No Time To Die Gives Us a Not-Quite-Woke James Bond

October 8, 2021   |  
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Should James Bond be a woman? A person of color? A woman of color? For years we have heard calls and questions to this effect, and counterarguments, in turn, that we don't need a woke Bond, or a feminizing influence on a series that has always sought to embody a certain masculine ideal. And for nearly as long the question has been moot, because Bond was going to be Daniel Craig, and that was that. The woke would have to wait.

Or would they? In No Time To Die, the actor's fifth and final outing as 007, Bond has not really changed, except in the sense that Craig has grown a little bit older. But the times he lives in have evolved in a way that offers a judgment on the character. Bond hasn't gone woke, but the world around him has.

MI6, the British spy organization Bond once worked for, has become a blundering bureaucracy, more likely to start a war than end one. It spends much of its time involved in petty competitions with its counterpart in the United States, which itself is desperately trying to relive its glory days, even as its inner workings have become infested with turncoats. The moral simplicity of the Cold War is no longer available.

There are women in roles once reserved for men; when the film begins, one has even taken the 007 designation. Bond's relationship with the women that surround him, once so easy and casually dominant, has grown tentative, anxious. What is his role here? Does anyone even know?

By the middle of the film, even SPECTRE, the all-purpose villain-supply organization that has long provided Bond with nemeses, has been taken down. There are still tailored tuxes and classic Aston Martins and shaken martinis in his life, but these now seem more like the habits of an old man rather than the signatures of a suave gentleman. Bond's world has fallen apart; everything that made him is gone.

No Time To Die, then, finds Bond in a pensive mood. Even more than its recent predecessors, it's a reflective film, moody and overlong at two and three-quarter hours—there is, it turns out, plenty of time to die.

But it is also a largely enjoyable one, gorgeously shot and strung together via a handful of breathtaking set pieces. It is, like all the best Bond films, a dazzling object to behold. But instead of shining outward, it peers inward, considering what, exactly, it means to be Bond, and what it has meant for all these years. Bond doesn't change, but he is forced to confront his life and legacy, and pay for what he has done. No Time To Die is a reckoning with everything that made Bond who he is.

That's especially true with regard to his relationship with women. When the character was born in the 1960s, Bond's womanizing was simply a character trait, a series trope that demonstrated what kind of man he was. By the 1990s, when Pierce Brosnan took over the role, both the films and their stars had begun to more explicitly question and comment on his habits: In GoldenEye, Brosnan's Bond is confronted by a female superior, M (Judi Dench), who labels him a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur."

In 2015, around the release of Spectre, Craig himself gave an interview in which he referred to Bond as "actually a misogynist." "A lot of women are drawn to him," Craig said, "chiefly because he embodies a certain kind of danger and never sticks around for too long." (Tell that to this movie's two-hour and 43-minute running time.)

So as No Time To Die begins, Bond himself has retired from the spy business. He spends his days looking back on life, and in particular his lost love, Vesper Lynd, whose death in Craig's first Bond outing, Casino Royale, propelled him into pleasure-seeking cold-bloodedness.

Somehow, though, he's found a new one, in the form of Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the fetching and gentle psychiatrist who joined his exploits in the last film, Spectre. At first Bond and Swann are torn apart, and then they are brought back together—and then, finally, torn apart once again. Bond, who never truly cared for a woman, finally finds lasting love. Yet the moment he does, it's taken away.

That same idea crops up again and again in No Time To Die, which sees the death of someone he considers a friend, the bumbling embarrassment of MI6, and a renewed sense of horror at Bond's anger and murderous methods, even when dealing with villains. The movie seems to ask: Is Bond really a good guy? A model of masculinity? Or has he always been something else?

No Time To Die doesn't reform Bond, but it does punish him in accordance with modern mores, in what amounts to a long-delayed act of socio-cinematic justice.

If there is a complication to the movie's systematic self-vengeance, it is Craig himself. Craig, of course, is a white guy of a certain vintage. He first played the role in his 30s, and he's now 53, so his tenure as Bond spans more or less the entirety of contemporary male middle age. His run as 007 doubles as a sort of unacknowledged investigation into modern male aging, the way, judging strictly by Craig's evolution, growing older apparently makes you even more handsome, more dignified, more physically capable, more seductively melancholy to the constant rotation of beautiful women you are surrounded with. (Truly, it's hard to be a man.)

In one sense, then, No Time To Die gives Bond's critics much of what they want—a harsh judgment on his callous ways. But in another, the movie does what Bond films have always done, which is to model a certain type of sophisticated manly stature, and to demonstrate, in action movie form, the role that modern men are supposed to play. Even in penance, Craig's Bond is an attractive proposition.

Bond has always been a sort of mass-cultural action figure, bent and posed into whatever scenarios the modern world wants to see him in. In No Time To Die, and indeed throughout Craig's run as Bond, it seems that the purpose of that role is to look back regretfully, to take what punishments are waiting for you…and then to save the day anyway—and look damn good doing it.


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