James Bond has left active service. His peace is short-lived when Felix Leiter, an old friend from the CIA, turns up asking for help, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.
Note: some spoilers, some allusions to big spoilers. (If you’re actually looking for full on spoilers check out my article No Time To Die explained.)
Not since 1985, when Paul McCartney surprised us all in his theme song for Spies Like Us by turning the titular noun into a verb, have I been as shocked by anything espionage-related as I was at the end of No Time To Die.
This is, as even I know, Daniel Craig’s last outing as the famously white, Eton-educated, English playboy and superspy. I say that as I’ve seen lots of headlines querying whether the franchise has gone woke this time, though from where I was sitting it looked to be trolling those horrified by such a thought (that favourite Twitter accusation “WEAPONIZED” flashing on a laptop as double-crossing scientist Valdo Obruchev turns DNA into targeted nanobots; M told how thirsty he is as he heads to his office decanter once again) while still allowing Bond himself, a very old soul in a youngish body, his heart and his heartbreak.
What we do get is a constant clash between the old and the new, the past and the future, furious action and feelings: two opposing villains who hate each other, new baddie Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) and Bond’s old foe and foster brother Ernst Blofeld (a frightening Christoph Waltz); two opposing intelligence services, the CIA and MI6; and two 007s working for them, the now-retired James Bond and the woman who took over his number, Nomi (Lashana Lynch).
This dualism is everywhere. The battle plays out in Bond too, near the start of the film. The gap in his armour (playing happy couples with Madeleine Swann) leads to brittle women-blaming when Vesper Lynd’s tomb explodes just as he visits, and he’s told that Madeleine informed Spectre he’d be there. His icy rage at Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) finds them sitting in his bulletproof car, surrounded by firing thugs, while she cowers terrified. Finally activating the car’s own automatic weapons, he saves both their lives then ditches her at the train station.
Even Heracles, the codename for the bio-weapon, represents both Bond (Heracles, who had a twin brother with a different father, was a god and a hero known for his bravery, strength, intelligence and, yes, flair between the sheets), and his “clean kill” replacement. Designed to reduce collateral damage, the weapon doesn’t harm anyone else, but is later tweaked by Obruchev to attack anyone who shares the target’s DNA (Heracles once shot poisoned arrows at a centaur trying to carry his wife away, the murdered creature’s bloodied clothes then poisoning Heracles years later).
And though I said the filmmakers are trolling the anti-woke brigade, they also seem to be trolling us with allusions to Bond’s immortality. After being injured in that early Italian chase, he then emerges unscathed from just about every altercation no matter how violent, sometimes just standing there as bullets rain down, as if at the end we’re going to discover he is actually a god.
I’m no 007 expert, but Bond has a place in my heart. For Your Eyes Only was one of the handful of films my dad took us to see as children; Skyfall reignited my love of cinema when I saw it after years at home where the only eye candy available to me was Mr Bloom on CBeeBies. Unfortunately I can’t remember anything about the former film except Sheena Easton’s theme song, or the latter except Judi Dench’s M dying. I “re”watched Spectre last week in preparation for No Time To Die and every scene was a surprise, which makes me wonder if I had actually seen that one before at all. Which is a roundabout way of saying no I haven’t picked up all the Easter eggs from past Bond movies, but no you don’t need to be a Bond aficionado to enjoy No Time To Die (though it helps to know what happened in Spectre).
The plot of No Time To Die, like many spy thrillers, makes perfect sense in the cinema then slightly collapses later, like a hot soufflé hitting cooler air. Five years after ditching Madeleine, Bond is enjoying retirement in Jamaica, when Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) turns up asking for his help tracking down the supposedly kidnapped scientist Obruchev (David Dencik). Bond refuses, then when warned off by new 007 Nomi changes his mind. Travelling to Cuba, Blofeld’s glitzy Spectre party sees him paired up with cheery CIA operative Paloma (Ana de Armas, an absolute hoot). She bursts in on the action, an ass-kicking, sparkling shooting star, a perfect partner for Bond before vanishing, her work done. Then it’s back to London and M’s froideur, before Bond can get back in the saddle and bring down Blofeld and Safin.
Of course, five years on Bond still loves Madeleine, who is now also in London; and when they meet again and it turns out she has a child, Mathilde, this turns into a story of a family in peril. A chase through a misty Norwegian forest is both eerie and tense, contrasting nicely with that first pursuit through the hot and dusty Italian streets. The stakes are no longer just about saving the world. Madeleine and Mathilde, and Bond’s attachment to his number and to the team behind him — M, Q, Tanner and Moneypenny — make this a deeply personal assignment.
Despite being the “new villain”, Safin’s lone wolf status (he may have plenty of people working for him but no one seems ideologically driven) makes him rather old-fashioned. And though the real world intrudes later with governments sniffing round his lair, he is very much an old school megalomaniac, starting from personal revenge but soon wanting world domination in and of itself; as usual there’s not much thought to what he’d actually do once he’s killed vast swathes of the population. (His island, known as The Poison Garden, may be built over with gloomy grey WW2 bunkers but it reminded me of Tracy Island in Thunderbirds with its ’60s styling.)
He already has history with Madeleine, having saved her from an icy lake when she was a child, just after killing her mother in revenge for her father Mr White poisoning his family. Safin thinks it creates a link between them, the saved and the saviour, and years later he reappears in her office demanding she repay that debt. Cold if not very characterful, he doesn’t stand out as a villain (maybe he needed a cat?) and I did on occasion expect him to break into We Are The Champions.
Blofeld is as chilling as ever, despite being incarcerated at her majesty’s pleasure. Even imprisoned he’s frightening, as he’s wheeled towards Bond in a cage down a Belmarch corridor, a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Davros.
As the closing of a chapter, No Time To Die works exceptionally well. This is exciting, heartfelt and sexy filmmaking from Cary Joji Fukunaga, bringing the best of old and new, a heady yet comforting mix of nostalgia and the shock of the unexpected.
Even the running time, a pelvic floor-sobering 2 hours 40 minutes, never feels too much. It doesn’t exactly whizz by but neither does it ever feel too long. There is a smattering of jokes which I laughed at probably too hard, desperate for a break in the increasingly nerve-shredding tension. Craig’s riveting, fractured Bond may not be much of a comedian but he is resolutely human, his physical exceptionalism offset by his personal frailties.
No Time To Die is out in UK and US cinemas now.
Read my article No Time to Die explained for a recap if you missed anything in the film.
Watch the trailer: