James Bond invented blockbuster bloat. I mean, that might not be strictly true—there were Biblical epics and historical panoramas before Bond whose adjusted box office would be Avengers-sized—but the notion that an action-adventure genre picture can and should comfortably spread out past the two-hour mark, offering plenty of spectacle and exposition while visiting at least one country too many, feels like it may have been etched into the culture by the ongoing success of the Bond series. Through all the various incarnations of the character, there was never really a version that consistently said hey, let’s try to do this quick and dirty; Quantum of Solace, a 105-minute wonder from early in the Daniel Craig cycle, only slipped under two hours by virtue of a writers’ strike.
It’s telling that Craig’s swan song No Time to Die being the longest Bond ever, at a superhero-sized 163 minutes, probably won’t inspire as much public self-flagellation as the leaner, meaner Quantum. No Time to Die is neither lean nor mean; it’s a hard-working attempt to reconcile the Bond rituals with a series-finale emotional weight that these movies have been accumulating (with mixed success) since 2006. Apparently, that reconciliation process takes time: Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (or, more likely, Eon Productions, the tight-gripped caretakers of the Bond franchise) is so unwilling to drop either aspect of this opus that it often feels like two movies in one, both feature-length.
So pronounced is the movie’s two-track approach that many of its story elements feel doubled: The opening sequence is a bit of creepy, horror-tinged backstory for Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann (first introduced in the half-lackluster Spectre) and a big Bond action sequence jostling him out of retirement. It feels like 30 minutes before the opening titles finally roll. Then, after those credits, it’s five years later, and the movie gives us a whole other Bond retirement, this time in Jamaica rather than Italy. Maybe this goes beyond doubling up: By my rough count, Bond retires and unretires at least 12 more times during this movie, bringing the Craig series running total to approximately 25 retirements. James Bond Will Return, but only after ceaseless cajoling and all of his friends presuming he’s dead.
This time, it’s the CIA that returns Bond’s old license to kill; MI6 has replaced him with a new 007 (Lashana Lynch), but his old American pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) has a job for him involving tracking down more members of SPECTRE, the criminal organization Bond kinda-sorta stopped in the movie of the same name. His adopted brother Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is in Hannibal Lecter-style prison, but nefariously plots for worldwide domination. So Bond heads to Cuba, eventually catching wind of a horrific nanobot virus (Does that make it a real virus or a computer virus? It’s unclear) that has the potential to wipe out vast swaths of the population. Eventually, he crosses paths with the old gang: M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and the new 007.
And after something like 90 minutes—a running time during which some movies are able to accomplish everything they want!—Rami Malek shows up. Technically, he might appear earlier, but his Oscar winning jaw-jut isn’t really recognizable until later. He’s fueled by the most forgettable megalomaniacal true-believer villainy since, well, the last Bond picture, where Waltz made for a shockingly blah Blofeld. Here, freed from the pointless ceremony of his reveal, Waltz does a single-scene face-off with more insinuating mincing and sing-song menace than he managed in the entirety of Spectre.
If it seems like the characters, locations and plot turns keep on coming, and that it’s impossible to keep from mentioning the other Craig Bonds that have preceded it, that’s very much the experience of watching No Time to Die—and not always unpleasantly. If you can accept a saga-fication of Bond, with callbacks and plot threads and interconnections, it’s, at minimum, less of a Forever Franchise than the endlessly self-teasing superhero mythologies (ironic, given that this is the most forever of franchises). This movie really does want to tie the extended Craig era—longest in years, though not in total output—together.
In the process, it does hit plenty of those James Bond bona fides, sometimes looking gorgeous while doing so. The sequence in Cuba, featuring Ana de Armas in a glorified cameo, is a corker that casually and amusingly serves as a corrective to 60 years of Bond Girl history, and not by negging past characters through an insistence that this time, Bond is matched with a woman who’s really his equal. (Doesn’t that happen on the regular? He rode a motorcycle with Michelle Yeoh, for Christ’s sake.) Armas plays against the usual obliging slinkiness or faux-skepticism with counterintuitive good cheer; perhaps because of their work together on Knives Out, she and Craig have the instant, playful chemistry of people who genuinely enjoy each other’s company. She also kicks ass in a great dress while Craig dons a tux again (a relatively rare sight in his version of Bond). It’s all beautifully lit by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, using his La La Land dark-blue skies to make color pop out of the nighttime shadows. Sandgren and Fukunaga bring a celluloid handsomeness to this production that’s not so unusual for Bond but, following an accidental six-year break between entries, feels like a counterpoint to the concrete-and-slush color palette of so many CG-heavy blockbusters.
Despite the craft on display, No Time to Die lacks pantheon-level Bond action sequences. Cuba is terrific fun, Fukunaga stages a solid late-movie one-take stairwell fight and the big/delayed opener delivers. But the movie is more concerned with the human stuff, a decision that’s by turns hubristic, heartening and unprecedented. (Well, not entirely. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service tried something different, and the filmmakers show their belated appreciation for that once-maligned Bond classic here.) The emotional weight it’s trying to foist onto its loyal audience doesn’t always feel earned, just because it’s tricky to parse what, if anything, the movie is actually trying to say about a James Bond who has spent the majority of five movies beginning and ending, sometimes on a loop. No Time to Die is prettier and ostensibly more grown-up than the typical MCU extravaganza, but it’s not especially smarter, and as endearing as it is to see Bond and Moneypenny unexpectedly turn up at Q’s flat on date night to strategize, this isn’t exactly a lovable ensemble, either. Bond going for emotional catharsis is an unusual approach.
Yet fans may welcome the chance to watch the series struggle against its conventions: Are these performances good, for example, or are all the good guys just beautiful? Is this movie visually sumptuous or was it just shot on film? Has James Bond been deepened, or just weathered? As neatly as No Time to Die wraps up, its certainty is ultimately limited to the last line of the credits: James Bond Will Return. How is another question altogether.
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Starring: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Rami Malek, Ben Whishaw, Lashana Lynch, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas, Christoph Waltz
Release Date: October 8, 2021
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.