Can a Bond movie feel autumnal? “No Time to Die” does. It’s not just that it’s been six years since the release of “Spectre,” the previous one, or that Daniel Craig has said this is his swan song as 007. It’s that the movie feels almost . . . retrospective, verging at times on introspective. That’s a surprise. License to kill? Yes. License to think? Not really. That novelty may account for how surprisingly satisfying “No Time to Die” can be.
The movie opens Thursday, with screenings Wednesday evening at selected IMAX theaters.
Retrospect is partly in the nature of a film franchise, let alone one as venerable as the Bond pictures. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the first one, “Dr. No.” There are many familiar faces, and even more familiar names, in “No Time to Die,” although there’s also a new Bond villain, Lyutsifer Safin. Rami Malek plays him with a very effective intensity. His arrival, about halfway in, kicks the movie into a higher gear.
Back from previous 007 outings are Ralph Fiennes (M, head of British intelligence), Jeffrey Wright (Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter), Ben Whishaw (gadgetry guru Q), Naomie Harris (M’s secretary, Moneypenny), and Christoph Waltz (supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld). It says a lot about the franchise’s staying power that those characters are more famous than the people playing them.
All of the actors acquit themselves well, as does Léa Seydoux. She’s back from “Spectre” as Bond’s love interest. Truly, few movie-acting jobs are as thankless as playing the female lead in a 007 picture. Seydoux bears up as well as can be expected. Ana de Armas, getting to do all sorts of derring-do in an extended action sequence, has a lot more fun. That said, if her dress were any skimpier it might be mistaken for a bath towel. Ian Fleming may have created Bond, but the ghost of Hugh Hefner remains the North Star the series’s sensibility steers by.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) gets the job done. Considering how much job there is to do — the movie clocks in at two hours and 43 minutes — that’s real praise. Fukunaga also had a hand in the script, with Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag,” “Killing Eve”).
“Well, that was awkward,” one MI6 agent says to another when Seydoux’s character has an emotional meltdown upon unexpectedly meeting Bond. “Does he always have that effect on women?” The other agent ponders the question. “It’s 50-50,” he replies. That has to be Waller-Bridge. One hopes she had nothing to do with the three extended sequences involving a small child in peril. That’s not exactly a Bond sort of thing, and it’s borderline reprehensible.
The plot has to do with some deadly something or other being stolen from a secret MI6 lab. It’s called Project Herakles and involves “nanobots” and the weaponization of DNA. Oh, and there’s a “bionic eye” that comes in handy if you’re a supervillain imprisoned in London who wants to attend a birthday party in Cuba. You know, same old same old. Things were definitely a lot simpler when it was just Oddjob playing ultimate Frisbee with his hat.
“No Time to Die” begins with two extended, and very violent, flashbacks (speaking of retrospect). In one of them, Bond gets to drive his classic Aston Martin. Its bullet-proofing receives a serious workout. Back in the present, we learn that he has officially retired, not that he stays retired. Also, someone else now has the designation 007 — “It’s just a number,” Bond shrugs — not that she (Lashana Lynch) keeps it. For the umpteenth time, he gets to wear a tuxedo — how it’s delivered to him is both novel and amusing — and once again we hear him tell a bartender that he wants his vodka martini “shaken, not stirred.”
All Bond pictures double as travelogues. “No Time to Die” takes us to London (of course), Norway, Italy (the scenery’s especially gorgeous), Jamaica, Cuba, and an island in the north Pacific. Linus Sandgren, who won a well-deserved cinematography Oscar for “La La Land” (2016), makes things look appropriately fabulous.
Per usual, gunplay, explosions, and fistfights are on extensive offer. There’s the occasional shameless pun, albeit fewer than usual. That’s a bit disappointing, actually, Craig having shown in “Logan Lucky” (2017) and “Knives Out” (2019) how good he is at comedy.
So there are many greatest hits played here, including a snippet of Monty Norman’s glorious intro music. Six decades on, it’s still a kick, hearing that cross between crime jazz and surf rock play as a certain familiar tuxedoed figure spins and fires. The movie theme song is by Billie Eilish.
Yet with those greatest hits, there’s that change in tone or mood. Wintry might be a better word than autumnal. The movie begins with an overhead shot of a snowy Scandinavian forest and ends with a memorial service. It’s for one of the three recurring characters who die (no names revealed here, of course). Death in a Bond movie has always been just another special effect. Remember how Oddjob gets it? That’s not the case here.
For those of a certain generation — all right, for those of us of a certain generation — it’s been all downhill, Bond-wise, since Sean Connery. George Lazenby? Roger Moore? Timothy Dalton (forgot about him, didn’t you)? Pierce Brosnan? Please. Every other 007 suited up for the junior varsity. Then along came Craig. That clenched-fist face, the blend of suavity and menace: Craig’s 007 is always that close to being a villain; and in that closeness reside both endless fascination and a rendering of the character that owes even more to reality than fantasy. With this fifth and final go-round, it’s clear who the best Bond is. It’s Craig, Daniel Craig.
NO TIME TO DIE
Directed by Cary Koji Fukunaga. Written by Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Starring Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ralph Fiennes, Christoph Waltz, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 163 minutes. PG-13 (violence and action, disturbing images, brief strong language, suggestive material; also three extended sequences of a small child in peril).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.