It’s only a coincidence that the 25th movie in the James Bond franchise and the 25th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe came out the same year. No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s much-ballyhooed last time playing Bond, was supposed to come out 18 months ago if not for COVID-19. But the two make a useful comparison in terms of the exhaustion levels of their respective audiences. While Marvel’s 25 movies (soon to be 27) have come out in only 13 years, leading to collective fatigue, Eon Productions has spread the Bond movies generously over 59 years, including none since 2015’s Spectre. Bond’s relative scarcity allows us to build up plenty of an appetite each time, one that usually gets satisfied, and No Time to Die is no exception.
But this franchise has accomplished something more noteworthy over the 15 years that Craig has played Bond, which is that it has established a consistent identity as a prestige item. Past Bond movies have usually attracted capable talent, but the deeper Craig has gotten into his run, the more these movies have resembled the sort of big-budget art that Christopher Nolan is known for. Sam Mendes was the director of the previous two and was responsible for a much-needed pivot in 2012’s Skyfall after the disappointing Quantum of Solace. Now Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) has succeeded him with no discernible dropoff – in fact, no evident change in filmmaking style whatsoever.
That last comment might be a disappointment to Fukunaga, who fancies himself an iconoclast, and who walked away from Stephen King’s It when it became clear he wouldn’t be able to execute his own vision for the material. But even if he doesn’t put a stamp on Bond that is noticeably different from Mendes’, there was likely something different about this project that drew him to it. That difference cannot be revealed without talking spoilers, and No Time to Die is the sort of film that deserves to be viewed with fresh eyes and without preconceptions.
Bond walked off into the sunset at the end of Spectre, his “steady girlfriend” Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) on his arm. Had Craig not returned, that would have been the end for his version of the character, but mutual interest in one more movie (and a lot more money) meant that Bond and Madeleine could not live happily ever after. Bond is still retired, but he’s drawn back in while on holiday in Southern Italy. In a visit to Vesper Lynd’s grave, he’s ambushed by Spectre agents, and all signs point to Madeleine having tipped them off to his whereabouts. Bond puts her on a train and tells her he will never see her again.
Fast forward five years, when old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) drops in on a yet further retired Bond in his new home in Jamaica. Leiter is trying to track a kidnapped scientist (David Dencik) who was working on a secret bioweapon for MI6. That sounds like an ominous project for an upstanding organisation like MI6, but the weapon has the good intention of being tailored to the DNA of particular targets. That means if released in a room, it is fatal only to those targets and harmless to everyone else.
Of course, there are always criminals who can pervert good intentions into weapons of mass destruction. Enter Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who wants to make a whole bunch of this stuff, significantly broaden the sorts of DNA traits it can target, and bring the world to its knees. Caught up in Bond’s mission to prevent this are the usual suspects at MI6 (Ralph Fiennes’ M, Ben Whishaw’s Q and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny), the new agent who now uses Bond’s code number 007 (Lashana Lynch), and of course Bond’s chronic rival Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), imprisoned under maximum security but still more than willing and able to call the shots.
While a lot of Bond films have gimmicks, and that was especially the case before Craig assumed the role, No Time to Die is notable for its lack of defining moments. While every action scene is capably staged and displays plenty of kinetic energy, you’ll be hard pressed to remember any truly standout manoeuvres by Fukunaga and company. That could be that they just don’t think it’s worth competing with the absurd stunts of Fast and Furious or John Wick, and it’s better to just deliver a solid entertainment that succeeds as a complete experience. Toward that end, No Time to Die also does not feel its full 163-minute length, even though it is the longest Bond movie by 15 minutes.
Craig’s Bond has been about injecting some sort of grounded realism into the character, and this final film sticks that landing. Instead of balletic gunplay, there are gruff scrums in which characters try to bludgeon each other into submission. To the extent that someone like James Bond could exist at all, he’d be more likely to look like this than the quip-dropping dandies who have played him before. That’s not to say there aren’t a few groan-worthy quips.
There is also some really gasp-worthy filmmaking. A cold open that introduces the villain, Safin – though we only know it’s him if we recognise Rami Malek’s voice – shows the man arriving at a remote snowy cabin, wearing a clown mask and ready to kill its occupants. This is our first introduction to Fukunaga’s agile camera (as overseen by DP Linus Sandgren), which glides out an upstairs window to the man approaching across a frozen lake, a harbinger of awful things to come. It may just be the snowy setting, but it puts a viewer in mind of David Fincher’s work on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and lays the groundwork for much more outstanding technique to follow.
Since this is a sendoff to Craig, it would seem like we should spend some time on his performance. Really, though, Craig mastered how he wanted to play Bond in the first movie and has never deviated from that interpretation. The other cast has a similar sort of functional professionalism to their performances, with the one notable exception being franchise newcomer Lynch as the new face of the MI6 field agents – which could be a tipoff in how the franchise plans to move forward. She’s a POC and a woman, but more than that, she’s a badass and a cool customer who could easily inherit the mantle of this franchise, or at least play a more significant role in future instalments. She’s not James Bond, but rather, Nomi, so that leaves a notable opening yet to be cast.
There would be a question in prospective viewers’ minds as to whether No Time to Die really attains some sort of closure, or whether it is yet another in a long succession of indefinite endings. That’s probably not a question we should answer directly, but let’s just say that where Bond finds himself at the end of the movie should satisfy most viewers. And Daniel Craig should be thanked for doing the role proud since 2006.
No Time to Die is currently playing in cinemas.