We knew this was to be Daniel Craig’s last mission as secret agent James Bond. Director and screenwriter Cary Joji Fukunaga knew it. So there’s almost a bit of snark in the fact that, after a not-so-brief prologue, No Time to Die begins with Bond in retirement, living on a tropical beach, spending his days fishing, before he is called back into the fray of international espionage. There’s an undertone of “of course he hates retirement and was always gonna leap at the chance to get back to work.”
We in the audience are also meant to prefer seeing him at work — why else this movie? And yet, by the end of this overlong, overstuffed adventure, mostly what I was left with is this: Maybe it is time for James Bond to retire. Not just Craig’s Bond. But the idea of Bond.
Because so much about No Time to Die is redundant or farcical, sometimes both at once. A seeming lack of imagination is constantly bumping up against almost desperate fantasy. Rami Malek’s (Bohemian Rhapsody, Need for Speed) supervillain? His master plan is to *check notes* unleash a deadly global pandemic. If this were a more serious-minded film, that could have be traumatizing, an unwelcome reminder of what we’re all living through right now. But it would be difficult to take this evil scheme seriously even if the movie had been released before COVID-19 delayed it: the villain goes by Lyutsifer Safin — an unlikely moniker even by the standards of this series — his motives are muddy at best, and his badness is signified by diseased skin and a bizarre accent. The absurdity of him, the offensive and outmoded nature of him, only adds to how his supposed depravity is, in 2021, reduced to inconsequence. Really? Pandemic? That’s all you got? Pul-eeze.
The finale, in which Bond, with the full tactical support of MI6 and the British navy, tracks Safin to his evil lair with the intent of bringing him down, is also the culmination of what today feels like a rather pitiable attempt on the part of the movie to convince itself — and us — that the UK really is still a major player on the world stage, honestly. Because now the Brexit shit is starting to hit the fan, and Britain is also rapidly reducing itself to inconsequence.
Might No Time to Die have landed differently 18 months ago, when it was originally scheduled for release? Perhaps. But the previous Bond film, Spectre, six long years ago, also threw away a lot of the much-needed modernization that Craig’s tenure had brought to the franchise with Casino Royale and Skyfall. And it’s absolutely inescapable fact that a movie like this one, part of an immensely popular long-running series and highly anticipated, does not — cannot — exist in a cultural vacuum. It is Die’s plain bad luck that the zeitgeist has changed so dramatically in a year and a half, but it is also plain reality.
All that said, there are interesting things happening around the edges that make the movie good enough fun. One major highlight is the reunion of Craig (Logan Lucky, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) with Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049, Overdrive), as Paloma, a newly trained agent he temporarily teams up with on a mission detour to Cuba. The delightful chemistry they sparked with in Knives Out was definitely not a one-off. They’re less gently comic here — but still a bit! — and more kick-ass, but they’re terrific together. Again. (There’s not enough of de Armas, though.) And Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel, Fast Girls) as Nomi, the MI6 agent who has taken over Bond’s former 007 number, is so riveting that they might as well just hand the central role over to her for the inevitable next film. Perhaps by then, the franchise’s feminism will extend to giving its female agents surnames.
Less convincing is the relationship Bond has with Madeleine, his love interest returning from Spectre. Craig and Léa Seydoux (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Blue Is the Warmest Color) don’t spark anywhere near like how he does de Armas — and with Lynch, too — but bonus points to the film for continuing to give Bond and Craig more emotional depth than he had had in previous incarnations.
Still, it seems obvious that the future of this franchise is female, in front of and perhaps behind the camera, too. Hand the next one over to Phoebe Waller-Bridge — one of Fukunaga’s coscreenwriters, whose fresh and funny hand is intermittently evident — and let her fix the backward-looking mess it has once again become. Cuz if there is life for Bond going forward, it doesn’t look much like what we get here.