have “…all the time in the world…”, on what could easily be the same stretch of road they used in OHMSS (just to ram the similarity home further). Kermode suggests that, “Like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it has a plot in which loss is an actual thing, an actual possibility…”, and although the associations are there in the score, the titles – and in that fantastically clunky dialogue reference – it didn’t prepare me for what happened. Or how we got there.

Kermode suggests that with the beginning of Craig’s Bond tenure, “Casino Royale brought back in the sense of pain… Craig is the natural inheritor of… Timothy Dalton and George Lazenby in terms of… the Bond mantle. The sense of pain… has been the defining character of Craig’s Bond and has felt to me at least more real than others and this dares to follow that through and I think it’s all the better for it.” I’d never really thought that the portrayal of Bond I admire the most by Timothy Dalton has its roots in OHMSS, perhaps because George Lazenby was trying so hard to channel Sean Connery; the film being situated in peak Connery-era Bond, and because rather than embody the darker side of Bond, Lazenby’s Bond winds up passively reacting to the tragic twist at the end of the film. Kermode also talks about how it has become cool to suggest that OHMSS is a favourite Bond film because of its revisionist-classic status in the wake of Dalton, and now Craig, following this trajectory – and more recently with the success of movies such as Inception. I’ve regarded OHMSS as one of the series’ best for a long time but even this entry is not without its flaws, including the tiresomely protracted fight scenes or the intrusive crash zooms – with their baffling accompanying reverberating sound-effects. It is good to see Dalton recognised as contributing to this trajectory, even if the Dalton-era Bonds haven’t achieved the kind of iconic status that is now attributed to OHMSS. Kermode goes on to say, “Craig’s Bond… has felt to me at least more real than others.” Certainly after Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity” was released in 2002, the same year as the poorly-received Die Another Day, the style of Bourne and the handling of the action proved to be a big influence on Bond and the resulting Casino Royale was much more visceral and thrilling than anything since License to Kill in 1989. That Casino Royale began a story that could only have wound up with the ending we were given in NTTD is debateable. 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy” also proved influential in the way it showed the protagonist compelled to pursue an unresolved agenda they begun in a previous film (with the effect that at times it almost feels like a remake with its re-treading of places and events that occurred in previous film). With a more developed script for Quantum of Solace the producers might have had a more substantial and richer continuation of the story they began with Casino Royale. Skyfall felt ground-breaking and original but arguably it was too much of a departure in narrative terms from QOS and felt much too early in Craig’s series journey to be doing the rehabilitation of the ageing-soldier story, even if the movie’s coda was inspired. Spectre was a delight, and it was heartening to hear Kermode assert, “I don’t get the bad feeling about Spectre, and people really, really don’t like Spectre and I don’t understand why. I did like it, I don’t get that.” It’s one of my favourites in the entire series, possibly because it doesn’t try to be as original as Skyfall, it goes completely in the opposite direction and as a result is almost the perfect Bond film, seeking to embody all of the best aspects of the series. Almost. The problem with Spectre is the increased tendency towards serial story, especially the establishing of Blofeld as a foster-brother to Bond, with the result that the world of Bond begins to lose the very authenticity it worked for in Casino Royale and as such this serial feels contrived.

Daniel Craig was given a low-key farewell of sorts at the end of Spectre but the implication with trailers for NTTD was that there would be more story to tell – in other words, more inauthentic serial not just to impose on the series but to actually use as the basis for the whole story, makes the narrative thrust of NTTD feel inherently misguided. Kermode discusses at length the theme of family in NTTD, “…perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is that at the end of it, it isn’t about a shark, with lasers or otherwise, it is oddly about family…”. One of Mendes greatest achievements was re-establishing M (albeit one in the mould of Bernard Lee), Q and Moneypenny and putting them together with Tanner to create scenes that demonstrated the scope of the series for quality ensemble drama. These characters were family for Bond in Skyfall and Spectre but in NTTD they’re woefully side-lined. There was never any need for the writers to sketch out incestuous back stories for Bond’s nemesis or deliberately seek to paint themselves into a narrative corner the way they’ve done here.

Unless the conclusion is the entire point of this story, in which case the idea of family feels less of a theme and more of a necessary device to get to that point – that the only way the character of Bond could become compromised is through discovering he’s a father? And not to just anyone – but an eerily obedient and angelic daughter? This is why Stuart Heritage writing in the Guardian was spot-on when he suggests, “…by all accounts, Mathilde doesn’t seem to possess any identifiably human traits… When it’s her bedtime, her mother tells her to close her eyes and she immediately falls asleep. Imagine that. Imagine bedtime not being a grinding three-hour nightmare of bribery, deflection and persuasion.” Wendy Ide writing in The Observer notes “…the lack of chemistry between Craig and Seydoux…”, which I don’t remember being something that was noticeable or problematic in Spectre – almost as if the narrative demands on the characters and the resulting situations would be better suited to a different kind of film (or could it be that the actors were just better handled better by a director like Mendes?). The action scenes I’d been thrilled by in the trailer felt much less impressive in the context of the film, almost as if the film was obliged to feature set-pieces but was much more interested in unburdening itself of its bloated plot-and-serial-combo. One moment that was showcased repeatedly in the trailers was Bond pulling the dustcover from an old favourite; the Aston Martin V8 from the Living Daylights. Duly I’d been expecting the film to feature a sequence that utilises the car (in the way Skyfall did for the DB5). In fact, the film is so preoccupied with achieving its dreary denouement that the exposition of Bond surviving his ocean ordeal is glazed over and Bond is glimpsed swimming to the surface of the sea, handily adjacent to a massive cargo tanker [no attempt to show Bond climbing aboard, speaking to anyone, sailing home, arriving at a port etc]; apropos of nothing cut to Bond in the garage we glimpsed in the trailer pulling a dust cover from the V8 in different clothes [no clue where this is; how he got here; why he’s there etc]; cut to Bond exiting the vehicle in another entirely different location that’s not established, in another change of clothes. The next time we’re shown the car it’s being driven to yet another location and after Bond arrives at his destination he is forced to abandon it. It serves no narrative purpose and it delivers no enjoyment for fans because it’s denied a role in an action scene; Fukunaga effectively pulls a “Martin Campbell” (by taking the trouble to set up a car for Bond and then neglecting to deploy said car as Campbell did in GoldenEye and again in Casino Royale). Everything it seemed had to make way for this serial-plot agenda and this included scenes that might otherwise have benefitted from some added texture such as in Jamaica where Bond, Leiter and Logan Ash visit a bar to talk shop. Mendes would arguably have chosen to set this in a quieter bar, one more overtly stylised yet more authentic, not the try-hard, neon-drenched club we’re beaten over the head with. Elsewhere there were throwbacks to Brosnan-era, Q-Branch tech, neglecting the minimalist gadgetry-chic established so effectively by Mendes in Skyfall and carried through to Spectre. Kermode mentions the scene in Skyfall where Q suggests that they don’t go in for exploding pens anymore but tries to suggest here it’s somehow an evolution *to go back to* something like a bionic eyeball. A bionic eyeball. This felt like it had come straight out of Austin Powers (which at the time felt entirely redundant because we’d just had GoldenEye with actual exploding pens).

The serial-plot agenda also demanded that everything was definitively wrapped up. Blofeld is ruthlessly dispatched; literally all of the remaining Spectre agents are slaughtered in an unintentionally ridiculous sequence (worthy of the League of Gentlemen) a mere one film after they were established. Poor old Felix Leiter gets a scene or two before being bumped off – and this is a character Bond spent an entire film avenging when he is maimed by the villains in License to Kill. Kermode suggests that NTTD features “…proper character arcs…” for characters like Leiter – not in the film I saw. Here the order of the day seemed to be to squander all that had been carefully built up previously in the race to clear anything non-essential out of the way to facilitate a betrayal of everything that came before.

It didn’t help watching “Being James Bond: The Daniel Craig Story”. This video documentary began by reminding us how Daniel Craig hadn’t originally wanted to be Bond. If he wasn’t happy with the idea of being Bond then perhaps he shouldn’t have taken the role if he wasn’t up for, as David Mitchell describes it in the Guardian, being in a panto. In hindsight, it’s like he thought to himself, ‘alright I’ll do Bond but my way, but ultimately you’re not going to like it.’ Daniel Craig was credited as a producer on Spectre and NTTD so it’s fair to suppose he had a lot of say about the storyline and his approval of the script could well have hinged on whether he did the film at all. That the series could have been different – that this ending wasn’t inevitable still makes me sad and angry and I struggle to understand how someone like Kermode feels that because NTTD, “…dares to follow through [with that sense of pain]… it’s all the better for it.” The film even shows us Bond suffering multiple explosive devices at close range (the booby-trapped tomb at the beginning and several hand grenades towards the end) which Bond sloughs off before he realises an entirely avoidable plot point pared with an entirely avoidable serial component in the script has his number on it.

And here’s the rub. If this film is genuinely attempting to be about something bigger than skarks-with-frickin’-lazer-beams-Bond then why give us comedy bionic eyeballs and half-arsed fan-service with scenes dedicated to cars that don’t perform unless you’re somewhat apologetic for something that betrays Bond; something that actually *doesn’t* follow through with what a Bond film promises and the necessary components of what every Bond film has managed to deliver in the past.

Mitchell argues that, “James Bond shouldn’t die. It’s a key attribute of the character… The relaxing escapism that comes from this familiarity, from knowing that Bond will always prevail – that he is a relentless and unflappable winner, however psychologically unlikely that may seem – is of incalculable comfort to the audience.”

This isn’t to say I hadn’t been happy with what Craig was doing in the previous films. I’ve been forced to conclude with NTTD he *had* to ensure he’d become bigger than the character. Certainly Craig has recently had his star unveiled on the Hollywood walk of fame and the implication seems to be that after this definitive portrayal, Bond can be laid to rest. Or at best Bond is to be consigned to endless wearisome re-boots like the Batman and Terminator series and with all the inconsistencies in every aspect implicit therein. No Time To Die (as well as being a daft title and one that, even after seeing the film, still fails to mean anything) taints the series now because the death of Bond can’t help but invoke for viewers 60 years of Bond films and associated moments of pop culture and memories and people and it just felt so very… not worth it. As Mitchell put it, “The current film-makers are wantonly expending emotional capital the vast majority of which was earned by other people. A precious resource has been squandered in one attention-grabbing and ultimately miserable moment.”