No Time to Die
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die is arguably his most assured directorial accomplishment to date, more than able to hold its own among the strongest Bond offerings of the Daniel Craig era (namely, Skyfall and Casino Royale). Fukunaga manages to inject a surprising amount of heart amidst the intrigue in much the same way that he juggled them in Netflix’s brilliant Maniac. Always acutely aware that it has fans to please, a legacy to honour and future instalments to herald, it serves these three masters with wavering commitment, which is primarily how the film falters. Lifelong diehards may find some of the more emotional beats slightly cloying, but as someone for whom Craig has been The Bond for the entirety of their adult life, No Time to Die acts as a fitting send-off, as well as a hugely exciting and startlingly violent action film.
My strong recommendation is to have watched the Craig Bonds somewhat recently before heading along to NTTD. I won’t touch on any plot points here, but having only watched each film at its release and not again since, I found myself pretending I understood some of the specific references to the past — if you’ve only got time to watch one, make it Spectre. The relationships and history between a number of characters become crucial to fully appreciating the stakes. While the anthological approach to the series means these films can usually stand alone quite easily, this one needs some context. It is also rather paradoxically titled — at 2 hours and 43 minutes, there is actually plenty of time in which to die.
The chilling opening sequence is one of the strongest in the film; it is such an effective mini thriller that it almost seems incongruous with what follows. Bond films are not known for their jump-scares, which is probably part of the reason why this one was so universally successful in my screening. It is an incredibly tidy scene that deftly and efficiently frames the emotional context for Léa Seydoux’s restrained and enigmatic Madeleine Swann, and the rest of the film.
Action has always been the primary love language of Bond movies, and Fukunaga directs some memorable sequences, including a meticulously-choreographed extended one-take scene of breathless carnage, almost nodding in deference to a similarly-staged interior stretch of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Well-executed car chases and gun fights are par for the course, but even they feel entirely essential here and remain as fresh and exciting as ever. The violence, when coupled with the naturalistic sound design, is often quite brutal, particularly in scenes of hand-to-hand combat. There were a number of hybrid groan/squeals as heads were pummelled into walls with just a bit more force than we were expecting. This Bond is tired and weary, and there’s an appropriate strain and grunginess in the action that reflects it — he still dispatches the hordes of expendable goons with slick efficiency, but there’s an element of realism amid the brawling. Daniel Craig and this James Bond are the same age. Oh, that this realism would extend to his romantic entanglements, but I digress.
Ironically, No Time to Die works best when it forgets the franchise allegiance. As a star-studded action thriller, it’s an exemplary piece of filmmaking. The writing in particular falls down when it remembers that the beast needs feeding. It mostly handles the idiosyncratic dry humour well, but there are a few textbook one-liners that can’t help but jam the cogs. In many ways, these Bond films have evolved beyond the winking cheek of their predecessors, so paying homage to them in this way simply feels cheesy. It's not always cute to imply that the characters know the title of the film they're in, either. The worst example is the very last line of the film; I absolutely know why it’s there — some may even applaud it — but it almost singlehandedly ruined the sincerity of the entire final act for me. In a parallel universe, this film exists without the Bondisms, and it’s brilliant (it's still pretty good). The one meta nod that worked for me was a visual one — a fleeting and lovely hint of the classic opening tunnel gunshot. Grins of appreciation filled the cinema.
The never-ending parade of secondary characters fill their Bondian stereotypes as required, but the standout supporting performance is from Ana de Armas, hands down. She enters the chaos, throws a few figurative hand grenades around, pauses for a drink, shoots a few more baddies just for kicks and then exits as though she always had somewhere better to be. It is the epitome of a mic drop combined with the adage of always leaving the audience wanting more. I would watch an entire film dedicated to her character — her chapter is a highlight. Rami Malek struggles to inflict too threatening a presence, as his softly-spoken villain (aptly named Lyutsifer Safin) poses more of a threat of the mind with his dastardly plan than asserting any kind of physical danger. He acts from the neck up, but the rest of him doesn't seem particularly interested in intimidating anyone.
Hans Zimmer does his usual schtick, although in this instance I mean that as praise. Were ever synthesised pulses, horn rips and orchestral stings welcome in abundance, this film would be the time to use them. He underscores the emotional climax of the film in a way that reflects its importance — his harmony choices underline the bittersweetness of an era at its end, and the scale reinforces the significance of the denouement. I've become particularly disillusioned with Zimmer's work in recent years, but this is him at his post-Inception best. Billie Eilish's bespoke titular song is fairly nondescript, but John Barry's harmonic palette is relatively limiting, leaving little room for play. It's certainly not a patch on Adele's arguably superior Skyfall, but it's unlikely to grate on you, save for her dreadful diction.
Given the imprint these films have made on modern action cinema, it's quite astounding that there are only five films in Daniel Craig's stint as the eponymous star. This, in itself, is a testament to the authenticity, humanity, charm and endearment he brought to the role — his successor has cavernously large shoes to fill. But that's a problem for future Barbara Broccoli. After incessant delays, Craig's swan-song is finally here, and it's well worth your time.
No Time to Die is in cinemas now.