‘No Time to Die’: Daniel Craig’s Final James Bond Adventure Is a Massive Action Cocktail

For fifteen years now, Daniel Craig has primarily been known to the world as Bond, James Bond. That kind of pop cultural weight is no easy feat to handle. Agent 007 is essentially cinema’s first true action hero, and it was Craig who truly redefined the persona for the new millennium. Much has changed in film since Craig’s first turn as Bond, in 2006’s masterful “Casino Royale.” Now his exit, “No Time to Die,” feels like one massive combination of everything recognizable about the franchise and everything it has learned along the way from recent game changers. The rather cartoonish villains are present along with the exotic locales, but director Cary Joji Fukunaga also goes for rugged melancholy brushed with attempts at high drama. The result is 2 hours and 48 minutes that veer into every possible mood, some more successful than others, but it is never a stale cocktail.

The opening of the film essentially flows out of the plot from the last Bond adventure, “Spectre.” Bond and his new love, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) are on a romantic getaway in Italy. Here Bond also hopes to make a final pilgrimage to the grave of Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green in “Casino Royale”), his former great love who died so tragically. When assassins from the nefarious Spectre group drop in and start shooting and dropping bombs, Bond instantly suspects Madeleine must have given them their location. Feeling betrayed he leaves Madeleine behind. Cut to five years later and Bond is momentarily off the scene, presumably retired. Meanwhile, in the UK a fresh squad of terrorists breaks into a laboratory and steals a deadly bioweapon. This incident makes the spy come in from the cold, only to discover MI6 head M (Ralph Fiennes) isn’t so thrilled. Besides, there’s a new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who doesn’t need lectures from the spy veteran. Nevertheless, he is James Bond, so he begins a new worldwide tour to track down the new global threat.

“No Time to Die” is the 25th official Bond film and combines tradition with new approaches. In a sense this has been the spirit of the Craig years, going back to how director Martin Campbell updated the franchise with “Casino Royale” into a saga more evocative and gritty than silly. Craig turned Bond into a scarred persona with more depth beyond the suave, chronic womanizer with zero insecurities first made famous by Sean Connery and last embodied by Pierce Brosnan. The villains were still kept insane and entertainingly exaggerated, and Craig expertly pulled off the kind of stunts real spies wish they could do. Yet there was more of an attempt at artistry, reaching its peak with Sam Mendes’s grand, lush “Skyfall” in 2012. Even the lesser efforts, like 2008’s notoriously-titled “Quantum of Solace” and 2015’s half-way successful “Spectre,” had more skill than your average recycled action flick. Unlike previous Bond titles, this Craig film is also interconnected in one larger story, akin to a 007 take on the Marvel format. Fukunaga was an inspired choice to follow Mendes to complete this cycle. He is a director of visceral emotions and elegant imagery. His debut, “Sin Nombre,” is a masterpiece about the experience of migrants crossing into the U.S. from Central America and his “Jane Eyre” adapted Charlotte Brontë into gothic dreaminess. He also helmed the hallucinatory first season of HBO’s “True Detective.” Yet like Christopher Nolan before Batman, none of these titles instantly suggested he was a natural for Bond. In fact, he jumped into the directing chair when original choice, Danny Boyle, dropped out. 

Like Nolan, Fukanaga does briefly make this particular world his own. The usual prologue takes a while to get to Bond, because first Fukunaga stages an eerie flashback murder in a frozen landscape where a young Madeleine witnesses the killing of her mother by a masked figure. Then he cuts to the more standard, although stunningly staged opening action sequence. Bond and Madeleine’s chase through the town of Matera, evading Spectre henchmen, is an exhilarating experience to behold on an IMAX screen. As we wonder what fate awaits Madeleine after Bond bids her a bitter farewell, tradition is maintained with a visually trippy opening credits sequence, set to the mournful theme song performed by Billie Eilish. From then on “No Time to Die” is a large film trying to juggle the melancholic drama Fukunaga excels at with the demands of what should be an exciting action thriller. There’s barely any room for typical Bond humor. The main purpose is to tie-up the long storyline and bid farewell to Craig. 

Large and cluttered, this is still high-end entertainment with multiple locales and grandiose stunts. Bond flies to Cuba to crash a Spectre party, and maneuvers those vintage Havana streets with endearingly green operative Paloma (Ana de Armas), who we wish there was more of. There’s also a bit of classic 007 zaniness here too as strange butlers walk around the party with an electronic eye presumably sending a signal back to a distant leader. As with many finales, old favorites return, so the Cuba adventure also reunites Bond with CIA man Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). The screenplay by Fukunaga, Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and even “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, also makes room for not one, but two major villains. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the madman from “Spectre,” returns with his trademark scar and a jailhouse introduction worthy of Hannibal Lecter. He’s soon overshadowed by the new madman, the memorably-named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who specializes in poisons and viruses, wishing naturally to unleash havoc on the world. 

The villains are like the anchor to the recognizable Bond style. Safin has an eerie, hidden fortress with a strange garden, and he wears an outfit that screams “I am a Bond villain.” Rami Malek’s performance still keeps a typical orientalist accent, warning you about what munching on a certain flower can do to your system. But Fukunaga makes him more of a somber, nihilist opponent than a would-be global conqueror. Nomi, who hints at the future of the franchise as being less male-dominated, although her character is rather minor, has some fun competitive banter with Bond devoid of the usual sexual undertones. She’s also a brutally efficient shooter when the action kicks in. This is countered by Fukunaga’s more “serious” approach. There are not as many action scenes dominating the whole movie as before, because Fukunaga tries with mixed results to bring out a story with more pathos. He’s rushing to wrap everything up, so as Bond tries to stop Safin, there’s also a whole narrative involving his love for Madeleine, their efforts to save their relationship, and a sudden surprise that changes everything for the old spy. Sometimes a character gets killed off rather quickly so we can hurtle towards the dynamic conclusion. Hans Zimmer’s score is a welcome departure from the signature electronic drones he first made famous with “Inception,” returning to a big orchestral style, even if the most original aspect is throwing in some specific Bond score Easter eggs. 

With his exhilarating visuals courtesy of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Fukunaga can’t be faulted for going big with “No Time to Die.” Its scale and craft are a worthy final chapter to at least this cycle of the franchise. The closing battle in a remote fortress is meticulously staged, and yet rather somber. Who would have imagined 15 years ago that a Bond movie might just end inspiring more tears than cheers? But such are the times we live in, where even superheroes have become very serious and reflective. Ian Fleming first created this character amid the rising geopolitical heat of the Cold War, yet he endures, switching from a cliché to a more layered hero, with those old masculine flourishes still intact. Craig’s final moment as James Bond doesn’t have the old macho posturing where he stands poised, gun in hand. It’s more about love and devotion. In perilous times, when we sense the world changing but are uncertain as to how, maybe that’s the 007 we need. Whether the next Bond is a woman or is not the usual white male might be the ultimate test of where the series goes now. Yet those are questions for later. As a finale, “No Time to Die” is a movie martini that does justice to the series’ legacy, while letting one of its best Bonds say goodbye in explosive style.

No Time to Die” releases Oct. 8 in theaters nationwide.