Ah, Mr Bond. I was expecting you – to entertain me

Alerta de spoiler! This column is about the new James Bond film and reveals some big things that happen in it. If you haven’t seen it but plan to, don’t read on.

The main spoiler is: they’ve spoiled it. The producers of No Time to Die have spoiled Bond – either a bit or totally, only time will tell. It’s an enjoyable film: it’s exciting, it looks great and is, perhaps surprisingly, quite a conventional Bond film in structure. It’s a bit grittier aesthetically than in the franchise’s 1960s and 70s camp pomp, but the fights, the attractive people, the exotic locations, the snazzy cars, the cheesy gadgets, the wacky villains and the stolen super weapon are all in place.

The problem with it is that, at the end, James Bond dies. I really hope that everyone still reading either already knew that or doesn’t give a shit about James Bond, though I warn the latter group: I’m not going to get on to anything important like economics or gardening. This whole Bond death thing is buzzing around my head like a miniaturised Sean Connery on Little Nellie.

James Bond shouldn’t die. It’s a key attribute of the character that he doesn’t. He’s a man called James Bond who gets into exceptionally dangerous scrapes and doesn’t die. Those are the three main things. Everything else is subject to change: his appearance, accent, the extent and nature of his misogyny, his choice of gun, his favourite car. They’ve had him drinking Heineken for the last couple of films and it just about holds and we all understand it probably buys us a couple of extra car chases. Fine. But if you make him die, you might as well change his name to Eric. I wouldn’t have minded a film about someone called Eric Bond who died. Instead of the dangerous scrapes, it could be a family drama about the scourge of cancer.

And he definitely dies. They’re not playing with the idea, like at the start of You Only Live Twice. You don’t actually see his corpse, but there’s no twinkly possibility left open that he escaped. What happens in the story – the canonical story made by Eon Productions and endorsed by Ian Fleming’s estate – is that James Bond, agent 007, is killed. At the end of the credits it still says “James Bond will return” but I’m assuming it will be a prequel, a telling of another part of his life. The death of James Bond at the end of No Time to Die es, and will remain, the character’s fate.

The fact that the film’s title encapsulates my feelings about this creative choice is a joke I’m sure the film-makers are entirely in control of. They’re very clever and, as many of those who enjoyed the film will certainly be clamouring to tell me, the death is beautifully, perhaps brilliantly, done. It’s exceptionally affecting and sad. Daniel Craig has turned the character into someone much more real, with human emotions, needs and weaknesses, whose thrill-packed but ultimately vacuous peripatetic lifestyle has left him desolate and broken. It is well directed and brilliantly performed and the film ends with an elegant if melancholic coda that genuinely says something insightful about storytelling.

Bien, that’s cheating. It’s not the form of entertainment that was advertised. James Bond films aren’t dramas, they’re pantos. If Craig played Buttons, would he turn him into a man so tortured by unrequited love for Cinderella that he self-harms or attempts suicide? The Bond franchise long ago eschewed believable characters and plausible storylines and backed itself to entertain with a mixture of spectacle, humour and familiarity. Pantomimes do exactly the same. The relaxing escapism that comes from this familiarity, from knowing that Bond will always prevail – that he is a relentless and unflappable winner, however psychologically unlikely that may seem – is of incalculable comfort to the audience.

The trappings of human drama – plausible characterisation, sadness, empathy, tragedia, loss – are an easy way to stop a film being boring. But it’s a technique that displaces boredom with anguish, not fun, and that’s not what Bond films are supposed to do. Craig is a great actor and, throughout his James Bond tenure, has clearly yearned to make the character a believable human being. But the job of playing James Bond is to remain watchable despite no being believable. That’s harder than acting – it requires magnetic star power. Only Sean Connery ever really mastered it, but all of the others, except Craig, at least tried.

The climax of the film is riveting and tragic, but it’s not just Craig’s acting or the film’s direction that gives it its power – we are moved because of the vast hinterland of warmth and nostalgia we feel for a character we’ve been watching all our lives. The current film-makers are wantonly expending emotional capital the vast majority of which was earned by other people. A precious resource has been squandered in one attention-grabbing and ultimately miserable moment.

Como resultado, every film, every scene, every hat landed on a hatstand, every grin at Desmond Llewelyn’s sternness, is now brutally recontextualised. When Connery wins at roulette, when Roger Moore attempts re-entry, when Pierce Brosnan merrily drives a tank through St Petersburg, they are all portraying a man destined to lie bleeding, heartbroken and alone, missing the daughter he never really knew, waiting to be blown to bits by his own country’s missiles. It’s quite the buzzkill.

It’s not the producers’ fault that the release was delayed by a pandemic, but what would have been a bad idea before Covid is a real kick in the teeth after it. The world has been overwhelmed by loss and, as we tentatively try to embrace life’s pleasures again with a trip to the cinema, we are made to watch James Bond die.

At the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me, a famous sequence ends with Bond skiing off a cliff and falling, in silence, towards what looks like his inevitable demise. Then a union jack parachute opens, the Bond theme kicks in and all is well. It’s ridiculous but lovable. It makes us feel happy. Esta vez, I waited for that moment in vain. En mi opinión, that’s a far cheaper trick.

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