Five movies into Daniel Craig’s run as James Bond, part of what made him so singularly enthralling when he first took the role in 2007’s Casino Royale has sputtered into something totally unremarkable and common. Craig initially brought a vulnerability to a franchise premised on the exploits of a habitually tuxed-up, martini-sipping womanizer. He not only departed from his predecessors by getting roughed up (and jacked up), but by falling in love and experiencing heartbreak. Through Craig, Agent 007 essentially underwent a masculinity makeover, because by 2007, depicting Bond as the macho, unfeeling playboy he’d been historically was not only alienating and retrograde, it was boring and played-out.
The creators behind Craig’s Bond films have clearly clocked significant time on thinking about how to innovate the blockbuster, and how to reshape a historically fraught, hyper-masculine action star with so many sexist overtones built in. Their answer was always to increase his suffering, but with No Time To Die, that tactic not only rings false, it renders Bond into a cliché. The trauma of Bond’s past — in the form of his love for Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who ultimately betrayed him — looms over each of Craig’s Bond films in an increasingly unconvincing manner.
[Ed. note: This essay includes spoilers for some plot elements of No Time To Die.]
Picking up where Spectre left off, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die gives Bond a second shot at love with Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, extending the Bond-with-real-boy-feelings shtick in a way that underscores its formulaic nature. We get it, Bond is not merely a slick, sexy superspy, but also a human who wants relatable human things: a good woman, a best bud, a child. That sounds an awful lot like the dynamic in the bulk of bland, risk-averse blockbusters out there, with their meticulously unproblematic leading men.
No Time To Die’s prologue offers a bit of Madeleine’s backstory in the vein of a home-invasion thriller. Young Mlle. Swann belongs to a wealthy but broken family. Her mother, coded as a depressive alcoholic, dismisses her love-starved child before getting shot in the head by a masked Michael Myers wannabe we will come to know by the unwieldy name of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). Madeleine puts up a fight, but is eventually saved from a watery grave by the psychopath himself, who, it turns out, considers himself to be a bit of a family man.
Fast-forward to adult Madeleine on a blissful getaway with Bond off the coast of Italy. Having left their chaotic lives behind them to pursue a romantic forever-after off the grid, the two lovers “have all the time in the world” — which means they have literal minutes before shit hits the fan. The shit in this scenario is the past. For Bond, the specter of Vesper Lynd fuels his trust issues, while Madeleine is more guarded about her childhood woes and the creepy masked guy who refuses to quit her. When a snarling guido with a mechanical eyeball corners Bond and Madeleine with a pack of henchmen and a persistent machine gun, Bond suspects Madeleine has sold him out, in spite of her pleas that she’s innocent. The classic Bond, the frigid and brooding lone wolf, reasserts himself, only to be predictably thawed out over the next two and a half hours.
As Craig has somewhat glibly explained on the press tour, No Time to Die is about “relationships and family.” True enough — this film’s big international conspiracy, which concerns the mass production of a particularly nasty bio-weapon called Heracles, a nanobot-transmitted virus that targets victims based on their DNA, is a menacing-enough prospect that ultimately feels a lot less alarming and central to the plot than it should. The implication, given Heracles’ genetic and geographical reach, is that this weapon could be used for ethnic cleansing, though Malek’s Safin hints instead at some neutral, Avengers-style waste-reduction-for-the-greater-good objective.
Meanwhile, MI6 head M (Ralph Fiennes) goes on about the imperceptibility of the enemy in modern warfare, because, you know, the virus is imperceptible. (Cue the “Bond in the age of COVID” think pieces.) None of this feels sufficiently high-stakes, because No Time to Die is too concerned with building Bond better, to anticipate the long-promised end of Craig’s run in this role. The problem is that No Time To Die suggests that, like every other modern hero, his losses are only sufficiently worth mourning if he’s missing out on a life of domestic bliss.
Five years after his sudden breakup with Madeleine, Bond is a breezy bachelor living among the locals in Jamaica. His old CIA friend Felix (Jeffrey Wright) ropes him into a mission that ships him off to Havana, where he meets covert CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas), the single greatest proof of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s involvement here as a screenwriter.
Paloma arguably gets the best fight scene in the whole film — such is the pleasure of stiletto-assisted roundhouse kicking — and de Armas updates the Bond Girl trope by being funny and a little chaotic, a so-called “messy woman” who’s actually incredibly competent. If only her character didn’t also feel like the product of a focus-group study on how to make Bond’s arm candy more real and likable. It would also have helped if she was meaningfully incorporated into the story — you could cut Paloma and her entire subplot out of the movie, and almost nothing else in No Time to Die would need to change.
To the writers’ credit, there isn’t a female stock character in sight, and almost none of the women onscreen have any interest in canoodling with Bond. Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, the new Agent 007, is undeniably cool, a natural brawler, albeit emotionally blank due to the need to impart a hyper-professionalism worthy of the title. Bond, infamously cool as a cucumber, could care less, and his indifference rhymes with Nomi’s anxiety over the threat that his return poses to the status of her promotion. This dynamic plays out repeatedly as a one-sided competition over who is and isn’t allowed into M’s office, a kind of unintentional meta-gag about the tenuous role of the first woman 007.
Later in the film, when Bond and Nomi team up to infiltrate Safin’s lair — a concrete palace that hearkens a little too closely to the final setting of Skyfall — she makes a chivalric gesture and surrenders her 007 title back to Bond out of… respect for the classics? The move ultimately serves to legitimize Bond in the eyes of his female competitor; he’s not imposing himself on her turf, she’s deferring to him out of her own prerogative.
No Time to Die’s attempts to humanize and dignify the Bond Girl and cleanse the franchise for a new generation is obviously welcome, and essential to keeping the brand alive. Pushing the vulnerability of Craig’s Bond to its most predictable manifestation, Fukunaga and company decide to give Bond a family. While certainly a new direction for Bond the character, this reimagination renders the superspy indistinguishable from the Wife Guys of the modern blockbuster, like Ethan Hunt, Dominic Toretto, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of Hawkeye. It’s why the revelation that Madeleine has given birth to Bond’s child unbeknownst to him feels completely uninspired, like a dime-a-dozen emotional beat grafted onto yet another Hero Worth Rooting For.
Sure, No Time To Die has some decent action scenes. The brawl in Havana stands out for its glitzy chaos. When Bond and Madeleine flee her remote cabin with their 5-year-old child Mathilde (Lisa Dorah Sonnet) in tow, a foggy showdown in the evergreens sees Bond taking down entire vehicles with a few bullets and a crafty use of wire. At Chez Safin, a bruised and battered Bond pummels a dozen or so minions through a cramped staircase, which Fukunaga captures in a long tracking shot that hearkens back to his True Detective days.
Yet few of the film’s supposedly charged moments land the way they should, which is a problem, because so much of what the film moves toward relies on these emotional swings. The return of Bond’s old pal Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in a Hannibal Lecter-style interrogation scene lacks punch and menace — Blofeld was a woefully underwhelming villain in Spectre, so his second round here carries none of the fearful anticipation expected of a returning baddie. Instead, his function is to bring Madeleine and Bond together, a glue to make the extended Bond-iverse more legible. When Bond (re-)declares his love to Madeleine — a striking scene that sees Craig glowing like an Adonis, in the film’s most erotic stretch by a long shot — the promise of sweet, sweet lovemaking is upended by Mathilde, because sex can never be as meaningful as parenthood.
Later, Safin inevitably captures Madeleine and Mathilde, forcing Bond to prostrate himself in exchange to keep Safin from hurting the child. It’s an ultimatum stripped of any consequence when Safin abruptly loses interest in Mathilde. We’re meant to take away the idea that Bond would do anything for his little girl, but the moment — painfully trite, an overplayed scenario whose outcome we always-already know — takes the vulnerability and punch out of Bond’s emotional standoff.
Then there’s Rami Malek’s Safin, a half-assed character who extends the now-overdone trend of villains who are more villainous because they’re reticent, emotionless, and indecipherable in their blank, mechanical sinistry. (See also: Waltz’s Blofeld, or Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace in Blade Runner 2049.) Safin, an oddly placid bloke fond of Zen gardens and tatami mats (really, enough with the Orientalist minimalism as a shorthand for derangement), is a sleepy final boss who stumbles back into relevancy in the last act.
Both Bond and Safin are essentially modern-day lepers, which might serve as a commentary on the types of men who have passed through the Bond franchise’s seemingly endless rotations, but who have now been knocked off their pedestals — mortals once and for all. But rather than truly grapple with the loaded legacy of James Bond and the novel implications of his story ending with this movie, No Time to Die lazily goes through the motions of an action film while rushing to create a generically profound reason for viewers to feel moved by his fate.
It would be easier to be less cynical if No Time to Die convincingly delivered on its commitments to Bond’s humanity, rather than nudging it into a handful of scattered scenes, around a lumbering, half-baked drama spiked with explosions and car chases. Maybe the film really is “about family and relationships,” but to the extent that it is, it underscores the dearth of imagination that’s just barely fueling the biggest blockbusters, the inevitability that all our modern heroes will eventually feel as stale as the smug ladykillers they once replaced.
Creating new, truly memorable characters shouldn’t be just a matter of perfunctorily responding to an image that the masses no longer find appealing or appropriate. It requires risk and the potential to bother viewers, which can be done without resorting to sexist tropes. I wish I could say that none of this matters, and that No Time to Die passes on the merits of its pleasurable spectacle. But it simply tries too hard to mean something to let these qualities take center stage, putting a damper on its own party by constantly reminding us that Craig’s time as Bond is over, and that there’s no real reason for audiences to care.
No Time To Die releases in theaters on Oct. 8.