Film review: ‘NO TIME TO DIE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The 25th James Bond film, No Time to Die had promised to appear so many times we were starting to wonder whether it actually existed.  Of course, Covid was largely blame for its absence but thankfully, with cinemas now open, it’s finally with us and it was definitely worth the wait.  No Time to Die is the final Bond film for its star Daniel Craig whose rugged presence has defined 007 for a generation and reinvigorated the franchise.  This film, despite some of the typical Bond movie silliness, equals and in many cases tops most films in the Bond canon for the technical quality of filmmaking and the potency of its action sequences.  It also offers something very rare in a Bond movie, genuine emotion and even romance.

Despite major shifts in tone across the various eras, the Bond films nearly all have the same plot: a smug, creepy villain armed with a super weapon wants to destroy the world which leads to a convoluted cat and mouse game between him and Bond and ends up in an almighty shoot out at the villain’s high-tech but strangely accessible lair.  Although this film has touches not seen in most Bond movies, No Time to Die’s scriptwriters, who include Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, haven’t messed too much with this plot template.

Here, Bond has left MI6 for what seems to be a healing retirement in his picturesque but remote Jamaican villa.  A superb sequence near the start of the film tells us why he’s resorted to this fortress of solitude.   His life of international mystery and battling villainy won’t let him rest, though, as he’s beseeched by old friend, the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to help them combat a new menace.  This time it’s the sinister and ominously named megalomaniac Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) who has stolen a deadly nanobot weapon named Heracles (the most crucial of the film’s many references to Greek mythology) that can be programmed to kill anyone based on their DNA.  As we discover early in the film, Safin also has a strange connection to Bond’s now estranged lover Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) which proves vital.  Working alongside newly appointed 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch) Bond pursues the mysterious Safin (and Madeleine) across the world.

Bond films have largely been about dynamic action, exotic locations, cool tech and most of all the character and culture of British superspy James Bond.  While this film adds powerful new elements, it still ticks each of these boxes wonderfully well.  The action scenes, which involve the requisite shootings, bashings, explosions and car chases, may be over-the-top and involve bad guys who can’t shoot straight but they’re still visceral, often bone-crunching and thankfully, don’t look like CGI cartoons.  While the Daniel Craig Bonds don’t indulge the zany gadgets as much as the earlier Sean Connery and Roger Moore films, the action scenes still employ plenty of high-tech hardware and we’re allowed to see the classic tricked-up Aston Martin’s full armoury or weapons.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, La La Land, First Man) have fashioned a mostly stunning looking film that makes wonderful use of locations, giving a vast sense of space but also intimacy to ancient Italian villages, misty Norwegian forests and the bustling streets of Havana.  A scene in which Bond and Madeleine cruise into the astonishing looking Italian city of Matera at night as ceremonial fires dot the hillsides is one of the most unforgettable images in cinema this year.

Like the other Daniel Craig Bonds, this movie walks a tightrope between gently satirising and cheekily celebrating the Bond alpha male tropes as well as critiquing his role as a state sponsored killer while gleefully marvelling at his lethal skills.  It’s through the character of Bond himself that the Craig-era films have broken from what had become a tired formula.  Craig has re-shaped Bond as a more complex, confronting and human figure although as Barbara Broccoli pointed out, he’s closer than other cinematic Bond to Ian Fleming’s vision of a more serious and troubled person.  Craig’s Bond is flawed, physically and mentally scarred but still fiercely determined and ruthlessly effective.  He looks genuinely tough and capable of dishing out beatings but he’s also clever, slyly humorous and charismatic.  Here, Daniel Craig, looking appropriately grizzled and weather-beaten, delivers possibly his finest turn as Bond.  He convinces as someone with astonishing combat skills and supreme confidence but he also conveys a sense of being under constant threat as the forces of the past converge on him.  Also, as the film explores themes of loss, revenge, redemption, connection isolation and family, Craig’s Bond is placed in circumstances that pack much more emotional punch than anything in a previous 007 film.

As terrific as Craig is here, his female co-stars nearly steal the film.  As Madeleine, Lea Seydoux is once again a smart, resilient and compelling figure bringing emotional depth and nuance to a role that, rather than just being an ornamental ‘Bond girl’ is vital to the outcome.  As Nomi, the woman given Bond’s famous 007 id number, Lashana Lynch has toughness, coolness and swagger as well as amusing exasperation at Bond’s refusal to follow the rules.  Perhaps most memorable, though, is Ana de Armas, who has a wonderful cameo as the glamourous, quirkily funny but kickass CIA agent Paloma who assists Bond with despatching villains and choosing tuxedos in Havana. The other series regulars: Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Wishaw as Q are given just enough screen time to allow them an effective if not indelible role in proceedings.

As this film reaches such a definitive point in the Bond saga, it’s appropriate that it references Bond history and the DNA of previous Bond films is carefully inserted throughout.  Scenes and plot points here recall various past Bonds most notably You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  The film cleverly and movingly repurposes the theme tune from Her Majesty’s, We Have All the Time in the World with Louis Armstrong’s soothing voice taking on a poignant almost ominous quality.

In most Bond films the villains are problematic.  As fanciful embodiments of evil, they’ve often been a little too comical to be threatening and their place in the grittier world of the Daniel Craig era has been even more troublesome.  Still, Rami Malek manages to imbue Safin with a sense of menace, even though his absence for large parts of the film means he has to quickly unload a big slab of exposition to try and catch us up on who he is and why he wants to annihilate everyone.  Christoph Waltz reappears briefly as Blofeld but as in Spectre, he’s underwhelming and his role in Bond’s life doesn’t have the impact it should.  His appearance in a motorised cage in one sequence, though, amusingly recalls Hannibal Lecter.

Despite some typical Bond movie flaws, No Time to Die is exciting, visually dazzling, at times emotionally gripping, filled with revelations about Bond and the other characters that would be spoilers to mention, courageous in its willingness to challenge our expectations and a stunning end to the Daniel Craig era.

Nick’s rating: ****1/2.

Genre: Action/Spy/Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Cary Joji Fukunaga.

Release date: 11th Nov 2021.

Running time: 163 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show

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