“History isn’t kind to men who play God.” – No Time to Die Review

Nobody likes goodbyes. It’s to do with finality, knowing that a significant chapter is being closed. From the previous experience of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or X-Men: The Last Stand, endings are hard. But when done right, the impact can be incredibly effective.

No Time to Die was always placed in a difficult predicament within the franchise. Not just because of the unforeseen yet protracted delays due to the pandemic or even the recent, lucrative buyout by Amazon (a growing consolidated change on why “content is king” in the age of streaming giants) which without the deal, Bond’s future would have been up in the air again.  The film picks up the lethargic and convoluted pieces from Spectre which boxed the franchise into a corner. For instance, like how Moonraker was a response to Star Wars and Octopussy was a response to Indiana Jones – popular films of its respective decades, Spectre became a Marvel Cinematic Universe tribute – making the entire Craig era of Bond films into a retcon chain of interconnecting stories. 

It’s not like the franchise has never done continuity before. If you think back to Bond’s earlier escapades, Bernard Lee’s M, Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, and Desmond Llewelyn’s Q were an established presence throughout several iterations of Bond actors. Judi Dench picked up that same baton by serving under both Brosnan and Craig. But it is Blofeld, a ‘thorn in Bond’s side’ in Connery’s tenure which became a prevalent force within the franchise. But on this scale where Spectre was concerned, it was changing the standalone format into a contrived exercise that trivialised the intentions of the films that went before it. Furthermore, tonally, Spectre represented a stylistic shift away from the gritty yet vulnerable brutality into a 70s retro throwback that didn’t suit Craig’s modernised re-invention of Bond in a post-9/11 world.

©MGM/Universal 2021

There are many other reasons where Spectre was disappointing in its execution (something I’ve outlined in my 2015 review). But as far as No Time to Die is concerned, not only does it have to carry the bloated weight from its predecessor (when it probably could make a great standalone in another multiverse), but also has no choice but to move forward with the story it’s presented with. It’s also a film content on pulling out all the stops as Daniel Craig’s final outing. It’s designed to give his Bond iteration the best possible exit as a grand, epic finale – something of a rarity for any Bond actor whose exits were always dealt off-screen and publicly in the media despite the tagline “James Bond Will Return”. But most notably for the audience, it’s a chance to say a proper and final farewell.

Given the difficulty at play, what No Time to Die encompasses is a welcomed return to form, re-establishing the essence of the tried and tested formula, but also dares to push Bond into new territory. And what we get is something exciting, a thrilling experience but backed with a deserved emotional weight that examines not only Craig’s tenure and his legacy but of the iconic character itself.

Madeleine Swann: Why would I betray you?

James Bond: We all have our secrets. We just didn’t get to yours yet.

The unique aspect of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is how much he’s willing to mix up the Bond formula, occasionally drifting into horror motifs (particularly in its pre-credit opening) and the regular injection of pace that ensures the intensity and the relentless action and stunt work, returns Bond back to his grounded roots. But it’s the cinematic scale and scope of Bond’s latest adventure, with the scenic and panoramic shots of its globe-trotting locations (which looks brilliant on an IMAX screen), means that this iteration of Bond leaves behind a visual aesthetic that is the best in its franchise history.

But structurally, No Time to Die opts for the Skyfall model than Casino RoyaleIt’s a nostalgic amalgamation where the past and present collide with homages to Dr. NoOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service (right down to Hans Zimmer beautiful and grandiose score that evokes the spirit of John Barry) and Goldeneye – Fleming’s home in Jamaica where Bond was born. It’s a story that takes itself seriously (with the typical swagger and charm that Craig brings to the role) but takes some wild swings with some of its decision making. However, it’s yet another personal mission for Bond – an aspect that doesn’t know how to stray away from and a missed opportunity of never seeing the Craig era in a true standalone adventure.

But the fascination is watching a Bond – older but still a flawed, heavy consumer of alcohol – growing more disillusioned by the spy world around him. There’s a growing trend in Hollywood with this type of examination – The Dark Knight RisesIron Man 3 and Star Trek Picard, where its leading characters self-reflect upon their worth and value when brought face-to-face with their own legacy and prove their relevancy once again. Is Bond more than the fancy Aston Martins, the 007 status symbol, or the misjudged relationships that have defined his troubled love life? No Time to Die is no different in that respect, pulling Bond out of retirement to face some old foes, revealed secrets and save the world for the last time.

And that self-reflection is symbolised by Bond’s interaction with the new 007 – Nomi (played by the brilliant Lashana Lynch). The compelling aspect behind Lynch’s performance is how much she’s at ease with the role. As much as the script tries to drum up the expected competition with Bond, Nomi doesn’t have to prove it. She has earned the 007 moniker and is a match for Bond’s capabilities.

No Time to Die could have done with more of that, as with Ana de Armas’s Paloma in a memorable cameo appearance. Their inclusion revises the future of Bond girls. Bond’s characteristics may not change from the levels of misogyny and forced persuasion in his personality (something that Spectre was very keen on reminding us of), but the Bond girls can evolve, reflecting the age of modern women and the long-overdue respect that pushes them away from the ‘damsel in distress’ archetype. And there’s no doubt that Phoebe Waller-Bridge was influential on the script over long-time Bond writing veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Their contributions over the decades since The World is Not Enough have been inconsistent when the franchise badly needed fresh impetus and imagination.

We both eradicate people to make the world a better place. I just want it to be… tidier. – Safin

The Bond franchise has always hinged itself on balance. By rule of thumb, a Bond film is only as good as the villains it proposes. Rami Malek’s Safin stands out for being a retrospective throwback to the Bond villains of old, where their facial scar, their Asian-infused attire and secret hideout and their propensity for world domination.

© MGM/Universal 2021

The problem is, the flamboyancy of ‘world domination’ doesn’t feel apt given what the world has gone through in the past 18 months (although its plot – a coded DNA viral outbreak – is eerily close to home with regards to the current global pandemic). It becomes more of a stated fact when the reasons feel too lightweight to carry the entire movie. The real-life villains in this world operate more like your Dominic Greene’s (Mathieu Amalric) in the much-maligned yet completely underrated Quantum of Solace. We’re seeing more leaders consolidate power with irresponsible acts, the socio-economic gap between the rich and poor is widening exponentially and ‘divide and conquer’ politics is weaponised, especially towards ethnic minorities. The idea of Bond ‘fighting in the shadows’ against an enemy who is ‘everywhere and nowhere’ only adds to the sinister nature of the business whilst also revealing the societal virus that refuses to eradicate. No Time to Die occasionally threatens to be a deeper exploration, where the complicity of its leaders for the so-called “greater good” (which is brought to light by Ralph Fiennes’ M). But it retreats to safety with a villain display that’s driven by the past, refusing to update.

But it highlights how villains have steadily lost their impact in Craig’s Bond era since Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Silva (Javier Bardem) would have represented a distinct diversion had it not been for Spectre to retcon his actions as part of the grand organisation. Malek’s performance does get under the skin, but for a film that has ‘all the time in the world’ with its hefty running time, suddenly finds itself running out of time to delve deeply into Safin’s backstory, the emotional weight placed on Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and the legitimacy of his plans.

But a lot of No Time to Die hinges upon the emotional investment given to the Bond/Madeleine Swann relationship. For the most part, it’s a marked improvement. The script works in overdrive to legitimise them as a couple, and thankfully Seydoux is given more material to work with instead of being glamorised or objectified. Even when it does introduce something new, the change doesn’t stray away from the Bond canon. But the lack of chemistry will always be evident considering how much the ghost of Vesper (Eva Green) looms over the film as Bond’s greatest love and a constant reminder of why Casino Royale remains top tier in the franchise.

But the glue that holds No Time to Die together as an entertaining spectacle is Daniel Craig. Given the myriad of circumstances after Spectre’s ending, that infamous interview where Craig suggested he would “rather slit his wrists than play Bond again”, the carousel of directors and various script changes, No Time to Die is a miracle. It gives him closure – and it hits hard.

You feel the weight of that emotion because of what Craig has meant to us as Bond. But Craig’s actions have spoken louder than words. He’s someone who has defied his critics and fan sites who laid early judgement he wasn’t ‘Bond enough’, into someone who has transformed Bond into a commercial and cinematic success. Each amplified performance (especially after Skyfall) allowed him to re-shaped Bond into his own, taking the formula of a cold-blooded spy into a tragically emotive and physically defying role. And that sentiment only brings it back full circle, back to Casino Royale.

In doing so, how Craig eventually says goodbye helps re-examine Bond as a character and how the franchise itself re-contextualises our heroes. Bond is a British institution and male status symbol, carrying significant weight, history, and unprecedented standards of what we expect Bond to be. Only Doctor Who – another franchise with 50+ years of history under its belt, can stand shoulder to shoulder with Bond on the pressures of longevity. But it’s evident in the process how characters can change, evolve and step outside of the formula. It’s a calculated risk, but without modernisation, it’s easy to fall into that stagnated trap, having nothing new to say. Regardless of your opinion, Craig has always been a high point and has defined a generation in the process.

Establishing himself as the best Bond since Connery, it will be hard shoes to fill. Nobody did it better. Craig will undoubtedly be missed, making No Time to Die incredibly bittersweet.

The Revised Bond Countdown:

#25 – Die Another Day
#24 – Diamonds Are Forever
#23 – Octopussy
#22 – The Man With The Golden Gun
#21 – Moonraker
#20 – Tomorrow Never Dies
#19 – The World is Not Enough
#18 – Spectre (down from the previous ranking of #8)
#17 – Live and Let Die
#16 – For Your Eyes Only
#15 – The Living Daylights
#14 – You Only Live Twice
#13 – Dr. No
#12 – Thunderball
#11 – A View to a Kill
#10 – Quantum of Solace
#9 – The Spy Who Loved Me
#8 – Goldeneye
#7 – Licence to Kill
#6 – No Time to Die
#5 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
#4 – Goldfinger
#3 – Skyfall (down from #2)
#2 – Casino Royale
#1 – From Russia With Love

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