No Time to Die – Review

In the long, 50-plus year run of the James Bond franchise, there are few figures that will stand as tall within the pantheon of the series as Daniel Craig.  Sean Connery no doubt still remains the gold standard, but Craig’s tenure as 007 may be the best collection of films out of the whole franchise.  His time in James Bond’s fine leather shoes is unique in the franchise because it’s the only instance where there’s been a story arc that carried over from film to film.  Before now, James Bond movies were loosely connected adventures, all adhering to a formula rather than continuity.  It worked perfectly for decades to build a series like this, because it made it easier for different actors to step into the role once their predecessor’s time was done, without having to do too much rebooting.  After Sean Connery defined the character and turned him into an icon. actors such as George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan all had their turn as James Bond.  But, after the declining quality of the movies during the final years of Brosnan’s tenure, the team at Bond’s home studio, EON Productions, decided to take things in a different direction.  They decided to redefine the character once again, delving deeper into his psyche and opting for a grittier, less campy Bond.  And this required finding a different kind of actor to play him as well.  Initially, people were unsure of Daniel Craig as the iconic spy with a license to kill.  He was shorter than previous Bonds (the first under 6 feet at 5’10”), had more rugged good looks, and he was blonde.  He didn’t exactly fit what people thought James Bond should be.  But, when he made his debut in Casino Royale (a fitting start as it was a long overdue adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel) people soon realized that he was not only a perfect choice to play James Bond, but he was also the Bond that we sorely needed.

Daniel Craig was a 21st century spy; one whose skills in hand to hand combat were just as valuable as his ability to look dashing in a finely tailored suit.  With competition coming from the likes of Mission: Impossible and the Bourne series, James Bond needed to stand on his own and Daniel Craig fulfilled that role perfectly.  He was an accomplished fighter on screen, but could also display the same kind of charisma that we expect from 007.  And over the course of 5 films, Craig not only lived up to the role; he may have even set a new standard for the character.  Craig himself will still tell you that he is merely standing on the shoulders of those who came before him, with Connery being the especially strong foundation; but whoever takes on the role after Daniel Craig will have some very big shoes to fill.  Craig’s time in particular delved deeper into the character than ever before, and that is thanks to the fact that all his movies are connected to the same narrative thread.  Each movie builds on the one before, and for the first time, we saw Bond grow as a character.  In many ways, that makes Craig’s Bond the truest iteration of Ian Fleming’s original concept that we have ever seen.  And it’s remarkable that Craig played the character for the longest period of time of any actor: a staggering 15 years.  Following Casino Royale (2006) we got Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015).  Spectre in particular was a difficult film for Craig, and he began to voice his displeasure at the direction of the series; saying in one interview that he’s sooner cut his own wrists than make another Bond movie.  However, the team behind the Bond franchise managed to convince Craig to do one more film and that involved the choice of granting Daniel something that no actor in the series has been given before; a chance to say goodbye on his own terms.  With No Time to Die (2021) we get a swan song to Bond that feels more personal to the man playing the role, as Daniel Craig was more involved here on both a performance and story level.  The question is, across the 5 movies over 15 years, did Daniel Craig leave James Bond on a high note?

The movie picks up immediately after the events of Spectre.  James Bond (Daniel Craig) has retired from his position at MI-6, running away with the new love of his life Madeleine Snowe (Lea Seydoux) after putting his nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) behind bars.  However, while on their romantic honeymoon getaway, James and Madeleine are attacked by Spectre agents, who are somehow still being orchestrated by Blofeld from his prison cell.  This forces Bond to make the drastic choice to abandon Madeleine so that she won’t get hurt, because he knows that as long as Spectre is out there, they will keep hunting him, and she will always be in danger.  Five years later, Bond is contacted in Jamaica by his old CIA friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to help out on a new mission.  A chemist from the MI-6 run bio-weapons laboratory in London has gone missing, and the CIA needs help from the now freelance Bond to find him before a top secret carcinogen named Heracles falls into the wrong hands.  However, as Bond is on the trail of his target, he soon discovers that someone else is on the chemist’s trail as well; a MI-6 agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the new 007 that has taken Bond’s place.  Things go awry for both parties as Bond and Nomi witness the effects of the Heracles poison, as it ravages it’s way through an entire party of Spectre operatives.  As the stakes have been raised, Bond returns to London and seeks the help of MI-6 once again, including his old boss M (Ralph Fiennes), and co-workers Tanner (Rory Kinnear), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw).  Despite some early tension with the crew that he left behind, Team Bond does work together again to decipher what Heracles is and what it’s capable of, soon realizing that it has the ability to systematically wipe out large segments of the population.  A key factor of getting to the bottom of things falls on a mystery that shrouds Bond’s old flame Madeleine, who has been visited by a mysterious figure named Lyusifer Safin (Rami Malek); the one currently pulling all the strings.  The deeper the mystery goes, the more Bond begins to realize that this mission could very well be the one that decides his fate forever.

The road to get No Time to Die released was plagued by many problems during it’s development.  Craig’s reluctance initially did cause a bit of disruption, as EON Productions were already starting to look for a possible replacement.  Once Craig was set, the movie still stalled, as there were irreconcilable creative differences that couldn’t be resolved with the film’s original director, Danny Boyle.  After Boyle’s departure, the Bond team did something they’ve never done before and hired an American filmmaker for the first time; Beasts of No Nation’s Cary Joji Fukunaga.  After all these production troubles and delays, the movie finally got rolling, and had an April 2020 release date was set.  Unfortunately, that’s when the COVID-19 pandemic started to boom and ravage the theatrical market.  No Time to Die made headlines as the first high profile film to move off the calendar to avoid the loss of the box office, becoming something of a canary in the coal mine with regards to how bad the pandemic would be.  After moving to November 2020, and then again to April 2021, the movie moved once more to October 2021 where it finally found solid ground, more than 500 days after it was originally supposed to hit theaters.  Even in all that time, parent studio MGM sought a buy out with Amazon, which is still an ongoing deal in the making.  Thankfully, after all the production woes and pandemic delays, we finally have No Time to Die playing in theaters.  The question is did the movie stick the landing and was it worth all the wait?  I can gratefully say that it is indeed.  This is the kind of era defining franchise closure that both audience and filmmakers wish for; delivering on everything that was promised from previous installments while at the same time delivering some welcome surprises along the way that makes the road to the end worth it.  It’s certainly not the end of James Bond as a character, but it’s the end of this James Bond; one whose story we have grown close to for 15 years.  And it sends Daniel Craig off on the high note he deserves as one of the all time great 007’s.

The main reason this movie works as well as it does is Daniel Craig himself.  I found his performance in this movie in particular to be the best of the series in fact.  Skyfall may have had the best story, but No Time to Die has the best development of character here with regards to James Bond.  For the first time, you really see the vulnerability of the character on display, as Bond lets his guard down a bit more here than we’ve ever seen before.  He’s still the same old Bond, but you see how the years of fighting have taken their toll on him, and how this version of the character really is striving to find something meaningful in his life other than work.  Craig plays up this aspect perfectly throughout the movie.  It’s really interesting to see how he’s evolved the character from where he started in Casino Royale (2006), which showed him as a stone-cold killer.  Here, he has come to value the relationships he’s made along the way; with those who he shares his life with.  This is something that has carried over in the larger narrative since Skyfall, as we saw in that movie the cherished relationship he had with his first M (played magnificently by Dame Judi Dench), who was a bit of a mother figure in his life.  Since her departure, we’ve watched Bond grow closer to Moneypenny and Q than we’ve ever seen before in the movies, and Bond even found a place in his life to pursue meaningful love with Madeleine.  I can only think of one other Bond movie where we saw this vulnerable side of 007 come through at that was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); the one and only Lazenby Bond, and the only movie where James ties the knot.  It’s fitting that No Time to Die focuses a lot more on Bond’s relationships with those around him, because this essentially is a movie where Bond has to reflect back on the lives he’s touched because it really is the end of his story.  I get the feeling that this is one of the important aspects that drew Daniel Craig back into the role for one final time.  In no other iteration of the character have we been able to see a character arc grow from one that was archetypal to one that is fully-dimensional in this series, and most importantly, it allows for the actor to give the character a proper ending.

Everything related to Bond in this movie has an air of magnitude because of that effect.  Other than that, it’s another standard Bond flick.  All the essential pieces are still there in place, from the stylish opening credits (which feel like a deliberate nod to the classic Maurice Binder designed titles of the early Bonds), to the globe-trotting set-pieces, to the white-knuckle action scenes.  But, even as the movie does a great job utilizing all these elements that we expect from the franchise, it also feels a bit too overwhelming as well.  At 2 hours and 44 minutes, this is far and away the longest movie in the franchise and it does at times feel it’s length.  It probably is due to the fact that this movie is a final chapter to an ongoing narrative, and the film tries really hard to tie up all the multiple plot threads.  But you get the feeling that the movie probably could have benefited from a bit more streamlining.  What particularly becomes troublesome is that the movie has far too many characters in it.  None of the characters are bad by any means, it’s just that the fact that they have to share so much screen time, even with the extra length, none of them really leave much of an impact.  This is especially true of Moneypenny, M, and Q.  What I appreciated in Skyfall and Spectre was that these characters didn’t just stand on the sidelines, but were actively helping Bond out along the way, even getting their own moments of glory.  Sadly, they spend most of No Time to Die returning back to their old ways; mainly sitting behind desks.  The movie’s villain is also a bit on a let down.  Safin is too much of a stock villain to leave much of an impact, and that’s especially disappointing given the magnitude of this movie as Craig’s final Bond.  A more iconic villain with a deep personal connection to James Bond like Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall would have been better for this finale, but instead Safin here is treated more as an afterthought.  Rami Malek still gives it his all in the part, but he can’t overcome the villain’s innate blandness as written.  It doesn’t help that the movie also has Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld returning, who steals a bit of the thunder in his brief but memorable scene.

Apart from those flaws, the movie delivers on everything else we expect from a Bond movie.  The action scenes are once again shining examples of how to film action correctly for the movies.  One thing that I love most from the Daniel Craig Bonds is that it brought back the importance of practical, in camera stunt work and effects.  After the ridiculousness of the CGI heavy final Pierce Brosnan Bond films like The World is Not Enough (1999) and Die Another Day (2002), the Craig Bonds helped to bring the series back to it’s earthbound roots, and that was because it dispensed with all the gimmickry and just made things simple again.  Sure there are moments in the series that still border-lined on the ridiculous during Craig’s time, but it was all done in a way that felt real and like it could actually happen in the real world.  In particular, the series turned James Bond into a more hands on secret agent, not afraid to get down and dirty with his adversaries.  His Q-made gadgets make a lot more sense here; no more invisible cars or exploding pens.  This carries all the way through the series and it’s great to see Cary Joji Fukunaga hold his own in directing the action sequences.  He’s following in the footsteps of some heavyweights, including series veteran Martin Campbell (who also launched Pierce Brosnan’s tenure with Goldeneye) and Oscar winner Sam Mendes.  Being the first American behind the camera in this long running series does carry some weight, and thankfully he delivers and makes this a worthy entry in the franchise.  In particular, he shows some great mastery over the big set pieces, including a spectacular opening sequence involving Bond’s iconic Aston Martin, as well as a beautifully shot chase scene in a mist shrouded Norwegian forest.  Above all, it’s great to see Daniel Craig still involve himself as much as he can given his age.  I’m certain that 15 years playing James Bond has taken it’s toll on his body and he was indeed sidelined for a brief moment while shooting this movie with an on set injury.  But, the personal involvement still shines through with the close-up fight scenes.  A great hand-held, one shot late in the movie shows you just how much Craig still threw himself into the roll, and it is inspiring to see.  As much as we’ve seen from the action scenes of this series throughout the years, No Time to  Die still proves that this is a franchise that still has many more tricks up it’s finely tailored sleeves.

It was a long treacherous road to this moment, but No Time to Die is finally here, and thankfully it’s on the big screen.  Surprisingly, the long haul wait might have actually been worth it in the end, because this last year has helped us to reflect on this era of James Bond and Daniel Craig’s place within it.  Looking at all the Daniel Craig Bonds together, where would I put No Time to Die you ask?  Pretty much right in the middle.  Skyfall is still the pinnacle in my opinion, with the best story, the best villain and the beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography defining it.  Casino Royale is also ahead, thanks to it’s absolutely pitch perfect tone setting for this era.  It is however much better than Spectre, which had amazing scenes (including the best opening) but a jumbled plot that couldn’t sustain itself, and better than Quantum of Solace, which was basically James Bond on auto-pilot.  Despite it’s flaws, No Time to Die performs it’s central role to perfection, and that’s to end the Daniel Craig era on a high note.  Not many James Bond actors can say that they had that; not even Sean Connery.  Here, with No Time to Die, Daniel Craig is able to say goodbye with grace and a sense of prideful accomplishment.  Here he knows that he gave his best right up to the end, and that he securely left the franchise on solid ground for the next guy once he takes over.  Whoever plays James Bond next is going to have enormous shoes to fill.  What I believe is the best new direction for the series to take with James Bond as a character is to do what I believe EON Productions has hinted at, which is have Bond played by an actor of color.  Daniel Craig’s era will definitely be defined by the five movie arc that helped to probe James Bond as a person.  A new era where James Bond is non-white could provide some very interesting new possibilities for plot-lines in the future, especially regarding having an agent of color on her majesty’s secret service given the United Kingdom’s ratter complicated history with race.  But, that’s up to the stewards of the franchise to figure out.  For now, we have an end to a magnificent era to celebrate, with Daniel Craig and company bringing things to a spectacular conclusion.  The best thing is that it helped to revitalize this franchise and modernize it for a new generation.  James Bond once again represents a high standard for action film-making, and hopefully the franchise will continue to push forward and take chances in the future.  Thank you for your service Daniel Craig; you have earned your retirement.  And if you can see No Time to Die in a theater (on the biggest possible screen) do so.  It’s good that you finally made it and we look forward to meeting again Mr. Bond… James Bond.

Rating: 8.5/10