DOUBLE FEATURE

Men on Missions
On No Time to Die The Guilty
OCTOBER 14, 2021
  

Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in 2021's "No Time to Die."

Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in 2021's No Time to Die.

S

ix actors across six decades have sculpted the James Bond franchise — enough men and time for there to emerge for every devoted fan of the series a very favorite 007. Though if you were to ask me mine, I’m not sure I could go with just one. I toggle between Sean Connery or Pierce

Brosnan as my top pick; it all depends on which of their movies I’ve re-watched last. Yet sometimes Daniel Craig, surfer-blonde and close to 40 when he grabbed the torch Brosnan passed in 2006, makes me question things. Because I think his 15-year-strong performance — tough but periodically emotional, funny but not off-puttingly glib, lustful but not afraid of dropping everything for love — is the best from all the actors to play Bond. No one else in the superspy’s nearly 60-year cinematic reign has come quite as close to finding the beating heart underneath this too-cool agent frighteningly good at dodging bullets, commandeering cars, wooing impossibly beautiful women. Connery and Brosnan made international espionage seem like a breeze — adjacent to a pastime, a rewarding workout. With Craig, you can see accumulated weariness beneath the car chases, shootouts, gravity-defying scramblings across buildings. Just because you’re good at your job doesn’t mean it’s that enjoyable. 

 

Yet the Craig-starring Bond movies, well-performed as they are, are generally the ones I return to least. Usually somber-toned and consistently overlong, they aren’t as inviting to rewatch as jaunty missions like, say, Goldfinger (1964) or Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), which embody the style of the preferred-by-me Bond film the Craig ventures mostly don’t. They’re sleek, fun, impersonal, and happily goofy spy thrillers you don’t detect trying to find self-importance in a growingly crowded and homogenous blockbuster arena. 
 

Nothing has changed style-wise for the Craig era with the finally-here-after-numerous-delays No Time to Die, confirmed to be the now-53-year-old actor’s very last foray into the role. (He wanted to quit earlier — remember the time in 2015 when he said he’d rather break a glass and slash his wrists with its shards than play Bond again? — but was convinced back for one final adventure with a $25 million parting gift.) Somber is still the overriding tone. And overlength is so pronounced that No Time to Die seems like a half-joke of a title: there is actually quite a bit of time to die in this nearly three-hour-long movie spanning about five years. 
 

I won’t say much about the storyline except that it mostly revolves around Bond’s attempts to thwart a slithery, granite-faced villain’s (Rami Malek, giving a performance so bland it’s hard to believe the actor has a pulse) plans to release a deadly virus. It’s equipped to kill millions instantaneously, and for no real reason other than that he believes most people, deep down, “crave oblivion” or something like that. In the meantime, there are dangled notions of Bond — who is brought out of self-imposed retirement in Jamaica following the film’s prologue to deal with Malek — potentially starting life anew post-brief unretirement with his love interest from 2015’s Spectre, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). He reconciles with her after a long separation; he also discovers she has a 5-year-old daughter allegedly not his but suspiciously has his same killer Arctic-blue eyes. 
 

At its best, No Time to Die reminds us what makes the James Bond movies appealing: the movie-opening high-octane car chase through a spectacular hillside Italian village with more stairs than streets; an inessential mission in Cuba with a comically new-on-the-job but still ultra-effective agent played so endearingly by Ana De Armas that you dislike the movie a bit for not including her in more than one sequence. (The latter stretch, in fact, actually might be the finest thing about No Time to Die even though it could easily be cut for time — it’s like a Bond movie distilled, a crisp cocktail of thrills and stylishness and quick-to-go-down jokes.) Rapports between Bond and recurring characters Moneypenny and Q (Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw) are familially funny and feel properly lived-in; the film’s bursts of humor remind us that Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one of the film’s four credited screenwriters. The gadgets are memorable; there’s a clever bit with an electricity-teasing tool Q makes that causes a tech-advanced glass eyeball to burst in its evil wearer’s skull. 
 

This is all to say that No Time to Die, like all other Bond movies to come before it, is most electric-to-the-touch at its most unrestrictedly fun. It’s not so much that it flails when it goes for the emotional — Craig’s sendoff is practically operatic, and pretty effectively so. It's more that it continues to feel almost off when a James Bond movie, historically manufactured as wall-to-wall escapism, strives for something “deeper.” I can’t imagine many are going to a Bond film looking for poignancy. Consider that the franchise’s most emotional moments — the deaths of women Bond is genuinely in love with — have an almost-40-year gap between them. (It’s funny that the inclusion of serious matters isn’t a franchise norm, given that the Ian Fleming novels the films are based on did explore things like reluctant fatherhood and domesticity.) 
 

Earnestness is ingrained in the now-over Craig era, and the finale is befitting for his run. But one may finish No Time to Die hoping that when and if the series phoenixes itself again — the movie reminds us constantly that anybody can fill the number — it reinstates the way the greatest hits preceding it could be fleet and heavier on amusement than solemnity. (The next phase can continue with the Craig films’ way of quieting down all the noisy misogyny, though.) It would be nice to go to a Bond outing and expect to have fun the entire time and not just sometimes. 
 

Maybe the torch in a more official capacity will be passed to Lashana Lynch, who plays with majestic cool in No Time to Die the agent who took over 007 duties in Bond’s absence. Lord knows I’d like to see her treated better in a subsequent movie. Her existence here is relegated to being constantly bested by the man who came before her, which is annoying because Lynch is so good — has an exhilarating-to-watch cool that more than suggests she’d be a solid 007 for the next few years. It remains a point of controversy to have a woman play the agent. But some six decades later, the idea intrigues me, even though I know realistically it’s not going to happen. Still, Craig himself was considered a bold pick (albeit for embarrassingly petty reasons) 15 years ago, and we wound up with, if not consistently great films, a consistently great performance — great even in this movie professedly made for money. A performance of this caliber hadn’t seemed possible in a Bond film before his run. Might as well keep trying new things to see how things shake out.  

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here is no easing into The Guilty, Antoine Fuqua’s new remake of the 2018 Dutch thriller of the same name. The movie is exclusively set inside a stressbox — an L.A. 911 dispatch center — currently overheating. It’s wildfire season. Resources and emergency staffers are spread hopelessly

thin. Everyone is on edge.

 

But no one working here, at least that we see, is closer to the brink of a precipice than Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal). Dust and smoke don’t flatter his asthma, for one thing. But based on some of the non-emergency side conversations he has on the phone within the first few minutes of the movie, we can infer his life is in freefall. There’s something about a court date tomorrow. An L.A. Times reporter keeps calling him to ask him for “his side of the story.” (Ostensibly both these things have to do with why Joe, long an LAPD officer, has landed in desk duty.) A late-night ring to his wife only prompts annoyance on her end; they’ve been separated for half a year, and she isn’t close to considering reconciliation. 
 

Joe, bulging out of his too-tight black polo, is someone who can’t stop himself from letting his stress boil over, we’ll learn. He’s unnecessarily aggressive to co-workers and higher-ups alike; he doesn’t hesitate to tell a caller who has pushed his buttons that he “should be fucking executed.” Gyllenhaal’s intense performance is the best thing about the movie. In a film that so inelegantly works to show us that this character is tortured — no notional symbol of Joe’s turmoil goes by unitalicized — his attention to detail and general commitalism have a redemptive value. They can at times make you forget, or at least be not so distracted by, how much screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto avoids even briefly flirting with characterizational or thematic subtlety. 
 

Joe’s tumult soon becomes an additional storytelling strand in a movie that wants to have it both ways: to be a piercing study of a man in crisis, but also an edge-of-your-seat one-setting thriller, a form Alfred Hitchcock basically perfected in 1954 with the back-to-back releases of Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. Shortly into The Guilty, Joe receives a phone call that will lay the foundation for the rest of the movie to build on. It’s from a young mom named Emily (a never-seen-on-camera Riley Keough, doing excellent work with her second performance of 2021 that’s all about her voice) who has apparently been kidnapped by what sounds like an abusive ex (Peter Sarsgaard, also never seen on camera). The more we clue into what’s really happening, the clearer it becomes that we’re not getting the whole story at all. 
 

The Guilty looks to complicate notions of salvation. Joe puts all his eggs into this rescue subconsciously because he wants to polish his dirtied name in some capacity — but, of course, one generous action does not a simplistically “good” man make. Without being outrightly anti-police, the movie also goes to great lengths, usually in a way that’s a little cornily didactic, to muck up the long-offered-in-entertainment idea of law enforcement being above all a force for good and protection whose flaws needn’t be meaningfully interrogated head-on. It tacitly raises a brow to how often Joe’s emotions get in the way of actually helping people within just a few hours of work. How many other lives has he hurt, absolved because of his power, all these years?, the film seems to wonder. We will hear later in the Emily saga how else the police have let this family down before, too. 
 

One senses that Pizzolatto and Fuqua — who directed the movie over just 10 days (and virtually!) — were eager to make a movie for “now.” How couldn’t you sense that, with the film’s simultaneously spotlighting of and ambivalence around the police and the presence of climate change as one massive problem tidal-waving over a bunch of other smaller ones? What The Guilty is about and trying to do are louder than anything else in a way that’s more awkward than most else. But I still mostly admired its dedication to being a one-setting thriller wanting to do more than just thrill under claustrophobic circumstances. And its roundelay of great voice performances harmonizing with Gyllenhaal’s in-person one — joining Keough and Sarsgaard are Ethan Hawke, Bill Burr, Paul Dano, and the always-terrific Da’Vine Joy Randolph — impress. They find ways to stand out in a movie that won’t endure as that much more than an intense COVID-era experiment. 

No Time to Die: B

The Guilty: B-