(dir. Fukunaga, wr. Purvis & Wade, Fukunaga, Waller-Bridge)
Of the James Bond actors who put in a serious shift, Sean Connery bowed out with Diamonds are Forever (and then Never Say Never Again), Roger Moore with A View to a Kill, and Pierce Brosnan Die Another Day. So assuming No Time To Die really really is, as he claims, Daniel Craig’s last – and the poor chap’s the same age at this point as was Connery, who’d started wearing a toupee, and not far short of Moore, who was focusing almost entirely on puns and dodgy uncle horseplay – it’s already earned the rare distinction of not making the shortlist for silliest Bond film ever.
On the contrary: it’s certainly the best since Casino Royale, and I won’t argue if you think it’s better. The plot approximately hangs together. The action genuinely grips and isn’t too daft. There’s real beauty (the opening in the snow, the hill-town) and it fits, unlike the colour supplement escapism of some recent outings. The idea that Bond has a character rather than just characteristics, an emotional life, a career path and beyond – one of the distinctive features of the Craig films – plays big in No Time To Die and succeeds.
A similarly distinctive feature of these five films has been the readiness to use bits of Bond history and Bond film history (and sometimes to wink at the audience): in Casino Royale Craig didn’t give a damn whether his martini was shaken or stirred; this time he orders the traditional without comment. Blofeld’s back, and Felix Leiter, and the memory of Vesper Lynd, and the deeply resonant phrase and tune ‘We have all the time in the world’, and not one but two Aston Martins; the island of poison calls on one of the darkest sequences in the original books. In the HQ background there’s still the tiresome tendency to make M a vulnerable old man for Bond to patronise rather than the ruthless head of a national security agency and its assassins – Ralph Fiennes is arguably too good an actor for the part; and the back-home fretting of M and Moneypenny and Q gets dangerously close to Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings in the weaker Poirot episodes – but it’s still a big improvement on all the nonsense with Andrew Scott in Spectre.
Léa Seydoux has stayed on – I was a bit vague about that background, I think because Spectre was so wretched that my mind had blotted it out – and with her the ongoing context of Spectre and Blofeld and Bond’s family history. The five year jump between the main opening sequence and the rest of the film in fact neatly matches real-time, taking us from what happened just after the last film (2016) to 2021.
Rami Malek gives basically the same performance that won him his Oscar (and why not? It’s worked for Bond villains from Christopher Walken to Christoph Waltz; that’s the gig) – the disease more blatant than Freddie Mercury’s, the diffidence played for menace rather than pathos. It satisfies: he’s about strong enough, mad enough, weirdly engaging enough. (Waltz, funnily enough, still doesn’t quite carry it off: his re-introduction, Hannibal Lecter-style in a high-tech prison basement, begins with suitable ominousness and, crucially, stillness; then suddenly he goes all impish again and the impact is lost – manic pixie Bond villains don’t cut it.) Regardless of whether at some point James Bond will be a woman, this film features serious professional women: Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Lashana Lynch and, in possibly the most enjoyable sequence of the whole film, Ana de Armas.
In the extended gestation of No Time To Die, much was made of the decision to bring in Phoebe Waller-Bridge to primp the script. (And the advance teases over whether or not Lynch might in some way be a replacement Bond was surely deliberate baiting of those with an over-certain view of what He should look like.) The fresh hands on the keyboard are a big improvement. It’s possible to spot the differences, scene by scene: some have the previous films’ clumsy nods to blokeish warrior ritual, the ponderous poetry, the prolonged and doomed search for a punchline; in others it’s not so much the glimpses of emotional truth that stand out – though that certainly helps – as the basic sharpness of the writing.
No Time To Die has all the action and entertainment you want, but they’re more coherent than usual, and the direction and camerawork (and the score) raise them too. The attempt at greater emotional heft is a bold gamble (face it, we don’t want James Bond to do too much thinking and feeling), but – precisely because the character has so much baggage, bears so much cultural weight, belongs to us all, and because the film generally judges it well – it pays off powerfully.
Release of No Time To Die was repeatedly and notoriously put back because of the pandemic, and – as it bursts into cinemas and box office records now – it does feel like a distinctly pandemic picture. It was the first big film release to be hit by the virus, and it’s the first landmark release of generally-post-lockdown (rather like the Mickey Mouse short which was the last broadcast on BBC TV before the Second World War shut-down and the first after it). Its plot revolves around a threat spreading virally. And it now appears that – with Blofeld conducting his birthday-and-trap-James-Bond-party by video from his cell – even Spectre has to run its operations via Zoom.