Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga || Produced by: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Screenplay by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Phoebe Waller-Bridge || Starring: Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Lea Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Wishaw, Naomi Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes
Music by: Hans Zimmer || Cinematography: Linus Sandgren || Edited by: Elliot Graham, Tom Cross || Country: United Kingdom, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 163 minutes
Rewatching the Daniel Craig-era James Bond films (2006–2015) in preparation for the lead actor’s final portrayal of the famous British secret agent reminded me of how far the franchise has evolved since the cornier days of Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore, Sean Connery, et al. While older cinephiles treat numerous classical entries of the Bond franchise as untouchable, and the weakest of Craig’s films (Quantum of Solace , Spectre ) make me as cynical towards them as any contemporary tentpole franchise, I stand by my earlier assertions how (1) the franchise has successfully reinvented itself the way few long-running intellectual properties (IPs) in mainstream filmmaking ever do, and (2) spy-movies writ large (see also Bourne [2002-2016], Mission: Impossible [1996-]) remain one of the few profitable, big-budget IPs that aren’t wholly dependent on post-production digital FX. I therefore return to Bond films, or at least Craig’s modern incarnations of them, when in need of competent action movies to recommend to casual moviegoers.
To that end, the sheer production values and scope of the action set-pieces of modern Bond are as memorable as any major studio superhero production. They are effective high-concept action movies with fun, cornball villains as long as they’re paired with the right director (e.g. Casino Royale ).
Enter Cary Joji Fukunaga, creator of such acclaimed works as the debut season of True Detective (2014), Beasts of No Nation (2015), Maniac (2018), and this final Bond installment of Craig’s tenure, No Time to Die. Fukunaga was the last in a long line of directorial candidates following the departure of Sam Mendes, director of the well received Skyfall (2012) and divisive Spectre, which included potentials like Christopher Nolan, David Mackenzie, Denis Villeneuve, and Danny Boyle. To date, he is the lone American to direct an Eon Productions Bond film and the first director of any nationality to receive screenwriting credit, alongside longtime Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Phoebe Waller-Bridge also contributed).
I agree with the general critical consensus that No Time to Die (henceforth, NTD), while not the strongest installment since the franchise’s most recent reboot in 2006 (I say that’s Royale, others may argue Skyfall, the highest grossing Bond flick as of 2021), is an effective action blockbuster and a great sendoff for Daniel Craig’s portrayal of cinema’s archetypal secret agent. The narrative itself, apart from Fukunaga’s great direction and cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s memorable camerawork, connects with previous films more organically than either Spectre or Skyfall while still standing alone as a singular, cohesive story. The screenplay connects with the stronger supporting characters of the contemporary Bond ensemble (e.g. Ben Wishaw, Jeffrey Wright, Ralph Fiennes) and introduces new ones (e.g. Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas, Rami Malek) who flesh out Craig’s final adventure and provide him with diverse chemistry. Even characters who were not well realized in previous installments, such as Leá Seydoux and Christoph Waltz in Spectre, are given much better flavor here.
With regards to NTD’s directorial prowess, Fukunaga combines the striking color palettes and clarity of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall and Spectre, photographed by cinematographers Roger Deakins and Hoyte van Hoytema, respectively, with the chaotic yet fluid camera movement of Martin Campbell’s Royale, shot by longtime collaborator Phil Méheux. Beautiful hues and calm, almost casual violence exhibit the former style in a neat sequence where enemy soldiers rappel down a government building upside-down, breach with quasi science-fiction tech, and kidnap a shifty scientist (David Dencik); in opposite fashion, the frantic yet well choreographed action sequences in Matera, Italy in the film’s prologue and an extended, almost John Wick (2014-)-style shootout inside a stairwell during the finale exemplify the dynamic physicality of Craig’s Bond-debut. I’ll continue to lament the artificial limit on blood squibs in most contemporary tentpole franchise movies, but at least NTD retains the blunt ferocity and diverse cinematic violence (e.g. fisticuffs, shootouts, vehicular chases, great stunts, etc.) of this past decade’s better mainstream action movies.
The most surprising attribute of NTD, however, is how well paced and attentive its story is despite its mammoth 163-minute running time, the longest in the franchise. With the exception of Quantum of Solace, all of Craig’s Bond films have been too damned long, with overextended epilogues, good but longwinded set-pieces, and plentiful filler drama. NTD has its share of slower moments and includes a two-part prologue (yes, two parts), but its set-pieces are spaced well enough apart and reasonable in length that the film never bores or feels repetitive. There’s enough tense dramatic material, such as Craig’s fun confrontation with Waltz (one of the few Bond villains to last multiple films), as well as Craig’s emotional roller coaster with female lead Seydoux, that the movie has a life outside its espionage thrills.
There’s not much else to discuss about No Time to Die or Daniel Craig’s work in the leading role of one of cinema’s oldest, most prolific franchises. If you’ve taken to the modern portrayal of “James Bond turned Jason Bourne” — a rougher, minimalist, more cynical 007 — which most audiences seem to have accepted, you’ll enjoy this final installment as something of a series victory lap. The franchise, through all its many incarnations and different portrayals of Bond, has never concluded a multi-film story arc until this movie, and yet Cary Joji Fukunaga has also conceived No Time to Die as a standalone project that doesn’t require years of fanboy trivia knowledge to appreciate. Sure, it’s not a contemporary benchmark for action blockbusters a la Fury Road (2015) or Mission: Impossible Fallout (2018), but it comes close enough throughout its nearly three-hour runtime.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Filled with creative action scenes, diverse scenery, and much interpersonal character drama, No Time to Die takes itself seriously as the swan song of this generation’s version of the quintessential spy movie franchise. I still favor the jaw-dropping stuntwork of Mission: Impossible and the immaculately edited, nonstop tension of Bourne over Bond, franchise to franchise, but I must give credit where credit is due: How Cary Fukunaga wraps a five-movie arc and paces a 2-hour, 43-minute action film where I can’t bitch about its pacing is something of a miracle.
— However… minor nitpicks remain, such as Naomie Harris’ redundant character, David Dencik’s annoying performance, and the cringeworthy title song by Billie Eilish.
? Did the movie explain Malek’s motivation for “trying to take over the world” after he eliminated Spectre? Are we just supposed to hand-wave that cliché at this point?