With nearly sixty years under its belt, the James Bond series has found itself to be nearly endless; never fully out of commission. No Time to Die is the 25th film in the series, but maybe the first to offer something like an actual ending. “Goodbye” isn’t usually found in the suave spy’s vocabulary — not with a sequel always on the horizon, a return always promised in the credits. Even on the cusp of recasting, it’s rare to get any finality from a Bond movie; producers like to leave the door open, in hopes that they’ll lure their star back for one more round of martinis. No Time to Die is different, though. It’s been conceived as a proper send-off to Daniel Craig, taking his fifth and final spin in the tuxedo, and as an attempt to wrap up this serialized stretch of a series that’s been running since the early ’60s. And with wrapping itself heavily in valediction, the film has its ups and downs trying to actually pull that off.
In devising some closure of sorts for this iteration of the character, No Time to Die looks backwards. This has been a strategy of the series ever since Craig took over the role, bringing a more brutish charisma to cinema’s most beloved secret agent. An obsession with the past was, of course, a driving principle of his thrilling beginnings in Casino Royale. And it hung over the films that followed, evident in every self-conscious wink at the old tropes of the 007 formula and every attempt to tie a new menace to an old mission, mistake, or adversary. In its smartest stab at symmetry, No Time to Die takes Bond back to Italy, and to the grave of the woman whose death shaped his future. Her tombstone literally explodes. Metaphorically, this signals a fallout with the one woman Bond has allowed himself to love since, the psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).
Is this the Avengers: Endgame of spy movies? It’s as sentimental and nearly as long, running a rather smooth two-hours-forty-three-minutes. And there’s also a five-year time jump, too, finding a retired, heartbroken Bond living off the grid, forced to return to active duty at the emergence of a new global threat in pretty Skyfall-esque fashion. That gleaming installment, the second big highlight of the Craig tenure played things, however briefly, with the intriguing idea of a disgruntled and slightly rusty Bond. Here, British intelligence’s finest lurches back into the field with almost a perfunctory shrug. No Time to Die’s danger is viral: a plague of nanobots that target people specifically through their DNA. It’s a rather confusing weapon of mass destruction, with rules that don’t seem to make a ton of sense, even for a Bond movie — which is a problem, given how much the film ends up hinging on them. The heavy threatening to release this destructive force on the world is the vengeful and well-named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). Safin gets a great introduction, in a superb opening suspense sequence that recalls Halloween more than one of the franchise’s usual in-media-res prologues. Sadly, after that he’s revealed to be little more than a stock adversary, whispering threats with perpetual calm; Craig deserved a more distinctive final foe than this rather generic sociopathic terrorist.
There is some faint tension in the introduction of Bond’s replacement, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), with whom Bond playfully spars over ownership of the 007 codename. This is clearly a symbolic gesture, a generational torch passing meant to offer a rebuke to the historic chauvinism of Bond as a character and icon. And it might be easier to appreciate if the rookie agent were given more to do and not so relegated to the sidelines, disappearing for long stretches to run offscreen errands. But it’s likely that because there’s scant room for her in a film that can barely find the time for its usual supporting roster, the home-office cavalry of M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Crowding an already large ensemble, No Time to Die wheels in once-quintessential archrival Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) for a single-scene verbal standoff. He’s meant to be scary behind glass, but the cameo is a non-event — possibly because Spectre did so little to build Waltz up as the ultimate big bad of this Bondverse.
Within all the overstuffed narrative wheeling-and-dealing, what remains consistent is director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s very strong visual eye, his intuitive knowledge of where to put the camera for maximum impact — whether it’s inside a bulletproof car that’s being strafed by what feels like a hundred gunmen, or a bird’s-eye view of Ana de Armas (playing a novice CIA agent, in a brief but strong highlight of the movie) spinning around in a high-slit gown knocking down baddies, or a handheld long-take following Bond up a stairwell as he pummels his way through a small army of henchmen. Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren continually find potency in crepuscular images that lean into its character’s retrospection, both honeyed and melancholic: There’s one particularly dazzling moment where Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine flashes the tiniest, saddest of smiles as bold, expressionistic sunlight trickles through her blond hair, then bursting into an opulent Panavision lens-flare across the screen. It’s small, image-centric moments like that which both deliver a more evocative wallop than words ever could and keep No Time to Die engaging.
If there’s been a legible emotional arc through this five-film, mini-franchise narrative, it’s the tug-of-war inside Bond himself. Can this ice-cold killer and ladykiller learn to love again — to rediscover the humanity hammered out of him through years of service and the formative betrayal of Casino Royale? The problem is that this final installment builds its stakes around a relationship that’s not fully there: Seydoux’s thinly sketched Madeleine is but a shadow of the dearly departed Vesper, a love interest so richly drawn by Eva Green that you could actually buy her getting through to a hunk of patriotic human weaponry like James Bond. With all its connections to the previous film, No Time to Die’s other biggest misstep is probably the fact that it seems to think Spectre had a compelling narrative. But that’s sort of par for the course for the Craig Bonds, too. They extract their pound of flesh. To get to the next action sequence, we often have to sit through another mixed-bag speech with the bad guy about how “we’re both really the same, you and me.” Craig has neither the ability nor the willingness to dismiss such blather with a raised eyebrow, as, say, Roger Moore could. Craig wants to commit, to emote, to really tackle the substance of the material; he is, after all, a real actor. Except that the material hasn’t always been there: It’s often the same stuff, just longer, and all the added elements to give the story and the characters emotional heft mostly miss as a result. That in turn makes this film’s forays into genuine darkness and sentimentality, particularly near the end, tough to fully pull off. Still, amid the grit and the attempted emotional catharses, there is a strong Bond movie in there. No Time to Die is relatively solid, but only when it dares to be. Struggling to carry the weight of its narrative responsibilities, No Time to Die finds itself in the middle of the franchise bag; being at times uneven and other times crisp and muscular.
No Time to Die is currently playing in Theaters nationwide