To say that No Time to Die is a divisive movie is the understatement of the century. After having been delayed for more than a year and a half due to the pandemic, the movie has finally arrived in Theaters with fairly good box office numbers, but highly divisive reviews. That the movie delivers in spectacle and excellent production values goes without saying, but it is the story that takes a knocking this time around, especially in the third and final act of the movie. It’s not that is a bad script, far from it, but certain elements of it, and characters especially, are woefully underdeveloped. Let’s delve into the nitty-gritty, and find out what it is that makes this such a head-scratching experience.
An up and down road
The Daniel Craig era has been somewhat frustrating due to the artistic inconsistency of its different entries over the years. After starting off with a bang with Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), delivering what is possibly one of the very best Bond movies ever made, it took a drastic nose-dive with the next entry, Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008), which, despite a promising premise, ended up being nothing more than a haphazardly scripted and edited mess which almost took away all the good will the saga had built when Craig took over the role. Then a few years later in 2012, Sam Mendes came along with Skyfall. Slotted to be released in the 50th Anniversary of the first appearance of the iconic character on the big screen in Dr No (Terence Young, 1962), the movie delivered and even surpassed expectations of what the saga could bring to the table with Craig playing the role. Just as Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002), had done before, the movie paid several homages to the series and gave us one of the best Bond villains to date, Raoul Silva, a disgruntled former MI-6 operative hell-bent on taking revenge on the head of MI-6, M. The movie had a few surprises up its sleeve, even delving into James Bond background, especially his childhood. It was also the highest grossing movie in the series, even though it could be argued that after taking inflation into consideration, Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965), still holds the first position. The movie was a remarkable box office and critical success which only increased expectations for the next movie in the saga, Spectre (2015), also with Sam Mendes returning to direct. Unfortunately, the movie failed to live up to expectations, even though it’s not as bad as some people make it out to be. What this up and down situation did was to create the expectation among the fandom that the next, and possibly last entry with Daniel Craig in the role would be a masterpiece. Does it reach those heights?. Unfortunately not, but it’s not all that bad. Let’s get to it.
The positives and negatives
The movie is really well made, the Cinematography is excellent and the production values are up to their usual high standards. The movie starts off by giving us, only for the second time in Craig’s era, a gunbarrel before the pre-credit sequence ( although nicely integrated as part of Casino Royale’s main title sequence, that one doesn’t really count). This has been a point of contention and moaning for me since Craig took over. Why the producers were so determined to do away with such an integral and iconic feature of the series, I will never know, although it could be argued that having the Universal logo fade into the gunbarrel, and having no blood dribbling down over the screen is a weird move, to say the least. On top of that, it must be said that Craig has the distinction of being the only actor in the series unable to perform a satisfying gunbarrel. Nitpicking aside, this pre-credit sequence has also the distinction, unless memory fails me, of being the longest pre-credit sequence in the history of the franchise. So long in fact that, by the time the main titles and Billie Eilish’s haunting vocals roll around, we’ve already forgotten that we haven’t had a title sequence. Having a flashback from Madeleine being part of the pre-credit sequence is jarring, but at the same time eerily unsettling and with horror vibes all over it. It does fit the overall tone of the story, and sets up a villain-victim dynamic that is sadly never satisfactorily paid off due to the lack of screen time of actor Rami Malek in the role of villainous Safin. More on that later.
What follows is a continuation of the story thread presented at the end of Spectre, with Bond and Madeleine driving off into the sunset, and trying to leave their respective past lives behind. The setting, the beautiful mountain town of Matera, Italy, where after a visit from Bond to Vesper Lynd’s tomb, the protagonists soon find out that the past is never too far behind. After a murder attempt by Spectre by setting off a bomb at Vesper’s burial site, almost killing Bond in the process (foreshadowing things to come), we’re treated to the one of the best action set pieces in the movie, with Bond and Madeleine being chased through the cobbled and narrow streets in Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. Bond is also made to believe that it was Madeleine who betrayed him to SPECTRE, and having previously experienced the same with Vesper, he falls for it. Bond dispatches SPECTRE’s goons, after which he puts Madeleine on a train with the promise that they’ll never see each other again. This decision will have more dire consequences than he can imagine. After this long, plot laden pre-credit sequence, Daniel Kleinman outdoes himself with a main title sequence that pays homage to the great late legendary main title designer Maurice Binder with references to both Dr No ( those colourful dots at the very beginning are unmistakable), and to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (those clocks also being a clear reference). The main title song sung by Billie Eilish is a perfect match to Kleinman’s hypnotic images, and what follows is a sleek sequence in which SPECTRE operatives break into an MI6 Bio lab and steal a DNA-targeting virus and the only man capable of operating it, Valdo Obruchev, who happens to be working for the main villain of the piece, Luitsyfer Safin, who has a grudge against SPECTRE, and a larger plan in mind for the virus. This is a very cool moment of the movie, as it is something we’ve never really had before in a Daniel Craig Bond movie, which is to witness the villains putting into motion a scheme that will trigger Bond getting back into action, and being assigned a mission in classic Bond style. It doesn’t quite happen that way, as Bond’s circumstances at the beginning after the main credits have rolled, are quite different, with the 00 agent having being retired from the service for five years already at this point, but it’s the closest to the Classic era Bond movies that a Craig movie has got since Casino Royale, in which 007 is actually sort of assigned the mission by M of cleaning off Le Chifre at the poker table so the banker won’t have any other choice but to turn to MI6 for protection in exchange for information. This moment in the movie is for me what brings about the best portion of the film; Bond living the high life in Jamaica, being approached by Felix Leiter (who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time) to find and deliver Obruchev to the CIA, Bond and Nomi’s, the new female 007 first encounter (something over which a lot was made on the Internet during the Production, and that didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would), in which the latter warns Bond to “stay on his lane”, and Bond’s sojourn into Cuba to apprehend Obruchev with the help of a female Cuban agent named Paloma, fantastically played by an absolutely charming and quirky Ana de Armas. This, I’d say, is the portion of the film that feels the most like a James Bond movie. The globe-trotting, exotic locations, sleek action set pieces and the Bond quips, that feel kinda out of place coming from Craig given what’s come before. Still, it’s a lot of fun, only marred by the woefully mishandled death of Felix Leiter, in what seems like nothing more than a rushed attempt to tie loose ends, and give a sense of finality to Craig’s tenure (again, more foreshadowing). After frustrating Nomi’s own attempt to abduct Obruchev, Bond and Leiter are betrayed by Logan Ash, a CIA operative in disguise who’s also under the employment of Safin, and who’s part of Leiter’s operation. After successfully grabbing Obruchev and meeting up with Leiter in a pre-arranged point in the high seas, Ash shoots Leiter, overpowers Bond, whisks Obruchev away, sinking the ship they’re all on, before flying away with his valuable asset. That Felix Leiter, of all people, would die of a bullet wound to the stomach, without putting too much of a fight is lame at best, even though the scene is emotionally charged and brilliantly acted by both actors. In that brief exchange, we get a sense of friendship, respect and brotherhood between the two secret agents, that was sadly never fully exploited during Craig’s tenure. Again, nothing to fault with the acting or the scene itself, but Leiter deserved a better ending.
Once Bond decides to go back to London and demand an explanation from his former boss M ( dutifully played once again by Ralp Fiennes), as to why he never shut down the program that created the DNA-tageting virus code named Heracles ( a fact Bond learns about after being approached by both Leiter and Nomi and having a phone conversation with M), things go back to a more Craig era-like setting when the former 00 learns that Madeleine has set up practice in London, and is the only one who has access to Bloefeld in Belmarsh, where Bloefeld has being held prisoner since the end of Spectre. Up until this point, I haven’t mentioned anything about the main villain of the piece. The enigmatic figure of Safin is kept in the shadows during most of the first two acts of the movie, making a brief appearance at the beginning of the pre-credit sequence as the masked man who came to Madeleine’s Norwegian hideout when she was still a child to take revenge on the family of the man (Mr White), who ordered his family killed. The stealing of Heracles, the abduction of Obruchev and the CIA’s attempt to rescue him is nothing but a foil to lure SPECTRE out and kill most of their hierarchy. After succesfully doing so, there’s nothing left to do for Safin but to try to get to an imprisoned Bloefeld using the only card up his sleeve, Madeleine. This offers the first of only a handful of scenes in which Malek gets to stretch his acting muscles, and through a weirdly monotone and creepy delivery, pushes Madeleine to kill Bloefeld by spreading an atomised version of Heracles on her wrist which, when it comes in contact with Bloefeld’s skin, will kill him instantly, threatening her to kill Bond if she doesn’t comply. Thus, we get the obligatory scene with Christoph Waltz’s Bloefeld which, admiration for this actor’s acting abilities aside, I was never very fond of. His presence on this occasion is thankfully brief, but presents his character with the most non-relevant, ignominious death this character has ever suffered throughout the series. Again, tying up loose ends badly. In the meantime, Rami Malek’s Safin has become nothing more than a McGuffin, an excuse to drive the plot along. We’ve barely had two brief scenes with him, and he’s supposed to be the main baddy. Feeling guilty and unable to go through with Safin’s demands, Madeleine runs away, not before touching Bond’s hand and inadvertently causing Bond to kill Bloefeld instead. By this point, and with the secret help of both Q and Moneypenny played once again by Ben Winshaw and Naomie Harris respectively, Bond knows the gist of Safin’s plan, and wants to find Madeleine before he does. Knowing her backstory, related to him by Madeleine a long time ago, Bond goes looking for her in her family hideout in Norway. It is there that the most surprising of revelations comes to light. Madeleine and Bond had a daughter together, a daughter she’s kept in secret all these years, despite her constant denials that the child is not his. Unfortunately, it is too late by this point as Safin has sent his henchmen to retrieve them. What ensues is one of the most moody and violent scenes of the movie, with Bond clinically dispatching Safin’s goons left, right and centre first through the mountain roads of Norway, and afterwards in the middle of a foggy wooded area in which Bond uses his wits and relentnesness to do away with his rivals, and ends up in a nice call back to a similar scene in For your Eyes Only (John Glen, 1981), in which Bond pushes an overturned Range Rover on top of an injured Logan Ash, crushing him. In spite of offering a nice action set piece with the Norwegian car chase, the fact that Bond has a daughter and they have to run away in a vehicle with a baby seat in the back is the most bizarre sight seen in a Bond movie in years. It is nice to see that Madeleine is a feisty character who will do anything to protect his daughter, but seeing the 00 agent we’ve all come to know and love caring for his own child, takes the wind out of everything the movie has been building towards. Bond is too late to stop Safin’s goons taking Madeleine and his daughter away, and a rescue operation is quickly mounted to find them. With the help of Q and the British Navy, Nomi and Bond find that Safin is hiding on an island that’s in disputed territorial waters between Japan and Russia. Here Safin is finally presented in his element, his so-called Garden of Death (another element taken directly from Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice), where he’s harvesting Heracles, with the intention of unleashing it on the world, or selling it to the highest bidder?. And that’s another problem. Not only are Safin’s motives unknown, beyond settling a score with SPECTRE, but we also find out next to nothing about his background story and his connection with Madeleine. That is to no fault of Malek, as he’s given very little to work with, and I strongly suspect that most of his performance ended up in the cutting room floor, which is bizarre given the long running time, the longest yet in the series. Bond and Nomi’s mandate is no other than to destroy Safin’s island, with all his research and rescue Madeleine and her daughter. The final confrontation, although unusually violent for a Bond movie, is kind of underwhelming as Malek is not enough of a physical threat for Craig. There is however one last twist that it’ll turn this movie and this reviewer’s opinion on its head.
That pesky ending
I must admit that the sight of Bond running around the villain’s lair with a rug doll stuck in his belt is bad enough, but what really kills it for me, pun intended, is killing the hero of the story. After making peace and declaring their undying love for each other, Bond and Madeleine are set to drive off into the sunset once again just as they did at the end of Spectre, but it looks like the producers had other things in mind and were not going to give Craig’s Bond a happy ending after all. But was it really necessary to kill him off?. Not really. He could’ve escaped at the last minute, even if been infected by the virus would prevent him from ever reuniting with Madeleine and his child. There were lots of ways in which they could’ve handled that ending, but once again they chose to subvert expectations, which weirdly enough reminds me of what happened on The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017). That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a very emotional ending, which brought tears to my eyes, but the producers did the one thing that not even Ian Fleming dare to do, which was to kill James Bond. He did play with the idea, though, and even left the character’s life hanging by a thread at the end of From Russia with Love, but was convinced by a friend of the error of his ways. Maybe the producers felt the need for once to come full circle with this particular actor’s run, but I tremble to think what they’ll dare to do next. As of today, opinions on the movie are pretty much divided, and there’s no telling how opinions on it, even from those that defend the movie’s choices today, will turn in the future. Only time will tell, but to me, and for the time being, I think the producers were in the wrong when the violated the most sacret rule of them all; never kill the hero of the story. You can do away with his friends, wife or relatives, but you should never, ever kill the man himself.
But a movie is not just a bad ending. It is the sum of so many artistic elements that have to fall into place, that it would be unfair to judge a movie simply on the strength of its last act. The movie is handsomely made, entertaining, and has a score by Hans Zimmer that, strangely enough, doesn’t stray too far away from the classical Bond formula, which is greatly appreciated. The acting is strong throughout, with Craig giving one of his best performances in the role, and Ana de Armas being a clear standout in the proceedings. Cary Joji Fukunaga handles the material with a strong hand, and proves to be more than up to the task when it comes to directing the action set pieces ( that one-take of Bond fighting henchmen as he goes up a seemlessly never ending staircase comes to mind), and there are references to previous Bond movies and literary Bond galore, both musically ( a beautiful arrangement by Zimmer of John Barry’s We have all the time on the World, and main title theme from OHMSS), and visually ( the aforementioned main title sequence, and plot threads that are clearly drawn from For Your Eyes Only and Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice). Not all of them are necessary, but are really appreciated by the true Bond fan. That hall sequence with all of the portraits of all the previous Ms hanging on the wall, though inaccurate continuity-wise, was a real treat.
So even though I have massive issues with the way this movie was handled in particular, and Craig’s run in general, there were still enough Bond elements in there to make me have a good time. As for my hopes and wishes for the future; I’m hoping for a return to classic Bond. Hopefully in the guise of Henry Cavill. Just putting it out there.
Thanks for reading.