Movie Review: No Time to Die
The 25th installment in the James Bond series, which marks the fifth and final film with Daniel Craig playing the iconic British spymaster, is far better than expected.
In No Time to Die, we finally get to know 007’s softer side. We see what he enjoys off the clock. We learn about his retirement plans. Weathered by decades of death-defying trapeze acts, dodging bullets and deactivating bombs, while saving humanity from apocalyptic destruction — in between bedding hot supermodels — has all taken a toll. Oh, the humanity. How exhausting a career it must have been.
Fittingly, in this final biographical chapter, Bond (Craig) looks considerably older than his 53 years, one of the few dashes of realism in this extended tribulation of male fantasy. He’s five years removed from her majesty’s secret service and spends his days sailing in the Caribbean and his nights hanging out in suave bars sipping martinis. However, we know it’s just a matter of time before a catastrophe in some faraway corner of the world shall inevitably tempt the superagent back into the espionage game. Bond is the only one who can save the planet, and when the duty bell rings, he faithfully answers the call.
Though the plot is nearly impossible to follow and mostly an excuse to blow up lots of stuff, the caper weaves in and out of exotic locations. Visually, it’s a delight for the senses. Since the franchise debut, 1962’s Dr. No, Bond films have always been beautifully shot and brilliantly choreographed. No Time to Die is no exception. Jamaican beaches, central London, coastal Cuba, the fjords of Norway, the rolling hills of Tuscany, and a mysterious island in the Sea of Japan mark Bond’s jump stones in the global travelogue. Along the way, we’re in the front seat during car chases, bomb blasts, and miraculous eye-rolling escapes that must have been challenging to pull off without appearing repetitive. But hey, we abandoned any expectations of reality from the moment of the ticket purchase. Yes, of course, Bond will escape and survive and thrive, but the fun is in seeing how each crisis unfolds.
Here and now, Craig delivers his very best performance yet in his five Bond films. Initially, when cast 15 years ago, I didn’t think Craig was an appealing choice for a role with such a lofty trademark. He often seemed way too emotionally detached from his subjects, particularly those who deserved a little tenderness. Craig also seemed way too humorless, a fatal flaw for a character desperately needing a balance between the kill and being cool. Think of Vladimir Putin, only without any charisma. Indeed, there was nothing at all about Craig that was the least bit Conneryesque, the original James Bond gold standard. He wasn’t even in the same class as Roger Moore, who made up for what was sorely lacking in the inevitable comparisons to Connery with a natural wit and clever charm.
Much of Craig’s dispassionate characterization of 007 may be blamed on horrifically dull screenwriting and the lifeless dialogue he’s been given. In short, Craig has never been tooled with the spoken lines to shine in the role. A victim of past success perhaps, audiences have been accustomed to wait anxiously for that zesty one-line zinger immediately after Bond has killed off a dozen bad guys. But recent scripts just plod along from special effects sequence to the next with few humorous bridges to connect people and scenes and locations. Unfortunately, despite four different screenwriters listed in the credits, No Time to Die is no better than recent script failures.
Admittedly, no moviegoer goes to a Bond film expecting Shakespearean soapboxing. We’re here for the coolness, the action, the international intrigue, and the sex. We’re also in the theatre for the delicious villains and the Bond films have given us some real gems to savor. Auric Goldfinger, Mr. Big, Rosa Klebb, Hugo Drax, and countless other evil caricatures have been accompanied by hissing white cats, jaws of metal teeth, carnivorous piranhas, pools of acid, flying decapitating Derbys, and Bambi and Thumper. Many times, the bad guys were more interesting than the good guys.
Yet again, this film disappoints with another missed opportunity to add to the glorious legacy of past Bond supervillains, though credit should go to Rami Malek for attempting to jumpstart the latest reincarnation. Inflicted with a bad skin condition just so we’ll be sure to know he’s the wicked one, Malek chews and spits out every scene he’s in. But he’s given so little to work with. Give Malek a death star or a white Persian cat. Something. Anything. Even he can’t turn water into wine. Fellow Oscar winner Christoph Waltz also makes a short appearance as “Blofield,” but his 7 minutes onscreen are completely wasted and utterly forgettable.
What distinguishes this film from the rest despite so many other shortcomings is a rare perceptive insight into Bond — the man — and the fruition of personal evolution. The misogynistic tomcat who once bedded broads in every port has gone extinct, an overdue casualty of the changing times. The 2021 Bond is monogamous, though there’s always some sexual tension in the air anytime an attractive female enters the room, which is practically in every scene. And who can resist Bond, whether barechested on a beach or shamelessly preening in a double-breasted tuxedo? Still, it’s probably a smart idea to transform the Bond persona into a reflection of the 21st century. The Mad Men days of spycraft when women were props and playthings are long gone.
Musically, this film is among the very best in the Bond genre. Hans Zimmer, the auditory zeitgeist of big-budget action-movie music and sound choreography, delivers the perfect mood-setting instrumentation and crescendo for an escape. And, Billie Eilish deserves to take her rightful place in a pantheon of memorable Bond movie title songs, following very nicely in a long line of contemporary pop artists who have been coronated for the task, including Adele, Carly Simon, Duran Duran, Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra, Paul McCartney, and 007’s grand matriarch — Shirley Bassey.
The film also has some uncomfortable relevance to current events. The release date was delayed for more than a year due to COVID. The film’s plot based upon a lethal pathogen capable of killing off most of the world’s population may have been a benign fictional threat a few years earlier. Now, it’s a stark reality. So, overseers of the Bond franchise in a rare display of wisdom correctly froze the release date until the global situation seems to have improved, or at least most viewers won’t be quite as sensitive to such fatiguing subject matter.
One notable example of the power of Bond lure is this film’s impact on the big-screen experience. No Time to Die merits the experience of a real live movie theatre, not a streaming mutant in your living room. I made a decision to see this film on the big screen. It was a conscious decision on my part to become reacquainted with an old habit. Though streaming alternatives and the threat of a pandemic have reshaped our viewing habits and taken a sledgehammer to Hollywood’s traditional business model, this was the one film that deserved a full sensory treatment. I was glad to have made that decision. It was good to hear audiences laughing out loud, gasping on cue, and enjoying themselves again after a hiatus when thousands of movie screens went dark. James Bond was the perfect film to rekindle a love affair with live movies.
Spoiler alert aside — this time around, James Bond may not have just saved the world. Given the expected desperately-needed boost to box office receipts, he may have helped to rescue the floundering movie theatre industry — at least until the next villian comes along.