It’s safe to say that No Time to Die has had a difficult journey to the big screen. The film has undergone a change of director (Danny Boyle out, True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga in), an injury to its leading man (though he has at least made it through another Bond alive), rewrites (from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, no less), a global pandemic, and five delays to its release date overall. And yet, the final product has emerged from all of this chaos triumphant – a stylish and exhilarating thriller, dusting itself off and adjusting its shirt cuffs with all the effortless sophistication of its protagonist. No Time to Die could easily have felt stale, considering that we first saw footage of it nearly two years ago. Instead, it’s a breath of fresh air. It already looks set to bring audiences into cinemas in swathes – and deservedly so.
Fukunaga opens with a horror-infused home invasion markedly different from other Bond pre-credits sequences. It’s a brilliant introduction to Rami Malek’s masked and menacing villain, Lyutsifer Safin. The plot then picks up five years after the events of Spectre, with Craig’s beefcake Bond enjoying retirement in Jamaica (rather like Ian Fleming himself). The set-up feels a little hackneyed: this is the third successive film where Craig has had to do the ‘Bond-past-his-prime’ thing. But this is, of course, just the prelude to the plot’s main action, which doesn’t take long to kick in. Bond’s retirement is interrupted by a plea for help from his old friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), which embroils him once again in planet-saving mayhem.
Broadly speaking, the story is far from original. Malek’s villain, of course, has a bio-weapon and a plan to kill millions of people with it. But the plot is, as usual, secondary to the spectacle – and, as has often been the case for Daniel Craig’s time in the role, to the emotional arcs of the main characters. Craig gives a bravura performance, running the gamut from fury to humour to heartbreak. Léa Seydoux is excellent as Madeleine Swann, a woman desperate to remain happy with Bond, but just as haunted by the past as he is. The strength of the performances heightens the effectiveness of the story’s emotional beats. And despite the broadly conventional nature of the plot, there are still some genuinely surprising moments.
The prospect of a Danny Boyle Bond will always be a tantalising one, but Fukunaga does an excellent job. He knows how to move a camera with real panache – as anyone who has seen that six-minute single take from True Detective will know. There is nothing here to match that (or Spectre’s opening shot), but the action scenes are all breathlessly entertaining, and there is an effectively claustrophobic single-take stairwell fight. It’s a very good-looking film, with each location vividly shot by Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren – from the historic beauty of Matera to a murky Norwegian forest.
It’s good to see some stronger roles for women in this entry. Lashana Lynch gives an entertaining turn as new 007 Nomi, with some enjoyably spiky bickering with Bond. Ana de Armas is a lot of fun as the Cuban agent Paloma, and her appearance is the most enjoyable sequence in the film. It’s just a shame we don’t see more of her – and of Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, for that matter. It would be interesting to know exactly how significant Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s rewrites were, and where they fall in the film; but this is a script which is sharper and funnier than I expected.
The film isn’t perfect. Malek’s Safin never quite lives up to the promise of that creepy pre-credits introduction. The exact motivations behind his plot to kill millions of people are never entirely clear, either. And it’s depressing to see another Bond villain who has facial scarring and a vaguely “European” accent, as if these characteristics are somehow outward indicators of inward evil. These dated tropes are even more noticeable because No Time to Die breaks away from problematic past Bond films in other areas. It would be nice to see a less predictable take on a Bond villain for the next entry in the series. As it stands, we’re on a dark and dangerous road towards having the meerkat from the Compare the Market ads as the main antagonist next time (only if the producers have poked out one of his eyeballs first, of course).
Overall, though, No Time to Die delivers all the exhilarating action, exotic locales and emotional moments you could want from a Bond film – as well as a theme song and opening credits sequence to die for. It’s a bold blend of old and new, and a suitably moving swansong for Daniel Craig. Inevitably, the rumours on who will be his replacement have already kicked into overdrive again. We should take a moment to appreciate, though, just how much he has made this role his own, giving us a 007 as emotionally vulnerable as he is ruthless. I saw the film at a packed screening. Seeing a blockbuster in an environment like that felt like a welcome slice of pre-Covid normality. The producers made the right move in holding out for a theatrical release, however long it took. If you can, see it in cinemas. There may be no time to die, but after a box office opening weekend like that, there’s no doubt you’ll have plenty of time to catch this one on the big screen.
No Time to Die is in cinemas now.