Nothing can truly kill James Bond, but the COVID-19 pandemic certainly tried, delaying the release of No Time to Die—the MI6 agent’s 25th official feature-film outing—by a year and a half. In an unexpected twist, Bond’s latest boasts a trace of timely resonance, courtesy of a story that hinges on a nefarious plot to infect the world with a lethal contagion. What’s most surprising about Daniel Craig’s fifth and final go-round as 007, however, is its general lack of urgency or excitement. A workmanlike swan song that never approaches the highs of Casino Royale or Skyfall, it sends the star out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga with all the enthusiasm of an adolescent eating a plateful of Brussels sprouts, No Time to Die (in theaters Oct. 8) is primarily notable for failing to stage a single rousing set piece. Bond swings from a cord off a bridge, engages in some car chases, pilots a glider that transforms into a submarine, and shoots a lot of anonymous henchmen, none of which registers as the least bit remarkable. The fact that the film’s climax involves Bond gunning down disposable adversaries in a chemical plant in sub-John Wick fashion says a lot about this installment’s level of creativity. Whereas Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and Sam Mendes (Skyfall) found ways to provide Craig with memorably extravagant and pulse-pounding showstoppers, Fukunaga and his three co-screenwriters fall back on generic action and drama at every available opportunity.
Though it plays a familiar globetrotting game (sending Bond to locales as varied as Italy, Jamaica, Cuba, and London) and has been shot with IMAX in mind, No Time to Die is devoid of imposing scale or import. Having felled half-brother Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and retired to a quiet life with psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), Bond finds that letting go of the past is tough—particularly when he’s nearly blown up while trying to say farewell to former flame Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) at her tomb. Bond comes to believe that Madeleine is behind this unsuccessful assassination and promptly dumps her.
Five years later, he’s brought back into the spy-business fold by CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who wants him to retrieve scientist Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik), who’s been kidnapped by Spectre baddies interested in wielding the deadly DNA-targeting bioweapon that Obruchev secretly developed for M (Ralph Fiennes) and MI6. Bond thus gains a new mission that puts him at odds with his former employers—who’ve handed over his 007 designation to a new agent (Lashana Lynch)—as well as the shadowy Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who shares a special connection with Madeleine and a mysterious animosity toward Bond’s enemies.
That’s a lot of story, and at 163 minutes, No Time to Die takes its time with all of it, moving at a deliberate pace that never allows momentum to completely flag. Alas, there’s scant muscularity or sensuality to its centerpieces, save for the fleeting 15 minutes in which Bond teams up in Havana with Paloma (Ana de Armas), a newbie spy who delivers a dose of sexual electricity through sheer charm as well as a few lethal kicks performed in a low-cut dress and high heels. Armas gives the proceedings the potent erotic jolt that’s otherwise conspicuously MIA, as most of the energy expended on Bond and Madeleine’s deep, abiding love goes for naught. Craig and Seydoux make a fetching pair, but there’s no spark to their characters’ relationship, which here is complicated by the emergence of the kabuki mask-favoring Safin.
As the material’s chief villain, who often lurks in the background but still gets to do more than Christoph Waltz’s consigned-to-a-cameo Blofeld, Malek speaks very slowly, and with perpetual wannabe-momentous pauses, and his creepy-calm schtick veers perilously close to parody. While Safin claims to be a pioneering sort of killer in comparison to Bond’s conservative old-schooler—largely because his high-tech bio-methods are more precise—he comes across as a mundane maniac driven by vengeance and insanity. No Time to Die’s mix of family tragedies, talk about the past and DNA, and attempted goodbyes is similarly pedestrian. More frustrating than its dearth of imagination, though, is its inability to make this adventure resound as vitally important. The fate of the world, and Bond’s present and future, hangs in the balance, and somehow it rarely feels that way as the film proceeds along its safe and tame path.
Having publicly suggested for years that he was sick and tired of his iconic role, Craig puts his all into No Time to Die, charismatically conveying Bond’s wounded heart and longing for normalcy. Yet as before, the issue is: who really wants a dour, brooding, earnest Bond? After so many frivolous sagas, Craig’s brusque, battering-ram Casino Royale turn was a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, subsequent sequels have increasingly taken Bond, and the grand intertwined conspiracy ensnaring him, far too seriously. Even if the franchise’s Connery-era misogyny should remain in the rearview mirror, the playfulness and humor of those early efforts are sorely missed, especially given that they’ve been replaced by self-serious (and overly sentimental) mythologizing that strains to make Bond’s familial and romantic relations engrossing.
A thug with a bionic eye, and eventual revelations about nanobots, aren’t enough to make No Time to Die as over-the-top as it should be, and Fukunaga and company squander Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, do nothing with Lynch as Bond’s quasi-successor, and waste Wright as Felix, this despite the fact that he’s one of the few individuals involved who appears to be having fun. Worse, the director favors dull, shadowy cinder-block hues that exacerbate the grim-dark tone and are in keeping with a plodding narrative that wrongly assumes that Spectre featured a tale worth continuing. The overriding impression left by Craig’s run as 007 is that serialized storytelling doesn’t suit the superspy, since it demands the very sort of character development—and mature, three-dimensional emotions and psychology—that are anathema to Bond. That said, with the actor now giving up his license to kill and an inevitable reinvention on the horizon, there remains hope that what’s old may yet be new again.