Too many words have been spent on articles explaining that James Bond owes his longevity to a kind of blank-slate cross-gender appeal. He isn’t a three-dimensional human so much as a conduit. Men (and women!) want to be James Bond. Others want to watch someone look that good in a tuxedo or blue terrycloth jumper. In terms of the character’s psychological depth, we’d spent as much time ordering martinis at McDonalds as we did considering if James Bond had a Rosebud. No Time to Die, like its predecessor, provides the viewer with Ikea instructions and an Allen wrench in hopes you’ll piece together a Rosebud on your own.
A grizzled Daniel Craig recalls his aborted childhood, sledding down hills and frolicking in deep focus.
So, Who is James Bond Then?
He’s quick with a pun, drinks to excess (without visible inebriation), woos women with a raised eyebrow/steely glare/Cro-Magnon sex appeal, and dutifully serves Queen and country. He’s worn many different faces and demeanors, but his superficial characteristics and the series’ consistent stylistic choices have bridged gaps between actors and filmmaking eras. And every so often, Bond experiences or lingers on personal trauma.
Bond falls in love, gets married, and his wife, Tracy Bond (née di Vinenzo), dies in under 140 minutes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Bond visits Tracy’s grave in For Your Eyes Only (1981). If you’re feeling generous, you could even count the subtle overtures made about marriage in Licence to Kill (1989) and The World is Not Enough (1999). Bond never felt the burden of connectivity – even when it might have benefitted the storyline. For worse – but mostly better. Mistakes get swept under the rug or dropped down smokestacks, like terrible villains.
The extendtof Bond’s character development during the Moore years in one image. Moments later we’re dropping Blofeld down a smokestack before the title sequence rolls. Craig took almost six hours to do these very same things.
In most every movie, Bond received a mission, carried out that mission, and got the girl. Our interests lied not in whether he’d do all those things, but how. We went to the cinemas for pure escapism, unburdened by emotional baggage. We loved that structure. We loved how the Bond series played with routine.
Skyfall Suggested We Cared More About Subversion
During the Craig era, EON decided that we’d had enough fun and frolic and instead needed steamer trunks filled with ennui and disillusionment. No Time to Die perpetuates the same issues that plagued Spectre in 2015, which makes this whole conversation feel like a bad case of déjà vu. No Time to Die wants to be fun, but this character called “James Bond” can let go of his shiny new 21st-century past.
The epitaph reads: “Fun in Bond Movies / 1962-2012”
From the earliest scenes, a sense of mortality hangs around the picture’s neck like a noose. Bond takes Madeline on an Italian holiday as Hans Zimmer reimagines On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s “All the Time in the World” – and Bond even shoehorns Lazenby’s famous final line into their idle drive-time conversation. Madeline encourages Bond to visit Vesper Lynd’s grave (shades of Bond visiting Tracy’s grave in FYEO). She wants him to put Vesper in the past so they can move forward.
No Time to Die Takes Plenty of Time to Mourn, Though
No Time to Die grounds itself in these opening moments as a spiritual descendant of OHMSS, a movie that ended with a moment of tragedy after two hours of fun adventures like skiing, curling, bobsledding, and safecracking while reading Playboy. No Time to Die wallows in moodiness for most of its 163 minutes. And that’s a problem Cary Joji Fukunaga and his screenwriting committee (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge) can’t overcome with the relief of a few clever action sequences and quippy asides. They’ve worked a bad pun or two into this script, but they’re obligatory appeasements. I laughed because I was desperate for levity.
Oh look — a scarred villain with a backstory conveniently tied into everyone’s business.
Around the scant humor, we’re besieged by speechifying like “James Bond. License to Kill. History of violence. I could be speaking to my own reflection. Only your skills die with your body. Mine will survive long after I’m gone.” James, Madeline, Safin, M, and even Blofeld take turns grabbing the spotlight to perform an off-Broadway performance of Death of a Salesman. Top it off with the usual Craig-era oratories from the top down about an ephemeral, amorphous, non-descript evil that can’t be hunted and killed like those olden days of espionage when you could look your adversary in the eye.
Except, inevitably, Bond does indeed meet the vaporous villain face to face and dispatches him. Just like the olden days. So let’s stop wasting time telling me about inescapable evil and instead work on actually establishing the evil.
So Aren’t We Still Playing the Game in No Time to Die?
Maybe. If we found time for pleasantries like golf, baccarat, idle drinking and just being James Bond. Bond was never found in action beats. The script delivers dozens of referential nods towards the past without delivering much of the stuff that defined the character in the first place.
I noted Dr. No, Thunderball, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service imagery (among others) in the title sequence. The portrait for a pre-Craigers M, Robert Brown, conspicuously hangs on an MI-6 gallery wall. The use of “We Have all the Time in the World” in music and dialogue. An almost obligatory, eleventh-hour Q-branch gadget. Bond kicking the car down on Billy Magnussen’s double agent echoed Moore’s famous cold-blooded kill of Locque in For Your Eyes Only. A litany of book references for the hardcore Fleming-heads. The multi-movie connections and broad, villainous arcs, meanwhile, take their cues from the sprawling “everything is connected” branding of the Marvel universe.
Daniel Craig in Maze Runner, I mean No Time to Die.
No Time to Die dispenses with any attention to international spycraft, once again turning inward on Bond and his personal connections and misery. This makes for a competent Hollywood-crafted action serial, but a lackluster Bond film. Skyfall and No Time to Die suffer from these same afflictions. The latter’s worse off, however, because it’s saddled with the tentacles of Spectre’s facile cliffhangers.
But the Stories
At the end of No Time to Die, Madeline tells her daughter “I’m going to tell you a story about a man. His name was Bond. James Bond,” which is supposed to tug our heartstrings and put the “Bond. James Bond” introduction in the mouth of the (other) woman who loved him. This falls short of its intended emotional resonance.
This James Bond doesn’t really have stories. This James Bond retires more times than he’s reluctantly saved the world. He’s irresponsibly chased personal vendettas to the detriment of those around him and his country’s security. Courtesy of the multi-movie narrative arc – whereby QUANTUM was the little fish eaten by SPECTRE, and SPECTRE was the bigger fish eaten by some arb with a plant fetish. No Time to Die has, to recycle my old argument against SPECTRE, neutered the series’ Big Bad.
Your new informant awaits, Clarice.
If we are to give Spectre even an unwarranted ounce of credit for establishing SPECTRE as a nefarious international criminal organization bent on world domination or some such megalomania, No Time to Die erases it. The Bond producers forced SPECTRE and Blofeld into Spectre, assuming the audience’s nostalgia would fill in the part about the organization being James Bond’s long-time nemesis without establishment. One movie later, Safin cleans house. No more Blofeld. No more SPECTRE. These aren’t supervillains—they’re merely roadkill that Bond further flattens with his Aston Martin on his way to retire again.
Overwrought super-seriousness aside, Cary Joji Fukunaga displays a good sense of how a Bond movie should look and feel. Tonal and scriptural issues aside, No Time to Die is a glossy, competent action film. If it didn’t have to deal with Spectre’s matzoh balls, it might have even been a great Bond movie.
Cue the Bond theme and make this walk really sizzle.
Who Stopped No Time To Die Short?
No Time to Die’s shortcomings rest on the shoulders of the producers. The Bond team takes its cues from the top down. The burden lies with the creative decision makers who did not bring David Arnold back, who gave Sam Mendes two movies, who continued to employ Purvis and Wade as primary screenwriters despite the labored repetition of the rogue, retire, repeat cycle of the Craig era.
Hans Zimmer’s mediocre score, like the Newman scores for Skyfall and Spectre, once again resists (recoils against?) the use of the Bond theme in high-leverage sequences. Instead, Zimmer reserves the needle drop for Bond walking across the street into MI-6. I love idle-time swagger, but that can’t be your singular “James Bond” moment. Elsewhere, the score teases with Johnny-Marr-forward guitar, before abandoning the building momentum.
Martinis, Ana de Armas, competing MI6 and CIA operatives, remote-control eyeballs, and Zimmer doing David Arnold — the Cuba scenes in No Time to Die suggested the kind of movie we could have had.
When Zimmer embraces the Barry and Arnold traditions, the score rises from its slumber. The “Cuba Chase,” for example, which scores arguably the best individual scene in any of the Craig-era Bond films, contrasts Cuban strings and horns with heavy, brooding brass, perfectly setting the mood for the action on screen. No scene better represents the potential of a No Time to Die unburdened by the past. This was old Bond in a new era, a deliriously enjoyable blend of humor and action, propelled by new talent (Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch) and mixed with Bond being Bond. 007 stumbles into a situation for which he wasn’t fully prepared and survives with a little luck, a little moxie, and a little help from his friends.
If the rest of No Time To Die had been half as concerned with creating this kind of energy and forward momentum, I’d have been more forgiving about its individual shortcomings. Instead, we’re left to wrestle with the internal conflict created by an overlong, semi-entertaining film that chose to conclude the Craig-era by nuking it all from orbit.
And after Spectre and No Time to Die, I’d be lying if I didn’t wholehearted support it. Ironically, it might be the only way to be sure that the real James Bond will actually return.
Back on December 12th, 2012, I live tweeted DR. NO and wrote a little essay about it. Two people joined me for that live tweet in support of that ongoing essay series I’d planned to write for a literary magazine. I backed into the gig because I was off running my mouth about James Bond and SKYFALL on the Twatter. Apparently, I had opinions that a few people wanted to hear. I’m certain everyone that encouraged me to start the process of writing about James Bond movies has long wished I would just shut. up. already. I’m not sure any of them are even still on Twitter. They may have no idea what kind of damage they’ve done. They certainly never wished for 24 Bond title credit sequenced remixed with Huey Lewis and the News.
When #Bond_age_ turned 1, we were neck deep in “The Wraparound” — our second live tweet through the series. The initial run had become so popular that they folks that joined midstream wanted to catch up on all the ones they’d missed. For the first #Bond_age_versary we live tweeted TOMORROW NEVER DIES. Many of the #Bond_age_ fans that joined that live tweet are still — against all odds — hanging around! They’ve become dear friends and I can’t imagine these many years without their distinct voices in my TL. I’ve even come to know many of them personally. You’re all the best. Honestly.
#Bond_age_ has sometimes become a kind of ball and chain. Life has gotten busier. My girls have gotten older (they’re 11 and 8 now!) and those once luxurious 9pm live tweet start times have become more and more difficult to make with regularity. It’s on these occasions of the #Bond_age_versary that I take a breath, look back, and appreciate how the hundreds (thousands?) of hours I’ve put into this project have fostered irreplaceable friendships that’ll last even beyond The James Bond Social Media Project. However long that may be.
We don’t draw the same kind of raw numbers to our live tweets anymore. We’ve gotten weird and made James Bond less of a focus, but that had to happen to preserve sanity and our love for James Bond. Once upon a time, however, the #Bond_age_ hashtag made the U.S. trending topics right alongside American Idol. I still think something went haywire with the Twitterverse that night, but here’s the proof… from way back when… on our Goldeneye Wraparound Live Tweet, the week before the first #Bond_age_versary.
My takeaways: At this point, the @007hertzrumble account was still my secondary, live-tweet only soapbox with 365 followers? I still hadn’t followed @MoviesSilently? What were Joel and Jessica talking about? And whatever happened to Trevor Jost?
But I digress. Back to #Bond_age_versary 8.
My final trip down the lane of memory comes with another visual aid. My very first #Bond_age_versary montage reflected the then current breadth of our live tweet universe. Only the Bonds showed up to the party.
As we’ve expanded our live tweets and added mascots and favorite memes to our roster, the #Bond_age_versary montage has exploded. Just last week I updated this file for #Bond_age_versary 8. If you can name everyone in this new montage, you deserve something. I don’t know what, but something real nice.
But enough about all of that. Join us on Wednesday, December 9th at 9pm ET for another live tweet of GOLDENEYE (1995). We bumped its proper 25th anniversary event back in November to celebrate our month of Sean Connery and I figured there was no better movie to celebrate 8 years of #Bond_age_ than the one that caused us to beat American Idol like a washed up, one-eyed, bow-legged henchman with plantar fasciitis.
This past week I moonlighted on Beth Accomando’s CINEMA JUNKIE podcast to discuss Not James Bond spy movies that serve as necessary escapism during our current moment of Quarantine Life. I show up and prattle on about some of my favorite spy movies and Beth does a masterful job of putting together the juicy bits of my ramblings into a coherent 45-minute segment with loads of wonderful clips.
On this episode I’ll champion everything from Top Secret! to Special Mission Lady Chaplin because I will never fail to bring up Ken Clark’s finest 90 minutes.
Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond
by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross
Having retold the oral history of Star Trek in The Fifty-Year Mission, authors Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross set their crosshairs on another target — the 58-year legacy of James Bond in Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond. Bond fans devour 007 minutiae more greedily than the Cookie Monster devours that first box of Samoas after a cold Girl Scout-cookieless winter. The James Bond mythology takes on a life of its own, sometimes blending wish fulfillment and fantasy into the simple facts of the series’ production. Outlandish stories are often disproven, but in the James Bond universe some of those tall tales turn out to be true.
In Nobody Does It Better, Altman and Gross haven’t exactly provided an ideal reference for fact-checking (though I’ve earmarked a few dozen pages that clarify or disprove a few widely-held notions), but they’ve gifted us this immersive, eminently readable collection of stories, musings and first-hand production accounts from the men and women that made it all happen. Contemporary critics, filmmakers and James Bond obsessives also populate a portion of these 716 pages. While they offer a utilitarian, sometimes apologetic 21st century perspective. I’ll always allow airtime to James Chapman —whose Licence to Thrill is one of my go-to Bond texts — and Phil Noble, but some of the other contributors felt superfluous. Not unwelcome, necessarily, just less meaty. As someone who trades in these didactic retrospectives in the Twatterverse, I was far more interested in the stories told by the talent that turned Ian Fleming’s unlikable literary scoundrel into the world’s most famous agent of espionage.
Terence Tells All
As a well-read consumer of the Bond histories, I relished the uncensored dishing captured in these excerpts. Director Terence Young (the Noël Coward of the Bond universe?) offered a wellspring of unfiltered conversation about Dr. No and From Russia with Love in particular. Take for example this passage where he praises and eviscerates producer Harry Saltzman in the same breath:
That pre-credit sequence in From Russia with Love was a very good sequence. It was Harry Saltzman’s idea; he wanted to set the killing of James Bond in that training school. We had a lot of arguments about it, and eventually they were all in America and I shot it in the back lot at Pinewood… Harry had some very good ideas, I must say. Also, he had some of the worst ideas I’ve ever seen. If you’ve sense, you discard the bad ones, and if you’re intelligent, you keep the good ones. But he was a terrific idea merchant. That was definitely one of his best.
Young also provided subtle (but not necessarily modest) insights into his filmmaking process and the limitations placed upon the Bond production in the early 1960’s.
The only reason I used to get away with a lot of what I did was because I always used to try and make a laugh at the end of a violent scene. That was one of the traditions I set up, that you could be as violent as you like, provided at the end there was something like when he kills Grant on the train… Bond leans across and says, “I don’t think you’ll be needing this… old man,” and he takes it. It got a laugh and it took care of the censor. The censor let it through on that strength. He’d be saying, “Oh, no; oh, no!” I was there when they were running it… He giggled and he laughed and he let us get away with it.
The Blofeld’s in the Details
The authors also devote a number of pages to ephemera that might sit beyond the scope of an average Bond viewer such as the 1954 CBS Climax Mystery Theater episode of Casino Royale starring Barry Nelson, the Kevin McClory legal saga over Fleming’s Thunderball and the on-again-off-again rights to SPECTRE, the 1967 Casino Royale spoof, McClory’s production of Never Say Never Again (1983), and the MGM sale that stalled production between Licence to Kill (1989) and GoldenEye (1995). Sections like these are likely to be devoured with equal relish alongside the juicier concrete production tidbits.
If the book can be faulted for under-representing any particular area of the James Bond production machine, it’s the undocumented production time between filming the movies themselves. For example, script development and actor selection sneak into the stories in fits and spurts but rarely receive individual focus. The media circus surrounding Daniel Craig’s selection prior to Casino Royale (2006) gets a passing mention. Granted, much of this process took place behind closed doors and occurred before the 24/7 media blitz so catty quotations like Terence Young’s might not have been exactly forthcoming — or they deemed this information to be wallpaper, useful but entirely unnecessary in holding up the foundation of the franchise.
Nobody Does It Better Final Thoughts
This exhaustive and carefully curated text gives the creative (and often unsung) heroes and heroines behind James Bond a voice in their definitive story. Nobody Does It Better pulls back the curtain on the history of EON Productions and serves as a welcome reminder that nothing about Ian Fleming’s creation was pre-ordained. Talent, persistence and a lot of luck made James Bond. The authors’ adoration for the material transmits through the width and breadth of this Ken Burns-like document to the greatest film franchise of all time.
Sample each section of Nobody Does It Better in conjunction with your latest James Bond rewatch or sit down with a martini (or six) and absorb everything all at once. Casual fans might be put off by the size of the book itself, but they’d be missing an in-depth snapshot of the movie business that’s far more than just 007 fan service. Bond fans will definitely want to make (significant) room on their shelf for Nobody Does It Better.