There’s a certain mystique that follows a Bond film, one that holds a timelessness and universality of frankly uncommon proportions. Any attempts to characterize it often point to the flair, the gadgetry or, most likely, the untouchable coolness exuded by its titular character. Whatever it is, though, there’s no doubt — the newly released No Time to Die has it, and then some.
Reasonably, part of it seems to stem from the myriad of COVID-19-related delays, which elevated the excitement to a breaking point over the course of an 18-month-long wait. Then, there’s the allure of finality: This installment was known from its early stages to be actor Daniel Craig’s last. Having been charged with bringing James Bond to life for the better part of 20 years, his exit would, as one should hope, bear the significance and caliber that his tenure rightly deserves.
In line with all this, the premise is deliberately opaque, further mounting curiosity. Bond has settled into retirement, the synopsis reveals, but is soon pulled out of his serenity by an old friend, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). Duty calls for Bond, as a dangerous weapon is now all but in the wind. But what awaits him pitches him into a world that he does not quite know and into the path of a treacherous new enemy.
In spite of a six-year hiatus, the jolting flashback that opens No Time to Die leaves us feeling as if we never left, wasting no time indeed in granting us the edge-of-your-seat action the franchise is famous for. But then, the scene shifts, bringing about the realization that the film actually follows right in the footsteps of its predecessor, Spectre. Bond and Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) are in the midst of their promised happily ever after, vacationing together in Italy.
Things don’t stay so simple, though. An inexplicable run-in with Spectre, which is responsible for the work of art that is the Aston Martin DB5 sequence, sends their universe spiraling. Bond, suspecting her treason, sends Madeleine away on a train. They’ll never see each other again, he tells her. Cue the theme song.
What follows is a spectacle of a sequence, with electrifying visual effects timed to perfection with the music. When Billie Eilish’s vocals fade away, five years have passed. In the present day, piercing cinematography orients us in a secret MI6 laboratory as it’s broken into. Soon, the orchestration of mass-murder will be the chilling way in which the big bad Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) is formally introduced.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world is the retired Bond. His attempted recruitment by Leiter is flanked by the new agent under the 007 codename, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), with whom Bond forms a mildly tumultuous work relationship. Despite his efforts, his old life beckons, and his initial hesitation is swiftly overpowered by the call of the mission. From there, the gates of espionage and betrayal reopen, the skeletons crawl out of their closets and Bond, as we count on him to do, runs to save the world.
But the similarities between this film and the rest of its brood quickly end there. For one, there is the bold venture beyond the confines of its genre — and in more ways than one. In intrepid fashion, comedy cleverly seeps into the story, pinning memorability on otherwise typical fare like car chases and hand-to-hand combat. Q (Ben Whishaw), in particular, is given more than a moment to shine.
Striking an impressive balance, the antithesis of comedy, emotionality, comes through just as strongly. Intimate slices of life, generally reserved for more personal indie films, are glimpsed without ever feeling tonally out of place. We empathize with his desire for familial love, his ache for normalcy. And we are sincerely affected when his moral imperative shatters this, again and again.
All this genre-breaking at times goes on steroids, morphing into a subversion of expectations that is not only unabashed but downright gleeful. And better yet, this sentiment seemingly has a physical embodiment: none other than Paloma (Ana de Armas). She rebuffs Bond’s advances, drinks unstoppably and has no memory when she’s stressed — she literally blanks their asset. By the time her few short minutes onscreen are up, she’s already effectively set a new precedent for female characters in the Bond-verse.
Despite such breakthroughs, though, there are bones to pick, and the biggest and baddest is Safin. The latest in a long line of deformed villains — though indisputably the one with the best first name — he’s woefully underdeveloped. His urge for the classic worldwide domination campaign is baseless, and his personal vendettas rise even more out of the blue. Half a backstory and an amalgamation of European accents are all he gets. Clearly, the film has never heard of the adage “a hero is only as good as his villain” — or wishes it hadn’t, anyway.
Now, before going on, it would be downright incendiary not to take a moment to pay homage to Craig’s Bond. No Time to Die owes its laurels — and likely, its very existence — to his portrayal. Its marked maturity arises from his nuanced interpretation of the character. Its compelling love story rests on his humanizing performance. He was this generation’s Bond and will remain so, wholly inseparable from our conception of the iconic spy.
So when the credits inevitably roll, it feels not like the impermanent end of a film, but like the bittersweet weight of the end of an era — the Craig era. His Bond redefined the genre, all the while quietly rewriting masculinity and championing feminism. And No Time to Die has proven itself to be a worthy closing act, truer to the revolutionary spirit of its era than ever before. It will enthrall you, move you, catch you delightfully off guard, but at its pinnacle, it will leave a mark that you didn’t know it could.