8/10 What a long, strange trip it’s been for James Bond in the 21st century.
In No Time to Die, we rejoin Cmdr. James Bond (Daniel Craig, who also produces), retired for the third time in Craig’s run with the character with his lover young enough to be his daughter, Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), but just as the series can’t get over his first film, Casino Royale, Bond can’t get past his love interest from that installment, Vesper Lynd. He is ambushed constantly by swooping gaggles of assassins, but Bond has no time to die, so he goes rogue for the third time in Craig’s run with the character to kill his way to the, well, there isn’t really a truth to kill his way to at this point, but if there had been, he sure kills enough people that he would have got to it.
No Time to Die was sold primarily as the last Bond movie to star Craig, who remains hugely popular in the role, and it’s a suitably strange end to a series of movies that has tried to be a lot of different things at once. It’s not much of an end to Bond’s personal character arc – nothing would be, given how often it’s ended and restarted – but it’s a very fitting end to the subseries’ arc from a fiery objection of the old Bond tropes in Casino Royale to No Time to Die’s uncomfortable shoulder-hug of them, which contrasts against its whole-hearted embrace of some MCU calling cards.
For 60 years, James Bond has stood as the ultimate masculine fantasy in film. In hindsight, it’s closer to 40 or 45 years, because at the turn of the millennium, Bond blinked, and comic book superheroes rushed into that space and ballooned to push almost everything else out of it. In just three years from 2012, when The Avengers exploded onto screens, to 2015, Skyfall and Spectre, the Bond films that released in those years, plummeted from no. 3 to no. 11 at the domestic box office and from no. 2 to no. 6 internationally. Marvel released its entire Phase II, six whole smash hits that dominated theaters and movie media for weeks apiece, between these two Bond movies’ releases.
As the welcome shock of Casino Royale wore down, the series started mixing more elements of the iconic Bond formula back in, revamping the dinosaur-ish aspects of the series it had just rejected. Shorn off characters like Q (Ben Whishaw) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) returned, and to fit a world that suddenly revolves around Bond personally, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) was bizarrely reinvented as Bond’s adoptive brother and shoo-horned into the fourth movie as the mastermind behind the previous three, having apparently created an expansive global terror network for the sole purpose of killing women in Bond’s life.
Craig’s tenure as Bond runs parallel to the Nolan/Bale Batman series. Both started around the same time and in around the same ways, with Batman Begins and Casino Royale releasing within 17 months of each other, and each making similar transformations – coming off the heels of goofy, schlocky entries that were discarded by critics and audiences alike, both films brought new, markedly younger lead actors into realistic, brutal post-9/11 worlds, and where prior series had played up exotic villains, these reboots zoomed in tightly on their heroes’ psychology and personal lives. Both series shot out to three entries by 2012, at which point Christopher Nolan decided to move on to other projects and Craig started dragging his feet future Bond movies.
In No Time to Die, the fast, filthy action in the cramped spaces that defined Casino Royale has exploded into bursts of vehicular warfare set against sweeping vistas and grand evil lairs. Entire legions of hitmen swarm Bond at a time in the service of Blofeld or Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), another villain whose only goal seems to be to ruin Bond’s life. He fights them off with the viciousness this version of the character has cultivated, but with a panache and dignity that had been absent before. This is a Bond who no longer loses sleep over the men he kills, has no more qualms about his drinking habits and has become fully aware of the audience cheering him on.
Craig, who turned 38 on the set of Casino Royale and 51 on the set of No Time to Die, looked old and worn out in 2012’s Skyfall and looks like a man who was old and worn out 10 years ago in No Time to Die. It doesn’t help that we’ve seen him smile again in Logan Lucky and Knives Out playing characters he hasn’t publicly stated his loathing for. He wants to do goofy American accents with emerging auteurs, not play Bond anymore, and he never wanted to play this version of Bond. Watching him struggle his way through a single classic Bond one-liner for the older fans, and not even a bad one, is the essence of No Time to Die, watching him fully realize the character he had been cast to rebel against 17 years ago.
This subseries has stuck tightly to its continuity and the stated goal of portraying a “more emotional” Bond, goals that seem more and more impossible. In the concurrently running MCU, continuity is more important than quality – in many ways, continuity has become quality – and Eon Productions has been careful to cultivate that continuity as something to draw from, but not to look at directly. The story of Craig’s Bond is baffling when taken as a whole, filled with repeated plot points and antagonists with no motive, but they all insist upon being taken as a whole, especially No Time to Die.
Safin is another villain who doesn’t seem to want anything, and that’s only the beginning of my questions about this character. He appears to be an immortal zombie of some kind, having survived several gunshot wounds in a distant flashback and not aged a moment since. His plot is to acquire and launch a biological weapon, and he launches it – the film’s climax is a traditional countdown and last-minute diffusion by the hero – but it’s never clear who he’s targeting or why. His grudge against Bond and Swann are firmly established, but the reason behind it is a mystery. I still have no idea what’s wrong with his face.
In contrast to the subseries’ desperation for firm text and the efforts to implant him into it, Safin is only there for the villainous texture. He has the traditional Bond villain’s scars and the big countdown timer, but also what appears to be the MCU’s twin aspect. A long and increasingly strange mark of Marvel movies has been villains who look almost exactly like the heroes, a consistent theme of visually defeating your dark side that made a lot of sense at first. Safin is quick to assert that Bond is “his own reflection,” despite almost nothing connecting the characters.
No Time to Die understands and delivers on the specific expectations of both an ancient Bond film and an action blockbuster released into the late-phase MCU’s immense shadow but doesn’t understand why those are the expectations or how to reconcile them into one movie. It seems confused, like a slide show for corporate that had to insert key points the boss asked for, but couldn’t really build them in. In the context of what the series was and what’s happened around it, it’s a strange goodbye for a set of films that doesn’t seem to know what happened, why it is the way it is or what direction it’s headed from here.