No Time to Die shakes up the Bond franchise but fails to stir

No Time to Die (MGM)

Even as it makes bold steps toward the future, Daniel Craig’s swan song as 007 feels like a frustrating hodgepodge of the films that came before it.

To speak of No Time to Die is to speak of what came before it. Of course, that sounds obvious in theory; the Daniel Craig era of 007 comes to an end here. They lightly tied into each other until Spectre drunkenly tried and failed at deepening the mythology. While the quality of the films varied, at least they were all distinct. It’s been fifteen years and five movies — now it all comes to a head, the stakes ostensibly high and the emotions primed to be deeper. And yet, against all odds, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s offering to the franchise is derivative enough of its most recent predecessors to fumble conceptually and concretely.

After capturing Ernst Stavro Blofield (Christoph Waltz) and driving off into the sunset, Bond is still with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). The two are further in love; the two actors, however, are just as lacking in chemistry as they were before. For the film itself, the roadblocks to getting some sense of feeling are immediate. For the retired agent, they’re far behind. He’s as happy as he’s ever been. Then, in what feels like a narrative obligation more than a real progression, SPECTRE agents find the couple, thanks to Swann’s former ties to the organization.

Bombast ensues. Bond escapes by the skin of his teeth. He sees his love off for good and goes into hiding, and just like that, the déjà vu sets in. The sense of finality. The winds of change about the franchise. The earnest sense of self-reflection. It’s all there, but Fukunaga’s inability to tie the myriad threads together gives away its hand in the process.

No Time to Die tries to take risks, to be sure. The problem is that, both thematically and structurally, it’s damn near the same as Skyfall. So those risks are visible from miles away.

No Time to Die (MGM)
James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) drive through Matera, Italy in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The problems only get more pronounced from there. Five years after the opening, Bond is yet again living off the grid when the CIA’s Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), not seen since Quantum of Solace, appears. He informs the retiree that nanobots able to poison specific DNA patterns are on the loose, and just like that, Bond is brought back into the fold. The meat of this plot is some of the most truncated it’s been in the property’s history; virtually every sequence in the first half of this 163-minute trek plays like a sketch initiated and detonated by a location change. Bioterrorism. Romance. Quips. The script, credited to Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, treats it all the same.

Unfortunately, that’s not too surprising given the excess of side characters. Leiter is one screenwriting casualty of several; what’s meant to be a storied relationship between him and Bond plays as if they’ve just met each other. New players are similarly sidelined, namely Ana de Armas as Paloma, Billy Magnussen as Ash, and Lashana Lynch as the new 007, Nomi. De Armas gets all of one fight scene that’s virtually moot. Magnussen plays a lackey, which admittedly makes his irrelevance easier to swallow, although the real problem is that he’s not threatening.

The major issue, though, is what little Lynch gets to do. Nomi is not a developed person. She’s a thematic shorthand, a tepid effort to examine the progression of the franchise across the Craig era. She’s a dark-skinned Black woman with the title Bond himself has forgone, and a few moments aim to telegraph purists’ reactions to the idea. (“That bothers you, doesn’t it?” she quips to Bond after a series of office workers pointedly refer to her as 007.)

Little does the script know that with the cursory interest it exudes here before undercutting it all with a throwaway line later in the film, the choice is a missed opportunity. They all have to battle each other for screen time.

No Time to Die (MGM)
Safin (Rami Malek) in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film Credit: Nicola Dove © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

But what’s the deal with the movie’s villain (Rami Malek)? Well, he’s perhaps the biggest afterthought of all. His name, Lyutsifer Safin, is the most involved decision. As an antagonist, he’s a diluted amalgamation of tics and manners. Malek’s performance doesn’t help either, but that’s not to say it’s bad; it’s more non-existent. There’s no push-pull between him and Bond. There might even be more of a spark between Bond and Swann’s young daughter, Mathilda (Lisa-Dorah Sonne), a prop of a character the couple schlep around in a bland attempt at mining tension.

Over time, the picture as a whole constructs itself from these very shortcomings. Major plot points (namely the climax of virtually every supporting role’s respective arc) are rushed to get to something else. No Time to Die functions on a bare-bones level, passively entertaining enough in the moment but forgettable in the end.

The action sequences are decent, despite Tom Cross & Elliot Graham over-editing away from the physicality early on. Fukunaga’s camera manages to engage more with a sense of space as the film progresses, but Linus Sandgren’s DP work, while serviceable, lacks the seamless variation of previous installments. It’s just a pity that what’s meant to be a rousing note for the era is as shallow as it is. By blending ingredients of the past four movies, No Time to Die telegraphs its checkpoints, activating the viewer’s memory to such an extent that it all feels like a foregone conclusion by the end.

No Time to Die shakes and stirs its way to theaters October 8th.

No Time to Die Trailer:

no time to
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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."

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