Wednesday, 6 October 2021

No Time to Die

The interior perspective of Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann is woven into the bones of No Time to Die, the super-criminal's daughter enjoying a place in the film's structural hierarchy beyond even that afforded to James Bond himself. Her experiences encompass this entry. No Time to Die beginning with an opening gambit constructed around a home invasion and near death incident from Swann's childhood. These memories don't just bleed into the piece in the usual ways - an expositionary tremble before the disrobing commences - they set the table, elevating the character of Swann from a one-and-done love interest to that of a crucial, dramatic, piece. The closest antecedent to this kind of framing (that comes immediately to mind) is the introduction of Diana Rigg's Countess Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service - a film that is quoted here with motifs inherited from John Barry's musical score as well as words that echo Richard Maibaum and Simon Raven's spoken dialogue. Tracy begins that film attempting to end her life by walking into a churning surf before she is interrupted by George Lazenby's deliberately silhouetted 007. 

Although begun by, and premised on, Tracy's actions, even that incident wasn't so deeply sunken into the temporal mechanics of its parent feature. Swann's hold over Cary Joji Fukunaga's film is beyond incidental, it's elemental. Swann has been granted an actual flashback, one that takes place decades earlier than the main action, centred around a frozen lake in Norway. As a storytelling device these kind of recollections are anathema to the stridently contemporaneous Bond films. The distaste for such a method of storytelling so pervasive that Spectre - a film that was desperately in need of some foggy little interlude from Bond's childhood - swerved the opportunity just so Christoph Waltz's adult Blofeld could lecture the audience about his adolescent grudge instead. Although by no means a bold storytelling device in of itself, the decision registers as notable here simply because the Bond series itself practically demands to be appraised in terms of formula. That the film's viewpoint has shifted so dramatically is telling - it's a conscious attempt to subvert the means by which an audience connects to the character and world of James Bond. 

Other uncharacteristically independent female characters are threaded throughout No Time to Die as well, the film making a conscious decision to approach these flat, archetypal, roles with a fresh intent. Ana de Armas' Paloma, a rookie secret agent staking out a SPECTRE sex party, might typically spend her screentime comically underachieving and pining for the violent expertise of Bond. Here, the fresh-faced spy rebuffs James' half-hearted advances then, despite her first-night nerves, perfectly compliments the thundering mechanism of her accomplice. Paloma, unlike say Carey Lowell's Agent Bouvier in Licence to Kill, is allowed to move around in her brief appearance with a self-contained and self-determined sense of agency, one that exists beyond her interactions with the British secret agent. Similarly, Lashana Lynch's Nomi, Bond's replacement in the 00 Section, isn't embroiled in the pointless duplicity usually associated with the appearance of a fellow Whitehall liquidator. Awarded the position of 007 for much of the film's runtime, Lynch gets to play with more sardonic frequencies than the feature actor; she's the handsome, ice-veined, action hero that typified the older calibrations of the Bond character. Notes, incidentally, that Craig's run hasn't always sought to exploit. 

No Time to Die's screenplay, credited to regular 007 screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade , as well as director Fukunaga and Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, seeks to conclude this era of the Bond saga by poring focus on, then tidying away, all the dangling threads that Craig's tenure has picked at. The idea of Bond as a personification of Britain's post-colonial wish fulfilment is jettisoned somewhat; this Bond isn't necessarily fighting on behalf of Queen or country, he's his own man, an orphaned button man pinballing back-and-forth between whichever international ally can currently offer the best lead. Craig's stint as Bond has repeatedly played with this idea of the character untethering from its host, experimenting with autonomy and even redundancy. In No Time to Die this disconnection isn't just pronounced, it's integral to the character's personal development. The safety net offered by an all-knowing leadership very much having left with the death of Judi Dench's M in Skyfall. The Britain depicted in No Time is Die then has pointedly soured, both in terms of internal management and global outlook. 

This state of slow motion collapse is best exemplified by Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, a deeply flawed M who has let technological fantasies about clean murder cloud his judgement to a world threatening degree. This lapse underlines another disconnect in the series - Britain and America have slipped out of alignment, each of their secret services pursuing the same ends from different directions, all while maintaining a chilly radio silence. The CIA (although themselves compromised by double agents) are outright refusing to work with Mallory's MI6, preferring instead to recruit a demobbed Bond who has since retired to Jamaica - the island country where Ian Fleming first wrote about his debonair civil servant. This international aggro grows as the film goes on, eventually encompassing Russia, Japan, and America's less shadowy naval interests. The Britain of No Time to Die is very much alone, a pariah that is striving, clumsily, to eradicate a mess they themselves have created. The attempt terminating in a setting that mixes Dr. No's Crab Key stronghold with the imminent immolation Nicholas Cage faced in Michael Bay's The Rock.

In a move that will no doubt delight video game writer-director Hideo Kojima, No Time to Die's central threat revolves around nanotechnology and the idea that a person can, through no fault of their own, become an unwitting agent of assassination. 1998's stealth espionage game Metal Gear Solid seems an obvious reference point for this dilemma, the player themselves unwittingly spreading a heart attack inducing infection among high-ranking hostages. In No Time to Die the power wielded by Rami Malek's soft-spoken Safin is that of a directed pandemic, an ability to synthesise designer diseases that attack specific DNA traits or sequences. A pox that thinks, differentiates, then transforms people into a mass of seething boils. Unlike the FOXDIE retrovirus Kojima's hero Solid Snake was infected with, Safin's pox is a conscious infliction, one designed to condemn targets, rendering them knowingly radioactive. Despite the horror of his methods, Safin is one of the film's weaker elements, a villain that straddles two distinct, uncomplimentary, criminal paradigms - the broken, tooled-up, avenger and the established, financially independent megalomaniac. 

In terms of a SPECTRE successor - which the film definitively positions him as - Safin struggles to carve out an identity wholly his own. His key characteristics, especially towards the latter half of the film, are inherited from the criminals that butted heads with Connery's 1960s snooper. Particularly those who hailed from, or resided in, the East. Blofeld's previously un-filmed poisonous Japanese garden from the book of You Only Live Twice rubs up against the movie serial Sinophobia that underlined 007's first filmed adventure. Safin's residence hangs beneath a rotting, decommissioned submarine pen, an underwater fortress filled with fanatical scientists and rivers that can dissolve the unwary. In this sense, Safin is the Bond villain reduced to its primordial state - a lunatic who is largely defined by his foreignness when compared to Fleming's British secret agent. Depicted as inscrutable, quietly adept and even lit to stress a mottled rot in his skin, Malek's Safin is eerily reminiscent of the heavily made-up and luridly lit film adaptations of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu. A comparison that doesn't actually embarrass the good doctor, given Safin's almost effortless string of successes. 

Although in the early going No Time to Die's action sequences play around with a similar kind of bored expertise as Spectre - most assuredly in a twilit forest where Bond easily outmanoeuvres umpteen vehicular assaults - when Safin's terror presses closer to home, Craig's Bond is seen to really struggle. In Fukunaga's now signature (anxiety inducing) oner, we see James limping up a mouldering staircase with attacks coming from every conceivable direction. In these moments Daniel Craig's physical dexterity and determination - genuine positives that have become less and less remarked upon the further away we get from Casino Royale - are truly allowed to shine. Peril is dealt with fractionally, an entire spinning plate apparatus with Craig dead centre, adjusting the henchman, firearms and grenades constantly hurled his way. Later, when confronted with a vivid threat to his personal identity, Bond throws away his automatic rifle and SIG-Sauer sidearm then sinks into a pose of total supplication before a triumphant Safin. Fukunaga's film offers a scale of outrage previously unencountered by the cucumber cool spy, prompting a equally unusual response. Bond feigns defeat, collapsing into a heap, designed to arouse either pity or disgust in this impassive enemy. While his mouth and body sputter out a gabble of prostrate apology, his hands go to work. First at his belt then, apparently, sinking deeper and deeper into his body - his soul even - for an appropriate response. Surrounded by enemies with a beloved innocent in play, Bond's hand eventually curls itself around his most treasured appendage - a Walther PPK pistol. 

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