This is how long Daniel Craig has played James Bond: when Casino Royale was released in theaters, Billie Eilish, who co-wrote and performs the “No Time to Die” theme song, was 5 years old. In short, it’s been a while.
Even without a year-and-a-half COVID delay, No Time to Die, Craig’s for-real-this-time farewell to the franchise would have some really high expectations to meet. Perhaps disappointment was inevitable. But my dear God. Did it have to be like this?
No Time to Die picks up more or less where Spectre left off. Where the last film saw Bond ride off into the sunset with psychiatrist Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, looking miserable, which is fair enough when you’re stuck with a character so underwritten), this opens with them on holiday in Italy. Bond is besotted; Madeleine has two settings, cool and maudlin. Much like in Spectre, this is the extent of her characterization.
Madeleine determines that what’s really holding Bond back in their relationship is the ghost of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and that he needs to visit her grave, which just so happens to be nearby. This is accurate enough in the sense that the ghost of Vesper, who died four films ago, still has more chemistry with Bond than Madeleine. It also quickly becomes clear the film wants viewers to ignore that Madeleine is supposed to be a psychotherapist who has conveniently avoided doing any work at all on processing her own myriad traumas and various resulting issues. She writes secret messages on scraps of paper, sets them on fire, and then tosses them off the balcony. She’s doing just fine, why do you ask; no wildfires are started that we know of, let’s move on.
Anyway, Bond visits Vesper’s tomb and all seems to be going well until the thing literally explodes—terrorist fraternity SPECTRE left a calling card, so there’s no mystery there. Since Madeleine was the one who pushed Bond into going and her deceased father was a SPECTRE member, Bond assumes the only possible explanation is that she set up the whole thing. He puts her on a train and says he’ll never see her again; she gets weepy but doesn’t exactly try to stop him.
So that’s the end of that (for now), but Bond sticks to retirement. Jump forward five years and he’s living off the grid. “Wait, isn’t this Skyfall?”, you might be thinking, but regretfully, this is actually just Skyfall’s lame kid brother who is just shamelessly copying him without really getting it. Anyway, the gig economy being as it is, Bond is called in to deal with a missing scientist and his biochemical nanobot weapon—yes, that’s right, the Bond movie that was supposed to come out in April 2020 revolves around a biological weapon—as a freelancer, first by the CIA via old buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, underutilized like most of the supporting cast), then later for MI6.
The weapon, codename Project Heracles, consists of killer nanobots capable of being aerosolized or spreading through person-to-person transmission that can be programmed to target a specific DNA profile; in other words, a guaranteed kill with no collateral damage. The evil scientist behind the weapon, Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik), is a Cold War stock figure with a cartoonish Russian accent although he developed his Pandora’s box on MI6’s payroll. He ultimately has no particular allegiance or real motive to speak of, and just sort of goes along with whoever has him kidnapped at any given moment. There are four writers credited on this screenplay—director Cary Joji Fukunaga, veteran Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag fame, who was brought in for a highly publicized script polish in spring 2019—and yet it feels like somehow no one gave Obruchev’s character so much as a passing thought.
Ultimately, the actual “big bad” is Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a mind-numbingly generic terrorist who feels like a Bond villain parody that forgot to be funny. He’s obsessed with Madeleine because her father killed his family—and when he broke into her home when she was a child seeking to return the favor, she nearly killed him—but he also nabs Obruchev because he wants to use Heracles to terrorize and kill large swaths of the population. The film seems to indicate that these are all connected but fails to explain how, exactly. He somehow manages to give a master plan speech without ever communicating a coherent master plan. It’s doubtful any actor could rescue Safin’s character, but Malek’s performance actively makes things worse. With his glassy, wide-eyed gaze and stilted delivery, he might be attempting to emulate Peter Lorre, but he actually comes across as a student of the Jared Leto school of absolute overkill. This is what happens when acting Oscars fall into the wrong hands—we all suffer.
Safin feels like an attempt to repeat what Skyfall did with baddie Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) to give Judi Dench’s seven-film run as M an explosive finale, only Safin’s fixation is, of all the characters in the Bond roster, Madeleine. The film makes her the crux of the story while also feeling consistently at a loss over what to do with her character. It’s utterly baffling.
Act I of No Time To Die puts all of the film’s narrative weight on its weakest points and then spends the rest of the time scrambling to try to keep the whole thing from toppling over. It’s a mess. Even then, it could have been a fun mess if the film was capable of enjoying itself, but instead but it takes itself so, so seriously.
By the end, it’s very clear that No Time to Die is trying to give Craig’s Bond era the sort of sendoff Logan gave Hugh Jackman’s tenure as Wolverine. However, in Logan, the core relationships are a friendship that has been cultivated over several films and the better part of two decades and a connection with a child around whom the whole film revolves. In No Time to Die, it’s an utterly uncompelling romance that’s gotten perhaps an hour total of unconvincing screen time and a child who’s tossed in at around the two-hour mark like a Hail Mary pass. These two things are not the same.
Spectre might have been a limp fish, but No Time To Die is a bloated mess. The script is the core of the issue—it feels like stumbling through a crime scene where the perpetrator thought spraying some Febreze constituted a full clean-up job—but the repercussions are widespread. Fukunaga is an incredibly accomplished filmmaker (True Detective season 1, Beasts of No Nation), but beyond a few distinctive action sequences, he often feels lost in the shuffle.
It’s hard to forgive No Time to Die for its sins because of the nature of its unevenness. It comes across incredibly, even excruciatingly, considerate in the extent to which it remodels Bond to contemporary sensibilities, but elsewhere it is stupefying in its carelessness; the whiplash between the two becomes downright nauseating. On the one hand, it’s free of the typical Bond coercive sex scenes and their dubious consent; makes Bond’s successor to the 007 title a Black woman, Nomi (Lashana Lynch, doing the best she can with a sadly staid role); and gives Q (Ben Whishaw) a Disney-style exclusively gay moment (please clap), presumably in the name of diversity and inclusion. On the other hand, it still shamelessly treats physical scarring as shorthand for moral corruption (Safin’s disfigurement never even gets a backstory), turns Nomi taking off her wig into a cheap comedy beat that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Madea movie, and at one point demonstrates that it literally doesn’t know how race works, like the joke of the stereotypical “I don’t see color” white liberal taken to its natural extreme. No Time to Die is not nearly as evolved from Dr. No as it thinks it is, which is especially disturbing because it’s clearly trying so hard.
Every single member of the returning supporting cast is woefully underutilized apart from Madeleine, the one character literally no one wanted to see utilized, quite possibly ever again, because she has the personality of taupe paint. Every scene Craig and Seydoux share genuinely hurts to watch, because this entire film hinges on the idea that they are deeply, desperately in love, like two star-crossed paramours in the most pining of K-dramas, only they have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. To be clear, quality K-drama pining is the food of the gods, but this is because the K-dramas put in the work to convince me that this immortal goblin is desperately in love with an unlucky human marked for death. In contrast, No Time to Die, much like Spectre before it, cannot even figure out how to get Bond and Madeleine to have a conversation that isn’t f*cking awkward.
With the way the concept of “fan-service” has been thrown around pejoratively quite often as of late, one wonders if perhaps a movie like No Time to Die might be in part an unintended consequence of this trend: It feels like it’s not really made for any audience at all. It’s a Bond movie that knows it doesn’t want to be a Bond movie, but doesn’t know what else to be.
Apart from Bond himself, the film spends the most time and gives the most narrative weight to the characters audiences care about least—newcomers and introductions from the incredibly mediocre Spectre—while sidelining all of the key recurring players. The closest thing Q has to an arc is an attempted date night that Bond crashes. Eve Moneypenny doesn’t even have that (Naomie Harris, how dare they do this to you), and M (Ralph Fiennes) just sits at his very large desk and wonders where it all went wrong. One hopes this is just a farewell to Craig and not this entire Bond lineage, because if it is, the complete neglect of all the long-standing supporting players here is downright criminal. The film is so focused on trying to fix all of Bond’s shortcomings it seems to have no concept of Bond’s appeal or brand. James Bond used to be cool; in No Time to Die, he uses a Nokia phone.
A brief sojourn to Cuba is a shining light in a sea of darkness, one of the few places where No Time to Die lets loose enough to have a little fun, and also one of the only times this actually feels like a Bond movie. This section of the film sees Bond partnering with newbie CIA recruit Paloma (Ana de Armas, easily stealing every scene she is in) to crash a SPECTRE party in search of Obruchev; it’s fun, glamorous, quippy, and topped off by a well-choreographed action sequence. For several wonderful minutes, it really does feel like Bond is back. As Paloma, a wide-eyed new recruit, de Armas is delightful. She makes strategic use of a charmingly ditzy persona to obfuscate the true extent of her skills—easily the most interesting character the film introduces despite only featuring her in a scant few scenes. But the party comes to an end all too soon.
No Time To Die’s tragic clusterf*ck of a flaw is that it makes the mistake of thinking that rehabbing Bond means scrubbing the character until he is squeaky-clean. But this just makes Bond an entirely different character, as these changes don’t develop over time; the growth does not feel earned. When Bond makes grand declarations of love, it doesn’t tug at the heartstrings, it feels like he’s been body-snatched, because whomst the actual hell is this man and where did he come from? A switch flips and the poster boy for toxic masculinity is now an earnest family man? When? How? By the end, No Time to Die just feels like a generic action film that happens to star a very tired-looking Daniel Craig.
Bringing Bond into the present, much like modernizing anything else, is not a matter of scrubbing away the problems of the past but coming to face them. The keyword should be atonement, not erasure. Give Bond consequences for his philandering, his misogyny, his bigotry—have chickens come home to roost. Instead, the actual skeletons in Bond’s closet are thrown out with the bathwater, leaving the film scrambling to pull stakes out of thin air; a soap opera-ish reveal late in the second act is nearly laughable in how desperate it feels. In the end, this attempted swan song for Craig’s Bond is more of a turkey wandering in confused circles. It’s not bad enough to ruin the highlights of his journey to date, and there are a handful of enjoyable sequences spread out within this 163-minute colossus, but still, it’s a damn shame this journey that started so strong couldn’t stick the landing.
No Time To Die opens in theaters on October 8, 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): Nicola Dove, DANJAQ, LLC, MGM