***MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
This quote, from Call of the Wild author Jack London, echoes throughout No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s swan song as Bond. Following Blofeld’s downfall, we meet Bond again in retirement, enjoying his days flocking through Rome beside his new love Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). He’s finally living, no longer beholden to the whims of life abroad with a license to kill. He’s even perhaps allowed himself to trust again, for the first time since first love Vesper Lynd betrayed him and bit the dust. Madeleine has taken him to Matera, Italy to frolic as well as face his complicated omerta regarding her demise, as her grave rests in the old town cemetery. When 007 visits, a surprise bomb with a particular calling card nearly kills him, thus setting in motion a chain of events that have him leaving Swann and spending five years alone in Jamaica. Goldeneye alum Martin Campbell ushered in this new era in 2006, Marc Forster kept the wheels turning, then Sam Mendes took such an excellent foundation and elevated Craig’s Bond even further, culminating in Skyfall and Spectre, two serio-blockbusters that went to toe-to-toe with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy for having the gall to treat their cartoon characters with epic, mythic, thematically robust proportions. They cemented this new era of Bond as an ongoing narrative with actual stakes, continuity, and pathos. Director Cary Fukunaga, a filmmaker often attached but seldom committed to projects, takes it another step further, delivering a propulsive, emotionally gratifying conclusion to what will go down as the greatest tenure of any Bond ever in the Broccoli family’s long, storied production history.
No Time to Die is a picture for our pandemic era, an odd, unintentional, yet no less poignant coincidence. Bond is inevitably yanked back into the fold, into the field when old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) comes calling about a kidnapped scientist and a man named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). The trail of bread crumbs leads them toward discovery of a secret MI6 program that deal in nanobot viruses, and a plot involving Bond’s former beau, an imprisoned Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the surviving members of Spectre, and impending threats of a new world order at the hands of Safin, a scarred man who takes the mass shooter persona to the world stage. Elegant and like an eel, Malek slips into Safin’s creepy, poisoned exterior like an actor slips on clothing. Creepier roles suit him significantly more than the workaday everymen type he portrayed in The Little Things earlier in the year. He imbues in Safin the ten-mile stare of a man-child unable to move on from the tragedy that created him. When he tells Bond that they are quite alike, the comparison at first reeks of overwriting, as if Neal Purvis and Robert Wade had contrived a reason for he and Bond to face off beyond doomsday planning. But as you listen to him speak of ridding the world of bad seeds and our biggest foibles, Malek and his writers make you believe this man is guided by an inexplicable cause, the same cause driving young men in pursuit of so-called “oblivion.” His tics, these unnerving similarities to such modern phenomena, and the nanobots themselves, a threat which turns mere physical contact into a question of life or death, continues Skyfall’s and Spectre’s tackling of issues relevant to mankind in the 21st century. From cyber-terrorism to surveillance states to viruses, the former battlefield of war has transformed into a sea of invisible enemies. As M (Ralph Fiennes) puts it so eloquently, “we used to be able to get into a room with the enemy, now they’re just floating in the ether.” There are sharks (Silva), squids (Blofeld), even eels (Safin), and none of them are playing by the rules of yesteryear.
Fukunaga continues the Craig era tradition of adding new wrinkles to the man beneath the tie and blazer, finally giving him some measure of catharsis regarding Vesper and allowing him the chance at a life beyond gun barrels and martinis. No Time to Die is primarily about family, from Bond’s futile quest to replace what he lost as a child to Safin’s similar pursuit, Cary’s film finds a number of characters seeking surrogate families at work or elsewhere. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), slightly older now, is clearly a gentler, frumpier soul with a husband at home. Genteel Q (Ben Wishaw), with his tea drawers and time-y gadgets, clearly wants a family of his own as he prepares a nice dinner for a new date. And there’s Bond, not only spiritually betrothed to Madeleine but also expressing a bit of brotherly love for ol’ friend Felix, a sweet gesture that comes at a most proper moment. Safin harbors feelings towards Madeleine himself, an obsession birthed in the film’s opening scene, and his chess moves to “own” her are but a twisted attempt at resolving his own resentments. These two men are in conflict, at odds by virtue of mining of their own legacies. On the cusp of retirement and possibly a healthy relationship, Bond must consider what he wants to leave behind. On the cusp of vengeance and having inherited his father’s estate, Safin must consider how he wishes to shape the world in his own image. One is playing house while the other is playing God, and they are both increasingly apparent as dinosaurs in a world moving on without them, even if they remain highly effective at doing what they do best: killing. Symbols of such abound, like next 007 agent Nomi (Lashana Lynch), clearly the dawn of a new generation, and Paloma (Ana de Armas), a Cuban contact of Felix’s who is insecure, irresponsible, and damn good at her job nonetheless. The latter enjoys one of the most enjoyable moments in the film, when she and Bond stop after a shootout for a quick shot of tequila. Armas is suitably adorable as the C.I.A. wunderkind, popping in for fifteen minutes of movie star decadence.
Linus Sandgren picks up where Roger Deakins and Hoyte Van Hoytema left off, again lending the series a bevy of arresting images, the likes of which more or less did not exist prior to Quantum of Solace. From lush IMAX lensing in the first quarter, granting Matera, Italy’s rocky outcrops, cave dwellings, and antique architecture a pristine opportunity for beauty, to shadowy contrast when Bond and Nomi arrive at Safin’s World War Two island bunker, Sandgren’s work here is nearly on par with his predecessors. Use of IMAX photography fades in the back half of the film, a curious choice given the surplus of action on deck. Given the increasingly personal stakes at hand, however, perhaps such a choice was in order to emphasize the walls closing in around Bond. For Craig, he seizes on the opportunities afforded him here, where Bond is challenged in manners emotional, ethical, and psychological, though another curious choice has him hamstrung in a scene or two: Bond is much talkier this time, which is somewhat jarring given the character’s man-of-few-words aura in the previous four films. By the end, No Time to Die is a toast to the Bond of yore, of the future, of the now. It’s a toast to living instead of fretting. Many of us live to exist, to prevent death or illness at every turn. We can all relate following the last two years, the unfailing desire to avoid risk around every corner. But risk is an element of life, risk is how we use our time if we are to use it well. Though it is no excuse to live irresponsibly, it is how we grow, gain, and eventually, live enjoyably. I lived quite enjoyably watching No Time to Die.