3.5 out of 5 stars

Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond has lasted for four US Presidents, remarkably. Casino Royale (2006) was a stripped-down reboot of the franchise after Pierce Brosnan’s era collapsed into self-parody with invisible cars and tsunami parasailing, inspired by the more down-to-earth thrills of the Bourne franchise. The Bond formula and icons returned quickly, peaking with 50th-anniversary instalment Skyfall (2012) — which grossed a franchise record-breaking $1.1BN at the global box office — but director Sam Mendes couldn’t pull the same trick twice with hollow follow-up Spectre (2015). Craig was vocal about not wanting to return as the suave secret agent after Spectre’s disappointing reception but was convinced to give his reign the swansong it deserved with No Time To Die—which now arrives six years later, after “creative differences” with original director Danny Boyle resulted in him leaving the project, then some unfortunate delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This era has always tried to do things a bit differently, even if James Bond (Craig) is now comfortably in a heightened world where Q (Ben Whishaw) gives him EMP wrist-watches, he makes a sardonic quip after killing someone, and a disfigured villain is plotting global genocide from an island base. There aren’t too many changes to the finely-tuned Skyfall formula, but what does counts for a lot. The first one’s subtle, as No Time To Die’s prologue doesn’t feature Bond on a mission doing something that may only be tangentially connected to the rest of the movie. We’re instead given a creepy, almost slasher-like opening scene that’s revealed to be an origin story for a returning ‘Bond Girl’ and the new ‘Bond Villain’, which was refreshing to see. The screenplay by Bond stalwarts Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, aided by director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), is also heavily indebted to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) in terms of the story fundamentally changing Bond in a key way, then mirroring something about that classic’s ending. Ironically, in both cases, the lead actors — George Lazenby and Daniel Craig—won’t actually be back to explore the seismic shifts that are made along the way.

The plot takes a while to cohere into anything much and then grows to feel disappointing because everything boils down to a “doomsday virus”. But that’s often the case with Bond movies, and this one’s 163-minutes long (but doesn’t feel just shy of three hours), so it makes sense that the first hour’s intentionally vague about what’s going on and why. It works as a direct sequel to Spectre too, meaning we have a fun scene with Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in a high-tech prison being treated like Hannibal Lecter, and more generally it’s a bittersweet farewell for Craig that bring his five-movie arc to an emotional high. So while you may not be particularly gripped by the run-of-the-mill plot, Craig’s performance and developments to Bond’s life keep you watching. Bond is also retired from MI6 now, separated from new love Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), and replaced as “007” by younger female agent Nomi (Lashana Lynch), which are all changes that give his character fun things to bounce off.

There are some disappointments along the way. Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) is the adversary this time, but despite being introduced in an unnerving and unusual way, Safin doesn’t really work as a character. He’s not as nasty as Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale, or as fun as Javier Bardem in Skyfall, or even as magnetic as Christoph Waltz in Spectre, so only really bests the forgettable Mathieu Amalric from Quantum of Solace (2008) in this era. Malek was clearly cast because of Mr Robot’s success on television, but beyond looking creepy he’s actually rather dull and lifeless. It’s also unfortunate that Paloma (Ana de Armas), a CIA agent assisting Bond in Cuba, only appears for one extended undercover mission that turns into a big fight sequence. The actress, who recently starred alongside Craig in Knives Out (2019), is fantastic with the physicality involved and looks stunning in a low-cut black dress, so it’s a shame she isn’t a bigger part of events. (Her entire chunk of the movie could be removed and it would barely impact things.) The more notable female role is reserved for Nomi, Bond’s direct replacement at MI6, but Lynch doesn’t leave much of an impression and seems to have only been included as a sop to those begging for a black or female Bond next. Faring much better is Jeffrey Wright, back as Felix Leiter after skipping Skyfall and Spectre, who does a wonderful job as Bond’s “brother” and gets one of the film’s most gut-wrenching moments.

The action sequences are entertaining, but No Time To Die is a victim of its many marketing campaigns as the release date kept being pushing back. There have been so many trailers since 2019 that almost every stunt has been given away in the promotional materials. That’s no fault of the movie itself, of course, but it did mean there’s a lack of big surprises when sitting down to watch the film at last. However, a motorbike chase through Materna, Italy, folding into a sequence with a bullet-proof Aston Martin DB5 equipped with machine guns, is particularly strong. But things to come don’t match it, and the climax with Bond and Nomi sneaking onto a disputed island mostly takes place in dark, near-identical concrete tunnels.

Having Cary Joji Fukunaga directing was seen as an interesting choice when he took over from Danny Boyle, but he’s still best-known for his small-screen work with True Detective, The Alienist, and Masters of the Air. The $250M No Time To Die is a big jump up from the period drama Jane Eyre (2011) and Beasts of No Nation (2015) and he doesn’t fall flat on his face, but the film also isn’t especially distinct. He brought such a visual stamp to True Detective, in particular, so it seems strange No Time To Die looks of a piece with what Sam Mendes did. Maybe this is indicative of the infamous control Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson exert on Bond, and which likely caused Boyle to quit once he realised they wouldn’t give him the freedom Mendes enjoyed with Skyfall. Still, Fukunaga turns in the third-best Bond of Craig’s era, behind Skyfall and Casino Royale.

What’s most interesting about No Time To Die would stray into spoilers to dive into here, but suffice to say the future of James Bond seems more unpredictable than ever as the credits roll. We know Craig won’t be back and another actor is already being searched for, but you’re left wondering how on earth any of the supporting players could continue calling a new person “James Bond”. The franchise has transitioned into a new 007 many times before, with M or Q typically being retained across eras, but No Time To Die ends in a way that surely demands a clean slate.

Overall, Daniel Craig continues to do sterling work here, and even if the movies he was in have alternated between good and forgettable, none were outright terrible and he always kept them entertaining. It’s true the most recent Bond is usually everyone’s favourite, but Craig really did pull off the difficult feat of honouring the fundamental personality traits Ian Fleming established in the novels, but in a way that brought them into modern times and avoided him feeling like too much of a misogynist. He was also handsome in a less conventional way than his predecessors, which gave him a tougher edge that worked well against the suave caricature of Bond as a tuxedo-wearing playboy and state-sanctioned killer. A James Bond perfectly calibrated for the 21st-century, I don’t envy anyone having to follow in Craig’s footsteps and find something different to do with this legendary role… particularly after a more serialised run of films that took that character on a distinct rookie to retiree arc that can’t be replicated anytime soon.

UK USA | 2021 | 163 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Cary Joji Fukunaga.
writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga & Phoebe Waller-Bridge (story by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Cary Joji Fukunaga; based on ‘James Bond’ by Ian Fleming).
starring: Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Ana de Armas, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz & Ralph Fiennes.