I won’t beat about the bush, I was not expecting much going in to No Time To Die. Daniel Craig has been involved in some absolute turkeys in recent times – almost to a literal extent thanks to his turn as the Hyper-Chicken in Knives Out. At the same time, his tenure as James Bond has been patchy at best.
After a first blaze of glory as 007 in Casino Royale breathed new credibility into the franchise, the following films ranged from the banal to the distasteful. Largely the films have still received critical acclaim, but seemingly in the same way every eye-wateringly expensive iPhone seems to still garner plaudits as a new high for human innovation. Perhaps embarrassed to have invested so heartily in an apparent false-dawn, critics doubled down to assure us that Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre were not confused messes, at odds with themselves about what modernisation meant.
James Bond is a cultural artefact – an ideological snap-shot, emerging initially as the embodiment of the established order, in order to defend it. In an era where Britain’s influence seemed to be waning, and where marginalised races and genders were pushing for equality, Ian Fleming’s Bond promised Middle England they could still have it all. The world kept on changing though, and so too have the ideological justifications for the way things are.
In a world where citizens’ experiences failed to match the ideological promises of the ruling elite, leading many to reject ideas of national interest as rich Englishmen prepared yet again to pack off poor Englishmen to die for lies in the Middle East. The “quintessential Englishman” at the heart of Bond’s character became woefully out of step with public perception. Bond needed to show he could evolve.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the initial controversy of the ‘James Blond’ revamp swiftly fell short of what “dragging Bond into the 21st century” could actually encompass. The changes that arrived proved cosmetic at best, though. For example, Craig’s Bond was visibly less overtly creepy than Brosnan, Dalton, Moore or Connery before him, and indeed seems to be interested a great deal more in the welfare of the women in his life. Within the script though, this only translated to a toxic sense of self-entitlement; the new films are riddled with nice-guy logic, suggesting that if you treat a woman nicely you innately obtain the rights to access their pants.
Daniel Craig himself faced up to this legacy before Spectre – which clearly was meant to be his swansong – noting he would rather “slash his wrists” than play Bond again, before branding the character “a misogynist.” For whatever reason – the money, the notoriety, or the fact Spectre was such a flabby mess that he didn’t want to leave his legacy as Bond on such a sour note – Craig stayed. And that brings me to his actual finale.
Now, as you might have realised from what I’ve said so far, I am not someone willing to give this franchise the benefit of the doubt, no matter what Mark Kermode and company had to say. When I glanced at their five-star ratings in reviews I avoided before seeing No Time To Die, I expected to once more be underwhelmed. In spite of it all though – oh boy, am I ever happy to be proven wrong. What a film.
Be aware, what I have to say after this point will contain spoilers. From what I have said, the fact this is a Bond film that surprised me enough to enjoy it should be recommendation enough, so if you haven’t seen it, I really recommend you do before you read on.
There is all the pomp and ceremony you would expect of this franchise – frenetic car-chases, frantic action set-pieces, bombastic one-liners, and globe-trotting splendour. Those are the hallmarks of an enjoyable blockbuster – and what 007 built his box office empire around. But beyond that, there is also a frank reckoning with what Bond has been in terms of a historic signifier for the legacy of British colonialism.
At the heart of Spectre and Skyfall, for all the critical clamour about surveillance critiques, there is undeniably a defence of the status quo – and particularly the British state. In the old days, this would have been nauseatingly unabashed; however, it would be wrong to believe Bond is now critical of the power-imbalances of the world. Rather, we were presented with a false dichotomy.
Just as the public sphere began to ask questions of the abuse of power that a license to kill enables, an omnipotent villain presented themselves to strike at the heart of Britain. Having been lambasted for his “old school” surveillance techniques and informed the world had moved on, Bond was repeatedly given fantasy terrorists who would have even worse impacts on ‘freedom’ to excuse his modus operandi, and the maintaining of the UK and US’ international hegemony.
The struggle between an NSA-style super-surveillance system and an unaccountable governmental assassin is not one any of us really have a stake in though. This is not some valiant effort to save us from an over-bearing state, it is a semantic battle that dupes us into believing there is a difference between full-fat and semi-skimmed totalitarianism.
In No Time To Die, Bond thematically faces up to his own legacy. In this case, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) has engineered a virus to wipe out millions of people he finds inconvenient, to establish some kind of new world order. In the early skirmishes of battling this last great threat, he embodies the historic foreign policy of the West, treating places like Cuba as a sandbox to fight damaging battles in without risking lives at home. Breezing into town, he razes cities to the ground, and swans off again without concern for the mess he’s created in Anglo-American interests.
However, as the story progresses, a creeping realisation emerges that this is not an ‘us versus them’ plot. The virus has its origins in the British security state, who had hoped to use it against perceived threats ‘without collateral.’ The process of determining who a threat worthy of this treatment would be is utterly opaque – and in reality would probably include climate activists redefined as ‘terrorists’ – but regardless, when the weapon falls into ‘the wrong hands,’ its horrific potential is writ large. Safin intends to use it to kill millions.
This unspeakable plot is only remotely possible thanks to the existence of the UK’s unaccountable security state. As Bond has for decades been the icon of that status quo, used to assure us everything is fine, but our perception of that order shifts in the course of this film – and the most impressive thing about the film is that for the first time, Bond’s perception of it, and his place in it, also seems to adapt.
Partially this is thanks to a relationship between him and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) carrying over from Spectre. The tumultuous relationship finally sees Craig’s Bond able to emote in the ways he could in Casino Royale – an emotional millstone which both he and the films have been unable to move beyond until now. The introduction of Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet) pushes this further; eventually revealed to be the couple’s daughter, suddenly Bond is presented with a scenario in which his actions may have consequences he can directly connect to. Without being able to distance himself like the foul reptilian who always coldly walks away from the wreckage with a quip, and a steadfast refusal to learn, suddenly the kind of world he has been complicit in building has a new meaning to 007.
This reaches a literal peak when a final struggle with Safin sees the villain infect Bond with an uncurable strain of the virus. It has no direct impact on Bond, but is tailored to target the DNA of Madeleine and Mathilde. He has the time and energy to walk away from this last conflict, to save the day, and go back to keeping everything as it was before. But his continued legacy will enable other forces to make the world a more dangerous place – as it always has – and now with his own nearest and dearest on the line, he finally realises his own apocalyptic journey has to end. As missiles rain from the sky to obliterate the remote research facility where the virus has been mass-produced, Bond watches the sun rise one last time, and says goodbye to his two great loves, and the rest of us – leaving a different world behind.
A toast to the bastards
That is not to say the film is perfect. A number of the same old vices creep in. The hilarious age-makeup applied to Rami Malek never remotely convinces us he is twice the age of Léa Seydoux. The archetypal ‘comedy foreigner’ played by David Dencik makes Beni from The Mummy seem like sensitive cultural representation. The bunkum gadgetry is meanwhile set firmly to MacGuffin-mode, featuring everything from a ‘nano-bot virus’ that can target people according to their DNA (although in the end, literally everyone on Earth is distantly related), to “smart-blood” that can monitor your vital statistics, with no explanation required. And the customary globe-trotting as always sees people teleport between continents in a context-free wormhole, outside the usual laws of time.
At the same time, as much as the franchise has a self-obsessed habit of cannibalising old Bond, and was initially accused of ripping off the Bourne series, its gritty reboot-era has more to thank Christopher Nolan’s reborn Batman saga. For example, Skyfall seemed to own a massive debt of gratitude to The Dark Knight, with its unpredictable antagonist presenting himself as a mirror-opposite of Bond, anarchicly trying to destroy the order he represented by deliberately getting himself captured…
In this final chapter, No Time To Die takes similar cues from The Dark Knight Rises.This takes on a surreal level, with Hans Zimmer drafted in for a soundtrack lifted directly from his own score for that film – but it also has a number of similar plot beats. Both feature a criminal syndicate rising from the ashes of another that the archetypal hero thought he had vanquished, before a villain having proved in many ways his equal, forcing him to put his very life on the line to undo its plans.
What No Time To Die does better than The Dark Knight Rises, is it has the balls to actually pull the trigger in that scenario (that alone is something Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and his co-writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade deserve credit for really getting done.) But even after that, its wrapping up sequence is similar. Before we see Madeleine and Mathilde living happily somewhere in the Mediterranean – to give us some comfort that in one capacity, Bond does live on – we see a gathering of 007’s bereft colleagues.
As with Bruce Wayne’s ‘funeral’ in The Dark Knight Rises, proceedings end with the reading of a passage from a dusty old book. In this case, the words of Jack London are chosen as most resonant, concluding “I shall use my time.” But I think there are other words which might have been more appropriate.
In this final chapter, Bond has made the ultimate choice to free us, not only from the world’s comical super-villains, but from a far more pervasive tyranny. He has remained a breathing embodiment of ruling class entitlement, telling us their control of society is all for our own good, however much worse they make things. As a former avatar of this toxic, dominant world view, in death, he liberates us from his own damaging influence. Now, it is up to us to look at what is left, and fight to build something better, away from that hegemony.
As seems to be customary after every 007 outing, there is a row raging over who should be the next James Bond. In this context I think it would be better to leave him where he is though. Repackaging the same old imperialist mythology with a black actor, or actress, would be a tedious step backward in a society that needs desperately to move on. We need new ideas; new stories; new ways of addressing the existential problems which the politics of that old, dying world gave birth to. We cannot, as much as Keir Starmer would like, fall back on more of the same.
Alan Moore from V for Vendetta might be a more appropriate way to memorialise Bond, then.
“Anarchy wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. Thus destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators then can build another world. Rubble, once achieved, makes further ruins’ means irrelevant.
Away with our explosives, then!
Away with our destroyers! They have no place within our better world.
But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgivable.
Let’s drink their health… then meet with them no more.”