Daniel Craig has been retired as James Bond—and none too soon. While Craig is only 53—maybe closer to 50 when the film was made—he’s got a 50-going-on-60 look. The body’s trim enough, but the face reveals a man too old to have smooth-skinned Madeleine (Léa Seydoux, playing the daughter of Vesper Lynd, Bond’s love interest in “Casino Royale” [1967, 2006]) as an object of (mutual) desire. And much too old for the foxy CIA agent and new Bond girl Paloma (Ana de Armas, who starred with Craig in the 2019 hit, “Knives Out”), with whom he shares a Cuba gig—but not, thankfully, a bed.
First-time Bond film Director and co-writer Cary Joji Fukunaga handles Craig’s age in a variety of ways: as an older man, he’s now (over-)confidently knowledgeable about the larger issues facing the British secret service, and convinced that his boss, M, has made a tragic error in developing “Project Heracles,” which has produced a lethal DNA-based bioweapon that is too easily stolen, with dire consequences—echoes of the West’s attempt to keep nuclear technology to itself. It also helps that M (a superb Ralph Fiennes, one of many actors returning from earlier Bond films) is older still, a pasty, ponderous presence that allows Bond to seem downright vigorous and clever—sometimes too clever, as in Bond’s remark to M: “Has your desk gotten bigger, or have you gotten smaller?”
Most of the action scenes don’t require Craig to engage in hand-to-hand combat or other activities that might reveal his physical limitations (or stretch our credulity even further). Although early scenes feature Bond on a motorcycle, showing off his driving skills as he races up and down the stone stairways of the Southern Italian hill town of Matera, he also smugly occupies a bullet-proof coupe, biding his time until he can activate the machine guns. In later scenes (and the ones set in Cuba), he just shoots faceless people—hundreds of them, many from a considerable distance.
Bond aficionados will appreciate the film’s referential quality: a martini, “shaken not stirred”; Bond’s quick pivot and a shot into the “eye,” a motif dating to “Dr. No” (1962), here presented as part of the story in addition to a brief element of the credits; Q’s (Ben Whishaw) cabinet of tech toys, which include a ceramic tea service that’s designed to do who-knows-what, maybe just serve tea; an ironic use of “Bond, James Bond” at MI6 headquarters; not a few corny or obvious jokes, including “time to die,” wasted on a figure who’s important to the plot but is really just a nerdy scientist not worthy of the film’s title.
“What’s with the Mormon?”, a reference to Troy-Donahue-like Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen—playing a CIA political appointee, for the requisite dig at the United States), may be the film’s funniest line, but if it is, it only proves that Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the creative force of TV’s “Fleabag”), added as a 5th writer on the film, was not much in the room.
The settings are classic Bond (and classic TV’s “The Bachelor”), from Southern Italy to Norway to Cuba to a World War II-like bunker on an island between Russia and Japan. And the music lives up to the franchise, from Billie Eilish’s theme song, which won a Grammy (awarded while the film’s release was on ice because of Covid) to the ironic re-use of the sentimental Louis Armstrong rendition of “All the Time in the World” over the end credits (from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” ).
This almost three-hour-long Bond extravaganza, not based on any of Ian Fleming’s books, also has updated gender and ethnic values. The cast is diverse, introducing Lashana Lynch as Nomi, a second 007: “your number was not retired.” The women are strong and independent, the bad guys all, well, guys.
Spectre, a non-state criminal organization that first appeared in “Thunderball” (1961), briefly returns before being wiped out by the bioweapon, leaving alive only its leader, the pure villain Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, dependably excellent), one of two bad guys with only one eye and, in the mode of his confinement in London’s Belmarsh prison, reminiscent of the astute and ever-menacing Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Remarkably, “No Time to Die” dispenses with any suggestion of an organization, leaving evil to reside in one person, Lyutsifer Safin (sounds like “Lucifer Satan,” an unnecessary linguistic touch), played by Rami Malek.
Malek, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is disappointing. He’s made up with bad skin (as if that’s a sign of malevolence) and presents Safin with a vaguely Eastern European fake foreign accent, talking with his mouth barely moving. Safin had a hard childhood. His family was killed by Madeleine’s father—surely that must be avenged—and he’s calculated that he and Bond are two versions of the same phenomenon: they’re both killers. While that’s true in a literal sense, it rings false here, in part because the theme is presented in a wooden, didactic interchange between the two, and in part because we’ve been believers in Bond’s (and Britain’s) righteousness for at least 60 years. At best this sort of equivalence is a movie cliché.
Even less credible, Safin articulates the belief that whatever he’s doing (preparing to kill much of the human race) is justified because people want to be controlled—a non sequitur of a high order. Though the people say they want freedom and individualism (a possible reference to contemporary right-wing ideology), they really want to be told what to do. Maybe they just want to die, perhaps especially to die an anonymous, unannounced, death at the hands of the psychotic terrorist Safin and his DNA device. Sure.
This drivel is evidence that the screenplay for “No Time to Die” is deeply flawed in its efforts to explain the origins of evil: why people do bad things, why some people want to kill others. Ignore all the phooey about freedom and control, and enjoy this latest Bond adventure (the 163 minutes go by fairly quickly) for what it is: the story of a guy who enjoys driving a motorcycle down stone steps, shooting one person after another in a dark stairwell, and embracing a woman half his age. And is too old to be doing any of it.
Stars: 2.5 (out of 4)
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek, Ana de Armas, Léa Sedoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Billy Magnuson, Christoph Waltz
Other Awards: One nomination to date
Countries: United Kingdom, United States
Languages: English, French, Italian, Russian; all non-English subtitled in English
Runtime: 163 minutes
Availability: Only in theaters; see JustWatch here for future streaming availability.
Lead image: Léa Seydoux, as Madeleine, and Daniel Craig, as James Bond, nominated for Most Egregious Age Difference Between the Leading Man and the Love Interest by Alliance of Women Film Journalists.