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Daniel Craig outshines 'No Time To Die' in his final turn as James Bond

Bond (Daniel Craig) teams up with secret agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) in Havana in <em>No Time to Die.</em>
Nicola Dove
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
Bond (Daniel Craig) teams up with secret agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) in Havana in No Time to Die.

It's been more than a year since No Time to Die was supposed to open in theaters, and while the pandemic is far from over, the movie's long-overdue release feels like a good omen for an industry that could use it.

Never mind if James Bond can save the world — can he save the movies in the era of COVID and streaming-service domination? I have no idea. I can only say that it's a poignant pleasure to see Daniel Craig as Bond on the big screen one last time, even if the movie around him is seldom as good as he is.

But then that's always been the case with the Craig Bond movies, with the sole exception of Casino Royale, the first and still the best of the five. Craig put his imprint on the character from the get-go: Like any good 007, he showed he could rock a tuxedo and toss off double-entendres with ease.

But he was also a colder, broodier James Bond — closer to Sean Connery than Roger Moore, but with an aching vulnerability all his own. With this Bond, it was personal: We saw just how anguished he could be when he lost the love of his life, Vesper Lynd, a tragedy that haunted him over the next few movies and continues to haunt him in this one.

As No Time to Die begins, Bond has been retired from active MI6 duty for some time and started a new life with Madeleine Swann, played by Léa Seydoux. But he can't shake the memory of Vesper, and before long tragedy tears Bond and Madeleine apart, setting a somber tone that's beautifully captured by Billie Eilish's opening theme song.

Five years later, Bond is bumming around Jamaica when a fresh criminal conspiracy convinces him to end his retirement. The plot is too busy and complicated to summarize at length: Let's just say it involves a deadly plague of DNA-targeting nanobots that could wipe out millions of people worldwide, which feels just close enough to our real-life pandemic to suggest why the studio might have opted to hold the picture back a year.

That said, nothing about No Time to Die feels especially timely or urgent. It's the usual assembly of Bond movie clichés, which is nothing to complain about, of course, since clichés — the gadgets, the one-liners, the martinis, the sex — are the lifeblood of this series.

But more than once during No Time to Die, I found myself wondering if those familiar beats couldn't have been hit with a bit more panache. Did it really take four screenwriters — including the great Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the comic genius behind Fleabag— to come up with a script this workmanlike? And between Christoph Waltz as returning villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Rami Malek as new villain Lyutsifer Safin, did the movie really need two scheming megalomaniacs, both of whom have facial disfigurements to conveniently signal how evil they are?

Back at MI6, Lashana Lynch plays a highly competent new spy who's been assigned Bond's 007 code number. But their professional rivalry never really takes off. The movie is on more solid footing with Bond's old colleagues: Ralph Fiennes' M, Naomie Harris' Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw's Q are as delightful company as ever. And a terrific if under-used Ana de Armas nearly steals the picture as an agent who teams up with Bond during a mission in Havana. It's a witty, suspenseful sequence, with enough flirtatious fun and outlandish stuntwork to recapture some of that escapist Bond-movie pleasure.

For the most part, that pleasure returns only fitfully over the movie's two-hour-and-43-minute running time. The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose credits include the African war drama Beasts of No Nation and the first season of True Detective, is a skilled filmmaker with a snazzy way with action. But this is a twilight Bond movie, and the mood is overwhelmingly somber. There are continual reminders of Bond's advancing age, of his past regrets and losses. The final showdown feels less like a climax than a benediction.

Craig has been a terrific James Bond, maybe even the best, and his departure certainly deserves a little fanfare. But I admired the impulse behind this very long goodbye without feeling as moved as I wanted to be. There's something a little too strained and self-conscious about the tragic emotional arc the filmmakers have saddled Bond with over the past several movies, and it feels like more than the character can withstand. Will Bond ever be allowed to be Bond again, a dashing rogue leaping deftly from caper to caper? Not this time — but maybe the next.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.