After a pandemic-induced delay, No Time To Die finally arrives in theatres and on streaming. But can Daniel Craig’s final outing make up for the disappointment of Spectre?
Beyond the interminable delays, not much. The delays had, I must confess, robbed some of my interest and the momentum behind the film seemed pretty stalled, despite Daniel Craig’s apparent willingness to pop up just about anywhere to try and get some interest going. And I didn’t know either of the Big Twists prior to seeing it, so that was nice. Reviews were mixed, but then again it’s a James Bond movie – reviews are always mixed. (For what it’s worth I watched this at home on streaming, not in the cinema).
What’s It All About, JG?
Some young girl is in a chalet and is attacked by a masked man who seems to have spent too much of his life watching Phantom Of The Opera, but nevertheless kills her mum. She escapes but falls through some ice, only to be unexpectedly saved by the same man. Meanwhile, Bond is enjoying retirement until Felix drags him into the plot – turns out Hugh Dennis off of Mock The Week has been developing killer nanobots that target people’s DNA. This has, naturally, been stolen, so Bond is back on the job to save the world again. There’s lots of here, there and everywhere in the meantime when it turns out that the little girl from the pre-credits sequence is Bond’s current squeeze, Madeline Swann, and she’s had his daughter. After a side trip to Cuba that costs Felix his life, we end up on a standard-issue concrete base with a standard-issue disfigured villain, and Bond ends up saving the day but dies in the process.
So Bond is, after a sizeable delay, back with this, Daniel Craig’s final outing in the role. Spectre, for all its flaws, actually gave Craig an exit rather than simply stopping, something no other Bond has been afforded except Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again. So it felt like a logical end-point for this version of the character, yet here he is again after a presumably metric fuck-tonne of money got backed up to Craig’s door. This end-point is, it would be fair to say, rather more final that driving off into the sunset in an Aston Martin and a girl on your arm, but long before we get to that point the movie makes precious little bones about what it’s trying to do. This isn’t a movie where reverence is going to hold any sway, and there are any number of taboos broken long before Bond himself is lit up like a Christmas tree. The question is, then, what are these violations and do any of them actually work?
One of the biggest, of course, is straightforward trolling – because in this movie 007 is a black woman. It’s hard to imagine just how much more pointed a fuck-you this could be to all the whiney culture-war bro-flakes on the right who complain about this sort of progressive casting. Yet for all that this is a fuck-you to those people, one of the things the movie gets right is how Nomi – our new 007 – is introduced, firstly just a brief appearance in a bar, then going back to Bond’s place looking like a typical Bond-seduction scene, then finally subverting that and revealing who she is. It’s really rather elegantly handled, and while we don’t get to see a lot of Nomi in action – this is a Bond movie, after all – Lashana Lynch certainly gives the impression she can hold her own, she handles action sequences well, and even gets the odd corny pun just to reassure us that she really is 007, if not that one. Even the playful banter outside M’s office – “I understand why you shot him” – lands well and while it seems likely she’ll be a one-and-done character for this movie it would be very easy to watch more of her. There is, though, a slight timidity to this though – she’s clearly not going to be the star of the next Bond movie, and while the film gets a few lightly amusing laughs out of what double-o she in before the reveal, she also insists Bond gets the 007 number back – why, it’s almost as if she knew he was going to die and this way he gets to do it with his “boots on”, so to speak! It’s an oddly counter-intuitive approach – the movie goes out of its way to point out that Bond doesn’t need the double-o status to be good at what he does because he’s Bond, yet when it comes down to it, he apparently does need the number after all. I suppose it’s tough to grudge him that, really, but at the same time the film has done a genuinely good job of separating the man from the number, so it’s a shame to see that reversed.
There’s other, slightly more – but not much – subtle trolling going on as well, as we discover Q is, in fact, gay! This is handled generally rather well, and is an exceedingly rare acknowledgement that queer does actually exist in the Bond universe. It’s just a single like, when Bond and Moneypenny interrupt him preparing dinner – “he’ll be over soon,” says Q frustratedly, but he drops his plans to help out because of course he does – he’s Q. Ben Wishaw – gay himself of course – plays the moment perfectly and he remains quietly one of the absolute best things about the whole Craig era. The thing is, the reveal is delivered in such a casual, offhanded way that it actually works very well – there’s no big double-take from the rampantly heterosexual Bond, no raised eyebrow from Moneypenny, nothing. It’s just a simple statement of who he’s having over on a date and it’s absolutely the right way to handle it – it’s not a big thing, it’s just a normal part of life and that’s that. It is also, it’s worth observing, handled with considerably more grace than the reveal of Sulu’s gayness in Star Trek: Beyond, though that’s not necessarily the highest of bars to clear. These are small things but they add up, and in this case are very much appreciated. We probably could have done without the hairless cat though.
The second big taboo that gets broken here is Felix, who ends up being rather unceremoniously shot by a traitor in the CIA, the suitably slimy and annoying Logan Ash, played effectively by Billy Magnussen. Ash is a nagging presence throughout the movie, so the eventual reveal that he’s a traitor works well, as does his almost off-handed killing of Felix, shot in the gut so he can live long enough to have a few farewell words with Bond before sinking beneath the ocean waves. As with Q, one of the other low-key successes of the Craig years has been the handling of Leiter, partly because they’re actually able to use the character in a constructive way and partly because, in casting Jeffrey Wright, they got a good actor who actually returned to the role on a recurring basis. This version of Felix has always had a rather hang-dog weariness about him, and he has a good rapport with Craig, never feeling swamped out or like someone who was just turning up to do a tick-box performance to ensure Bond fans are happy because the character has actually appeared. There’s aways been a sense that this version of Felix really does have a life, and missions, and a whole bunch of other stuff going on away from Bond, and when his and Bond’s paths do intersect that’s all it is – an intersection. He’s not (well, not just) turning up to deliver some Important Piece Of Information or to deliver This Movie’s Exposition, but actually has things going on in his own world. In this, having his own traitor in the ranks actually rather slyly affords him equal footing with Bond – think of, say, how Bond was betrayed by MI6 agent Miranda Frost in Die Another Day – but in this case it turns out to be rather more terminal. Even when Felix is on his way out, his rather endearing fatalism remains, and his death is afforded enough weight to matter but not so much it threatens to become maudlin. It’s also not lingered on too much – Felix wouldn’t have wanted that anyway, to paraphrase.
The third, and final, major taboo that’s broken here is one that Bond movies traditionally shy away from, but which the Craig era has had somewhat-wobbly attempts to integrate into its story – that of consequences.The serialisation of the Craig movies hasn’t really come together, even as No Time To Die attempts to wrap up the unwrap-uppable, but there’s a proper effort to at the very least address one side of this. Because in this film, Bond’s wayward and careless sexual encounters result in him having a daughter. That would have been simply inconceivable for any other version of the character, yet seems like a surprisingly natural fit for this one. The whole “retirement with Madeline” gets fairly short shrift in the movie anyway – it’s a plot thread that gets less than five minutes of screen-time before we’re getting the exploding tomb of a past lover and a big Aston Martin car chase – but something about this resulting in a daughter rings true. Craig plays this excellently towards the end of the movie when he finally finds out and says it out loud for the first time, but generally speaking this is a good fit for the character. Madeline lying to him about it “being his” has a slight sense of wheel-spinning about it lest we get to the punchline too quickly, but when the reveal does comes it feels earned.
There are other consequences within the movie, though they’re handled rather less elegantly, sadly. Particularly, blame for the whole Project Heracles mess – the whole DNA-targeting nanobots thing – is laid squarely at M’s feet, but there’s never any consequences for his drastic miscalculations. Remember when Judi Dench’s M paid for her mistakes with her life back in Skyfall? Well, there’s none of that here. “Whoops I fucked up, oh well,” seems to be the general tone, which is more than a little unfortunate, and his mistake this time out costs Bond his life. We don’t see M at the end of the film, but it will be genuinely amazing if Ralph Fiennes isn’t sitting behind the big leather desk next time out. But also… well, remember when M fucked up in Skyfall? That’s only two movies ago. So to have the same plot engine running here is more than a touch disappointing. Feinnes plays the moments well, and in particular the moment when he starts to justify the project – “it was never meant to be a weapon of mass destruction it was…” – then simply tails off, unable to finish, is a great little moment from him and he plays the character terrifically, but even so – there’s something not quite right there.
Still, one of the most appealing aspects about No Time To Die is the way that, for a fair amount of its run-time, it’s basically a shaggy dog story. We shuffle about from Italy to Cuba to London (and a few others besides) following Bond as he tries to figure out what kind story he’s in and then gets on with the business of actually being in it. It’s just entertaining seeing him faff about trying to get up to speed, finally get drawn into the plot, revert to type then head off for the big denouement. It helps that much of the action this time out is really rather great – Spectre suffered from having its big opening set-piece be easily the best one of the movie so everything rather paled by comparison. And the opening Aston Martin chase round Matera gives Bond an appropriately thrilling entry into his own movie (though, as a side note, Spectre continue their run at being shit at what they do – they couldn’t kill Bond with an exploding tomb, for fuck’s sake). But the action mostly keeps going without just feeling like there’s a bit of plot stringing the action sequences together, and it all hangs together really rather well.
Up until Rami Malek’s Safin starts to make his presence felt. Honestly, up until the whole island base thing, the movie is doing really rather well. It’s not especially original, it’s fair to say, but it’s basically just very entertaining, which is pretty much what a Bond movie should be. And it’s not like this is the first movie to kind of fall apart after about two-thirds of the running time (lookin’ at you, You Only Live Twice). Certainly, Malek is great casting for a Bond villain, doing the whole underplayed-evil thing incredibly well and bringing the sort of camp menace that so many of the best Bond bad guys have. Safin himself though isn’t much of a character, he’s scarred for reasons which are explained but add nothing to the story – i.e. he’s just a typical disfigured Bond bad guy – and by holding him back for so long the film doesn’t give him a lot of time to establish himself. His plan is, naturally, a tad on the nebulous side – he tell us he wants to be “tidy” about how he does things, but doesn’t expand on that enough for it to be especially meaningful. And the Big Concrete Villain Lair is a Big Concrete Villain Lair of the most obvious and cliched Bond type, stopped in the most obvious way (fire big rockets at it, base goes boom). Even Bond running through the base machine-gunning down guards hither and thither have a whiff of Call Of Duty about them, well shot though they undoubtedly are. The finale, is, in other words a rather unfortunate return to default operating procedure and it does the movie no favours at all.
Default operating procedure, that is, with one exception. Because of course we get an inversion of the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service whereby it’s Bond that doesn’t survive it and the woman who gets to live on and listen to the strains of Louis Armstrong warbling his way through “We Have All The Time In The World”. It’s certainly a unique ending to a Bond movie, so we have to ask- does it work? And, you know, it basically does. The charge through the Big Concrete Lair is pretty pat, and Safin largely seems to shoot Bond (and then also infect Bond with the nanobots – this movie is not afraid of laying it on a bit thick) because, well, he’s Not Going To Make It, but the actuality of his death really does work. That’s at least in part because Craig does an excellent job of selling Bond’s last moments – it’s not histrionic or melodramatic, and it’s his acceptance of the moment that makes it work. There’s no last-minute dash for freedom, the nanobots cannot be removed, and he finally accepts that this is simply it. There is, ironically, a stillness about it that manages to make it genuinely affecting. Sure, using a cue as obvious as “We Have All The Time In The World” could be considered somewhat manipulative – porting in pre-existing emotions and connections from an established tragedy, since those closing moments were one of the few times On Her Majesty’s Secret Service really worked – but it lands here. Even the slight delay to Bond’s death as he gazes up at the incoming missiles only to see them break apart, looking almost like beautiful fireworks, before absolutely, incontrovertibly annihilating him, works and allows just a few more seconds for him to speak to Madeline before the inevitable. It’s a bold move – audacious would be overstating it, but it’s certainly a risk and it’s one that does actually come off.
Spectre would have been a disappointing way for the Craig era to end, so all No Time To Die really had to do was be better than it for it to be a more apropos conclusion. In this, it absolutely is, and there’s really no question that this gives the Craig version of the character a far better send off than the wet fart of its predecessor. It’s telling that the whole of the last movie was tailored around the return of Spectre and Blofeld, both of which were complete duds, yet Blofeld is in basically one scene throughout the whole of No Time To Die and is immeasurably better – and better used – here. Christoph Waltz has a great line on playing the slightly demented, damaged version of the character here and it works in exactly the way his performance in Spectre doesn’t, finding a tone and actually landing it. Spectre themselves are wiped out with barely a backwards glance, which is also fine and honestly rather funny, ultimately just as useless as Quantum, the organisation they replaced (again, because it bears repeating – they couldn’t kill a completely unprepared Bond with an exploding tomb. Serves them right, quite frankly). I haven’t said anything about the direction, but to be honestly there’s not a vast amount to say. Cary Joji Fukunaga delivers a few great action sequences – the car chase into the misty Norwegian forest deserves special mention, as does the Aston Martin car chase, with all the traditional Bond gadgets like headlamps replaced by machine guns, bulletproof glass and smoke. And the pace of the movie helps keep that extended run-time feel manageable. But generally the direction is fairly unobtrusive, and that’s maybe for the best. There’s not much any director can do with the Big Concrete Lair and right enough that’s the moment everything falls back to pretty much what you expect at the end of a Bond movie. Still, it’s worth pointing out there are no glaring mistakes here and everything basically works fine.
So yes – this is a huge improvement. It’s just a shame that so much of the ending is a generic Bond runaround. Submarine pens, grey concrete followed by more grey concrete, and a bit of close-quarters finding just feels too… ordinary for the magnitude of how the film wants to end, and Remi Malek is straightforwardly wasted in a role that desperately needs more focus and attention paid to it. It’s not Malek’s fault, but it’s there anyway. Still, for the quality of the ending, and for an entertaining romp, No Time To Die is unquestionably a big step up from Spectre, and a more fitting end to this version of the character. But it really wouldn’t have taken a lot of tweaking to make this a classic, rather than just being pretty damned good. “Pretty damned good” is far from the worst thing a Bond movie can be, but when you’re going for a wannabe-epic ending like this, it still, nevertheless, doesn’t quite feel like enough. And that really is a bit of a shame.
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
I’m going to say zero, though that’s not strictly true. Madeline Swann, as played fairly indifferently by Léa Seydoux, isn’t a particularly compelling character and Bond’s love for her feels a little too writerly where a stronger performance would have made this thread come alive. When they’re racing round Matera in the Aston getting shot at from all sides, she looked more annoyed by the development rather than, y’know, being in a life-threatening situation while the man she’s ostensibly meant to be in love with loses faith and trust in her. You couldn’t extract Madeline from the movie – we’ll gloss over the whole Safin saving her as a child when he was actually there to assassinate the still-nobody-cares-about-him Mr White – because she’s simply too pivotal a role but it’s certainly possible to wish for a stronger performance. To be fair, the final moments, just before Louis Armstrong pipes up, are her best as she and Bond’s daughter get to drive off into the sunset, but for the rest? Eh. Otherwise, this is the rare long Bond movie that doesn’t actually feel like it needs anything excised. That’s the advantage of the shaggy-dog approach to storytelling – instead of having Three Big Set Pieces we have a much higher number of smaller ones, and by frequently shifting location the movie is fleet enough to feel like there’s always something else coming along to hold our interest. So fine, this one can escape with 0%. Just, though.
Low, to the point that you wonder if they remember that Bond is often quippy. Our other 007 gets a couple so maybe you inherit them with the number and lose all rights to them once its taken away from you. Bond does get one solid pun at the end – “it blew his mind” – which actually feels quite nice, just a little reminder that this is, after all, Bond and he gets one last groaner in before the Big Ending. Anyway, there’s generally little to get worked up about here, though it is worth just mentioning the subversion of the “Bond. James Bond” line when Bond returns to MI6 and has to explain to the guy giving out visitor passes who he is, which is both genuinely funny and excellently plays by Craig. Actually Craig gets quite a few of those moments in No Time To Die, following on from his more relaxed performance last time out, and they’re always a delight.
2021 Cringe Factor:
Hey, who wants to watch a movie about an infection that can kill anyone, anywhere in the world, and is passed on by something as simple as touch or even the slightest of fluid contacts? That should be fun in a post-pandemic world, right? I mean, sure, obviously they couldn’t have known about that when the film was made, but it still manages to be a slightly uncomfortable subject in some ways, even if it was put together by a comedy Eastern European (I guess that’s the accent David Dencik is going for?) and the guy that got annoyed with his kids in Outnumbered. Past that, it’s frustratingly pointless to have yet another disfigured bad guy – it’s a bad tendency for Bond movies to equate evil with disfigurement with Blofeld being the obvious touchstone here, of course, and he’s disfigured in this movie too – and it’s simply not the sort of trope that should be getting trotted out in 2021 (or 2020). Malek’s make-up looks terrific but really – stop with this shit already.