The final entry in the current line of 007 films will shake and stir you, though familiar plotting and a bloated runtime let it down
Has any blockbuster hovered on the precipice of release day for as long as No Time to Die? The fifth and – honestly! – final Daniel Craig-led James Bond chapter arrives after a tantalisingly long delay that made its name synonymous with the pandemic. Now, almost two years after the original unveiling was scrapped, it arrives in cinemas hoping to… what, exactly? Restore glory to the franchise? Reignite cinema for the masses? Procure world peace?
Entertaining and flawed in equal measure, No Time to Die – directed by True Detective and Beasts of No Nation's Cary Joji Fukunaga – cannot deliver all those things but instead comes to epitomise the Craig era of Bond movies in its entirety. This is an oddly sombre yet insistently lighthearted film, a self-aware hodgepodge in which Bond trades blows with not only henchmen, but the fallout of the franchise's last fifteen years. It is, for better or worse, a fitting end for this “old wreck” of a spy.
The first act is exemplary – tense, taut, and suggestive of a better film than the one we ultimately get. After an icy flashback, Fukunaga delivers one of the franchise’s best action scenes right off the bat – a bravado prologue that makes use of a stunning Italian locale's winding, cobbled streets and tight alleyways, as Bond – still mourning the passing of Casino Royale's Vesper Lynd – visits her grave before being faced with a mysterious revelation that threatens his happy ending with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).
After Billie Eilish sings over the opening credits, we learn that five years have gone by with Bond in exile, before he's brought back into the fold by old pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). Here, Fukunaga proves his action chops once more with a fun diversion in a Havana club, as Ana de Armas arrives to light up the screen just as things threaten to go a bit limp. If her character makes little sense (three weeks training?), De Armas still emerges as a welcomed antidote to the disposable Bond girls of the past; despite the revealing cocktail dress, she isn’t simply a means to Bond's end. It’s just a shame she’s only around for twenty minutes – the film could have used her infectious charisma in the later, more lethargic stretches.
No Time to Die poses an interesting question at its core. Namely, is it possible for somebody like James Bond to ever stop being James Bond? But it also falls into many of the same old traps we associate with this franchise and doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with its expanded cast of characters (Lashana Lynch’s much discussed “female 007” keeps turning up, but never feels essential to the story and gets nothing in the way of character development).
Though certainly a more joyful experience, No Time to Die still echoes the mess that was Spectre in a few ways; it’s a bloated blockbuster with a baggy third act, and there’s nowhere near enough action for a film that runs close to three hours (a shame, since Fukunaga is a natural). And given that film’s awkward attempt to connect all the storylines (thank Marvel for this franchise's move from standalone to serialisation), No Time to Die also spends much of its runtime trying to tie up loose ends. But it feels more like box ticking than a legitimate desire to make use of wayward elements (Spectre’s mishandling of Christoph Waltz as Bond’s nemesis Blofeld meets another anticlimactic turn here).
Where No Time to Die falls flatter still is in the areas it feels compelled to regurgitate “because it's a Bond movie.” Rami Malek’s quivering villain feels like a rehash of other, better baddies we've encountered before, while his character's reliance on “you and I are the same, Mr. Bond” type speeches are far too broad – and cliché – for what is supposed to be a personal chapter about a broken agent coming to terms with his fate.
The climax, which takes place in a Dr. No-like lair on an island off the coast of Japan, has the air of something the producers felt obliged to include (same goes for the story, which hinges on world-ending viruses and stolen technology). As the film attempts to tackle ideas about family and legacy, the overblown island showdown feels like a step back from the more nuanced storytelling that made Casino Royale, and parts of Skyfall, sing. Did this really need to be yet another Bond movie about averting a global apocalypse?
Like Bond himself, No Time to Die is as messy as it is slick. The filmmaking itself is always assured; the writing not so much. It's a film that, in trying to repackage the best moments from the more successful Craig movies, winds up having an almost three-hour-long identity crisis. For everything that works (the added emphasis on gadgets), something else doesn't (the on the nose references to classic Bond films).
In long stretches, No Time to Die delivers some of the best stuff seen in the entire series to date (one notable fight scene, in which Bond ascends a staircase in a single, exhilarating extended take, is as gripping and brutal as this series gets). In other moments, it dawdles and seems lost, spinning its secondary characters – Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris – on dull tangents while repeating information. And it doesn't help that they all look a bit knackered.
All the time, Craig's increasingly humanised performance holds the picture together, the actor moving effortlessly between harder emotional cues and the trademark quips (Bond, now seemingly self-aware, winces at his own bad jokes). Indeed, there has been an obvious push for added levity, presumably the reason for bringing Killing Eve's Phoebe Waller-Bridge in as co-writer, though sometimes the bursts of light comedy feel at odds with a film that ultimately veers into sentimentalism.
Thankfully, No Time to Die fixes one of Spectre's crucial flaws in its handling of Bond's relationship with Madeleine. This time round, Craig has a more palpable chemistry with Seydoux, whose enigmatic glances and cat-like eyes captivate for every moment she's on screen. The script also makes a clever course correction to her character, repositioning Madeleine as a femme fatale type with a mysterious past. She seems less like an accessory and something more dangerous – and crucial.
This isn’t, as many hoped it would be, the best Bond film since Casino Royale – Skyfall still lays claim to that title – but it does provide a mostly entertaining farewell for this 21st century iteration of the indomitable spy, one that feels true to the shifting nature of the past fifteen years of Bond movies. Daniel Craig affirms his standing as one of the great Bond actors and, in the process, finally seems to find a place for the character to function in the modern world. Though, personally, I’d have preferred No Time to Die to have shaken and stirred me in less familiar ways.
No Time to Die is now in UK cinemas everywhere.Where to watch