Well, it took damn near forever to get here. The phrase “tomorrow never dies” is possibly what kept Bond-heads optimistic that we’d see through the pandemic in order to finally watch No Time To Die. As I’ve titled this as a farewell to James Bond, it really isn’t for the character – Bond will eventually be back. But it is a goodbye to Daniel Craig’s James Bond, whose unique blend of Timothy Dalton’s gritty apprehension, mixed with the bravado of Bronson and Connery, has re-invented the character for a generation that will consider this their James Bond. Craig has made it no secret that this is his last outing as the super spy, which turns No Time To Die into his swan song. But will Bond’s end be somber, or will the spy finally get something of a happy ending?
The latest film sees Bond in retirement. He’s beaten up, weary, and drinking even more than usual (later on he remarks it’s only been a “few hours” since his last taste of the bubbly). But when he gets wind of a plot involving the criminal organization known as Spectre, Bond can’t help the urge to spring back into action. Except for this time, there’s a new 007 – Nomi (Lashana Lynch). While Bond states that 007 is just a number, Nomi is instantly threatened by the former double O’s presence, and uses every available opportunity to either 1-up James, or belittle him.
But while James is preparing for round 2 with Spectre, a far more sinister scheme is bubbling under the surface, against an unexpected foe. This isn’t a re-run of 2015’s Spectre (THANK GOD!), but this new evil plan does threaten to upend the lives of Bond and his loved ones. When Bond visits his imprisoned foster brother Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), it’s to get answers to James’ latest dilemma. But Bond’s mortal enemy has no motivation to help the man that’s supposedly responsible for Blofeld’s insanity. Instead of offering help, Blofeld mocks him and takes credit for driving a wedge between Bond and his lover, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux). To drive the stake even further into Bond’s heart, Blofeld states that Madeleine is hiding something of extreme importance to Bond, one that can change his life forever.
The formula for the best Bond movies is usually quite simple, but complex in execution. You need a Bond we believe in, a memorable love interest, a plot that’s easy enough to understand, a great villain, fantastic set pieces, and some surprising emotional stakes. Casino Royale (2006), arguably the greatest Bond outing ever, hits on all 6 of these requirements. Skyfall (2012), another contender in the goat race, hits all but the memorable love interest (although Judy Dench’s sterling coda as “M” makes up for this). Together they make up the peak of the Craig era, and No Time To Die doesn’t reach those heights. Here, what’s lacking is the villain.
Rami Malek, still showing his Academy Award-winning glow, comes up short for reasons that aren’t all his fault. He plays Lyutsifer Safin let’s just call him Lucifer Satan for the purposes of transparency. Safin, I mean Satan, is an eco-terrorist who’s developed nanotechnology that can target and kill someone based on their DNA, but it will only be poisonous to that particular person. Think of there being thousands of different Corona Viruses, with each one being harmful to only one individual in the entire world.
The plan is deliciously devious, but the development of the character is lacking. Satan takes an almost Lex Luthor-like worldview of Bond, as it becomes clear that he has a personal vendetta against our hero. Once we read between the lines, what we have here is jealousy on the devil’s part, especially of the love and attention Bond receives as Satan wishes it was him. But the tension between the two is unable to foster because their interactions are so brief. The movie waits so long to pit the two against each other, that the audience can’t muster the care for El Diablo’s ramblings that Bond is an evil/violent man who doesn’t deserve his loved ones or his celebrated status. It plays like a late addition to the screenplay in order to create a personal conflict between hero and villain.
As rushed as the plotline is, I like the idea in theory. For decades, we’ve seen Bond immortalized as the world’s most renowned womanizer. It is unequivocally part of the character’s appeal and legacy. However, Craig’s Bond is the most sensitive portrayal of the character since George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). While he is a womanizer, he’s also an evolving man who’s fallen hard for Vesper Lynd, and now Madeleine Swann. The idea that Bond’s melting heart could indirectly lead to personal conflict with one of the most dangerous men on the planet is a fascinating concept if developed properly.
But what makes the film a worthy Bond adventure, far above poor outings like Spectre and Quantum of Solace (2008), are the action, the characters, and the stakes. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga films the set pieces with aplomb, showing an expert understanding of scale, framing, space, and editing. This isn’t the type of movie where you’ll be confused at what you’re watching within the action, and we demand nothing less in Hollywood’s premier spy franchise. The movie’s amorphous angles perfectly capture a mysterious swat team, an on-the-floor shootout, a crowded motorcycle ride, an aerial dive into the ocean, and a stairway gunfight that is appropriately reminiscent of Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64.
Craig has immense chemistry with pretty much everyone he shares the screen with. Bond’s playful rivalry with Nomi illuminates the strengths and insecurities of both while providing a few nice laughs. He goes on to team with an agent in training (Ana de Armas) for a far too short, but electrically violent rendezvous. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), M (Ralph Fiennes), and Q (Ben Whishaw) are all back for some expository heavy lifting, but to also help set the table for Craig’s proverbial retirement party.
Then there’s the central relationship between James and Madeleine. In Spectre, where these two originally hooked up, their romance was awfully rushed. But here, more development is paid to their connection, and the movie is much better for it. Similar to the impact of Vesper Lynd, what Madeleine does is essentially strip James Bond of his magic powers to show a man that isn’t as Teflon as we previously thought. It all leads to a somewhat unexpected, but potentially inevitable conclusion.
In the end, for the exaggeration of the male ego that is Bond, Craig’s era was about grounding the character to something more representative of the male psyche, distancing itself from the fantasy. Bond isn’t indestructible, nor is he impervious to emotion. The concluding scene is somewhat juxtaposed to the movie’s ominous opening, as a key character attempts to foster a relationship that is much different than the one we’re subjected to in the opening. The film’s final line seems like the last sentence in a novel, apropos for Bond’s literary origins. That version of Bond was more unsure of himself and more susceptible to mistakes – a far cry from the Connery era of perfection. And it’s in Ian Fleming’s original vision of the character where the Craig era drew the inspiration for a James Bond that made more sense in the modern world. Yes, there were plenty of missteps along the way (including in this movie) but the ultimate message was successfully received. James Bond is a legend – but he’s also human.