No time to die

Daniel Craig’s much delayed swan song as the world’s most famous spy concludes in spectacular style, proving once again that when it comes to being James Bond, nobody does it better.

Bond has always tailored himself in the cultural clothing of the time and now he’s refit for the #MeToo era, and his latest mission sees him not only saving the world but also being held to account for his litany of misogyny going back to the first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No.

And the most powerful asset of this globetrotting action thriller is Craig’s willingness to the essay 007’s psychological pain, a bravura performance from a script which leans purposely on aspects of Greek tragedy.

Classical allusions include a scientific project called Herakles, a henchman nicknamed Cyclops, and Ralph Fiennes’ ‘M’ suffering an enormous bout of hubris. Meanwhile the traditional pre-title sequence plays as a prologue setting out the key characters as well as the more standard 007 action set-piece. And later we’re treated to a 21st century spin on a gouging of the eyes.

These elements are no cheap grab for cultural gravitas, but are embedded in the script’s DNA. Nor are allusions to myth and legend new to Bond, feel free to read about Skyfall placing Bond on a pedestal next to King Arthur, here.

Bond suffers emotional and physical punishment which leaves him bruised, bloodied and bereft. And the closer Bond gets to happiness the more his suffering and the dramatic stakes increase. It’s a dilemma which illuminates the dark heart of Bond.

Since Judi Dench’s ‘M’ called Pierce Brosnan’s Bond ‘a misogynist dinosaur’ in 1995’s Goldeneye, the franchise filmmakers have grappled with the sexism of Bond the man, and the franchise. However No Time To Die sees a reset of values, and Bond is made to suffer a series of humblings at the hands of a pair of high-achieving younger female agents.

British star Lashana Lynch and Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas excel as play agents of MI6 and the CIA respectively, they’re equally as ruthless and skilled as Bond, and each essay a very different brand of humour. Plus the former answers the question, could we have a non-white and/or female 007, with a resounding yes.

This is all welcome but I wasn’t expecting for Bond to apologise and then attempt to atone for a lifetime of sexist behaviour. This would be a jaw-dropping move in any popcorn blockbuster, never mind the 007 franchise. Don’t assume this means Bond has gone ‘soft’. When the need arises he remains an absolute cold-blooded assassin.

With Rami Malek’s terrorist mastermind called Lyutsifer Safin plotting biological warfare, this leads to a not-so-subtle allusion to the dangers of Bond’s life of promiscuity. This is a long way from 1987’s The Living Daylights which arrived in during the AIDS epidemic, where the response of Timothy Dalton’s Bond was to keep the number of his sexual partners below three.

Having Bond confront the effect of his long-standing toxic relationship with women is presumably intended to wipe clean Bond’s ledger, a necessary step in the characters reinvention if he wants to successfully navigate the changing cultural landscape.

Billie Eilish’s haunting Grammy-winning title song sets the tone for this emotional smackdown, and the pre-title sequence offers a nod to Dr. No, before updating the long-since retired silhouettes of dancing naked women, with images of a fallen Britannia.

Craig carries us through this process with an extraordinary feat of acting, unlike anything we’ve seen in this franchise before. Having once rashly promised to ‘slash my wrists’ rather than play Bond again, the actor seems energised by the prospect of putting Bond to bed.

He strains every considerable muscle to deliver a performance which is not only hugely physically demanding for a man of our age, but dramatically impressive, wryly funny, and profoundly emotional. Craig gives it all he’s got left in the tank, and absolutely smashes it among the enormous explosions, high-speed chases and ferocious fights.

The car chases have a tremendous bone-shaking authenticity, and the four – spot them – different variations of Bond’s Aston Martin car, will have petrolheads purring with avaricious delight. Plus we have a return to the gadgets that Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ once dismissed.

Shot through with all the gun-toting glamour you’d expect, we see 007 gunning for Safin who operates from a secret lair worthy of the great Bond villains. Frankly we’ve been long overdue a proper Bond villain threatening death to millions of people, and the return to world-saving stakes are something of a relief.

Craig was cast as 007 in response to the Jason Bourne series. And having seen off that box office threat, the producers have turned their attention to Bond’s current box office adversaries, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movies.

Similar to Cruise’s agent Hunt, Bond is now the leader of a diverse if undeniably posh and British team, with Naomie Harris, Whishaw, and Fiennes reprising their roles as Moneypenny, ‘Q’ and ‘M’, and they provide plenty of humour as Bond’s surrogate family.

Legacy and family are the key themes of this mission, not least with the return of Christoph Waltz as 007’s foster brother and arch-enemy, Blofeld.

Boy, this film does not disappoint. At an extravagant 163 minutes it’s the longest Bond film yet, and uses it’s running time to bring Craig’s five film 007 tenure to a satisfying climax, and comes extremely close to allowing him to depart on an all time high.

The end credits conclude withe familiar promise James Bond will return, and with Craig leaving the series in the rudest of health I can’t wait to see the face of the future.

5/5 stars

@ChrisHunneysett

James Bond 007: Top 10 villains

10 Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee)

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

At 6 ft 4 in tall, Lee brings stature as well a smooth sophistication to his role of a former KGB agent turned world’s best assassin who charges one million dollars per kill.
His favourite weapon is a gold cigarette and pen combination which transforms into a pistol, and he flies a car with detachable wings.
As well as commanding a deadly martial arts academy, he has the murderous butler Nick Nack, played with venomous glee by the diminutive Hervé Villechaize, to assist him. And the lair is an idyllic Far East island armed with a solar-powered laser cannon.
But Lee is too relaxed to intimidate the audience, and the funhouse through which Scaramanga pursues his victims is a too much ‘end of the pier entertainment’, and his underwhelming evil plot to auction off a solar energy device to the highest bidder is less world dictator and more ripoff energy salesman.

9 Tiago ‘Raoul Silva’ Rodriguez (Javier Bardem)

Skyfall (2012)

Many women have flirted with Bond in his career, but none with the same degree of outrageous camp as this former MI6 agent turned cyberterrorist.
We’re never entirely sure if Silva wants to kiss or kill 007, but the film certainly questions just how far Bond is prepared tot go to defend Queen and country.
Silva targets his former colleagues at MI6 in revenge against Bond’s boss, M, against whom he holds a homicidal grudge after a faulty cyanide capsule left him needing some botox and dental work.
Attacking Bond with a tube train demonstrates imaginative theatrical flair, and a logistical ability not normally associated with London transport.
However there’s a handful of henchmen rather than an army, and as his ruined city lair lacks luxurious comfort and a shark tank, it has to compensate with a decent internet connection.

8 Gustav Graves / Colonel Moon (Toby Stephens / Will Yun Lee)

Die Another Day (2002)

Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 sees him go head to head with millionaire entrepreneur Gustav Graves, an extreme sports enthusiast who’s also the alter ego of Colonel Moon, a North Korean military officer who‘s used gene therapy technology to change his appearance. However neither identity are terribly threatening.
His arctic gin and ice palace lair may lack a shark tank and underfloor heating, but it does have some nifty snowmobiles, a soft top car armed with a machine gun, and a deadly ice chandelier.
He also has a deadly henchwoman in Rosamund Pike’s aptly named Miranda Frost.
Diamond smuggling plays a part in Graves’ plot to allow North Korean troops to invade South Korea, and potentially trigger a third World War.
So at least Bond has something else to keep his hands full, when not tangling with Halle Berry’s high-diving CIA agent, Jinx.

7 Dr. Kananga / Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto)

Live and Let Die (1973)

Roger Moore’s first outing as Bond was very much down to earth compared to the out of this world thrills of Moonraker, and finds himself up against a Harlem gangster, whose grand scheme is to become the monopoly supplier of heroin in the US.
Yes it’s a serious problem but it’s not quite in the same world-saving league as Sean Connery’s movies or even Moore’s later ones.
However the villain’s lair does contain a shark tank, so bonus points for that, and the dastardly plot is backed up by Jane Seymour’s beautiful tarot card reader called Solitaire, a coffin of venomous snakes, a team of henchmen driving speedboats through the Louisiana swamp, and a pool of hungry crocodiles from which Bond must hotfoot it away.
Kotto’s formidably charismatic presence more than compensates for his characters earth-bound ambition, and the deadly prosthetic arm of his primary henchman, Tee Hee, is no laughing matter.

6 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean)

GoldenEye (1995)

In his first outing as Bond, Pierce Brosnan has to face a villain who’s not only 007’s equal, but also a former friend and fellow British spy, 006, he allows the film to ask the question, what if Bond were the bad guy?
Bean is terrific as the agent-turned-villain, swapping his native Yorkshire accent for something more upper class, and enjoys taunting 007 as he rockets around post-Communist Russia in a fabulous lair, a nuclear missile-carrying train, from where he plots the theft of the technology controlling a super-powerful satellite-based weapon.
Yes, there’s a conspicuous lack of an army of henchmen, however his formidable henchwoman Xenia Onatopp, is a breathtaking fighter pilot who kills her enemies with her thighs.
Sadly Trevelyan doesn’t want to rule the world or re-start civilisation, and though he’s not the last former spy wanting revenge on the British government, he is the first, which boots him up the list.

5 Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe)

Goldfinger (1964)

A villain so memorable he’s given the ultimate honour of being the first villain to put his name to a Bond film’s iconic theme song, performed by the awesome Shirley Bassey, with a thunderous take-no-prisoners conviction.
Goldfinger does take prisoners however, and enjoys tying them to a gurney and slicing them with a laser. But he doesn’t expect them to talk – or sing – while it’s happening.
German actor Fröbe plays the golf cheat bullion dealer with a carnivalesque energy, and as well as being assisted by a fleet of foxy female assassins led by Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, he has the bowler-hat throwing Oddjob, as a henchman.
However, despite having enough gold to drown his enemies in the stuff, Goldfinger has no real lair to speak of, and his lacklustre ambition to irradiate the US gold reserves is closer to a get rich scheme than world domination, making Goldfinger a silver medalist of villainy.

4 Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

A megalomaniac who prefers fish to people and is vaguely based on Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Stromberg lives in a luxurious space-age underwater lair called Atlantis.
A city-sized submersible, it comes complete with its own shark pool, to whom Stromberg despatches those underlings who fail him.
I miss the days when Bond villains kept sharks as pets.
However Stromberg’s other toys include a helicopter gunship, a fleet of mini-subs, and an enormous new supertanker big enough to swallow British and Soviet ballistic-missile submarines.
As well as the essential army of henchmen, he’s the first Bond villain to employ Jaws to do his dirty work.
Meanwhile his nefarious plan is to trigger a third World War and then recreate a new civilisation underwater. And that’s the kind of barking mad scheme that the villains which follow could take a few pointers from.

3 Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman)

Dr. No (1962)

A mad scientist possessing mechanical hands and a nuclear powered luxury secret lair on a Caribbean island, the very first Bond villain remains one of the best.
Urbane, sophisticated and with a taste for giant fishtanks in the dining room, Dr. No is a former treasurer of Chinese gangsters who after absconding with a stash of gold is now working for SPECTRE, and using a nuclear radio beam to destroy US missiles.
Dr, No insists his henchmen are equipped with cyanide-laced cigarettes so they can suicide if they’re caught, and arms them with a flame-throwing tank disguised as a dragon, as well as more standard weapons such as machine guns and err, tarantulas.
Believing criminal brains to be always superior, Dr. No offers Sean Connery’s 007 a job, before suffering one of the great dramatic Bond villain deaths, boiling in his own nuclear reactor.

2 Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale)

Moonraker (1979)

A bearded billionaire entrepreneur with dreams of colonising space seems far more relevant today than it did back in 1979, when this Bond baddie boldly went where no 007 villain had been before.
Roger Moore’s Bond is forced to blast off into orbit to prevent Drax from shooting a nerve agent at planet Earth, poisoning the atmosphere and killing off the human race.
And that’s only part one of the plan. After wards he‘s set to rebuild humanity in space with carefully selected humans, with many of his new ‘master race’ being highly attractive young women.
Helping Drax build this space nirvana is an army of laser rifle-toting astronauts, as well as was one of the greatest henchmen of the series, the metal-teethed giant mercenary assassin, Jaws.
However Drax’s dastardly plan is thwarted when Bond shoots him with a poisoned dart, after which Bond attempts re-entry with beautiful CIA agent, Dr Holly Goodhead.

1 Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence)

You Only Live Twice (1967)

Boasting an army of henchmen housed in a hi-tech volcanic mountain lair which includes a heliport and monorail plus a pool of deadly piranha fish, the first proper appearance of bald and facially scarred arch-enemy Blofeld, shows him in all his iconic white cat-stroking, and Chairman Mao-suited glory.
The ruthless head of terrorist organisation SPECTRE not only overshadows every following Bond villain, but set the bar for all the world conquering spy villains everywhere.
The Nottinghamshire-born Pleasance brings a wonderfully articulate malevolence to the role, which was written by kids author, Roald Dahl, who knew a thing or two about creating memorable baddies.
And Pleasance’s reward is to have been endlessly copied, spoofed and parodied, most notably by Mike Myers as Dr Evil, in his Austin Powers comedy spy franchise.
Blofeld is being paid by China to provoke nuclear war between the US and the USSR, and what’s his price to execute this evil plan? One hundred million dollars.

Mike Meyers as Dr Evil

Black Widow

As the titular Russian assassin of Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson is given a run for her money by her equally charismatic and talented co-star, Brit actress Florence Pugh.

In what’s intended as Johansson’s swan song in the role, the competitive pair banter to enjoyable effect in a dead pan manner through a stunt and CGI-filled globetrotting spy action thriller grounded by contemporary concerns.

Fans of the franchise will remember Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff died in 2019’s Avengers Endgame, so it’s no surprise this is set prior to that, and takes place just after the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.

There are parachutes, avalanches, facially scarred henchmen, a secret lair a Bond villain would be proud of, and a cadre of female assassins Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore would be happy to command. This is Marvel parking their tanks on franchise rival James Bond’s lawn, with all guns blazing while pulling wheelies and doughnuts.

Having been memorably dismissed by Judi Dench’s M as a misogynist dinosaur, 007’s next film No Time To Die features the first female 00 agent, a sign of progress from a franchise which celebrates its 60th birthday next year.

Pre-emptively spiking bond’s progressive guns, Marvel provide us with not one but four female agents, adding to Johansson and Pugh’s dynamic duo the former 007 co-star Olga Kurylenko, as well as cannily casting the Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz. Who happens to be the wife of current Bond, Daniel Craig. None of this is by accident or coincidence.

Brit actor O-T Fagbenle performs the role of ‘Q’ in providing the women with their vehicles, and in case you’re in any doubt where Marvel’s aim is, we’re even given a glimpse Roger Moore’s 007 film, Octopussy on a TV screen.
There are also nods to the Mission Impossible and Jason Bourne series, not least in the casting of one-time Bourne star, Weisz.

This assault on 007’s cinematic space is not only a further demonstration of how flexible and successful Marvel’s ongoing superhero franchise is in aping various genres, but also an example of how attack is the best form of defence.

By aggressively providing what is in essence a gender-flipped Bond film, Marvel deflects justified criticism it’s received by belatedly handing most high profile female Avenger a solo adventure long after Iron Man, Captain America and co. have had multiple films. Even Ant-Man has had two films to call his own.

However Marvel could now perhaps argue ‘we couldn’t make this movie until we’d ‘found’ a Florence Pugh’. i.e. someone who has the requisite star power and screen presence to casually outshine Johansson in her own film.

Having grabbed a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for outgunning Meryl Streep in 2019’s literary period drama Little Women, Pugh’s not the least intimidated by Johansson and is mostly in a playful mood as she steals the film with breathtaking insouciance.

And having chalked up Johansson and Streep as victims during her irresistible rise, it begs the question who else is prepared to be cannon fodder for Pugh’s career?

That said, Johansson is a generous co-star to Pugh, with the screen siblings sharing a squabbling repartee which at one point pointedly echoes that of Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a similar estranged couple rediscovering the meaning of family.

Speaking of the former Bond, Connery, you may mock some of the Russians accents in this film, in which case I suggest you check out Connery’s Russian accent in 1990’s submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, and judge whether such considerations are worth an iota of your time.

The possession of vials of mind control gas power the plot, a deliberate physical manifestation of the exploitation of women by manipulative, violent men, the key theme of the film.

In addressing the issues of the #MeToo movement, the film acknowledges and respects the victims who’ve suffered while emphasising healing and the recovery of independence and self worth, as well as offering a note of optimism.

That said, Australian director Cate Shortland puts confident entertainment at the forefront while spending enough time on character to give emotional weight to the action. If more than one set piece sequence reminds you of 1995’s Bond film Goldeneye, then all that proves is Shortland understands her brief as she brings it all nicely to a boil in a finale featuring a massive aerial assault.

This may sound a familiar ending to seasoned Marvel watchers, but far from being the unimaginative rehashing of a much used idea, it’s best understood as being in keeping with Marvel’s signature finale. It’s not as if Marvel are unaware they keep ending films in this manner.

Exciting, funny and full of in-jokes and references, Marvel fans will find plenty to enjoy, and for everyone else, well, you wait six years for one James Bond movie to arrive and now two are coming along at once.

4/5 stars