James Bond has saved the world two dozen times during the last half-century, but the stakes have never been higher than they are in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s long-awaited (and even longer-delayed) “No Time to Die.” This mega-blockbuster is saddled with the extraordinary pressure of salvaging the Daniel Craig era from the ruins of “Spectre,” justifying the spy franchise’s decision to abandon standalone adventures in favor of a more serialized arc, and resolving its current run in a way that allows the 007 brand to stay relevant in the face of a Marvel-dominated future that has little room for 59-year-old sex pests on her majesty’s Secret Service. Phew.
While several Bonds have come and gone before, none of them have ever really needed to say goodbye — they were all effectively just replacing each other on the same deathless merry-go-round. One unflappably suave British man would get off, and another would step into the open car he left behind. These were movies without a memory, and that was a signature part of their timeless (if always trend-driven) charm. Even after 007’s new wife was assassinated in the closing moments of one film, he was literally a different person by the time the next began.
But the Craig-starring saga has played by its own rules from the start. “Casino Royale” cut Bond too deep for his scars to be Etch-a-Sketched away overnight, and so “Quantum of Solace” became the series’ first proper sequel. “Skyfall” explored the past of a character who had always existed in an eternal present, while “Spectre” clumsily attempted to connect that present to a past the character had long outgrown (thereby inventing a template that “Rise of the Skywalker” would later perfect into a miserable art form).
And so, in what now seems like an inevitable course-correction, “No Time to Die” is a story about the need to leave certain things behind. It’s the modern spy movie equivalent of “The Last Jedi,” as the universe tells James Bond that he has no choice but to let the past die — to kill it if he has to — and dares Craig to pull the trigger. The actor barely even blinks. Instead, he limps, smirks, and shoots his way through five erratic movies’ worth of pent-up emotion in order to make you cry. The result might be the least exciting Bond film of the 21st century, but it’s undeniably also the most moving.
At the end of the day, “No Time to Die” is a second chance at ending Craig’s run on a strong note and tying up all of the frayed threads that “Spectre” left blowing in the wind, and it makes good on that potential even at the expense of several new shortcomings. Written by Bond custodians Neal Purvis and Robert Wade — with assists from Fukunaga and Phoebe “Fleabag” godhead Waller-Bridge — the movie is fittingly also 007’s second chance at the happiness that slipped through his fingers when he took Vesper Lynd on the worst trip to Venice since “Don’t Look Now.” And from the moment it starts with the least Bond-like cold open in the franchise’s history, it’s clear that the spy’s 25th official outing will move forward with at least one eye locked on the rearview mirror. By the time Billie Eilish starts belting out the film’s downbeat title song more than 25 minutes later, it seems entirely possible that Bond may not be able to move forward at all.
It begins in a remote patch of Norwegian nowhere some two decades ago, when the eventual Dr. Madeleine Swann — then only a little girl who’s unaware that her father works for Spectre, or that she’ll have the good fortune of growing up to become Léa Seydoux — is visited by a killer in a porcelain mask. “Your father kills people,” the uninvited visitor says to her. “Is that who you love? A murderer?” He might as well be talking to Madeleine (and to us as well) about her future boyfriend. But times change, and James Bond has always been able to change with them, at least to a certain degree. So when 007 and Madeleine arrive in the hilltop village of Matera for an all-too-perfect Italian holiday, she encourages him to stop by Vesper’s grave; Madeleine is smart enough to recognize that James would only share his future with someone if they were able to be honest about their respective pasts. To recognize that they each have them, and ought to keep them where they belong. And that’s when things start blowing up.
The chase that follows is far and away the most exciting action setpiece in the entire film, and yet for all of its death-defying leaps and spinning machine-gun cars there’s something muted about the whole affair. The sequence climaxes with an emotionally unnerving (and somewhat unhinged) test of wills unlike anything this series has ever attempted before, and surrenders to the opening credits on a note that feels like it was borrowed from one of Richard Linklater’s “Before” movies.
There’s another smash-and-grab bit of carnage when “No Time to Die” picks up again five years later — a bio-weapon heist that takes full advantage of Bond’s retirement from MI6. Not long after that, Ana de Armas swings in for a sublimely charming cameo set in neon-lit Havana, where a Spectre party ends in a frenetic shootout. But such high-octane moments prove to be the exceptions to the rule, as it grows increasingly evident that Fukunaga isn’t following the franchise’s usual template.
Sure, the movie touches upon all of the expected Bond tropes: Felix Leiter, explosive watches, a slightly disfigured and wholly underwritten villain who lives on an island fortress somewhere between Russia and Japan (more on him in a minute), etc. There’s even a fight scene in which 007 appears to drink more shots than he fires. And yet “No Time to Die” can’t seem to get through this stuff fast enough — it’s like there’s somewhere else the film would rather be. Someone else its hero would rather be with.
What little action this movie has to offer beyond its pulse-raising prologue is contained in short spurts that emphasize intentionality over destruction, the most effective of them being a cat-and-mouse sequence (with serious “Metal Gear Solid” overtones) that patiently watches Bond set up a series of tripwires, only for 007 to off the bad guys in a hurry when they fall into his trap. In other words, anyone hoping for spectacle on par with what Martin Campbell brought to “Goldeneye” and “Casino Royale” will be sorely disappointed by what Fukunaga musters here, even if the film takes full advantage of its IMAX-scale presentation by the end.
Over time, this approach slowly becomes more of a feature than a bug, as a standard-issue story about a gene-targeting nanobot weapon capable of targeting specific individuals (or entire ethnicities) is revealed to be nothing but a simple backdrop for a melodrama that’s only masquerading as an action movie. Fukunaga and his fellow writers inherited a whole mess of plot baggage from “Spectre,” and they handle it in the only way they possibly could without replacing Craig altogether: They sign over that baggage to Bond instead, tie all of the dead weight from the previous movie onto his flailing body like an anchor around a sailor lost at sea, and challenge him to slip free of it before he drowns in his own past.
By that logic, it’s almost tempting to wonder if Rami Malek is deliberately forgettable as the standard-issue villain who checks all of the expected boxes, never reveals even a semi-cogent explanation for his evil plan, and only exists to make Bond confront his own demons. Few actors could redeem a role this basic — a role so broadly sketched to be 007’s negative image — and Malek isn’t one of them. His instinct to go full Jared Leto in “Blade Runner 2049” is all wrong for Bond’s ultimate adversary, or it would be if Lyutsifer Safin were meant to be more of a threat to Bond than Bond is to himself. “I want the world to evolve,” Lyutsifer whispers at the hero spy in his hodgepodge of a Eastern European accent, “while you want it to stay the same.” One day, see-through self-analysis might not be the only way that Hollywood blockbusters are allowed to be smart, but for now it’s nice to see one so willing to define its terms for us, and so eager to illustrate them with such clever examples (Lashana Lynch is a total blast as the MI6 agent Nomi, both a worthy rival for Bond as well as a potential replacement).
Of course, a simple “evolve or die” situation wouldn’t satisfy a legacy as rich as Bond’s, nor a performance as layered as Craig’s. From the moment he got his license to kill, Craig has stood out from his predecessors for being the most bulletproof 007 to ever wear that tuxedo, but also the most vulnerable. His Bond is as sensitive as an exposed nerve, and yet still able to laugh off a direct blow to the testicles from Mads Mikkelsen; he bleeds the same way as the rest of us, but scabs over twice as hard. Connery will always be treasured for giving birth to the character, but it’s Craig who finally allowed him to grow up.
Here — in the actor’s final and most affecting go — Bond takes stock of his wounds in order to understand what they were ultimately worth to him, and his conclusion is, in its own absurd way, worth the long and winding road this franchise has taken to get there. “If you have nothing left to give,” someone tells Bond, “you are irrelevant.” But he does. And by figuring out what that is, he buys the franchise that bears his name a new hope for the future. It will probably be a minute before the powers that be decide what that future will look like, but that’s okay. Bond doesn’t need to go faster — he has all the time in the world.
MGM will release “No Time to Die” in U.S. theaters on Friday, October 8.
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