"No Time to Die" needs James Bond to rescue it from itself
No Time to Die
Starring Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Rami Malek, Lashana Lynch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas, Billy Magnussen, Christoph Waltz and Naomie Harris. Written by Cary Joji Fukunaga, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Opens Oct. 8 at theatres everywhere. 163 minutes. PG
James Bond’s biggest save in “No Time to Die” is the movie itself.
The 25th official 007 movie has all manner of vexations: a corpulent and convoluted plot, feeble villains and a running time that tests the strongest of bladders as it pushes three hours.
But so what? The film stars the essential Daniel Craig, who elevates franchise formula with skill and dedication the franchise hasn’t always deserved.
This is Craig’s finest moment as an actor, a magnificent performance of power and range that makes his Bond by far the most human and involving of the six actors to carry the name.
He rescues “No Time to Die” from its excesses, justifying his decision to holster Bond’s Walther PPK and rev his Aston Martin for a fifth and final time.
“Spectre” (2015) was supposed to be Craig’s swan song as British MI6 agent Bond. Its wheezy narrative stitched the evil doings of the global cabal of the title, led by Christoph Waltz’s cartoonish Blofeld, to a romance between 007 and sultry psychiatrist Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). The film ended happily but shakily, leaving no stirring reasons for a sequel.
We get one anyway, along with many faces old and new. Archrival Blofeld is back, supposedly kept from mischief inside a maximum-security prison that makes a mockery of the words “maximum” and “security.”
Blofeld is peeved, as is Bond, with a meddlesome new villain on the block: Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), a scarred, masked and whispering psycho introduced in a pre-credits flashback. Safin is such a ghostly presence he doesn’t crack the ice during a frozen-lake pursuit, although someone a third his size does slip into the water.
Safin and his scientific stooges have hatched a global threat that will chill the blood of viewers still mindful of the pandemic that delayed this film’s release by 18 months. It’s a bioweapon, designed to infect and kill millions of people, who are individually targeted by their DNA strands.
Yet the bioweapon’s real-world resonance is as muted a threat as Safin, perhaps because it inevitably involves the all-too-familiar Bond trope of a secret laboratory on a remote island, with an army of goons and an array of countdown-to-Doomsday clocks. All the place needs is a hairless cat to stroke.
Long before we get there, there’s much to muddle through in the film’s greater concerns: betrayal, deception and a reckoning with the past.
The latter brings us momentarily back to a character from “Casino Royale,” the 2006 film that launched Craig as Bond: the tragically departed Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Bond’s former lover, whose grave he feels compelled to visit during a romantic car journey to Italy with new love Madeleine. He’s retired from the spy game, opening his heart and leaving himself vulnerable.
Thus begins the film’s most pulse-racing action sequence, a balletic chase of motorcycles and cars, directed with aplomb by franchise newcomer Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation,” TV’s “True Detective”) and lensed by another new hand, Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”).
Fukunaga, who also co-wrote the screenplay, invests this part of the film with a genuine sense of danger, leaving Bond battered and close to tears as he comes to grip with the realization that his hard-won contentment may all be a facade.
Now comes a parade of other characters, some more welcome than others and at least one who shouldn’t be identified here. Fukunaga and co-writers Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade evidently ascribe to a “more is more” philosophy in their scripting. There’s even room for a hairless cat, in one of the film’s better jokes.
The writers have rounded up not only the usual Bond accomplices — Ralph Fiennes’ tetchy taskmaster M, Naomie Harris’s loyally resourceful Miss Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw’s querulously amusing Q — but also Bond’s old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who hasn’t been seen since “Quantum of Solace” in 2008.
It’s Felix who cajoles Bond away from the Jamaican hideaway where the shattered spy has retreated to fish and lick his wounds. Next stop: Cuba, where the Spectre gang is assembling. Our man teams with Paloma (Ana de Armas), a deceptively fresh rookie agent, sheathed in a black gown, who brings to mind the old adage of how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.
Bond and the high-spirited Paloma recall the fun and energy of 007 films past; in less enlightened times, she’d be called a “Bond girl” and quickly bedded. But this is not that kind of 007 movie, a fact underlined when Bond encounters spiky agent Nomi (Lashana Lynch, “Captain Marvel”), his replacement at MI6. She’s been given his 007 handle, although the number means less to her than it does to him.
Nomi is a fascinating character, curiously underwritten. There are hints of a backstory that isn’t revealed. Perhaps it’s a tip to a future Bond franchise that isn’t led by a white male.
Or maybe it’s just another of the many deceptions in “No Time to Die."
Yet for all of the film’s dramatic perfidy, viewers need not lose faith with or fear being duped by this most durable of action franchises, a year away from its 60th anniversary.
Craig is bidding farewell to the role, but he leaves us with a commanding and moving performance that beckons awards attention and prompts reflection on the relentless passage of time.
Bond will return, as the credits promise. Whoever assumes the role has an exceedingly hard act to follow. 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)