No Time To Die

[spoilers ahead]

Bond‘s a franchise that I very slowly came to respect, although I never missed one, whenever they got released, and I had my favourites, and my least favourites, and all the Roger Moore ones, in-between.

In other words, I found 007 entertaining, but never gave him a second thought after I left the theatre.

Sam Mendes‘s Skyfall (2012) was a gamechanger in that respect, as it went where no Bond had gone before, into that secret vulnerable space of a hyper-charged, almost caricatural masculinity, boldly hacking its airtight biography, right up to the first time its vital force was challenged by the absurd frailty of life. It did this with precision, depth, and fluidity reserved for an entirely different type of film, and that took me by surprise. It made me think differently of exquisitely crafted entertainment, and how film art can sometimes travel Concorde style.

Sometimes.

The Bonds of my youth never seemed to have a backstory. They simply were Bonds. Their job description was their characterisation. Born fully-formed in the prolific mind of a real-life spy, Ian Fleming, penned to spend their life on paper, they turned out to be perfectly tailored for the inherent mythomania of the silver screen. Those sharply dressed broad-shouldered men, with their state-of-the-art gadgets, aerodynamic cars, nonchalantly bedding unimaginably beautiful women, in the most clichéd of luxurious settings, drinking martinis pedantically shaken, not stirred. And all this was just a sideline, too. Their steely focus was always their licence to kill, terminating over-the-top villains, along with unfortunate collateral, on Her Majesty’s clock.

In truth, I fond Bond a glorified workaholic, and a bit boring. He was every young man’s fantasy, but not mine.

Then came Daniel Craig as James Bond, and the man of mystery started to look like he could actually bleed. Profusely so. He also felt like a person with a real secret. Something small, devastating, and mundane, yet poisonous to the soul. That’s when I got interested in the story. I though it somehow bore witness to a particular type of evaporating masculinity, compressed in-between two vastly opposed eras – a trained, stoic endurance in extremes of adversity, an agility of body and spirit, a quiet loyalty. The martial impulse to destroy and conquer transmuted into an ultimate sacrifice for others.

Not the hero we always wanted, but the hero we had.

And none of the Bonds pay homage to this perilously disappearing breed as directly as Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s No Time to Die (2021)

It’s no coincidence that Fukunaga was the saturnine stunner vision behind Nic Pizzolatto‘s epic poetics in the seminal True Detective series. A milestone when it comes to both the history of the moving image and cinematic depictions of masculinity, as such.

No Time To Die still has the usual trappings of a Bond cosmology – a vindictive, profoundly creepy, Bond-obsessed villain, with a God-complex, a man named Lyutsifer (hint taken), played quite soulfully by a sullen Rami Malek; thugs with dodgy Eastern European accents (still the trope), although Dr Obruchev (David Dencik) turned out to be excellent, and a strange kind of comic relief; lone islands in the Pacific where every Armageddon looms (where else would it?); a handsomely bland US government official turned villain sidekick, aptly named Logan (Billy Magnussen), hilariously nicknamed ‘the Book Of Mormon’ by Bond; the standard international mayhem until the Brits sort things out (ahem, naturally); and general brazen product placements (I’ve seen you, Nokia).

Yet, despite all that, it came out a triumphant winner, now treating all that incredible gadgetry and immaculate pageantry as an enjoyable but dispensable sideline, in favour of the absolute primacy of human touch. In addition, it topped its already fierce artistic credentials with the opening titles animations that are a glory unto themselves.

At its centre, there is a romance, not steamy, but heartfelt, carried over from Spectre (2015), doomed from the onset through both people’s earned inability to trust. Redeemed through sheer narrative grit. Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann is softly dignified in her persistent emotional consistency, despite enigmatically deceptive appearances. Then there is the new 007, James Bond is now retried – it’s a woman, and of Afro-Caribbean heritage (finally), as this Bond does not shy away from matters of race, in a refreshingly honest, straightforward kind of way. A savvy Lashana Lynch is the new arrival Nomi, a lively, steady, rival-turned-mate. Old chums show up in just the right numbers too, M, Q and Moneypenny (Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, and Naomie Harris, respectively), as well as the tragic Felix (Jeffrey Wright), the fallen brother in arms. All given proper screen time, each one there to annoy Bond, and to be annoyed by Bond, in turn, but holding their own space, while being deeply loyal, and true. Finally, the gloriously kooky new special agent Paloma enters, centre stage, all too briefly – playfully, charismatically, and acrobatically performed by Ana de Armas. In my books, truly the best on-screen partner in crime Bond ever had. (Spin-off, anyone?)

And then, there is Madeleine’s young daughter, just the right age to fit the gap when Madeleine and James last met.

Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), with her calm, sweet, confident nature, and her blue eyes.

Are they or are they not the same as James’s? Madeleine, at first, says no.

The beautiful twist in the this billion-dollar franchise that has arrived to a chapter’s close is that James Bond does not die an MI6 agent, saving the world. Not really. He dies a dad.

Craig redefined Bond, revealing a complex humanity beneath the exceptional achievement in the art of war.

Sophisticated entertainment, as well as poignant reflexion on bioweapons, fallible heroes, and love.

★★★★★

Author: ©Milana Vujkov

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