It’s an unabashedly conventional Bond film that’s been made with high finesse and just the right touch of soul, as well as enough sleek surprise to keep you on edge.
Before I go further, though, let me lay my baccarat cards on the table. I thought “Casino Royale,” the first film in which Daniel Craig portrayed 007, was the greatest Bond film since the early Sean Connery days, and in many ways the most perfectly realized Bond movie ever. (I’ve seen it countless times, and it’s one of my favorite films of its era.) To me, the trio of Bond films that came after “Casino Royale” have added up to one of the most profoundly disappointing follow-throughs of any contemporary film series. “Quantum of Solace” was all trumped-up mechanics, “Spectre” was an elaborate piece of product that went through the motions — and “Skyfall,” though I realize many Bond watchers think it’s a masterpiece, was, to me, sodden and overstated, with a meta-hammy megalomanic performance by Javier Bardem and a backstory to Bond that was maudlin with self-pity. The film was trying to be “emotional,” but that poor-little-spy-boy origin story didn’t enlarge Bond — it diminished him.
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The truth is that so many elements of what the Bond films originally brought to cinema have been incorporated into other film series — the “Mission: Impossible” films, the “Bourne” films, the “Fast and Furious” films — that to create a first-rate Bond adventure, something more is required. You need an ingenious weave of elements: the perfect layered rhythm of brashly timed fights and great escapes and bedazzling chases and delectable quips and cool gadgets and sexy one-upmanship and the ultimate in world-domination stakes. “No Time to Die,” at 2 hours and 43 minutes, is the longest Bond film ever, yet it’s brisk and heady and sharp. The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga (HBO’s “True Detective”), keeps the elements in balance like an ace juggler. He gets the details right — the split-second leaping-off-the-balcony action scenes, the menace of an assassin with a vagrant mechanical eyeball, the persnickety droll fun of Ben Whishaw’s performance as Q.
Beyond that, though, there needs to be a touch of mystery to Bond. That’s the quality that “Casino Royale” brought back to the series through its fantastically tricky dramatization of the relationship between Craig’s fast, steely, roughneck Bond and Eva Green’s insinuating Vesper Lynd. And “No Time to Die,” though it’s not the work of art “Casino Royale” was, possesses just enough of that quality. Ideally, there’s a romance to a James Bond movie — I don’t just mean a love story, but a romance to Bond’s presence, a grander motive behind the ruthless execution of his every move. “No Time to Die” has that.
In the introductory sequence, we see Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine as a young girl and the cataclysm she endured at the hands of a man in a white mask who came to her house to kill her father — who was a member of SPECTRE, and had murdered the masked man’s family. So Madeleine, in her way, has emerged from a chain of vengeance. Then we cut to Bond and the adult Madeleine cruising through the mountain roads of Italy in his Aston Martin. When Madeleine tells him to drive faster, he says they’ve got all the time in the world.
But the idyll is short-lived, as SPECTRE agents hunt them down. How did they know Bond was there? In the midst of some razory action, the most riveting moment is one of pure inaction: Bond brings the gizmo-laden car to a stop in the middle of a town square, a dozen gunmen firing right at him, blasting away at his bullet-proof windows. The windows don’t look that secure, yet Bond does nothing. He’s telling Madeleine, through his silent passive fury: “I know you led them here. I know you betrayed me. Who cares if we live or die?” “No Time to Die” is a popcorn riff on the theme of fatal trust.
That theme gets played out on a grand scale. Bond, drawn back into action, joins forces with the CIA and heads to Santiago de Cuba, where SPECTRE is holding a kind of underworld convention, all built around the criminal cult’s stolen possession of Project Heracles — a chemical weapons project in which the biohazard in question poisons you by injecting your bloodstream with nanobots, which become vehicles for toxifying your DNA, which can then be spread. The contagion element, as conceived in the script, predated COVID (since the film was ready to be released last year), but it acquires a queasy topical resonance, especially when we learn that M (Ralph Fiennes), glowering with anxiety, has a darker agenda than usual. In the old days, Project Heracles could have emerged only from a villainous mastermind. Now it’s a power that the good guys want in their possession. In “No Time to Die,” the whole global order is tainted, which makes Bond even more of a rogue operator.
In Cuba, Bond hooks up with his old CIA colleague Felix Leiter, played with his usual stalwart gusto by Jeffrey Wright, and with Paloma (Ana de Armas), an agent in a slip of a black cocktail dress who turns out to be less naïve than she says. Here’s a place where the film is downright debonair in its cleverness: The espionage logistics between Bond and Paloma are so impeccably timed that they give off a ripe erotic charge — but in the old days, these two would have dropped right into bed. The fact that they don’t deprives the film of nothing; if anything, it’s all hotter as a flippant flirtation. Billy Magnussen, who is such a sly actor, is also on hand as a grinning stooge of a CIA novice who’s a “fan” of Bond’s, until he isn’t.
Craig, his hair chopped into a bristle cut, has mastered the art of making Bond a seemingly invincible force who is also a human being with hidden vulnerabilities. There’s another scene that, decades ago, would have been a seduction — but is now a far more nonchalant encounter between Bond and Nomi (Lashana Lynch), an up-and-coming MI6 agent who has been assigned the codename of…007. For a moment, we look at Lashana Lynch, who makes every line sparkle with a kind of dry sauciness, and think: Could this be the new — the next — James Bond? But the interplay between Nomi and Bond tells a story of its own. It is, on some level, about Bond making way for the new world. The trick is, he’s more than ready to go there. And the film, in a kind of bait-and-switch, is both offering up an honestly progressive piece of casting and winking at our heightened awareness of how much the Bond series could use it.
“No Time to Die,” at heart, is a traditional Bond film, and that’s part of its pleasure. But it’s not just the running time that feels more epic than usual. The movie wants to do full justice to the emotional thrust of this being Daniel Craig’s exit from the series. And it does. The main story is set five years after that opening sequence, when Bond and Madeleine have parted ways. They’re reunited through Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), now a in a padded cell in London, where he’s more Hannibal Lecter than jabbering loony; yet he hasn’t lost his ability to control. Madeleine is a psychiatrist who has access to Blofeld, and when she and Bond meet again, it’s so that Bond can have a face-to-face with the villain he put behind bars. In his one major scene, Waltz invests Blofeld with a more exquisite menace than he did in all of “Spectre.” Blofeld is two steps ahead of Bond, even though his bio-weapon is a step ahead of him.
The film’s main villain is Rami Malek as Lyutsifer Safin, who made his presence felt in the movie before we even knew it. Malek, with mottled skin, an all-seeing leer, and the caressing voice of a depraved monk, makes him a hypnotic creep. (He could give Bardem a master class in how to underplay the overstatement.) Safin has, of course, headquartered himself on a remote island, which is where he’s perfecting his poison and everything he plans to do with it. The setting, and the chem-lab ickiness, are very “You Only Live Twice,” but what’s so good about Malek’s performance is the obscene way that he inserts his presence into the drama of Bond, Madeleine, and Madeline’s young daughter, Mathilde. Bond is there to save the world; he’s there to save Madeleine and Mathilide; he’s there to save himself. Can he do all three? What happens in the climactic scene feels poetic: Bond, in a strange way, takes on the karma of all the people he has killed. I never thought I’d wipe away a tear at the end of a James Bond movie, but “No Time to Die” fulfills its promise. It finishes off the saga of Craig’s 007 in the most honestly extravagant of style.
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