For nearly two years, “No Time to Die” has been the canary in the coal mine for the pandemic era of movie watching. The 25th James Bond film was the first to shift its release date in response to the rising threat of COVID-19, and over the next 18 months, it constantly was the first to shift its release date before everyone else followed. MGM has been steadfast in its approach, never giving in to a streaming service or a day-and-date premium rental release. As the pandemic has ebbed and flowed, the theater experience has begun to return in a more earnest way, but “No Time to Die” still represents a gatekeeper of sorts and a sign that movies are officially back. Whether that’s true or not, as we continue to navigate various surges and variants, MGM has decided that they aren’t going to wait any longer.
The delays mean that it has now been nearly six years since the release of “Spectre,” Daniel Craig’s fourth film as Bond, and for some of that time, we didn’t know if he would return for a fifth. Perhaps the biggest change with the Craig films is a more direct continuity of characters and storylines, turning Bond from a series of one-off movies starring the same person into more of an ongoing serialized experience. So, when you combine that approach with the knowledge that this would be Craig’s last film, it puts an extra bit of pressure on the proceedings. And indeed, it follows hard upon the foundation laid by “Spectre,” with Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) living an idyllic life until both of their pasts, his in the form of Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christopher Waltz), and hers in the form of the sinister Lyustifer Safin (Rami Malek), force them to contend with the inherent mistrust of the spy game. When Safin gets access to a globally threatening bio virus, Bond’s last fight becomes one far more existential.
In general, the Craig films have been marked with a more grounded sense of the world, with less of a focus on the crazy gadgets of the past and the insane plots of insane villains living on remote island fortresses. “No Time to Die” aims to marry the Bond of the present with the Bond of the past, injecting the grittier recent films with some old-school franchise silliness seen through the current lens. It’s a tricky path to take considering how many people have become Bond fans for the first time with this different take on the character and could easily be turned off by things like bionic eyeballs, EMP-emitting watches and Aston Martins with a million switches to shoot all sorts of caltrops, smoke and guns all over the place. The key, then, is Craig, who brings the baggage of his first four films into a more heightened plot to find the balance between the two.
Much has been made of the inclusion of Ana de Armas as the newest Bond girl, both for the recognition of her rising star in the industry and for her reunion with her “Knives Out” costar Craig, and she is roundly excellent as a Cuban CIA agent new to the field with a lot of skill and a dress that shows off an almost comical amount of skin for the sort of fighting she’s expected to do. Her sequence, focused on finding a Russian scientist in the middle of a Spectre-hosted birthday party for Blofeld, is the film’s most thrilling and engaging (save for maybe the cold open), which makes it all the more baffling that, after about 10 minutes of screen time in this 163-minute epic, she disappears, never to be seen again.
Sure, the core of the movie is materially about Bond and Madeleine and their relationship, but these little side characters, whether it’s de Armas or Lashana Lynch as a rival spy at MI-6, add the most spice and verve to the proceedings. They help make up for the few weaknesses at play, including the film’s antagonist. Malek is well-suited for the role of a Bond villain with his weird voice and his extremely angular face, and he too plays with the classic over-the-top villain of old with something more modern, but while it works intermittently, and Malek is certainly better suited for something like this than a leading role, it doesn’t always click.
“No Time to Die” is a film that takes a lot of risks. Its decision to embrace the camp and gadgets of old Bond may alienate the “Casino Royale” or “Skyfall” fans. But those who are longtime Bond fans might be equally disappointed by how they decide to end Craig’s tenure. Craig has been a different sort of Bond, though, and by that measure, it’s hard to fault “No Time to Die” from that perspective. Choosing to have his final appearance straddle the line between the old school and the new is undeniably dangerous. Luckily, there’s room enough for crazy “Metal Gear Solid”-style plots and the completion of Craig’s Bond all in one place, even if that sounds like it shouldn’t work.
The biggest compliment that I can give “No Time to Die” is how breezy it felt watching it. In no way was I burdened by the runtime (and I’m the sort who generally finds the increasing length of movies these days to be more trouble than they’re worth), nor did I think that the film treaded water or spent time on unnecessary or unexciting plots. The risks work. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren takes full advantage of the practical effects and on-set locations, working with director Cary Joji Fukunaga to make a movie that looks so much better than your standard CGI-drenched, color-corrected-to-hell blockbuster we’re used to seeing, and Hans Zimmer has plenty of fun playing with the classic themes in the score. It might be reductive to call “No Time to Die,” and the Bond franchise in general, as old school or nostalgic, but it just feels different watching it. It’s refreshing among the swath of superheroes and absolutely worth the wait in this case.
Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek, Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz
Director: Cory Joji Fukunaga