It has been a remarkably long time coming, but No Time to Die has finally emerged in cinemas around the world. It ends the second-longest hiatus in the history of the James Bond movie franchise – close to six years, and second only to the gap between License to Kill (1989) and GoldenEye (1995). That delay was the result of a long and costly legal dispute; this one seems a combination of switching directors and holding off its release during the COVID pandemic until enough cinemas were open to have even a chance of recouping a $250m+ production cost.
That is the commercial pressure. There is also a creative challenge in that with No Time to Die, the franchise concludes its first-ever actively serialised narrative. Casino Royale (2006) introduced Daniel Craig to the role and acted very much as an origin story for the character. Quantum of Solace (2008) was the first direct sequel, and while Skyfall (2012) very much charted its own course Spectre (2015) awkwardly tried to shoe-horn all three preceding movies into one messy, half-hearted narrative. Now with No Time to Die Craig is retiring from the role, and all of the flailing and conflicted story and character threads need to all be tied up and finished.
Tied up they are, not perfectly but in a manner that is arguably better than the earlier films deserved. Casino Royale was an absolute five-star knockout, enhancing and detailing the character of Bond in a way never done before. It also restored a sense of heightened realism that had been missing from the films for some years. So strong was the character work in Casino Royale that it took an entire sequel to finish ‘dotting the Is and crossing the Ts’, so to speak, and finally rendering in unprecedented detail the international super-spy audiences had been watching in cinemas since 1962. Quantum of Solace is perhaps the most underrated Bond movie yet made – depending on your opinion of License to Kill – and despite some script problems (production coincided with a writers’ strike) works as a superb mirror piece to Casino Royale. Note that, as a two-part story, it both begins and ends on Bond with a gun waiting on a man. That the events of each scene differ signal the enormous change in the character during the intervening adventures.
It is weird that with Skyfall, widely promoted as a nostalgia-filled anniversary celebration, the producers chose to take a Bond that had been perfectly set up to start his espionage career proper and immediately send him to the end of it instead. The Bond of Skyfall is a retired and reluctant figure, who takes the first opportunity to quit his profession altogether before being dragged back into it. The shadowy Quantum organisation, which underpinned the events of the first two films, is also entirely ignored. Spectre brought the plot back in order to subsume it under the return of its titular 1960s criminal group and its leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld – now re-imagined as Bond’s adoptive brother. The result was an unholy mess, and easily the worst Bond film since Pierce Brosnan’s unedifying swansong Die Another Day (2002). It also sees Bond retire from his career again, in what seemed an even more resolute fashion.
The effect of Spectre is painfully evident in No Time to Die, as in order to resolve all of Daniel Craig’s movies it becomes necessary to revisit many of its worst creative choices. It is weird to consider that, across the other films, Bond has spent as much time exiting to secret agent business as he did entering it. It is as if portraying the entire action-packed career in the middle simply failed to cross anybody’s mind. No Time to Die begins with Bond quietly in retirement in Jamaica when the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) ropes him into a small mission as a favour. The ensuing narrative – involving SPECTRE, MI6, his ex-lover Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), and a facially disfigured mad terrorist (Rami Malek) – is by-and-large par for the course for a Bond picture. It may struggle to entirely make sense, but this is not the first and surely not the last time this is going to affect the franchise. If there is a logical purpose behind the fey, snobbish Safin (Malek) it is buried somewhere out of view. It is difficult to recall a Bond villain quite this underwritten.
It is worth dwelling on Safin, by the way, whose face is covered in burn scars. The facially disfigured and disabled villain is a well-worn Bond trope, originating in Ian Fleming’s novels, but is a tradition well worn out of novelty value and impossible to be excused. Equating facial difference with monstrous qualities is a bigotry towards a minority group that should not stand in 21st century society. This isn’t even an issue worth arguing over, because pretty much everybody can recognise such depictions have long since had their day. The only people who seem to have failed to get the message are the Bond producers themselves: Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.
What fails in terms of story is more than compensated for by moments of character. As this is the final instalment for this particular set of characters, pretty much every returning character gets a moment to shine. Bond’s former boss M (Ralph Fiennes) gets the best material he has had in the role. Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is proactive and sympathetic. For the first time in the whole decades-long franchise we discover Q (Ben Whishaw) has a private life. Even Blofeld (Christolph Waltz), so critically mismanaged in Spectre, gets to share an outstanding scene with Bond.
New characters work wonderfully as well, notably Lashana Lynch as Nomi, an MI6 spy that inherited Bond’s 007 number when he left, and particularly Ana de Armas as Paloma, a junior CIA operative who demonstrates a lot more talent that at first appears. She is the source of a good deal of effective humour, and in fact despite the overly dramatic storyline No Time to Die manages to find the balance of comedy and drama very successfully.
There are some elements that hardly require commentary at this stage. The action sequences are, as always, deftly engineering and edited together. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has a strong handle on tone and character. Hans Zimmer’s score is an effective blend of Bond and Batman, and makes subtle use of Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World”. Less subtle are the constant tips of the hat to earlier Bond pictures, not just On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but also Dr No and For Your Eyes Only. Given the occasion – it’s the 25th Bond feature from EON Productions, and Craig’s swansong – it settles just on the side of enjoyable, without becoming irritating.
Of course Bond himself is handled masterfully. Daniel Craig has played the role over more years that any actor before him, and pulls out all of the stops for his final performance. He is undoubtedly the finest element of his own era in the role, and has drawn a clear line of development through all five films. It is the characterisation in No Time to Die that does not simply save it, but makes it a genuinely satisfying film to watch. Even if the narrative does not quite pay off – and opinions will clearly differ on that – on an emotional level it is absolutely wonderful. Casino Royale is yet to be bettered, but No Time to Die is an easy choice to rank second.