‘No Time To Die’ Must Rediscover Bond for the Franchise to Compete

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Bond (…James Bond) is back. After a production period more turbulent than 007’s relationship history, No Time To Die, the landmark 25th instalment in the famous franchise, should finally release in cinemas on the 30th September.

Since development began in 2016, hurdles have abounded. Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge were appointed, then axed soon after owing to ‘creative differences’, which was later revealed to be a disagreement over the script. Producers Broccoli and Wilson returned to the reigns to writing duo and long-time collaborators Purvis and Wade, in collaboration with current director Cary Fukunaga and Fleabag writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was instated (on Daniel Craig’s recommendation) to provide humour and polish to the script. Meanwhile, original composer Dan Romer also became the second victim of the artist’s bogeyman of ‘creative differences’, though there were not many complaints regarding his replacement – Hans Zimmer.

It’s safe to say that production had already suffered more than its fair share of setbacks but this, as it has transpired, was just the tip of the iceberg. The release date has since been delayed on five separate occasions (six in Australia) – we all know why, of course, but it has been an awfully long wait, especially when it feels as if the title was designed to mock the quarantined Bond fandom.

It is classic Ian Fleming-esque vaguery. The Bond producers take after him, approaching titles like the Royal family approach baby names – there’s only a small pool of words you can use, which is why No Time To Die sounds like the product of an online generator, spat out underneath ‘Dr. Balls’ and ‘Thunderpussy’. At least it’s better than Quantum of Solace.

But titles aren’t a big deal. They all sound appropriately melancholy or bombastic when sung by Billie Eilish or Adele, and their sense of melodrama takes after the series penchant for it. Besides, my mild concern for them is really born of the need for a nice segue into the real issue of this piece.

Bond has lasted as one of the biggest silver screen stars for nearly 60 years and counting. He is still a cultural phenomenon and a representative (perhaps stereotype) of Britain in the eyes of many foreign countries. Most franchises end, dry up or take long hiatuses before they can even think about matching 007’s longevity – in that sense, it stands alone in cinema.

But now, it feels like the franchise is at a genuine crossroads again and not just because its lead, Daniel Craig, is stepping down after nearly 16 years, an era that has seen the landscape of not only spy films, but the social world alter in dangerous ways for the franchise. A familiar question now stands – has both the character of Bond and his franchise changed accordingly?

The recent genesis of worthy, opposing franchises has brought around more than one critical consideration when pondering No Time To Die. For the unfamiliar, Craig’s Bond has slightly more canonical significance than any incarnation since Sean Connery’s. From Connery to Pierce Brosnan – a 40-year run – the Bond portrayed by those two and the three other actors in between is the same man with the same canonical experiences behind him, allowing for the suspension of disbelief. However, when Craig’s Bond arrives in Casino Royale, he begins the film without a license to kill – he’s not a double 0, indicating the synthesis of a fresh Bondian timeline.

This was, in some ways, a masterstroke, but in others, it has created a dilemma for the producers upon Craig’s departure. Brosnan’s Bond was, like Craig’s, initially resuscitative through the success of Goldeneye but he left the franchise on a bum note with Die Another Day, a tired regurgitation of the equally tired formula. Casino Royale’s freshness was critical, allowing the franchise to evolve beyond the stale tropes of the past, facilitating modernisation and providing a rare glimpse of the series at peak performance. It also crucially matched the standards set by a fierce new competitor, something it had never faced before. Jesus Christ, that’s Jason Bourne.

The Bourne trilogy ran from 2002 to 2007, clashing with the early Craig era. Bourne set the spy film world alight – it was like nothing it had seen before, providing a sleek blend of innovative, gritty action and carefully plotted character arcs. Character arcs were foreign to Bond, but the regeneration of the series through Craig allowed such an innovation to be seamlessly inserted.

The grit of Bourne chimed with Craig’s physical prowess and natural ruggedness, combine perfectly with Ian Fleming’s image of Bond as a ‘blunt instrument’. Furthermore, the pain and loss woven through the fabric of Bond’s life, rarely exposed throughout his previous characterisations, was finally capitalised on. Casino Royale’s superlativeness lies in its willingness to deconstruct its hero, scrapping the ego-boosting template of goal-orientated wish fulfilment. In Casino Royale, Bond loses but he learns. Finally, the foundational theory from which successful films grow had been (belatedly) applied.

Now that’s not to say there isn’t merit in the standard 007 adventure – that is the bedrock of his reputation. Its allure draws from the provision of pure cinematic escapism, gadgets and guns. The memorable villains, their extravagant lairs, the cars he journeyed in, and the one-liners he dispatched them with.

But can’t, no, shouldn’t Bond be something more? It’s all well and good watching the suave, unflappable protagonist run around the globe, assassinate a disfigured villain with an exploding pen and bed the girl in a lifeboat as the credits roll, but when you have a character that rich in trauma, a lonely orphan who loses everyone he’s ever loved, it feels remiss to leave those insecurities untouched.

Batman, a similarly wounded character, whose serious story had been compromised by a few too many jovial entries, was revived under the direction of Christopher Nolan, who grounded the character in reality and reopened his scars, exposing the absolute gold mine of potential that existed within. It’s no surprise that, alongside Bourne, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was a significant influence on Craig’s Bond under the direction of Sam Mendes. The Bond franchise must continue to treat its protagonist in the vein of the Gotham vigilante.

More recently, discussions of Bond’s character have instead centred on totally rewriting his ‘problematic’ aspects, rather than giving them a thoughtful MOT. Lashana Lynch’s introduction as the new 007 (taking over the codename after Bond’s Spectre retirement) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s work as the script’s doctor have produced discussions surrounding Bond’s modernisation. Slight adaptations per contemporary issues are necessary for his survival, but writers must be careful not to compromise his integral attributes.

A host of unsavoury qualities are central to his personality, but the notion of erasing those flaws to purify Bond would ultimately prove unpopular within the fandom. The idea that modern heroes must be fairy-tale paragons of virtue is so antithetical to the harsh reality of life that cinema seeks to make sense of. He is a killer after all. A ruthless, unfeeling killer. Moreover, a far more empowering solution has always been on the table – simply strengthen the female characters to the point where they aren’t pushovers or over-sexualised airheads, instead able to match Bond on a physical or intellectual level (see Vesper Lynd or Camille Montes).

In a narrative sense, No Time To Die is tasked with a salvage act for Craig’s legacy. His opening three films represent a solid trilogy, marred by Quantum of Solace’s failure but recovered by the unmitigated successes of Casino Royale and Skyfall where a planned direction clearly runs through their shared storyline. Like a magnified three-act structure, the era’s charted path skewed wildly off course with the failure of Spectre.

A directionless film, it reduced Bond’s considerable struggle and loss to mere plot convenience, hastily used to boost the eponymous organisation’s reputation for the audience. Bond’s journey under Craig is in the balance, risked to service a returning villain and his enterprise, both testaments to Spectre’s originality handicap.

The danger of this failure lies in the re-emergence of serious competition post-Bourne. Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible franchise has risen from its naïve adolescence into a genre juggernaut. Based on a foundation of crisp, clear filmmaking, and Cruise’s superhuman dedication to its success (evident in his literally death-defying stunts), with the addition of its potential longevity, its threat to Bond delivers in all the necessary facets. It is a franchise with vision and direction, opposed to Bond’s current identity crisis.

It remains to be seen whether No Time To Die will borrow from its new competitor as Casino Royale once did, but for Bond to truly extend its tenure as the godfather of espionage cinema, it must clarify its own principles. They exist fleetingly across the 24 films, but the series’ true potential is best realised when it delves into the well of its protagonist’s complexity and blends it with gritty, action.

If this article peaked your interest, Take2Cinema will be showing No Time To Die from the 12th to 15th November in Bowland Main Lecture Theatre. Doors open at 7:15 pm and tickets are £4.50, for ticket enquiries visit their Instagram @take2lancaster or their website http://take2.lancaster.co.uk

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