Review: No Time to Die (2021)

Preamble

If there’s one film that’s encapsulated the frustration with the pandemic, then it’s No Time to Die. It was the first movie to be delayed when COVID-19 swept the world last March. This is ironic given the production history of the film. Initially, under the helm of Danny Boyle, the film has seen many changing hands (including screenwriters and directors) that it was seen by some as rushed. After several delays, the film has finally come out. Was it worth the wait? Let’s find out… What did you think of No Time to Die? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

No Time to Die is a true ending to Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond (in every sense of the phrase). His films have attempted to provide the character with some humanity that’s rooted in Ian Fleming’s conception of the character. But the films have not been perfect. At worst, some of them have taken the bite of the apple of Hollywood trends to stay relevant, and provide some level of increased dramatic stakes. No Time to Die is a messy, ambitious, pretentious and occasionally poignant curtain call to the Craig era.

After letting go of Madeline Swan (Léa Seydoux), due to feeling betrayed, James Bond has retired in Jamaica. However, trouble comes knocking when his old friend, Felix Leiter (Jefferey Wright) request his help to track down a missing scientist. The mission sees him in direct opposition to capable agent- Nomi (Lashana Lynch). And things get personal as the former secret agent finds direct ties between the master of the operation- Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) and Swann.

For a franchise that’s been thin on the ground when it comes to narrative, No Time to Die certainly feels filled to the brim with plot. At points, the screenplay comes across as a labyrinth of the proverbial phrase- “and then this happened” Consequently, some of the film’s dramatic moments and character motivation get lost in the flurry of information dumping. One example is the film’s main baddie- Safin. He’s initially set up as a foil to Madeline but is awkwardly set up as a dark mirror to Bond. When the character exclaims in the third act “We’re in a tragedy of our own making”, I was rolling my eyes and fondly remembering the elegant simplicity of Silvia’s (Javier Bardem) and Bond’s dynamic in Skyfall.

While not as ruinous as the awkward attempt to make Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) the architect of all of Bond’s pain in Spectre; the dynamic between Bond and Safin is an encapsulation of Craig’s era straining attempts at drama. This is somewhat offset by the film’s humour (courtesy of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s contribution to the script). In particular, there are two side characters who bring a sense of giddiness that greatly juxtaposes with Bond’s seasoned status as an agent. In fact, much of Die’s humour comes from moments that acknowledge the hallmarks of the series and real-world implications of being a secret agent.

With the film’s humour in mind, Craig’s Bond is a lot looser and playful in his portrait in No Time to Die. His performance particularly stands out in his confrontation with Blofeld, where he’s like a sugar rushed boy attempting to slow down to tell a funny story. Craig’s Bond in Die makes his previous portrayals seem monosyllabic by comparison. Rami Malek also casts a strong formidable presence in his screen time, particularly in his initial scene with Madaline where he attempts to be poetic.

Visually, the film is very theatrical insofar as lighting is concerned. There are many scenes where characters are illuminated by a spotlight as though they’re on stage about to make a speech. One moment that comes to mind is the introduction to Blofeld, which is done in a series of lights that go on in sequence. The scene plays like a cross between Silence of the Lambs and the play- “To Be Straight with You” with its warping lighting effect.

But some of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s best direction comes in the action sequences. There’s one early on that’s filmed in a wide-angle that calls to mind North by Northwest’s plane sequence filtered through the lens of a Western standoff. Also, the choice to use a ringing in ears sound after Bond gets caught in an explosion creates some much-needed vulnerability for the character. And Hans Zimmer’s first foray into the Bond franchise is indelible with a luscious and atmospheric score that harkens back to past music with grace.

Despite having a lot of appealing qualities, the sum of the parts proves to be better than the whole when it comes to Craig’s last Bond film. With Covid subtext, intergenerational interplay, and its various threads, No Time to Die has a lot on its mind. I just wish it said those things more elegantly, as opposed to a compromised and awkward way. This is one of those few times where I was wishing for some of the franchise’s knack for simplicity.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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