Review: No Time To Die is the same old Bond, but more self-important

Daniel Craig's cruel, blunt take on 007 remains incompatible with the franchise's need to give audiences the comfortable ride they demand


NO TIME TO DIE (Cary Joji Fukunaga). 163 minutes. Some subtitles. In theatres October 8. Rating: NN


No Time To Die is the 25th official James Bond movie, and at two and three-quarter hours it’s easily the longest. I doubt his biggest fans will mind; thanks to the pandemic, it’s been six years since the last adventure of Ian Fleming’s agent 007, and Spectre didn’t really follow up on the high of Skyfall. This’ll set everything right, won’t it?

Well, yes and no.

No Time To Die is, once again, a Bond movie that insists it’s doing something different with the franchise but is unwilling to truly change the game. Yes, it does one thing that no other Bond movie has ever dared – maybe even two things – but it does so in a way that makes it clear that this is a one-time deal, because this is a Very Special Bond Movie, and that the thing will ultimately be inconsequential. The machinery cannot change, not really.

That’s the biggest problem with the Bond franchise in general, and because No Time To Die is so exhaustingly long – 163 minutes, longer than all but one of the Transformers films and every Marvel movie except Avengers: Endgame – it leaves you with a lot of time to think about why that should still be.

I appreciate the serialization that series stewards Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson – along with their regular screenwriters, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis – have attempted this time around. The Craig cycle has made a point of developing Bond as a man who’s chosen to shut himself off from human emotion after (spoilers) losing his great love Vesper Lynd at the end of Casino Royale, and this film allows him the chance to imagine himself opening up again. Its prologue, which picks up directly from the events of Spectre, finds Bond and his psychologist girlfriend Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) on holiday in Italy, where he’s offered a moment to let Vesper go; that more or less blows up in his face, leading to a car chase and a shootout and, once again, the conclusion that James Bond must close his heart off forever and ever. Roll the opening credits.

I have this rule about not discussing anything that happens after the first 20 minutes of a movie, and No Time To Die has already forced me to break it because the opening titles don’t start until about 23 minutes into the picture. Everything else that follows should technically be off-limits, but here’s the thing: the plot of No Time To Die is also the plot of every goddamn Bond movie, with nods to and lifts from Dr. No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only, as well as the whole serialization thing.

Rami Malik’s heavy, whispery megalomaniac Lyutsifer Safin may be new, but thanks to the new cycle’s insistence that everything be rooted in the characters’ personal histories, he’s retconned into someone’s past – even though that would make him at least 30 years older than the actor playing the present-day role, which he absolutely is not. Safin’s also not allowed to be the only heavy here, because the plot also demands Bond confront Spectre – an organization that was only really clarified in the last movie, and which somehow now counts as excess baggage. And Spectre means Blofeld, and Blofeld means all the stuff they tried to do last time with Bond and Blofeld being secret brothers, and there are at least two different versions of the “we’re not so different, you and I” speech delivered by characters who actually are pretty different, thank you very much, and why is there still another hour in this movie oh god oh god let it end, let it all end.

As you may have heard, this is also Daniel Craig’s final outing in the role, 15 years after rebooting the character in Casino Royale. I don’t blame him for getting off; as good as he is as Bond, the movies have struggled to showcase what he does with the character. Craig’s Bond is a blunt object, emotionally stunted and unyielding to his colleagues, and this lines up beautifully with Ian Fleming’s conception of the character as a man who does three things – kill people, drink too much and sleep with women – and the second and third thing are just what he does to kill time when he isn’t doing the first thing.

I love Craig’s Bond, but his movies don’t know what to do with him. James Bond has become an aspirational figure, trapped in the same superhero narrative as any Marvel or DC character: he can’t really change or grow, because that would bring the whole thing to a halt. James Bond wears tuxedos and flirts with women and shoots goons and rappels into secret lairs and saves the world, because that’s what audiences expect, and these movies cost a quarter of a billion dollars now so they have to give audiences what they want in order to make a billion dollars and set up the next one.

And over five films, the weird insistence that what this dead-eyed assassin really wants is to be part of a family – whether that’s the work family he’s built at MI-6, or the other elements that have been dangled throughout – has pushed against Craig’s performance in an interesting, frustrating way, as though the actor, rather than the character, is rejecting the premise. No Time To Die finally pushes them both into a corner on this, and how Craig plays it might be the best work he’s done as Bond – though by the time it arrives, I was too ground down to really appreciate it.

That’s the fault of the franchise itself, which opens the spigots on self-importance fairly early on, gets distracted by the kettle and forgets to come back and turn them off. (This is a Very Special Bond Movie, remember?) But I can also hang a lot of it on director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the technically proficient but idea-averse filmmaker who gave us the sumptuous banality of Netflix’s Maniac miniseries and the first season of HBO’s True Detective; he sees every scene as a chance to wow us with lush cinematography or experimental sound design, which would be great if those decisions also moved the story forward.

No Time To Die wants to be an elevated Bond film, but that sort of stance displays a certain contempt for the endeavour; maybe, just maybe, focus on making a Bond movie that moves, that thrills, that doesn’t save all of its most daring choices for the last five minutes, and it’ll elevate itself.

Which is not to say it doesn’t have its pleasures. There’s Craig, of course, who lets Bond be worn down by the accrued damage of his years in service; at this point Bond’s greatest asset is his bulldog insistence on getting up after being knocked down. There’s Ralph Fiennes’s marvellous interpretation of M as a haughty functionary who’s a terrible manager of people, and seems to know it; I could watch him scowl indignantly for hours. Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw return as Moneypenny and Q, nudging little character details into the corners of the action; and Jeffrey Wright is back as CIA veteran Felix Leiter, offering warm greetings to us as much as to his old gambling buddy James.

Lashana Lynch is around too, as another of MI-6’s finest; she’s a worthy addition to the franchise and I hope she comes back; she’s the cast member with the best feel for co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s barbed dialogue, and the plot doesn’t give her nearly enough to do.

But if we’re discussing wasted potential, we have to talk about Ana de Armas, who turns her 10 minutes as a novice spy who helps Bond out on a Cuban side mission into a master class in charisma, timing and scene-stealing, all while finding an entirely different chemistry with Craig than they had in Knives Out. I spent the rest of the movie wondering where she’d come back, and thinking about how much better it would have been for everyone if she did.

What if Bond was unexpectedly incapacitated, forcing the newbie to complete his mission? (That’s the plot of The Spy Who Loved Me, after all, when Fleming wrote it almost 60 years ago.)  But no; as daring as No Time To Die wants to be, it’s still manacled to expectations. Broccoli and Wilson can’t conceive of truly changing their game; this train only goes in one direction. Like the closing credits always say, James Bond Will Return. It’s his gift, and his curse.

@normwilner

Norm Wilner and NOW culture editor Radheyan Simonpillai discuss No Time To Die with Hollywood Suite’s Alicia Fletcher in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is NOW’s weekly news and culture podcast. New episodes are released every Friday.

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One response to “Review: No Time To Die is the same old Bond, but more self-important”

  1. dude, this is how it’s going to start in the next moo-vie………. bond is whisked away by a claw-like (think trying to get a fluffy doll from those machines in the arcade) right before the ‘splozhunz’, and THEN……… mo’ money !!! LOL. Hollywood is its own joke. Ha-ha. It wan’t a bad move, it’s just like all of them blokbusta’-types today. We have all lost our minds in the money, and the money in our minds. Enjoy, California!!!!

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