At the point when Daniel Craig was announced to the world as the latest James Bond in October 2005, cruising down the River Thames on a Royal Navy assault craft only to be met with the widespread derision of fans worldwide who took umbrage with his look (too rough), his hair (too blonde), and his filmography (too arthouse), the 007 series was on the edge of implosion. Die Another Day had been a last roll of the die for cheesy, tongue-in-cheek Bond films. A foray that, between its dreadful pop theme song and its virtual inseparability from actual Bond parody series Austin Powers, only served to remind producer Barbara Broccoli and co of what they already knew – it was time to reboot and reinvent the series or say sayonara to a future that would be anything more than a study in the law of diminishing returns.
While the press and forumites bayed for Craig’s blood before they’d so much as seen him with a martini in hand, quietly, determinedly, and doggedly the Liverpudlian worked with director Martin Campbell on Casino Royale. A film built with the intention of taking the flimsiness of the franchise’s characterisation of Bond and hardening it. Three-dimensionalising a man who had previously been an icon and little else besides (with the odd exception). By the time the film was finished and released, it took little more than the sight of a young and newly broken in 007 turning to take a shot down the barrel of the camera for audiences and critics alike to realise that Craig was the real deal. And by the time all the cards were both literally and figuratively laid on the table, as 007 took on Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in a high stakes poker game, it was clear that something revolutionary was occurring in the then-40 year old franchise.
15 years, three more films of quality varying from admirably experimental (Quantum of Solace) to jaw-dropping (Skyfall) to merely solid (Spectre), and a pandemic later, and here we are at the end of the line for Daniel Craig’s tenure in the tux with No Time To Die. And, after questioning whether the film would ever actually be released in our lifetime, it is a pleasure to report that Craig’s swansong (or Swann-song as may be more appropriate) has been more than worth the wait. It’s a gorgeous, grandiose, muscular blockbuster from Cary Joji Fukunaga that goes for broke to give Bond a worthy farewell. Giving those invested in this series, its characters, and its brand of behemothic spectacle something to remember.
The result of this endeavour is a sprawling 163 minute film that takes the best bits of what has come before and comes up with something that feels both cumulative and also definitive. No Time To Die carries the style and swagger of Casino Royale; the customary pre-credit chase is a steroidal tip of the hat to that film’s pulsating parkour opening. The brutal viscera of Quantum of Solace; Fukunaga gets in close during firefights to the point where you can feel the smoke from the barrel of Bond’s gun, and blood doesn’t just shed here – it stains too. The emotional heft and legacial reckoning of Skyfall; Bond’s past and future persist in the film’s present, and the embracing of melodrama elevates rather than castrates the film’s sense of scale. And the cinematic excess of Spectre; escalating it to dizzying new heights while also going a good way towards redeeming the undercooked or unearned features of that film’s plot. This, expectedly, makes for a film that you really feel has had everything and the kitchen sink thrown at it, and yet somehow it doesn’t exhaust or overwhelm all the same.
To talk about the plot of No Time To Die, or any Bond film for that matter, is almost a moot point. Not only are spoilers rife and, especially for this one, of paramount importance to be kept under wraps at all costs, but also if you’re coming to watch the 25th film in an almost 60 year old franchise (or the fifth instalment in Craig’s era) then you know what you’re in for. But still, here’s the basics.
Following the events of Spectre, we catch up with Bond as he and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) are enjoying the beauteous surroundings of Matera, Italy. Shot sumptuously by DP Linus Sandgren with the kind of reverie that reminds you of a time when the world was open and begging to be explored. The film’s ice-cold, chilling open – a flashback to Madeleine’s childhood which introduces us in quite terrifying fashion to Rami Malek’s masked Lyutsifer Safin – forewarns us that the past is on an unavoidable collision course with the present. That Bond and Swann’s bliss is imperilled by spectres (and S.P.E.C.T.R.Es) that won’t let them be. And so, when a visit to Vesper Lynd’s grave takes an explosive turn, exposing Bond’s deep-rooted trust issues once more and unearthing a righteous fury and hurt that Craig sells extraordinarily, the lovers’ paradise is lost.
Fast forward five years and a long-since retired Bond has settled down in Jamaica (where author Ian Fleming chose to enjoy his twilight years also). By day he fishes and drinks, and by night he just drinks like a fish. When old acquaintance Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) turns up to task Bond with one last job, one which marks a conflict of interests with an in-over-his-head M (Ralph Fiennes) over at MI-6. It’s not long before Bond finds himself unretired and taking on not only Malek’s malevolent Safin, but old foe Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and the realities of his age and traumas too.
The bio-weapon nano-tech world domination plot is pretty much bobbins (par for the course for the series), and Rami Malek’s Safin is far more interesting conceptually than as an actual character to watch. His harmfully stereotyping facial disfigurement, generic Eastern European accent, and motivations leave much to be desired. But it all serves as an eye-catching side feature to an exploration of character and a reckoning with self for James Bond, which is handled expertly by Fukunaga and played with a defiant commitment from Craig, who at one time ruefully said he’d rather slash his wrists than make another Bond film.
After waiting so long for a Bond who felt human to arrive on our screens. One who could cry and who could hurt. It feels somehow poetic that Craig’s final bow as 007 is the one that promises pain and a tear for us as viewers. Though the bombastic setpieces and the callbacks and quips are all present and correct in No Time To Die, emotional storytelling drives this fifth and final Craig outing.
Thanks to Craig’s earnest desire to make his Bond feel real to us, and within these films’ reality. And to the writers’ commitment to telling a continuing story that accumulates history and weight, and acknowledges the messiness of us as individuals and our relationships with each other and the world around us. The final film in this era of Bond works overtime to tie up loose ends and not lose the characters in the chaos surrounding them. This means that – again, no spoilers to be found here – Fukunaga’s film goes to places for Bond that really are groundbreaking and revolutionary for our understanding of the character, and how we will continue to think of him heading forwards too. It’s the end of an era and it is treated with the sense of importance and significance that deserves.
If you’ve been all-in on Craig’s James Bond, No Time To Die comes as a huge pay-off that writes cheques which director Cary Fukunaga cashes with considerable style. The film looks beautiful, with Sandgren drawing on six decades of iconography in alternately flamboyant and slickly subtle fashion (the tunnel shot is effortless in its simplicity and beauty). But it’s not just the familiar that thrills. He dynamically approaches the film’s slew of stunning locations, keeping the palette fresh and the momentum held, embracing breathtaking wide shots to evince the global nature of the task at hand. While also employing claustrophobic and tight close-ups, taking us into Bond’s headspace in ways never seen or attempted before. There’s a staircase fight sequence in which every shot taken, punch thrown, and step forwards has a weight to it that serves as a gruelling reminder of how time and violence has ravaged Bond, how it has given him a primal quality, that is an all-timer for the franchise.
This will, to take us into Bond’s head, extends to the sound design too. Which simulates the discombobulating effect of explosions and gunfire on Bond expertly. Hans Zimmer’s gorgeously swelling and sentimental score is then given free reign to carry the sense of occasion. Recalling themes from Bond’s illustrious cinematic history and reimagining and rearranging them with a melodramatic gusto which hasn’t felt this goosebump-worthy since Interstellar.
And all of this, with Fukunaga’s intimate directorial sensibilities grounding even a poison garden within a secret island lair in something tangible and believable, contributes to an experience that feels like a genuine epoch in the series’ history. Lashana Lynch; charismatic, no nonsense, and wryly written to wind up the Not My 007 crowd. Ana De Armas; hilarious, scorching hot, badass – wish we had more of her. And Billy Magnussen; comical as an overly keen CIA agent with something else bubbling underneath, are all stellar additions to the cast. But, unsurprisingly, it is the returning stars in Craig and Seydoux specifically who really shine, operating on another level entirely as they sell us a romance, a tragedy, and a relationship between two trauma-burdened souls that is achingly beautiful. Knowing what it took to get Craig to do this film, we should be glad he stuck around, because only his Bond could pull off this particular story. Only this performance could take us there – it’s laboured, physical, firebrand and ice-cool. Teetering ever on the edge of Bond falling apart. Whether that’s physically (there’s a great in-joke about his buggered knee) or mentally. Watching him try and keep it all together as he tries to make peace with his demons and embrace his better angels is a reminder of just how perfect in the role he can be.
Now, it’s not all great goodbyes and plain sailing here. Fukunaga’s film lacks the laser focus of Skyfall or Casino Royale, meandering at times in subplots that just don’t need to be there. Or on conversations that sound philosophical yet say nothing meaningful. The middle third is also where the near three hour runtime starts to loom over proceedings considerably. As we head towards the two hour mark with 45 minutes remaining, an eye starts to twitch in the direction of the nearest toilets. By the time the film has finished, it is apparent that the dragging portions in the middle third could’ve been better spent setting the stage for the finale, and fleshing out Safin’s character, who comes off as a far more interesting concept than a character. Elsewhere, some callbacks feel cumbersome in their handling, some quips stray close to dad joke territory (although an EMP strike on a bionic eye does prompt a series best pun, delivered with relish). And, for all the talk of gender and the feminist revolution in the series that Phoebe Waller Bridge’s involvement would help stoke the fires of, it comes as a bit of a disappointment. What we’re actually given feels somewhat diluted, and at times indicative of reluctance on the writers’ part to alienate or offend those who hanker for the “good old days”. When Bond could be the misogynist dinosaur and relic of Empire that M so astutely called out back in GoldenEye.
But, quibbles and qualms excepting, on an emotional and experiential level No Time To Die really is just an excellent film. The sort that really puts into perspective just how far the series has come since its inception. Where once James Bond was little more than a cartoonish hero, all style and little substance, a killer who oftentimes seemed dead behind the eyes. These five films of Craig’s era have made him so real, so human, that it is with misty eyes that we now must say goodbye. But what a goodbye to be gifted. It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Bond.