How do you conclude a story that covers five films, fifteen years of making, and a world that has run a marathon of changes in the meantime? Cary Joji Fukunaga provides an answer with No Time To Die (2021), a troubled and uneven conclusion to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond.
Among the many more and less lucrative universes created in cinema’s history, hardly any can boast such continuity as the Bondverse. Generations gasped at the consecutive adventures of the double-o-seven, and although the face has changed over the years, most of the incarnations carried a similar, gentleman’s bravado. James Bond often reflected global moods and political forecasts – Moonraker (1979) captured the flexing between the U.S. and Russia in the Space Race competition; From Russia With Love (1963) reflected the spying and invigilation that constituted parts of the Cold War; and so on.
With Casino Royale (2006), James Bond became a full-fledged universe, with a few chapters helmed by Daniel Craig, whose each reprisal of the 007’s suit turned darker and more contemplative. Times have changed, and Craig’s chapter in the franchise brought around a less politically-engaged era, but one betting on far more character development.
In its final act, James Bond enjoys rural life in a postcard town in Italy, alongside his love Madeleine (Léa Seydoux). Both, however, cannot move on from their past. Memories of Madeleine’s mother’s murder circle back to her, meanwhile, James has to make peace with the unhealed scar left after Vesper (Eva Green). Soon, Bond’s on a warpath once again. As he jumps into the fray, the secret agent unravels that the terrorist organization Spectre isn’t entirely done with him yet, and they won’t be his only worry this time.
Cary Joji Fukunaga, a gifted director whose craft made the first season of True Detective such an unforgettable marvel to watch, was a promising choice to helm No Time To Die (2021). Fukunaga’s approach intersects two roads. One brings Ryan Johnson’s vastly criticized Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) to mind – its openness to experimentation with a carved-in-stone classic. No Time To Die (2021) discards the macho James Bond, the sexist James Bond, and turns him into a mournful martyr, torn apart between love and the urge to finish what he started. Writing team Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Cary Joji Fukunaga explore Bond’s soft, heartfelt side. And the result is, indeed, fresh, and surprising, but will also be a letdown for many.
Frankly, I’m confused myself too. On the one hand, changes drive innovation, and stale franchises are a thing of the past. Characters created by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and even Pierce Brosnan set standards of masculinity; alas, there was little substance from the psychological point of view. Most incarnations of James Bond were paper figures fitting an espionage adventure, ticking boxes with iconic one-liners and destroying all of K’s gadgets.
Craig’s farewell is far more complex. The British actor invests his energy in closing the personal threads of the story, and that imbues No Time To Die (2021) with a sort of last settlement nostalgia, reminiscent of Hugh Jackman’s goodbye to Wolverine in Logan (2017). Even though Bond goes on a worldwide tour of car chases, shootouts, and whatnot, Fukunaga keeps returning to this sentimental note. Craig’s less macho here too, but making Bond more human feels like a natural way for the character to evolve. This is also a great piece of work from Léa Seydoux, whose tenderness gives Craig a better angle to explore than becoming just another sexist trophy.
Among the less fortunate parts of No Time To Die (2021) are Rami Malek and his unspeakably dull character Lyutsifer Safin. I mean, that kind of name already hints at a cartoonish nemesis. If I were to judge only from the catch-you-off-guard opening, Safin’s bone-chilling entrance heralds a riveting counterpart to Craig. Sadly, the impression of intimidation that comes after the cold-blooded murder of Madeleine’s mother remains the only moment when Malek’s character evokes any emotions. The rest of Safin’s appearances focus on nailing his Vogue catwalk taste in fashion. Aside from the fact that he’s vastly forgotten in circa two-thirds of the film, Safin’s entire plan fits the credibility of Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, but not James Bond.
Speaking of the Bat, Fukunaga openly draws from Christopher Nolan’s dossier. No Time To Die (2021) often attempts to conjure up the grandeur of The Dark Knight (2008), but boy does it lack the firm backbone of that film – that is, the strange force of gravity that kept Heath Ledger’s Joker orbiting around the Batman in their riveting dans macabre. Craig’s Bond has no real tour de force opposite him. Malek’s only half of the problem. The patchwork villain also consists of Christopher Waltz’s singular scene/ode to Hannibal Lecter, as well as a one-eyed henchman of Safin (played by Dali Benssalah, who acted more profoundly in a 5-minute music video by Blaze than his whole screen time in No Time To Die (2021)).
As a consequence, No Time To Die (2021) meanders between these new threats and the old ghosts with mixed results. While it’s all over the place tonally, Fukunaga’s knack for arresting visuals resurfaces occasionally. There’s a spellbinding sequence taking place in Cuba, which is an absolute top 10 minutes of the film. Craig’s accompanied by Ana de Armas who stars as a young agent Paloma. De Armas’ brief appearance gives such joy one can only wish for a full feature of this duo. Another high point of the film’s action bits finds Bond in the misty parts of Norwegian forests, where cinematographer Linus Sandgren flexes his muscles.
Although James Bond’s costume awaits a worthy descendant, Craig’s departure leaves a sense of longing. No Time To Die (2021) captures the way modern blockbusters are changing. Audiences no longer crave distant, unreachable heroes, and James Bond might have been the last bastion of the old school. Hence Fukunaga’s film is both an ending of an era for Bond and a beginning that sets a direction for future entries in the franchise.
- Best films of 2021 (featuring the honorable mention of No Time To Die)