In the pantheon of Bond, James Bond, there are shots that strike from a golden gun and others that leave one neither shaken nor stirred. One film often regarded as being among the latter is 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” infamously featuring George Lazenby as 007 who never returned to don the tuxedo. Despite its shortcomings, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” has continued to echo throughout the Bond series, and this echo is heard nowhere louder than in No Time To Die, including some direct visual quotes, genuine emotional depth and the Louis Armstrong song “We Have All The Time in the World” — if we have all the time in the world, then there is no time to die.
This may be the case, but time weighs heavily across the 25th entry in the Bond franchise, from the pre-title sequence that begins long before the events of the film, to a late scene where M (Ralph Fiennes, “Official Secrets”) broods in a corridor surrounded by portraits of his predecessors, including the familiar faces of Bernard Lee and Judi Dench. Themes of legacy, redemption and retribution have permeated Daniel Craig’s stint as 007, from the defining trauma in “Casino Royale” to the self-conscious journey “back in time” to the titular estate in “Skyfall.” The repercussions of “Spectre” reverberate throughout No Time To Die, and yet despite these echoes and a fair amount of fan service, this film is unquestionably its own beast. Arguably, it is a shame that it is a Bond film, because the constraints of the formula mean that some of the most interesting aspects of the film are subsumed by the need to tick boxes.
These aspects include one of the strongest performances in the history of the franchise. Over his five films, Daniel Craig (“Knives Out”) has brought a genuine sense of humanity and pathos to Bond, and in his final outing he delivers a performance that feels fully inhabited. This is a Bond of regret yet resolve, ferocity yet compassion, impatience tempered with wit, all of which Craig conveys through subtle inflections in tone, a lithe yet pained physicality and his endlessly expressive eyes. Other critics have noted that Craig is the only Bond actor who looks like he could actually kill someone with his bare hands, and part of that capability comes from his ability to deliver the most icy stare imaginable, conveying not only disregard for humanity but also deep contempt through those beautiful baby blues. Yet he also truly makes the viewer care for Bond, speaking volumes through a look, and a longing stare that can even cause the viewer’s own eyes to well up.
Not that any film is made by a single performance, and Craig is ably supported by the ensemble that have built up over the past few films. Jeffrey Wright (“Only Lovers Left Alive”) returns as Felix Leiter, his wry cynicism complementing Bond and demonstrating why the two men are great friends. Fiennes’ M shows again the grudging respect for Bond, perhaps because of the world-weariness, regret and wit that mirrors Bond’s own. A scene between the two men beside the Thames provides a nice wink to the audience as both men appear to acknowledge their time is past and yet they carry on. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris, “Rampage”) and Q (Ben Whishaw, “The Danish Girl”) continue to offer sterling support, Q delivering his delightful blend of childlike innocence and petulant exasperation. Back in “Skyfall,” Q mentioned that he could do a great deal of damage in his pajamas. Here, he gets the chance to just that.
However, it is other characters who demonstrate the major deviation from the Bond format. Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, “Alita: Battle Angel”) proves a chillingly charismatic presence once again, but the heart of the film is she that stole the heart of Bond: Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, “It’s Only the End of the World”). Swann matches Bond for putdowns, determination and ingenuity every step of the way, to such an extent that she doesn’t seem like a Bond girl, but rather the female lead, now there’s a novelty! The other new female characters are also treated interestingly, including Swann’s mother (Mathilde Bourbin, “Frapuccino” TV series) whose brief presence nonetheless makes an impression, as does Paloma (Ana de Armas, “The Night Clerk”) who demonstrates that wearing a backless evening gown and heels are no obstacle to kicking ass. Most prominent is Nomi (Lashana Lynch, “Captain Marvel”), Bond’s replacement at MI6. While Nomi is something of a cypher, it is undeniably refreshing to see a young black woman prove to be Bond’s equal as a 00 agent. Furthermore, Bond’s much-vaunted sexual magnetism is largely absent, despite the rugged sexiness that exudes from Craig’s bulked-up physique. Regular Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade share scripting duties with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, and while this many writers might suggest problems, what they succeed in crafting is an intricate and very human story within the confines of a James Bond adventure. While the globetrotting is present, it feels more like following genuine leads than cinematic tourism. Gadgets and indeed product placement make an appearance, but for the sake of function more than display. Where No Time To Die is weakest is when it does fall into standard Bond tropes, the worst of which is the clichéd villain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”). An actor of Malek’s range and talent could have a whale of a time getting their teeth into a juicy villain role, but Safin offers little beyond the rote aspects of vengeful past, vaguely Slavic accent, scarred face, island lair and evil plans of enormous evil because, evil. The overall plot seems somewhat perfunctory and disconnected from the human story of the film, although stylistically all the elements are beautifully brought together.
The stylistic unity demonstrates an excellent collaboration between director Fukunaga, director of photography Linus Sandgren, editors Tom Cross and Elliot Graham and effects coordinator Chris Corbould, as well as the second unit team and the army of crew responsible for a film of this scale. Despite being the longest Bond film at 163 minutes, it moves with a fluid grace comparable to Bond’s Aston Martin. Fukunaga’s TV work such as “True Detective” may be an influence here, the director letting sequences play out and the story unfold naturally rather than racing to get from plot point to plot point. And those points are punctuated with great aplomb: Sudden explosions are followed by stretches of muted sound to place the viewer in the midst of the action, while gun battles are accompanied with percussive impact. The stunts are thrillingly visceral, the camera often placed at the center of the action such as a car flipping over in a fog-wreathed forest as well as inversions of perspective as adversaries approach from all directions. Best of all is a bravura long take late that follows Bond up a staircase as enemies, bullets and bodies assail him and the viewer. There is a genuine sense of jeopardy, not so much to the world because we’ve seen that done before, but to the hopeful human heart that beats throughout the film. This heartbeat provides a strong and resonant echo throughout No Time To Die that reaches back into Bond’s legacy both in written and cinematic form, and should sustain an audience until, as the credits promise, James Bond Will Return.