As the James Bond movie franchise has endured nearly 60 years, it has also labored to preserve its mythos while also remaining updated and relevant. The answer has mostly been that while the world goes on, Bond remains the same: the same age, the same wry wit, the same lasciviousness, the same choice of potent potable.
The occasion of Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond provides the opportunity to reframe the character and the franchise. “No Time To Die” — a name seemingly conceived by a Bond movie title auto-generator — draws heavily and conspicuously on its past. In just the cold open alone, there’s the fully-functional Aston Martin of “Goldfinger” and the still-open wound in Bond’s soul left by Vesper Lynde in “Casino Royale,” along with a visit to Lynde’s grave that echoes James’s visit to Tracy Bond’s grave in the opening to “For Your Eyes Only.” And there are the first of many callbacks to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” from the strains of John Barry’s “We Have All the Time in the World” theme song to the same bittersweet declaration Bond makes to “Spectre’s” Madeleine Swann (reprised by Léa Seydoux).
Ultimately, “No Time To Die” does for the James Bond franchise what “The Last Jedi” sought to do for “Star Wars.” For all its flaws, the film is grounded in breaking with the past and ushering in an unavoidable future. It’s about paying homage to old institutions while also dispensing with them.
Take, for example, a meeting of SPECTRE members in Cuba, gathered to celebrate the birthday of their imprisoned leader, Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). The scene is a bacchanale of bloat being enjoyed by aging relics drunk on their evil excess. A new villain, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), dispatches the throng, the opening salvo in a revenge plot against the old espionage world order as payback the murder of Safin’s family by former SPECTRE assassin Mr. White, Swann’s late father.
Safin hijacks a new bioweapon, developed in secret by British scientists with the codename Project Heracles, that can target the DNA code of a specific person or an entire group of people. Bond, now retired to Jamaica, is recruited by CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to retrieve the kidnapped scientist who created the weapon. Meanwhile, MI6 agents, led by M (Ralph Fiennes) and a newly designated 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), try to beat Bond and the Americans to the punch. Of course, Bond eventually circles back to his MI6 mates, leading to a reunion of sorts with Blofeld and infiltrating Safin’s island lair (yep, that trope returns, too) to rescue Swann and her daughter, and, naturally, save the world.
Notwithstanding those deficits, the direction by Cary Joji Fukunaga (HBO’s “True Detective”; “Beasts of No Nation”) feels more textured, more cinematic than previous Bond films, although the otherwise able action sequences are not standard-setting — an extended gunfight by Bond during the film’s final act looks like a poor man’s “John Wick.”
This is also the first Bond film I can remember in which he does not sleep with any new female character. But while the absence of sex might be a nod to contemporary mores and character progression, nothing immediately replaces it in how the film treats its women characters. One of the film’s highlights is Paloma, a CIA agent played by Ana de Armas, who assists Bond in Cuba. Clad in a full-length V-neck dinner gown, Paloma’s disarming demeanor and kickass skills steal her scenes. But she exits as quickly as she enters, leaving a void the film doesn’t fill. Lynch’s Nomi never really gets to flash any particular agent action abilities, and Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny is given little to do. Even Swann ultimately serves as another damsel in distress. Perhaps this film is setting the table for how future narratives will feature Bond women, but the void is notable for now.
The other missed opportunity is Safin, who the film seemed to be positioning for an identity reveal that never happens—I won’t expand on my unrealized theory to avoid a reverse spoiler. So, we are left with another creepy baddie bent on world destruction who appears diabolically invincible until the film decides he’s not anymore.
No, “No Time To Die” is still about Bond, specifically Daniel Craig’s Bond. While the James Bond franchise goes back decades, it is worth remembering that the Craig cycle is a rather self-contained story arc, starting with Bond becoming a 00 agent in “Casino Royale” despite its early aughts setting. Blofeld and SPECTRE do not emerge until Craig’s fourth film. “No Time To Die” caps that cycle with a James Bond that is more world-weary but also more mature. He’s gone from the cynical brute whose retort to Vesper Lynde’s betrayal and demise is, “The job’s done; and the bitch is dead,” to a man who discovers that losing true love is the only thing worth dying for. As always, the ending credits promise that “James Bond Will Return.”
In the meantime, James Bond is dead — long live James Bond.
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