REVIEW: No Time To Die (2021)

Daniel Craig as James Bond and Ana de Armas as Paloma in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s NO TIME TO DIE — Photo: Nicola Dove / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios / Universal Pictures.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga — Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

When I rewatched Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE the other day, I was reminded of the fact that the previous film in the Bond-franchise was released all the way back in 2015. A lot has happened since then, so much so that you may have even forgotten about all of the behind-the-scenes drama that transpired long before No Time To Die became the first major film to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After several rounds of rewrites, the shift in director, production, and the pandemic, the fifth and supposedly final film in the Daniel Craig-era of the James Bond-franchise has now finally been released. Thankfully, in spite of the real world drama that threatened to ruin it, this is actually a spy epic that is suitable as a true tribute to Daniel Craig’s bumpy but extraordinary time as the iconic agent. It isn’t the best film in the Craig-era, but it is a very memorable chapter in the franchise.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die mostly takes place several years after the events of Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE. James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) has now retired from the spy business, and MI6 has moved on from his era. While in retirement, Bond is recruited by Felix Leiter (played by Jeffrey Wright) and the CIA on a mission to infiltrate a SPECTRE meeting and rescue the Russian scientist Valdo Obruchev (played by David Dencik), who has developed a dangerous bioweapon that has been stolen by SPECTRE. This mission puts him back on MI6’s radar, and Bond is now suddenly interested in figuring out what has happened at his old stomping ground since he captured Blofeld all those years ago. Soon Bond will have to come out of retirement and do one last mission for the MI6 for the purpose of saving the world, cleaning up the mess made by M (played by Ralph Fiennes), and saving his old romantic partner, Madeleine Swann (played by Léa Seydoux), who may be in trouble.

As a James Bond-fan, the Daniel Craig-era has felt special. Casino Royale, his first film, felt fresh. It was essentially an origin film for the character, and it, of course, featured arguably one of the best villains in the franchise. Its sequel Quantum of Solace is regarded as a bit of a misstep, and it is widely accepted that it was heavily impacted by a screenwriter strike. Sam Mendes’ Skyfall was a return to form, but his follow-up SPECTRE was a bit of let-down even if it was a perfectly adequate Bond-film. This bumpy era has been strengthened immensely by the fact that Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond has felt grittier and has, frankly, felt more real, at times, than before, but it has also helped that Casino Royale and Skyfall are two of the very best films in the entire franchise.

In the Craig-era, the peaks have been incredible, and I think it has merely included one actual misstep (at worst, SPECTRE is just mediocre). So, it was always going to be intriguing to see what Craig’s spy swan song would be like. Could he possibly leave on a high note? Well, I can say that while No Time To Die unfortunately never reaches the highs of Casino Royale or Skyfall, it would be a more-than-worthy send-off to any and all previous iterations of Agent 007 and, therefore, is most definitely a strong send-off to a portrayal as significant as Daniel Craig’s.

However, the events in the Daniel Craig-era of James Bond have also been heavily serialized and connected to such an extent that none of the films are true standalone Bond adventures. That means that you essentially need to know exactly what has happened previously in the Craig-films for each film to work as intended. This is especially true with No Time To Die, which relies a lot on plot developments from Casino Royale and SPECTRE especially. You need to know and understand what happened previously to get the full experience here. However, if you are emotionally engaged in the overarching plot, then you will be met by, what I reckon to be, some of the franchise’s most moving moments in this very film.

You wouldn’t know it from seeing the film, but this is writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s first film with a blockbuster-like budget behind it. Perhaps he is best known for his work on television (True Detective), but those who are new to his filmography have to check out the unforgettable Beasts of No Nation, which was released on Netflix back in 2015. His Bond-film includes several heart-pounding action set-pieces as well as satisfying homages to the entire franchise, and, from the looks of things, he has shepherded this franchise well.

Along with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Fukunaga has crafted some stimulating action sequences that evoke the best of the franchise both new and old. The car chase sequence in Italy is thrilling and looks amazing, the Norwegian forest sequence was a nice surprise to me, and what I will refer to simply as the ‘stairwell-scene’ in the third act is perhaps the best action sequence in the entire film. The stairwell scene, which mostly consists of a stitched-up long take, both feels like a tribute to the Craig-era, which was inspired by shaky-cam action a la the Bourne-series, and John Wick-esque action.

I think it is also worth mentioning whether or not it feels like co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was supposedly hired to ‘polish’ the script and add humor to the film, has had an impact on the film. While it is difficult to assess as I can’t say for certain what exactly she added or changed, I will say that I was surprised — positively so — by the type of humor that was found in the film. Among other things, I suspect she may have added dialogue to the sometimes biting banter shared between Lashana Lynch, who plays a new 00-agent, and Daniel Craig, but I can’t say for sure. What I will say is that I thought the film was, on the whole, surprisingly funny and playful at times, even though it is also deeply serious when it needs to be.

I want to briefly mention the title theme, as it is often one of the big debates surrounding this kind of film. While I enjoy Billie Eilish’s title song quite a bit, I have to say that it is probably not a theme that will live on as one of the unforgettable ones. This is for two reasons. One, it is featured in a fairly dull title sequence, and, secondly, it is outshone by another Bond theme from another film, which is the exact tune you’ll find yourself humming as you exit the theater. I really like the way this other melody is incorporated into the film.

As this Bond-film feels especially filled to the brim, it also features an incredible and lengthy supporting cast. Outside of the usual cast of characters, it was delightful to have Jeffrey Wright back in the franchise, since we hadn’t seen his Felix Leiter since 2008’s Quantum of Solace. I like the bond that Wright and Craig’s characters share, and I’m glad they got to be in another film together here (I also thought Billy Magnussen was a nice addition to the cast).

As I mentioned earlier, this film relies a lot on information fed to you over the course of the previous four Bond-films, but I also want to say that I think it improves upon a relationship from SPECTRE that perhaps didn’t work as well as originally intended. Although Craig and Léa Seydoux’s chemistry is never as good as the chemistry that Craig and Eva Green shared, I do think that they have massively improved upon James Bond’s relationship with Madeleine Swann. I was much more engaged in their relationship in this film. Now, I don’t think Seydoux’s character has as much to do in this film as she did in SPECTRE, but her connection to the main character felt more genuine here.

It is also really nice to see Ana de Armas make an appearance here. Craig and de Armas obviously shared the screen in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, and it is just fantastic to see them on-screen together again. Although she is in the film all too briefly, Ana de Armas is a real highlight, as she brings an infectious nervous excitement to her character. Hers is the kind of character that could make you want to scream for a spin-off film, as soon as this film ends. Speaking of which, Lashana Lynch’s character may lead to similar screams. Lynch also has fun with her much more sizeable and serious role, which allows for her to have an interesting and different rapport with Craig’s character than some may suspect. I think fans will be happy about how her character is featured here, as she is meant to emphasize exactly how much has changed since Bond’s previous 00-adventures.

Where the film doesn’t work as well is primarily with its villain, his plan, and his motivations. Although he is introduced in an early scene that feels a little bit like an exciting genre digression into horror, this feels like an instance in which, to no fault of the actor, Rami Malek’s entire character is style over substance. His character design and introduction are mysterious, but his plan and his motivations are under-explained. With Blofeld in SPECTRE, it felt like the film was trying to set-up a grand reveal but failed similarly to the not-so-spectacular Khan-reveal in Star Trek Into Darkness. I didn’t have that problem here at all. Malek’s character, Safin, is, again, actually introduced really well, and his facility is fascinating, but it feels like the writers didn’t really know what exactly they wanted to do with him.

Strangely, while Safin is visually intriguing, Valdo Obruchev might actually be the most memorable villain. Obruchev is played by the Swedish-Danish actor David Dencik, and Dencik’s approach to the character is surprisingly campy, and he is somewhat tonally at odds with the film’s primary antagonist. At times it becomes too much, but I actually did find Dencik’s performance funny in his first scenes.

I should also say that while I really liked the ending of the film, the ending itself may actually be divisive to other long-time fans of the franchise for reasons I can’t really get into without divulging spoilers. But, without revealing anything, I will say that I thought that the film generally went in bold directions from start to finish, which I greatly appreciate for a franchise with more than twenty films behind it.

No Time To Die checks all of the boxes and feels very much like the kind of film designed to be a tribute to Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond. Though some bold choices may be divisive, it should leave long-time fans of the franchise thrilled, just like it should also succeed with those who only recently got attached to the character precisely because of the Daniel Craig-era. Though both overlong and overstuffed (it cannot escape its 163 minute long runtime), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die is a loving spy epic and an emotional conclusion to the ongoing story that fans have followed since Daniel Craig took on the iconic role. As a film, No Time To Die is arguably the best send-off any actor playing Bond has ever had.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: No Time To Die (2021)

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