I’m not exactly the most qualified person to review a James Bond movie. At least on the terms of it being a Bond movie instead of just a movie movie. All in all, I know I’ve seen most of the classic Connery ones (Thunderball was my favorite as a kid) and some of the sillier Moore and Brosnan-era entries, and then Skyfall when it came out a million years ago. So don’t expect this review to be a comprehensive discussion of the Craig-era arc, or of Ian Fleming’s ultimate vision for the character, yada yada. There was definitely a part of me who started to understand how my mom feels watching a Marvel movie: mostly clueless to the references and plot continuations from previous entries. But also, like the limited amount of better-than-average MCU fare, No Time to Die is both interesting, understandable, and satisfactory as a singular work.
What bears to be recognized with the most amount of respect is the series’ longevity. No Time to Die is its 25th film, 59 years after Sean Connery’s debut in Dr. No. This movie provides endless examples for how the franchise has managed to persist by evolving to fit modern audiences and sensibilities, while unfortunately showcasing many tropes that are becoming increasingly hard to excuse, and will hopefully result in an even greater reinvention of the property whenever it enters its new era. Daniel Craig’s Bond was praised for successfully hauling the series into the 21st century, though I still think there is an even greater opportunity to make James Bond a shining example of how a film series can be truly modern while tastefully implementing aspects of its historic past. No Time to Die admirably attempts this, to somewhat middling success.
So after a great prologue that features some of the movie’s best action, we dive right into a pretty dreadful and wholly unaffecting Billie Eilish song that, like most music nowadays, sounds like it was written by an A.I. over the course of three hours instead of a human artist with strong musical ideas. One dearly misses the likes of Adele and Sir Paul’s contributions to the series’ iconic opening credits.
Nevertheless, we find Bond in retirement. Again. So, “retirement.” But a bioweapon theft at a London lab reels James back into the fold, much to the ire of many of his former partners who obviously want him to just make up his mind already. Most of the first act seems to be spent tying up loose ends from the previous film, Spectre, which I never saw, but was able to surmise the most important developments from in this film thanks to an exchange between Bond and the always-welcome Christoph Waltz as an imprisoned Blofeld. The film’s first hour, though feeling like a bookend to the previous entry as opposed to the beginning of this one, is by far the most enjoyable section, with stylish action and memorable scenes with both old friends and strong first impressions alike. Ana de Armas wows in her single sequence at a club in Cuba, a scene that playfully harkens back to the suave early Bond eras in a way not often found in Craig’s more serious entries.
Their “cool spy teams up with sexy femme fatale” shootout is interrupted, through not unwelcomingly, by Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, James’ new 007 replacement and “a disarming young woman” in Bond’shis words. But really, Lynch is fantastic, and while there has been so much debate recently on whether or not to gender-bend the next Bond, she makes a strong case for it. While they grow to respect each other over the course of the story, Craig and Lynch are at their best bickering and trying to one-up each other in ways only highly trained spies know how.
Once the story really gets going (which mind you, takes quite a long time in this two hour 43 minute epic), we meet Rami Malek’s villain, brandishing the completely preposterous yet wholly appropriate name of Lyustifer Safin. For some context on just how long this movie has been delayed, Malek was originally cast as one of those truly of-the-moment hires, fresh off his Oscar win for Bohemian Rhapsody. Because of this, his entire presence feels like a dated gimmick. Malek is more than fine in the role, but it’s fair to say the Rami Malek-craze-train left the station a good while ago. Aside from a genuinely chilling opening sequence, Safin ticks all the boxes on the cliché baddie list, from the vague facial scars, to a traumatic childhood, to endlessly waxing poetic about how he’s just a dark reflection of the hero as he rasps his way through an incoherent attempt to point out Bond’s moral failings and revealing what James, in his heart of hearts, truly cares about in lif—blah blah blah. The usual business. No Time to Die is noticeably pulpier than Craig’s previous Bond outings, but the most successful villains in the series are either deadly serious or wonderfully hammy. Malek’s Safin tries to be both and so unsurprisingly amounts to neither.
If there is one aspect of the Craig-era that has seemed to set it apart, it has been a much more serious attempt to humanize the character. James is far more emotional here than practically anywhere else. Léa Seydoux plays Madeline Swann, carrying over the Bond girl from Spectre. But while Craig and Seydoux don’t totally sell the whole soulmate thing, it is genuinely moving to watch James yearn for a truly great life with someone who, this time, won’t betray him, and truly wants the very same thing. It is a real step up in dramatization for the Bond character, but also helps the series continue to move away from its misogynistic past of disposable female lovers.
In another milestone, No Time to Die employs the very first American director in Bond history: Cary Joji Fukanaga of Beasts of No Nation fame. The resulting film does indeed pay testament to Fukanaga’s steady hand, as it has been a while since I’ve seen a film of this length paced so perfectly. I was hoping to find a more distinct style however, as while cinematographer Linus Sandgren does wonderful work, it seems that everyone is trying to ape the great Sir Roger Deakins, especially since Skyfall. Fukanaga also seems to have been the force behind many striking Japanese images throughout the film, like Safin’s shattered geisha kabuki mask, and the zen garden filled with poisonous plants that resides in his deliciously stylized lair on a disputed Kuril island. James Bond has been a career-defining property for many in Hollywood over the years, and I can see Fukanaga using No Time to Die as a launchpad for many exciting future projects. I can’t wait to see them.
With this being the final entry of the Daniel Craig rotation, there was always bound to be some kind of closure. But No Time to Die commits to a greater sense of finality than any other entry has ever dared to consider. I hope for an amazing future for the series, but whoever comes next will most assuredly have a lot to measure up to.