A film review by Craig J. Koban October 19, 2021

NO TIME TO DIE jj
½ 

2021, PG-13, 163 mins.

Daniel Craig as James Bond  /  Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann  /  Lashana Lynch as Nomi  /  Ralph Fiennes as M / Gareth Mallory  /  Christoph Waltz as Ernst Stavro Blofeld  /  Ben Whishaw as Q  /  Naomie Harris as Eve  /  Moneypenny  /  Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin  /  Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter  /  Ana de Armas as Paloma  /  Billy Magnussen as Logan Ash  /  Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner  /  David Dencik as Valdo Obruchev

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga  /  Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Fukunaga

It's almost hard to imagine, in pure hindsight, what a relative unknown commodity Daniel Craig was way, way back in the mid-2000s when he was cast as Pierce Brosnan's replacement to play James Bond.   

Just the sixth actor to fill the tuxedo of Ian Fleming's iconic creation, Craig defied all of his critics and became - at least for my money - one of the very finest 007s to ever occupy the silver screen.  Mixing no-nonsense toughness, a steely eyed bravado, and a joyously liberating lack of campy frivolity, Craig's Bond was like no other and perhaps the closest to the literary Bond (a ruthlessly empowered blunt force instrument).  His first appearance in 2006's CASINO ROYALE - the best of all the Bond films - packed a rejuvenating genre busting wallop that audaciously and innovatively re-defined what this character could be to modern audiences.  Gone were the outrageous gadgets, the strange looking super villains hell bent on world destruction, the brain-dead bimbos for the hero to sexually conquer consequence-free, the sarcastic quips, and the otherworldly set pieces and stunts that border on nonsensical fantasy.  No, this new Bond-redux was grounded, gritty, and cold-bloodedly authentic.   

To take a page out of the late Roger Ebert's playbook, Craig became not just a tenant living within this British secret agent role, but rather emerged as the landlord presiding over it.  For as much masterful good will that CASINO ROYALE bestowed upon us, it led to a series of decidedly so-so sequels, with the initially disinteresting and ill focused QUANTUM OF SOLACE that was followed up by the infinitely finer SKYFALL that, unfortunately, led into the bloated and tonally inconsistent SPECTRE, the latter of which being the most disappointingly regressive minded of the whole bunch.  Then Craig very publicly and sarcastically came out and indicated that he'd rather commit suicide than play the role again (inappropriately hyperbolic, yes, but to the point), which led many to believe that his days as Bond were dead and buried.  

Cooler heads (and massive paychecks) prevailed, and Craig is back for his well publicized swan song in NO TIME TO DIE, the 25th Bond entry and number five for Craig.  Gone is Sam Mendes and in is TRUE DETECTIVE's Cary Joji Fukunaga (the very first American to helm a Bond flick), and NO TIME TO DIE is every bit as handsomely produced and epically staged as any other previous 007 entry.  That, and Craig easily gives the most superb Bond performance of any era here.  Regretably, though, this latest and last Craig centered sequel is far too numbingly long, contains one of the weaker series villains of recent memory, and doubles down on becoming the type of Bond film that seems completely counter-intuitive to what CASINO ROYALE set up in the first place.   

NO TIME TO DIE picks up where SPECTRE's relatively closed off ending left us, featuring Craig's Bond settling down with the new love of his life in Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) after defeating his half-brother in Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz...remember that false fake-out STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS Khan-like reveal for him?).  Unfortunately, the past comes back with a vengeance (as does some dastardly secrets that hint towards Madeleine's potential betrayal), leading Bond to indefinitely separate from her.  Five years pass, and when we reacquaint with Bond he has long since abandoned MI6 and has now retired in hiding in Jamaica.  In pure super spy 101 fashion, Bond is found by his old American chum in Felix (Jeffrey Wright), who pleads with him to return back into the field one last time because of the threat of a top secret weaponized nanobot killer virus (that's a mouthful) being stolen out of a research facility for the purposes of Spectre to use however they see fit.  Severely complicating things is the fact that Bond's old boss in M (Ralph Fiennes) actually oversaw the development of the bioweapon (which is able to hone in on  specific targets based on DNA), which makes this M perhaps the most foolishly reckless in series history.  Realizing the severity of having such massive power in the wrong hands, Bond comes out of retirement to work with the Americans and his old MI6 crew, but soon realizes that his 007 designation has been given to Nomi (Lashana Lynch) and (as an added gut punch) his former flame in Madeleine is now working with M and company as well.  After forming an uneasy alliance with all in question (and interrogating an imprisoned Blofeld, in a scene that's not nearly as potent as it should have been), Bond uncovers the real threat in Lyutisfer Safin (Rami Malek), a creepily disfigured madman that has equally creepy ties to Madeleine's dark past. 

 

 

No money was spared whatsoever in NO TIME TO DIE, and Fukunaga crafts a routinely gorgeous looking, globetrotting thriller that series fans have always come to expect.  Remember how criminally awful the opening chase sequence was in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, all edited together so chaotically and criminally without any flow or coherence?  The sensationally rendered introductory set piece here - showing Bond with Madeleine in tow evading multiple Spectre pursuers - seems like a gracefully engineered counterpoint to past series sins, and it's a thoroughly suspenseful and thrilling car/foot chase to behold.  There's also of wonderful sequence set in Cuba, during which time Bond hooks up with a rookie Cuban secret agent in Paloma (played by Craig's KNIVES OUT co-star in Ana de Armas), who gives NO TIME TO DIE a sassy energy that it desperately needs.  She has such such stellar, unforced chemistry with Craig here as they both work together to take down multiple adversaries that it's a bloody shame that the actress shows up and then a few short minutes later disappears and is never heard from again in the film.  If anything, NO TIME TO DIE would have been in infinitely better shape if Bond and Paloma were actually a team throughout the narrative.  Somehow, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Fukunaga inexplicably felt otherwise.  As for the other female operative thrown into the mix, Lynch's female 007 makes for a compelling and welcome gender swap for the mostly sausage fest agent designation, but her character on paper isn't very intriguingly written and she doesn't bring much charm to the part.  Compared to the instant sizzle that de Armas and Craig generate on screen, her screen real estate with him by comparison is fairly lackluster. 

If there's another overriding issue that really taints NO TIME TO DIE then it would be, as alluded to earlier, that it seems to be aggressively miming the Bond genre playbook for its greatest hits conventions as opposed to fully embracing and being the kind of white knuckled and believable espionage thriller that typified CASINO ROYALE.  So much of NO TIME TO DIE is slavishly reliant on upping the ante (more is not necessarily more) and regurgitating the beats of countless previous Bond entries.  For instance, we get a wickedly insane villain with delusions of grandeur (and physical deformities) that wants to launch a ridiculously convoluted plan for ridding the world of millions of lives, replete with an equally preposterous and seemingly impenetrable lair that only the hero can infiltrate.  Considering that this should be Craig's last hurrah in the series, it's ultimately deflating to see his character face off against such an underdeveloped and frankly dull antagonist, and one that's unfortunately and quickly introduced early on, but then is never heard from again until well past the halfway point of the story.  The recent Oscar winning Malek is a bona fide talent, to be sure, but he never really finds his footing as this would-be sinister baddie, mostly because the screenplay fails to make him memorably intimidating.  He's more idiosyncratically weird than scary.  That, and his overall end game involving the aforementioned biological weapon of mass destruction was done better two decades ago in the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sequel.  I can certainly appreciate, though, why the studio ended up postponing the release of NO TIME TO DIE back in March of 2020 when the COVID pandemic was gripping the world.  The studio having their film (that deals with an easily transferable deadly killer virus that could ravage vast sections of humanity) wouldn't have made for a good time at the movies then...and perhaps still doesn't. 

When one starts to dissect the whole overarching storyline from CASINO ROYALE through to NO TIME TO DIE it becomes easier to see how these Craig Bond films are clearly waging a push-pull war within themselves.  Akin to the STAR WARS sequel trilogy, these last five Bond adventures aren't made up of the same connective tissue.  More often than not, it's easy to notice that a lack of a cohesive road map or gameplan for this five-film arc is curiously absent.  CASINO ROYALE was such a ground breaking original for the entirety of the cinematic Bond cannon, but most of the sequels that followed (even a decent one like SKYFALL) tried to disingenuously acclimate back to the very overused troupes that should have been best left dead and buried (like, for example, multiple attempts in NO TIME TO DIE to make Craig's Bond quippy, which not only feels egregiously forced, but completely against the grain of the Bond that the actor unleashed back in 2006).  One of the large casualties of this Craig era is that no film post-ROYALE could duplicate the cornerstone Bond/ Vesper relationship (Eva Green's Bond girl remains one of the best ever conceived).  Following that up proved to be impossible.  Madeleine and Bond never worked in SPECTRE because they simply had no spark together on screen.  NO TIME TO DIE tries as it can to make this union work, but Seydoux and Craig (as respectively solid on a performance level as they are here) just don't mesh again here.  And because of that, the ending of NO TIME TO DIE rings more emotionally hollow than it does grandly moving.  I felt for Bond and Vesper in CASINO ROYALE, but I felt so very little for Bond and Madeleine.  Fans will find the concluding moments that close the book, so to speak, on Craig's tenure as Bond as either brave and earned or exasperatingly manipulative.  I found myself hopelessly trapped in the middle. 

At nearly three hours, NO TIME TO DIE can be a punishing slog to sit through.  I can certainly appreciate that (a) this film's multiple release delays caused by COVID did it no favors and (b) the makers knew this was Craig's definitively last crack at Bond, so the compulsion to bring every narrative thread to a sense of closure most likely precipitated a longer running time.  But this is a very ungainly and unwieldy 163 minutes, and for every pulse pounding moment that works gangbusters there are even more padded filler that grinds the proceedings to a dead halt.  NO TIME TO DIE never makes a compelling and convincing case for its bloated and self indulgent length.  It's ultimately endurance testing, not thrilling.  No James Bond film should elicit such sensations in audience members, but it's a real testament to Craig's total commitment to the role that he has completely and uniquely made his own over the past 15-plus years that he's able to make ever the roughest edges of NO TIME TO DIE (and the other middling Bond sequels) so captivating.

I'll say this in closing: Craig deserves all the props in the world for elevating Fleming's character in ways that no other previous Bond performer ever achieved.  I'd argue that he's the greatest iteration of 007 that we'll likely ever see...that just so happened to be in a series of films of inconsistent quality.  His pioneering CASINO ROYALE set the bar so high for this fifty-plus year old franchise that all subsequent sequels had their work cut out for them.  With the exception of SKYFALL, none of these Craiger Bond Cinematic Universe efforts - including NO TIME TO DIE - properly capitalized on the once in a generation/lightning in a bottle freshness of CASINO ROYALE.  That's ultimately too bad.  Having said all of that and despite NO TIME TO DIE simply not working for me, I'll concede that - like Christopher Nolan's self-contained THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy - Craig's mythos changing Bond adventures over five films had an absolute beginning, middle, and ending.  That's never been done before with Fleming's immortal creation (most of the films for the past several decades have been loosely episodic in nature) and is to be admired, even with all of the creative fumbles along the way.  It takes a lot of gutsy ambition to take a character so entrenched in the cinematic lexicon and pulp culture history and fundamentally retool him.  Perhaps much of what was built around Craig's 007 appearances were too shaken and stirred for their own good, but the indelible stamp that he has left on the role might never be duplicated.   

REVIEW ADDENDUM

Now, pay attention 007 fans. 

There's a massive logical plot hole involving one of James Bond’s spiffy new gadgets that - when used for its intended Q enabled special abilities - would have rendered a major plot development and fate for one of the characters completely null and void.  Without engaging in spoilers, that's all I'll say.  

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