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Spies Like Him

Nicola Dove/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

No Time to Die (2021)

Danny Boyle could easily have been installed as honorary co-monarch of the United Kingdom by a grateful populace in 2012 after his efforts to bolster the national morale via the Olympics opening ceremony, five minutes of which involved him directing Daniel Craig as James Bond for a quick cutaway gag. Since 2012 the United Kingdom has fallen to bits like a clown car and deep-sea divers continue to hunt for the national morale; but James Bond himself has carried right on, fixed on the course set by "Skyfall" that same fateful year, and which reaches its final destination in "No Time to Die." Mr. Boyle was due to reunite with both Mr. Craig and 007 as director of the new film, before being replaced by Cary Fukunaga. It seems a safe bet that disagreements over that destination played a part.

"Casino Royale" looks better with each passing year, an effortless redirection of the entire franchise in which the casting of Mr. Craig allowed Bond to become an uncommon screen hard man, a soulful brawler. But somewhere between it and "Quantum of Solace" the option to treat Bond's heartbreak as a foundational lesson that had served its purpose was binned, and the series has instead built upon it relentlessly ever since for a very serious psychodrama of The Strong Man's Burdens. (The new film starts with Vesper Lynd's mausoleum exploding, taking the symbolic vestiges of "Casino Royale" along with it.) Having cycled through mother issues in "Skyfall" and brother issues in "Spectre," the needle now comes to rest on a father's issues, and "No Time to Die" is heavily invested in Bond's relationship with Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux) and her young daughter. But here the franchise is just following the trends. Young people - young girls especially - remain the perpetual safe motivations of every blast of redemptive violence from an aging action hero, a cultural trope well worth unpicking.

The splice of this drama with the very Bond-ian schemes of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) is not so much unconvincing as unattempted - Bond and M (Ralph Fiennes) agree that they don't actually know what Safin's plot is but that they should blow him to smithereens anyway - and some science-fictional business with lethal plant-based nanobots is strictly science-farce. Nostalgically nuts in fact, an echo of older Bonds that intensifies when Hans Zimmer's music quotes very deliberately from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." There is one blast of modernity though, when Ana de Armas sashays on as sparky Cuban C.I.A. agent Paloma, who is as bubbly as Bond is stoic. Paloma teams up with 007 for 10 minutes of efficient resourceful mayhem before going on her way, an apparent natural to the spy game in a sexy outfit with great legs - his exact counterpart in other words. Bond waves her farewell with the instant mutual respect he has shown almost no female since 1962, which is either maturity or remarkably blatant self-gratification for a film with this certificate.

Bond's chaste fling with Paloma proves that his heart belongs to Swann, even if the question of why this woman of all women should be the one for this man of all men isn't answered any better here than it was in "Spectre" - or in "Wonder Woman 1984" for that matter, where a parallel plot requirement similarly confounded all available scriptwriters. When characters profess love and the audience has to take them at their word because there's nothing else to go on, the movie machine may have blown a fuse. Luckily for Bond, taking Mr. Craig at his word has always been easy. He gets to say several of them to great effect in two separate speeches of regret and self-recrimination, lighted by the amber light of the gods and delivered with a characteristic mix of bruised resolve and performer's enjoyment which no previous Bond actor was called upon to produce, and probably couldn't have done if they were.


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