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‘No Time to Die’ bids Daniel Craig a Bond farewell

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From the moment he exploded onto screens in 1962’s “Dr. No,” James Bond – 007 – has cast a suave and swaggering shadow across the cinematic landscape.

It doesn’t matter that multiple actors have played the role. It doesn’t matter that there’s little to no consistency or constancy to the timeline – some events carry forward, others are forgotten. Over the course of decades, we’ve watched assorted Bonds ply their craft. They thwart elaborate plots with even more elaborate gadget-driven schemes, saving the world and inevitably falling into bed with one or more beautiful women.

That’s it. That’s the job. Or at least, it was.

Things changed when Daniel Craig assumed the mantle. For the first time, Bond was more than an unstoppable heavily-armed lothario in a tuxedo. Craig lent a heretofore unseen gravitas to the character, creating someone who actually dealt with the consequences of his actions, both bad and good. There was no more wiping clean of the slate – Bond’s deeds had lasting impact.

“No Time to Die” is Craig’s fifth – and final – outing as James Bond, and as far as sendoffs go, well … he certainly could have done a lot worse. It is very much a Bond movie, with all of the globetrotting intrigue and wild action set pieces that label entails, but it is also a surprisingly engaging character study of a man forced to confront the inexorable passage of time. Craig’s Bond is a flawed Bond – and arguably, the best of the lot.

Cary Joji Fukunaga helms this latest installment, taking the reins from Sam Mendes, who directed the previous two Bond films; Fukunaga also shares screenplay credit with three other writers. It is jam-packed with the sorts of extended action and convoluted plotting that marks most of the franchise’s offerings. One could argue that it is overstuffed – the runtime is a gargantuan 163 minutes – but considering that it doubles as a farewell to its lead actor, I’d say that it deserves to take as much time as it likes.

After a taut prologue that I’m loath to spoil – so I won’t – we kick off in the immediate aftermath of 2015’s “Spectre.” Bond and the lovely Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) are rambling through Italy; Bond has retired and the two are beginning their lives together. In an effort to achieve some closure, Bond visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd. However, he is ambushed at the tomb by Spectre forces led by the one-eyed Primo (Dali Benssalah); after a narrow escape, Bond turns on Madeline, accusing her of setting him up. She denies it, but Bond is immovable; he puts her on a train, swearing that he will never see her again.

Five years later, a scientist named Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik) is kidnapped from an MI6 laboratory. At the behest of M (Ralph Fiennes), Obruchev has been working on something called Project Heracles involving weaponized nanobots that can be coded to target specific DNA. As one might guess, there are a LOT of people who are interested in such technology – not least being the enigmatic and sinister Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek).

Bond is living quietly in Jamaica, but things are about to get loud. He is contacted by an old friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and a State Department liaison named Ash (Billy Magnussen); they’d like his help in tracking down Obruchev. He initially declines, but an encounter soon afterward with Nomi (Lashana Lynch) – the agent who assumed the 007 mantle after Bond’s retirement – leads him to change his mind.

From there, it’s a whirlwind. Off to Cuba to hook up with an enterprising CIA agent named Paloma (Ana de Armas), only to stumble upon a meeting of Spectre bigwigs that goes horribly awry for all involved. This leads Bond back to London, where he reengages, both with MI6 (including M, Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris)), and with Madeline, whose connection with the imprisoned Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is key to figuring out just what is happening with Spectre and what Safin’s evil plan might entail.

And as far as evil plans go, well … it’s a doozy.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of the back half of the plot to “No Time to Die.” The simple truth is that it ultimately doesn’t really matter. That’s not to say that the plot is superfluous, per se; it’s just that the “why” rarely means as much as the “how.” We watch James Bond for the “how” – we want to see him engaged in myriad battles, whether they are physical, intellectual, emotional or some combination therein. We want to see him engage in car chases and whip out slick gadgetry. We want him to fire guns and throw punches. We want cat-and-mouse vibes with a supervillain. And while we’ve always loved the wry wit of Bond, with Craig, we also want to see that underlying vulnerability. He’s a broken man who strives to mend himself … with mixed results.

It’s worth noting that we get all of it. There are a couple of top-notch over-the-top chase scenes, sequences that are unafraid to leave the realm of plausibility in the name of excitement. We get some first-rate fight scenes as well – the Bond/Paloma scene in Cuba alone is worth the price of admission. I’ll concede that the sexytime is kept to a minimum, which is OK; the franchise’s relationship with women is problematic enough, though this one at least tries to be better. The fancy tech is fancy and tech-y in all the right ways. We get the banter, both friendly and not-so-friendly.

(Oh, and we get an excellent title theme, courtesy of Billie Eilish of all people. Seriously – it’s really good.)

And we get Craig giving his all in his swan song. Now, we all knew this was going to be Craig’s last turn in the tux, so to speak; hell, he wanted to be done after the last one, only to get talked into one more go-round. His tenure has given us the most complex take on the character – what initially seemed like it might be grittiness for the sake of grittiness evolved into a nuanced and engaging take, turning a character that was almost a cartoon into a flawed and difficult man. His performance – along with the introduction of ongoing consequences – fundamentally changed the franchise, and did so for the better.

In terms of performance, we’ve talked enough about Daniel Craig – he’s great – but he’s far from alone. Ben Whishaw’s nervous, nerdy Q has always been a favorite; I’m also a fan of the quiet dignity Harris has brought to Moneypenny. Fiennes does what he can as M, but the plot mechanics this time around leave him floundering just a bit. Jeffrey Wright is charming as hell. Seydoux is wonderful, providing an ideal foil for Craig in his more vulnerable moments. Lynch is a low-key delight throughout, never pushing but always glowing with an ever-present charisma anytime she appears on screen. Magnussen hits just the right notes of smarm, a s—t-eating grin constantly on his face. Meanwhile, Waltz never saw scenery he wouldn’t gnaw on – he goes for it as Blofeld in precisely the way you’d want him to.

And of course, there’s Malek, our primary baddie – the Bond villain of the proceedings. His is a soft-spoken menace, a quiet demeanor that masks a ruthless willingness to do whatever it takes to see his plan to fruition. He’s not afraid to get dark with it – dark even by the standards of 21st century Bond movies. And yes, we have the corny-but-awesome naming convention at work as well – I mean, Lyutsifer Safin is anything but subtle.

“No Time to Die” isn’t the best Bond movie of the Craig epoch – that’s “Skyfall,” which is probably the best movie of the entire franchise – but it’s pretty damned good. It’s a bit overlong, trying to do everything it can to send Craig off in style, and while it doesn’t succeed across the board, it winds up getting awfully close. It remains to be seen where the James Bond franchise heads next, but “No Time to Die” brings this chapter to a satisfying conclusion.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 11 October 2021 09:46

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