starring Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz
screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Cary Joji Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Cary Fukunaga's No Time to Die, the twenty-fifth canonical James Bond film, is the best one since Peter Hunt's On Her Majesty's Secret Service and for many of the same reasons. One could hazard that the similarities, a vulnerable Bond chief among them, comprise the guiding principle behind this picture, with its multiple call-outs to Fleming's books--On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in particular, along with its downbeat, mortal sequel You Only Live Twice, the last Bond Fleming completed himself. In the latter, 007's boss, M, uses the same Jack London quote to eulogize the presumed-dead superspy ("The proper function of a man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time") that his screen counterpart (Ralph Fiennes) uses to eulogize Bond in No Time to Die. It ends with Bond, initially dumbstruck by grief over the death of his wife in the previous novel (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), now stricken by amnesia and about to abandon his impregnated wife--the child a development Fleming never got to bring to term, but who finds her fruition in Fukunaga's film. At a late point in No Time to Die, two combatants reaching the end of their struggles agree that the only reason to live is to leave a legacy. I find it touching that this film brings a small and precious note of Fleming's to life, so many years after his death.
You Only Live Twice also features the return of arch-fiend Blofeld, who, dressed as a Samurai warrior, has grown a "Garden of Death" in a castle on a remote Japanese island to which people are drawn to kill themselves. No Time to Die updates the "garden of death" idea in a stunning set-piece on another island where the infernal Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) has nursed an entire biome of psychotropic, mind-controlling, and otherwise deadly plants. It's the scaled-up version of the Lois Smith character's botanical nightmares in Minority Report, or even General Sternwood's perverse hothouse in Chandler's The Big Sleep. Safin's plan is to wipe out millions using a nanobot-aided virus engineered to target specific DNA markers harvested through the hacking of medical databases. It's the stuff of our most paranoid fantasies: a pandemic, a viral plague exacerbated by an uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) personal information leak, and a "cure" consisting of liquid technologies that have loosed themselves from any governmental control. No Time to Die, among all the things it is, is absolutely inextricable from this moment at the end of our timeline. The film has about it the elegiac notes of a writer in Fleming who, quite ill from heart disease for the last three years of his life, must have known his time was short; and of a suicide note for a superhero who has grown weary and been made mad by the things he's seen and done in the name of God and the Queen.
No Time to Die opens with Bond in Italy, in hiding, and in permanent retirement. He's there with his new beloved, psychiatrist Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who recommends they take a trip to the grave of Bond's lost love Vesper Lynd--who betrayed Bond, then killed herself, in Martin Campbell's Casino Royale--so that he might move on from his grief at last and begin to deal with his trauma. In the novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond also visits Lynd's grave in order to be "free" to marry Contessa di Vincenzo, whom the recently-departed Diana Rigg played in that novel's film adaptation--another sad reverberation surrounding this film. The first hour of No Time to Die deals with Bond's emotional fragility. He is desperately in love with Madeleine, and when he thinks that she's betrayed him (which she hasn't yet, but will), Craig's disillusionment is shattering. The first thing I love about Fukunaga's picture is that character development doesn't stop for the action sequences. A breakneck chase in a tricked-out vintage Aston Martin DB5 pauses midway for Bond to go catatonic as Madeleine pleads with him to snap out of it and ends with Bond forcing Madeleine onto a train, the better to avoid having to unpack exactly what's happened. This Bond is a conservative golem, a thing of hedonism and violence, misogyny and manifest destiny, and what this film does is break down the grasping puerility of his worldview.
Bond retreats to Jamaica, introducing a post-colonial landscape that Fleming hints at in his unfinished The Man with the Golden Gun and likely intended to underscore the declining power and influence of the British Empire in a modern, rapidly-evolving world. (Fleming died before he had an opportunity to edit the book, a vital piece of a process he described as refining things written in haste; Kingsley Amis was recruited to do the honours, but his notes were discarded.) The next major set-piece is in Cuba, where Bond, in his search for meaning, runs up against bright-eyed Paloma (Ana de Armas), a rookie CIA agent eager to assist Bond on his mission. In other films, Paloma would be either a sexual conquest or marked for death--a limitation No Time to Die references when Bond's track record with women is referred to as "difficult" to parse. In this one, she's capable, fun, earnest in the way a young person is earnest around a much older person they admire. In trying to get Bond into his tux, she betrays not a hint of sexual interest in him, so that when he makes a crack about her being forward, her shock is genuine and--for this non-Ben Affleck geezer, at least--painfully familiar. The overriding theme of the piece is that the world is leaving my generation at the station. Our best days are behind us and we are in the final quarter of our allotted time. The repeated refrain of "we've got all the time in the world" (the last words Bond speaks to his wife and the title of the closing chapter in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, as well as the film version's theme song) is as ironic as "no time to die," which I take less as a macho pronouncement à la Jesse Ventura's "I ain't got time to bleed" than as a resigned No Country for Old Men-ism about how for heroes, this is the worst time--both because we need them, and because this is the stupidest timeline--in which to check out.
Bond knows he's done, and the tragedy of the picture is that he won't be allowed to lie down until he's thoroughly suffered. His friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), saddled with an idiot apprentice named Logan (Billy Magnussen), knows he's done, too. In Cuba, before the virus begins its course, Bond and Leiter share a drink and commiserate about how you go to sleep one night and wake up to a world in which everyone is impossibly young, inexperienced, even stupid, and the life you've given to defending ideals is shown to be a life wasted. The bad guys have won and, besides, the ideals have proved hollow and insubstantial. Fleming's novels were always concerned with Britain's place in the world, the dying of its light in the flame of modernity; No Time to Die, with Paloma's joy, her athleticism and gender, highlights--in much the same way as Craig's concussive debut as Bond 15 years ago--how Bond is ultimately a dinosaur, barging in on his tech man Q (Ben Whishaw) mid-date with a gentleman caller like the relic he is. Before parting, Felix asks his friend to reassure him, "It's a good life, isn't it?" Bond does, though I don't know if he hears himself saying it, nor if he himself believes it. I love the doom of this film, the wisdom of it. It plays like a Longfellow poem to me, the James Bond movie that is the brother in theme to "My Lost Youth": an old man looking back at how things have changed since he was still fresh in the world and his thoughts were long. The Cuba section is important not just as the thesis statement for the picture, but because it's how Bond comes to be infected with the virus, "Heracles," named after the demigod who, once poisoned by the Lernaen Hydra's blood, builds his own funeral pyre atop Mt. Oeta in Greece. You could say that Bond does the same when, mortally wounded, he calls down an airstrike on himself and Safin's mountain/island fortress.
Bond loves Madeleine, and she loves him back. It makes them vulnerable, of course. When there's something in the world you can't bear to lose, you're vulnerable to its loss. Madeleine has a daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), Bond didn't know about. "She's not yours," she tells him, but that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't sire her. Bond takes it upon himself to protect Madeleine and Mathilde. In another superlative, character-building action sequence, this one unfolding in a fog-shrouded forest with SUVs erupting from nowhere like monsters from the Id, Bond carries Mathilde against him in imitation of the role denied him by the call of duty. When a gunman turns his attention on him in this pose, he's entirely helpless, cowering and in need of Madeleine to save him. Vulnerable. In the traditional elaborate prologue, we see a young Madeleine (Coline Defaud), the child of a murderer and a drunk, hunted by an assassin onto a lake of ice. She and Bond are both frozen still by the trauma of their losses, trying now to move forward together. But they can't. None of us can, the film suggests, not really. The past resurfaces for Madeleine in the form of her rescuer and of British intelligence services that exploit her for her unique connection to their most valued asset, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). Bond accuses M of being the real mastermind behind the Heracles virus: the sponsor of a weapon carried by the entire human population but taught to eradicate only explicit targets. Like America's drone program and its "smart" bombs, the result is a lot of collateral damage and radicalization, justified, against any country that could make the anonymous dealing of death even more impersonal. Bond and Leiter are blunt instruments: inefficient and emotional. There's no room for them.
It feels appropriate, how No Time to Die takes its time to tell its tale, spreading out into this last, long walk for Bond the same way Denis Villeneuve's Visconti-like adaptation of Frank Herbert's anti-colonial Dune expands beyond the limits of a single film's running time. Products, both, of a collective crossroads, they feel like the profound changing of a cultural guard, redrawing lines around what is permissible and reconsidering definitions of heroism in an age of venal political expedience and cowardice. The myth of the righteous cowboy was largely debunked once in the films of the 1960s and '70s, only to be resurrected in the self-esteem '80s. Personally, I'm of a mind that in this, our time of plague, as we witness heroism not in a saviour but in groups of people fighting a battle they can't win against a corporatized machine dispensing disinformation and bile, the myth of the lone hero is dead, maybe for good. Here Bond, too late, understands--as most of us understand too late--that the only possibility for happiness is in rejecting the things that take us away from the people we love in the service, secret or otherwise, of masters who care not at all about our lives. There's been scuttlebutt about how Safin's plans seem opaque. Who does he want to kill? Why is he planting a garden of horrors? Yet I think he sums it up in a quiet moment before everything goes to shit: "Life is all about leaving something behind." Craig, because he's an exceptional actor when asked to act, registers it. The dialogue between Safin and Bond goes on for a while, and Fukunaga lets it. It's not unlike Pacino and De Niro's momentous tête-à-tête in Heat, except that it leads to mutually-assured destruction. After a quarter-century of disappointment and disaster, we're at the stop on the atrocity exhibit where there's nothing left but to spend what time we have with the people we love but can't protect. And to tell stories of when we thought we had enough time left to make a difference. Indeed, all the time in the world.