Though it’s bound to make boatloads of money by the end of its run, No Time To Die is failing to bring theater attendance back with a bang. Attendance is thinner than expected. I saw the film in an almost empty theater, and a young multiplex employee shrugged philosophically, “People who still care about James Bond are older . . .” And it seems the older demographic is the most reluctant to return to theaters.
Judging by the media chatter and some of the narrative moves in this latest installment, the so-so opening numbers are probably one more factor in pushing the owners of the lucrative Bond franchise to do what it seems they were planning on anyway; that is, pivot sharply away from the traditional James Bond. Perhaps a female Agent 007? Perhaps a black female Agent 007? Lashana Lynch already plays just such a character in No Time To Die, setting up an amusing rivalry for the 007 number with Bond (Daniel Craig), who returns from an emotionally bruising five-year aborted retirement to find himself replaced. “I bet you thought they’d retire the number,” she snarks at him.
An even better contender for a new 007 would be the Cuban female agent named Paloma, played by the delightful Ana de Armas (Craig’s costar in Knives Out). She’s getting all the rave reviews for her brief dazzling turn in the Havana sequence of No Time To Die. She plays an effervescent spy with three weeks’ training who announces her nervousness about the mission with disarming frankness and deals with it by pounding one of Bond’s shaken-not-stirred martinis in one gulp. Dolled up in the usual Bond-girl wear, a revealing knockout of an evening gown, she treats Bond with an unprecedented all-spies-together friendliness. And she handles the inevitable fight scene with such high-heeled-roundhouse-kick aplomb that he says with a bemused smile as they part, “You were excellent.”
“You too!” she enthuses cheerfully. “Next time, stay longer!”
You’ll wait through much of the rest of a very long movie hoping in vain that she’s going to come back. She’s such a breath of fresh air among usual-suspect characters such as Q (Ben Whishaw), Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), and returning villain Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). Even new villain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) doesn’t make much of an impression; he’s such a recessive, talky figure, and you can’t have two talky villains once Christoph Waltz’s patented elegant yammering has been established.
But that’s what reboots are for: to expand on the potential of new characters. Though I admit I still don’t see how this franchise can be reformed merely by creating a more woke 007. The whole thing’s a Tory imperialist fantasy.
Personally, I liked the Craig Bond series, though it made for a wildly uneven five films. Casino Royale, Skyfall, and No Time To Die are clearly the best of them, in descending order of quality, but regardless of how well the individual movies came off, Craig did consistently great work with the latest take on the character. In order to update an unregenerate figure of Cold War–era masculinity, the creators of the Craig Bond did something smart — they put him into a dark, lonely rage, and returned him there every time he got too quippy and sure of himself. Plus, they made him aware that he was doomed by giving him a backstory that skirted the edge of The Bourne Identity in the way it established Bond as a glorified killer engineered by MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, who only gradually becomes aware of what has been done to him.
As M (Judi Dench) tells him coldly in Skyfall about why he’d been chosen for such a bleak fate, “Orphans make the best agents.”
In No Time To Die, Craig is, as usual, given a ton of screen time to brood alcoholically about his rotten fate, which he does well. He’s even better at playing action scenes now — as if he’s so personally pissed off when enemy agents attack him that he’s going to murder them even harder than he intended to in the first place. That’s a surefire favorite action-movie development, when one feels ironic pity for the innumerable, faceless enemies chasing Bond down, guns blazing: “Ooh, now they made him mad.”
In the Craig Bonds, the film-noir-izing of James Bond was an inspired choice. His uglier qualities — the callous violence, the brutal sexism, the paranoia — emerged out of the wounds of his sociopathic old-school training. I wish they’d gone further with this than they did and finally make Bond a rogue agent who stayed rogue. Right up through No Time To Die, Bond keeps rediscovering how contemptible his MI6 bosses are and calling them out on it — he dismissively asks replacement M (Ralph Fiennes), “Did this desk get larger, or did you get smaller?” — only to forgive and forget and return to “God Save the Queen” patriotism in the end.
But at least it was nicely ambitious to do a complete Bond story arc, beginning with the first film and biggest triumph of the series, Casino Royale, when young Bond is assigned his first mission as 007 and makes such a barbaric bloody mess in getting the job done that M sighs, “I knew I promoted you too soon.” One excellent result of this Bond’s bitter rage is it cuts through some of the more sickening displays of luxury consumer goods he wears, drives, and drinks — a big part of the Bond film fantasy. It’s made clear in Casino Royale that he’s overcompensating for his rootless, savage youth by out-toffing the toffs, wearing bespoke tailor suits, and driving absurdly expensive sports cars.
Mortality in No Time To Die is concentrated on Bond’s discovery of a potential way to redeem his life through love, which hadn’t seemed possible since the death of Vesper Lynd (the marvelous Eva Green) in Casino Royale. But it seems he’s betrayed again, this time around by the French love he found in Spectre, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, meh).
Can he salvage anything from the wreckage of his crushed romantic hopes and luxurious but blighted life? Well — that’s a spoiler — you have to buy a ticket to find out. Plenty of seats are available!