Perhaps more than any previous Bond, the Daniel Craig era has, for better or worse, managed to tap into the mood of the British national psyche with each new film. Casino Royale, released the year after the 7 July London terror attacks, was a lean, focused and brutally businesslike proposition. Quantum of Solace was messy, noisy and slightly panicky. And subsequent films brought us a Bond who was forced to do battle on two fronts, both against Spectre and his own irrelevance on an increasingly tech-enabled killing field. Essentially British exceptionalism made flesh and wrapped in a Savile Row suit and a sneer, Bond ploughed on with the old ways, at considerable cost to those around him.
Now Craig’s swansong in the role arrives, nearly 18 months later than originally planned. And like many of us, it’s bloated and flabby around the mid-section and prone to moments of confusion. But it’s also the first Bond movie in forever that attempts real change, tearing down some of the well-worn conventions of the 007 formula. All of which should heighten the anticipation around the casting of Craig’s replacement no end.
The first indication that this might not be business as usual comes at the very start, when, as tradition has it, Bond films usually kick off in an exotic locale with an extravagant action set piece. Not this time. The film opens in a forest chalet in the dead of winter where a little girl lives with a mother who has sunk into bitterness and blurry self-medication. It’s the kind of place you go to hide, a remote and icy backdrop reminiscent of Joe Wright’s Hanna. And when a visitor does arrive – a figure in a Japanese kabuki mask – it’s clearly not a courtesy call. It’s probably best to leave a question mark over the identity of the girl, her mother and the masked man: suffice to say it’s an unusual, unexpectedly generous move for the film to shift the focus from Bond, even for a moment, in order to offer up a backstory for another character.
Once the film finally reconnects with Bond, we find him enjoying his retirement on the Mediterranean coast, with perma-mope Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) at his side. Some stilted dialogue exchanges establish the fact that trust issues abound and both are guarding secrets from their past; the fact that their holiday seems to be a grand tour of the sites of traumatic memories also suggests that there may yet be some emotional baggage left to be unpacked.
One element that seems to be resistant to change is the lack of chemistry between Craig and Seydoux, despite the input of director Cary Joji Fukanaga. After their drably decorous courtship in Spectre, theirs is a polite but rather tepid relationship, while Craig’s Bond is comically ill at ease with the concept of empathy, fumbling with it as if somebody just handed him a baby to admire and he has literally no idea what to do with it.
Have the changes in approach reached Bond himself? Yes and no. On the one hand, Craig’s default setting of low-level irritation has stewed and simmered; the fuse is markedly shorter, and he spends much of the film snarling through the windscreen of his Aston Martin DB5 looking like a road-rage incident waiting to happen. On the other, there’s a newfound respect for his female colleagues – it’s a welcome move away from 007’s modus operandi of casual workplace harassment, which may or may not be due to the input of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
A spiky rivalry between Bond and Nomi (Lashana Lynch, forcefully charismatic in a slightly underwritten role), his replacement in the 00 programme, gives way to a genuine admiration for her skill as an agent. And Ana de Armas as Cuban field agent Paloma is a delight, necking her martini and channelling her “three weeks of training” into a flamboyant, tango-infused killing spree. Even Craig’s sourpuss secret agent seems to be having a blast when Paloma’s (all too briefly) on screen. It’s a glimpse of something that has been MIA from the Bond movies of late – pulpy, escapist fun.
And this is where the film slips up. With a Bond as dangerous but dour as Craig’s, the onus is on the villain to inject a little levity, hence the ham-tastic turns from Javier Bardem and Cristoph Waltz in the most recent outings. This film’s main bad guy is Rami Malek’s lacklustre Lyutsifer Safin. We know that he’s evil because of his facial scarring (and really, enough now with this nonsense) and the fact that he puts loaded pauses in the middle of sentences. His brutalist concrete lair is enviable, his bag of nefarious tricks contains a nanotech, gene-targeted bioweapon called Heracles, but his motives in deploying it are muddy. It’s a problem. A Bond film is only as good as its villain, after all.
Elsewhere, the film looks to the past as well as the future. Hans Zimmer’s score weaves in references to past films, notably We Have All the Time in the World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s a smart motif that effectively taps into the goodwill and nostalgia for Bonds past while dropping hints of things to come. You don’t need to be a Bond aficionado to know that anyone who thinks they have all the time in the world invariably hasn’t.