Of all the terrible things that have happened in the past two years, I can say without hyperbole that the much-delayed, long-awaited new Bond film, No Time To Die, is among the most personally disappointing.
I will, however, start by saying a few of the things that didn’t absolutely suck.
The film looks mesmerising, which you would expect from writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose credits include the beautifully shot first series of True Detective. There are also lots of cool locations and some nicely choreographed action sequences, especially an early escapade in Havana. Nor is No Time To Die as objectively awful as the ludicrous Die Another Day or the absolute brainfart that was Quantum of Solace. And though I have many problems with his character’s arc (more on which below), Daniel Craig is still a commanding screen presence.
The whole thing is, however, suffused with a crushing sense of missed opportunity. We have a genuinely gruesome, apocalyptic weapon – think Spectre’s ‘smart blood’ but with nasty microscopic robots – deployed by one of the least menacing villains in the history of cinema.
In the rare moments he’s actually on screen, Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin shuffles about monotonously explaining how tewwibly sad his family history is and why it means he has to try and murder millions of people. If that sounds like it doesn’t make much sense, it’s because it doesn’t make much sense.
Quite why all the recent villains need to have facial disfigurements and a weird, pseudo-Freudian backdrop to their evil-doing is beyond me. But just in case anyone doubted how mentally mal a l’aise Safin is, one scene has him turn up for his 2 o’clock with an actual psychotherapist – the Bond girl/life partner, Madeleine Swann – to chat through some of his issues. As with Bond himself, it feels like a straightforwardly bad baddy is somehow a bit too unsophisticated for this clever-clever version of the franchise.
Likewise, a Hannibal Lecter pastiche ‘interview’ between Bond and an imprisoned Blofeld could have been a moment of genuine tension, were it not for the usually excellent Christopher Waltz managing to make the arch-villain about as threatening as a warm hug.
Crap, two-dimensional characters and a meandering, bloated plot were disappointing, but not exactly unheard of in the Bond pantheon. And you can just about forgive introducing some really good characters/actors, only to dispense with them within 20 minutes – disposability is one of the core values of the Bond universe.
Far worse than any of that, however, is the concerted attempt to turn Bond into a weepy paragon of feeble-minded modernity. To wit, seeing our hero scamper to pick up a five-year-old’s stuffed toy must mark the nadir of the entire franchise. Some of us came to watch a cold-blooded rogue, not Double ‘Oh, teddy!’. It was, to paraphrase the adorable French sprog, dou-dou.
The obsession with Bond’s frailty has been a pervasive and regrettable feature of the later Craig films, particularly Skyfall, which insists on a lengthy montage hammering home just what a physical shambles our man has become. There’s something jarring about serving up outlandish, stunt-heavy fantasy on the one hand while piously insisting on your hero’s oh-so-human fallibility on the other. There may well be a space for an emotionally fragile, physically incompetent action hero, but James Bond is not it.
Perhaps, though, it’s a fitting comment on contemporary Britain that one of our greatest cultural exports (no, really) now seems scared of its own shadow.
If I sound a bit ‘gammon’ about all this, it’s not because I’m some kind of Alan Partridge-style Bond ultra who wants the character preserved in aspic. It would be terribly tedious if such a long-running series remained slavishly loyal to a checklist of tropes or scenes. But you can update without inflicting quite so much violence on a cherished national institution.
It’s also perfectly possible to acknowledge how ‘problematic’ Bond is to modern sensibilities without trying to change him into an entirely different character. This was perhaps best achieved in Goldeneye, the most perfect of Bond films, in which Judi Dench’s M dresses down her agent as a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War’. No one is under any illusions that he’s a great bloke, but he’s still a great character.
Similarly, Daniel Craig’s first outing, Casino Royale, was a great example of how to reboot Bond and dial down some of its sillier excesses, while remaining more or less faithful to the Ian Fleming prototype. It also showed that you could imbue the character with a bit of grit, depth and realism, and cause him to suffer emotionally as well as physically, while retaining his innate Bond-ness. No Time To Die, on the other hand, too often felt like a Bond film made by people who thought the whole enterprise was beneath them.
I can only hope that whoever takes on the next instalment does so with more of a sense of what it was that made Bond so popular in the first place – and stops trying to persuade us that deep down he’s just like the rest of us.
In the meantime, we can all look forward to watching Dune and I can get back to writing about why we don’t build enough houses.
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