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Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga. Starring: Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas. 12A, 163 mins.
Cary Joji Fukunaga has made a smashing piece of action cinema with No Time to Die – it’s just a shame it had to be a Bond film. For all the delays, the rumours around Danny Boyle’s departure, the months spent building up Daniel Craig’s final farewell in the role, what’s most disappointing about the film is how strangely anti-climatic the whole thing feels. The core premise, with a script partially credited to Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, is simply more generic spy nonsense: a biological weapon of mass destruction known only as Heracles, now given a technological edge, has been stolen from a secret laboratory by the villainous SPECTRE. Craig’s Bond, who’s in both hiding and retirement on a remote tropical island, looking as scraggly as Tom Hanks in Castaway, is inevitably pulled into the fray.
The man behind the curtain, the billed villain of the piece, is Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who’s really just a loosely tied fistful of character traits pulled from the Bond villain playbook. The lair, the henchmen, the personal vendetta – it’s the same ideas recycled without much flair. Malek himself gives almost nothing to the role beyond the accent and the fake scars he wears. Will the Bond franchise ever be able to move past the damaging trope of associating facial disfigurements with villainy? Some nods to the past are more welcome than others. Craig’s Bond, early on, echoes the words of George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, famously uttered while he clutched the dead body of his wife Tracy (Diana Rigg): “We have all the time in the world.”
When Craig says that same line, the strings of Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” swelling in the background, it takes on a new meaning. The irony isn’t so much that the blissful happy ending promised at the end of Spectre, as he swanned off in the arms of Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), isn’t built to last, but that Craig himself knows that it’s time for him to say goodbye to the role. No Time to Die is at its very best when it allows the actor room to take his final curtsy with both grace and style, allowing him to leave the franchise with not only a good dollop of dignity, but a reminder that he gave Bond a soul.
And he is brilliant in No Time to Die, in a way that outshines everything around him. His granite-carved features crumple in just such a way, always at the right moment – his Bond contains an ocean of battered emotions trying to reach the surface.
And he will be remembered, too, as a consummate action star, ever since he landed that first brutal punch in 2006’s Casino Royale. No Time to Die is at its best when Fukunaga is given the freedom to match that energy. The director has taken all of his experience in prestige television, including his work on True Detective and Maniac, and delivered a Bond that is so thrillingly tense, it veers into something close to horror. There are scenes in No Time to Die that suggest this might be the franchise’s own Dante’s Inferno – whether 007 is descending into a mist-clogged European forest or a Bacchanalian party in a crumbling Cuban mansion. It’s surprisingly grotesque. And occasionally almost poetic.
But Fukunaga’s more radical vision of Bond is fleeting. It’s a good film that’s been forced to rattle around in the Bond universe like a loose cog. Has Hollywood’s obsession with connectivity, sparked by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, poisoned the Bond franchise for good? Possibly.
The film soon devolves into a rotating sideshow of old characters and plot points. The blissful happy ending that he was promised at the end of Spectre, in the arms of Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), doesn’t last long – of course. Christoph Waltz’s now imprisoned Blofeld makes a dutiful appearance. As does Jeffrey Wright’s CIA agent Felix Leiter. Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and M (Ralph Fiennes) all hover round the edges. These are strands, characters and ideas that have been pulled together without much thought. They’re here because it feels like they should be, to give Craig his last hoorah. Meanwhile, the franchise still can’t move on from how perfect a Bond girl Eva Green was in Casino Royale, and Léa Seydoux is forced to contend with that fact, five films on.
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And despite Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s much-publicised contributions to the film’s script, No Time to Die hardly feels like the radical feminist rewrite we were promised. To her credit, the women (minus Seydoux’s character, who’s always sullen) get to have fun instead of merely traipsing around like over competent femme bots. Ana de Armas’s newbie agent Paloma feels like the audition for her upcoming Marilyn Monroe biopic, and Lashana Lynch, as a rival 00, is such a force of charisma that it feels pointless to look for a new Bond when surely the future of the franchise is already standing right there.
But beyond any potential for future appearances, they only serve as accessories to a film that doesn’t quite know what to do or what it is – it only knows that Craig lies at the very heart of it.