Review

New Bond Can’t Take On Beijing’s Supervillains

A whole genre of geopolitical spy thrillers is now off limits.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.
Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die
Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die. MGM

James Bond has returned to the screen as actor Daniel Craig dusts off his tuxedo for his final outing in No Time To Die. Early reviews are glowing, which is odd, given 007’s latest escapade is a messy, overstuffed affair. Rather than taking lessons from Jason Bourne, Craig’s finale seems more inspired by the melodrama and incoherent action of the Fast and Furious series. At a numbing runtime of 2 hours and 43 minutes, Bond is also given—spoiler alert—far too much time to die.

Yet this 25th installment of the spy series highlights a deeper problem, namely a Bond franchise now untethered from geopolitical reality. Craig sank his first vodka martini back in 2006 at the height of the so-called war on terror. Now the world is entering an era of great-power competition with a particular focus on China. This second Cold War should be good for Bond, given most of his finest outings took place against the backdrop of the first. Yet Hollywood’s fear of Beijing means Bond has a China problem—and one that should worry cinema fans and the West alike.

Hollywood’s China troubles are well known. Only a few U.S. movies get released each year in the world’s largest film market. Negative portrayals of China risk bans, not just for individual films but entire studios. Plot lines involving China’s government, let alone Chinese spymasters, are thus off limits. 2001’s Spy Game did feature a rare plot linked to China. But in general, no major Hollywood release has portrayed China’s government in a negative light since 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet, as analyst Matt Schrader has shown.

James Bond has returned to the screen as actor Daniel Craig dusts off his tuxedo for his final outing in No Time To Die. Early reviews are glowing, which is odd, given 007’s latest escapade is a messy, overstuffed affair. Rather than taking lessons from Jason Bourne, Craig’s finale seems more inspired by the melodrama and incoherent action of the Fast and Furious series. At a numbing runtime of 2 hours and 43 minutes, Bond is also given—spoiler alert—far too much time to die.

Yet this 25th installment of the spy series highlights a deeper problem, namely a Bond franchise now untethered from geopolitical reality. Craig sank his first vodka martini back in 2006 at the height of the so-called war on terror. Now the world is entering an era of great-power competition with a particular focus on China. This second Cold War should be good for Bond, given most of his finest outings took place against the backdrop of the first. Yet Hollywood’s fear of Beijing means Bond has a China problem—and one that should worry cinema fans and the West alike.

Hollywood’s China troubles are well known. Only a few U.S. movies get released each year in the world’s largest film market. Negative portrayals of China risk bans, not just for individual films but entire studios. Plot lines involving China’s government, let alone Chinese spymasters, are thus off limits. 2001’s Spy Game did feature a rare plot linked to China. But in general, no major Hollywood release has portrayed China’s government in a negative light since 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet, as analyst Matt Schrader has shown.

No surprise, then, that China does not feature in No Time to Die. Its plot, if you can call it that, involves deadly nanotechnology robots released by the villain, played by Rami Malek, whose character is less Ernst Stavro Blofeld and more a creepy reprise of his earlier role as Freddie Mercury. Elsewhere, there are bulletproof Aston Martins, sexy sidekicks, and secret island lairs. Such silliness is, of course, a Bond staple. But as producer Barbara Broccoli ponders how to reboot the franchise with a new leading man, the impossibility of Bond deploying Q branch’s gadgets against Beijing’s Ministry of State Security ought to be a serious cause for concern.

Part of the problem is to remain interesting, Bond must exist within a vaguely plausible social and geopolitical milieu—an area where Craig has actually been a notable reformer. His movies replaced a tired and sexist mid-20th century archetype with something grittier. As far back as 1995’s GoldenEye, Judi Dench’s M decried Bond as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War.” Craig’s character is now less suave and sadistic and more bruised and fallible—and much the better for it.

Recent outings have tried to grapple with other problems too, not least Britain’s waning influence. The idea of a world-saving British spy has grown less plausible over time. Indeed, as Dhruva Jaishankar, director of the Observer Research Foundation’s U.S. initiative, noted, Bond’s “enduring appeal is based in part on his inverse relationship with British power.” But this tension has long been true: Bond arrived in the 1960s, when Britain was already a diminished global player. And Craig’s Bond does at least nod to his country’s limitations, most recently in the opening credits of No Time To Die, which feature unsubtle crumbling statues of Britannia, the mythical helmeted warrior often used to represent British power.

Such evidence that Bond can move with the times only makes his China problem more troubling. Meanwhile, the latest film comes after a spell in which Bond’s improbable plots were actually buttressed by shifting geopolitical trends. Both actor Pierce Brosnan and Craig reinvented the role for a post-9/11 era, in which terrorist masterminds in the style of Bond villains were suddenly major global concerns. Put another way, during the 1990s and 2000s, the world caught up with Bond rather than the other way around.

Now, the problem is reversed as geopolitical realities and Bond drift further apart. Alex Younger, the recently retired “M” of the actual British MI6, argued in March “there’s no doubt China represents a generational threat,” summing up a common view in Western intelligence agencies. During the Cold War, tensions with the Soviet Union birthed a slew of brilliant espionage thrillers, from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to The Third Man. Yet the odds of Bond—or anyone else—now doing the same with China remain close to zero.

China does occasionally appear as a Bond backdrop, as was true in 2012’s Skyfall, when Craig turns up in Shanghai and Macao. Sometimes, 007 even interacts with Chinese spies, as in 1997’s otherwise forgettable Tomorrow Never Dies, when Brosnan teamed up with Wai Lin, a glamorous Ministry of State Security operative. Such visions of unlikely cooperation appear in earlier films too, as when actor Roger Moore romanced a KGB counterpart in The Spy Who Loved Me. Yet Hollywood’s desire to please China means Bond’s owners at MGM would now likely balk at even portraying Bond within the context of a rivalry between Washington and Beijing, let alone battling Chinese foes.

At one level, this is clearly a shame for cinemagoers. A new era of geopolitical realism, in which Bond grapples with shadowy forces from China and Russia, would be one sure route to refresh a franchise whose latest outing looks badly out of ideas. At another, Bond’s cinematic problems form part of a much deeper dilemma for the West as it enters a new moment of global competition with its film industry, supposedly a powerful form of soft power, cowed and intimidated.

The contrast with China is notable. American villains turn up fairly often in Chinese films, not least the former Navy SEAL who featured in 2015’s Wolf Warrior, the jingoistic action spectacular whose name inspired a generation of aggressively nationalist Chinese diplomats. Beijing is now also pushing a variety of measures designed to combat what it views as a socially destructive celebrity fan culture, which includes gradually limiting the reach of Hollywood films. To give just one example, only 13 major U.S. studio titles have been given the green light for release in China so far this year, slightly less than half as many as this time last year.

No Time to Die will open in China later this month. The desire for further Chinese releases in the future means Bond’s geopolitical conundrum remains hard to resolve. Deepening great-power rivalry could eventually create space for more critical portrayals of China. But until then, China remains off limits to Bond and everyone else. On screen, 007 could, of course, win a new Cold War single-handedly. Until then, his inability to grapple with the central geopolitical challenge of our age should leave Western strategists—and anyone who enjoys a good espionage thriller—both shaken and stirred.

James Crabtree is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Twitter: @jamescrabtree

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