Friday 1 October 2021

No Time To Die: The long goodbye

"COME ONNN!!!" Not my words, ladies and gentlemen, but the words of a man who looks exactly like me, shares my name and, OK fine, is me. I am mildly embarrassed to say that I bellowed these words out at considerable volume as I watched the gunbarrel sequence of No Time To Die dance across a massive screen during the film's world premiere at swanky ponce-palace the Royal Albert Hall. Now the Albo is not traditionally a place in which one should bark loudly and pointlessly at a large sheet of reflective material while two future kings and their royal wifenesses sit a few yards away, but tradition be damned. I had waited nearly six fucking years for this moment, and I had some pent up emotions going on. I daresay the Duchess of Cornwall felt much the same but was prevented from energetically vocalising her passion by centuries of stifling regal protocol.

The relief of finally getting to watch the new James Bond film after an amount of time that was beginning to breach my human rights was overwhelming, but it was just one of an array of emotions that pummelled my limbic system as the film's 163 minutes unfolded. Relief was followed by joy, which became awe, which was superseded by excitement, which allowed confusion to drop in for a quick bite before giving way to mild neck ache (the screen was quite a bit higher than my eye level), then joy and awe came back for a bit, I think some sadness snuck in, and finally something else entirely hit me which I don't think affective science has a name for.

What I was unconsciously dealing with was the total exorcism of everything 2015's Spectre had left me with: disappointment, ennui, betrayal, inconsolable rage. A cocktail of negative spirits, neither shaken nor stirred, just left to fester in the liver of my soul and rot my enthusiasm for Bond from within. Well that enthusiasm has returned with a zip and a zing, much like Daniel Craig has for this film, only with luck my enthusiasm will stick around a bit longer. Yes lads, No Time To Die is a belter: not perfect by any stretch, but exactly what I needed, and quite possibly what cinema itself needs right now.
The film starts as it means to go on, which is to say, at length. The pre-title sequence is the longest yet: a renowned Bond statistician (hi) has proved you could fit around 22% of Quantum Of Solace in it. And it's in two distinct parts, the first of which expands on the story Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) told Bond in Spectre about why she hates guns, and the second of which sees the pair enjoying a sexy Italian city break which turns sour when some bad bastards pop up and try to put more holes in his DB5 than there are in the plot of Skyfall.

If you wondered what director Cary Joji Fukunaga's approach to a Bond film was going to be, the answers are all in this sequence alone: it's going to dovetail neatly into the rest of the Craig era in a way Spectre entirely failed to do, it's going to be unapologetically romantic, then it's going to turn round, fuck you up and force you over the edge. And it's also going to take a very long time to do it. Fukunaga's pacing is refreshing: scenes play out at a more realistic tempo than we're used to in Bond. Everything is allowed to breathe. But that's not the only reason the film's so long (that running time again: one hundred and sixty-three minutes, or approximately one and a half Goldfingers). It's essentially two films in one - a spy thriller and a love story, and while more thought has gone into the writing of the latter, the former is still comfortingly balls-out Bondian fun.

Once Billie Eilish's inoffensively forgettable theme song is out of the way we're into the guts of the story, a load of amusingly daft nonsense about a kidnapped Russian scientist and his DNA-mangling nanobots (yes, really) which somehow implicates Ralph Fiennes' increasingly portly M in shady dealings and, even more troublingly, finds space for Hugh Dennis. But Hugh Dennis is not the lead character in No Time To Die: that would be James Bond. There's a reason it's not referred to as the new Hugh Dennis film. Anyway James Bond has retired from MI6, buggered off to Jamaica to go fishing in a crop top and, presumably, finish that guide book about native West Indies bird life he's been working on. 

Then up pops Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, still effortlessly cool), who drags Bond into the plot and kick starts a series of increasingly loud set-pieces, dramatic revelations, unexpected developments and glorious fan service. (Echoes of Dr. No, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, For Your Eyes OnlyThe Living Daylights and Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice novel are sprinkled respectfully throughout No Time To Die in the exact opposite way to Die Another Day, which battered you round the head with a Q-branch full of bafflingly curated props from previous films.) En route we meet new double-0 Nomi (Lashana Lynch, taking precisely none of your shit), enthusiastic ass-kicker Paloma (Ana de Armas) and somewhat under-developed villain Safin (Rami Malek). Safin is one of the film's three facially disfigured villains, which I'm going to say is Not Cool guys. Not all Fleming tropes need to be kept alive.
But No Time To Die is barely about these people (the story wouldn't miss Paloma if she never existed, for example, and like Spectre it struggles to find meaningful things for Moneypenny and Tanner to do). It's not even really about Safin's confusingly underwritten Thanos-esque plot, which eerily echoes the real-world events that caused the film's many delays ("Infect enough people, and the people become the weapon"). It's about Bond and Madeleine, and Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux sell that for all they're worth. If the Craig films have an arc, it's not some fag-packet bollocks about Blofeld being the author of all Bond's pain; it's about how one woman set him on a certain path and another tried to course-correct him. Vesper Lynd and Madeleine Swann are the bookends holding up these stories, and their mirrored episodes of devotion and betrayal are almost enough to convince you the whole thing was planned that way.

If that all sounds a bit weird for a Bond film, well, I guess it is. No Time To Die often doesn't feel like a Bond film: the lone-wolf hero of the past is almost constantly part of a team here, and without getting into spoilers, there are things Bond does in this film we've never seen him do before. But I've always preferred the Bond films that go rogue and ignore the tired Goldfinger formula, and No Time To Die is firmly in that camp. Maybe a little too firmly at times, but you're never that far from a gadget-laden Aston Martin or an over-engineered villain's base if you're feeling homesick. 

But its place in the canon is assured; you're never going to confuse No Time To Die with another Bond film. Fukunaga and the writing and production team have made sure of that. Maybe it's too long - there's a clear front-runner for Action Sequence That Could Have Been Cut, but that sequence is also hella fun, so it's effectively just an extra bit of Bond, and only an idiot would complain about that in these Bond-starved times.
Technically, No Time To Die follows the trail blazed by Skyfall's director/cinematographer superteam of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins in terms of beautifully shot action. This film's DoP Linus Sandgren goes his own way, just as Hoyte Van Hoytema did with Spectre, and the splashes of colour, lens flares and unexpected camera angles are gorgeously deployed. Keep an eye out too for a two-minute single-take shot late in the film that recalls Spectre's impressive opening 'oner', except this one's handheld and packed with brutal action. I can still see the joins though guys, I've watched Hitchcock's Rope enough times to spot a hidden cut when I see one. Hans Zimmer's score, meanwhile, is a bit of a let-down: its most recognisable elements are respectfully cribbed from past Bond scores (but not in the egregious way in which Thomas Newman's Spectre music lazily copied his work on Skyfall), and if it has any standout moments they're drowned out by explosions, gunshots and car crashes.

But this is very much Daniel Craig's film. After a lacklustre turn in Spectre where he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else, here he's clearly having a ball, which lifts and lightens the film enormously. Craig also makes Bond a more believable human being than ever before, and whether that's your cup of tea (stirred, not shaken) or not, the franchise will miss him terribly. What he's done for the character is phenomenal, and it's hard to know how that can possibly be followed - but not knowing what's coming next is all part of the excitement of Bond. For now, all I can do is quote M's words (although somewhat less tersely than he delivers them): "You've done your bit, and we thank you for your service".