The Daniel Craig era of Bond – more or less like the Piers Brosnan era before it – can be divided into those films that really, really worked to bring to life and add to the ethos of Bond on screen, and those that are… not bad exactly, just a little… forgettable.
You’d need some sort of serious slap upside the head to ever forget No Time To Die. It’s practically impeccable film-making, with less fat on it than a superhero whippet. That’s important to say, for all it’s colourfully expressed. Even most people’s previous favourite Craig movie, Skyfall, could potentially lose up to 20 minutes and be no less a film.
Cut 20 minutes out of No Time To Die and it would lie there visibly bleeding and making you feel like a Bond-hating heathen.
There are lots of joyous call-backs to both previous Bond movies and to Fleming’s original novels in this movie, but none of them especially weigh the piece down or crush it under the pressure of its own legend.
Bond has retired, gone to try and find some happiness in the world, but his partner, Dr Madeleine Swann, is convinced that he needs to get closure on Vesper Lynd before he can truly be free to start a new chapter in his life. If he does that, she promises, she’ll tell him the secrets that haunt her own past, and they can move forward together.
When he tries to get that closure with the ghost of Vesper though, Bond’s world explodes again, and so he never gets to learn of Madeleine’s traumatised childhood, the death of her mother, and the man in the mask that haunts her dreams.
Five years pass. MI6 moves on. The world moves on.
And then there’s an attack on a secure laboratory. People are killed (including Hugh Dennis, comedy-fans!), and one of the most dangerous substances in the world is stolen.
A programmable nanobotic weapon – unless it’s meant to kill you, you can carry it harmlessly. But when it encounters the person or people it’s intended to kill, they simply die. It’s ingenious, and deadly, and it’s the mark of a Devil’s bargain between the traditional powers of ‘good’ in the Bond world and the powers of evil.
Traps are set, and Bond walks into a kind of board meeting of the heads of Spectre.
The fact that he walks out again surprises nobody as much as it surprises him. The reach of an old, old enemy is seemingly longer than anyone imagined.
In keeping with the sense in No Time To Die of an era coming to a close, there are an awful lot of burned bridges in this movie. The ultra-secretive Spectre organisation comes crashing to its knees. The man who orchestrates that collapse does not survive to the end of the movie. One of Bond’s best and oldest friends, both in the Craig movies and in the books, doesn’t make it out alive either.
But this is also a movie that makes Bond more realistically human than he has ever had the chance to be before. When both his traditional friends and his traditional enemies seem to conspire against him, when he’s been replaced, an MI6 dinosaur compared to the new girls in town, it could have been a perfect excuse to show Bond as exactly that – an ageing white man, out of touch with the new world. And there probably would have been sections of the Bond fandom who would have cheered that move.
Fortunately, both for the character and the tone of the movie, he fully embraces the future, respecting Lashana Lynch’s new 00 agent, Nomi, and the two find enough common ground to work as a double-strength weapon, rather than wasting much time bickering about how they each choose to get the job done.
If you’re looking for a breakout star from No Time To Die though, it’s less likely to be Lashana Lynch than it is to be Ana de Armas as Paloma, a 5-minute role that has some of us who watched it demanding an instant spin-off series of movies for her character. Without wading into the whole “Female Bond” debacle, if you want an absolutely kickass female spy who can anchor a whole series of adventures on her own, go with Ana de Amas – both she and her character are absolutely freaking flawless. Even Bond, taken with the effectiveness of her as a colleague, is moved to admit “You were excellent.”
As a more realistic and human Bond, it’s somewhat joyous to see both the movie and the character reject the idea that Bond is some lone sociopath with a gun and a licence, too – he actually relies in this movie on the help of some of his friends, both Q and Moneypenny stepping forward more or less against the rules to aid him as he searches for what’s really going on.
When he finds it, this is a Bond who also has more skin in the game than he’s ever had before. If you enjoyed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the notion that Bond could form genuine, long-lasting human connections, you’re going to want to hold onto your seat, because you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Certainly, if you like Bond in his colder, more sadistic moments, No Time To Die doesn’t entirely forget you – there’s a forest sequence where he’s an utterly merciless bastard, pushing a truck onto the head of a villain who’s previously gloated at him. But that feels more like a snarl of unfinished emotional business here than the action of a sociopath.
As for the Big Bad in the film, well, Rami Malek is an interesting Bond villain with a great gimmick and an interesting heritage anchored squarely in the Fleming novels, but he’s also one of those in the grand tradition of Goldfinger and Blofeld who is in love with his own genius. The realism of the plot here also leaves him without much by way of a final world-ending gambit, though what he does in his last two minutes of screen time has hugely far-reaching consequences, both for Bond and for those who like him.
Nevertheless, there’s a sense that Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin is underwritten in this movie – Malek absolutely had the potential to become a great and memorable Bond villain, but he feels swamped by the plot and the other, ultimately more important character-strands at work. That he’s able to achieve what he does as a villain feels somehow disconnected to the character we see on the screen, and when he does speak directly to Bond, it’s mostly to exact a pound of emotional flesh rather than to do any trademark Bond villain gloating.
Is No Time To Die a great Bond film? Honestly? Yes, it qualifies in the top half at least, and fairly high up in that half, too.
Is the best of the Craig Bond movies?
Mmmmm possibly. Probably every dedicated Bond fan would weigh it as being right up there against their previous Craig favourite, irrespective of which movie that is. That has to make it a strong overall contender for being the best of Craig’s outings with the licence to kill.
Are there things that could be tweaked to make it better? Sure – a closer, more explicit connection between Malek’s Safin and the highly-controlled carnage he plans to unleash on the world would be cool, and a less what-the-hell approach to chronology would dissolve one stutter of disbelief. Safin is a character from the nightmare reality of Madeleine Swann’s youth, but even though she’s grown up into an accomplished woman and Bond-lover, the 40-year-old Malek still looks like a 12-year-old, so you blink and go “Wait, how does that work?”.
But more than anything, what No Time To Die does best is pay tribute both to the Ian Fleming Bond novels, some of the best of the movies, and to the world of the Daniel Craig incarnation as a whole.
It shows a Bond much more in tune with the Fleming original, for whom Q and his gadgets was never a thing, and who frequently cobbled together a solution at the very last second, and suffered physical, emotional, and mental health damage as a result of his actions.
It brings the nature of the global threat posed by Bond villains screeeamingly up to date with the potential of a deadly nanobotic plague that can’t be washed off (and the irony of the release date being excruciatingly delayed by a pandemic plague is lost on precisely no-one who watches this movie).
And while referencing both Fleming’s books and some of the best Bonding ever done, it stands on its own feet as a thoroughly enjoyable movie experience that delivers excitement, characterisation and action in spades.
All that, while showing the most human James Bond in the history of the movie series, giving him impressive consequences and a soul, and wiping the slate effectively clean for whoever comes in as writer, director and star, to take the legacy forward.
No Time To Die? Absolutely – after this one, fans will be clamouring for Bond all over again, proving that if you write him well and play him perfectly, a 21st century, jingoism-free Bond can be practically immortal. Tony Fyler