I can remember the exact moment my enduring love of James Bond was born: It was my freshman year, and a nasty case of strep throat laid me out for an entire week. Thankfully, it was the very same week that TBS aired their annual 007 marathon. That means every waking minute of my convalescence was spent propped up in my double bed, wheezing through sixteen movies worth of guns, puns, and scantily-clad women. I can’t say for certain, but there’s a strong chance that Commander Bond made me whole again.
In that initial binge, it was striking how static and superficial the 007 character truly is. No matter the era, or the lead actor playing him, Bond dutifully tromps down a path of the same old tropes, a fact that serves as his blessing and curse: On one hand, these films go down like comfort food–familiar, filling, and reliably non-nutritional. On the other, Bond spends most of his filmography in an emotional stasis. He never grows or evolves, with every movie resetting him as a lonely man in a soul-crushing occupation. Bond chases skirts and downs dry martinis to help him forget that he has nothing worth remembering.
Give Daniel Craig and his collaborators credit for shaking up that musty status quo. Over the course of Craig’s five Bond flicks, 007 has undergone a legit story arc. His films have been uneven in quality, but there is an undeniable path: The hungry young killer in Casino Royale has slowly transformed in a mess of a man–exhausted, embittered, and ready for permanent obscurity. That’s where we find him in No Time to Die.
The pre-credits action sequence is big, brawny, and vintage Bond: After the events of Spectre–which you’ll need to have fresh in mind–our favorite superspy lays low with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), until they’re ambushed by an army of scuzzy, scowling henchmen. What follows is a barrage of badass stunts, cool gadgetry, and seamless special effects. We’re only a few minutes in, and I’m already in 007 heaven.
After the credits, we cut to a few years later, and Bond has retreated into retirement. He hides out in the Caribbean, and lives in a permanent limbo of arrested development–boozing, carousing, and keeping the world at a distance. More than before, Bond is a lonely man lost in the crowd.
This sounds like the perfect moment for the obligatory One Last Mission, and it’s here that his old pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) shows up to deliver it. Throughout the Bond canon, Felix is the closest thing Bond has to a friend. After all, they speak the same spy shorthand; their souls bear the same scars. Turns out, his old buddy is in trouble, and only Bond can help.
The crux of the plot is built around the usual Bondian shenanigans: Some manmade virus gets stolen from MI6, putting millions and billions in peril. To make things even stickier, it seems that this nano-virus was orchestrated by M (Ralph Fiennes) himself, thus creating an awkward diplomatic situation with the other governments of the world. When Bond gets involved, he finds himself in a sprint to recapture the virus and discover the truth behind its creation.
No Time to Die also pars the franchise course for exotic locales. For the first leg of his mission Bond ventures to Cuba, and he links up with Paloma (Ana de Armas). She skillfully throws up a ditzy facade to conceal the fact that she can kick every ass in a ten-block radius. They go looking for a rogue scientist (David Dencik, playing about one step shy of Scooby Doo villainy), and find themselves in competition with Nomi (Lashana Lynch), Bond’s successor at Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is one of the strongest and most fun stretches of the film.
Unfortunately, once this sequence ends, Die starts to bog. The film clocks in at a whopping 163 minutes, and you can really feel it during the film’s paunchy second act. Hell, you don’t really get to know the supervillain (Rami Malek) until damn near this midway point. By then, we’ve already dealt with: A double agent, two ass-kicking female spies, Bond’s depression, M’s drinking problem, Blofeld in prison, Madeleine’s broken heart…and we still have an ass-ton of movie left. TL;DR: This Bond outing is way too busy for its own good.
Let’s talk a little about that villain. Lyutsifer (Rami Malek) is markedly different than your typical Bond heavy: He’s a little younger, a little edgier, and a little more quietly unhinged. Lyutsifer has a very personal connection with Madeleine, and his burning quest for vengeance and validation will (of course) jeopardize millions of innocent lives. Malek smartly underplays his role, making Lyutsifer one of the most effective Bond bad guys in a good long while.
On the other side, Craig turns in yet another smoldering turn as 007. Now that he’s officially done, the debate can rage: Is he the best Bond since Sean Connery? That’s tough, as every actor has brought their own special flair to the role, and each stretch of movies serves as a durable artifact of its time. I have an affection for all of them–well, except for maybe George Lazenby’s one flick. Craig certainly brings the darkest intensity, imbuing each of his films with dramatic heft.
No Time to Die also gives Craig a chance to showcase his comedic talent. The script (by a disparate committee of writers) is loaded with flimsy puns and one-liners, and Craig clearly has a good time with them. He also gets a few snappy exchanges with Lynch, who serves as both competition and collaborator.
These pockets of humor also signify what a jarringly uneven experience this film is: Most of Die is dark and deep, so the jokier moments separate like oil from water. Unlike the superior Skyfall, which was much more cohesive in its narrative aesthetic, this disjointed entry bears the mark of too many screenwriting cooks in the kitchen.
What the writers lack in unity, they make up for in bravery. No Time to Die saves a few big twists for its finale, sending off Craig in an emotional blaze of glory and wrapping up the story arc that started with Casino Royale. For the first time in his legendary run, it truly feels like Bond has been blessed with an actual character arc. Whatever flaws Die may have, the filmmakers deserve props for tinkering with the well-worn Bond formula.
With all that said, Craig’s final Bond installment never completely pulled me in its grip. Die tries too hard, drones too long, and ends up as a near-miss. It has great pieces, and they work better than the whole picture. I don’t know what the freshman version of me would’ve made of all this. There’s a good chance the Tussin and Sudafed would have me delirious and confused. Still, I think my opinion would be similar to what it is now: No Time to Die is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love.
163 min. PG-13. In theaters only.