‘No Time to Die’ Review: One Last Ride

Actors who take on the role of secret agent James Bond rarely get to go out on a high note. Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan’s final Bond films (Diamonds are Forever, A View to a Kill, and Die Another Day, respectively) each number among the worst in the franchise. Happily, the rebooted James Bond saga that began in 2006 with star Daniel Craig has come to a deliberate and satisfying conclusion with No Time to Die, which finally hits theaters this week after a year of delays. While it doesn’t reach the heights of the beloved Skyfall or the spotless Casino Royale, No Time to Die wraps up Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond in a fashion that feels totally appropriate to his more grounded and emotionally complex take on the character.

The trailers for No Time to Die are uncommonly good at concealing even the basic plot of the film, so just about anything could be considered a spoiler — I’ve kept my specific comments to the first 80 minutes or so.

No Time to Die

No Time to FOXDIE

No Time to Die picks up some months after Spectre left off, with a retired James Bond and Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) enjoying a life of aimless wandering. Their happy quasi-honeymoon is cut short when James walks into a nearly fatal trap. They both escape with their lives, but the trust between them is broken. James puts Madeleine on a train and promises that she’ll never see him again. Both parties are heartbroken.

James spends the next five years in quiet isolation before his old life finally catches up to him. When a terrifying superweapon is stolen from an MI-6 black site, James is recruited by his CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (a returning Jeffrey Wright) to track it down before the international crime syndicate Spectre can put it to use. This places James in competition with his own successor, Nomi (Lashana Lynch, Captain Marvel), who would like nothing more than to prove herself head-to-head as the superior 007. Globe-trotting adventure ensues, forcing James to once again face not only his ex, Madeline, but also his incarcerated foster brother Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and a new threat, bioterrorist Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek, Mr. Robot).

The Bond films have a predictable life cycle — with each new actor, the franchise goes “back to basics” with a smaller, more down-to-earth pulp novel story and then gradually ramps into campy, gadget-driven romps with global stakes. (Roger Moore retained the role long enough to complete this cycle twice.) No Time to Die continues this tradition, pitting a chattier-than-usual Bond against a sci-fi menace torn directly from Metal Gear Solid, but the film never loses the sense of danger or focus on character that have helped the Craig films stand apart from their predecessors. Like Casino Royale and Skyfall, its plot is winding and complex, but the emotional story that weaves through it is far more interesting. 

No Time to Die

Bond of Friendship

When the audience meets the rebooted James Bond in Casino Royale, he’s cocky, terse, and completely ungovernable. James grows a bit more thoughtful and open-hearted over the course of his first four films, but the five years James spends alone in retirement at the beginning of No Time to Die measurably affect his perspective on his work and on his life. The last time he walked away from MI-6, back in Skyfall, he came back with an even bigger chip on his shoulder. This time, after reluctantly returning to action at the behest of his friend, Felix, he finds a new joy in being James Bond. On his first field outing since Spectre, James is paired with Paloma (Craig’s Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas), a rookie agent who is buzzing with nervous excitement. Paloma’s enthusiasm is contagious, and when their mission is over, James does something totally new for him — he shakes her hand, gives her a warm, proud smile, and tells her “You were excellent.”

After five years as a regular guy, James Bond has discovered that he actually likes people. When he reunites with his former teammates from MI-6, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben “Paddington” Whishaw), he treats them like friends rather than subordinates. James even gets over Nomi having his old title, calling her “007” without sneer or sarcasm. This version of James has never been much of a talker, but No Time to Die has him delivering corny one-liners and confessing deep feelings of love and regret. This is a big step in the evolution of the character, representing five years of uninterrupted inertia from the growth we’ve seen demonstrated in Skyfall and Spectre, driven home by an absolutely all-in performance from Daniel Craig. If there was any doubt that Craig is the finest actor to have played James Bond on screen, No Time to Die kills it dead.

The greatest weakness in the character dynamics of No Time to Die is that the relationship between James and Madeleine is built on top of Spectre’s weak foundation. If the previous installment didn’t sell you on Dr. Madeleine Swann as James Bond’s one true love, No Time to Die isn’t going to do it, either. Craig and Séydoux have plenty of chemistry and work together splendidly, but it’s not enough to fully compensate for their initial mediocre romance plot. No Time to Die also oversells Bond’s friendship with Felix Leiter a bit, particularly given that Felix hasn’t appeared in the series since 2008’s Quantum of Solace. The focus on Bond’s personal attachments also means dedicating less attention to the villain, Safin, but I find this to be a worthwhile trade-off. 

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No Time to Die

License to Die

In a way, No Time to Die is already the most exciting Bond movie before the projector even starts. Just as Daniel Craig’s time as Bond was the first to begin with an origin story, it’s also the first to end with an actual advertised finale, which immediately raises the stakes of the film. Normally an indestructible product of the Perpetual Cinema Machine, James Bond is suddenly made mortal, as is the rest of his recurring ensemble. Feats that Bond usually performs with ease are now, in this context, genuinely threatening. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, True Detective) leans into this sense of finality both when ratcheting up tension and when providing relief. Fukinaga applies a horror movie’s sense of dread to some action scenes, keeping his camera close to Bond so that the viewer is blind to potential threats. Conversely, there’s also a comforting nostalgia to No Time to Die, down to the villain Safin’s Ken Adams-inspired island lair and composer Hans Zimmer’s liberal quotations from the score to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. One extreme warns that No Time to Die will be Bond’s demise while the other signals that this is his graduation into the superheroic Bond of the sixties. Anything seems possible. 

There’s also the feeling that EON producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson are using the occasion of Craig’s departure to float some test balloons regarding the franchise’s future. While Broccoli says that the search for the next James Bond will begin next year, Craig will be a very tough act to follow, particularly if No Time to Die continues to be warmly received. I can tell you that, after seeing and enjoying No Time to Die, I would prefer at least solid decade before a reboot attempt. On the other hand, both Lashana Lynch and Ana de Armas make very strong first impressions as their own, very different secret agent personas, and I’m far more interested in seeing either or both of them given a spin-off film than I am in a new James Bond.

While I was raised with Sean Connery and grew up with Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig became my definitive James Bond from his very first effort. Casino Royale introduced a version of one of cinema’s most famous characters that is, well, actually a character rather than merely a cipher for often gross power fantasies. While the franchise has suffered a rocky transition from standalone films to an ongoing narrative, No Time to Die is the payoff to fifteen years of investment in that character. Certainly, some of the film’s value is the novelty of being the first “last Bond movie,” and that novelty may fade with time. For now, though, I feel like I’ve had a full meal and a dry martini to wash it down.