NO TIME TO DIE (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2021) - A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW

Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Rami Malek, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Lashana Lynch, Jeffrey Wright, Ana De Armas, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear, Billy Magnussen, David Dencik, Dali Benssalah, Lisa-Dorah Sonnet. 163 minutes.

The previous James Bond film SPECTRE (2015) ended on an upbeat note that would have made a fitting end to Daniel Craig's arc as the character. However, fans of course wanted more, in part because, despite the film's great commercial success and strong reviews, it came to be regarded as a lesser entry in the franchise. After a long break, and discussions with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, Craig became excited at the possibilities of ending the arc of his Bond in an epic and emotionally satisfying way. A script was developed with Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, but when TRAINSPOTTING director Danny Boyle came on board as director, he preferred to craft his own story with regular scribe John Hodge. Unfortunately, after developing a new script together, creative disagreements between them and the producers led to the pair exiting the project. The Bond team returned to the original Purvis and Wade script, and BEASTS OF NO NATION director Cary Joji Fukunaga, a huge fan of the franchise, became the new director.

Boyle's departure necessitated a delay to the film's projected release, and then of course as Fukunaga's film was ready to open, the Covid pandemic led to more delays that totalled a whopping eighteen months. Well, here it is finally - Daniel Craig's last ever Bond film; the twenty-fifth official entry in the franchise. 

NO TIME TO DIE manages to not only be a satisfying sequel to SPECTRE, but also a satisfying wrap up to the saga and emotional journey that has been CASINO ROYALE (2006), QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), SKYFALL (2012) and SPECTRE. It partly continues the more traditional, humorous, 'Bondian' approach of much of SPECTRE. It even surprisingly homages the grandiose Ken Adam sets of the more epic 007 adventures, and has a more bombastic, fantastical villain (in Rami Malek's Safin) whose nefarious plans rival the world-threatening ones of characters like the 60s Blofeld or Goldfinger.

The film is also the most emotional and moving film in the series since 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE. Daniel Craig gives his best performance as 007 here – rounded, highly nuanced, emotionally present, and very alive. This is arguably as much Lea Seydoux's Madeleine's story as it is Bond's, if not more so. Her role is much more expanded and developed here than in SPECTRE, and the way her story and her relationship with Bond is handled has the effect of turning SPECTRE into a retrospectively stronger film. As good as Seydoux was in that film, she's given the opportunity to truly show her incredible range and emotionality as an actress here.

The film boasts a litany of interesting supporting characters, with the more important ones coming off as real human beings with their own journeys. The other female characters are as witty, well-developed and strong as the male characters, and have agency. Lashana Lynch's Nomi is a fun character, a 00 agent who has taken the 007 code number whilst Bond has been in retirement in Jamaica. She has a rivalry with Bond, and a disdain for his methods, and whilst she lacks Bond's experience in the field, she is more than capable of holding her own. Lynch and Craig's scenes together have a crackling quality to them. Ana De Armas is a complete joy as Paloma, a CIA contact in Cuba who makes up for in smarts, instinct and fighting prowess what she lacks in field experience. Armas brings exuberance, sex appeal and elegance to the picture that is a huge asset.

Ralph Fiennes finally has a chance to put his own stamp on the role of 'M', and steps out of Judi Dench's shadow. He gives a formidable performance. Although Naomie Harris's Moneypenny doesn't have much chance to shine unfortunately, Ben Whishaw is given chance to do so, and his 'Q' is as delightful as ever. Rory Kinnear returns as Tanner, the Chief of Staff, and he has a more brittle relationship with Bond in this movie.

Jeffey Wright returns as Felix Leiter for the first time since 2008's QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Felix and Bond must have spent a lot of time 'bonding' offscreen since that movie, as they appear very close in NO TIME TO DIE. Craig and Wright have great chemistry together, and the result of Wright's increased screen time in this picture is that it finally proves he is the definitive  Leiter. He inhabits Leiter with soul, dignity, good humor and great charisma. Billy Magnussen brings a lot of energy and personality to his minor role as Leiter's State Department cohort Logan Ash.

Rami Malek may not have a lot of screen time as the film's villain, but his Safin is an unforgettable creation: multi-faceted, pitiful, truly creepy, and irredeemably evil. He has a particular scene with Craig that is wonderfully written, acted and shot, and is one of the most outstanding outstanding verbal confrontations between Bond and a villain in the series. The scene is a battle of philosophies, and whilst Safin is truly twisted, he does have  a viewpoint that isn't entirely without value. Cristoph Waltz brings more menace and intensity to his scenes as Blofeld than he did in SPECTRE, and he also has an impressive scene opposite Craig.

The minor villains have their own unique flavor and leave their mark. David Dencik's Russian scientist Valdo Obruchev is both corrupt in his loyalties and in his morality. He's a funny character for his eccentricities but he is as evil as Safin in his own way. Dali Benssalah's one-eyed henchman Primo, who Bond christens 'Cyclops', doesn't have a lot of screen time, but he has a lot of presence, and is a fun and memorable addition to the more fantastical rogues gallery of Bond henchmen.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga brings an inordinate amount to this movie. Whereas a Bond film like 2002's DIE ANOTHER DAY faltered in its balancing of tones, and its ambition to be more than one kind of Bond picture, NO TIME TO DIE is much, much more successful. Fukunaga has delivered an exciting, beautiful-looking action rollercoaster ride. The action is cleanly performed and edited, and the use of CGI is mostly well done and not over-used. He brings in more gadgets than ever before seen in a Craig picture, but he uses them in a smart and fun way. In one particular sequence, their use delivers an euphoric, fan-pleasing moment that also serves the purpose of relieving the tension of an incredibly tense and exciting scene.

Whereas the nods to previous films in DIE ANOTHER DAY often felt forced and distracting, the nods in NO TIME TO DIE are subtler and sometimes add poignancy to Craig's Bond's emotional journey that began with CASINO ROYALE. The score has nods to previous Bond composers John Barry, David Arnold and Thomas Newman. There's also quite a bit of a Fleming in the picture, most interestingly from the You Only Live Twice novel.

Fukunaga gets great work from his whole cast, bringing out nuances and strengths in the likes of Craig, Seydoux and Fiennes that we didn't see in their earlier Bond films. With LA LA LAND DP Linus Sandgren's saturated, vivid cinematography, the film extracts the organic beauty and unique textures of the movie's various environments (Matera in Italy, London, Jamaica, Cuba, Norway, the Faroe Islands).

NO TIME TO DIE really does go to some dark places, but there is also time for moments of good humor, Bondian style and a sense of jauntiness, best exhibited in the Cuban section of the movie involving Ana De Armas's Paloma. Fukunaga also brings to the forefront moods and feelings that have been there only momentarily in previous Bond films. From the outset, there's dread, melancholy, horror and trauma, elevated by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazarro's emotionally varied, often beautiful and haunting score, and Billie Eilish's superb title song and the Daniel Kleinman visuals that accompany the main titles. There's real depth to the film as well. For example, there is a real empathy in the film for what the trauma of violence, and being orphaned, can do to children. It can make them into adults like Bond and Madeleine, who have closed themselves up emotionally, and cannot trust others or have healthy, loving relationships. It can also create truly twisted people.

At 163 minutes, the film is the longest of the franchise but it moves well, and even has time to breathe. There's a brief lull in the middle of the film, but after that, we are off to the races. The script, which is credited to Purvis and Wade, Fukunaga and Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is witty, human and articulate, and if the film has a major flaw it's that sometimes the intentions of characters are not perhaps clear enough. Safin is a fascinating, enigmatic character, but it's not easy to completely understand his endgame.

Fukunaga has pulled off an incredible feat. He's made a bona fide James Bond film. He's also made a film that reflects his own voice and style, and balances darker, serious elements with jauntier, more fantastical elements. It references the legacy of the series, updates and improves quite a few elements (particularly the female roles), and is a film that closes out Craig's Bond arc in a bold, moving, beautiful and exciting way. NO TIME TO DIE is no less than a triumph. 

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2021. All rights reserved.

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