Among the many movie franchises that have strung about through cinematic history, the James Bond series has always stood out for its self-contained identity. For decades, each film had been a stand alone feature, with the only throughline being James Bond and his pit crew at MI6. Even when James got married in 1969, Tracy Bond was immediately killed off and barely ever mentioned again. Because of this, Daniel Craig’s stint as Bond has been radical, with his films sporadically attempting to create an overarching story for the secret agent. “Quantum of Solace” ended up being an awkward tale of avenging Vesper Lynd’s death in “Casino Royale,” and 2015’s “Spectre” was a ham-fisted attempt to link all of Bond’s villains to a single over-hyped and underwhelming antagonist, Christoph Waltz’s cringe-inducing Blofeld. I’m not saying a Bond series with a greater story couldn’t work. I’m saying it didn’t, and when one entry in a series is piddling or weak, the next one is forced to take on the debts of its predecessor and pay them off with a smile. So here we have “No Time to Die” (NTTD), the sequel to the dead tooth of the Bond series that was “Spectre.” “NTTD” is saddled with resolving the tissue paper menace that was Blofeld and his organization, convincing us that Bond and Madeleine Swann are part of a whirlwind romance rather than an empty breeze of acquaintanceship, and on top of all of that conclude Craig’s tenure as the super spy in worthy fashion. It’s an unenviable heap of tasks, but “NTTD” performs admirably, delivering some of the best Bond moments of any entry in recent memory. But while it succeeds in many areas, it falls short in equal measure, resulting in “NTTD” being the first truly middling film of the Craig Era.
When we last left Bond, he had given up his life of espionage to elope with his newest true love, the endlessly bland Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). As it turns out, their romance is short lived, as at the start of “NTTD,” an attempt on Bond’s life throws his trust in Madeleine into question, pushing him to callously abandon her. Years later, after a Russian scientist and his devastating DNA-detecting nanobots are stolen by the mysterious Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), Bond is coerced back into the game to save the world one last time. On his last adventure, Bond butts heads with the new cocky 007 played by Lashanna Lynch, and finds himself at the center of a web of deceit surrounding Madeleine, MI6 and his fellow agents, in which the fates of millions hang in the balance. It’s a monumental plot that feels cut from classic Bond camp, but is rather unorthodox for Craig’s Bond, whose villain schemes have always been more grounded. Even the illuminati-esque Spectre only wanted to use CCTV to spy on people. “NTTD” has cell-killing Nanobots, a secret villain base on an island and an apocalyptic endgame, things which in recent years have felt more Mission Impossible’s game than Bond’s. However, the series has picked these elements back up for its climax. While the effect isn’t always perfect (the nanobot threat is ridiculous past the point of being fun), they do make for a bombastic final act. Where “NTTD” excels is in being a proper spy flick as, for the first half of the movie, Bond is left mystified about who to trust, with constant revelations, double crosses and twists leaving the audience’s head spinning in the most exhilarating way.
While the story doesn’t always hit its mark, the performances have more success. Rather than slumming it for one last check, Daniel Craig delivers his most evocative portrayal of Bond, running the gambit of emotions from rage to regret, and with his charm turned up to eleven and the knob twisted off. Remarkable too is Lea Seydoux’s reinvention of the character of Madeleine, transforming from the styrofoam peanut of charisma she was in Spectre, into an earnest, determined and passionate proper Bond girl, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Vesper. “NTTD” made me fully buy into her romance with Bond, which is impressive given how the portrayal of their relationship in the previous film was so lacklustre as to place them a mile behind the starting line with a bullet in their kneecap. Less impressive is Christoph Waltz’s return as Blofeld, whose brief appearance was just as clubfooted as ever, doing nothing to redeem his utter failure as a villain. But for all of Blofeld’s clownish smirking, he has nothing on the embarrassment that is Malek’s Safin. Malek speaks his lines in an airy, day-dreamy fashion that gives off an impression of perpetual confusion, fitting for a villain whose place in the film is so muddled. Safin’s motive seems to switch every scene he features in, of which there are precious few, with him starting off wanting revenge on Spectre and Blofeld, to being in love with Madeleine, to wanting to eradicate half of humanity for megalomaniacle reasons I doubt even he understands. I suppose with a name as sledgehammer-subtle as Lyutsifer Safin, he’s not exactly going to start selling ice cream. Even so, Safin’s desires are so confounding, that as Bond’s final adversary, he comes off as woefully unsatisfying and nigh bi-polar. Bi-polar is how I would categorize this whole film, in fact.
Half the time “NTTD” is an outstanding blockbuster, with stand out performances, nail-biting set-pieces, gritty action and smarmy Bond oozing out of the film reel. The other half of the time, the scenes are goofy, the villains underwhelming and the story beyond understanding. It’s like a world renowned dancer giving a performance with a tack in one shoe, every other step is a stumble that drags the whole affair down. “NTTD” still puts “Spectre” and “Quantum of Solace” to shame by actually having salvageable aspects, but it is painfully good, enjoyable until you remember this is the last hurrah of Craig’s decade-long role as our Bond. Sometimes it’s satisfying and sometimes it’s infuriating. “NTTD” was going to be a bittersweet ending to the Craig era no matter what. I only wish the sweet could drown out the bitter.