No Time to Die

Any of you who have visited this site in the past probably have a pretty good idea of how I feel about the James Bond Franchise. If you are new let me summarize, 007 is my favorite fictional character and I have a passion for these movies. The break between “Spectre” and “No Time to Die” was supposed to be five years, much too long in my opinion for we addicts. Then along came the pandemic, MGM and Eon pulled the film off the schedule, wisely seeing that the venues for films were being closed in many places. The movie got pushed back to October, then to the following April again, and then to a second October. It has now been 18 months since the originally scheduled opening of the film. I have been impatient and frustrated with each delay and now that it is finally available, I have issues.


I will preface my comments with an acknowledgement that there is not a 007 film I would not watch again in a heartbeat (except the 1967 parody Casino Royale), and that includes this new entry, the 25th in the official canon of Bond films (excluding “Never Say Never Again”), so take what I say to you now with that perspective in mind. I am disappointed. 


When the decision was made to follow up Daniel Craig’s first outing with a direct sequel, I was Ok with that. “Quantum of Solace” has flaws, and my reaction was muted. “Skyfall” on the other hand changed all that into a bundle of enthusiasm that I still feel nine years and two more films later. Although there were references to earlier Craig films, “Skyfall” felt like a stand alone 007 film and it worked incredibly well, providing a fresh story but also providing a good deal of fan service. In 2015, “Spectre” stepped back into making the Craig films into an extended narrative, and that was one of my initial reservations about the film. As time went by and I saw it more often, my attitude changed and I think it got right what “Quantum” was trying to do in keeping a story line in place. “No Time to Die” is an attempt to wrap all of this up but it trips over some of the traditional tropes of the Bond series. I much prefer the closeout that “Spectre” presented to us than the package we got this week. 


Looking at just this movie now, instead of worrying about the five film story arc of Craig’s run as Bond, the first strength that it presents is the mash up of two pre-title sequences. The callback to Madeleine Swann as a child, ties in nicely with a story she told in an earlier film. It is visualized very effectively and uses an overhead perspective in an interesting way that accentuates that what we are seeing is a memory. When Bond and Madeleine travel together on a pilgrimage to a grave, we get a nice travelogue, followed by a terrific action sequence and then the titles. So far so good. The Billie Eilish performed song is substantially improved with the title sequence behind it. That said, it is still not a dynamic song for the film to build it’s themes around. The best music cues in the rest of the film come from earlier Bond films, including “Casino Royale” but most noticeably, “On Her Majesties Secret Service”.  The title sequence begins some of the fan service call backs that we can expect from Craig’s swan song. Polka dots and silhouettes appear in the background, bringing the spirt of Saul Bass for a visit to a James Bond film. 


Now we get to the first main issue that weakens the film for me, the recruitment  of 007 for this mission by Felix Leiter in an off the books C.I.A. plot, that somehow runs afoul of MI-6. I will try to explain this without spoilers, but the mess that Bond is going to try to clean up, is a result of his own former service’s mistakes. In another tip to older Bond films, one group is playing another group against two other groups. In “From Russia with Love” the Soviet agency SMERSH is being played by SPECTRE against the British. Here, the Brits are being played against SPECTRE, who are being shined by a new unidentified group, and the C.I.A. is an accidental tool for pulling it off. How can this be? Well simple, “M” suddenly loses the moral convictions that guided him in the last film and the intelligence he had shown since “Skyfall”. Ralph Fiennes was one of the strengths of the two previous Bond films and now his character Mallory, is a liability. This shortcut to plot development also requires that Felix Leiter, as played by Jeffrey Wright, loses about twenty percent of his IQ.  Maybe the idea here was to tear everything down and start anew, but it feels like a fast way to get another plot going without developing the villain any more than you did in the first five minutes of the film. 


Second major flaw in the film is, as is way too true in all sorts of films, the Villain. Rami Malek is fine for what he is asked to do, the failure is not in the performance it is in the writing. Safin appears as a character in the first scenes of the film. His performance there is wordless and we get right up to a key moment when there is a jump cut to a point many years later. We never learn how he got from point A to point B, to become a nemesis of Spectre and a threat to the whole population of the world. When we get to the monologuing in the third act,  there is a lot of yammering in low key soft voiced menace, but there is no motivation whatsoever. There is no plan, or financial gain or philosophy behind his actions. The idea that the weapon can be isolated to killing only particular people was undermined by the fact that if they have DNA alleles in common, which would be a family connection, then the nanobot virus jumps. Six degrees of separation people, the world is connected genetically and there will be leaping. No explanation is offered as to who is supposed to be spared or why or how. This is a completely random plan, that is supposed to be targeted, but no targeting explanation is offered and they undermine their plan with this flaw in the DNA process that they are using for only an emotional plot point. 


The third thread of problems is the relationship between Madeleine and James. I can believe in their love, and that James has overcome his emotional complications with Vesper, but it gets wiped out by an inference that while reasonable, could also be dispelled with some investigation. His willingness to severe a commitment like this on his conclusion without looking into it further is out of character. Her acceptance of it and then inclusion into MI-6’s interrogation of Blofeld is after the fact odd (although it was a leap I was willing to take for the purpose of suspending disbelief). That she is being manipulated as a tool of Safin is shown, but not really explained. There is a good scene between her and Safin in her office, they interact in an interesting way, but it does not make her motivation clear. The incident between them a quarter of a century earlier is supposed to be the explanation, but it really does not explain anything. Bond and Madeleine rekindle their romance after he discovers a secret she has, and that makes a little sense, but this same plot device was widely criticized in a 2006 comic book movie, and I can see a similar response here. I don’t have an issue with it, except that it is being used as a manipulation of the characters to justify the conclusion of the film. 


Final acts are difficult, and the final act of this film, and the fact that this film itself is a final act in the story arc, makes it even more so. The resolution that they chose, undermines the emotional set up that was created to make a dramatic point. Safin has manipulated the DNA of the characters so that they can never be together physically again. That would also preclude a relationship with the secret character that has changed Bond’s perspective. Fine, that is a emotional gut punch that would make Bond have to suffer, but the solution that the writers came up with was to eliminate that immediately through a much more certain outcome. It was unnecessary, and if you are looking to finish with an emotional slap to the face, the DNA imposed separation would have stronger resonance. 


There are other points that are bothersome as well, but little things can be overlooked when everything else is working. Obviously, things were not working for me so a couple of things I might have let slide by, jumped out at me instead. How the greatest asset that British Intelligence has, manages to get the most sophisticated bionic technology in history, planted in his eye socket while he is under their control is beyond me. I guess “Q” had the weekend off when that surgery was arranged. As much as I like what they have done with Ben Whishaw’s version of “Q”, he seems to miss some opportunities to stop problems or to explain how a problem could be stopped. Case in point, the EMP watch that 007 uses in going after the island fortress of Safin. If it can blow out an electronic eye, would it not do the same to the electronic ear that Bond is wearing? Story consistency is an issue in a lot of places. 


There are a lot of things I liked in the film, I just wanted to get my reservations out of the way first. Ana de Armas and Lashanna Lynch are welcome to any future Bond films, although with the rebooting that will be required, I’m not sure how they will manage to do this. Paloma, the CIA?, contractor was a hoot in the Cuban sequence, and her action creds were established in a definitive and funny way. Nomi, the new designate for the prime number, was bad ass although she needed to do a little more as part of the insertion team at the end. M will need agents like her to cover for his future mistakes if they plan on keeping that character in his current mode. The chase scene though the Norwegian forest was very effective, I liked the subtle way Bond adjusts his choices given his passengers. I also thought the by play between Bond and Christoph Waltz as Blofeld worked well, that was a solid scene even if in the end it had little to do with what is happening in the story.


Okay. I am off to see it a second time right now. When I get back, if I have more thoughts I will add them here. 
Addendum/Second Screening


Well it was a good decision to go back for a second time, because my opinion of the film substantially improved. I’m not sure if my attitude was different because expectations were altered, or if some of the choices they made were clearer in hindsight. 


For instance, it is a lot clearer now why Madeleine cooperates with Safin’s plan for Blofeld when she and James meet up at the prison. Blofeld’s dialogue also makes more sense in hindsight, although how he obtained his information is still unclear.  


M’s motivations are a bit more focused when you see what is going on, although it is still very clear that his character’s ethical standards have shifted entirely away from the point of view that he had in the previous film. 


There are several characters I did not mention earlier that ought to get a quick note here. Logan Ash, the State Department CIA wannabe, is such a trope in the Bond Universe, it would have been more fun to go the opposite direction with him. As it is, the part contains no surprises and the only creative element to him, his fanboy admiration for Bond, doesn’t get as much use as it should. 


Speaking of not getting much use, Naomi Harris returns as Moneypenny, but she mostly sits in the office like in the old days. It would have made sense to give her some of the tasks that Q got shoved his way, and then her contribution would be more meaningful. 


Primo, who Bond dubs Cyclops, is your standard henchmen with a quirk. In line with Odd Job and Jaws, he has a physical distinction that is a minor part of the plot. I do think that the electronic eye gets used for comic relief more than anything else, and that also feels like a slightly missed opportunity. The link between him and Blofeld could have made it a stronger place to provide exposition, instead of making us try to figure out what is going on. Oh, there is another plothole here as well since he escapes the attack on Spectre in Cuba for no clear reason at all. As a member of Spectre and Blofeld’s prime surrogate as a walking Zoom call, you would think that Safin and Obruchev’s hijacking of the plan to eliminate Bond would have targeted him especially.  Speaking of comic relief and exposition, the ping pong acquisition of scientist Valdo Obruchev, worked for the most part. His secondary villain status reminded me substantially of Boris Grishenko from “Goldeneye”. The Russian accent probably accounts for that because the Frank Oz look alike they have in the part certainly appears different. 


These insights are a little random right now. I continue to try to avoid spoilers, so I will discuss some of the plot elements that will make this film controversial among 007 fans, in a post down the road. I at first thought the pacing seemed flat and that the direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga was off. There is probably too much quick point and shoot in the finale, James Bond should not be John Wick. On the other hand, the locations are beautifully shown, and it seems like they went a long way to allow Safin to get Bond’s toothbrush. Let me leave off by saying after my first viewing, I felt let down. Going a second time, probably for the reasons I mentioned, resulted in an encouraging shift in perspective. I still have reservations but …


“Never Enough to Say No”


So go see it now that it is here. 

The Legend of Tarzan

As a character, Tarzan has been around for more than a hundred years. He is nearly as old as another literary creation of the era, Sherlock Holmes. It was inevitable I suppose that with the new digital technology at their fingertips, someone was going to do a new version of the Tarzan story. Robert Downey Jr. gets to be Ironman and Sherlock Holmes, but the new millennium and the nature of the character probably suggest that the new Tarzan be a different face, an actor who is competent but not well established as a star.  Enter Alexander Skarsgård, a handsome man with solid credits on high quality television programs and some supporting parts in other films. This is his chance to step up and become a star, if he can manage to sell us on the idea that he is an enlightened British Lord who started his life as an adopted member of a troop of Great Apes. It’s a tall order to fill but he manages to do a credible job for a couple of reasons. First of all, Tarzan is not a character known for eloquence. He is not unsophisticated because as Lord Greystoke, he is a member of the House of Lords, but as the child of a savage world without humans for the most part, he has learned to communicate in subtle, non-verbal ways. Skarsgård, may have the fewest lines of the four major characters in the film, but it is not really noticeable because he says so much with his actions. Second, he is a close doppelganger for the young version of Christopher Lambert, who made his debut on the international film stage in the same character vehicle.

In a way, his resemblance to Lambert connects the two films that were made 32 years apart. Had “Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” been a bigger success, this could easily have been the follow up film. A large section of the 1984 film, was devoted to the origin story of Tarzan. This film pays homage to that story but does not make it the focal point of the film. The structure of “The Legend of Tarzan” is mostly a straightforward narrative with occasional flashback sequences to provide exposition and context. It’s a rather effective way of including the origin story without belaboring it. As a result, this movie feels fairly fresh and works as a stand alone episode in the story of our jungle pulp hero. The difference in tone is important. Unlike the Johnny Weissmuller films, which are  somewhat campy adventure stories, the Greystoke film of 84 sought to probe more deeply into what distinguishes man from beast. It had a solemn message about the savagery of colonial times but also about the duality of Lord Greystoke/Tarzan. This film touches ever so briefly on the later and spends most of it’s time on the former. The plot concerns the exploitation of Africa bu European powers that are willing to use unscrupulous methods to achieve their objectives. Naturally, Tarzan stands in the way. Some of the 50s and 60s version of the Tarzan tale told the same kind of story.  “The Legend of Tarzan” takes the colonial period in Africa and uses it much like a James Bond thriller, with a plot to enslave a whole country by an evil figure being thwarted by our hero, while at the same time he saves the woman he loves. It’s pretty good stuff but not very deep.

 

The three other main characters also bring something to the table that make this version of the legend even more successful. Quinton Taratino’s favorite German actor of the last decade, is cast in another villainous role. After “Inglorious Basterds”, he has been the heavy in a half dozen films. Most recently Christoph Waltz was the featured antagonist of James Bond in SPECTRE.  I’m fine with him collecting a paycheck but I hope he is able to expand his resume a little more. In this movie he is Leon Rom, an envoy of the King of Belgium, tasked with gaining access to the riches of the Congo, and using a plot against Lord Greystoke to do so. His scenes with Tarzan’s mate when she is his prisoner, have a suitably creepy tone to them. There is one good moment where his eyes and voice express admiration for Jane, and for a moment he feels like a human and not just a cardboard bad guy, although he plays that cliched role well. Margot Robbie seems to have come out of nowhere in the last couple of years and is on the verge of exploding into mega stardom, if she can act as well as she looks a part. She will soon be Harley Quinn in a series of D.C. comic book movies and that will add fuel to the fire of her career.In this film she was solid. There was a great degree of sexual chemistry between her and Skarsgård. Tarzan and Jane look and sound like a couple who are in love and actually care about one another. Each is given an opportunity to show the desire they have for their partner in a non-lascivious way. She also gets some action scenes and as the dialogue intentionally lampoons, she is not just a damsel in distress.

The final major star of the film is somewhat surprising. What Samuel L. Jackson is doing in this film is not entirely clear. A black Doctor, as an envoy from the government of the United States personally selected by President Benjamin Harrison, he is an anachronism that defies story telling with one exception, he brings his personality to the movie. Jackson is a frequent spark plug for a moment of humor or dramatic intervention in the film. Amazingly enough, he manages to do this without once using the word that he is the foremost practitioner of in movie dialogue. It is frequently said that Samuel L. Jackson simply plays Samuel L. Jackson when he is cast, but I see differences in his tone and personality from film to film that do make his characters more distinctive. Just as in “The Hateful Eight”, he is a Civil War veteran in this movie. Major Marcus Warren was a malevolent and hateful character, but George Washington Williams is sad and hopeful. The way he handles his six guns in this movie are completely different that the Tarantino chamber piece from last Christmas. The tone here is light and fun and he seems to care for humanity rather than despise it. I think you have to be a pretty good actor to sell the misanthrope of last year and the heroic side kick in this picture. Jackson does so and the movie benefits as a result. 

The look of the film is accomplished, blending CGI jungles and mountains with real backgrounds to effectively give the movie a sense of scope. Director David Yates, who did the last four Harry Potter films, is accomplished at moving exposition along with the action. That ability serves him well with this picture. While I might still prefer the Rick Baker ape make-up and costumes, the CGI animals in this film are impressive and make the impossible possible on film. I could have used more practical vine swinging, the CGI in these sequences draws attention to itself, but most modern audiences will accept it easily. 

I really wanted this film to be good, but after an early trailer, I thought it might end up as a special effects laden mess. I was pleasantly surprised and quite pleased with the results. I was out of town last week when it opened and I tried not to read anything about it. I did hear a few positive words from some media sources but they only raised my fear threshold. As it turns out, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a respectable addition to the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs on film and a mid summer treat that I would encourage anyone to see, but especially those who like the pulp characters of the past and want to see them live on to the future.