It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since the previous entry in the Bond franchise, the disappointing and then-unnecessary Spectre which, for perspective, came out one month before The Force Awakens. In that time we’ve seen the conclusion of a new Star Wars trilogy, the complete Civil War-Infinity War-Endgame cycle, and two versions of Justice League. All but the lattermost of these would have been true even without the numerous delays caused by a global pandemic. It’s harder still to believe that it’s been almost nine years since Skyfall, the high point and then-natural end of the current Bond era. Yet, while Spectre felt like an unnecessary epilogue, attempting to cram as much of both the Daniel Craig Bond and all of Bond history into one film as possible, No Time to Die establishes itself as a much needed culmination of the character re-imagined and introduced fifteen years ago in Casino Royal. (Just to make you feel old, 2006 was one year after Revenge of the Sith, that year’s Marvel movie was X-Men: The Last Stand and DC’s was Batman Begins, and Zack Snyder’s most recent film was 300 which remains his best work).
For much of its runtime No Time to Die feels like a standard entry in the Bond franchise. In fact, part of what lowers the tension is the feeling that, like most franchise heroes, sequels and continued box office render the lead character effectively invulnerable. Several of the usual 007 tropes are here, even if used reluctantly such as Bond identifying himself for a visit to his former workplace. As much as the Craig era has been about modernizing Bond into a post-Jason Bourne and now post-#MeToo world, the trick for every new director has been in bringing their own artistic sensibilities within the limitations of a character whose background extends farther back than their own (yes, Martin Campbell is ten years older, but he was a series vet by directing GoldenEye). To counter this, No Time to Die adds more personal stakes for Bond than ever before that by the end credits we understand this isn’t just another movie for James Bond. This is the last movie for this James Bond.
Much of the credit for this should go to director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the first American to ever helm an entry in the franchise. While never reaching the cinematic artistry of Sam Mendes’s offerings (the silhouetted fight in Shanghai is still the most beautifully filmed sequence ever in any Bond film), Fukunaga deftly continues the growing trend of the auteur blockbuster. Beginning with a sequence that feels ripped from a slasher movie, Fukunaga’s opening is likely the longest and most emotionally wrought in the franchise’s long history, while also bringing the same incredible stunts that these openings are known for. From here, setpieces weave through a surprisingly light-hearted action-comedy-esque episode, a tense survivalist showdown, and an Ong Bak-like long-take action scene, all without radical shifts in tone or calling pulling attention from what’s happening on-screen to what’s happening behind it.
Skillful as No Time to Die is in its construction of action scenes, there still remains the central issue of a thin plot depending on several coincidences unfolding exactly as needed, although this time it’s only about half-a-dozen as opposed to the double digitals required of previous Bond narratives. Combined with an unwieldy length of almost three hours, it’s impossible for No Time to Die to not lose some of its momentum during the series-standard travel sequences that sap any sense of urgency from the film. Ironically, No Time to Die has time to kill between story beats and action sequences. What’s more, given the nature of the threat facing Bond, there’s little doubt that No Time to Die will be referenced by real world conspiracy theorists still spouting unproven hearsay about the origins of the same pandemic that delayed the film’s release. (See, they made the film before the pandemic, that proves the filmmakers knew what was coming and tried to warn us, but the CDC and China and Fauci didn’t want us to see it so they pushed back the release. It’s all connected, man, Daniel Craig tried to warn us, that’s why he didn’t even want to do the film. He knew it all along!)
Sadly one of these least necessary portions also contains the film’s best new character. Much has been written, and complained, usually by the same people who would think the CDC would delay a Bond film, about Lashana Lynch’s role as the new 007. In both context and execution, new 007 is a good addition, acting as an occasional foil for Craig’s older model spy. The better new inclusion, however, is Ana de Armas’s Paloma, an “agent” who brings both doe-eyed wonder and an awesome straight-leg heel kick. Paloma is exactly the type of character needed to break from the more troublesome aspects of the Bond franchise. The only problem with her, other than de Armas herself being distractingly gorgeous, is that she appears for only one sequence, as though that entire portion, barely connected to the rest of the film as it is, were included solely for the purpose of introducing Paloma. Of course, after her appearance in No Time to Die, I would totally watch a standalone Paloma film.
Beyond the aforementioned new additions, the returning cast brings a definite familiar and connection to the proceedings. Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny is an outstanding friend for Bond beyond the pervasive sexual tension. The trust with Jeffrey Wright’s Felix makes us believe when Bond cites him as his “brother.” And the tension between Bond and Ralph Fiennes’s M is perhaps even stronger than it is with Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld. Sadly, the same can’t be said about either Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, a lovely but boring character, and Rami Malek’s Safin, a competent but boring villain checking-off an unstoppable weapon, island lair, facial deformity, and unplaceable speech pattern that seems to channel Donald Glover’s performance as Freddy Perkins. Moreso than the runtime, or adherence to antiquated tropes, the film’s villain, himself an antiquated trope, holds the film back from being an absolute standout.
However, even with its flaws, what elevates No Time to Die beyond just another Bond film is the performance of Daniel Craig. Over the last fifteen years we’ve seen Craig’s Bond go from a brutal human weapon, with little of the finesse and sophistication but all of the unfeeling callousness typical of 007, to a damaged human being, mourning the betrayal and loss of a previous love even as he eyes the future with another. Where the requirements of franchise filmmaking lend invulnerability to the character, Craig’s performance, and continuity between the films, has made Bond vulnerable. During Craig’s time, Bond has felt more like an actual person with a personality and background, traumas and hopes, weaknesses and strengths than ever before. This Bond is believable, both in terms of someone who can physically force his way through a fight, and in terms of carrying the emotional scars it takes to survive constant battles. In No Time to Die, Craig shows us the way five films and fifteen years has affected Bond. He’s angry, heartbroken, violent, fearful, joyous, bored, in ways that 007 never was before. And it’s only in the film’s final act that we fully understand how long this journey has been for both the character and the actor portraying him. Craig’s final film as Bond isn’t about another fight to save the world, it’s about one man’s fight to save what he never knew he lost while knowing that even if he defeats this foe there will be others after, and after, and after. At some point, the man just wants to rest. Daniel Craig has made no secret that he’s been over with the Bond franchise for years. Where Spectre felt like an obligation, a perfunctory continuation, No Time to Die feels like a culmination, a conclusion worthy of the best Bond we’ve ever seen. Daniel Craig carries this film, as he has the entire franchise, overcoming the problems to make a standout character. Like Bond himself, Craig has earned his rest.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since the previous Bond film. Flawed as it is, and while we know, as always promised by the ending credits, that James Bond will return, it would almost be a disappointment if another six years doesn’t pass between No Time to Die and the next, regardless of who Bond becomes then.