‘No Time to Die’ movie review: James Bond gets serious in long-delayed return

The same, but different. No Time to Die, the 25th Eon Productions Bond outing over the past 60 years, is finally hitting cinema screens worldwide this weekend after eighteen months of pandemic-related delays and features all the usual hallmarks of the franchise: globetrotting locales, fast cars, beautiful women, over-the-top action, and a madman bent on destroying the world.

But it also tries to deliver a little something different. Continuing a theme from the previous film in the series, Spectre, No Time to Die gives us more Bond backstory than ever before in an attempt to turn audiences around on this cultural relic, and build the kind of cinematic universe that has been so successfully implemented by Marvel and… well, just Marvel.

But the producers of No Time to Die may well already be lining up the spinoffs and sequels and prequels. 008, with Lashana Lynch as Bond successor Nomi, who rights past wrongs and actually cares about the repressed inhabitants of the worldwide locales of her missions; M: Origins, in which Harry Styles stars as the Cold War agent who becomes Ralph Fiennes’ MI:6 head; and Q & Moneypenny, a quirky office series about daily life at British intelligence starring Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris.

And then there’s James Bond, an archaic stand-in for British colonialism, GQ masculinity, and the stiff upper class that no one really cares about, whether he’s played by Daniel Craig or anyone else, no matter how hard No Time to Die tries to convince us otherwise.

After a brief, Bond-less cold open in Norway, No Time to Die gets straight to the good stuff: an action-packed prologue in Matera, Italy that sees Bond and Craig’s Bond and Spectre love interest Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) roll through the city’s historic streets in an Aston Martin while dodging gunfire and explosions. The setting is gorgeous, the action choreography first-rate, the stunt work breathtaking: this is why audiences come to see James Bond on the big screen.

Then we get to the contemporary story. Five years later, and Bond has retired to Jamaica. Lynch’s Nomi is now 007, called into action when a mysterious bioweapon is stolen from British intelligence by Spectre agents. But CIA agents Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) manage to convince Bond to come back into action, and he meets up with Nomi in Santiago de Cuba.

That leads to No Time to Die’s second-best sequence, a Cuban nightclub shootout during which Ana de Armas steals the show as an inexperienced CIA agent who launches into rat-a-tat action with disarming ease. The actress appears in just one scene here, but just about steals the movie.

There are a couple more action highlights towards the end of No Time to Die, including a moody car chase set in a Norwegian forest and a single-shot battle up a lengthy staircase that recalls similar fisticuffs in The Raid movies.

But in-between the Bond action there’s filler. Filler and contrivance, as the film lurches from one action setpiece to the next without much care for logic or reason. At three separate points in this movie, Bond is “poisoned” with nanobots that remain in his system permanently, and each time, a different person he comes into contact with is potentially threatened.

Halfway through the movie, Rami Malek shows up as Lucifer Satan… no, wait, that’s too obvious, let’s say Lyutsifer Safin. He’s the usual-usual Bond baddie out to rule or annihilate the world, and despite a rich performance from Malek, Safin just has so little going on here and doesn’t come close to the level of villain portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen or Javier Bardem in previous Craig Bond films.

And then there’s the Bond backstory. Visits with foster brother Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), mournful treks to the grave of his lost love Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green in Casino Royale), rocky relationships with M and Q and Moneypenny, and the complex romance with Madeleine.

Many are billing No Time to Die as a final sendoff for Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character, but producers have carefully hedged their bets, and there’s little doubt that he’ll be back in the role if there’s a demand for it. Unlike the touching final moments for Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in Avengers: Endgame, in a franchise that had proven that even death is no obstacle for its superheroes, the final moments of No Time to Die are so deliberately calculated and ambiguous that they rob the film of any emotional impact.

Not that we really care about James Bond, anyway: these movies really are about the style, the action, the gadgets, and the locales, and No Time to Die delivers on all those counts. This film is fluidly directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren across gorgeous landscapes, and features some of the best action sequences the series has ever delivered.

But at 163 minutes, this is also the longest Bond movie yet, and far too much of the running time is devoted to material that the film would have been better off without. James Bond might be a cultural relic, but he can also be viewed as an antihero, and his movies used to come with a wink-wink sense of fun. No Time to Die ultimately takes itself much too seriously, and comes off as a Bond movie made by people who don’t like Bond movies.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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