Review of “No Time to Die”

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) are enjoying their lives together after Bond has left MI6. While visiting the grave of Vesper Lynd, a bomb destroys her tomb and a group of assassins, led by a killer with a bionic eye named Primo (Dali Benssalah), attack the couple in Bond’s bulletproof and well-armored car. A call from Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who is in an ultra-high security prison, suggests Swan is the reason for the attack. Bond leaves Swann as he no longer trusts her. Five years later, Bond is in the Bahamas, still retired, when he’s approached by CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and another agent Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) about Russian biochemist Dr. Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik) who was recently abducted by from a secret lab in London. While Leiter and Ash want his help, newly minted 007 Nomi (Lashana Lynch) wants Bond to stay out of it. Obruchev was working on a strain of virus that could be targeted to a specific person’s DNA, making it a nearly perfect weapon for political assassination. The virus research is an off-the-books project overseen by MI6 head Gareth Mallory, aka M (Ralph Fiennes). Obruchev is now able to modify it to kill not only a specific person, but anyone related to the target. Recent DNA database hacks suggest someone is building a worldwide hit list. Swann is a psychotherapist that works with MI6 in questioning Blofeld. She is approached by someone from her past, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who is scarred, visibly and emotionally, is looking for her help and not giving her much choice.

Daniel Craig is my “James Bond.” I’ve seen Connery, Moore and the rest, but Craig is the only one I’ve seen all his Bond performances in a theater. I like that Craig looks like he’s been in a fight as well as looking like he’s lost a few. Connery and the rest all looked too soft to be tested, bitter, world-weary secret agents. Craig looks like he’s been through some difficult stuff and has paid the price for his loyalty to her majesty’s secret service. I have also enjoyed the emotional thread that’s run through all of Craig’s Bond films starting with “Casino Royale.” The death of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) was the kind of devastating loss only seen once in the history of the franchise, “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service” from 1969. While Bond’s reaction to the loss is a minor plot point in the next film, it is quickly forgotten as the story of “Diamonds are Forever” moves on. Craig’s Bond has been dealing with Vesper’s loss for most of his outings. It’s the only time a series of Bond films have been this connected. That connection has been both a strength and a weakness of the last five films.

Daniel Craig gets a rousing story for his final outing as Bond. There is giant action set pieces, beautiful but deadly women, twisted villains and the fate of world hanging in the balance. It’s everything one expects in a Bond movie, but I could have done with a little less.

Every chase scene is split into two sections with high-speed action then lower velocity, more personal battles. The stunts are spectacular, and many appear to have been done practically, but there comes a point when I, as the viewer, would like to get back to the story. “No Time to Die” is in no hurry to do that.

While the story isn’t complicated, the screenwriters parse out information over the length of the film until you don’t see the ultimate plan until near the end. If the plot were more interesting, I might have not minded the water torture approach to storytelling. However, “No Time to Die” is a standard “madman looking to destroy civilization” tale the Bond films have done before. Aside from tailoring the virus to specific DNA, nothing in “No Time to Die” is that new or spectacular.

Still, the spectacular locations, massive stunts and action scenes make “No Time to Die” a mostly enjoyable ride that ends the tenure of Daniel Craig. With a running time of 163 minutes, the film tests the patience of its audience. It feels overstuffed, like the filmmakers are giving Craig as much screen time as possible to say goodbye to Bond. Whatever the reason, “No Time to Die” has a problem of abundance and needed another pass by an editor.

“No Time to Die” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive material. Bond is involved in numerous fist and gun fights resulting in the deaths of numerous henchmen. There’s a scene where a ballroom full of people are bleeding from their eyes and dying on the spot. Many, many car crashes leading to inevitable injury and death. A person’s fake eyeball pops out. Foul language is scattered but there is one use of the “F-bomb.”

Daniel Craig is now done with Bond. There were indications in the past he found playing the agent tedious and was sick of the role. However, there is a video online of Craig speaking to the crew on his last day of filming where he appears very emotional about being done with 007. Perhaps his complaints were more about fatigue in the moment. Whatever the reason, Bond will move on to a new actor. He might be a return to the pretty boys of Moore and Brosnan, but I hope another tough-looking chap that looks to have taken a punch or two is brought into the role. Fans will complain, just like they did with Craig (Bond isn’t blonde or blue eyed), but if the right choice is made, they will quickly forget their issues. I will miss Daniel Craig as Bond. I wish he had gotten a better farewell.

“No Time to Die” gets 3.5 stars out of five.

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Review of “Birth of the Dragon”

Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) is teaching Kung Fu to students in his San Francisco studio. Lee is making his first film and is looking to star in a TV show. Shaolin master Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) has come to San Francisco to bring balance back to his soul after injuring a Tai Chi master in what was supposed to be a non-contact demonstration back in his homeland of China. Lee’s students Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) and Vinnie Wei (Simon Yin) see in a Chinese-language newspaper about the coming of Wong Jack Man and tell Lee about it. Lee believes the Shaolin master is coming to challenge him to a fight as the Shaolin monks are unhappy he is teaching Kung Fu to Westerners. Meanwhile, McKee is making a delivery to a Chinese restaurant when he meets Xiulan Quan (Jingjing Qu) a waitress that is also a recent immigrant. Xiulan Quan is being forced to work at the restaurant by a mobster known as Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing) to pay off her debt for being transported to America. While she’s not supposed to speak to anyone outside the restaurant, McKee and Xiulan Quan begin a secret relationship. When Auntie Blossom finds out about the love affair she threatens to move Xiulan Quan from the restaurant to a brothel unless McKee gets Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man to fight so the Chinese mob can make money on the betting. If they fight, Auntie Blossom will release Xiulan Quan.

“Birth of the Dragon” is billed as being based on a true story. If by “based” you mean there were two martial artists named Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man that met for a fight then, yes, it is a true story. What this movie does with the characters and the story around them is as far from truth as one could get.

“Birth of the Dragon” is a cartoonish film. The story of the two martial artists, their alleged rivalry, the Chinese mob, the American student falling in love with the Chinese migrant, all of it is so overblown, so melodramatic it ceases to be a movie that can be taken seriously and becomes more like one of Bruce Lee’s early films. There is even a moment in the movie where Ng as Lee tastes his own blood when he is injured in a fight like the real Lee did in his film “The Big Boss.” Nothing in the film feels grounded or real and if you’re going to slap a “Based on a True Story” label on a piece of entertainment it should be at least plausibly believable.

Phillip Ng plays Bruce Lee as an arrogant and prideful person solely focused on becoming a successful entertainer via his Kung Fu skills. For much of the movie Bruce Lee is the “bad guy” of his own story. Perhaps that was an attempt to show Lee was changed by his encounter with Wong Jack Man and became more well-rounded and humble after. What we see is a spoiled and selfish person that despite his somewhat fatherly relationship with Steve McKee is rather unlikable. After his encounter with the Shaolin master, Lee isn’t changed that much and still seems full of himself. It isn’t a flattering portrayal of Bruce Lee and, based on the comments of those that knew him, he deserves better.

The rest of the cast isn’t exactly given the opportunity to shine with the material they are working with. The one exception might be Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man. The character is a man of discipline and honor. Injuring a Tai Chi master sends him on a spiritual journey of self-reflection. He humbles himself by washing dishes in a restaurant seeking redemption in humility. Xia Yu gives a measured and believable performance that is a center of calm in an otherwise chaotic story.

The fight scenes are for the most part masterfully choreographed. The beauty and flow of the movements by the martial artists is a wonder to behold. While some of the kicks and punches clearly come up short even if the potential recipient hadn’t moved it is still a ballet of action and is often mesmerizing. There are a couple of high falls and flips that are clearly aided by wires and those bring the overall quality of the fights down a notch but it is a minor quibble in what is the only highlight of an otherwise dreadful film.

“Birth of the Dragon” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, martial arts violence and language. As one might expect there are numerous fights. Some occur as part of an exhibition while others are supposed to be real conflicts (within the story). There is a minimum of blood. Thematic elements include slavery, coercion and threats of forced prostitution. Foul language is widely scattered and mild.

There are some people who claim to have seen the fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. It was pre-cellphone and portable video cameras so there is no visual record of the fight. Some claim Lee quickly won in as little as three minutes while others say the battle lasted more than 20 minutes with Wong Jack Man victorious. Who won or lost really isn’t important as the encounter is supposed to have changed Bruce Lee for the rest of his life. We’ll never know what really happened and “Birth of the Dragon” is so dramatized it proves to be useless in clarifying the matter. It also isn’t much of an entertainment as it comes off as silly and melodramatic. While the fights are mostly entertaining I feel confident in suggesting you can just give this movie a pass.

“Birth of the Dragon” gets one star out of five.

There are no new movies opening this week in wide release so I may have to hit up my local art house and see something weird. I’ll review something but I don’t know what.

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