Warning: This review contains spoilers for “No Time to Die.”
The curse of being a professor who teaches courses on intelligence (espionage, not smarts) is that one is forced to second-guess what misconceptions students pick up from popular culture.
James Bond movies don’t need to be realistic, but they shouldn’t draw attention to their own clichés. Bond movies have been great fun, even funny—especially during Roger Moore’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. They have bypassed the tedium of real intelligence work with futuristic technologies. Indeed, they sometimes appear to be set in the future, as epitomized by the laser-armed space marines of “Moonraker” (1979). It’s a formula that is easily over-egged, such as when Pierce Brosnan drove an invisible car onto the ceiling in “Die Another Day” (2002).
At the other extreme, Bond movies can attempt to be gritty, as when the coiffed Pierce Brosnan was replaced with a buff and intense Daniel Craig. In “Casino Royale” (2006), Craig realistically wrestled to the death and sprinted up cranes, but he hasn’t aged as well as Roger Moore expected. Craig always looked like he was struggling with insomnia and digestive disorders: if filmed in a hurry, you’d get sunken eyes and sallow skin (“Hotel Splendide” 2000). In a high-budget production, filmed over many months, filming could capture his best days, as in “Casino Royale.” But in “No Time to Die” (2021) he looks exhausted, paunchy, and squinty. Scruffy clothes and unsympathetic direction don’t help.
Ultimately, the producers are at fault for not getting the best out of Craig. Worse, they repeatedly draw attention to his age. Bond is in retirement. The new 007 threatens his good knee. Blofeld commiserates that they are just “two old men” dancing around the issues.
Bond no longer reacts to danger instantly. Chasing a baddy across a bridge, bullets from behind rip through his jacket. He turns to ponder a speeding car and more bullets before getting out of the way. Shot at in the woods, he slowly walks behind a tree. Shot at by a dozen baddies from an elevated laboratory, he walks behind a concrete pillar. Should he be so careless? No, his family is behind him, and the safety of the world is in front of him. He looks like a busted athlete dragging an injury, or a man who is dazzled by his first experience of combat.
Bond sometimes looks blind as well as slow. For instance, Bond enters his girlfriend’s home with his pistol drawn, but doesn’t notice his girlfriend standing on the mezzanine, until she speaks to him. The new camera angle reveals she is in his side vision, a few feet away. Some sensible editing could have eliminated this woeful misdirection. It also would have reduced the movie’s length from the current 163 minutes.
The root problem here is the story. It tries to retire Bond as a troubled, retrospective, distrusting old white man in need of family and multiculturalism. The script has too many cooks, while the production has too few. Craig gamely tries to act the part every which way: he switches between flippant, arrogant, and vulnerable in the same scene. But he comes across as unstable. Would this character really inspire confidence that he could protect your family and save the world?
Even without the distracting script, the action sequences move from pedestrian to ridiculous. The film opens with a baddy limping through the woods to a remote cabin. A child flees across the ice, it breaks, she is trapped, he shoots around the ice to save her. But how does a man three times her weight not fall through the same ice?
Blofeld, by the way, is running his global organization from prison via a “bionic eye.” How did it get in there? How does he power it? Why didn’t anybody notice? Why doesn’t anybody care?
For all the movie’s exploration of Bond’s sensitive side, this too runs into inconsistencies. While he is vacationing in Italy with Madeleine, mixing physical passion with emotional recriminations about who is hiding secrets, Bond gets up early to visit his previous girlfriend’s tomb. “I miss you,” he says to her image. Then he goes back to his current girlfriend to accuse her of setting up the assassins he met along the way. She doesn’t argue her case, so he splits. But, says the movie, he’s the one who is emotionally stunted.
Later, we learn that within the last five years she has borne and raised his child, without him realizing. Moreover, she works as a psychotherapist in London while her daughter’s home is the cabin in Norway. Yes, that’s the same cabin where the baddy killed Madeleine’s mother and will come for Madeleine’s daughter, too. There are no other adults in that cabin. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Madeleine is super security-conscious.
When Bond finally meets the blue-eyed little girl, Madeleine says she’s not his. Why does she lie? Maybe everybody in the movie industry thinks that a man needs to discover his feelings before he can be allowed to discover his child.
From Italy we flip to London, where the government has a bioweapons lab. Yes, in the most populous city in Western Europe. And the lab is on an upper floor of a high-rise commercial building, with glass cladding. Baddies break in by rappelling from the top. They place some sort of sticky thing that sends out lines of light along the edges of the cladding. Then the glass plate falls inwards without breaking or tripping any alarms. Why doesn’t it fall outwards into the street below? And how do the baddies lower themselves to their feet inside the building?
This has nothing to do with Bond, who is retired in Jamaica, living conspicuously in an expensive beach house, and driving into town in an open-top Land Rover.
From there, Bond must be roped back into work, first by the Americans, then the British, while being forced to confront his problematic identity and history. The Bond series has tried to go woke before. In Pierce Brosnan’s opening (“Goldeneye,” 1995), a female “M” describes him as a womanizing dinosaur.
Today, Bond is too white. During the long gap since “Spectre” (2015), British journalists campaigned for a black Bond (as if that’s their job). Bond movies had black Felix Leiters since the 1960s, and black partners since “Live and Let Die” (1973). Yet the producers of “No Time to Die” (filmed in 2019) chose to overrepresent black Britons, as on British television generally. British Asians are absent from “No Time to Die,” even though they are overrepresented in real British intelligence.
“No Time to Die” feels like a movie intended to kill off not just Daniel Craig but the whole franchise. Craig’s previous four Bond movies went to convoluted lengths to revive Spectre as the greatest organized criminals ever, but this movie kills them off.
Bond retires at the start and dies in the end. The producers have already replaced him with a black female 007. That’s progress, except that the casting and presentation are unambitious. Lashana Lynch has the bad posture, limp wrists, and heavy walk of an actress who has avoided resistance training. Her fighting prowess is limited to spraying bullets one-handed, without looking, at different points of the compass. Increasingly her scenes look like a bad cowboy movie.
By then, Craig’s scenes look like a bad video game. Bond no longer moves tactically or handles weapons with any expertise. The killing is endless and tedious. Baddies pop out of cover one at a time, spraying bullets but hitting nothing. They even pop up behind him without getting off the first shot. At one point, Bond is crawling up a stairway, looking for a weapon with ammunition, while being sprayed with bullets from a few feet away. Yet still Bond doesn’t get hit, and still he achieves a single-shot kill. It’s too much, like a nightmare you realize isn’t real.
Given confused script and direction, the cast looks generally wooden. Rami Malek is persuasive as the only nemesis left standing after the demise of Spectre, but nobody explains his character’s motivations for purging the entire human race (after he has purged Spectre for killing his family).
The only casting I would like to see again is of Ana de Armas—who is both gorgeous and fun, a combination we have not seen in a Bond girl since the 1980s. Her self-deprecating but wild time as Bond’s wingman is too brief.
The story ends with Bond carrying at least three bullet wounds, and nanobots in his blood, watching the missiles flying in to destroy the silos on which he stands. The credits end with the legend “James Bond will return.” I can’t see how.