When I was growing up, Bond movies were big, but not weighty. This was the Pierce Brosnan era, which began with Xenia Onatopp crushing men with her thighs in GoldenEye (1995) and ended with Bond driving an invisible car in Die Another Day (2002). These films were close to the original cinematic conception of Bond—action movies done with a wink and no self-consciousness whatsoever. Then two things happened that altered the tone of the franchise.
First, Bond caught feelings. Perhaps this was a result of Brosnan handing over to Daniel Craig—a more haunted-looking Bond than any of his predecessors—or a direction suggested by the similarly globe-trotting but more traumatized Bourne series. Bond falling for Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (2006), getting betrayed by her, and being unable to prevent her death at the end of the film introduced something like real emotion to the series. Since then, there have been mother issues (Judi Dench’s M), brother issues (both Silva and Blofeld), Bond's intermittent feelings of obsolescence, and the unshakeable shadow of Vesper.
The other change came with Skyfall (2012), directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes and shot by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins. Bond movies, for the first time, became prestige productions: beautifully shot, somewhat solemn, devoid of silliness. The new villains were wronged men out for revenge, not the unhinged crazies of old. Mendes returned for Spectre; the series was to pass to another Oscar-winning director, Danny Boyle, for Craig’s final film before he backed out and Cary Joji Fukunaga took over.
No Time To Die opens in the timeline of Spectre—another Craig-era innovation that sees the films as a roughly continuing storyline rather than discrete entries. Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) are in Italy, much in love, though still in the grip of the past. She remembers a home invasion from when she a little girl: a man in a mask who comes looking to kill her father and ends up saving her life when she gets trapped under ice. He visits Vesper’s grave, where he finds a card with the SPECTRE logo seconds before a bomb goes off. Bond survives, and after a breathless chase, drops Madeleine off at the train station, suspecting her of betraying his location.
Five years later, Bond is off the grid. MI6 are managing fine without him—there’s even a new 007. But SPECTRE won’t quit, so Bond can’t either; he’s drawn back in when they kidnap a rogue MI6 scientist who’s developed a bioweapon. Its retrieval involves a trip to Cuba, where he meets local CIA agent Paloma, who excitedly tells him she’s had three whole weeks of training. This mission is the most fun the film will have—which is largely down to Ana de Armas in an evening dress, kicking and shooting with enthusiasm and good humour.
A very Bond device—a face-melting bioweapon—is lent some contemporaneity by it being developed in a lab, at the behest of Madeleine’s childhood nightmare vision, the wounded terrorist Safin (Rami Malek). But there’s nothing like the cynicism of the Bourne series towards real-world politics; MI6 and CIA are still the good guys, still poisoning and bombing people in foreign lands. There’s also a strange fascination with facial disfigurement: Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is missing an eye, so is one of the SPECTRE assassins, and Safin’s face is mottled.
Did I mention there’s a new 007? Agent Nomi has taken over since Bond went missing; when he reappears, she makes old person jokes. Lashana Lynch is capable and droll, but to cast a Black woman as 007 only calls attention to the franchise’s limitations. It’s as if they’re saying, this is just a one-off gag, so let’s give the public the furthest possible thing from their idea of 007.
The runtime is a healthy 163 minutes, much of which is taken up by long, polished setpieces (Linus Sandgren is the cinematographer). Given how much breathless action there is, it’s curious how the abiding feeling I was left with was a kind of melancholia. Daniel Craig leaving the series after this film isn’t subtext, it’s the main theme. As they’re driving along the coast at the start, Madeleine asks Bond to go faster. “We don’t need to go faster,” he replies. “We have all the time in the world.” Safin reminds Bond that his skills “die with his body”. Nomi needles him about her designation as 007: “Do you think they’d retire it?”
In his final appearance, Craig is touching and almost tender. His Bond has always seemed a little sad, damaged by the memory of dead lovers, looking for a way out. His work methods, all these years after Casino Royale, are still brutish—whatever the outcome of the fight, he always takes a beating—yet he’s a sensitive sort underneath. I wouldn’t be surprised if Craig stretches out as an actor the way Connery did post-007; he’s already started with his comic turns in Logan Lucky (2017) and Knives Out (2019). As for the series, it now takes itself most seriously, perhaps more than the public does. It has ceded the title of silly, spectacular action franchise everyone loves to Mission: Impossible, and must now decide what to do with all the emotions it’s accumulated over the past five films. It’s time for another iteration, another proposal placed before audiences to allow them to do roughly the same thing with a different guy.
No Time To Die is in theatres.