Who is James Bond? Sounds like a pretty innocuous question right? For the last fifteen years the “off the top of the head” answer has been Daniel Craig. The longest tenured Bond ever, Craig has been in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre, and now No Time To Die (it should be noted that while he is the longest tenured Bond, other actors starred in more films). No Time To Die is his last Bond film. In a cinematic world dominated by sequels, franchises, and universes, we don’t often see these kinds of departures. Of course the MCU sent off Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans in Endgame. But aside from that example, it becomes increasingly more difficult to track down compatible examples.
Daniel Craig has been James Bond for as long as I have cared about the character. His predecessor, Pierce Brosnan, made some average Bond films. Goldeneye is a classic, but I kid you not, I had to look up the titles of his other films. I don’t think that I thought they were bad, per se, but something about Brosnan’s Bond missed me. He was almost too proper, too suave, too collected. When I sat in the theater to watch Casino Royale something was immediately clear: Daniel Craig’s Bond was going to be different. Where Brosnan’s Bond felt like a seasoned gentleman in increasingly ridiculous situations, Craig’s Bond felt like the wrong guy in the right place. He was messy, violent, gaunt, blonde, blue eyed. But the sheer gravitas of Craig’s performance in Casino Royale turned a lot of naysayers into believers. I found myself an acolyte.
Fast forward a decade and a half and I have a genuinely hard time seeing anyone else as Bond (though that won’t stop me campaigning for Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, or Dev Patel to succeed him). I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I have the same emotions when confronted with the thought of a ball club minus Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. I felt the same when I was old enough to vote for the first time. It’s a strange feeling to know that something that has been a fact of life for so long has come to an end. And what will those final moments bring? For Craig and No Time To Die, that answer is complex, but easily summed up.
No Time To Die follows the events of Spectre closely. Much like Casino Royale played immediately into Quantum of Solace. Bond is with his forever woman, the enigmatic Madeleine, played by the equally enigmatic and beautiful Lea Seydoux. Traipsing about an idyllic Italian city. Something unique to this James Bond is his willingness to abandon it all. Something the character shared with Daniel Craig himself, who on numerous occasions stated his unwillingness to continue playing the British super spy. Craig’s Bond always wanted out, and that desire often came coupled with his affection for the film’s femme fatale. In Casino Royale it was Vesper. Again, an enigmatic beauty played brilliantly by Eva Green. A tryst that ended abruptly in betrayal and fatality.
One of the most interesting bits of Craig’s Bond for me has been his personal struggle with trust and its negative impact on his relationships. Bond, for literal decades, has been a womanizing prick. In Craig’s portrayal, that trait seemed to fall front and center. Craig even said in an interview that Bond is a “very lonely, sexist misogynist.” He went on to say, “The world has changed. I am certainly not that [sexist and misogynist] person. But he is, and so what does that mean? It means you cast great actresses and make the parts as good as you can for the women in the movies.” This interview for Esquire came in 2015, just before Spectre. I think the misogynist Bond can be seen in Casino Royale. I think you can see the loneliness in the films that follow. Seydoux’s Madeleine had a lot of work in front of her if she was to reform this objectifying child. And work she did, though to what effect?
Craig’s final film as Bond sees this dynamic played out. Bond has trust issues. As the world’s preeminent super spy, this can be understood to a degree, but he projects his insecurities onto those around him. His CIA contact Felix Leiter (can I just get a spy film focused on Jeffrey Wright’s Felix, please?), his boss M – both Dame Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes, the new Q, Lashana Lynch’s new Double O. In the post 9/11 world we have seen a drastic change in the villains represented in our fiction, but that impact doesn’t end there. It bleeds into our heroes as well. What better way to rationalize “enhanced interrogation tactics” like waterboarding than to give the audience ostensibly broken heroes? I love that James Bond isn’t a good person. He shouldn’t be. The man has a license to kill. Not many people can be given that power and maintain a grasp on their own humanity. Prior Bonds have felt a bit like 90s Superman. A white knight with a gun. Craig’s Bond is Batman: a wealthy white man, with crippling depression, leaving a wake of destruction – both emotional and physical – in his wake. I’m here for it. I always have been.
Craig’s James Bond can’t be spoken about without also acknowledging the directorial powerhouse that is Sam Mendes. The mind behind 1917 left an unmistakable footprint on James Bond. Skyfall and Spectre established a visual palette and pace of action so perfectly tailored that Cary Joji Fukunaga, a brilliant director in his own right, takes the helm of No Time To Die and you could be forgiven for not noticing a different head sat atop the monolith. Fukunaga’s talent lies in his ability to draw an affecting portrait of despotism. Beasts of No Nation stands out here. Idris Elba’s Commandant is terrifying and manipulative. The first season of True Detective, with McConaughey’s brutal cynicism and Harrelson’s tired nobility. Fukunaga knew exactly how to extract those facets from Daniel Craig. James Bond is the man he has always been, but uncovered, out of hiding. The playboy facade in shambles. This Bond is on trial for a life of deceit, murder, and insubordination. It is absolutely delicious.
In so many films like this, the casting of the protagonist is where that department bows out. The successful films fill the cellulose with performers that can grab the camera away at a moment’s notice. This run of Bond films is seated firmly in the later category. Ralph Fiennes and Judi Dench (a holdover from the Brosnan era) work as M, with Ralph succeeding Dame Dench is a way I wasn’t prepared for, despite his caliber. He is a tortured soul in No Time To Die, paying penance for his past sins in much the same way Bond is. In much the same way Dench’s M did. Lashana Lynch is a gravity well, pulling eyes and ears to her performance with an inescapability rivaled by few. Even Ana De Armas short appearance leaves a palpable impression on the audience, leading many, like me, to desire more. Ben Whishaw’s Q is adorable and tragic. Not because his character is doomed like the others, but rather because his love for them inextricably ties him to their pain. The whole film is punctuated by beautiful performances. What better way to punctuate Daniel Craig’s tenure.
I can’t go this entire review without talking about Rami Malek and Lea Seydoux. So allow me this brief departure. Mr. Robot put Rami Malek on the map, for me if no one else. His rising star is bright and the eccentric villain he plays in No Time To Die is phenomenal even if a little underutilized. His menace is quiet and foreboding, which lends itself beautifully to the few outbursts he is permitted in the script. Lea Seydoux, whose Madeleine is key to Bond’s redemption, is likewise a bas-relief of nuance and forethought. The texture of both of these characters serve as a constant reminder that the crude scalpel dipped in expensive alcohol that is Bond, is at war with not just enemies, but antithetical ideologies. A calm and calculated revenge paired with love and feigned innocence. A peculiar but effective Brompton Cocktail.
This film will move through the world with the precision of a finely tuned knife. Location to location, exposition to rising action, each moment is carefully planned out, expertly executed, and relentlessly deconstructive. The big bad has global plans, plans that we the audience know can’t possibly come to fruition. But you notice pretty quickly that this film isn’t about some world-ending act, it’s about James, and whether or not he has the ability to be the man that those around him deserve. To be the man that he has so long avoided. From car chase to intimate conversation, from cocktail to shootout, James is on a journey here, and to be a fly on the wall is a privilege. Noblesse oblige is a flawed construct, as is James. Still, the super spy is forced to decide if he wants to live up to the responsibility of that concept or remain focused ever inward, spiraling the void.
No Time To Die is effortlessly sexy and commandingly poignant. In truth it plays out like the only conclusion to Craig’s tenure as James Bond that would have been appropriate. It isn’t entirely perfect, though my words throughout this review may seem to essay to the opposite point. But in all of its little imperfections lie the denouement of a complicated man, with a bloody past, and demons that simply cannot be killed. Jack London is attributed as saying, “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” Daniel Craig’s James Bond spent 4 films trying to prolong his days. In No Time To Die, he finally learns what it means to use them. For the good of those he has impacted. For the redemption of his soul.
Farewell Daniel Craig. Thank you for your service as this broken man. He grew as you played him. You left him better than he was when you arrived. Mission accomplished. Now go make more films as Benoit Blanc. It’s only what is right. | Caleb Sawyer