'No Time to Die' Is a Rip-Roaring, If Sometimes Frustrating, End of an Era
The newest '007' movie is best when it embraces the fun and forgets the drama.
Our current James Bond era—that is, the one beginning with 2006's Casino Royale, introducing Daniel Craig as our newest Bond, and ending with this weekend's long-delayed No Time to Die—spent its entire run attempting to pin down who this version of Agent 007 is. Casino Royale was praised, in part, for its light realism, knocking Craig around during foot races and car chases, allowing him to slip and fall and get more than a little beaten up instead of flitting through every action scene in an immaculate dinner jacket and eternally crisp white shirt, an arsenal of groan-inducing puns at the ready.
Craig's Bond is a tight-shouldered bruiser, calculated but quick to anger, as liable to fall in love with his gorgeous co-stars as he is to leave them hanging (while feeling a little bit bad about it). The rest of the series couldn't quite figure out how to replicate that magic, either wallowing too deeply in dreariness (Quantum of Solace) or Marvel-izing an attempt at an interwoven universe where Everything Is Connected (Spectre). Skyfall, a self-contained story exploring Bond's relationship with his troubled past, stands above these, nearly as good as Casino Royale. No Time to Die, Craig's final outing as the character, swings back and forth, containing a little too much of Spectre's exhausting web of intrigue but more than enough lighthearted excitement to boost the action scenes and emotional monologues through to their inevitable conclusion.
James Bond has retired from active service, content with a life of touring Mediterranean climes with Spectre's Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who assisted him in capturing Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the leader of the titular terrorist group that has been the cause of all of Bond's misfortune. When their location is betrayed and Bond is nearly assassinated, he blames Swann and goes into hiding, but is contacted later by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), his American CIA counterpart, who needs his help tracking down a scientist who is, quelle surprise, poised to unleash a deadly superweapon on the world's populace, and possibly in the employ of an even more terrifying figure with ties to Madeleine Swann's past. But, when Bond does get dragged back into the fray, he finds his 00 rank has been taken over by a new agent, Lashana Lynch's steely-eyed sharpshooter Nomi.
In other words, it's a James Bond movie. And in many ways it feels like a return to something more familiar, with plenty of little throwbacks to the sort of silly energy that makes the classic movies such fun to watch: luxury cars whose headlights turn into machine guns, a robotic eye carried around a party on a velvet pillow, villain lairs full of deadly plants—that type of thing. Obviously, I have no idea which parts Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who co-wrote the script with director Cary Joji Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade) had a hand in punching up, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't notice her wry touch in more than a few scenes.
The actors themselves are best in the joyful moments: Craig and Q actor Ben Whishaw's comic timing pinging off each other at supersonic speeds; Wright and series newcomer Billy Magnussen exchanging barbed remarks; the trio of suits at MI-6 (Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, and Rory Kinnear as M's lieutenant Tanner) steeped in that very buttoned-up English humor that lends itself to the occasional light chuckle. Waltz, when he does appear, is at least able to have some fun reprising his role as archvillain Blofeld. Ana de Armas, playing a bubbly CIA contact named Paloma, has a wonderful section in the middle nearly all to herself, Craig and his character taking a backseat to her classic "Bond Girl" antics and finesse as she takes out an army of thugs while wearing a floor-length evening gown. Fukunaga directs both frenetic action and static conversation with style and confidence, making this one of the most visually stunning entries into the series as a whole.
The only trouble the film runs into is when it tries for emotional heft, forcing a feelings-heavy throughline centered around Madeleine Swann that I just don't buy given the great pains that this movie, like the rest of this era, takes to remind us of how much Bond loved Vesper, the woman he met and had a relationship with four movies ago. And I haven't even mentioned Rami Malek's breathtakingly forgettable bad guy, Noh mask-wearing Lyutsifer Safin, who is barely worth mentioning anyway, as all he does is provide the occasional roadblock for Bond to find his way over once in a while. (I think we can all agree that nothing will ever top Mads Mikkelsen's poker playing sadist Le Chiffre.)
Obviously, since this is a swan song for the series' main actor (and likely for everyone else as well), the film wants us to feel the weight of all those goodbyes, and that's a fine approach to something like this, but the joy of watching secret agents Tarzan-swing down ropes and drive cool cars and escape traps while wearing expensive outfits is what will keep us in our seats, hooting and hollering at every well-timed gun draw and silly one-liner. No Time to Die keeps its charm when it remembers where it came from.