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Movie Review: “No Time to Die”

And so an era of James Bond—an era unlike any other—draws to a close. 

“No Time to Die” caps off Daniel Craig’s celebrated run as 007, which began with 2006’s “Casino Royale” and swept Bond into the uncharted waters of a character-driven narrative spanning five films. For longtime fans of the series, this was an unprecedented turn, one that eschewed episodic storytelling in favor of a single comprehensive epic. But I don’t know many Bond aficionados who would describe it as unwelcome

And against that backdrop, “No Time to Die” is a triumphant conclusion—one that, even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of “Casino Royale” and 2012’s “Skyfall,” at least comes close.

(It’s impossible to talk about the most interesting things in this movie without venturing into spoiler territory. You’re forewarned.)

We pick up with Bond and love interest Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) in the stunning Italian city of Matera, shortly after the conclusion of 2015’s “Spectre.” For the first time, Bond comes close to laying the ghost of lost love Vesper Lynd to rest, once and for all. But following a booby trap and an armed ambush, all prospects of domestic bliss evaporate. Bond—incorrectly believing himself betrayed by Madeleine—storms off alone. A five-year time skip follows.

Naturally, that’s not the end of Bond and Madeleine’s story. When duty calls, Bond is pressed back into action.

This time around, the major threat is microscopic killer robots, along the lines of Michael Crichton’s excellent novel “Prey”—specifically, nano-bots capable of identifying and destroying individual targets on the basis of their distinctive DNA sequences. Individuals can be carriers of nano-bots without themselves being destroyed, but these nano-bots can spread instantly upon physical contact with a target—allowing carriers to serve as the unwitting assassins of others.

Like “Spectre,” “No Time to Die” suffers from an increasingly overburdened internal mythology, one that struggles to reconcile plot threads from five films obviously developed without a clear destination in mind. The sinister Spectre organization itself, introduced just last film, is unceremoniously dispatched early on. Christoph Walz’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld gets a memorable, Hannibal Lecter-style cameo, but doesn’t otherwise have much to do here. Instead, this time around the principal antagonist is Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a one-time victim of Madeleine Swann’s villainous father, who has some murkily genocidal designs involving the nano-bots. None of this quite coheres into a satisfying arc for the saga’s villains, but so be it. Can’t win ‘em all.

More importantly, “No Time to Die” succeeds because it thrusts James Bond’s character into unprecedented dramatic territory—but in a manner that feels right and satisfying. Over the course of the Craig years, audiences have watched this Bond develop from a callous killer to an avenging angel to a man of profound principle, a man capable of truly serving ends beyond himself. All those years of development pay off here. In perhaps the film’s best and most unexpected twist, Bond learns he and Madeleine have a five-year-old daughter—Matilde. And it is her for whom Bond must fight in the film’s climax.

That climax, though, takes an unexpected turn. In the course of a gruesome final struggle with Safin, Bond is infected with a cluster of nano-bots coded to destroy the DNA of Madeleine and any relatives—ensuring that even if he survives, he will never be able to physically touch his love or his child again. The thematic point lands with the force of a hammer blow: after so many years of pushing others away, believing the worst about them, and killing those in his path, he is finally, poignantly, made toxic.

Bleeding, with nanobots coursing through his veins, Bond makes his way to the highest point of the villain’s lair as the island is devastated by missiles, killing him instantly as the dawn rises. This Bond is indeed capable of redemption, but that redemption comes at a price.

It’s a finale that serves as a particularly rich echo of Craig’s first 007 outing. The third act of “Casino Royale”—before things go horribly awry—promises Bond a kind of blissful hedonism: a life spent sailing around the Mediterranean with Vesper (Eva Green) and leaving duty and obligation behind. The coda of “No Time to Die” offers him something quite different: the responsibilities of fatherhood and the love of a woman he has learned to trust, not merely desire. In “Casino Royale,” Bond sails off alone, suffused with rage and bitterness; in “No Time to Die” it is his family that ventures out to sea without him. Bond has, in short, learned to be the one who stays behind, who sacrifices himself in extremis for his loved ones.

Is this a betrayal of the character, of the idea of the suave superspy who can escape from any snare? I don’t think so. Rather, it suggests there is room within this role, this archetype, for genuine growth. And moreover, a Bond who can die is a Bond whose subsequent adventures take on new intensity, because we don’t actually know what will happen next onscreen.

Regardless of your feelings on the film’s conclusion, there are plenty of other reasons to appreciate “No Time to Die.” In the able hands of director Cary Joji Fukunaga (who helmed the first and best season of “True Detective”), this installment is one of the most picturesque Bond films of all time. From frozen lakes and fog-shrouded Norwegian forests to missile silos that look like demonic temples and chemical plants that look like enchanted forests, Fukunaga’s aesthetic sensibility is positively breathtaking (rivaled only by Roger Deakins’s cinematographic work on “Skyfall”).

Fukunaga’s action scenes are also a cut above the norm for a Bond flick. A gun battle in Cuba that teams Bond with an MI6 operative (Lashana Lynch) and a talented CIA ingénue (Ana de Armas) is a particular standout, pairing combat with humor in quintessentially Bondian style. Similarly memorable is an extended tracking shot in which Bond, in “John Wick” fashion, takes out a host of henchmen while ascending a staircase in Safin’s base. At any rate, they’re far superior to the “Bourne”-aping shaky-cam fights that dominated 2008’s “Quantum of Solace.”

By this point, most serious Bond fans will have already made the pilgrimage to see “No Time to Die” on the big screen. If perchance you’ve been holding out, suffice it to say that this installment thrills like no other. It’s that rarest of things: a pulse-pounding action flick with a genuine heart beneath all the explosions and gunfire.

“Spectre” left me cold. But I can’t wait to revisit “No Time to Die.”

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2021 in Contemporary

 

Movie Review: “The Green Knight”

As a longtime appreciator of Arthurian lore, I’ve contemplated more than once the challenges facing anyone who would try their hand at adaptation. An artist or filmmaker must attempt to hold together not one, but two, dialectical pairs: the tension between paganism and Christianity, and the transition from the Roman to the medieval age. Failure to strike the proper aesthetic balance inevitably leads to an unsatisfying result. (Just think of Guy Ritchie’s catastrophic “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”)

David Lowery’s eerie, slow-burning “The Green Knight” delivers on this unified vision. No doubt this take on the classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight won’t be to all viewers’ taste, but those willing to fall under Lowery’s spell will find themselves drawn into a mesmerizing world that—to its tremendous credit—never attempts to demythologize or seriously subvert its subject matter.

Readers familiar with the original poem—perhaps most memorably translated by J.R.R. Tolkien—will find all the standard story beats present here. Young Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), while feasting with the Knights of the Round Table on Christmas Day, is abruptly confronted by an inhuman Green Knight, who challenges him to a game: deliver a single blow, and then travel to the Green Knight’s abode a year leader to be repaid in kind, as a gesture of reciprocity. The arrogant Gawain promptly beheads the stranger, only to learn too late that the Knight cannot be so defeated. Laughing all the while, the mighty creature departs, reminding Gawain before leaving that he must present himself the next Christmas to receive the same stroke delivered back to him. Gawain’s days, in short, are numbered.

Honor prevails: Gawain leaves the arms of his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) and sets out on a quest across England’s fog-shrouded moors, confronting bandits and saints and giants in the process. At the end of his journey lies the Green Chapel where his fate will be decided—along with an enigmatic husband and wife who seem strangely familiar.

(Mild spoilers for the movie ahead, though these don’t really count if you’ve read the poem.)

Lowery’s last film, the sad little metaphysical romantic drama “A Ghost Story” (sorry for the four adjectives, but they’re all apposite) concluded with an extended flash-forward, drawing on the motif of the “eternal return” to demonstrate that, after an infinite span of time, all events inevitably repeat themselves. Here, Lowery uses a similar technique to express a fundamentally different theme: the possibility of alternative futures, rather than of cosmic repetition. In the instants before the Green Knight’s axe descends on his neck, Lowery’s Gawain imagines all those those things that would happen if he simply fled the chapel and returned home: succeeding Arthur on the throne, consolidating power by pushing aside his loved ones, and finally witnessing the fall of Camelot in a storm of blood and fire. And Gawain, crucially, rejects that path, remaining resolute as the Green Knight towers over him. To live dishonorably is, in short, no proper life at all.

And then the movie ends, moments after the Green Knight rumbles “off with your head.”

Those familiar with the poem know what happens next: the Green Knight turns out to be the lord of the nearby manor, who devised the whole experiment as a test of Gawain’s moral mettle. But Lowery leaves the matter unresolved, ambiguous—a kind of Pascal’s Wager for the knights’ code of chivalry. Gawain’s choice is vindicated not because of its good outcome, but because of its intrinsic virtue.

This is not a stylistic choice that many—even most—viewers will understand or appreciate. (Almost everyone in my theater was completely dumbfounded by this conclusion, and I heard a lot of grumbling on the way out.) And yet it brings to the surface an essential truth of life: all of us, at least on the level of the immanent, must make moral decisions against a backdrop of profound uncertainty. We do not know in advance what the decisions we make will lead to, or whether we ourselves will survive the process—but part of being a moral agent as such is the need to make such choices nevertheless. The narrative structure of medieval romance leads the reader of the poem to presume that all things will ultimately work out, and thereby to impute that awareness to the story’s characters—but “here below” in the real world, and so too in Lowery’s adaptation, the future is experienced as clouded and doubtful.

In so framing Gawain’s tale, Lowery manages to make this old tale “relevant” in a genuinely existential way, tapping into eternal truths rather than drenching his story in biting irony or sociological critique. It is this element, I think, that will make “The Green Knight” endure for years to come, when many other Arthur adaptations are long forgotten. There is a reason this particular legend has persisted over the centuries, through countless social upheavals and ideological revolutions, and Lowery’s film successfully channels that ethos.

Those unwilling to sink deeply into this film’s lush tapestry won’t find much to like here (this is not a film, for instance, that can be watched with one eye on one’s phone)—but more patient viewers will find themselves richly rewarded.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2021 in Fantasy

 
 
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