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29 September 2021

In No Time To Die, James Bond is a well-behaved family man

It is remarkable proof of Daniel Craig’s charisma that he can make this regretful saint work as an action hero at all.

By David Sexton

The director of the 25th Bond movie, Cary Joji Fukunaga, caused a stir before its release by asking: “Is it Thunderball or Goldfinger where Sean Connery’s character basically rapes a woman?” That wouldn’t fly today, he observed.

No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s fifth and final outing as 007, long delayed by the pandemic, is accordingly very much a Bond for today. Not only is this Bond not rapacious or in any other way badly behaved, he is positively uxorious, a sentimental family man, even if he can’t actually bring himself to say that word. It is remarkable proof of Craig’s charisma in the role that he can make this regretful saint work at all as an action hero.

Scripted by Fukunaga (Californian, 44, previously best known for True Detective and Beasts of No Nation) alongside long-standing Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge contributing gags, No Time to Die shows signs of emerging from an over-deliberated, market-sensitised production process. Much too protracted at 163 minutes, it delivers the set-pieces without ever trying to connect them with any urgency, almost like an anthology or re-mix.

The pre-credits sequence is more than 20 minutes long. We see Madeleine Swann as a little girl, witnessing her mother’s murder by a masked assassin, taking vengeance for her father’s murder of his whole family. Then the adult Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) surfaces in the sea, happily holidaying with Bond in some glamorous paradise. They drive off to a romantic Italian hill-town (Matera) promising to tell each other past secrets so they can make a future together. “No need to go faster – we have all the time in the world.” But, sorrowfully visiting Vesper Lynd’s grave, Bond is attacked (car and bike chases up and down steps) – and blames Madeleine for dobbing him in to Spectre. He puts her on a train instead of topping her though.

After Billie Eilish’s theme, it’s five years later. Ruthless Spectre agents steal a deadly new bug of a weapon, nanobots that can be targeted through DNA to kill certain people (from individuals to whole ethnicities) while not affecting the others it infects, although they can pass it on by a simple touch. (A MacGuffin concocted pre-Covid.) Bond, enjoying retirement as a simple fisherman in Jamaica, is persuaded to come back to work by the CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), not the Brits. He pairs up with the foxy agent Paloma (athletic Ana de Armas in a backless gown) for a huge battle, in Cuba perhaps (locations, which include the Faroes as well as lots of London, are tastefully not specified).

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But after this scene, Paloma, the film’s best new piece of casting, is inexplicably never seen or heard from again. Instead, Bond’s back with all his old pals: grouchy M (Ralph Fiennes), wry Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), fey, adorable Q (Ben Whishaw). There’s just one big novelty – he’s been replaced as 007 by a woman, Nomi (bold Lashana Lynch). Much banter ensues – “It’s just a number” – though they soon come to admire each other, in this great respect-fest. “I have a thing for old wrecks,” she jokes.

On the villainy side, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is still doing his worst from a high-security prison cell, turning full Hannibal Lecter when Bond goes to visit. But he has been supplanted by a fresh monster, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek, cadaverous and pockmarked after an early poisoning mishap). Safin is manufacturing the deadly new weapon at his stylish base, on an island somewhere, planning mass attacks. Why? He just wants the world to be a little tidier, he says, to which Bond responds by scoffing that he is just the latest in “a long line of angry little men”. Not being able to offer any political, religious, ethnic or even geographical context or motive for the baddies any more does leave thrillers peculiarly aimless.

And then the extreme sentimentality with which this Bond ends – using a little girl in peril as a tearjerker with a shamelessness that Arnie or Bruce Willis might envy, while Bond himself makes speeches about love being the most important thing in his life – makes for a surprisingly glum farewell too.

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No Time to Die, three times delayed by the pandemic, is an enormously important release for re-establishing cinema-going – and all the broadsheet reviewers have duly served the greater good by acclaiming it as unmissable, a triumph, whatever reservations they might have more privately. Fans will be well enough served; Craig is still a muscular marvel. But perhaps the time has come, nearly 60 years after Dr No, to move on. James Bond and #MeToo don’t mix.

This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places