Frederik vs the Franchises: No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Die ... and Stay Dead

By several accounts from media sources wondering where the Bond machine will go following the decisive end to Craig’s run with No Time To Die, producers Barbara Broccoli and Martin G. Wilson are themselves unsure of what to do next. Which is funny, because they already had established a clear direction for Bond with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (a tonal shift already attempted with the Dalton-era films), than squandered it by devolving Bond to what made the franchise overall outdated and somewhat, at times entirely, ridiculous.

I appreciate that the Craig-era films presented a character arc for Bond, from origin to terminus, and readily acknowledge Casino Royale as one of the franchise’s best offerings. But I’m mystified at the critical (and popular) acclaim for a series with diminishing returns – B-grade films whose undeniably slick production values are paired with scripts ranging from mediocre to downright awful, despite occasional moments of surprising psychological nuance. For my money, the downward slide didn’t start with Quantum of Solace, a film I enjoyed irrespective of shortcomings I might agree with on a more critical rewatch. Like Casino Royale, QoS offered a grounded plot and a plausible mission with real-world parallets for Bond to undertake. Skyfall, or Downfall as I tend to think of it, marked the return to everything annoying about the franchise, starting with indestructible superhero Bond against flamboyant and implausibly omniscient supervillainy. Sure, the film gave us more a more fleshed out Bond biography than we’ve typically been given, but that doesn’t excuse the regression. If Craig’s Bond was getting too “woke” for some fans, Skyfall addressed the concern by killing off Judi Dench’s M to replace her with white guy Ralph Fiennes and putting field agent Miss Moneypenny on administrative duty behind a desk, which is right where we started when Connery inhabited the role. Craig’s Bond was not a superhero in a key aspect, however; while he does kill the villain, Javier Bardem’s Silva, he fails in arguably his more important task of saving M’s life. Killing off M isn’t the problem, but rather the timing – how much more interesting if this was the start of a mission, not the expression of a Pyrrhic victory?

Spectre was less enthusiastically received, garnering a 63% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes compared to Skyfall’s 92%. In my case, it was barely received at all. I know that I watched it, but don’t remember anything about it other than how annoyingly miscast Christoph Waltz was as Blofeld and how irritated I was that the classic villain was reinvented with a personal connection to Bond. Establishing a trend from Skyfall, it was no longer enough to send Bond on secret missions in the UK’s foreign policy and security interests, or at least to save the world from megalomaniacs. It had to be personal. At any rate, it’s from this great “meh” that the series concludes with one of the worst Bond films in the entire franchise in my view, No Time to Die. We could dwell on any number of failings ­– Rami Malek’s bafflingly incoherent villain, Blofeld’s annoying return that overdraws, and then overdraws some more, on Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, the disappointing underuse of the kick-ass women characters played by Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch, or the sci-fi bent that by all rights should flag the film as borderline camp the way an invisible car did for Die Another Day.

But great googly-moogly, the film’s cardinal sin is worse than Spectre’s lack of memorability: No Time to Die is memorably boring. My mind was ready to check out at the first action set piece, an uninspired vehicular chase that ends with Bond in his Aston Martin, surrounded on all sides, who predictably escapes by pushing a few buttons to go-go-gadget the car’s weapons and shoot his way out. The subsequent chases make O.J. Simpson’s famous run from the law seem like an outtake from The Fast & The Furious by comparison, but it’s that early scene in the film that detached me from the film and emphasized how contrived the whole affair had become. By the end, taking stock of Craig’s run on Bond, the realization is that the series successfully re-characterized Bond as irredeemingly tragic, a blunt instrument who is marginally successful at saving the world from bloated plots but whose personal life, and personality, is defined by failure. Craig’s Bond is perpetually stuck in the past – after all these years, Vesper still holds her hand on his heart no matter how decompose – and emotionally incapable of resisting manipulation. This point is emphasized when he confronts Blofeld, who effortlessly plays him like the stringed instrument he is. The conversation doesn’t end with Bond achieving a moral victory over his mortal enemy, but with Blofeld unwittingly killed by bad science fiction before anything dramatically satisfying can happen.

Surely Bond’s death is meaningful, though? A poignant moment punctuating the distinctly deep pathos infusing the Craig-era films? I’ll agree that killing off Bond was a bold choice. But I see it less as an act of heroism than an act of suicide for a broken character, a narrative outcome that owes more to the will of the produces than to inexorable narrative logic. The film’s invisible car – I mean, killer nanotechnology – functions not out of science but out of screenwriting contrivance, which makes No Time To Die’s entire ending feel manipulative. Q could just as easily have devised a cure than not; that he doesn’t is purely a creative decision. My last thought on this is a question: I wonder if killing off Bond really was the boldest choice the screenwriters could have made. Given the surprise revelation that Bond has a daughter, wouldn’t it be more subversive to have one of cinema’s original macho international men of mystery retire – for real, this time – as a family man?

Frankly, I don’t much care what happens next with the Bond franchise. Perhaps if someone really cared about my opinion I’d suggest returning to a 60s setting, ditching the bad sci fi, putting Bond in moral jeopardy within the tension of his imperialist masters’ agendas, and adopting a skeptical perspective regarding the real-world consequences of plausible missions. But the Craig-era films aren’t the first time Bond producers had the opportunity to pursue a new direction only to reverse course. The previous time was with the Dalton-era films, criticized at the time for the more serious portrayal of a Bond shorn of the excess womanizing tendencies and overall flippancy. With gritter, more realistic plots involving cold war rivalries, arms dealing, drug cartels, and the like, Dalton’s films were a clear course-correction from the excesses of the Roger Moore-era. The new direction didn’t take, of course, and while Goldeneye (one of the franchise’s best) ushered in the Pierce Brosnan era with some restraint, the subsequent films became increasingly fanciful until producers pushed the reset button with Craig.

My indifference to Bond’s future stems largely from an indifference, or least a strong ambivalence, about its past, beginning with the portrayals by various actors. Obviously, I’m not convinced by Craig’s morose, tortured, tragic, unglamourous Bond, however well he plays the part. Although I prefer him as the Saint, Roger Moore is a most charming gentleman and his films have a certain appeal, however close they come to self-parody, precisely because he is so likable. (It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that his last turn as Bond in A View to Kill exploited his charm and his era’s overall light touch to sanitize appalling violence that, in the hands of a director today, would equal the savagery of any hard-R horror film.) Connery and his films benefit from being first, and thus the standard by which later films are measured against. But I was never quite enamored by Connery’s brute in a suit as many fans are, and the misogyny and uncritical imperialism mark his era of films as dated and objectionable products of their time that tarnish the luster of even otherwise entertaining films like Goldfinger. I have nothing to say about Lazenby, which in itself is saying something. Of all the actors playing Bond, Pierce Brosnan’s is the only one that, to my mind, checks all the boxes if the marks you’re looking for include a heroic character (i.e. a character who unequivocally defeats the bad guys) with charm, style, and a twinkle in his eye as well as an undercurrent of pathos more than hinting at the personal toll Bond’s work exacts. How many drinks, indeed, does it take to silence the screams of all the men, and women, he’s killed? That said, my favorite Bond, insofar as I find it meaningful to have a favorite, is Timothy Dalton. His portrayal of Bond, particularly in the context of plots just as grounded as Casino Royale’s, strikes me as the most credible.

Despite all that, I’m generally of the same mind as Esquire’s Stephen Marche, although perhaps a bit more willing than he is to find some entertainment value in the films here and there. The films strike me as B-movies – entertaining to varying degrees but ultimately not exceptional. Going forward, it’s unclear how Bond can continue to make a case for relevance when so many other franchises  - Mission: Impossible, the Bourne films, the Fast & the Furious – offer better action stories, better action, and characters who don’t need constant renovation to be relevant to modern audiences. But the situation is a bit more grim than that: even looking back to the Connery-era’s contemporaries, we can find superior espionage fare. Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer films, based on the books by Len Deighton, for example. Or, in television, Danger Man / Secret Agent, whose character played by Patrick McGoohan, John Drake, is by far the superior spy in a series notable for its realistically, often morally compromised stories. Not only is Drake more resourceful and intelligent than Bond, he too can hold his own in a fight – and is notable for shunning the use of weapons unless absolutely necessary. Beyond that, do I need to mention Le Carré?

Perhaps the best course of action is to let Bond die in peace, assured of his place as a pop-culture icon for better or worse. But if he does return as the credits promise at the end of No Time To Die, it’s not me who’ll break open the gin for a celebratory martini.