Note: If you have not seen No Time to Die yet, and don’t want to read about any of the movie’s plot elements, you should not read this.
I think I can safely say that I’ve seen the last of James Bonds older than me. Daniel Craig is now 53, squarely in my own generation, but two years my elder. For the foreseeable future, unless the powers that be at EON Productions have lost the plot, the actors who fill the dinner jacket will be millenials. So the themes represented in the latest 007 film, No Time to Die, resonated particularly poignantly with me. The movie put a fitting bookend on Craig’s tenure as Bond and more than made up for the sins of his previous three, uneven, outings.
To be clear upfront, I believe that Sean Connery was the actor who best embodied the ruthless, deeply flawed but highly capable assassin that Ian Fleming created on the pages of his 1950s and ‘60s novels. The first four films—Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball—set a standard that would make any of the canon henceforth difficult to match. But watched now, all of those movies tend to merge together to make a sort of “Bond movie” mashup in my memory, better as a collection than as individual films. In fact, if I had to choose one Bond movie to call the best, you have to fast forward to 2006 and Casino Royale, Craig’s first outing, and a reboot of the franchise based, appropriately, on Ian Fleming’s very first book.
Casino Royale was a tall order for Daniel Craig to chase up. Quantum of Solace is getting better every time I watch it, though its villain and his motivations are lackluster. Skyfall was visually gorgeous and Javier Bardem is appropriately menacing at times, but the plot felt unworthy of a Bond blockbuster (a revenge-driven IT hack?). SPECTRE started well and I loved the idea of Christoph Walz as Blofeld, but the last quarter of the movie fell flat, with Bond in a silly labyrinth that awkwardly recalled his earlier outings. So I had tempered expectations for No Time to Die, but secretly, as always with new Bond movies, harbored high hopes. The extended wait between movies didn’t help matters. I’m pleased to say that it exceeded expectations. I loved it and, after only one viewing (so far) would provisionally place it in my top three or four 007 flicks.
Since this review assumes that you’ve either seen the movie, know what happens in it, or don’t care, let me cut to the chase and address the three big bombshells: there’s a new 007, Bond is a father, and Bond dies. Shocking, daring… blasphemy? Some have said as much. But I don’t think so.
For the record, this isn’t the first time James Bond has been revealed as a father. Ian Fleming himself had his hero sire a child with Kissy Suzuki in the novel, You Only Live Twice, which differs from the film adaptation, but has definite overlap with some elements of No Time to Die. And when you think about it, it was kind of inevitable, right? One of the well known behaviors of the man was his womanizing over the years and his—ahem, intimate—time with Madeleine Swann was well documented in SPECTRE and early scenes of No Time to Die. I’d be surprised if this fictional philanderer didn’t have more offspring around the world, to be honest. Birth control was never a gadget with which Q Branch ever seemed to equip our hero over the years.
Children in movies are a dangerous proposition, but even more so for a James Bond film. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, kids often make awkward actors at best, or downright poor at worst. And in a story about a lone wolf assassin who traditionally has treated relationships about as well as he has his vehicles (i.e., crashed and burned), it introduces a rather tender side that is uncharacteristic of Bond. It was jarring to see him carrying a toddler in his arms. A stuffed toy could have been a bridge too far. I cannot recall seeing a single other child, of any age, in another Bond film. But I think the writers and director Cary Fukanaga didn’t overdo it. They didn’t ask too much of Mathilde, Bond’s daughter and the young actress who played her held her own. Thankfully, they didn’t have her wield a Walther PPK at any point.
The introduction of a child turned out to be a clever plot device. The typical, “Is she mine?” question so often comes up in stories of ambiguous past trysts, but here it’s done without sentimentality. Bond seems more confused by Mathilde, set back on his heels, and unsure of how to react, rather than leaping to fawn over the girl or express a desire to be a part of her life. He plays it like a wild animal on the edge of society, learning to trust, bond, and love, but staying wary. Had Bond survived this final assignment, one wonders how it would have played out for the bachelor who’d moved on from his relationships, settled into his retirement fishing and sailing. I have a hard time picturing plastic toys in the Jamaica bungalow, a child seat in the Aston Martin. But, of course we’ll never find out, because Bond is dead.
I think the Bond fans who come out of the woodwork every five years when a new movie is released have different expectations about the character and the stories than those of us who are diehard students of 007, both literary and cinematic. If you read Fleming’s books, for example, Bond is a far more flawed man, more fallible, less capable, and more vulnerable than the superhero portrayed in the movies. He gets married, he feels betrayed and hurt, insecure, has a child, nearly dies, and is badly wounded over and over. I believe No Time to Die comes the closest to this portrayal of any 007 movie, alongside Casino Royale. Watch these two films and I think you see Bond as closely as Fleming created.
One departure from the literary Bond is his age. In the novels, he’s perpetually in his 30s, maybe early 40s, bloodied but unbowed time and again. But in No Time to Die, Bond is clearly older, more reluctant, a bit more cynical, defiant, and just seems weary. He finally is acting his age, appropriate to the long tenure we’ve seen Daniel Craig’s version of the character. And I should know, since, as I mentioned, I’m roughly the same age as Craig and have aged with him in each subsequent movie. I see in Craig, and in Bond, the added lines on the face, a bit less spring in his step (remember the spry, athletic parkour chase scene at the beginning of Casino Royale?). When he struggles to pull himself up after some staircase fisticuffs, I can feel it too. Thankfully Craig’s Bond is acting more like a middle aged man than Roger Moore did in his later outings as 007. And maybe that won’t resonate with younger viewers, but there’s enough else about No Time to Die that will, and the movie acts as a poignant exit of the old lion. There’s even a new 007 who’s taken his place.
When Bond does return, he’s not exactly welcomed back with open arms. The world has changed, MI6 has changed. The security guard doesn’t recognize him, M has replaced him with Nomi, a sharp, ambitious, fit youngster who may not be as savvy as Bond, but makes up for it with strength and guile. Some have criticized the addition of a new 007—a black woman— as a sign of our “woke” era. While I felt like the film overplayed some of the snarky interactions between Bond and Nomi, overall, it felt relevant to our times and further solidified the notion that Bond has been passed over without seeming patronizing. If you view a female 007 as wrong, you’re still seeing gender as a barrier, which only further emphasizes the notion that times are changing so deal with it, or get out of the way. Anyway, I highly doubt that the keepers of the James Bond flame will replace him with a woman next go round. That simply doesn’t fit with the entire storyline of Bond and becomes something else entirely. But to hand his retired Double-Oh number off to someone new, who happens to be a woman, was a stroke of genius.
Of course, Bond’s death at the end of No Time to Die will perhaps remain the most controversial part of the movie, or possibly of the entire Bond film history. Bond never dies! He always escapes, seems dead but then comes back, miraculously living to fight (or die) another day. One friend wrote to me and said, “Bond can’t die! Bond is bigger than this one movie!” To which I say, Bond as an idea is not dead, fear not. There will be another Bond movie, probably in four or five years, with another actor playing Bond, a new storyline, new villains, new plots. This was a bold way to end the Daniel Craig chapter of Bond. Think of it as killing off Craig, conveniently removing him from the equation, allowing the creators to reboot Bond, perhaps putting him in a different era without the baggage of Safin, Quantum, Vesper and Madeleine. If they didn’t put a hard stop to this version of Bond, they’d have to account for a growing daughter, a relationship, and a Bond who would have to be pushing 60 by the time they get around to releasing the next one. Or who knows, maybe Bond did survive the missile attack on Safin’s island. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The bombshells out of the way (pardon the pun), the rest of No Time to Die was as solid and tight as I’ve seen a Bond film, while also standing on its own as a good film. Fukanaga knows how to shoot action, without the trendy quick cuts that are so common and disorienting nowadays. That said, I was left wanting a few more gritty hand to hand fight scenes, and fewer gun battles, which always seem unexciting, unrealistic, and boring. The Land Rover/motorcycle chase scene in Norway seemed too short yet overblown and, shall we say, phoned in? That is in contrast to the opening chase scenes in Matera, Italy, with their visceral, bruising falls, incredible stunts, and the Aston Martin DB5 used as mercilessly as I’ve ever seen it. That truly is a car driven to its limit. The pretitle sequence was one of the best in recent memory, followed by opening credits that felt properly old school, with nuggets straight out of the 1960s and a solid, smoky theme song by Billie Eilish.
Cinematography was top notch. The sunset scenes, of which there are ample, are simply gorgeous. Director of Photography Linus Sandgren is on par with Hoyte van Hoytema and the great Roger Deakins, both of whom have shot recent Bonds. Production design was superb also. The island HQ of the villain, Safin, was right out of the sketchbook of Ken Adams, he of past Bond film legend and the creator of so many iconic sets, from Dr. No’s lair to the volcano rocket base of You Only Live Twice, with nods of homage to both. Putting the villain’s lair in an abandoned submarine pen was an inspired and smart choice, and the Death Garden is another nod to the novel, You Only Live Twice. While you don’t need to recognize these Easter egg references to past films or novels, they provide an added layer for the true Bond nerds.
Early promotion for the movie promised a more witty Bond with ample quips. I feared full on Roger Moore gags and arched eyebrows. But thankfully it was restrained while inserting blips of comic relief to dial back tension amidst the chaos. This is perfect Bond, reminding us that he’s not Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt, pausing to down a shot of alcohol before running out the door in much the same way Connery’s Bond grabbed a grape from a tray before fleeing a room or tossing a vase of flowers on a dispatched baddy. Craig has been dubbed the “crabby Bond” and certainly his 007 outings have been praised for their grittiness. But he can pull out the cynical, self deprecating wit when needed and here especially, it felt right in his swan song.
As for gadgets, I may be in the minority as a bit of a literary Bond snob, but I feel that less is more. Bond the clever, resourceful hero doesn’t need whiz bang invisible cars and trick saw blade watch bezels. He uses what’s at hand to get things done. In No Time to Die, the glider-cum-submarine that was launched out of the cargo plane felt quasi-plausible and served its purpose to get Bond and Nomi from A to B. The DB5, with its spikes, smoke, and machine guns, gets a pass due to historical precedent, and the Omega watch with the magnetic pulse feature wasn’t overdone and specific to a task. If anything, the worst gadget was the villain’s: the all-seeing remote eyeball used by Blofeld (I’m still unsure how it worked), was downright goofy and felt forced.
I was also thankful that the product placement wasn’t overdone as it has been in past films. The Omega was hardly seen close-up, the Nokia phones were subtly shown, and Heineken beer label was only seen in passing, though in a Jamaican bar, I’d have hoped for Red Stripe to hark back to Dr. No. The prevalence of Aston Martin cars felt a bit heavy handed, with Bond driving two, Nomi driving one, and another at Q’s lab. But it’s eye candy I can live with. As an aside, how is it that a fleet of new Land Rover Defenders and a couple of Range Rovers get dispatched so easily by Bond driving a twenty-year old Toyota? Seemed an odd placement for Land Rover, but then I don’t really like the new Defender anyway.
Lyutsifer Safin, as played by Rami Malek, had such potential. Malek is a superb actor and has the look of a Bond villain. In some scenes, such as when he first meets Dr. Swann in her office, he is quietly chilling and pitch perfect. But in his own island lair, I felt like he was missing some of the menace I so badly wanted. The speeches to Bond didn’t have the impact I’d hoped for and he simply wasn’t on screen enough. I felt like he could have been shown as colder and ruthless earlier on, strangling a bunny or dispatching a disobedient henchman or something. The archetype of the modern Bond villain remains Le Chiffre from Casino Royale and I’m awaiting a suitable heir to that title. And, as an aside, Primo, the cyclops henchman, didn’t exactly fit the bill either. Maybe it was his haircut.
Supporting characters were, well, supporting—nothing more, nothing less. Felix Leiter trots out the same lines movie after movie, though Jeffrey Wright plays him well. Logan Ash was too glib and unconvincing and fortunately expendable. The Russian scientist, played by David Dencik was good, if a bit bumbling, but the most pleasant surprise was Ana de Armas’s CIA agent, Paloma. Her character was witty without being over the top, highly capable and refreshingly portrayed in a respectful light as opposed to the dispensable bimbo role of “Bond girls” of yore. My only complaint is that she wasn’t in the film long enough. And Madeleine Swann turns out to be a strong recurring character. She’s quiet, but played so convincingly by Léa Seydoux, with an expressive face that conveys more in closeup shots than any of her sparse bits of dialog.
Finally: the plot, and when I speak of the plot, I really mean the “Maguffin” the story that propels the action forward and pits the hero against the villain. Because let’s face it, the plot of No Time to Die is really about Bond, past his prime, coming to terms with his growing irrelevance, a changing world, and, in the end, his own legacy and mortality. A true Maguffin is merely an excuse to throw players into action and so doesn’t need to be all that believable. But in Bond movies, we like a good plot, and that usually means what the villain’s evil plans for world domination are. Recent Bond films have fallen short of proper grand scale villainous plots—personal revenge, hoarding water resources, etc. So Safin’s ambitions to wipe out mass numbers of the population using DNA targeting virus nanobots finally felt suitably megalomaniacal. Throw in a kidnapped scientist and the killing off of a rival criminal entity and we’ve got a proper Bond movie plot. Sure, it tests the limits of plausibility, but then, don’t all the best ones do that? And, after enduring almost two years of a global virus pandemic that may or may not have been cooked up in a faraway secret lab, is it really that far fetched?
Is No Time to Die a perfect Bond film? No. Is it my favorite? No, but perhaps it’s in my top 3 or 4. I need to see it again to absorb it more fully. But it finally felt more complete, fully cooked, and artfully crafted than any since Casino Royale. Watch any of the old Connery, Brosnan, Dalton, Moore, or Lazenby films and you realize how dated they can feel, in terms of style, outlook, morals, and plot. But No Time to Die seems more timeless. The clothing, the vehicles, the characters, settings, with a few tweaks, could almost be anytime in the history of Bond. The main titles, the closing Louis Armstrong song, some of the subtle homages, nod back to the best of Bonds past, while not feeling forced. As Craig makes his exit, in dramatic, final, and yes, tear-jerking fashion, he leaves a hard act to follow for whomever fills his Crockett and Jones lace-ups. One thing’s for certain, whoever does come next will definitely be younger than me. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait six more years to find out. Because, unlike Bond, we don’t have all the time in the world. Bond is dead. Long live Bond.
All photos, copyright EON Productions