Friday, October 15, 2021

“No Time to Die”: James Bond Shaken and Stirred

James Bond has taught me a valuable life lesson. Back when my generation was discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (President Kennedy was a fan!), a guy I was dating lent me a paperback copy of Casino Royale. I dutifully started reading it, but wasn’t all that enthralled. Restlessly, I scanned the back cover, which proclaimed, in breathless prose, that the novel was full of exciting moments . . .  like Bond romancing a beautiful lady spy. I was puzzled. Though almost through the novel, I’d only seen Bond get horizontal with a nice, wholesome young woman, so where was this female spy? Uh oh! I’d just ruined the novel’s major plot twist. Lesson learned: from that time onward, I’ve never glanced at the promotional copy on a novel’s back cover before diving into the book.

 When it comes to Bond movies, I’m hardly the ultimate fan. I enjoyed several early ones; it’s hard not to fall under the spell of the suave, witty Sean Connery. But the various villains with their weird fetishes and bizarre hideaways were too outrageous to be taken seriously. I’m not much on sexy sports cars, nor am I the right gender to fully appreciate the gaggle of Bond Babes, always so intent on shedding their clothing at the slightest provocation. In the post-Connery years, I didn’t watch a single Bond movie, until Daniel Craig came along.

  Even more than Sean Connery, Craig is an ambitious actor, active on stage and screen. Looking at his credits, I’ve discovered how often I’ve seen him in a wide range of parts: as an Irish mobster in The Road to Perdition, as English poet Ted Hughes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath, as a Swedish journalist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and as a South African who’s part of a Mossad assassination plot in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. He seems to have a fondness for accents, and I suspect he relished every honeysuckle syllable when playing New Orleans detective Benoit Blanc in Knives Out.

 Craig reportedly had a great deal of input into his five appearances as Hollywood’s most recent James Bond. Not for him the insouciance of Connery. His Bond is less cocky than mournful, keenly aware of all that has been lost (friends, lovers) on his watch. The script of No Time to Die turns out to be a canny remembrance of things past, at the same time that it pushes his personal story forward.

 Though the film certainly contains beautiful and accomplished women, they do not emerge dripping wet out of the ocean, as a bikini-clad Ursula Andress so memorably does in 1962’s Dr. No. In a cheeky reversal, it’s Bond himself we first see rising from the water, and his still buff physique cannot detract from a smidgen of middle-aged flab. (Craig is now 53.)  In A Time to Die, the closest we get to a Bond Girl is the scintillating Ana de Armas, who last appeared with Craig as the good-hearted nurse at the center of Knives Out. Here, she’s a kick-ass assassin in a barely-there black evening gown, the movie’s joyful nod to the Bond movies of old. But the sexual side of Bond is most engaged in a poignant, even somber, interaction with Léa Seydoux, returning from an earlier Craig/Bond film, Spectre..  

 As the latest Bond villain, Rami Malek too is mournful rather than exuberant. I like director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s addition of Japanese Nōh touches, which suit the austere mood. And the scenery is so gorgeous (particularly an Italian hill town) that I’m almost ready to board an airplane.