The legacy of James Bond is seeing another book approach its final pages, and perhaps in a manner most graceful, a manner that’s always been very hit and miss. Given how rocky the transition from one actor to the next can be, Daniel Craig could be the best case of a satisfactory open-shut arc. Something only Moore and Connery could only near in their approach, and the other three could only dream of. His farewell adventure, No Time to Die, could be the best final act for any of the six bonds. Looking back, the only one to even come close in quality is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, to which this epic’s heart may pose a succinct affinity. It’s grandiose, action-heavy even melancholy at the same time. Posing questions of trust, betrayal, and the dynamics of family while staving off a new, brooding enemy for the famed 007.
An extra 18 months have left the hearts of many wanting more out of James. Last we saw him at the finale of SPECTRE, he, and his girlfriend Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) were driving off into the bleak London sunset heading for what would ultimately be Monaco. In typical Bond fashion, the past always has a way of catching up with the pair, his mind caught in a trap of betrayal. Devastating enough to the point of a teary-eyed breakup, and a tough departure from MI6. Fast forward five years, he’s enjoying quiet solitude, off the grid in Jamaica. He’s sworn off spy work, his heart no longer in for it. But then, old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), accompanied by State Dept lackey Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), resurfaces to ask for a favor, just as a bio-warfare threat surfaces with ties to the aforementioned organization. It starts with the crafty Valdo (David Dencik) and ends with the moody, stoic Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), baring his ageless mystique with deep ties in Madeleine’s life. With that concern of the past in the back of his mind, Bond ultimately gives in to his calling once more, knowing the world could be at stake.
I have no reason to be worried about this franchise being at stake. Although it’s apparent No Time to Die sticks around just a bit too long. Despite the tall order director Cary-Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) sets up with 163 minutes’ worth of a dense story, the fuses don’t always spark. It’s never boring, nevertheless, making the most of every minute, from the overextended prelude sequence before Billie Eilish’s dreamlike title song, to the very last moment of the credits where even I was prompted to stay for that last Bond movie tradition. Fukunaga, collaborating with Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge on the script, envelops both heart and mind around the nostalgic tradition of even the least pleasing entry. His is a three-prong attack, staying truthful to the franchise, while unafraid to be light and tender with characters, and attending to any residual spills Sam Mendes had left behind.
As the immediate follow-up to that 2015 tension coil, Bond makes this comeback a genuine event, with Craig up to the challenge one last time. And there’s not much wrong with slipping on the suit and the gadgets again if it means a more satisfactory conclusion. Looking back on SPECTRE, it would’ve been fine to finish Craig’s arc there, it would’ve been in line with other Bonds. Fukunaga is clearly keen on making the actor’s departure a celebration of Bond, and it fits the bill and the added wait. It’s somewhat a welcome sight, Craig behaving full-throated, furious, respectable in the romance department, and even in a bar scene jovial and laidback. Headlining a dark comedy like Knives Out did plenty to loosen Craig up, not enough to surpass his screen command or romantic confidence on Casino Royale. The deceased Vesper Lynd does play a role in his clouded judgment here. And yet, his reflexes are better primed to answer back to Waller-Bridge’s comic jabs.
Her writing prowess clearly works well with the large supporting cast Craig carries for backup. Not so much for Malek, however, whose backstory-riddled Safin may have rubbed me the wrong way on first viewing. Not the worst Bond villain in existence, but a weak link in the chain whose strengths go very underutilized. Even the jailed Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who had far less screen time, has him beat. So too does even Valdo’s hard-working associate, Primo (Dali Benssalah); perhaps if Malek had his job, the antagonist dynamics would’ve flowed more smoothly. Here, they’re functional enough for Bond to take down. Albeit with the prevalent distraction of traitor Madeleine returning to his life, giving the chipper, confident Seydoux welcome closure after the previous film left her frustratingly one-noted.
Craig still must know how to play nice with others, whether it’s quirky tech expert Q (a lovable Ben Whishaw), secretary Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), steadfast leader M (Ralph Fiennes) new spy trainee Paloma (Ana de Armas, effectively outshining Craig in her brief period of screen time), or Nomi (a very on-the-ball Lashawna Lynch), a fresh-faced recruit essentially keeping James’s Double-0 position warm while on that extended holiday. Fukunaga seems to have a little too much fun focusing on the MI6 team reunion, and it shows. Much of the film builds onto that camaraderie, bordering into light sitcom territory until it’s time for Bond.
And Fukunaga is eager to follow along with that thread as well, showcasing multiple scenic locales, the many toys available at James’ persistent disposal, and his usually hidden quest for a steady love. Craig and Seydoux make up for lost opportunities left on the table post-SPECTRE, and yet their chemistry is still a hair underdeveloped. Rather a reminder most relationships in Bond’s work aren’t meant to last long. The latter half manages to defy that rule, with love taking a fresh meaning in his mind. as the idea of family strikes him like lightning, whether found or forged.
Like Mendes before, Fukunaga brings some fresh vibes to the Bond series at large, opening the door for a complex variation of Bond’s emotional makeup, but never losing sight of the cinematic spectacle or raw physicality the character demands. With a sharp on-screen look captured by Linus Sandgren (La La Land), the editorial grace of Tom Cross (First Man), and a rousing musical landscape headlined by Hans Zimmer (The Simpsons Movie) and Morrissey guitarist Johnny Marr, the aesthetic palette is delightfully consistent. The only thing No Time to Die couldn’t improve upon remains with giving Malek a tougher thematic wager than Waltz, pushing his warfare interests into a greater act of menace.
Even that villain wobble can’t stop Craig in his tracks while bowing out with literally everything thrown in, plus the figurative kitchen sink. Nobody may have done it better than Connery, but Daniel’s Bond might be the best as far as consistency. Keeping in mind how much I’d recommend experiencing No Time to Die on the largest screen available, his portrayal of Bond couldn’t ask for a finer way to drive off into history. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
No Time to Die arrives only in theaters October 8; rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language, and some suggestive material; 163 minutes.