We need a more pungent cliche than “eagerly anticipated”. Delayed more times than Frank Sinatra’s retirement, the latest James Bond film carries a responsibility no smaller than that of opening up the world to post-pandemic liberation. No pressure. We just need you to reassure us that Armageddon has been averted (in the real world and on screen). If that is too much, then just show us some explosions, some expensive cars and some handsome couples making out. We have missed all that.
No Time to Die certainly delivers on that perennial Bond brief. One need only glance at the running time – longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey, longer than the upcoming “epic” Dune – to conclude that this is the most Bond you could ask for. The pre-credit sequence used to last just long enough for Roger Moore to snog an air hostess, drink a quart of champagne and ski jump off a mountain. Here it takes close to half an hour for Billie Eilish to deliver what is now a golden-oldie title song.
As was the case with Spectre, the opening episode is the best thing in the film. Following a pre-pre-credit sequence (trust me, the most Bond ever), we find the retired agent living in unlikely conjugal bliss with boffin Dr Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, still not cracking a smile). Well, that was never going to last.
Surviving an explosion, Bond leaps in his Aston Martin and evades further efforts at annihilation in the most noisy manner imaginable. Aged owners of the Corgi version of that car will feel themselves transported back to blue remembered hills. Aged owners of thumbed soundtrack LPs will savour a well-chosen reprise of an earlier theme song. Cary Joji Fukunaga directs the action with much tasty crunch and some unsettling splat.
Then, alas, No Time to Die goes off the boil for a spell. We have never much cared about the plot of these things, but they are usually composed with a little more discipline. Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), Bond’s old pal from the CIA, turns up with news of a missing scientist who has been working on deadly nanotechnology. The two men compete with our hero’s old firm to recapture the nerd and, in the process, run up against the mad Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) and his deranged minions in Spectre. And blah, blah, blah.
The dastardly plot is used as a vehicle to take us from familiar tropes to more contemporary variations on the now-ancient Bond mechanics. Nobody will mistake No Time to Die for a work of feminism, but the women are given agency and character. As you will no doubt already be aware, in a tasty dig at the “boo-hoo, it’s all gone ‘woke’” crowd, the designation “007” has, while Bond was away, been taken over by a black woman (the charismatic Lashana Lynch). “Send in 007. You can go, Bond,” M (Ralph Fiennes) says at one point. That works. Madeleine is Bond’s equal in other ways. That also works.
All of which makes the underuse of Ana de Armas more peculiar. Appearing briefly in a Cuban episode, the talented actor seems to have been cast purely to provide purists with something like an old-school “Bond Girl”. Will the outgoing incumbent have his way with her? That would be spoiling. But we can say that, though he is still happy to blow away an opposing underling with barely a scruple, James Bond is more open to emotional connection with his romantic partners than at any time since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Even an actor as good as Craig struggles to make sense of that more sensitive, more sharing version of James Bond. Too many opposing cogs are creaking within a psyche that has never been much at home to contradiction.
Then, towards the close, it comes together in such stirring form that only the most awkward customer will leave unsatisfied. Little of the credit goes to Rami Malek, whose villain is no more than an off-the-peg doolally megalomaniac. Waltz again fails to flesh out this version of Blofeld. But the rest of the team rally for – unless Craig changes his mind again – a satisfactory valediction to the longest reign so far in the Bond dynasty.
Now gird your loins for six months of “next James Bond” think pieces.
In cinemas on September 30th