No time for spoilers: It’s a good bet you know by now what happens to Daniel Craig at the end of the 25th James Bond movie. Some people rushed to spread this information online after the film’s world premiere screenings in London last week, the Film Twitter equivalent of Homer exiting The Empire Strikes Back on opening night. The statute of limitations on surprises in the social media era is perilously short, but it should still be possible to review No Time to Die without coming out and saying the thing that its marketing, promotion, and coyly morbid title have already implied.
For nearly 60 years, the franchise has consolidated its own form of immortality by doubling down, baccarat-style, on the idea that its star attraction Will Return—never mind whether in the same exact corporeal form. Like any long-standing, ceremonial role of significant cultural importance—the queen of England, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Dr. Who—James Bond is at once bigger than the person who inhabits him and malleable enough to fit each host vessel’s specifications. He’s a designer tuxedo being taken in for alterations, or a vintage Aston Martin receiving periodic tune-ups.
In 1983, 12 years after graciously abdicating the part that made him a megastar, Sean Connery reneged on his decision to opt out. Looking considerably older and a bit embarrassed, he top-lined the non–Saltzman-and-Broccoli Thunderball knockoff Never Say Never Again, a film whose title goofed on the actor’s noble, broken promise to himself. (The idea for the joke was credited to Connery’s wife, an all-time case of spousal trolling.) This one exception aside, there isn’t a single Bond entry, good, bad, or Moonraker, that goes out of its way to explicitly acknowledge the identity of its leading man. Nor have there been any teary-eyed curtain calls. At the end of A View to a Kill, instead of riding off into the sunset, Roger Moore hooked up with Tanya Roberts in a shower.
In this sense, the valedictory vibe of No Time to Die makes it an outlier. Every element, from the plot to the visual style to the thickly funereal atmosphere, has been calibrated to emphasize its status as a send-off for Craig, whose constant, Connery-like carping about his boredom with the part aligns with his version of the character. There’s always been a borderline-misanthropic intensity to James Bond, a cool sense of detachment derived from Ian Fleming’s literary description of the character’s cold blue eyes and “cruel” mouth. Craig took these qualities and ran with them, becoming the first Bond who never seemed to be having any fun.
Gloom and doom have been the common denominators of the 21st-century Bonds, with mixed and fascinating results. Like Skyfall and Spectre, No Time to Die is primarily about the bonds and scars etched between parents and children. Bookended by scenes in which little girls are terrorized by psychopaths and featuring multiple sequences in which beloved, long-running characters are forced to contemplate their own mortality, it’s a parched, solemn affair. The action has been directed by Cary Fukunaga in a ruthless, first-person-shooter style that exalts Bond’s lethal efficiency at times, as if we’ve been plunged into an update of the deathless N64 cartridge classic GoldenEye. But for the most part, stunts and spectacle—and sex—have been swapped out for a grim realism; the most impressive section unfolds in a foggy forest, a shoot-out steeped in uncertainty and dread.
These are heavy, forbidding sensations; never has a Bond movie been so in need of its own meager comic relief. Prerelease, there was plenty of excitement about the hiring of Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge to punch up the script with some wit, but her contributions have been swallowed up by Fukunaga’s droning, anxious vibe. The best (only?) running joke involves James’s affectionate, respectful, in-no-way desirous rivalry with his numerological MI6 replacement Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who gloatingly rubs her claim to the “007” designation in her predecessor’s face. Meanwhile, Ana de Armas gives the most enjoyable performance in the movie as the disarmingly klutzy Cuban operative Paloma—all kinetic physicality and chirpy good humor.
There have been female 00s as far back as Thunderball, but No Time to Die makes a point of showcasing its distaff field operatives. Lynch and de Armas’s star turns represent a conscious break with the sexism embedded in the material’s DNA. (Like Spectre’s Monica Bellucci before her, de Armas has officially rejected the mantle of “Bond Girl” in interviews.) The symbolism of Bond ceding his ID to a sleekly competent Black female colleague—and his accepting the transition without any attempts at flirtation—is one of many ways that No Time to Die signals its own paradigm shift. People have been asking whether it’s possible for Bond to change with the times for decades now, yet it’s only with the Craig-era titles that filmmakers have seemed willing to provide answers.
In Casino Royale, Judi Dench’s M denounced Bond as a “blunt instrument,” and the movie as whole took a kind of righteous, sadistic pleasure in hitting its past-his-expiry-date hero below the belt—the same place that Auric Goldfinger had aimed his laser beam 50 years earlier. What made Casino Royale so terrific was its refusal to choose between sexy, trashy, ’60s-style sensationalism and a more realistic, millennial resonance; it was simultaneously old-school and state of the art, with Craig evoking Sean Connery’s hardheaded charisma even as director Martin Campbell’s camera provocatively framed him emerging from the surf like Ursula Andress in Dr. No. The promise of a Bond who could be not only a lady-killler but an erotic object—bold enough to return Le Chiffre’s innuendos in the midst of torture—made Casino Royale feel like a genuinely interesting reset, as did the smoldering, romantic tone of Craig’s scenes with Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, whose tragic fate marked the first time since the finale of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that a Bond movie dared add real, real emotion to the underlying formula.
A little of that goes a long way, and the problem with No Time to Die is that it’s trying for big, bruising feelings at all times. Over two hours and 40 minutes, the pathos wears you out. As the film opens, our hero is still trying to scrape off the residue of his feelings for the late Vesper while committing to a life with “daughter of Spectre” Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Where in the pre-Craig days, Bond never continued a relationship beyond the climax of any individual adventure—a pathological bachelorhood that kept the male fantasy intact—here he’s at the center of a tricky, semi-posthumous love triangle.
No Time to Die has a lot of plot, a lot of it unnecessary given the predictability of where it’s going. The slasher-movie cold open marks the first Bond prologue with horror-movie elements, which gives Fukunaga a chance to show off the sinewy tracking shots he perfected on True Detective—but the threads it leaves dangling about Bond’s and Madeleine’s ultimate identities take way too long to get tied up. We know that the girl is a younger version of Madeleine, and it’s equally apparent that the guy behind the mask will turn out to be the movie’s villain. Unfortunately, said villain is played by Rami Malek, who hasn’t found a part that makes good use of his alienation-effect acting style since Mr. Robot. Compared to Mads Mikkelsen’s sadistic Le Chiffre or Javier Bardem’s scenery-chewing Silva in Skyfall, Safin is a brooding, monotonous bore, while his plan to use a deadly toxin to target specific individuals via their DNA connects to a broad theme of biology without making much sense. Instead of a clear and present danger, Safin feels almost like an afterthought. Even his creepy Phantom of the Opera–style mask is underused.
As for that theme of biology: It’s usually a bad sign when a franchise feels obliged to add an adorable kid as a way of keeping the stakes high. The cynical shamelessness of No Time to Die’s child-endangerment climax feels like some kind of low. Maybe it would hit harder if the relationship between James and Madeleine had real passion in it, or if there were more to the arrival of some wide-eyed Bond offspring than an attempt to stack the deck. It’s one thing to cutely humanize Daniel Craig by having him cook eggs for a moppet; it’s another to rush headlong into a climactic moment of truth more indebted to the tone of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films or the MCU than any of its actual forerunners. When Diana Rigg’s Tracy was murdered at the close of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it was shocking and sad, but it also fit into the one-thing-after-another low of the Bond universe and its ever-shifting, continuity-averse storytelling. No Time to Die isn’t that ruthless—it’s sentimental, and so self-conscious about preserving a legacy that it’s basically critic-proof.
The healthy early box office returns for No Time to Die in the UK will likely be replicated in the United States; even more than Dune, the movie that Denis Villeneuve opted to make instead of giving 007 a shot, No Time to Die promises (and sometimes delivers) big-screen, out-of-body escapism, as well as catharsis. In a way, the film’s prolonged, joyless, largely technical sense of accomplishment is the perfect endnote for Craig’s run, which raised the floor of the franchise while falling short of the giddy, dizzying ceilings hit by even its lousiest predecessors. The series’ overlords have a license to kill and also to resurrect, and in exercising one they’ll surely break out the other. For now, it feels just fine to see something running on fumes get put out of its misery.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.