The Lightspell Critique: No Time To Die

James Bond in retirement in Jamaica.

 WARNING! PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD. You may not want to read further if you have not seen the film, "No Time To Die" and you wish to enjoy the plot as it unfolds.

 

"Through the valorous efforts of this one man, the Safety of the Realm has received mighty reassurance."

OBIT: Commander James Bond, CMG, RNVR

Bond is a fiction, about as likely a spy as rhubarb custard. And just as British. If film is a reflection of life, what does James Bond's death tell us about ourselves?

"No Time To Die" is the latest in a long line of James Bond films and it feels like it. Over-long, the film is heavy with Bondian symbolism, reflects values from a time long past, and in a search for meaning falls on cinematic Christian cliché. It's a pity but not surprising. Eon Productions, the home of producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, had made twenty-four Bond films before "No Time To Die" using a cocktail of gadgets, guns, and girls perfected in the 1964 James Bond blockbuster, "Goldfinger". 

Filmic storytelling pans open vistas looking for golden locations. But people have travelled en masse since the 1970's, and scanning the horizon for exoticism feels increasingly worn out. The same is true for much of the film's formula. It should be as soothing as warm milk. But time has passed. The kids have grown up. The planet is heating. The milk is going off, and parts of the movie are beyond the pale. Nonetheless "No Time To Die" does include the fan's favourite fables; the car, the watch, the gun.

 

 

Quite how many cars Bond keeps under a dust sheet in lock-ups around London is a mystery. The way they go from Her Majesty's public purse to his private property is similarly unexplained. Perhaps Her Majesty's Secret Service is subject to one of those private deals with Her Majesty's Inland Revenue and Customs?

There is a muster of Aston Martin's. Driven by Bond are the cars of earlier films, the iconic Silver Birch DB5 and the Cumberland Grey V8 Vantage. A gleaming new Ceramic Grey Aston Martin DBS Superleggera is driven by the Secret Service's equally new 007, Nomi. It is worth noting that the old DB5, armed with Gatling guns, exploding tyre spikes, and a smoke generator, projects more power than the DBS Superleggera. In one scene the Aston Martin DBS comes into view down a dry, dusty track, glossy modernity in contrast with what's left of nature. But that's all it does. No gadgets. No guns. It just drives. Symbolic of Brexit Britain?

The watch;

"And that makes perfect sense since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men that give little thought to sacrificing others to protect Queen and country. You know. Former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches. Rolex?" said Vesper in "Casino Royale".

"Omega," said Bond.

Focus on character not props.

Throughout the film there are fleeting jots of snappy wit, and fleeting shots of Bond's wrist; and his wristwatch. It's style has moved on from the previous movie, of a 1960's Rolex Submariner submerged with a Blancpain Aqualung of similar year, and dropped the Aqualung pretension. The new Omega is a riff on the Submariner/Sea Dweller genre; domed crystal, helium escape valve, a hyper-legible dive watch. One where "antiqued" lume embellishes not just the dial and the hands but the bezel too. That a production watch still in production can in any way be described as "antique" is itself a study in the invention of legitimacy.

Exposition tells us, with a play on under-statement that bobs around the high watermark for this film's script, Bond's dive watch contains a "fairly strong" EMP. In modern warfare an Electro-Magnetic Pulse is just what you would think it is; a high-energy emission that disrupts or destroys all electronic equipment within range. It's functionality is mostly symbolic, wasted against a bionic eye when perhaps it might have been deployed against the nano-bots in Bond's bloodstream, the "No Time To Die" MacGuffin. After all, they need electric power too.

As ever, the watch is provided by Ben Wilshaw's trim "Q" who anchors the film. His out of office thick sweater and Japanese cooking apron set the character as the reassuring mother figure of the movie. He prepares food. He talks softly. He puts Bond up for the night. He makes things that take care of people. He is tolerant or indulgent of Bond's character.

Like a adult child crashing into a parent's home, Bond barges into Q's place with the quip, "I've missed you." There's no attempt at serious dialogue. Just the dodgy camouflage for a sort of seventies behaviour often dismissed with the cover-all, "I was just joking."

There's something 1970's about the middle-class English dinner party. It's a subtle nod to the world of Fanny Cradock and Berni Inns, one of prawn cocktails, quiche or steak, and lemon meringue pie. Not so much as self-knowing than sharing a common history. Unfortunately, the historical similarity extends to Bond's character.

One interpretation of the barging into someone's home, even an old friend, and helping himself to his wine - on a civil servant's salary an unlikely 2005 Château Angelus Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, presumably uncorked for the dinner the scene shows Q has prepared for a friend - is a sign of deep friendship. The dispatch of common courtesy signals an intimacy. The problem with this approach is that the scene represents both prosocial and antisocial behaviour concurrently. In a world where complexity is filtered in favour of simplicity, however unrepresentative of truth, what will the audience learn from the scene? That Bond and Q hold a deep friendship? Or that Bond uses age, status, and previous rank to exploit Q?

It is the confluence of interpretations that is most interesting but the film doesn't go any deeper. Enough people watch movies and copy what they see. Which means there's a responsibility that goes with film-making. If that wasn't true the $300 billion per year advertising industry wouldn't extend to film, television, and video. And, product placement.

Bond provides a portrayal of entitlement that is tone-deaf to social progress in the twenty-first century. It reinforces the idea that for a sub-set of the population, in this case represented by Bond as professional elite, it is okay to assume preference, privilege, and social position. His character is out of touch with the contemporary world.

Yet Bond's story within the film begins to make sense when one considers "No Time To Die" isn't an ordinary James Bond film. It is about the resurrection, redemption, and sacrifice of Bond. The early references in the script and the score to George Lazenby's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" - we know how that ended - tells the audience that death is coming. Bond no longer has all the time in the world.

 

 

There are many tools used to kill; a knife, a gun, a bomb, or a half-brick about the head. In movies killing is stylised. For Bond films, where imagery trumps realism, it makes perfect sense to match an old but sturdy car and a "vintaged" wristwatch with a Walther PPK ("Polizeipistole Kriminal.") A pistol first made in 1931. 

The Walther PPK

Movie Bond is forever associated with the Walther. This was an upgrade advised by the fictional Colonel Boothroyd, armourer to the Secret Service, and based on a real-life character who author Ian Fleming knew of similar name and expertise. The first books celebrate a Beretta .25 with skeleton grip and a chamois leather holster. After catching his silencer in the holster - who on earth would put a silenced semi-automatic in a lightweight holster - Bond is instructed to carry a more effective weapon. Enter the PPK.

"But in killing, the Russians have not much finesse. They like mass death," said Darko Kerim, Head of Station T, in "From Russia With Love." 

In the way that Bond is a precision weapon, he is the opposite of the weapons of mass destruction he seeks and destroys with such efficacy throughout his celluloid adventures. A spray-and-pray machine gun - as dumbed down an operating experience as a modern BMW is to a go-cart - is designed to require less skill to use than its manual counter-part. In contrast to a one shot at a time single-action or double-action pistol, the machine gun's character was once artfully summarised in Soldier of Fortune magazine as, "the moral squalor of fully automatic operation." In "No Time To Die" Bond is a blunt weapon that a previous incarnation of his boss, M, decried; "Any thug can kill!" (Casino Royale, scene M's Apartment). The Bond of the books was the best shot in the Secret Service. This character, not so much.

Villains in Fleet Street?

The isolation of island culture where self-reference tends to abound lends Bond's adventures a particularly British element.

In the lab raid scene at the beginning of the movie, the assault team abseiling face forward down the side of the building is filmed in silhouette against an azure-pink evening sky. It's a striking shot. The newcomers are indistinguishable from a legitimate military special forces team. In outline it is a symbol of sanctioned nation-state violence - where democratic liberalism gives way to "might is right" - and men in tight black gear move in close, black groups to do rough, dark work. 

The fetish of "SAS man", a popular notion of British might often carried on the front pages of uncritical national press alongside stories of the Royal Family, lends meaning to the scene. These cheeky buggers in romper suits are not just expropriating Her Majesty's Government property. They are stealing a Great British identity. The cads! Through villains usurping the state's monopoly of violence, in what psychologists would call "threat display," the scene establishes jeopardy. The baddies should be taken seriously.

As must the new 007. Not only does Nomi smoothly pick-up James Bond in a Jamaican nightclub, in the action sequences she counters "feminine touch" representations of women who must be seen as smaller, weaker, less capable and lower ranking, with slick professionalism.  While the fetish of black gear allied with violence is still present (after all, killing a man can be done in Speedos with a speargun, if required), Latasha Lynch carries off a convincing performance of a woman who can mix it with the boys without copying all their masculine characteristics.

 

 

There is art amid the muscles. Early in the film, in one sublime moment as Bond drives an Aston through a tunnel the sound engineer pulls off a glorious mix of exhaust note, reverberation, and a snatch of score from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. It's inspired.

Better than the at-best sombre, under-whelming title track sung by Billie Eilish and written in collaboration with her brother Finneas O'Connell, and like all odd things put together on a bunk in a tour bus in Texas. Generally lyrics have never been the strong suite of Bond themes since most of them feel obliged to cram the film's title into the chorus line. This compulsion inevitably creates one of two outcomes; a pasquinade from the truly creative. Or a result as welcome as the funk from a punk's trousers.

Bond theme songs aren't too far removed from steak and kidney pudding. Some people love them. It is a pity that, close-miked and too young to be worldly, Eilish's voice never escapes the stodgy traditional recipe imposed on her by collaboration. 

As for the score, where is the modern equivalent of Leslie Bricusse or White and Gifford's Propellerheads when you need them? While in the same territory as John Barry or Dave Arnold, the score for "No Time To Die" doesn't deliver the same visceral punch. Where it tries for the haunting woodwind of earlier Bond scores, it lacks the sustained coherence. It's almost counter-productive. For all its orchestral accompaniment, Hans Zimmer's sophisticated rendition of a Bond theme in, "Good to Have You Back" is no match for John Barry's MOOG driven instrumental title for "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Proof of one of those most British of maxims, bigger is not necessarily better.

There are some moments of lightness. The airy, ethereal, "Not What I Expected" conjures a sinuous, humid midnight assignation. And at Q's apartment one can hear Yma Sumac's "Incacho" playing in the background, a marvellous, quirky touch.

Zimmer has done his work and echoes the Bond-meister John Barry. Yet overall the score is heavy on the percussion and light on the horn, much like the action. "No Time To Die" invokes the power of old though multiple references to the classic 1969 Bond film, "Her Majesty's Secret Service". Sadly, it is clumsy. Once or twice would have been sufficient. The film closes on Louis Armstrong's, "We Have All The Time in the World".

 

 

The term "Bond girl" is as embedded in the English language as one of Bond's crumpets taken back to his Chelsea home. Sometimes earnest, always sexy, to be a "Bond girl" may be a compliment. As good a thing as a straw boater at Henley, or a match rifle from Fulton's at Bisley.

Captivating as the image of the ideal Bond girl is Ana de Armas as "Paloma." Included for the lightest of plot reason - which I suppose is the best possible intro - her character is a Cuban CIA asset. Ana de Armas has effortless screen charisma, a natural symmetrical beauty with compelling large eyes and elfin pout, and plays radiant beside the grizzled, depreciated Bond. The script tosses off a couple of jokes deflated by self-conscious political correctness. They are rescued as deftly by Ms de Armas' ingénue spy as James Bond in the ensuing gunfight. Alluding to naked in a sheer blue dress split the length of lissom thighs, a little clichéd yet her performance cries out for a reprise.

While Paloma's charms are certain, Mrs James Bond's, aka "Dr. Madeleine Swann," are more of a mystery. Her character feels inconsistent.

"I wanted everything with you," confessed Bond.

Léa Seydoux's character Madeleine Swann doesn't look impressed. There is something cold and dispassionate about the character. As if she is always at a distance. By profession she is a psychiatrist which speaks of self-motivation; perhaps an attempt to repair the damage of her childhood. One wonders if this professional qualification is an attraction to Bond's character. Like rich men who marry young nurses, a woman who can administer to the mind may be useful to a retired spy. 

Occasional protagonist, useful with a pistol - she shoots an assailant before he can kill Bond - at other times victim, set-up, blackmailed, and captured. At one point Madeleine confesses that she does what she can to survive. Is she both pragmatic enough to shoot Bond's assailant, and yet not pragmatic enough to reload?

Put on a train by Bond when he had lost all trust in her, Madeleine is inarticulate. One might imagine that is the shock of the situation. Still, she can't defend her innocence; as if she has never thought of such a predicament. Having lived a life of subterfuge, this seems unlikely. As someone once said, in good times you hear the song, in bad times you understand the lyrics.

Meeting Bond again their relationship is strained. In fairness that can be put down to Madeleine's mission. The arch-villain of the movie "Safin" has blackmailed her to murder Bond's old enemy Blofeld who is tied to a chair in HM Prison Belmarsh. At the last minute she can't go through with it.

Saving someone's life connects you to them forever. The same as taking it. They belong to you... 

Why would I do anything for you?

Because I am a man willing to kill the person you love most. - Lyutsifer Safin

There's a problem with Madeleine's character. While her ongoing link with Blofeld was concealed from Bond, Madeleine concealed her link with Safin from the Secret Service. When Bond joins her in Norway, she denies his daughter belongs to him. Her life, like Bond's, is one of lies. She's enigmatic, a little too closed. As if the French actress has taken Le Monde film critic Jean de Baroncelli's 1963 view of Bond, "C’est à la fois enfantin et délirant," ("It's both childish and delirious",) and unable to take the character seriously, she doesn't commit to the role. Is Madeleine Swann a broken woman, "with a wing down" like Vivienne in Ian Fleming's, "The Spy Who Loved Me?" Or is she the daughter of a professional hitman who can't escape the criminal world no matter how hard she tries?

That Bond has a daughter is a revelation. Her name is Mathilde. It's a dull name. A lack of creativity is a charge that can be levelled at the film as a whole. The Bond-has-a-daughter storyline is let go as carelessly as the scene where she is inexplicably released by Lyutsifer Safin. The latter is a plot hole big enough to swallow the audience. I was left wishing "Mathilde" was a reference to Luc Besson's "Mathilda" in the 1994 film, "Léon, The Professional". Sadly it was only a passing homophone.

There are two things to know about the American movie audience in 2021. The majority are Christian, and they are gamers. And all gamers love berserk mode, an uninhibited American equivalent, if you will, of the Double-O license to kill exemplified in movies such as Keanu Reeves' "John Wick." 

Jump to the scene where it's early morning and Bond and Madeleine are asleep in bed. Mathilde comes in and Bond wakes with a slight start.

Now, reimagine the scene where Bond wakes, rolls from the bed, Walther PPK drawn from underneath his pillow to cover little Mathilde, shielding her from any danger with his body. In the books, Bond always slept with a gun under his pillow.

Bond climbed naked under the single cotton sheet and turned over on his left side and slipped his right hand on to the butt of the Walther PPK under the pillow. In five minutes he was asleep." From Dr No.

And then we have the subsequent pursuit by Safin's men into the forest. Wouldn't it have made sense for Bond, the ultimate protector of Queen, country and all he loves, to take his daughter in his arms and discover the protective instinct of a father?

As action adventure drama goes, here was a hell of a motive. And the writers missed it. Instead Bond tells mother and daughter to hide, and then stomps around the forest killing off the baddies. There's little sense of jeopardy. While Safin takes Bond's women with ease, flying them out by helicopter to which James Bond has no reply. At least this time he doesn't try to down the chopper with his little PPK.

The stunt work on a Bond film is invariably impressive. "No Time To Die" does not disappoint. Full credit must be given to the vast team of stunt men and women who showcase their work. The car and motorcycle chase sequences are exemplars of the craft trying wherever they can not to resort to the visual hyperbole and special effects of other faster and more frantic franchises. A tip of the hat to whoever it was - Ben Collins? - who fishtailed the DBS under the setting sun on an airstrip in Norway. It's a small moment but proof of the attention to detail the stunt team bring to the film.

 

 

Films that rely too heavily on a formula waste the talent of their cast. Rory Kinnear, an image of his late respected thespian father Roy, owns the role of Tanner. An accomplished actor, it is a pity more is not made of his skills. In this film, the same can be said of the proven Naomie Harris. Her character Moneypenny has very little to do.

And it is true too of Rami Malek and his Checkbox Villain. Hideous facial deformity? Check. Odd way of speaking? Check. Irrepressible desire to take over the world? Check.

Rami Malek draws what he can within the tight frame of a Bond arch-enemy, Lyutsifer Safin, who implausibly manages to out-arch Ernst Stavro Blofeld while inexplicably maintaining an immaculate Zen garden surrounded by poisonous flowers on an island somewhere off Japan. I know, its supposed to be a reference to Blofeld's Japanese castle in the book "You Only Live Twice." Except the interior shots of the island place it just about anywhere. There are no geishas, ninjas, or oubliette. It has all of the charisma of a disused factory in a rundown industrial estate somewhere off England's sclerotic arterial motorway, the M1.

Was it a lack of budget or imagination that curtailed a more compelling set for "No Time To Die", equal to the visual extravagance of a Ken Adam's submarine pen inside an oil tanker, or a rocket launch pad cunningly concealed inside an extinct volcano? The set looked like a low budget version of "Dr. No" sponsored by Blue Circle Cement.

That Safin wants to exterminate millions of people is clear. But we never learn of Safin's motivation other than, "I just want to be a little tidier." It would be reasonable to assume that tidiness isn't in the top ten motives for murder.

"No Time To Die" scores negative points for the depressing lack of imaginative character names; Nomi, Logan Ash, Valdo Obruchev, Paloma, Primo, Mathilde. And then there is the name of the film's and Bond's nemesis, Lyutsifer Safin. Frankly, if it's that close you might as well come out and say, "Lucifer Satan". Obfuscated, the arch-villain's name is just a sharp prod with a pitchfork sure to set-off cranks, conspiracy theorists, and nut-jobs worldwide.

In the pre-title sequence that sets up the main story Rami Malek's character, A-Villain-Almost-Named-Evil, arrives wearing an impassive white Noh opera mask. By the end of the scene it is in part broken to reveal some of his disfigured face. Of course, Über-boss Blofeld is also facially disfigured. And Blofeld's chief sidekick, "Primo", played convincingly by Dali Benssalah, has not just a bionic eye - implausibly a real-time link by means unexplained with his boss - but accompanied with facial disfigurement.

In the world of Bond, evil people must look ugly. Or is it, ugly people must be evil?

In 2005 the statue "Alison Lapper Pregnant" was installed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square precisely to counter the unthinking, conventional view of beauty. As Lapper said at the time, "It's time to challenge people's perceptions of these things. I'm hopeful it can make a difference." Bond World is way out of step, following a philosophy derived from Saint Augustine's fourth century view that only God is perfect beauty. The conflation of beauty and goodness also established the inverse, that ugliness is representative of sin.

Portable sculpture of Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn
Marc Quinn's portable version of his sculpture of "Alison Lapper Pregnant" shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013.

There is a strong problem with unthinking - no, darn-right imbecilic - negative portrayals of people with facial deformity. It is at best a destructive trope, a blight on the mind of every thinking man, woman, or child who is born with or who suffers facial injury. Or who simply look different.

What possible justification can there be?

It is hard to envisage a world where people of all walks of life, who are subject to a random chance of disfigurement every day from birth to death, equate ugly people with evil. But there, apparently, we are in a Bond film. Reinforcing a negative Christian social stereotype that emerged almost 1700 years ago.

Bluntly I have to ask the producers what possible justification can there be to demonise physical deformity? Is it true that "all ugly people are evil," which gangs up with its corrupt cousin, "all beautiful people are good?" Do they wish to further this meme in the irrational psyche of the English speaking world, to perpetuate such an injustice?

Director, let the storytelling do the work. A James Bond henchman can be handsome in contrast to the ugliness of his crimes à la Dostoevsky. The Bond formula can stretch to an arch-villain who through beauty is magnificent.

 

 

The character "M," head of the Secret Service, has not yet embodied his sin. Though time has passed and he is far from the dashing ex-soldier who rescued his predecessor in a terrorist attack on a meeting room in Whitehall in "Skyfall." Ralph Fiennes' portrayal is solid but the character is undermined by a weak plot.

At the crux of the story in "No Time To Die" is M's "off the books" operation to make a lethal DNA targeted nanobot. In Docklands. The theft of the bio-weapon and appropriation of the chief scientist, Valdo Obruchev, by SPECTRE causes a crisis that M had not foreseen. Never mind that Blofeld's first plan for the nanobots was to kill Bond in Cuba at a gathering of SPECTRE operatives. M had trusted Obruchev.

"Your judgement is the problem," said Bond.

"That weapon was designed to save lives and to eradicate collateral damage for our agents. A clean, accurate shot every time," said M.

The plot surrounding M is weak. All heads of intelligence know the risk of "dual use technology." Where are the legal consequences? Won't the PM have his "guts for garters?" Or is the audience to assume that the British Secret Service keeps its mistakes closer than its enemies? M is no longer credible.

 

James Bond, Blackwell rum, and a Browning Hi-Power at home in Jamaica.

It is often instructive to watch the role that alcohol plays in British films. There's no doubt that in "No Time To Die" the Jamaican rum is as at home in James Bond's beachside "bubble" as the Browning Hi-Power 9mm pistol. What is odd though, is a recurring motif - the drinks tray.

How old is the audience? A twenty year old at the time of Casino Royale's release in 2006 would be thirty-six years old now. Do any mid-lifer's have a drinks cabinet with cut glass decanters at home? Jump to the scene in M's office when James Bond mocks M with, "My God! You are thirsty." I would love to hear from any British civil servant who has experience of spirits served in the office in the twentieth-first century. Now where's the ice?

Thematically, criticism of alcohol sits well with an American audience. As do the film's elements of Christian allegory which lend a comfortable familiarity to the storyline. Swaddled for a secular audience, Craig's 2013 "Skyfall" used religious attributes to obvious effect;

BOND

Everybody needs a hobby.

SILVA

So what’s yours?

BOND

“Resurrection.”

In "No Time To Die" Christian undertones are used to invoke emotional resonance. They reinforce what the audience know and want from Bond. We are reminded of Bond's mortality when he triggers a booby-trap at Vesper's tomb in Matera. He is caught in the blast. It was meant to kill him. He comes round. His ears ring. He gets up, and starts running. That he gets up afterwards beside the tomb is what; foreshadowing? Or a miracle?

Bond is a particularly British paragon, a blend of Christianity with the Pagan warrior's code. Much of Bond's morality is pre-Christian. The Anglo-Saxons measured a fighting man by his adherence to honour won in battle, courage, loyalty, generosity, and they valued fair play and truth. In contrast to the Christrian ideal of forgiveness to one's enemies, the warrior code expected retaliation and blood feud. The culture of Angelcynn, ofweregild and angylde (the value of a man, and a payment in compensation for his life,) ár (honour,) and ellenþríste, beald and ellenmǽrþum (courage, boldness, and valour,) not to forget, æt-rihte and riht-wís (justice and righteous,) gave rise to England, the land of King Alfred the Great. It is notable that Anglo-Saxon words and deeds more than one thousand years old still inhabit the English language and culture; of-sleán (to kill, to slay), and of-weorpan (to kill by casting missle, a weapon.)

Pagan Bond, the murderous, philandering, hedonic spy has retired to an island with guns, girls, and alcohol. When he hears of the mission to retrieve Obruchev from Cuba, at first he isn't interested. That Bond hates SPECTRE is a given. But by itself, why leave? Life is good on Jamaica.

It is only after 007 Nomi warns him that Obruchev is, "off limits", and after his brief call with Mallory, "So, Obruchev, you kept him on the payroll, didn't you?" that Bond knows the stakes are high. Come daybreak he calls his friend CIA agent Felix Leiter. There is a sense of reluctance in Bond's decision. As if he knows revenge on SPECTRE for the loss of the women he loved, Vesper and Madeleine, won't repair his world. He knows, too, that intelligence agencies can lay on inevitability like thick-cut marmalade on toast. That any moral meaning may evaporate as quickly as steam from his morning coffee.

A retired intelligence agent is worn by betrayals of trust, and of operating in a world where lies upon lies are justified to advance a greater good, that signals its precarious morality by becoming less clear with age and experience. It is reasonable to suppose Bond understands the danger to self. That no matter how many times debriefed he is still that which Old English recognised, respected, and feared; aglæca, an embodiment of the very thing he must destroy. Still, the monster is SPECTRE and only Bond can slay the monster. That is his destiny. Here is Bond the classic reluctant hero, an archetype that can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks and the Homeric tale of Bellerophon, slayer of the Chimera. Yet, there is more Old English in Bond.

It takes two meetings with "M," where Bond is belligerent, blaming his old boss for the release of Project Heracles, and then in their second meeting, leaning against the bulwark of the River Thames, Bond and M see eye to eye. The threat is world domination. "Just the usual,"  they both say. Bond is reinstated as a member of the Double-O section of Her Majesty's Secret Service. His resurrection is complete.

At first Bond's motivation is revenge but at the same time he is the sanctioned instrument of retribution, the deliverer of justice. Unlike his enemies, Bond does not plan for others to suffer. The precision of the one shot kill with a well aimed pistol is at one with this notion of justice. The indiscriminate use of machine-gun fire, used with increasingly frequency by movie Bond, is not the move of a Homeric hero. But I digress. When Madeleine describes that Safin wants revenge and, "Me," Bond replies;

There are a thousand reasons why we need to find this man. You just gave me a reason to kill him.

It is no surprise that Bond's revenge on SPECTRE and then Safin is personal. His Double-O "license to kill," provides legitimacy for his action. The lives of millions of people who might be murdered by Safin's repurposed bio-weapon hang in the balance. As does the future of his neophyte family. Bond is both saviour and protector. The moral purpose of his mission reinforces the redemption of Bond's sins. So far, so Bond.

 

Walther PPK in silhouette

 

Unique within the series, the James Bond film, "No TIme To Die" goes a little further. 

Infected with nanobots and unable to think of a way out, Bond surrenders to his fate. His family safe, he stays behind on Safin's poisonous island to ensure Project Heracles is destroyed. Weary and injured he climbs to overlook the island and the sea beyond, and to watch stout-hearted as British missiles rain down on his position. He has had enough.

Yet when it comes to plot holes some are as big and as colourful as the proverbial London bus. As any wag could point out, a bungee cord made from British stiff upper-lip and Bond's colour-coordinated braces could tie the lever to keep the missile silo doors open long enough to effect an escape. Not to forget that the Double-O section's powered submersible glider is parked in the submarine pen. A getaway is not impossible.

But Bond's fate is in keeping with the foundation myth of Old England. Whenever his country is in peril, Bond answers the call. Just like the heroes down the ages from pre-Christian times to Winston Churchill. And in the epic fight it is Pagan Bond, the champion of Old England, who sacrifices himself to save civilization.

With a Pagan theme and Christian undertone, "No Time To Die" is the tale of Beowulf retold. When the ageing Beowulf confronts the fire-breathing dragon ravaging his country, he knows he will die. He kills the dragon stabbing it through "wyrm on middan," the belly of the beast (now you know from where that phrase derives). He, too, is mortally injured. He, too, knows he has had his share of earthly joys, "eorðan wynne." He, too, dies looking over the "enta geweorc," the dragon's lair.

 

Walther PPK in silhouette

 

Through no fault of the producers, the pandemic that started in 2020 changed the world and with it the needs of the movie going audience. While there is always a place for excellence in story, character, and production where the Bond formula falters is that much of it is now adrift. As so many certainties dissolve in the sea of progress, the conceits of the old world are left like jagged rock to tear at the surf until gradually they are worn away.

What could a new Bond film look like?

Perhaps no car at all, for who would be dumb enough to buy a car? Not young people who know they can hire one with an app, just in time. What with smartphones and fitness trackers, who wears a wristwatch these days? They fast become a symbol of profligacy, of the decades when greed was good. What of guns, fired once per kill with skill and finesse? In a world where the best spies are women, as Q knows the best espionage is done in the field of computer science, "with a cup of Earl Grey."

James Bond kills people. We get that. But to be relevant and credible in a world of Beysian rationalism, algorithmic nuance, the need to understand complexity theory and geo-economic realignment, the producers have to reinvent beyond the intellectual mileau of the status quo. If there is to be another film, doubtless a newborn stop in the arc of the established story, it would suffer constraints under the old formula unless a freewheeling Taratino-esque director was brought in, or the goal was a Sixties retro Bond in the sensual cinematic style of, say, Wong Kar Wai's, "2046." Or are the producers thinking of a brilliant new parable beyond the established storyline, an extension of Madeline's escape with Bond's daughter? In which case, anything goes.

These days greed isn't represented by gold; we have cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens. Power is in the hands of global monopolists and dark pool capital. Crime is facilitated by regulatory capture of state agencies, policymakers, and politicians. The people are imprisoned by narrow, business first teachings. If the citizens can only define capitalism, they can not imagine an alternative. Still, the trope of evil billionaires is current. Sorry, Elon. Without a hard reboot it is difficult to see what is in the typical Bond narrative for the next generation.

 

 

After Bond's death it is a pity that bereft of a better plan the director chucks in a white screen and fade to clouds over London, the cinematic substitute for a choir of angels and Heaven - for Bond the state sponsored assassin obviously goes to Heaven - and a particularly Christian type of afterlife. The finale's score is titled, "Final Ascent." While Bond may be redeemed through sacrifice, the sins of cinematic cliché are another matter.

As a narrative device a collapse to Christian conclusion is as tired as Bond in braces. Is it really the finest heroic death the film-makers can invent, or are they just the A-Team? We get a pastiche, a comic book ending. After unjust criticism of "blonde Bond," Daniel Craig countered with a picaresque Bond armed with realism, who shared love and pain, style and substance with his audience. Though not too much pain or substance to undermine a Bond film's essential escapist nature. Under torture in "Casino Royale", which Fleming's book and the film's script both emphasized would lead to the loss of his manhood, Bond adroitly defied his enemy with humour; "I have got a little itch. Down there. Would you mind?"

From his first film forward, Daniel Craig's Bond is invested with drama. One can understand why audiences might feel let down by the character's death. Yet, as a device for rescue, Bond's death may very well appeal to the producers who, as ever, have their eye on the long-view. As a metaphor for the British Empire, colonialism, and of representations of toxic masculinity, the problem for the producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, is solved. Old Bond is extinguished.

Nonetheless, I think that by sticking to their guns the producers were off target. Rewarming the old Horlicks is not much of a send-off. It feels like slipping Danny some Werther's Originals and telling him to go on his way. A few new nails could have been loaded into the old canon. By killing Bond in a simple sacrifice the film missed exercising the existential eschatology of espionage so effectively explored by the late John le Carré. To miss it is to miss by an imperial mile. It's a pity it wasn't le Carré's trade to craft the screenplay.

In a closing scene, in an office somewhere in Whitehall, "the team" raise a glass "to James." A heavy cut glass sits untouched on a polished wood table. Was "No Time To Die" a good film? That depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.

Shots in favour of "full" would be the quality of the production; the cinematography which gilds Matera and Jamaica and Norway, and even made the view down the Thames from an imaginary high vantage in Fleet Street look great; the polished and spectacular stunts; and the charisma of characters such as Q, Paloma, dodgy M, a fleeting Blofeld, and James Bond. Undoubtedly Daniel Craig's Bond succeeds; he shows love for Queen, country, and his fledgling family. The latter, ultimately, his motivation and his redemption.

Slugs pulled in favour of "empty" include "No Time To Die's" plot which falls out of focus, its antagonist's motivation unclear; the archaeology of Old Bond anachronisms exhumed in such excess they threaten to tip the film into a pit of "old white male nostalgia;" and of greater significance, in the last act Bond folds on the final hand. At a time when optimism is called for, the Bond film delivers a downer. It is also quite unlike Bond.

It seems that at some level the responsibility of film making as a form of influential communication is pushed aside. The representation of disfigurement is but one example. The producers want to make a film which is popular and "timely." One can think of the production mechanism as a type of prediction market where resources are spent and opinions gathered to envisage the world in several years time. Afterall, the producers do not want a film to feel dated when it is launched.

The film was made prior to the Coronavirus situation. At that time there were two trends that were stressing conscious thought; the emergence of a post-truth culture, and the overwhelming evidence of climate change.

For commercial reasons producers will shy away from the topics of politics and climate change. The former because it will alienate a substantial proportion of a potential audience, the latter because the problem is too big, the crisis feels to far away, and it is too politically charged.

Nonetheless, humankind holds an instinctive grasp of its own weakness. That change to save the planet will come too little, too slow, and too late feels as inevitable as time. At a sub-conscious level the death of Bond is a reflection of this nihilism. A feeling that we are, like Beowulf, at the end of days.

 

James Patrick

November 2021.

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