No Time To Die

Time to Love.

* * * *

Daniel Craig’s final James Bond film is a dark, emotional epic. Deliberately and consistently harking back – musically, thematically, and tonally – to the purist’s secret favourite Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, No Time To Die is a love story, and a successful one: the complicated chemistry between Daniel Craig and Léa Seydoux is supremely well played. Acting at this level was simply absent in the pre-Daniel Craig era, and this is probably the best acted entry in the entire series.

It’s also a team effort: Bond is rarely solo for this film’s two hours and forty-three minutes, and watching him and his crew – including Q and M, plus a new female agent and good ol’ Moneypenny – share the third act feels entirely appropriate. Earlier, Craig shares the film’s best action set-piece, in Havana, with Ana De Armas, who makes a spectacular impression with very little screen time. She is simply delightful, and her ability to make a fast strong impression is very much in keeping with the historical tradition of the First Act Bond Girl.

The film, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, looks sublime, at times rivalling the cinematography of Skyfall. Most of the action is gripping, and the locations, particularly Norway, are moody and evocative.

The plot itself, featuring a biological weapon, is creepily Covid-prescient (of course unwittingly, as the film was finished by the advent of the pandemic and its release delayed for two years because of it). But plot is not story, and the story – the love story – is heartily and admirably committed to.

This is mature Bond for a mature audience, even if the (main) villain could have stepped out of the 60s Connerys. Played in a hard-to-hear weird dialect by Rami Malek, he’s a fun throwback, but no Silva (Javier Bardem in Skyfall), let alone a Goldfinger, a Scaramanga, or Terry Savalas’ Blofeld.

But this Bond is not about the villain. This Bond is about love, Léa Seydoux is very much the second lead, and she’s terrific. Dame Diana Rigg would approve.

Kingsman The Golden Circle

* * * 1/2 (out of five)

John Denver’s Annie’s Song was used very prominently in this year’s Free Fire and Okja. His song Take Me Home Country Roads was used very prominently in Alien Covenant and Logan Lucky. Now, Kingsman: The Golden Circle uses both, very prominently. Channing Tatum was in Logan Lucky and is now in Kingsman. Co-incidence? I don’t think so. I think Matthew Vaughn, director and co-writer of Kingsman, is having a sly joke, and it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone of his unexpectedly mega-successful Bond-parodic action franchise.

I wasn’t a fan of the first instalment, The Secret Service (2014). At the time I wrote, “There’s a lot of spitfire razzle-dazzle but barely any wit, panache or charm in this huge bloated misfire of a movie that sits like a spew stain on the impeccable jacket of Colin Firth’s body of work.” My main issue with that film essentially goes uncorrected here: the dialogue is simply unfunny but thinks it’s funny, making everyone – cast and audience – uncomfortable. But the tone and, especially, the imagery this time around is much more fun; it may not be funny but it’s cheeky, and every single shot is bright, crisp, colourful, wittily designed and gorgeous to look at. It’s an action movie that’s actually easy on the eyes.

There is also a villainous plot – which doesn’t get going until an hour and fifteen minutes into the film, mind you – which wouldn’t actually be too horribly out of place in an actual Bond movie. The world’s most powerful drug lord Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) taints her product with a nasty virus that infects all users worldwide – hundreds of millions of them – and sends them into paralysis, with death imminently promised, unless they legalise all recreational drugs worldwide, in which case she will release the antidote. It’s a nifty idea, and actually engenders a series of even niftier twists. And Poppy’s lair – a clearing in a South American jungle in which she has built a tiny replica of 1950s Americana – is very neat, killer robot dogs and all.

Killer robot dogs, you say? Really? Yes, this is a movie that is stuffed with stuff. It’s crazy long – two hours and twenty-one minutes, which is about the average running time of the Daniel Craig Bond films – and there are so many action set-pieces that I certainly can’t recall them all, and I’ve just seen the film. It’s so long, and there’s so much stuff in it, that the first hour or so becomes instantly forgettable, and when one major actor re-enters the film in the final act, it’s a jolt, because you’d forgotten they were in it in the first place. Like chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and chocolate ice-cream on a chocolate plate, it’s yummy and gets your serotonin pumping but also just too much.

But this is a first-world complaint. Too much chocolate? When people tell me the Oscars are too long, I tell them to fuck off! It’s once a year, I want a lot of Oscars, if you don’t like them don’t watch them. So maybe too much Kingsman is a good thing. Part of the film’s shtick is that there’s just so much of it. It’s the relatively charming, incredibly well designed, friendly action comedy that keeps on giving. This really is a film that you can feel comfortable going to the bathroom when you need to, because, in the extremely grand scale of things, you can’t have really missed anything, because there’s so much more to come.

Taron Egerton returns as Eggsy, the young likely lad recruited into the British private secret service, Kingsmen, by Colin Firth’s Harry Hart in the first film. Harry was killed off pretty decisively in that one – shot through the eye by Samuel L. Jackson, which usually means you’re kaput – but he’s rather miraculously resurrected here, which, of course, instantly forfeits from the movie any rights to making us worry about anyone. When you bring back a dead character because the audience wants the actor back, there aren’t high stakes, just big paychecks (and, theoretically, big returns: I suspect this instalment is going to be a massive box office hit).

Firth looks almost as uncomfortable as he did in the first one, and his character is very strangely written; there is one major decision he makes, vital to the course of events, that still has me scratching my head. Egerton is more enjoyable than he was in the original, mainly because here he’s in the suit more and in his ‘hood clothes less – he was really, really hard to swallow as the cap-wearing lager lad in the origin story. Moore makes the best meal possible out of every one of her lines, and if those lines had actually been witty, we may have had, at least in Poppy, a very memorable villain.

The movie’s star performance is from Mark Strong, whose character Merlin operates as the “Q” figure of the franchise, the gadgets guy and tech wizard. Strong has been playing both tough guys and parodies of tough guys for a while now – his secret agent in Sacha Baron Cohen’s criminally under-seen Grimsby was an absolute hoot – and here he kind of does both, bringing, in every scene he’s in, some tonal coherence to the movie. His final scene is truly wonderful. It would have worked, with perhaps a ten percent alteration in performance, in a real Bond film, which is the vibe the whole movie – the whole franchise – should aspire to.


spectre-banner-3**** (out of five)

Daniel Craig’s final film as James Bond is a visually dark, contemplative, adult affair that seeks to conclude a four-film arc, marking out Craig’s tenure as a sort of self-contained series within the larger franchise. Its plot directly links it to the previous three films, and there’s no doubt that this approach, given that Craig has said “never again”, carries a strong sense of story satisfaction. It has been carefully wrought.

I suspect it will go down as the third best of Craig’s lot; it is simply not as thrilling and fresh as Casino Royale, nor as charming and jittery as Skyfall. (I still maintain Quantum of Solace is a fine film with the second-best action set-piece of the four, but there’s no denying that its plotting, affected by the writer’s strike of the time, is lacking). Spectre will not be remembered for its action – none of its set pieces are top grade – but it has very strong characters, and, joining On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, a powerful love interest for Bond. Indeed, this is one of the “romance ones”, and that romance is the film’s strongest element.

The object of Bond’s affection here – and we’re deeply in the zone of May/December (the much touted, respectably aged Monica Bellucci has a tiny part and is not the love interest) – is Madeleine Swann, played superbly by Léa Seydoux. Like many a Bond companion, she’s a little girl who has lost her daddy, and her love for Bond must be seen through the prism of a replacement father figure; Craig’s famously blonde hair is actually grey in this film, and he’s looking his age, which is much greater than hers. Nevertheless, their relationship is touching and believable, and director Sam Mendes is not afraid to let it breathe (which, when you consider how speedy most action films are these days, is pretty brave). The best scene in the film is the quietest. Bond has been really screwed up since Vesper Lynd bit the bullet, and it’s remarkably touching to see his mad iciness begin to thaw.

Tradition, two Oscars, and perhaps a little old-school Ian Fleming sexism demand that Christophe Waltz receives second billing, but Seydoux has far more screen time and emotional investment. She gives the film’s best performance. Waltz, in a surprisingly brief role, is effective but hardly impactful on the scale of at least ten of the franchise’s top villains, if not more. Andrew Scott and Ralph Fiennes play off each other very well as the bureaucrats (M and “C”) bickering back in Old Blighty, and Ben Whishaw solidifies his claim on Q. As an old-school, wordless heavy, Dave Bautista (Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy) is suitably heavy (and, astoundingly, never less than fully suited).

As for Craig, he’s great as usual, but you can sense his ennui. He’s over it and it just manages to show. His performance is subdued, almost laid back. He knows he’s the best Bond and he coasts a little. But every time he shares a scene with Seydoux, his game lifts noticeably. She brings out the best in him, something Madeleine also does to Bond. The film’s conclusion harks directly back to one of those “romance ones” I mentioned earlier, but this time, Bond gets the girl. I’m happy for him.