The Daniel Craig Bond era is a strange beast. The revitalization of a beloved franchise has attempted to recraft itself a number of times to meet box office action tastes and trends. From an attempt to capture the hand-to-hand shaky cam appeal of the Bourne films in Casino Royale, to an overriding Nolan Batman feedback loop in Skyfall, to an attempt to tie off each chapter of his tenure as part of a greater long-running saga in Spectre. Even at their absolute best (Casino Royale is taking shape again as the agreed-upon favorite in my own circles), they’ve often felt less like Bond movies and more like Bond-by-way-of something else. Not a terrible thing, unless we’re talking about Quantum of Solace or Spectre, which are very bad films. But the distinct Bond flavor has often seemed an ill-fit with Craig’s own take on the character. When the Mission: Impossible franchise feels like it’s doing a better job of taking that classic formula and reconceptualizing it for the modern day to tremendous heights, one starts to wonder if there’s still even a place for 007 anymore.
In a way, it feels like No Time To Die is attempting to address that idea, while also giving Craig a worthy enough send-off to mark his 15 years in the central role.
When it opens, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s (the first American to ever direct a 007 adventure) first bow with the franchise finds a Bond who is no longer interested in doing the job, having found peace and happiness with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). The duo, having escaped the clutches of Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), have gone off the grid and wander the world in retirement. The spectre (nyuk nyuk) of death still haunts Bond no matter where he turns, though, including their arrival at an Italian villa, where his past love Vesper Lynd is buried. Madeleine tells him, by way of pillow talk, that he must say goodbye and move past her, and when he does she’ll tell him her big secret.
Of course, that secret comes to a head pretty quick. Once our hero arrives to say goodbye to Vesper at graveside, a bomb explodes from within her crypt and SPECTRE agents swarm the couple, leading Bond down the road of betrayal and the end of his happiness. Was Madeleine in league with SPECTRE this whole time?
This question eventually connects Bond with old friends like Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), a new enemy in the mysterious and cultural-appropriating Safin (Rami Malek), and even a brand new 007 (Lashana Lynch), along with all the usual favorites. The latter wrinkle really interested me. After Bond retired and M (Ralph Fiennes) could no longer get in touch, they just replaced him with another agent. One seemingly just as skilled and capable. James Bond, another cog in the machine to be replaced by the military industrial complex. Even when he shows up at MI6 later on, he’s treated with reverence, but still has to wear a visitor badge. A tired old relic.
There’s an undeniable sense of resignation throughout, with Fukunaga and co. taking this weary Bond, and attempting to do two things at once: 1) cap off a series of films of this iteration of the franchise, 2) do it in a way that’s beholden to nothing but Bond movies themselves, even down the music cues which reference the underrated early era masterwork On Her Majestey’s Secret Service. And for the most part? It works well, to the point where for the first two hours of this bloated production, I thought this might be my favorite of the Craig outings.
It’s a humdinger of a plot for much of its running time, as Fukunaga and his three co-screenwriters (franchise mainstays Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with a number of obvious punch-ups by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), pit their hero in the midst of a four-way tango between MI6, the CIA, SPECTRE, and Safin’s ever growing threat of an organization. Of course, the apocalyptic mcguffin this time is some nonsense about nanorobots, but that’s just an inciting incident for a fun cat and mouse game between all the players involved. Usually, the thrill of this franchise is in its set-pieces and the actual plotting is a bit incidental. But I was pretty swept up in its attempts to create tension around this mysterious new enemy, whatever skeleton was in Madeleine’s closet, and the seeming competition between Bond and his new numerical namesake at MI6. There’s an especially fun peak at a private SPECTRE party that sees Bond teaming with a young CIA operative (Ana de Armas) that’s so well put together, from its cartoonish villainy – there’s even a great henchman with a bionic eye! – to rip roaring action that acts as a great showcase for de Armas, it instantly enters itself into the upper pantheon of the property’s highlight reel.
That No Time To Die acts in large part as a reclamation project for the rightfully maligned Spectre, and still works, speaks to how well balanced it is for much of its early going. Madeleine was another faceless Bond love interest by the end of that film, and by the end of this effort, she’s at least something approaching a three-dimensional character. And Waltz’s Blofeld is infinitely more fun here. One might argue the effort isn’t worth it, given they’re building on the bones of garbage, but if you must continue to force continuity into this world, I’ll take steep improvements.
Sadly, the last 45 minutes or so sends viewers into the film’s endgame where things really falter. Malek’s Safin, built up as a credible threat over so much time, is really a paper tiger, with a grand plan that isn’t up to much at all. It’s also a chaotic sequence with a number of different countdown clocks, with signs of past drafts collapsing onto one another. It’s as if there was some core disagreement regarding how this chapter of the character should close. Needless to say, it does come a close here, and that in of itself is worthy of recognition. It’s just hard to not bemoan how close they came to really sending Craig out on his highest potential note, and instead it all kind of goes out on a confused, rushed and fairly bland looking conclusion filled with gunfire.
Does an iffy third act erase all that came before? No, but it’s certainly emblematic of the missed opportunities that defined the Craig era. Loads of promise that gave way to mostly just passable entertainment on balance. Good enough, but he’s no Ethan Hunt.