Over two years from the end of principal photography, and close to eighteen months from the original release date (well, first with Cary Fukinaga at the helm), the 25th Bond film, No Time to Die has finally made it into UK cinemas. With Daniel Craig, and fellow cast members all being noticeably more positive in press and promotion than during 2015’s Spectre, it is fair to say hopes were high.
After a brief home invasion scene set in the 1990s and illuminating the story Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) told Bond during their train journey in the previous film, we move on to pick up a short time after we last saw the couple. They are in Matera, Italy, taking a slow jaunt around as they work out what is next for them in life.
Knowing Vesper Lynd, Bond’s great love from Casino Royale, is buried in the town (quite why, given her background isn’t clear), Swann encourages Bond to visit the grave finally to let go of the memories so they can be happy. When it turns out that Spectre knows Bond to be there, and has booby-trapped the grave in an attempt to assassinate him, Bond and Madeleine are then faced with a fight to get out of town with their lives. Fearing he has been betrayed by the one he loves (not really a spoiler, as that was in every trailer), he leaves Madeleine.
Five years later – bringing us to present day – Bond is living in retirement in Jamaica, when Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) approaches him for help in retrieving a genetic scientist who has gone missing in London after an attack on an off-the-books MI6 laboratory in the city. After a mission in Cuba to retrieve the geneticist in question, Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik), Bond returns to London to find the full horror of what has been released, how it relates to Madeleine, how Blofeld (Christophe Waltz) is involved, and what is Obruchev’s link to the mysterious Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) – the man who stalked Madeleine’s family when she was a child, and now has plans for the world.
Mileage with this film will likely vary, according to how the viewer responds to the story choices that have been made. On a technical level it is a superbly well-made film, with universally terrific performances. There are some less effective facets to the work, however, along with the few factors that elicit what could be described as a mixed response.
So, to start with the least effective elements: the story is nonsense. Safin’s plan appears to be to have a weapon programmed to target specific DNA. This is fine, but everyone, literally everyone, who comes into contact with it would become a carrier. Whilst that would be fine, talk of just staying away from the targets if infected as a means of keeping someone safe, wouldn’t work, because everyone you ever touched also becomes a carrier – any attempt to stop this at all just would not work.
On the subject of his grand plan, Safin starts with Spectre as the target, for reasons the film makes clear. When Q (Ben Whishaw) recovers Obruchev’s USB stick, he notes that there are thousands of targets, they are split into categories, and he needs more time to study it. In a 163-minute run time, the film never comes back to this plot point: meaning we don’t know – at all – what Safin wants, other than it will kill millions. This is lazy storytelling.
M (Ralph Fiennes) has made the mistake that leads to this plot even being a possibility. Where Gareth Mallory was always a cautious man, aware of his responsibilities, here he has taken a massive, out of character risk that would see a real-world equivalent fired, and possibly prosecuted. His relationship with Bond is also far testier than we’ve seen before, and this is somewhat jarring, given Bond has always respected his bosses, however otherwise characterised.
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Finally, it is too long. It takes 23 minutes to get to Billie Eilish’s song, and this is simply a symptom of just how much the film has to get through. We have to get Bond away from Madeleine, get him into a mission/back into the service, introduce his replacement, Nomi (the excellent if somewhat wasted Lashana Lynch, as this story doesn’t really need her other than to beat us over the head again with the world having moved on from Bond – a trope that has been there since Skyfall), introduce the bad guy, bring back Blofeld – it is all far too much. When compared to the simplicity of Casino Royale, this film is dripping in excess.
As for the mixed – first would be Hans Zimmer’s score. In general it was very affecting, but for all the wrong reasons (as well as evoking his work on The Dark Knight in the final act). When we think of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we often think of its wonderful score: when we think of No Time to Die in the future, we’ll likely be thinking of… On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘s wonderful score.
As ever with EON Productions in recent years, they seem to spend more time celebrating memories than making new ones. Using Louis Armstrong’s song, and John Barry‘s wonderful music from that film is a lazy shortcut to eliciting an emotional response – one initially engendered by a better film that this. Add to this a title sequence that is liberally quoting both Majesty’s and Dr No, and it starts to feel like nostalgia is imprisoning this series.
Madeleine and James have far better chemistry this time, though the shadow of Eva Green continues to hang over Craig’s tenure – his best Bond Woman was his first, and trying to cram through a love story in his last two entries is only partially successful. Finally, the level of suffering Bond has to go through is ramped up to a level here that would be comedic if it wasn’t so wrong-headed. Craig’s Bond is an epically unlucky human being. It is debatable whether anyone wants to walk out of a Bond film feeling sorry for the lead.
However… Despite the safety blanket of constant call-backs to the earlier hits (the DB5, yet again), surprisingly this is the ballsiest Bond film since George Lazenby met Diana Rigg. Daniel Craig is pushing the role right up against the limits of how far the character can be stretched. He looks like he’s having fun here, as he sports excellent chemistry with, well, everyone. His scenes with both Jeffrey Wright and Lashana Lynch are a joy – don’t panic, Lynch is not going to be the new James Bond – and he commands every scene in which he appears.
The opening 23-minute pre-title is comfortably inside the top-5 ever made for the series, with Matera being impossibly beautiful, and the real promise of bringing character development, whilst remaining true to the franchise. Post-titles, the scenes in Cuba feature a terrific cameo appearance from Ana de Armas as CIA-agent Paloma – she is truly missed when she exits the film after this mission. Q and Moneypenny are given things to do, but they don’t detract from it being a Bond film, as happened at times in the previous two entries. Action is genuinely and consistently crunching for the first time since Craig’s first two entries.
Everything to around the two-hour mark is fine work, gently re-defining the Bond series for a new generation, yet feeling like we are saying goodbye to the series as we know it. With the musical and graphical call-backs, it seems that a fresh film is being presented, but ins a way that is summarising the whole 59-year history of the franchise. In general, most nods to series history are subtle – Leiter smoking delectados cigars as seen in Die Another Day for example. The final act, by contrast, is far too long, Safin is completely unclear about what he wants, but at least we get a decent villain’s lair – evoking Blofeld’s Garden of Death in the novel You Only Live Twice, and a satisfying emotional pay-off to the journey.
No Time to Die will draw reviews and responses ranging from adoration to blind hatred: it is just that type of film – divisive in its choices. In truth, this is, mostly, as good as the fifth film in an actor’s tenure is ever going to be whilst there remains the desire to tie everything together. The villain’s plot is so weak simply because, it seems, the writers had so much else to get through. For all of the minor criticisms, they have accomplished this with aplomb.
No Time To Die is out now at Cinemas.