James Bond is canceled

click to enlarge The last of the famous international playboys: Daniel Craig stars as James Bond for the final time in No Time to Die.  - Nicola Dove/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
Nicola Dove/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
The last of the famous international playboys: Daniel Craig stars as James Bond for the final time in No Time to Die. 

Revision's the name of the game in modern franchise revivals, but so's a lack of commitment. No Time to Die is a 007 film that wants to have it both ways, attempting to "modernize" the James Bond character by stripping him of traits deemed problematic while also clinging steadfastly (and often embarrassingly) to the series' most meaningless of traditions.

Without mounting a holistic defense of the Bond franchise, it's safe to say there are facets that make it worth engaging with, as a long-running series of pop-cultural texts. These facets (many of them disagreeable now) present opportunities to engage with dominant strains of social and political history — and not just to rubber-stamp, deny, or pave over the cultural and textual materials that make it up. I'll scrape the surface, just briefly.

Politically: there's Bond as an extension of the British crown, an embodied stealth revival of its imperial reach amid the more clandestine politics of the Cold War and since. Aesthetically: Maurice Binder's abstract openings, the films' enduringly conspicuous displays of finery, and the villains' looming, cavernous bases. All of these, combined with the film's prevailing budgetary emphasis on style and taste, offer up opportunities for showcasing lavish exercises in — and sometimes real-life feats of — architecture and visual design.

Regarding gender: the films enshrined an adventuresome, free-wheeling sexuality easily linked to Playboy's thorny '60s legacy, celebrating promiscuity with an often winking air, albeit usually in a one-sided fashion that placed men in a position of power and enhanced freedom at women's expense. Encompassing both troubling flares of violent sexuality alongside a more good-humored libertinism (alongside many regressive depictions of race and gender), the films have at the very least provided a space for engagement with evolving norms. As ever, depiction or engagement need not be confused with endorsement.

More ecstatically, even aspirationally: there's Bond as a figure embodying effortless ease of movement, and a certain profligate quality in both desire and taste, in a way that intertwines with all of these spheres and more. In the hands of both series favorite Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, in his final performance in the role, Bond's a gruffly discontented man who can very well have everything, a vehicle for viewers' touristic and erotic longings who — in a touch of class — never luxuriates in them for too long.

In No Time to Die (which is far too long), the film's writers adopt an old tradition that predates the franchise: one of morally repressive piety. Finding a retired Bond on an Italian honeymoon trip with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a psychiatrist he met in the last installment, 2015's Spectre, No Time quickly finds the pair riven by suspicions heated further by an external threat. Prompting a five-year ellipsis which sees the character retreat to a seaside cabin in Jamaica, the Bond we encounter here is not the same man we knew. Though prone to occasional bemusement, sparks of wit, and light flirtations, he cuts as mournful, joylessly monogamous, and dutiful. Characters around Bond refer to him at times as an aging, out-of-touch relic and he seems not to disagree, accepting the reassignment of his double-0 code name to a perfectly competent successor with little protest. He's no longer a creature of desire, pride, or pleasure, nor is this film a vehicle for them. The character occupies an awkward limbo space, and the film's writers seem not to know why he's still its lead.

As directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (best known for his over-lauded opening-season run on True Detective), No Time is just as obedient to its superiors. Dispatching old characters with a businesslike air in preparation for a turnover in cast accompanying Craig's departure, the film feels mission-driven, lacking as it does in flourish, sensuality, and any creative or transgressive edge. Like a bad tourist, it treats its proceedings like a checklist of errands, biding its time aimlessly between them. The film's antagonist (played by Rami Malek), a scarred and sociopathic poison broker whose orientalizing fetishism for Japanese aesthetics goes unremarked upon, feels just as perfunctory and undercooked.

Working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land, American Hustle), Fukunaga directs his wide-format shots with a depth of focus that's wafer-thin, struggling in close-quarters interior scenes to even accommodate two characters within the frame. Bathing scenes in arbitrary washes of color — reds, acidic greens, flashes of cobalt (and so riding the coattails of better-shot works like Drive, Good Time, or Christopher Nolan's grandiose style) — Fukunaga's direction often feels stiff, stumbling, and unwieldy, lacking the air of ease gained through practice, voice, or clarity of vision. Bravado being a longtime hallmark of the franchise, even at its corniest and worst, what's on display here feels like a well-paid test shoot — welcome, notable exceptions include the film's outdoor chase scenes, the first of which proves inventive and even transporting.

If reviews that have yet landed are any indication, though, No Time's faults may not matter for most viewers. From his first few Bond outings (especially his debut in 2o06's still-exceptional, confidently modern Casino Royale), Craig has banked such a store of goodwill that many will welcome what's basically an extended, reverential sendoff. For me, though, the character being paid a tribute here feels jarringly discordant given the context of what came before — and exists, rather troublingly, in denial of it.

While early press trumpeted both the writing contributions of Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the casting of Lashana Lynch, a Black British actress, as the new 007, the film pretends to engage with the franchise's past in terms of gender and identity — a requisite for progress. Discussions of morality onscreen describe "good guys and bad guys" and "heroes and villains," evidencing a simplistic lens and deficient imagination on the part of the current team of franchise stewards. What's made clear is that they're totally incapable of doing what they pretend to: wrestling with the franchise's baked-in relationship to colonialism, racial inequality, and misogynist gender norms. In pretending to progress, the team here has skipped a key step which would require an at least half-sincere reckoning. The goal, it seems, is to reduce an at times gleefully, buoyantly vapid series of films into a depoliticized and textually flat one: to make the character a superhero. (Not that they're apolitical, either.)

This belabored, fraudulent pretense of progressivism, combined with the film's put-on somber air, wouldn't be so irksome were it less riddled with distracting attempts at self-valorization, false piety, and copious displays of moral and sexual conservatism. Combined together, these defang Bond, displacing his possession of any sort of inner drive. What's left in this case feels practically Reaganite in effect — and in the end it's just as much a pose.

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