Icons Are Forever
The arrival of a new James Bond film has always been a very big deal, for as long as I can remember – but such is the breathless expectation awaiting Cary Joji Fukunaga's No Time to Die that one half expects significant chunks of the population to turn purple and fall over. This is, let us recall, the production which saw Danny Boyle depart shortly before shooting began, due to script differences; various injuries besetting key cast members; and not one but two substantial postponements, the second of which was the catalyst which caused several major UK cinema chains to shut up shop last Autumn, well ahead of the second lockdown.
Now, of course, it seems that Bond is the latest movie to be hailed as the saviour of commercial cinema. So desperate, so certain is the company running the local multiplex where I'm living, that they scheduled forty-five screenings of the movie on its day of release alone (not counting the midnight showing – they started at nine in the morning and continued several times an hour until eleven at night). This is unprecedented, mad, and silly; it almost qualifies as a new level of hype and expectation. No film, not even a classic Bond, can match up to this, surely?
Well. The film opens with the customary pre-credits sequence, but its first innovation is to shatter the record for time elapsed before the actual titles roll. Don't hold your breath or you'll be turning purple and falling over again. To be fair, this is a hugely confident and thrilling segment, opening with a vignette like something out of a horror movie, segueing into something unexpectedly moving, and then slamming into high gear as Bond's trip to Italy with his girlfriend from the last movie (Lea Seydoux) hits a few wrinkles – suffice to say the famous Aston Martin DB5 gets one more glorious run-out.
Then we're off into the plot, which starts with a resurgent SPECTRE (I know I'm the only one still capitalising the name of the organisation, but I'm a sentimental old thing) attacking a London bio-warfare lab, stealing a new weapon, and kidnapping its creator. Shadowy forces are at work inside the governments of the free world and a retired Bond is recruited by his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to retrieve the boffin before SPECTRE persuades him to do something nefarious with it. However, he finds himself in competition with his old paymasters at MI6, who have sent a Double-O agent from the younger generation on exactly the same mission…
And it all takes off from here, more or less. The plot is convoluted, but not impenetrably so, although it does feel sometimes that all the double-crossings and personal angst and exposition of bleak back-story is rather taking the place of the action and grand set-pieces which have always been the Bond franchise's bread and butter. Somewhere along the way, too, exactly what the agenda of the diabolical mastermind (Rami Malek) is seems to become rather unclear. Even so, the film finishes strongly, with all the requisite crash-bang-wallop (along with a few more surprising touches) and the getting-on-for-three-hours running time more or less floats by provided you haven't ingested too many liquids before it starts.
This is lavish, highly entertaining stuff, less glum and introspective overall than some of the Craig Bond films have been in the past, and striking an interesting balance between honouring the series' history and engaging in some startling acts of iconoclasm – the plot draws on elements from the original version of You Only Live Twice, while the film overall is informed by one previous entry in the series in particular. Daniel Craig himself carries a huge movie with aplomb, but he is very well supported – Rami Malek is an authentically creepy and twisted Bond villain, Jeffrey Wright manages to make Leiter so much more than just Bond's sidekick, and there's an eye-catching extended cameo from Ana de Armas (who I think everyone was expecting to be in the movie a bit more than she actually is).
However, there are a lot of things about this film which it's very difficult to talk about without spoiling it completely – most of them ultimately boiling down to the question of just what place, if any, there is for a character like James Bond in the world today. The producers (one of whom is Craig) seem very aware of this, which is why a number of what can perhaps be called corrective measures have been put in place – Lashana Lynch plays one of Bond's fellow agents and the script has been given a polish by the acclaimed Fridge Wallaby, writer and star of Fleabag. Even so, one gets a sense of the decks being swept quite clean and a line firmly being drawn under the Craig era, in preparation for…
Well, that's the question. When you really get down to it, James Bond – Ian Fleming's James Bond 007, as the credits still put it – is the personification of a white heterosexual male power fantasy, and I can't think of anything more problematic in modern culture. Bond has always been a bit problematic, but never more so than today, when virtually every major remake or adaptation of an older story sees characters ostentatiously having their genders or ethnicities changed.
Looking at the Craig era now, it's clear that throughout his films there's been an ongoing negotiation between Bond-as-power-fantasy-figure and Bond-as-an-actual-credible-character; what made Casino Royale feel like such an astounding breath of fresh air was that it did treat Bond seriously as a character; the series' occasional problems since then have largely arisen from the limitations of this approach within the confines of a traditionally big, brash, and slightly tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action movie series.
The old idea of James Bond as a white male wish-fulfilment figure likely has no future, the modern cultural landscape being as it is. The problem is that the subtler Bond the Craig movies have brought to the screen, a somewhat modulated and updated, more humanised version of the character from the novels, likely has little distance left to run either: for a new actor to continue with it now would only invite deadly comparisons with Daniel Craig. But there has to be something a Bond movie provides that you just don't get from – say – a Fast and Furious movie; call it the quintessence of Bondishness. What the people at the top of Eon have to figure out now is just what that is and whether it still has a place in the culture of the future.
I must admit to not being particular optimistic on this front, having seen too much well-intentioned cultural vandalism over the last few years. Bond is really the last of the great uncompromisingly masculine icons; it's a wonder he's lasted this long. If this twenty-fifth Bond film does prove to be the last hurrah of the series before it's reconfigured into something fundamentally different, then in some ways that's a shame – but it is at least a worthy and entirely fitting piece of valediction.