The pandemic isn’t over, but the long waits for the films it delayed are ending, one by one. Seventeen years after completion and on the anniversary of its fiftieth trailer, Daniel Craig bids farewell to those lovely James Bond paychecks (though not the residuals) as his fifth and final outing No Time to Die is now permitted in American theaters. Exhibitors are next looking forward to the day they can stop showing the same trailers over and over and over for the last major COVID holdout remaining, The King’s Man. This interminable era has not been a fruitful one for British action spies or Ralph Fiennes.
Previously on Bond James Bond: four years ago in Spectre Our Hero received royal commendations for committing the rare superhuman deed of bringing a Big Bad back alive and actually arresting him. With Christoph Waltz’ Blofeld incarcerated in an old Zoltar cabinet inside a government broom closet, Bond has retired from the 007 life because how could he possibly ever top himself or bring a second villain to justice in person. We catch up with him on extended holiday in Italy with his current flame, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), another improbable Spectre survivor and only the third “Bond girl” character to appear in more than one film and defy that dated label’s low life expectancy rate. The couple enjoys quality time in their lavish accommodations, or at least they try to, but Bond won’t stop sulking because it’s what he was trained to do, even when he’s off the clock. It doesn’t help that they’re coincidentally staying just down the street from the acropolis gravesite of his old flame Vesper Lynd, whose death in Casino Royale has haunted him ever since because Eva Green was dispatched from this series far too soon. At Madeleine’s insistence he leaves their love nest to go pay respects and show the audience her crypt adorned with Green’s face as an Easter egg.
Milliseconds later, Bond realizes stepping into broad daylight was a huge mistake. A crack squad of leftover Spectre goons pounce on him in a series of frenetic, bloody, explodey stunt spectacles, half of which appeared in the trailers. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) front-loads the film for volume-11 awakening of any restless audience members who couldn’t handle the three minutes of expository quietude that he and three co-writers were contractually permitted to use up. Though doubtlessly these sequences contain as much CG as the average Marvel film, at face value they’re a combination of amazing practical stunts and credible simulations thereof, for the sake of us old-fashioned moviegoers. Particularly effective is a tense moment inside one of Bond’s fancy trademark bulletproof cars, in which Bond and Madeleine pick the worst possible time for a serious chat while a high-ranking henchman’s heavy-caliber shells pound at the glass from mere inches away. As we’re trapped inside with them, we cringe as the conversation heads south and wince at every thundering impact outside.
Bond is of course not murdered in the first twenty minutes. After a time-jump and a bonus misadventure in Jamaica with old pal Felix Leiter (a returning Jeffrey Wright, now starring in Marvel’s What If…?), it’d onward to an obligatory reunion with MI6 for more exposition. All the surviving office mates are also back — Ralph Fiennes as M; Rory Kinnear (the Black Mirror pig guy) as his indefatigable assistant, who’s now been in as many Bond films as Pierce Brosnan, and who probably has a name; Naomie Harris, enjoying a double-feature moment atop the box office charts in this and the Venom sequel, as the desk-bound Moneypenny; and Ben “Paddington” Whishaw as the gizmo-maker Q. All of them are given more scenes than usual, some more effectively than others. They’re required to share space with their latest recruit Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel‘s MVP) as the new 007, which she confirms is a legit assignation because MI6 doesn’t retire numbers like they’re sports jerseys, though one could argue in some ways espionage cinema is an extremely full-contact sport.
Once again our man Bond embarks on a quest to save untold lives that will require two hours of zigzag globetrotting inspired by the 2019 edition of Fodor’s Guide to Awesome Settings That Hollywood Location Scouts Should Totally Check Out. At first we assume Craig’s final mission will simply be an international scavenger hunt racing against the forces of Spectre, but the tables turn when a third party changes the narrative. Academy Award Winner Rami Malek (who was pretty fun in Short Term 12) steps up as the requisite oddball killer mastermind — the improbably named Lyutsifer Safin, whose parents were two more tequila shots away from naming him Devylle McBeyalzybuub. For understandable reasons, Safin has a major grudge against Spectre and anyone with ties to them. Anyone who’s watched Spectre at least eight times, which is approximately no one ever, may recall that list tangentially includes Madeleine, whose father was a recurring assassin in three previous Bond films. Bonus points to anyone who can pick him out of a police lineup without Googling.
Safin has a custom Phantom of the Opera porcelain mask, marble-countertop-patterned skin resulting from a childhood poisoning mishap, and a turncoat scientist in his pocket (David Dencik, Chernobyl‘s Gorbachev) who’s invented a spiffy new weapon of mass murder. Code-named Heracles, it’s a chemical filled with nanobots that can be programmed to do an Ebola job only to targets possessing specific genetic codes. Soon to be available by Deep Web prescription as a contagious topical spray or in nebulizer form for wider A/C dispersal, Heracles can slaughter an entire room of specific individuals if you’ve collected DNA from each of them (a pretty simple spreadsheet function in today’s spy world), or merely eradicate one specific family line from a single gene sample. Just apply Heracles to one victim; bide your time till they start hugging their relatives; trigger your teeny-tiny minions; sit back and watch the bodies count themselves! There’s no known cure, no way to know you’re targeted till it’s too late, and no overt connections whatsoever to Greece, feats of strength, or twelve labors.
Safin’s action-figure appearance and sinister scheme aren’t the most complicated things about him. He’s orbited poor Madeleine at a remove, starting with the film’s visually striking flashback prologue at a remote winter getaway where he and a young Madeleine meet under the worst of scenic circumstances. He could’ve killed her then, but he doesn’t. He could’ve killed her later in the present, but then he finds a use for her that hinges on a wild coincidence. Then he could’ve killed her again and again and again, and yet doesn’t, for the sort of motivational change attributable only to a movie madman who’d end the film an hour too soon if he were more efficient. Malek invests Safin with a certain menacing delicacy, with refined mannerisms that imply he’d rather be mingling in a high-society book club than becoming the Jeff Bezos of chemical warfare. But he’s given less screen time than some of the supporting cast, mostly replaced by stuntmen in his more action-filled moments, and diverted by an arbitrary urge to keep Madeleine around far longer than normal for an average “Bond girl”, whether to imperil her further or to make ludicrous propositions regarding their “relationship”, for lack of an accurate term.
Meanwhile Bond’s journey keeps him on his toes as he and his army of sidekicks jaunt from the slightly liberated party-time neighborhoods of Santiago de Cuba to the foggy forests of Norway (where a fairly engaging cat-and-mouse game has Bond setting Rambo booby traps), with frequent layovers to London before the grand finale in a gloriously spacious remote-island evil factory that Safin probably bought from Hank Scorpio off Amazon Terrorist Marketplace. At this point the film’s energy level, which had certainly kept me going without flagging much, succumbs to its indulgent 163-minute running time as the proceedings wind down for an ordinary blockbuster showdown between Our Heroes and an endless faceless army. When the video-game target practice begins to wear thin, naturally — just as previous Bond films have been slow to capitalize on formerly new action-film trends (remember the parkour? the Bourne-style hyper-jump-cut fights?) — this time old man Bond is introduced to the hottest sensation from five years ago: a tracking-shot stairway fight! Trudging in the footsteps of Oldboy and its now-terminated Marvel Netflix offspring, Bond is forced to tussle his way up a long concrete staircase teeming with flunkies, edited to feign an uninterrupted single camera move yet filled with stitched cheats. What once was cool is now retro fakery, all capped off with a painful dad-joke stinger in ye olde Bond tradition, lest we worry he was becoming too 21st-century.
It’s nice that Bond has more help than usual for his final go-around, but at no point are they treated as an equal ensemble. To an extent I’m okay with that. Over the course of five films varying wildly in quality and in subservience to their aging producers’ whims, Daniel Craig has remained the James Bond I never knew I’d tolerate, let alone look forward to with each installment. By this point Bond and Craig are ready to go, but he isn’t merely going through the motions. There’s no trace of the debonair smugness that Boomers super-loved about old-school Bond, no more of the macho womanizing that never appealed to me and has aged poorly. Fifteen years in, Craig’s Bond has weathered the challenges, fended off the A-list antagonists, performed the catchphrases on cue, playtested Q’s Sharper Image contraptions, and generally met his world-saving quota. He’d now very much like to live out his days with the woman he loves, whether it’s with French Renee Zellweher onscreen or with real-world wife Rachel Weisz in between her own career highs, and woe betide anyone coming between him and them.
As someone who’s over a decade away from retirement (Lord willing), I can sympathize. Bond hardly sleepwalks through the obstacles. After the machinations of others ruin what he’s found with Madeleine, through much of the film he grapples with questions deeper than “how do I beat the idiots in my way”. Given what he’s gone through with past “Bond girls”, is she really just another one of them, despite what they’ve endured? Does she know more than she’s letting on? Is her later role as a MacGuffin her own fault, maybe even her own plan? Trust is a rare commodity in the spy world, doubly so for anyone having serious doubts about their exit strategy. Craig’s Bond has always been gruff bordering on grumpy, and he does lighten up here and there for occasional moments of contrast (sarcastic exasperation makes his biggest scene with Blofeld a treat), but now he’s bolstered by the big emotional stakes that compel him to strap on the guns and gadgets for what is absolutely, positively, unequivocally One Last Job. And nothing will stand in his way — not Marbled Freddie Mercury, not that stuffy guy from The King’s Man, not these newfangled “nanobot” thingies, not elderly fans who still compare him unfavorably to Sean Connery, nobody.
Skyfall is still my favorite of Craig’s era, partly due to its own exemplary assemblage and partly because the series was still deviating from tired Bond standards. I went into No Time to Die assuming it would be another round of Spectre fan service and kept expectations near zero. While some concessions to other people’s nostalgia are inescapably intact, it was high time that Craig’s last time in No Time be such a satisfyingly rousing time on his own terms.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Beyond those mentioned above at length: in the Cuba chapter, Craig welcomes his Knives Out costar Ana de Armas as a CIA agent who drops in for a bit of happy warfare. She has to split screen time with Lynch, who’s likewise along to get in some fight scenes wherever she can. Between the two of them, they’re both a bit sidelined while Craig takes his final bows. Elsewhere, Billy Magnusson (American Crime Story‘s Kato Kaelin) is Felix Leiter’s disposable new companion, basically playing Chip Esten playing Henry Cavill in the last Mission: Impossible film.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the No Time to Die end credits per se, but longtime viewers can guess what came at the very end. Several minutes of an exhaustive roster include the most members of a catering staff I’ve ever seen appreciated by individual names, followed by a section of job titles that each contained the word “Scorpio” and made me chuckle.
At long last we end with a special message for all: “JAMES BOND WILL RETURN”. In case you were worried the producers might have lost their minds, grown to hate money and canceled the series forever.