The new James Bond movie “No Time To Die” is the 25th official entry in the franchise and the fifth and last starring Daniel Craig. It will likely be the entry point for many moviegoers reluctant until now to reembrace the big-screen experience. It offers up the requisite thrills, stunts, and bad guys. Beautiful people abound, and 007 still knows how to fill out a tux. I had a reasonably good time at it.
But, as I watched this latest installment – overlong at 163 minutes – the thought also occurred to me: Has James Bond become irrelevant? Perhaps he never was relevant, but certainly, as a Cold War-era icon, he embodied, for both men and women, a large swath of that generation’s fantasies about masculinity and how to look supercool while rescuing the globe from imminent destruction. Does this sort of thing play today?
In “No Time To Die,” directed by Cary JoJi Fukunaga, we are presented yet again with the generic template: The odious Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek, in a surprisingly pallid performance) is mass-producing a DNA-targeted pathogen that can quickly obliterate entire nations. It’s up to Bond, reluctantly coming out of retirement after his last stint in “Spectre,” to save the day – and the world.
Why We Wrote This
As the latest James Bond movie is released, the Monitor’s film critic considers what kind of big-screen spy today’s world really needs.
This description makes the film sound much campier than it is. There’s no “Austin Powers” in this film’s genes. This should not come as a surprise. Craig first played Bond 15 years ago in “Casino Royale,” and, unlike his predecessors – notably Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan – he was rough-hewn and feral. I welcomed the makeover at the time but, in Craig’s subsequent appearances, the sullen moodiness grew tiresome. He overcorrected.
In “No Time To Die,” Bond, in a carry-over from “Spectre,” remains entranced with the glossily beautiful psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), even when it appears she has betrayed him. This is a secret agent whose real secret, it turns out, is that he’s kind of a softy. He even gets a mite emotional over a kidnapped girl’s stuffed rabbit.
From a dramatic standpoint, all this moodiness makes sense: It gives Bond some unexplored terrain – namely, himself – to plumb. By contrast, the action sequences are nothing we haven’t seen before, and often, better.
The filmmakers seem to recognize there is only so much that can be done to top the franchise’s legacy of derring-do, and so they emphasize instead Bond’s incipient soulfulness. Others in the cast – including Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, the female agent who has temporarily inherited the retired Bond’s 007 designation, or, too briefly, the CIA operative Paloma (a spirited Ana de Armas, who appeared opposite Craig in “Knives Out”) – perform a fair amount of the knockabout theatrics. It could even be argued that the techno-whiz Q (Ben Whishaw), and not Bond, is the real hero here. It is he who maps out the treacherous trajectory that Bond dutifully follows in the final elimination round with Safin. With all the talk about who should be the next James Bond, perhaps the solution is hiding in plain sight. Why not a supernerd?
What “No Time To Die” grudgingly acknowledges is that the world is too intractable, too dangerous, for any one person to rescue. This admission is made, as usual, with hardly any explicit reference to real-life menace. Bond villains since the Cold War, with few exceptions, have almost always been otherworldly loonies. This is one big reason the franchise up to now has been such an escapist joyride. The only global catastrophes in them are make-believe.
Much as we might wish it to be otherwise, “No Time To Die” comes out at a time, and in a world, where it may no longer be possible to escape in the same way. Bond may still be relevant to our fantasy lives, but for him to be a savior of worlds, I suspect another makeover will be required.
Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “No Time To Die” is available in theaters.