Through myriad high-profile delays at the hands of both COVID and Danny Boyle’s creative differences, No Time To Die arrives in cinemas almost two years after its original release date, burdened with some impossible expectations. While Daniel Craig’s Bond swansong can’t live up to every hope that’s been put on its shoulders (it not only has to satisfy an army of fans, but also maybe save the British cinema industry), it does manage to overcome perhaps its most formidable hurdle and not feel at all dated, even as it arrives late. In fact, it’s all rather prescient, taking in deadly viruses and strained UK-US relations in a way that makes it feel as if the script could have been written just yesterday.
As the plot first kicks into high gear with a group of terrorists stealing a deadly biological weapon from an off-the-books lab in London, James Bond is retired, spending his days fishing off the Jamaican coast. MI6 has a new 007 on the case, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a highly capable soldier-spy who initially finds herself at odds with Bond when he is hired by the CIA to capture the rogue scientist behind the theft in order to deliver him to the Americans rather than the Brits.
This leads to a raucous showdown in Cuba, Bond and Nomi racing around each other to nab their target in No Time To Die’s most purely enjoyable set-piece. It’s so entertaining in large part thanks to Ana de Armas, who reteams with Craig after Knives Out, playing overly-enthusiastic but lethal young CIA asset Paloma. Armas is delightful here, glamorously beautiful but still silly and funny as she dispatches goons in a risqué dress. She’s probably the highlight of the new cast, though Lynch is very impressive in her torch-carrying role, which is otherwise slightly let down by Rami Malek’s big bad Safin.
Outside of his hilariously on-the-nose first name of Lyutsifer, there’s not much to distinguish Safin, either on the page or in Malek’s performance, from any other blockbuster baddie. From his vaguely Eastern European origins to his generically evil world-ending plan, he’s strangely easy to forget about every time he leaves the screen, leaving his final showdown a bit undercooked. Thankfully, the journey there is an absolute blast, longtime franchise writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade this time joined by Phoebe Waller-Bridge to provide a Bond that has a great balance of the old and new.
There are fun gadgets and flirtatious one-liners aplenty, while the old Bond trick of making the UK seem like a stronger, sexier country than it is pays off again here, and the whole thing is even honest-to-god moving as it approaches the ending. The final denouement may prove controversial, and is maybe a tad overreliant on the audience being invested in Spectre‘s Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), but I found it to be the perfect send-off for Craig, whose time as Bond utterly rebuilt the series into something sadder and more visceral.
Cary Fukunaga, meanwhile, proves an excellent choice to have replaced Boyle as director, conjuring thrilling action scenes and some indelible imagery, especially once we pay a visit to Safin’s ‘Poison Garden’, an island fortress between Japan and Russia packed with strange colours and lights. He even manages to repeat his most famous True Detective trick, staging a shootout up a vast flight of stairs as an audacious oner that is both exhilarating and exhausting (without ever turning it into a joke, No Time To Die gets good mileage out of this Bond’s advancing years). Ably aided by Linus Sandgren’s crisp cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s typically stirring score – making good use of Billie Eilish’s title song as a motif in the most poignant moments – Fukunaga makes sure that No Time To Die earns its billing as a true cinematic event.
As far as the Craig Bonds go, No Time To Die would probably sit somewhere in the middle if its final 15 minutes didn’t work so well as a heartfelt goodbye to a character we’ve now known for 15 years. It doesn’t have the pure rush of Casino Royale or operatic elegance of Skyfall, but as a long-anticipated ending to this chapter of one of British culture’s true institutions, it gets the most important stuff just right. Whoever picks up the baton next has a hell of an act to follow.