‘No Time to Die,’ but Plenty of Time for a Retirement Party
⚠ SPOILER WARNING!!!
There's no time for spoilers, so you're probably aware of what happens to Daniel Craig at the end of the 25th James Bond film. Following the film's world premiere screenings in London last week, some people rushed to spread the word online, the Film Twitter equivalent of Homer exiting The Empire Strikes Back on opening night. In the age of social media, the statute of limitations on surprises is dangerously short, but it should still be possible to review No Time to Die without saying what its marketing, promotion, and coyly morbid title have already implied.
The franchise has consolidated its own form of immortality for nearly 60 years by doubling down, baccarat-style, on the idea that its star attraction Will Return—regardless of whether in the same exact corporeal form. James Bond, like any long-standing, ceremonial role of significant cultural significance—the queen of England, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Dr Who—is both bigger than the person who inhabits him and malleable enough to fit the specifications of each host vessel. He's a designer tuxedo in need of alterations, or a vintage Aston Martin in need of routine maintenance.
Sean Connery reneged on his decision to opt-out of the role that made him a megastar in 1983, 12 years after graciously abdicating it. He starred in the non-Saltzman-and-Broccoli Thunderball knockoff Never Say Never Again, a film whose title misrepresented the actor's noble, broken promise to himself. (An all-time case of spousal trolling, the joke was credited to Connery's wife.) Aside from this one exception, no Bond film, good, bad, or Moonraker, goes out of its way to explicitly acknowledge the identity of its protagonist. There haven't been any teary-eyed curtain calls either.
Instead of riding off into the sunset at the end of A View to a Kill—No Time to Die is an outlier in this regard because of its valedictory tone. Every aspect of the film, from the plot to the visual style to the thickly funereal atmosphere, has been carefully calibrated to emphasize its status as a send-off for Craig, whose constant, Connery-like whining about his boredom with the role corresponds to his version of the character.
James Bond has always had a borderline-misanthropic intensity to him, derived from Ian Fleming's literary description of the character's cold blue eyes and "cruel" mouth. Craig took these characteristics and ran with them, becoming the first Bond to never appear to be having a good time.
The common denominators of 21st-century Bonds have been gloom and doom, with mixed and fascinating results. No Time to Die, like Skyfall and Spectre, is primarily about the bonds and scars etched between parents and their children. It's a parched, solemn affair, with scenes of little girls being terrorized by psychopaths and multiple sequences in which beloved, long-running characters are forced to contemplate their own mortality.
Cary Fukunaga has directed the action in a ruthless, first-person-shooter style that at times exalts Bond's lethal efficiency as if we've been thrown into a remake of the deathless N64 cartridge classic GoldenEye. However, stunts and spectacle—as well as sex—have been mostly replaced by a grim realism; the most impressive section takes place in a foggy forest, with a shoot-out steeped in uncertainty and dread.
These are ominous, ominous sensations; never before has a Bond film been so desperate for its own meagre comic relief. The addition of Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge to punch up the script with some wit generated a lot of buzz before the film's release, but her contributions have been swallowed up by Fukunaga's droning, anxious vibe. James' affectionate, respectful, and in no way desirous rivalry with his numerological MI6 replacement Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who gloatingly rubs her claim to the "007" designation in her predecessor's face, is the best (only?) running joke.
Meanwhile, Ana de Armas, who plays the disarmingly klutzy Cuban operative, Paloma, gives the film's most enjoyable performance—all kinetic physicality and chirpy good humour.
Despite the fact that there have been female 00s since Thunderball, No Time to Die makes a point of highlighting its distaff field operatives. Lynch and de Armas' roles as leading ladies represent a conscious break with the material's sexism. (Like Monica Bellucci in Spectre, de Armas has stated in interviews that she does not want to be known as "Bond Girl.") One of many ways in which No Time to Die signals its own paradigm shift is Bond handing over his ID to a sleekly competent Black female colleague—and his acceptance of the transition without any attempts at flirtation.
People have been asking whether Bond can change with the times for decades, but filmmakers have only seemed willing to provide answers with the Craig-era Bond films.
Judi Dench's M denounced Bond as a "blunt instrument" in Casino Royale, and the film as a whole revelled in hitting its past-his-expiry-date hero below the belt—the same spot where Auric Goldfinger had aimed his laser beam 50 years before. What made Casino Royale so great was that it refused to choose between sexy, trashy, 1960s-style sensationalism and a more realistic, millennial resonance; it was both old-school and cutting-edge, with Craig channelling Sean Connery's hardheaded charisma even as director Martin Campbell's camera provocatively framed him emerging from the surf like Ursula Andress in Dr. No.
The promise of a Bond who could be both a lady-killer and an erotic object—bold enough to return Le Chiffre's innuendos in the middle of torture—made Casino Royale feel like a genuinely interesting reset, as did the smouldering, romantic tone of Craig's scenes with Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, whose tragic fate marked the first time since the finale of On Her Majesty's Secret Service that a Bond film dared to.
A little of that goes a long way, and the problem with No Time to Die is that it is constantly striving for big, bruising emotions. The pathos wears you out after two hours and forty minutes. As the film begins, our hero is still trying to shake off the remnants of his feelings for the late Vesper while committing to a life with Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), the "daughter of Spectre." Whereas before Craig, Bond never had a relationship that lasted beyond the climax of a single adventure—pathological bachelorhood that preserved the male fantasy—now he's at the centre of a complicated, semi-posthumous love triangle.
No Time to Die has a lot of plot, most of which is unnecessary given how predictable the ending is. The slasher-movie cold open is the first Bond prologue to include horror elements, giving Fukunaga a chance to show off the sinewy tracking shots he perfected on True Detective—but the threads it leaves dangling about Bond and Madeleine's ultimate identities take far too long to be resolved. We already know that the girl is a younger version of Madeleine, and we also know that the man behind the mask will be the film's antagonist.
Unfortunately, the villain is played by Rami Malek, who hasn't had a role since Mr Robot that makes good use of his alienation-effect acting style. Safin is a brooding, monotonous bore in comparison to Mads Mikkelsen's sadistic Le Chiffre and Javier Bardem's scenery-chewing Silva in Skyfall, and his plan to use a deadly toxin to target specific individuals via their DNA connects to a broad theme of biology without making much sense. Safin feels almost like an afterthought, rather than a clear and present danger. Even his eerie Phantom of the Opera mask is rarely worn.
In terms of the biology theme, it's usually a bad sign when a franchisee feels compelled to include an adorable kid in order to keep the stakes high. No Time to Die's cynical shamelessness in the child-endangerment climax feels like a low point. Perhaps it would be more impactful if James and Madeleine's relationship was more passionate, or if the arrival of some wide-eyed Bond offspring was more than a ploy to stack the deck.
It's one thing to cutely humanize Daniel Craig by having him cook eggs for a moppet; it's quite another to rush headlong into a climactic moment of truth that owes more to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films or the MCU than any of the franchise's actual forerunners. It was shocking and sad when Diana Rigg's Tracy was murdered at the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but it also fits into the Bond universe's one-thing-after-another low and its ever-shifting, continuity-averse storytelling. No Time to Die isn't ruthless—sentimental, it's and it's so concerned with leaving a legacy that it's practically critic-proof.
No Time to Die's strong early box office performance in the United Kingdom will almost certainly be repeated in the United States; even more than Dune, Denis Villeneuve's film that he chose to make instead of a Bond film, No Time to Die promises (and sometimes delivers) big-screen, out-of-body escapism as well as catharsis. In some ways, the film's prolonged, joyless, largely technical sense of accomplishment is the perfect capstone to Craig's run, which raised the franchise's floor while falling short of even its worst predecessors' giddy, dizzying ceilings.
The series' overlords have the power to kill and resurrect, and when they use one, they'll almost certainly use the other. For the time being, it's enough to see something that's running on fumes put out of its misery.
The final Bond film, starring Daniel Craig, is an outlier, full of uncharacteristic sentimentality and resolution.