This new James Bond movie, it turns out, all goes back to Vesper Lynd. In the middle of Bond’s idyllic vacation in the Italian countryside alongside a beautiful woman (Madeleine, played by Léa Seydoux), there comes a moment when Bond absolutely must drop everything and moon over the grave of a past conquest. For “closure” or some such. At least, I assumed she was a conquest, and why shouldn’t I? Women are so interchangeable in the Bond universe that there’s an acknowledged genre of character called “Bond Girl,” played by a new actress in every movie. He beds them and then moves on, this is canon.
Yet here he was, having a moment of solitary moroseness in front of a grave. For me this is one of the fundamental, irreconcilable contradictions of the Daniel Craig-era James Bond: that Bond can still be that old lady-shagging dog we all know and love from the 60s, with a new femme fatale girlfriend in every film, but also, somehow, a guy who can’t properly love a new girlfriend until he achieves closure by staring maudlinly at an old flame’s gravestone. Where Bond’s ladies used to have names like “Xenia Onnatop” and “Pussy Galore,” puns that probably need no explanation, his latest flame is named “Madeleine.” Considering No Time To Die is a riff on childhood memories, I’m forced to assume that the name is a reference to Proust’s madeleine, the simple cookie that spawns seven volumes of the early 20th century novelist’s heartfelt remembrances (This Summer… James Bond… In… IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME).
Of course, at the time of my No Time To Die viewing, I had only the vaguest notions of Vesper Lynd and who she was. When I looked it up later, I discovered that Vesper Lynd was Eva Green’s character, who died at the end of Casino Royale, released in 2006. Was I really expected to possess this kind of encyclopedic recall of a character I saw in a movie 15 years ago? This is mostly what the Craig-era Bond has had to offer, continuity at the expense of consistency.
Wikipedia tells us that in the novel in which Lynd first appeared, Casino Royale, from 1953, “Bond deals with his grief over [Lynd’s] death by renouncing her as a traitor and going back to work as though nothing has happened, coldly telling his superiors, ‘The job is done, and the bitch is dead.’”
Seems a bit harsh! I can understand why the modern incarnation of Bond would try to soften that kind of sentiment. Yet I sort of understand Bond’s flippancy as a character choice. Bond was a guy who traveled the world risking his life and killing people; it would make sense that he’d be able to compartmentalize attachments. For most of the Daniel Craig era, we’ve been asked to see Bond as both ruthless and sentimental, as promiscuous as ever but also moony and lovelorn like an emo teenager. Who is this guy?
Casino Royale was my favorite movie of the Daniel Craig era, probably because it was the most successful at offering a consistent answer to the basic question: who is James Bond? Our general conception of the James Bond character, broadly, is that he’s one of the last artifacts of a long-dead mod culture; a suave, sexually cool super spy perfectly suited to the days when perusing a Playboy article on the latest hi-fi systems while puffing on a pipe was considered the height of Cold War-era sophistication.
At the dawn of the Daniel Craig era, in Casino Royale, the first true post 9/11 Bond (Die Another Day came out in 2002, starring Pierce Brosnan, who’d been playing Bond since 1995), Bond was no longer a debonair fancy boy; he was brash, streety, impulsive, intense — maybe even a little psychotic. When a bartender first asks this Bond whether he’d like his vodka martini shaken or stirred, Bond responds “Do I look like I give a damn?”
It was a choice, and it worked. It was even true to the character, in a way. If “cool” in 1953 was having a signature vodka martini drink, cool in 2006 looked something like not being so damned finicky about it. Above all, there was a consistency to Bond. He was an intense guy, which seemed to fit with the idea of him being a death-defying, murderous superspy and our ideas about what that might look like. Fittingly, they’d chosen Daniel Craig to play Bond, an actor whose main quality is a kind of pugnacious intensity, the version of Bond who looks least like a fashion model, and for whom the idea of a “wry smirk” (that quintessential Bond reaction) is almost unimaginable.
15 years later, Bond’s character, and Bond movies as a whole, have become mostly a repository of all the other blockbuster brands the James Bond franchise attempted to copy along the way. First Bourne, then Marvel, and now Mission Impossible. We no longer have sex puns and cheap titillation but synergy and lore, natsec jargon and product placement. In an attempt to become everything to everyone while remaining himself, Bond has become an impossible contradiction of things. Moody, moony, intense, obsessive, faithful, and cold. Romantic, yet capable of changing emotions on a dime. Even from an aesthetic standpoint, he’s confused. Daniel Craig now resembles an albino Doberman in human form, somehow combining an ex-boxer’s furrows and jug-ish ears with an Instagram model’s hairless bare torso, all topped by a haircut borrowed from a middle school vice-principal. His mouth area has stiffened into a sort of rigor mortis Blue Steel, evoking… perhaps the confusion of being asked to be a twink and a daddy simultaneously? This Bond could use a Patrick Bateman morning routine montage just to explain himself.
It helps that Casino Royale was perhaps the last Bond movie whose plot I could explain semi-coherently (I think Quantum of Solace had something to do with stealing water?). In No Time To Die, Bond has yet again borrowed the fractal plotting and breathless national security statisms of the Bourne and Mission Impossible universes. When I first logged in to buy my ticket and saw that the run time was two hours and 43 minutes, I groaned audibly. This was a franchise that used to have the intellectual heft of a Mad Magazine cartoon, a sort of mash-up of action movies and softcore porn. Not that it still needs to be that, but it should be something, recognizably its own.
I bought a 32-ounce soda in the hopes that it would give me the fuel to remain alert during the necessary plot set up scenes, when we watch the actors attempt to outline the alphabet soup of government agencies, terror groups, rogue agents, and doomsday weapons that underpin the plot this time around. I managed to make it through the scenes in which Madeleine has her family killed by a bad guy with a scarred face played by Rami Malek, and the ensuing ruined vacation with James Bond. During which Bond almost gets blown up by a bomb planted in Vesper’s mausoleum by Spectre. He assumes Madeleine set him up and coldly puts her on a train to somewhere else, vowing that this will be a forever breakup.
Yet at some point during the next interlude, during which Bond travels to Cuba with his 007 replacement, played by Lashana Lynch, and a sexy rookie operative played by Ana De Armas, to crash a party, I still ended up dozing off for a few minutes. Such is the sedative power of these jargony, shoot-and-scowl Bourne plots: five soft drinks worth of caffeine was no match. How long can we realistically be invested in Bond shooting henchman with a submachine gun? And anyway, we all know that eventually Bond is going to have to go scowl-to-scowl with Rami Malek — we’re not so different you and I — and win back his poisoned Madeleine, Leila Skidoo.
No Time To Die was openly marketed as the final chapter of the Daniel Craig era, and it was only in the last act when Bond, finally freed from the burden of endless continuity, finally came into his own as a recognizable character. In the end, he wasn’t cool or detached or louche or homicidal, but something of a hopeless romantic. No Time To Die belatedly reveals that what we were watching wasn’t an action thriller or a kooky spy caper at all, but a melodrama, a kind of massive budget telenovela about an incorrigible heartbreaker finally allowing himself to be vulnerable and find true love.
These are the kinds of revelations that the demands of endless franchises normally preclude. And so the scattered, sorta emo Daniel Craig era ends, fittingly, not with cigarette boat ride into the sunset or the clink of martini glasses, but with crocodile tears.