Friday, October 8, 2021

Shaken and Stirred: NO TIME TO DIE

With No Time to Die, his fifth and reportedly final turn as 007, Daniel Craig gets something no James Bond ever has before: a satisfying finale. His Bond has worn his emotions closer to the surface, albeit just behind a steely exterior. Craig brings wounded eyes and tactical ease, springing into determined action with his blunt force instrument of a body—all blocky and taut and primed like an English foxhound to hunt and sniff. And there’s a soul there enlivening a character who could’ve, and sometimes has in previous versions, passed into a collection of cliches and traditions. In comparison to other actors’ runs as Ian Fleming’s British super-spy, Craig’s films, from the sturdy fuel-injection traditionalism of Casino Royale and scattered momentum of Quantum of Solace to the more stately glossiness of Skyfall and Spectre, have violence a little more real, and a tone that’s a balance between grandeur and grit, fan service and surprise. They share with their inspirations a willingness to let plot steep in the hot water of the usual movements, chases, snooping, and peril. What’s new has been a more serialized and serious Bond shorn of overt camp. Allowing the adventures, the danger, the deaths, and the loved ones lost along the way to accumulate from one entry to the next allows Craig to play emotional notes no other could, and this film leans into it with a weary professionalism and earnest appeal between the massive explosions and topsy-turvy supervillain nonsense plotting. As Bond sizes up the odds and realizes he’s yet again the only thing standing between a mad man and a mass casualty event, he knows what he has to do, and we’re glad to see him do it all again.

The experience is a real Movie movie with a capital M, and so much of one, stretching across the big screen and a runtime nearing three hours, every sequence luxuriating in its outsized images and spectacle. No weightless gloop and flimsy trickery here, no autopilot superheroic animatics or tossed off second unit coverage. One of the best innovations of Bond in the digital age is how the filmmakers have known there’s no better effect than picturesque filmic cinematography, stunning wardrobes, striking art direction, flirtatious sex appeal, and bone-thwacking, tire-squealing stunts. The effects of all that are expert, and there’s as much dazzle to an establishing shot sweeping over a lush forest or island or handsome European city as there is a car with machine guns in the headlights or a stealth plane with unfolding wings. Along the way, this movie confidently hits all the standard 007 tropes with the retrograde mostly bled away: a melancholy romance with a sad ending; a woman (Ana de Armas) in a deep-cut dress who can help in a fight; the tense debriefs with M (Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris); the gadgets and tech help from Q (Ben Whishaw); the meetings with regular CIA contacts (Jeffrey Wright); the parties of villainous conspirators; the secret island base full of faceless factory workers making weapons of mass destruction. It’s pure Bond-ian pleasures done up in confidently outsized frames and well-photographed glamour. These pleasures are shot and staged by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) with a fine visual imagination—looking through beveled glass, sliding around corners, drawing out the spacial relationships in intricately designed sets. The appeal of each stunt and twist is given all due impact as the screenplay (credited to Fukunaga, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) makes sure action and pathos is delivered with clockwork precision.

The film is so very serious and elegantly muddled, with a dry crackle to the dialogue and the weight of weary finality to the suspense. Fittingly we get the iteration of this character our times deserve. His problems are adding up. He’s once again retired, his designation given to a younger recruit (Lashana Lynch) who appears to be his equal in skill, if not in baggage and bad habits. Nonetheless, he’s called into a plot that takes Bond through his usual motions in pursuit of a mysterious villain that’s all tangled up in plots of the past and ominous future danger. This foe, interestingly perpendicular to the usual Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) of it all, is a stock spooky weirdo (Rami Malek, well-cast) speaking in a strangled whisper. He’s out for the MacGuffin that’ll let him, well, who knows exactly, but it’ll kill a lot of people. (That it’s a bio-engineered virus stolen from a lab gives the story all the deadly charge it needs these days.) Meanwhile, a maybe-foreshortened love story carries over from the last one, with Léa Seydoux’s mysterious French blonde given added dimension and tragedy. And both throughlines are placed in the contemporaneous geopolitical confusion that’s replaced the Cold War for Craig’s Bond. (As a vector for British identity on the world stage, this iteration is framed by the Iraq War and Brexit, after all.) Everything’s complicated, everything’s connected, and everything’s important, but how, exactly, is a tangle. It is high-stakes Lucy-and-the-football with the same people on all sides making similar mistakes of apocalyptic contingency plans and misplaced trust, reaping unintended consequences over and over to calamitous effect.

Still, that’s just the background chatter and burbling subtext for another movie that interrogates the idea of whether or not a James Bond type of secret agent could make much progress in the world today, even in a fantasy like this. The movie’s answer is that he might as well try to make things better while he can. The result is lushly, and with even a kind of terse melodrama, presented. It’s a curtain call with real closure—studded with all of what Craig does well, and little of what Bond movies don’t. It’s large and romantic and thrilling and taking big satisfying chances. (I especially liked the ways in which it shifts the meaning of the term “Bond girl” in at least a couple ways never before tried.) Craig is allowed to play with a full range of set pieces and sentiment, showcasing his equal ease taking in sobering revelations or interpersonal humanity as he is driving a motorcycle up a large public staircase to launch himself over a wall. And in the end, the movie gives him a fine farewell, wrapping up loose ends without overworking the frayed edges, and delivering a heaping dose of stiff-upper-lip sentimentality. When so many franchises are playing safe and teasing more, how fulfilling to see an entry in a long-running series leave it all on the table. With real closure, and real poignancy, and even a gentle touch in its final scene, No Time to Die uses its time well.

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