To properly talk about what works and what doesn’t with No Time to Die, I’m going to delve into spoilers near the end of this piece. I’ll put a warning.
In the days before No Time to Die opened, a very specific question ran through my mind. It had nothing to do with whether the final outing for Daniel Craig would tie together events of the four previous films, nor with who might take on the mantle in the coming years. Rather, my question was, “do I even like James Bond movies?”
My Bond Background
I’ve seen every 007 film since 1995’s Goldeneye in theaters, often on opening weekend. I enjoy the promise of a good James Bond adventure. I love the big stunts, exotic locations and dry puns, and there’s a fondness for the character built up from years of watching reruns on TBS or seeing the Pierce Brosnan movies in theaters with my friends.
But I wondered whether I’d mistaken obligation for interest. There was a new James Bond movie coming out, and I planned to see it in theaters because that’s what I do with a new James Bond movie. But I don’t rewatch the films often. Gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you which stunts, villains or Bond girls belonged to various entries; they all blur together. To me, the fun of a James Bond movie is akin to watching a cover band play greatest hits; the fun is in seeing what new notes the cast and crew bring to familiar material.
But the hits weren’t hitting as hard in the Craig era. As much as I think the actor is a fantastic Bond, bringing a vulnerability and bluntness that serve the role well, his movies have been a mixed bag. I think Casino Royale might be the very best film of the 50-year series, and its ending is a rare gut punch for a franchise not known for naked emotion. Skyfall is a gorgeous, fast-paced adventure that I like until it goes into Home Alone territory in its final act. But Quantum of Solace is an empty Bourne rip-off and Spectre a dull slog that tries too hard to build a mythology to a series with no real need for it.
Bond films have always been hit and miss, of course. That’s par for the course when you have a 26-film franchise, as is the repetitive nature of some plot points, thematic interests and action sequences. But when the Craig Bonds fell flat, they were nigh unbearable. The darker direction of this era means that if the films don’t work, there’s little to leaven things. Spectre, in particular, is almost impossible to get through because it’s so dour and the action so muddled. I wanted Craig to have an opportunity to have fun, save the world, use some over-the-top gadgets and break out in a smile.
So, despite the fact that I think it’s highly possible that Daniel Craig may have a claim on being the best Bond, the films themselves have run the gamut from great to awful. I liked two, and I really disliked two. I had a hard time mustering up enthusiasm for No Time to Die because I knew it would likely be the film that defined whether Daniel Craig’s Bond run was a success or failure.
But still, it was opening night and there was a new Bond movie. Of course I was going to go see it.
Nobody does it better...for about an hour
The first hour of No Time to Die is, thankfully, what I’d hoped Craig’s Bond would have a chance to do for years. It’s fleet-footed, exciting and fun in a way these latest films often go to great lengths to avoid.
In the film’s (literal) cold opening, director Cary Joji Fukunaga taps into his horror movie instincts for a tense and intimate home invasion sequence before catching up with Bond and Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) in Italy, where the retired spy is hoping to let go of the past before moving into a blissful future. Because this is a James Bond movie, that doesn’t happen, leading to a spectacular car chase and ending with Bond and Madeleine separated. Five years later, the ex-007 is living off the grid in the tropics, where he is tracked down by the CIA, who want his help finding a missing scientist who has absconded with a dangerous weapon. This eventually brings Bond back into the orbit of MI6, Madeleine, Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and a scarred villain named Lyutsifer Savin (Rami Malek).
Fukunaga takes over from Sam Mendes, who classed things up with Skyfall but sleep walked through Spectre. Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren deliver one of the best-looking Bond films. The early sequences in Italy are gorgeous, with vistas of an ancient town punctuated by wisps of fiery paper as citizens burn old secrets. There’s a visit to a swanky club in Cuba, a fog-drenched forest pursuit and the film finally delivers a great lair for a Bond villain in its climax, which takes place in an island fortress complete with missile silos and a poison garden. The film serves as a reminder of what’s lost when productions choose to shoot on parking lots in Atlanta instead of traversing the world and use green screens instead of practical sets.
Fukunaga is not traditionally known as an action director, but he leans into the excitement with energy. After the siege that opens the film, which feels more akin to a slasher movie than a Bond film, he delivers an all-timer of a chase through Italy, which not only features a fantastic motorcycle stunt but also allows Craig to finally use some of the gadgets on his car. Fukunaga stages a few smaller-scale action scenes throughout before then delivering a thrilling climactic shootout that takes a page from his famous True Detective one-shot.
As Craig’s last entry in the series, there seems to be a bucket list the film is running through, and it’s fun to see No Time to Die play with the classic Bond tropes. The iconic theme gets more of a workout here, and Bond is more apt to crack a joke or throw down a pun. There’s a henchman with a bionic eye and several callbacks to franchise history. No Time to Die often feels like the first Bond film since the Brosnan days to remember that, first and foremost, these should be fun.
Craig appears comfortable with the role for perhaps the first time, relaxed and cracking jokes. There’s a scene where Bond and CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) hang out and play games while they trade intel, and Craig appears to be having real fun with a role he’s openly griped about. When the film heads to Cuba for a rendezvous with an American agent played by an adorable Ana de Armas, it delivers perhaps the most nimble and purely fun action sequence of Craig’s tenure (a key flaw in the movie is that Armas disappears after this scene). But he doesn’t turn into Roger Moore; the film also allows Craig the chance to further explore Bond’s woundedness and resentment at what a life of service to country has cost him.
If No Time to Die had simply been content to be a victory lap for Craig, there’s a chance it would rank up with the greatest Bond films ever made. Unfortunately, it also has to serve as a sequel to four previous films.
Shaken, stirred and plodding
I think part of my exhaustion with the Craig era has come from its insistence on serialization. That was originally a feature, not a bug. The Brosnan films had become so burdened with special effects and ridiculous plots that bringing Bond down to earth was a welcome change of pace. Connecting the stories was a clever way to ground the series and make it truer to Ian Fleming’s novels. But when Spectre convoluted its mythology to the point of inanity, it should have been deemed best to cut the losses and wrap things up with a stand-alone adventure. Or, at least let No Time to Die build on Spectre without inserting any further complications.
Instead, the screenplay pulls in elements of the previous four films, from a visit to Vesper’s grave to call backs to the mysterious Mr. White from Quantum of Solace and, of course, a return for Blofeld. The second act is largely exposition, conversations between two people sitting in a room musing about family connections, missed chances and the like. The sluggish pacing derails what had, to that point, been a jaunty movie, and needlessly complicates everything. It also tries to salvage previously bungled material at the expense of the story they’re currently telling. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad Cristoph Waltz finally has a chance to be sinister one-on-one with Craig, but the time spent on his one scene could have been used to create a character for Malek, who spends most of his time as an afterthought. As the film’s big bad, it would have been nice to have had actual motivation behind his evil plan instead of some tossed-away exposition and an overly complex scheme.
The film never totally grinds to a halt; there’s a lot to like. The interplay between Bond and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw) is more relaxed and playful than in previous installments, and I enjoyed the rapport between Craig and Ralph Fiennes as M. There’s also the addition of a new 007, played by Lashana Lynch, and I appreciate that she’s an equal to Bond, not a romantic partner. These additions are fun, but the film continues wrapping itself up in an overly convoluted plot that feels it not only has to close off questions from the previous films but introduce new wrinkles into the Bond mythology.
And again, overly complicated plots and indulgent padding are par for the course for the franchise, and I’m not going to knock the series for trying some new things. But the biggest problem is that these digressions rob the film of focus. And as the final Craig Bond and a definitive closer for this era of the character, the film strives for a strong emotional impact in its final moments, and all of the complications keep it from achieving that.
To talk about it any further, I’m going to need to go into spoilers for the ending of No Time to Die. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d urge you to stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the film.
Okay, spoilers start...now.
The film makes two choices that I’m sure will be divisive. I don’t feel passionate one way or the other about the inclusion of either of them, but I don’t feel the film integrates them as effectively as it could.
The first choice is to give Bond a daughter. I don’t have a problem with this; I’m honestly surprised the series just now decided to explore this (I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have one of Bond’s villains be the son of a woman he loved and couldn’t protect). And the film definitely wants you to think that the ending for this iteration of James Bond is that he’ll sail off into the sunset to raise a family.
And I like the scenes between Daniel Craig and the young girl. It’s interesting to see Bond act tender and paternal, and to see him intrigued by the possibilities of fatherhood instead of viewing it as a shackle. The truth of the matter is that, given his proclivities, Bond likely has illegitimate kids around the world, so I guess it was high time the films addressed that.
But the film tries to fake the audience out with Madeleine’s quick “it’s not yours,” even though we all know where this is headed (Bond seems not to buy the lie either, which I respect). And he isn’t given enough time with the girl to build a relationship the audience cares about. It’s a cute kid, which is a primal and effective hook to hang suspense on, but I never really felt like Bond was given much of a chance to be a father figure. Which, to be fair, is part of the theme, but it also keeps the ending from hitting hard.
And it’s fairly unnecessary. There’s no real reason to separate Madeleine and Bond for five years at the beginning of the film. Why not open with Bond and Madeleine off the grid for years, raising a daughter, before the plot pulls 007 back in? Give Bond something to fight for throughout the movie, wrestling with duty for country over his desire to live a normal life. The film pins its big emotional anchor on the love story between Madeliene and Bond, but Seydoux and Craig have such little chemistry that I never felt invested. To find him with a lived-in relationship that is then ripped away would lead to more effective emotional stakes and serve as a bookend to the final events of Casino Royale.
And that leads to the second development that I’m sure will make the discourse on this unbearable: the decision to kill James Bond.
In theory, I like it. Craig’s Bond was never a character heading toward a happy ending. From the start, he’s been aware of the short lifespan afforded by his career and his status as a blunt weapon to be used by the government, ready to be discarded for the greater good. The Craig era has been vital to transitioning Bond from a Cold War mentality (which persisted even through the Brosnan years) to one in which the lines between good and bad guys were blurred, and Bond had just as much blood on his hands as the people who he dispatched. His Bond was so disillusioned by the job that it would have felt wrong to end with him in a tux on his way to his next mission, but cozying up to watch sitcoms on the couch wouldn’t have been right, either. His Bond has always been a tragic figure.
And Craig nails those final moments, bringing brokenness to a character who too often flirts with the edge of being a cartoon. His death is heroic and sacrificial; it’s a well-played end to the character. But as the missiles rained down and Bond was blown to bits, I didn’t find myself overly moved.
I’ve already addressed the first reason: I don’t buy the love story between Madeleine and James, and the fatherhood angle comes too late and is introduced too awkwardly to have much power. Yes, it’s sad James will never give Mathilde her Dou Dou. But when Bond tells Madeleine “you’ve got all the time in the world,” it never reads as more than a callback to previous entries. I’m just not invested; their love story never feels like the great end to Bond’s life. It doesn’t help that the series has never topped Eva Green when it comes to Bond girls; had they found a way to bring her back, improbable as it may be, it may have led to a more effective finale.
It’s also a miscalculation to spend an entire film building Blofeld up as the series’ big villain and dispatch him halfway through. Sure, it’s shocking, but it takes away the one antagonist who lived for nothing more than world domination and breaking James Bond. A more streamlined screenplay would have kept Blofeld as the villain and made him the one who revealed the horrifying truth of James’ infection in the final act; the two of them dying together would have been a more poetic ending for a series interested in the blurring lines between heroes and villains. Instead, the film finds Bond taken out by a guy treated as a side character through most of the film but who hasn’t been given any depth or motivation. Bond dies because of someone out for Madeleine, not because of someone out for him, and it feels less epic and shocking than the death of one of cinema’s most iconic heroes should.
But finally, I think the death of James Bond just doesn’t quite work because, well, it’s the “death” of “James Bond.” As the end of Craig’s iteration of the character, it makes thematic sense even if the execution leaves something to be desired. But it never feels shocking, moving or bold because we know this isn’t really the end of James Bond. This isn’t a character long associated with one actor who’s played them for decades, like Hugh Jackman in Logan or even Robert Downey Jr. in the Avengers movies (who played Tony Stark for less time than Craig played Bond but in more movies). This is a character who’s been played by multiple actors in numerous different takes; the final words of this film’s credits are, of course, “James Bond will return.” So this feels less like the end of Bond than confirmation that yep, Daniel Craig is really done with this.
I spent a lot of time harping on it, so let me reiterate: I like No Time to Die; there are parts I love. But it falls prey to some of the worst instincts of the past 15 years of 007 movies and, in the end, I think it tries to provide continuity and closure to a series whose biggest comfort has been that these films are often the same and will continue forever. It’s not a bad attempt and I’m glad we had this age of Bond films. But now that we had it, can we move on?
And honestly, that’s the most exciting thing about No Time to Die: whatever comes next has to be much different than what these five films delivered. It has to be a hard reset. What will that be? Who will be the next face of 007? I have no clue, but we may take some time later this week to talk about it.
But maybe I’m wrong. What did you think? Leave a comment, and let’s discuss it!