‘No Time To Die’ Review

Daniel Craig has, for many fans, been one of the best James Bonds to date – if not the best. After giving the series a then-much needed face-lift in 2006’s Casino Royale, Craig has taken fans on a roller coaster’s journey of high highs (Skyfall) and low lows (Quantum of Solace). However, as consistently great as Craig has been as the iconic secret agent, his films have been, admittedly, schizophrenic, due to a desire to give his movies an overall arc (a rarity in this franchise) as well as an inability to pick a style and genre to stick with (a gritty realism in Royale and Solace vs. suave classism in Sam Mendes’ entries). Which is why Cary Joji Fukunaga’s entry, No Time To Die, is so remarkable: it brings together what works best in both those formats and gives Craig a massive, skillful exit to the franchise, with a film that can only be heralded as one of the best Bonds released…maybe in the history of the franchise?

Days after capturing Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and retiring from MI6, James Bond (Craig) takes a long-deserved vacation around the world with his young wife, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). However, their honeymoon is cut short by a sudden reappearance from Spectre. As the years pass by and Bond finds himself alone again, a visit from his old CIA friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) brings him back into the game. The mission, involving a missing Russian scientist named Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik), will bring together his entire journey in one world-threatening showdown, including his archenemies at Spectre, dark secrets from the past, a new 007 named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), and a terrifying new enemy in Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek).

Like the rest of the films in the Craig era of the world’s most famous spy, No Time To Die exists in a world of double-crosses and the failures of higher authority. Gone are the days of post-Nazi Cold War propaganda, where earnest goods combat sinister evils. In this post-9/11 Bond world, we watch Bond question authority, deal with the cock-ups of the world’s Intelligence agencies, and struggle with the ramifications of shady dealings and the way they backfire. It’s made for a more interesting character overall, evolving him beyond the legendary Noble Soldier, and has made for (mostly) fascinating stories.

Now, does this emphasis on Bond’s character come at the cost of any semblance of logic in the villainous Safin’s schemes? It does, and because of this, we are forced to listen to Malek rehash the already-lazy “chaos breeds control” motive that Blofeld espoused in the last entry. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Fukunaga distracts the audience with enough subterfuge and double-crossing that you’re already enamored, invested enough to avoid pulling at the string haphazardly holding the story together.

Equally interesting is the dedication put into Bond as a character. For the first time in the series, audiences have witnessed a serialized arc. Unlike previous films where adventures and flings are forgotten between installments, the Craig era has focused on continuing his story and journey – haunted by past loves and failures, significantly aged by the trauma and brutality of his career, and ever-facing the mortal coil. This is a Bond too old for this world, and it makes for fascinating realizations – as a character, as an actor, and as a franchise.

By allowing this Bond to face his age, his losses, and his own mortality, the series pushes the character to places we’ve not seen him go before, and likely won’t see him go again. Furthermore, it adds an extra layer to the story as we explore a Bond who finds himself surrounded by younger agents who don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t enjoy his way of things (for better and for worse). Therefore, we get to see this character adapt – something highly refreshing after 25 separate adventures of varying quality but consistent themes. It makes for smarter filmmaking, smarter characterization, and all around a smarter story.

One of the more significant reasons No Time To Die works so well is its script. While Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have received a great deal of credit for relaunching James Bond in the new millennium, the credit here goes to Fukunaga and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who breathe life into what could have been a tired script. The two have a strong yin and yang quality, with Fukunaga’s emphasis on scope and vision elevating the story thematically, while Waller-Bridge showcases her ability to write characters who interact, joke, and love like human beings. For the first time in what feels like decades, Bond has started to feel like Bond again, enjoying an uncanny wit and intelligence that’s mostly been lacking in Craig’s brooding-but-enjoyable Bond. Plus, he has quips again! As bad as the jokes may be, you can’t help but smile whenever Bond makes one of his awful puns. It’s his trademark.

But Waller-Bridge’s influence runs far deeper than surface-level puns – there’s an intelligence to them. One recurring joke finds Bond continuously trying his cheesy one-liners on women, only to be thoroughly rejected. It works not only as a funny upending of the character, but as an exploration of Bond’s character. At an age where he’s given up on his youthful excursions and having witnessed his past loves dead and his marriage failed, his heart’s not even in it anymore. He’s going through the motions, and this simple joke tells us far more than almost any Bond script to date ever has.

Of course, the script can only get you so far in a blockbuster like this. That’s where Fukunaga has a chance to shine. Already known as a filmmaker with an eye for vision (the direction on True Detective was so good critics and audiences retroactively convinced themselves the show was good), Fukunaga brings his distinct sense of scope to the world of Bond. And while that occasionally does mean self-serious action sequences, it also means that, on a technical scale, this is a nearly-flawless Bond film, with each setpiece dazzling and leaving you breathless. It is a gorgeous film to look at, the film everyone said Skyfall was.

Fukunaga looks at each sequence with a crisp, clean lens that captures the sheer awe of each leap, flight, punch, shot, and explosion, whether it’s a fight in the streets of Matera, a nighttime assault on a Russian lab, a flight over the oceans of Cuba, or even a tribute to Fukunaga’s legendary True Detective tracking shot up a flight of stairs against unlimited goons and henchmen. Even the non-action sequences are perfectly executed – there’s a long reveal of Waltz’s Blofeld that is so freaky and unnerving that it feels straight out of Silence of the Lambs. This is the way a Bond film should be: cool cars, gorgeous men and women, great stunts, and the climax I’ve always secretly longed for. It’s the most fun I’ve had with an action film since…maybe Mad Max: Fury Road? Let me put it this way: if a film can have this bad of shaky-cam hand-to-hand combat (a near dealbreaker for me) and I still come out praising the stunts, that’s a win in my book.

Of course, Fukunaga doesn’t deserve all the credit. Most of the praise for his success belongs at the feet of the team he assembled – surely one of the most impressive technical ensembles to date (most of them won Oscars working on La La Land. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren is one of the best cinematographers currently working and he proves this with his picturesque work here. Each frame is dazzling in its scope and vision, and furthermore definitively shuts the book on the “film vs. digital” debate. In fact, his work with IMAX cameras is arguably more impressive than 90% of Christopher Nolan films. The editing by Elliot Graham and Tom Cross is sharp and precise, and flows fluidly – at no point does this film feel its two hours and forty minutes. The old-school opening sequence feels its majesty, and the sound design is frequently flawless. Oh, and I can’t forget Hans Zimmer’s score, which would be a highlight even if it hadn’t incorporated musical nods to my favorite Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (including the low-key best Bond song ever, Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All The Time In The World” – an unfair emotional move, I must say).

This brings us to Daniel Craig, and his work as Bond. While Craig does a terrific job in his final outing as Bond, capturing an image of a man who does not fit into the modern world and who is weary from his many adventures, it is hard not to look at this performance without thinking of the surrounding real-world narrative. I myself have a close tie with Craig’s Bond, even if he hasn’t always been my favorite of the six actors (that title goes to Roger Moore). Craig’s was the first James Bond I ever saw on the big screen, accompanied by the grandfather who introduced me to the series – we shared a bond over Bond and The Avengers. My grandfather passed shortly after the release of Solace, a film we’d made plans to see as soon as he recovered from his long and final illness. Craig’s franchise-ending performance made me think of him, and the franchise we loved, and it evoked a sense of ending a chapter in my life. I share this all with you to give you an idea of the headspace I’m in reviewing this movie, a film I know he would have loved, so you understand why it’s resonating with me so strongly. Craig’s performance may not move you in the same way, but at least you’ll understand why it moved me.

Amongst the other actors, everyone’s willing to pull their weight, even if some are more gifted at it than others. I really enjoyed Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann in Spectre, and think she’s giving a solid performance that stands on its own here. But strangely enough, she has no chemistry with Craig in this film – a film driven by their chemistry. It’s not her fault, and it’s a common flaw in blockbusters these days. But they have had chemistry onscreen before. So what happened here? Meanwhile, Rami Malek’s performance will be love-it-or-hate-it. He’s certainly hamming it up, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy his work in the film. All of the usual characters are here, with great actors proving why they’re great, including Wright’s Leiter, Ralph Fiennes’ M, Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw’s Q.

But to be honest, this film belongs to the newcomers. I’m talking Billy Magnussen’s dopey young agent with a secret, who nearly steals the film. There’s Ana de Armas who shows up in one scene as the perfect Bond girl and easily inspires spin-off talk – she’s an eager young agent full of bubbly and awkward energy. David Dencik is the most fun I’ve had with a Bond side character/henchman/villain since the Brosnan era, a goofy relic that elicits honest, earned laughs whenever he’s onscreen. And I really want to praise Lynch, who proves herself a star from the jump. Even when she’s shown in the background during her introduction, you can’t help but be drawn to her. She’s funny and smart and skillful, a perfect foil to Bond in every way, and a stellar star rounding out a stellar cast.

No Time To Die is a master class in blockbuster directing, stunt work, and storytelling. As with all Bond films, I am aware of its flaws. Do I prefer a sillier Bond over a self-serious Bond? Perhaps. Would I prefer more of a focus on real detective work than bumbling from one explosion to another? Of course. But at the end of the day, who cares? This is a film with a mastery of spectacle, delivered with a wit and intelligence this series hasn’t possessed before. It is a goodbye to an actor who’s reinvented a role, and an end of an era in a series that simply can’t keep it up forever. But whether this is the last Bond film ever is an irrelevant question. For whether the series begins again or ends here, No Time To Die will stand tall as a towering accomplishment in the franchise, a sign of what these films can and should be when they are at their best.

A-

No Time To Die is now playing in theaters, and is available to rent on most VOD platforms

 

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