One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 59
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
On Wednesday, November 10, armed with two N95 masks (one that I wore and the other as a backup), a Fun Size pack of M&Ms and my childhood friend Dave, whom I’ve been seeing Bond films with for decades, I went to the movies to see an 11:10 a.m. show of the new James Bond film No Time to Die.
As it was the first time I was planning to see a film in a theater in nearly two years, the outing–while not as complexly plotted as the film itself-required some careful maneuvering. (My last theatrical experience was with the spiky Will Ferrell-Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy Downhill, which I caught at the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street back in January, 2020.)
For my return to the theatrical experience, I had played it as safely as I could by waiting a month into the film’s run and then choosing what I deemed to be a less-trafficked Manhattan theater during a hopefully less-crowded time of the day. I went with the Regal Battery Park Stadium 11, a multiplex so far downtown and off the beaten track (it’s on the far side of the West Side Highway!) that I had to remind my wife that we actually had been there once before to see the holiday comedy Elf back when we first began dating in the fall of 2003.
Well, not to downplay the value of the event, but the multi-screen complex was virtually empty, we were the only ones in the theater showing our film and the overall experience was essentially just like going to any movie theater on a weekday morning late in a film’s run. The box office proper wasn’t being utilized at the Regal and tickets were being issued at the concession counter, which was understandable as there weren’t massive crowds that required servicing. The theater workers—the young lady at the counter who asked to see our proof of vaccination and sold me our tickets and the equally young man who then scanned them—were both wearing masks, and they each reminded us that we had to wear our masks in the theater except while we were eating or drinking, during which time we had to remain seated. Check.
(The three major movie exhibition chains— AMC, Regal, and Cinemark—have all said that fully vaccinated customers no longer have to wear masks inside of their theaters, but they still abide by all state or local ordinances that are in place, hence the masks.)
We skipped the concessions (save for the M&Ms I smuggled in), entered a very clean-looking theater and sat in our prechosen seats, leaving a socially-distanced seat between us. The fact that we were the only customers there and that it was a rather unremarkable experience didn’t make sitting down in an actual theater for the first time in 22 months any less an exciting moment. And when the lights went down a few minutes later and the first of a pair of trailers began to roll, I’ve got to admit that my heart began to beat a little faster. My friend and I looked at each other just as the MGM logo at the head of the film appeared onscreen and he said to me, his voice slightly muffled beneath his mask, “Bond. Finally.”
“Hell, yeah,” I responded, beneath my own. “Here we go.”
No Time to Die, the 25th installment in the celebrated 007 film series based on the best-selling novels of Ian Fleming, marks the fifth and final outing for actor Daniel Craig as super-spy James Bond, a role he first portrayed in 2006’s Casino Royale.
The broad strokes of No Time to Die’s story, which takes place five years after the ending of the franchise’s previous film, 2015’s Spectre, finds Bond retired from Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and living a quiet, secluded life in Jamaica. It’s not too long before Bond is approached by his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and convinced to slip back into his shoulder holster to help Leiter track down a missing scientist who’s developed a lethal bioweapon. MI6 also gets involved, including a new agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who has taken Bond’s place in the organization, even inheriting his code number and literally becoming the new “007,” the successor to Bond’s “007” code number. Orbiting the unsanctioned mission are Bond’s former love, psychotherapist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and the supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who Bond took down in the previous film and has since been locked up, Hannibal Lecter-style, in a high-security British prison.
No Time to Die is the first Bond film ever to be directed by an American, the Oakland-born Cary Fukunaga, who’s best known for the 2014 HBO crime series True Detective and the war drama Beasts of No Nation (2015). Filled with intricacies and, regrettably, a handful of contrivances, it clocks in at a daunting 163 minutes, making it the longest-ever entry in the Bond canon. But even as it occasionally drowns in its own plot, most of the key Bond elements are still in place: the exotic locales, the slinky opening credits and song (sung here by Billie Eilish), the magnificently mounted action scenes and chases, and the striking women, including lovely Ana de Armas, a standout as a high-kicking agent who briefly teams up with Bond in Cuba.
There are also the requisite appearances by Bond’s work family (Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris as “M,” “Q” and “Moneypenny,” respectively) and a menacing baddie determined to do nasty things to the Free World (an unexceptional Rami Malek, whose dearth of screen time doesn’t make him as menacing as he should be). What’s not there? Bond’s once-routine bed-hopping and his weaponized gadgetry are nowhere to be seen. (As Wishaw’s “Q” said a couple of movies back, “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that sort of thing anymore.”) Taking their place are growing questions about the viability of a field agent like Bond and the existence of shadowy spy organizations in a post-Cold War world of computer hackers and cyber-terrorists.
Over the course of the film, there’s plenty of respect and fan service offered in tribute to Bond’s proud cinematic legacy. They stretch from the opening credit sequence which echo those from Dr. No (the franchise’s 1961 debut) to a number of familiar music cues that hearken back to previous Bond films to several notable snatches of dialogue. (Bond murmurs “We’ve got all the time in the world...” several times, which is a key line in the Bond pantheon).
Emotional resonance, love betrayed and Bond’s self-reflection have all played a part in the Daniel Craig era, moving the character away from the traditional adventure-seeking, wisecracking and dapper dude of previous incarnations more to that of a troubled and tragic hero.
Craig’s Bond has been on that course for his entire cycle of connected films, ever since the seeming betrayal and violent death of the love of his life, treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in Casino Royale. Indeed, with each subsequent entry since Craig’s debut, the films have inched closer and closer to being romantic tragedies—as opposed to straight-on spy adventures—shooting, strangling, globe-trotting and car chasing, notwithstanding.
Maybe that’s why Craig’s inaugural Bond effort from 16 years back remains the best of his five films, as it was the first to embrace the classic elements of the Bond film franchise (which had been alive and thriving for 35 years old when he took over) while offering a far more serious, pensive and emotional character than previous Bonds Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan ever did. Craig makes Bond’s vulnerability his defining characteristic, and it’s been on full display for a decade-and-a-half, all the way up to the closing minutes of No Time to Die. And for Craig’s quintet of films, it works. It really does. And I think that the climax and conclusion of Craig’s swansong, while it takes a long time to get to, is a satisfying one.
When pondering the enduring popularity and longevity of the Bond franchise, I remind myself that every Bond era over the past 60 years has produced at least one or two very good or maybe even great films. Sure, some of them are merely passable, but practically all of them represent, at the very least, a fine way to spend a unscheduled evening in front of the TV (or at a revival house, if you can find one playing a gorgeous, newly struck Bond print). Now, this might sound like I’m settling or even condescending, but I promise you I’m not. When you think about all the—wait for it—product that’s out there these days, that a Bond film can be revisited with a minimum of impatience and a degree of pleasure is truly saying a lot. And that’s the way it’s been since I starting watching them on the ABC Sunday Night Movie back in the early Seventies.
As for No Time to Die, don’t grieve if you don’t dig the whole thing or if you feel it should have gone in another direction, because there will always be another Bond movie around the bend. Just like it said on the screen of the empty pandemic multiplex at the end of No Time to Die’s lengthy credit crawl: JAMES BOND WILL RETURN. And that’s enough to leave any fan, serious or casual, both shaken and stirred.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.