Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga; Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga
Bond, in the guise of Daniel Craig, has been asking one question over the past fifteen years: do you believe in life after love?
That much is clear, as No Time To Die puts an end to Craig’s tenure and offers an answer to its musings on the question of legacy both thematic and cinematic and how they dovetail into a consideration of James Bond the man, not the agent.
Craig’s Bond has featured in five films, two great, one forgettable, one bad, and now, an ambivalent finale that will likely be remembered for its aftermath rather than the film itself, but despite the grab bag resume, it’s hard to not recognize the stint it as the most ambitious period for the franchise in terms of continuous storytelling.
Borne out of spy thriller novels, the rinse-repeat nature of James Bond’s cinematic escapades was inherited. That was until Craig got to start with the reboot of Casino Royale, and whether it was planned all along or decided upon in hindsight (I suspect the latter), the producers nonetheless decided on an overarching red thread on which Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre, and now No Time To Die dance. For better or worse, it’s unprecedented, and this last outing attempts to validate that strategy with a more personal and melodramatic send-off, closing the loop that began when Daniel Craig got to define the role in his image, and No Time To Die is now set to be the monument erected in his honour.
It makes No Time To Die a story far more invested in Bond the person, focusing much more on his life as a failed romantic than a successful undoer of evil plans. At the outset, he’s still hung up on Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale (Eva Green, never shown, always felt) but making a go of it with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who’s still around after 2015’s tepid Spectre. They’re in love, they tell us and each other with a breathy “j’taime” but Blofeld, another Spectre holdover, blows up their plans by sowing doubts about whether Madeleine really is who she is, and sends Bond into retirement on his lonesome.
It’s here we find him years later, where old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) re-enlists him by telling him a chemical weapons program MI6 has been developing has been raided by evil men, leaving a killer virus and the scientist behind it in the wind. No time to retire, obviously, and wouldn’t you know it, the pursuit brings Madeleine back into his life and the rush of emotions settle in. Cue the couple’s therapy.
Rami Malek sideshows as baddie du jour Safin, who will go down as one of the most forgettable villains in Bond history. Not Malek’s fault to be fair, as it’s due to a laughable indifference on the part of Fukunaga and crew, unconcerned with defining him and giving him any motivation for his mass murdering ambitions beyond the fact he’s slightly disfigured (the world gave me bad acne scars, the world must pay) and is an orphan. Aware of their dramatic skullduggery, the (multiple) writers have Bond discuss Safin with his boss M (Ralph Fiennes), and the best these masters of intelligence gathering can muster between them as for his motives, and I’m not making this up, is “the usual” – I don’t think I’ve seen a more glib, self-referential shrug of indifference put on screen before.
While not forgivable, it’s because grand plans, evil monologues and action sequences that define Bond are secondary concerns this time around, even if the few spectacular set pieces deserve recognition, as a woodland chase scene and a doomsday lair are both stunning to experience.
But Fukunaga and friends came to talk about Bond, and let Bond do a lot of the talking himself. There have been noteworthy heartbreaks before, notably in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which No Time To Die references heavily, but never have we actually seen Bond use his words quite so often, and quite so earnestly.
It’s not Scenes From A Marriage, let me be clear, but coming from the man whose anguished heart produced such floral language in the past, any discussion about what Bond might want out of life does represent a ginormous leap, even if the dialogue feels hammy, the scenarios forced, and the dramatic machinations transparent.
The result is a film which will be remembered for what it tried to do, rather than how well it did do those things, and so I imagine history will be kinder to No Time To Die than it would be if it were to be judged as a stand-alone feature.
So, where does that leave someone wondering whether to go see it? Are you a Bond fan? Then yes. Couldn’t care less about Bond? Then no, and you’d not be reading this review in the first place. But are you interested in seeing a major studio awkwardly try to inject pathos in a cinematic institution that almost prided itself on its pursuit of quick thrills and expendable pleasures? Then hell yes.