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No Time To Die Is A Thoughtful, Satisfying Final Mission For Craig’s Bond (Review)

There will be no spoilers in this review and I will talk about the plot as little as possible.

Craig. Daniel Craig (it’s easy but appropriate, deal with it). He’s been Bond for fifteen years, which is a long tenure as any character, much less one as iconic as James Bond. His films are known for keeping things more grounded and gritty than their predecessors, much akin to what Nolan & Bale did for Batman. Casino Royale (or as one could call it: Bond Begins) gave us the Bond origin story, so it’s only fitting that No Time To Die gives us the closing chapter. Indeed, it does function as the proverbial Dark Knight Rises of this iteration of 007.

What’s even more fitting is that Craig may have turned in his best performance as the iconic MI6 agent this time out. He’s brooding, witty, badass, and vulnerable in all the right ways at the right times. Playing the double-0 with a license to kill comes easy to him at this point. It’s a testament to his skill as an actor that he makes you forget the wackier performances he’s given recently in films like Logan Lucky and Knives Out, both of which see him concoct outlandish southern accents. He’s truly a delight to watch in both of those, and I believe the creative freedom he’s had in movies outside this franchise has been good for him.

His performance in 2015’s Spectre seemed a bit sleepy, as if the actor had grown exhausted or perhaps even bored by the role. It simply lacked the passion and drive of his previous efforts and was made all the worse by an (overblown) implication on the press tour that he was sick of playing the character. He still looked great during the action beats and hit a few funny lines out of the park, but overall it felt very workmanlike, as if the joy had been drained away or he was taking everything too seriously.

That being said, he’s certainly firing on all cylinders here, oozing a natural charisma and laid back confidence befitting one of the most beloved characters of all time. Every note of his performance feels perfect and he’s endlessly watchable, to the point where I personally just didn’t want the movie to end. And it’s a long movie, clocking in at 2 hours, 43 minutes. That being said, I felt the film flew by. Sometimes we say that, that movies like Avengers: Endgame (3 hrs) don’t feel as long as they are. Yet it feels truly accurate here. Not even will agree with me on this obviously, but I was locked into every second. When I realized we were gearing up for the third act, I could hardly believe we were so far into the movie. The pacing is brilliant, never wasting any time. The forward momentum of the story is felt in every scene, and there plenty of entertaining characters to engage with.

This film picks up not long after Spectre, with Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) traveling the world together following Bond’s retirement. The opening sequence sets the stage for a dramatic dynamic between James and Madeleine. It’s amazing how much I cared about these two as a couple, despite not being overly impressed with them as love interests in Spectre. Last time I couldn’t help but think about how their chemistry paled in comparison to what Craig and Eva Green (as Vesper) had in Casino Royale. This time they feel more in love, like two people who want to go and live the rest of their lives together away from everyone in their past. This is crucial as it informs most of what Bond does in the movie. Their chemistry is palpable this time out.

As one would hope, there is plenty of action. We are once again treated to a dazzling sequence of events before the opening titles begin; featuring some key shots from the trailer, all of which play even better in the context of the film. Like Casino Royale, the opening may not quite be what you expect, but it works beautifully for the story this film wants to tell. From the jump I was fully invested, and my interest never waned throughout the runtime. There’s plenty of plot threads picked up from Spectre and it really is exciting to report that I enjoyed them so much. As you may have noticed, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Spectre when I first saw it (it plays a lot better on subsequent viewings, especially back-to-back with the previous films, but I still believe it’s the weakest Craig Bond flick, about even with Quantum of Solace for different reasons).

Why it works so well for me is, despite playing like a direct sequel to Spectre, this film has a much different tone. There’s more humor (or at least it lands much more often), the stakes are much higher, and the situations across the board are more interesting. Even Christoph Waltz as Blofeld works better here. He doesn’t have a ton of screentime, but it’s effective. His presence is felt in the beginning due to writing that makes him relevant in a natural way. In Spectre, some elements felt forced. Even the late in the game reveal that Waltz was Blofeld was neither surprising, nor particularly well done (it just slowed down the film’s momentum and led to an “okay” but forgettable climax). Here the dialogue is smoother and the story clicks along at a great pace. That’s a nice achievement when handling so many characters, big time set pieces, and plenty of interpersonal human drama. This all goes to show how efficient and well executed the screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Fukunaga, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is.

The cinematography by Linus Sandgren (who won an Oscar for La La Land) is first rate, sporting a slickness that captures the shootouts and chase sequences perfectly. I’m a big fan of Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective season 1, Maniac), and I’m happy to report that he does an outstanding job directing this movie. The action is always easy to follow, and there’s an energy throughout the movie that keeps the longer runtime from being a burden (it’s the longest Bond movie to date). The camera seems to know exactly where to go, and nothing ever feels as though it is done just to show off, each movement by the camera and characters alike feels purposeful. The action is genuinely exciting as a result and the high stakes loom large, especially in the third act.

You truly get the sense that everyone in front of and behind the camera is giving everything they have to the project. This is ever present in the chemistry between the cast, who all deliver solidly. I cherished seeing Jeffrey Wright back as Felix, as he and Craig truly feel like old friends and co-workers (who happen to help each other save the world). Their friendship is infectious and that adds weight their interactions. Ana De Armas as Paloma is a total scene stealer. Every second she is on screen is delightful, and the only problem is that she’s in the film so little. It really is a shame that she wasn’t introduced in a prior film so she would warrant more screentime, as she’s sure to be a fan favorite and clearly loves every second of making this movie. Lashana Lynch as Nomi kicks a ton of ass while holding her own in a few verbal sparring matches (a spin-off of De Armas and Lynch’s characters would be exciting and I believe, hugely successful…just saying).

As for the other returning stars, Naomie Harris is once again solid as Moneypenny, however; much like her role in Venom 2, she feels like she doesn’t get a ton to do (but again there’s only so much screentime to go around). Ralph Fiennes really brings it as M/Mallory. He and Bond share a couple tense scenes, as Mallory is now more grizzled and bitter than he once was. As expected, Ben Whishaw as Q provides several solid comedic moments, while feeling essential to the plot whenever he is on screen. Of course, we can’t talk about a Bond movie without discussing the big bad, who this time is a character named Safin portrayed by Academy Award Winner Rami Maleck. Is he destined to become an all time favorite Bond villain? I don’t think so. He gets a few standout moments, and his backstory/evil plan are actually really interesting to me. That being said, he’s really only here to provide a problem worthy of Craig’s last mission as Bond.

Maleck is a good foil, giving Craig a lot to work off of. His villain is one who cockily taunts our hero, giving evil glances and creepy smiles to everyone he encounters. Yet Maleck’s job is the somewhat thankless one of being good enough to serve this finale without stealing the spotlight (where actors like Madds Mickelson and Javier Bardem were allowed to go for broke). To that end, he’s a success. Bond villains are always a source of debate among fans, and he will be no exception.

Fukunaga and his team make many interesting choices. Some of them are big and unique for the franchise, some of them are (knowingly) predictable. The film knows what we expect from a Bond film, and uses that knowledge to zig and zag while checking many of the boxes. It doesn’t feel the need to be like any one type of Bond film, instead striking a tone that mixes several classic elements with new pieces. The new additions are intriguing without feeling foreign or out of place. This is the first time we’re seeing an outright conclusion to Bond’s story, but it is still very much a Bond film. Hans Zimmer’s score is hefty without going too over the top. There’s melodrama present throughout, but I ate it up because it’s done so well. It can be dark without being overly bleak, romantic without being cheesy, action packed without losing sight of the human drama. It can be bold in ways that may go unnoticed, and I appreciate that a great deal.

Conclusion:

Daniel Craig’s James Bond has felt cold and distant at times. Yet we also see him show kindness, empathy, and regret. We’ve definitely seen him grow more comfortable with taking someone’s life (since literally his first scene), but we also see him make sincere friendships with the recurring characters. There’s a darkness to Craig’s take that doesn’t always adhere to the traditional escapist fare of previous Bond movies, and this feels like the appropriate finale for him, specifically because his Bond wasn’t always dark and brooding, the same way Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne could be funny and charming. This movie is surprisingly fun to watch due to this mixture, and it’s not as self-serious as The Dark Knight Rises (which also featured a very specific iteration of an iconic hero who comes out of retirement to face massive odds in his last film). No Time To Die makes previous entries, specifically Casino Royale and Spectre, better by building on the threads from those films. The best sequels enhance their predecessors, and this one most certainly does that.

Craig’s Bond is one of nuance thanks to the emotion he’s been allowed to show, and this is the most I’ve liked the character as a person since Casino Royale because he feels so human this time out. No Time To Die may not be the best Bond ever, but it’s always engaging and far from forgettable. More importantly it strives to give Bond a thoughtful conclusion. It’s definitely not perfect and I expect several key decisions from the writers to be divisive. That being said, most of it works for me and I strongly feel it’s a worthy final mission for a fantastic take on a legendary character. Hard to expect anything more.

Score: A-

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