Since Daniel Craig nearly left the iconic 007 role, following the disaster of “Spectre,” the title of his final Bond film, director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “No Time To Die,” has carried a cruelly ironic tone. Craig has had nothing but time: days, months, and now years added to his sentence as the man who orders his martini best shaken, not stirred. Since his 2006 debut in “Casino Royale,” Craig’s Bond, the actor himself now age 53, more than any other iteration of the character, grappled with loss, mortality, and heartbreak. The women have become less disposable, fewer instigators to more kills. He has internalized an unwavering hurt. And in response, this version of the undercover British spy has felt much more real, emotionally bruised, and better.
“No Time To Die” continues those themes to larger, weepier extremes. A friend dies. A lover returns. A megalomaniac yields a biochemical weapon intending for widespread death. The fast cars are there. But there are fewer sexual exploits. The women are too smart for Bond’s tricks. And tellingly, Bond assumes the role of provocateur more out of habit than want. There are plenty of callbacks to Craig’s previous turns in the black tuxedo. But with Fukunaga at the helm, “No Time To Die” aptly balances the franchise’s classic construct yet totally remakes what a Bond movie can be for a fitting, touching end to Craig’s tenure.
“No Time To Die,” however, takes plenty of time to rev its narrative wheels. It begins with Bond living with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) in an idyllic Italian coastal village, living out a sweeping romance back by Hans Zimmer’s lush strings. 007 desperately wants to begin a new life with Madeleine, who has a few secrets of her own, but she refuses to totally commit to him until he resolves his grief over Vesper Lynd, his great love from “Casino Royale.” But a sneak attack against the vulnerable spy causes him to distrust Madeleine, leading him to leave her and promptly drop off the grid. It’s not the first time the spy has absconded from his duty to mourn heartbreak. He did so in “Skyfall,” too. But this time feels different: This secret agent has experienced too much loss, too much betrayal to come back for Queen and country alone. A mood matched by Billie Eilish’s somber title track, and the doleful, meditative title sequence.
Much of “No Time To Die” is steeped in melancholy. Barring a stunning car chase sequence through the stony steps of the aforementioned seaside town, a setting whose capturing recalls Fukunaga’s work on “Sin Nombre,” the action is brief. Instead, Bond wrestles with whether he should return, whether he can ever be Bond again. The only person capable of pulling him out of retirement is his good friend Felix (Jeffrey Wright), who arrives with another operative, Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), with a mission to Cuba to recover a scientist (David Dencik).
In a script written by Fukunaga with assistance from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. the movie moves at an interminable pace working to connect all the character and narrative threads from Craig’s previous film. This franchise doesn’t work as a larger, interconnected universe. So when it tries to recall Spectre, the secret terrorist organization that’s afflicted Bond since “Casino Royale,” the connective tissues split from the reverse-engineered stitching. The return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), for instance, is underwhelming. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is underutilized as a mere office clerk for M (Ralph Fiennes).
The movie wants to provide real emotional stakes for M, built upon the regret of possibly creating a situation that’ll kill millions of people, but the lens doesn’t stay with him long enough for that intriguing sentiment to take root. And Q (Ben Whishaw) refers to a male date coming over, firmly coding him as queer, but it happens in such passing, it’s easy to miss, and that just isn’t good enough.
This movie still suffers from the shortcoming that’s caused Craig’s other films to stumble: Without the shadow of the Cold War, it can’t conjure up a real villain. Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin, a facially scarred terrorist intent on avenging the deaths of his family by dismantling Spectre, apprehending Madeline, and killing Bond through a weapon constructed to spread like a virus through people who share similar DNA — is more a grab bag of character motivations than a felt threat. But Malek’s performance is also lacking. It’s said that the injury caused his character great pain, but apart from the opening sequence, when he crosses an icy terrain to murder Madeline’s mother, wherein he utilizes a limp arm, the pain doesn’t translate to his physical performance, making his scarring an unnecessary use of his disformity for frights.
Instead, “No Time to Die” works best when Fukunaga and Craig work to reimagine the emotions that can drive a Bond movie. Unlike his predecessors, Craig’s iteration of the character has always struggled with his place in the world: Who does he fight when he can’t see the enemies? How does he deal with grief in a universe where friends are consistently dying? Does he ever love? Can he love?
Even when Craig took the role, his youthful Bond entered the franchise as a dinosaur, a remnant of a time when the Cold War dominated fears, and the angst of Britain losing its place as a superpower felt much starker. However, rather than violently reacting against the passing of time, this version of the character accepts his elder role: He teams with Paloma (Ana de Armas), an exuberant new agent with only three weeks of experience, to apprehend missing scientist at a Spectre party. He’s not entirely threatened when Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the new 007 that’s replaced him in retirement, asserts her mettle. This Bond knows his physical peak is gone, and there’s peace with acknowledging that truth. But as much as Fukunaga and company try to diversify the franchise: de Armas barely appears, Lynch becomes deferential, an appendage to Bond’s return, and this movie is solely concerned with white men who feel out of step with the world.
Apart from the feeling of finality, Fukunaga adds shocks of excitement by employing his rough and tumble, one-camera guerilla-style. One sequence in a foggy forest recalls his work on “Beasts of No Nation.” While another in an abandoned missile silo is intimately shot using a single camera, not unlike his one-shot sequence in “True Detective.” That missile silo scene imbues the typically slick Bond with a dirty, visceral edge unlike any other in the franchise’s history. It also matches Craig’s brawling style better than any other director has: The actor’s greying head, the deep lines to his face marking his vivid blue eyes, have always had that weary sentiment. But they’re flexed to a sharpened effect here as the apparent scars only make each punch feel harder, each kick more difficult to recover from.
Editors Elliot Graham and Tom Cross are intermittently caught fashioning an elegiac mood, which can cause this nearly-three-hour film to drag. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren tries pulling together several visual tones, mixing clean compositions with frenetic looks, and sometimes the switching between modes allows the emotional seams to show to their detriment. It’s not until the last act when Craig takes the wheel that “No Time To Die” finds its emotional balance. Nevertheless, the film discovers a portion of realness: Bond says, “I love you.” He cries without hiding his eyes. He stumbles through his last scenes like a wounded animal ready to give up the ghost.
For those who’ve taken Craig’s Bond as their concerns: Their wait is worth it. His final scene is the most heartbreaking sequence in the franchise’s history. That’s not a hard bar to clear in a franchise filled with sexually punned names, fast cars, and overwrought technology, but it means a lot with Craig’s Bond, the most emotionally attuned of these iterations. “No Time to Die” is so, so long. But I wish it went a little longer if only to see how else Craig could’ve pushed this dinosaur. “No Time to Die” is his perfect ending, a moment worth toasting as a wistful rejection of a character that’ll never be the same without him. [B]