This review of “No Time to Die” was first published after the film’s Sept. 28 premiere in London.
They cheered the MGM lion, and they cheered the pre-credit sequence, and the Billie Eilish theme song and every bike stunt and vertiginous leap. The black-tie, red carpet crowd at the desperately-anticipated world premiere of “No Time to Die,” the 25th Bond film, in London’s Royal Albert Hall could not have been more excited.
Let into a slice of Bond world glamour and, for many, back in a big cinema and big gathering for the first time in many months, they even roared at the end of the National Anthem, played in the presence of Prince Charles and his son and daughter-in-law.
Turns out this Bond is also a family affair, with familiar characters returning for a cinematic swan song to Daniel Craig’s 16-year tenure in the role and many of the regulars assembling on stage for a mass introduction, led by an emotional Craig and the producer-guardians of the Bond flame, Barbara Broccoli and her half-brother Michael G Wilson.
And while this Bond film certainly has all the familiar numbers, explosions, and locations — there’s little in movies that can beat the sight of an Aston Martin DB5 careering round a hairpin bend on a Italian hillside — “No Time to Die” will be remembered for its emotional impact above all. And, to cap it all, Craig may well have delivered the most complex and layered Bond performance of them all.
Much of the film is spent looking back, to past love Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green in Craig’s first Bond outing, 2006’s “Casino Royale”) while trying to move on with new lover Madeleine Swann, played by the returning Léa Seydoux, her character name ushering in a practically Proust-ian Bond movie, one focused on remembering lost time.
More traditional 007 fans may wish for the action to move forward with more pace — at 163 minutes, this is the longest Bond in the canon — and each set-piece has certain hermetic quality, like a stand-alone episode, such as that pre-credit sequence in Matera, or the visit to Cuba in which Ana de Armas shines as agent Paloma. What holds it all together is Craig, given some longer speeches and passages of performance the like of which I can’t recall a Bond previously delivering.
His Bond is wrestling here with mortality and facing the end of his usefulness. “You’re irrelevant,” says Ralph Fiennes’ M, dismissing Bond with icy bluntness. “And we thank you for your service.” “No Time To Die” is very much about relevance, its eventual cinema release after more than 18 months of delays being seen as the first big test of the theatrical model in the post-lockdown era. Will it bring generations back into the cinemas? After all, even Prince William turned up with his Dad to this one.
There is a risk that younger viewers seeing their first Bond may well be puzzled by the scientific helix of the plot, which nevertheless gives the always-welcome Ben Whishaw the chance to some hefty Q-splaining. It involves the villain Safin — played by Oscar winner Rami Malek with a lizardly whisper to match his scaly, disfigured skin — who is threatening the world with a deadly strain of DNA poisons.
This does also, of course, bring in some chiming social relevance for a film that should have been in cinemas in April 2020, with images of pandemic modeling and even the uttering of the words “quarantine” and “infected” making it into a film completed just before the real-life pandemic spread. Not that the film can be accused of conspiracy-mongering, but the deadly germs in vials and bio-hazardous facilities, although regular Bond tropes, could well spook those looking for eerie prescience.
The film gets a bit confusing, indeed a touch irritating, when folding back in on itself with the mind games and machinations of SPECTRE boss Blofeld, again played by Christoph Waltz. There were moments whereanother car chase or shoot-out would be preferable to another loaded exchange of arch Bond dialogue and vaguely comic business. (There’s even a one-liner I even predicted about an hour before Craig delivered it. Maybe I’ve seen too many of these things.)
But don’t worry, there is plenty of time for pyrotechnics — indeed, all the time in the world, as the classic Bond song title has it, a line that gets quoted (verbally and musically) more than once. This Bond’s excitements are about character, and things that hurt so much more than cars and girls, as Prefab Sprout put it. So what could be possibly left to surprise the veteran Bond watcher? That’s the elephant in the room here and in all reviews: There are certainly a couple of huge shocks, emotional ones, ones that will cause more reverberations than even the biggest climactic Bond explosions. You’ll probably hear about them before you do get to see the movie, but it won’t be here. Let’s just say that premiere audience would have stood and cheered at the film’s end had many of its members not been a little stunned.
Suffice to say, then, that “No Time To Die” is Daniel Craig’s best incarnation of an iconic role, an iteration that sees Bond travel to emotional spaces the character has never been to before, at least not since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” or in certain passages of Ian Fleming’s books. You feel all the wear and tear on Craig’s body and face, all the strain on Bond of having to save the world one last time (again) yet also all the tantalizing freedom of someone approaching the end of a long run.
Where will “No Time To Die” rank in your all-time Bond list? That’s for pub arguments and inter-generational family dinner squabbles; these things take time to settle and find their place, but in the first adrenalized flush of being among the first in the world to see it, I’d happily stick it straight into the Top Ten.
But Craig has surely settled the arguments that surrounded him when he was announced as 007 back in 2005 and cemented himself as a singular Bond, taking on one of the great roles in film history and, with this final, career-defining performance, doing something unique and unforgettable with it. Whoever’s next has got one hell of job on their hands.
“No Time to Die” opens in US theaters Oct. 8.