In order to preserve its impact for the millions lining up to see it, it won’t be possible to truly dissect the boldness and significance of No Time to Die until the dust has settled on the box office, and moves to find Daniel Craig’s successor as James Bond go up a gear. For purposes of review, the script may as well be redacted.
And that’s not such a bad thing. The long-awaited finale of the Craig era is every bit as slippery, emotionally-charged and spectacular as we’d been led to expect; but most striking is the bravado involved in completing Craig’s arc as the character. It’s gutsy, risky, potentially alienating for some, but definitively seals the actor’s five-film cycle as a complete, standalone Bond history.
We’ve been waiting nearly two years as the producers held their nerve during the pandemic, in order to ensure Bond made it to the big screen, not small. It’s worth the wait.
There’s a raft of new personnel – Cary Fukunaga taking on directing duties from Sam Mendes, Phoebe Waller-Bridge joining the writers, Lashana Lynch’s female 007. And the sense of a major sea change kicks in immediately, with the customary pre-credits action sequence being replaced by an extraordinarily elaborate and satisfying prologue, involving Bond’s new lover Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).
It opens with an introduction to the formative moment in Madeleine’s childhood that will connect her to the film’s principal villain; this sequence alone is masterfully done – taut, horror-frightening. Then it picks up where Spectre left off, Bond and Madeleine enjoying their new romance in the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Italian town of Matera. And then Madeleine’s seeming betrayal (the big spoiler of the film’s trailer), a moment of rare disorientation for the agent, and a scintillating chase through the streets of the town that includes a mind-boggling motorcycle stunt and a top-notch performance by one of Bond’s trusty Aston Martins, firing on all cylinders and with gadgets aplenty.
Whereas pre-credits usually establish Bond as the super spy who’s about to dominate the events that follow, here, for once, there is fallibility, doubt, disappointment. Billie Eilish’s melancholy, fatalistic title track feels tailor-made.
Fast forward five years. Bond is retired, alone, catching fish in his old stomping ground of Jamaica, until his old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) shows up, in need of a favour; just a little one, involving madmen, deadly poisons and saving the world.
What exactly Bond is getting into remains a genuine mystery for some time, with M (Ralph Fiennes) seemingly losing the plot, two villains – old nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and creepy, scarred Safin (Rami Malek) – vying for attention, Madeleine possibly aligned to one or other, or both. And how can a poison gas meant for Bond kill everyone but Bond?
Like most Bond movies, the dastardly masterplan (a globe-threatening biohazard) doesn’t bear too much scrutiny and isn’t really the main concern. What is, here, are the themes – of love, loss and trust – that have been brewing since Craig’s first outing in Casino Royale and the death of then lover Vesper Lynd. “We all have our secrets,” he tells Madeleine. “We just haven’t got to yours yet.”
While Bond works out his issues, there’s much traditional fun to be had, not least with the women in his workplace. Lynch lends heaps of sass and charisma to the new 007, Nomi, who’s young, confident, highly competent and keen to score points off her predecessor. “I have a thing for old wrecks”, she tells Bond when they first meet, before threatening to shoot him in the knee – “the one that works.” One can see Waller-Bridge looming over Nomi’s shoulder. In Cuba, Ana de Armas (Craig’s break-out co-star in Knives Out) is a hoot as newbie CIA agent Paloma, whose wide-eyed, nervous excitement about her first assignment belies a stunning skillset.
The MI6 crew, including Ben Wishaw’s Q and Naomi Harris’s Moneypenny, are as reliable as ever, if a little under-used. But Fiennes and Craig share a beautiful scene together, shot to highlight their characters as two middle-aged men bemoaning the good old days (when you could look an enemy in the eye when you kill him), lending a weary dignity to these relics of the secret service.
Craig gamely plays on his age in some of the fight sequences, sometimes struggling to stay on his feet. From the very beginning of his tenure the actor has lent the spy nuance and a certain, bruised vulnerability; but here we see the full transformation – caring, paternal almost, often wryly hilarious, unusually willing to take a back seat (it’s Nomi who flies the film’s most dazzling new toy, with Bond parked passively behind her), a long way from the taciturn, indestructible alpha male of old. He’s positively human in fact.
There’s a danger here of course. Sometimes Craig in this film could be any action hero other than 007, and there are passages of the film – touchy-feely beats – that don’t feel like a Bond at all.
But then a reference to past films, notably Dr No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, will remind us of the ancestry and the game plan; the character’s trajectory is deliberate and brilliantly delivered by Craig, the sublime Seydoux and Fukunaga. The director is still best known for the first, great series of True Detective, of which there are echoes here, not least the hunt for a madman in his cavernous lair – in this case Safin’s concrete island fortress. Unusually for a Bond movie, but typical of Fukunaga’s work, every single action sequence carries emotional weight, while the fast pacing, energetic cutting and camera moves help to make a near three-hour film pass in a flash.
It doesn’t all gel. Neither Waltz (limited to a cameo with shades of Hannibal Lector) or Malik are given enough time to really impose themselves, and there’s a messiness to the climactic assault on the island. Nevertheless, this is a meaty, playful, touching end to an era, leaving plenty to ponder.
This review first appeared in The Arts Desk