Out with the old and in with the new? Well, not exactly. Acutely aware of where it has been but laying the groundwork for where it may go next, No Time to Die marks a significant fork in the road for Ian Fleming’s 007. And yet as one door closes, another opens, and it will be a relief to many a patient Bond fan that the 25th instalment of the series was well worth the 18-month wait. This much-anticipated, thrice delayed, big screen release constitutes a changing of the guard, not just as Daniel Craig’s swan song, but for the franchise as a whole.
A very fine film in its own right, it goes without saying that No Time to Die is part of a much bigger picture – the final feature of a five-film canon of the now nearly 60-year series. Positioned both within and without a familiar framework, director Cary Fukunaga doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. But even in leaning upon the battered, bruised and well-worn DNA of its forebears, their formulas and tropes, he establishes a new course. No doubt overshadowed by the furore and red carpet fanfare surrounding the end of Craig’s tenure, in so adroitly pulling together – and to a large extent resolving – tangential threads from the actor’s four former films, nodding with due reverence further back to past locations, characters and plots, and giving this project a vital, modern shot in the arm, Fukunaga should be commended. To divulge anything but high-line details of storyline is perilous but, in the strong screenplay, too, the tried and tested is given a fresh twist.
Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – whose collaborative endeavours go as far back as The World is Not Enough – are joined by Fukunaga as well as Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The latter’s influence is keenly felt in the frequent collisions of comedy and catastrophe, which the central and supporting cast deliver with great glee and gusto. As for Casino Royale to Quantum of Solace, Skyfall to Spectre, but for a jolting, icy prologue which provides key context to the Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) backstory, we are a hop and a skip from the ending of the last film. Having left London, James and Madeleine are sojourning in southern Italy when a visit to Vesper Lynd’s tomb to lay ghosts to rest brings the past back into the present in spectacular fashion.
Lifting the lid on memories and deceptions long buried, Fukunaga – along with excellent work by his editors Tom Cross and Elliot Graham – shifts through the script’s gears effortlessly thereafter. Special mention must go to the opening set piece, which culminates in a cacophony of screeching tyres, gunfire and the peal of church bells. It’s classical, pulse-racing Bond fare. The pacing of the film brakes and accelerates as necessary, but the much-maligned, or at least highlighted, runtime of 163 minutes never lags. At one and the same time grandiose and intimate, No Time to Die features Bond battling the release of a deadly global biohazard and peeling an apple for a young girl, fighting off innumerable gunmen in a misty Norwegian forest and harking back to the good old days with M (Ralph Fiennes), as they enjoy a moment in the sunshine by Hammersmith Bridge.
Are some of the quieter, mushy moments perhaps a little contrived? Maybe. But they orbit those of action and alarm to conjure a far more well-rounded, profound, consistently amusing and ultimately moving film. There are the gadgets, the trademark beretta, the sharp suits and posh frocks; the breath-taking chases, globetrotting locations and ground-trembling explosions; the booze (not just for James) and the beautiful women; a duplicitous scientist, more than one dastardly villain and a mysterious island lair. All the ingredients are there, but they’re turned upside down as Fukunaga stirs the pot. There’s sincere regret, heartache and loss, complicated family dynamics and a depth of emotion – and indeed outward, unexpected displays of emotion between men – only occasionally touched upon in previous outings.
A momentary glimpse at Q’s (Ben Whishaw) life outside the 9 to 5 is wonderful; Ana de Armas is terrific in a high-octane Havana vignette where she more than matches James as a fledgling CIA operative. As does Lashana Lynch who stars as Nomi, Bond’s replacement as 007 after his (temporary) retirement, with an assurance of performance and physicality that places her on a steadier footing than the frequently wobbly, aging agent. No Time to Die breaks the ice, takes one or two long overdue strides towards shattering the glass ceiling, but Lynch’s character could have been developed further, and Naomi Harris is all but side-lined as Moneypenny, which is one of the film’s few failings. Rami Malek’s Safin isn’t given the screentime necessary and is a little too placid to really get under the skin, and Blofeld (Christophe Waltz) is wheeled out for a momentary trip down memory lane, but his appearance, too, is all too fleeting. Le Chiffre has never been bettered.
However, these are relatively minor gripes. There’s more than a fancy watch and a number of surprises up the well-crafted sleeve of No Time to Die, which wears its heart there, too. It will keep you guessing, thoroughly entertained and engaged for the best part of three hours. Cary Fukunaga seized upon what could have been a soured, if not poisoned, chalice – after the bloated disappointment of 2015’s Spectre – with both hands and made it his own, giving Daniel Craig the fitting tribute to his 15-year commitment to the role. No longer looking over its shoulder, the Bond franchise has its eyes firmly set on the road ahead.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63