Anyone who has developed an attachment to the grit and gravitas, the coiled physicality and brooding demeanor that Daniel Craig has brought to the reinvigorated James Bond franchise, starting in 2006 with Casino Royale, will feel a surge of raw feeling in the devastating closing act of his fifth and final appearance in the role in No Time to Die.
The 25th installment in the venerable 007 series is the first to be directed by an American, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who handles the action with assurance and the more intimate interludes with sensitivity, never forgetting that there’s a wounded, vulnerable human being beneath the licensed-to-kill MI6 agent. The uneven movie’s big issue, however, is that the path to Craig’s momentous departure is drowning in plot; it’s so convoluted and protracted you might find yourself zoning out through much of the villainy.
No Time to Die
Elevated by a fitting farewell.
Even so, it’s doubtful that this will be a deal-breaker for many Bond completists — especially given that the worldwide appetite for the high-speed chases, thundering explosions, gunfire, fight scenes and breathtaking stunt work that are abundant staples of every 007 thriller has been heightened by repeat delays from its original April 2020 release date. Even if the two-and-three-quarter hour running time is occasionally a slog, it ultimately delivers.
Viewed within the context of Craig’s tenure, No Time to Die certainly allows the actor to dig deeper on the rewarding character work he’s been doing since his 21st century reinvention of the role. Previous incarnations of Ian Fleming’s British secret agent have been defined by the sexy swagger, the arched eyebrow and the cool, calm composure even in the hairiest of situations, that glib characterization growing particularly tired in the Roger Moore years.
Craig has steadily minimized those more caricatured aspects as he explored the interiority of a man haunted by loss — notably of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and Judi Dench’s M in Skyfall — and at war with his own trust issues. He’s also fighting against time, as the new film’s title implies. Another crushing loss awaits him in No Time to Die, well before his final reckoning. But what’s notable here is that this is arguably the most tender portrait of James Bond we’ve ever seen; the emotional stakes are raised by a love that’s far more than the usual passing flirtation.
Just as Vesper stirred something in James’ world-weary heart and then shattered it in betrayal, the romance with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) that began in Spectre evolves here into a potential escape from a life in which he’s constantly looking over his shoulder. The revelation of a secret more than halfway through the movie only intensifies his soulful surrender to the possibility of a personal fulfillment that Bond perhaps never believed was within his grasp.
But in order to fire on all cylinders, James Bond needs a worthy adversary, a seductive, viciously witty villain on the level of, say, Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, or Javier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall. It’s significant that those two films remain the towering standouts of Craig’s self-contained 007 pentalogy, the latter especially.
Regular franchise screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are joined by Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was brought in to punch up the humor and help drag Bond into the post-#MeToo age. This is all done with sufficient class and subtlety that only those who remain nostalgic for the serial bed-hopping and unapologetic sexual objectification of the Sean Connery years are likely to feel cheated. But what the writers haven’t done is create a memorable villain.
While Skyfall was the first entry to dip into Bond’s early trauma, Spectre got mired in ploddingly familiar territory by investing more heavily in that Bond origin story, giving his arch nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) a grudge that dated back to childhood. Sorry, but James Bond is not Batman. Blofeld resurfaces here in a maximum-security British prison from which he’s still using his influence in the criminal world, his primary aim being the elimination of Bond. Their one face-to-face encounter occurs when Blofeld is rolled out on one of production designer Mark Tildesley’s more elaborate sets, an escape-proof glass enclosure that makes Hannibal Lecter’s security measures look like kids’ stuff.
But the real criminal mastermind here is Safin (Rami Malek), who has continued to develop biohazardous weaponry programs initiated by the Spectre organization and has a typically maniacal scheme to unleash them on the world. Not that his evil plan is ever laid out with much lucidity.
The more interesting aspect of Safin is his decades-old connection to Madeleine, which is revealed early on in a gripping scene from her childhood in the Norwegian backwoods. The hold Safin feels he has over her puts him into direct conflict with Bond over something personal — beyond the usual generic agenda of wiping out entire populations. But Craig and Malek are not allowed enough establishing screen time together to give that conflict real teeth. Safin has a cool look, right out of a Yamamoto fashion shoot, and a penchant for Noh masks to hide his pizza-faced complexion. But as a villain, he’s no fun, and Malek can’t do much to make him memorable.
In fact, by far the coolest thing about Safin is his island lair, a high-tech laboratory compound built in an old missile silo and submarine dock, complete with a poisoned garden in a concrete courtyard sanctuary. This setting for the film’s climactic action recalls the fabulous creations of the late production designer Ken Adam for the Bond films of the 1960s and ’70s.
As always, the international locations provide plenty of travel porn, starting with the ancient town of Matera in southern Italy, where James’ assurance to Madeleine, “We have all the time in the world,” proves short-lived. This yields the first of Fukunaga’s big action set pieces, involving a death-defying leap off an aqueduct, motorcycles flying over cobbled streets and steps, and a hail of bullets raining down on James and Madeleine in his shiny new Aston Martin as church bells chime in the piazza. The fact that James was traced there by Spectre makes him instantly suspicious of Madeleine, separating them for a large stretch of the story.
Five years later, he’s officially retired from MI6, living the leisurely life of a fisherman in Jamaica when his old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) asks for his help to trace a kidnapped Russian scientist (David Dencik), believed to be in Cuba. James reluctantly agrees, finding himself rubbing shoulders during an explosive Spectre gathering with his MI6 replacement, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who tells him, “I have a thing for old wrecks.” He also gets teamed up with CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas), who claims to have only three weeks’ training but reveals the skills of a kickass agent. Both Nomi and Paloma are promising additions to the Bond universe, and the swift exit of de Armas once the action moves on from Cuba is a real disappointment. The character begs for a recurring role in future installments.
Just as James is torn by the secrets and ambiguities of his relationship with Madeleine, his frayed ties to MI6 also add texture to the drama. The new M (Ralph Fiennes) has somewhat soured on Bond, feeling the world has moved on and the agency needs to move on with it, and M’s rash choice of collaborators threatens to bring the whole organization down on their heads. But the loyalty of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) helps bring Bond back into the fold and equip him with new gadgets. Even Nomi ends up in his corner, after getting off to a rough start that eventually comes around to mutual respect.
In a delightful scene that plays like a Waller-Bridge touch, Bond and Moneypenny descend on Q at home with his two hairless cats, just as he’s preparing dinner for a male date; that nod to the fastidious inventor’s sexuality is dropped in with refreshing economy. The genuine affection between Bond and Q here seems no less warm than his bond with Moneypenny, in contrast to the more businesslike terms of his relationship with M and chief of staff Tanner (Rory Kinnear).
The portrait of a professional family — frequently exasperated by but just as often abetting the rogue decision-making of its star agent — is among the new film’s chief pleasures, adding poignancy to the awareness that Craig and his immaculately tailored Tom Ford tuxes are officially signing out. It’s a nice touch, too, that behind the teasing banter between James and Nomi, he shows welcome notes of humility with her, even an unexpected deferential side. And the depth of feeling in Craig’s scenes with Seydoux adds considerable weight to the emotional payoff.
Regardless of the plotting deficiencies and occasional pacing lags, there’s plenty here for diehard Bond fans to savor, with a frisson of excitement every time Hans Zimmer’s stirring score sneaks in a few bars of Monty Norman’s classic original Bond theme. It may not rank up there with Skyfall, but it’s a moving valedictory salute to the actor who has left arguably the most indelible mark on the character since Connery.