From “Lawrence of Arabia” to “Iron Man,” from “Casablanca” to “Jaws,” some of the most memorable films ever have gone into production without a completed script — a roll of the dice that would seem particularly insane in this age of nine-figure budgets, and yet reports indicate that’s exactly what happened with Daniel Craig’s fifth and final Bond movie, “No Time to Die.”
In an interview with the Middle East edition of Esquire, director Cary Joji Fukunaga says the writing process continued even as shooting wrapped, saying “there are pieces that Ralph Fiennes [as M] says in the trailer that neither Ralph nor I knew exactly what he was saying it for,” says Fukunaga.
That explains a lot.
There are times during the exciting and engrossing but convoluted and far too long “No Time to Die” when things got so muddled and ambiguous and drawn out, it felt it as I was watching a late-stage rough cut still in need of one last trim or two. (At 2 hours, 43 minutes, this is the longest-running Bond movie ever. Before “No Time To Die,” Make Time to Pee.) Also, it would have been an upset if we DIDN’T get the obligatory megalomaniacal-villain-who-wants-to-destroy-half-the-world-so-he-can-rule-the-other-half, and suffice to say, there’s no upset.
Still, this is a breathtakingly gorgeous, sometimes thrilling, well-acted and suitably profound sendoff to Daniel Craig in all his ice-blue-eyed, tightly wound, gritty gravitas —a Bond who seemed much more of this world than, say Roger Moore’s 007, a Bond who bled when he was cut and bruised when he was beaten, a Bond who grieved deeply for those he lost, a Bond who will be a very, very tough act to follow. Craig was the best James Bond since Sean Connery, and I won’t argue about who was better because each was perfectly suited to their tenor of their respective times.
After a tense and expertly rendered prologue flashback sequence to the childhood of Bond’s “SPECTRE” love interest Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux, excellent), we find James living the good life with Madeleine in Italy. After an explosion and an extended action sequence in which Bond demonstrates he still has a way of out-driving, out-shooting and out-foxing a mere two dozen hired henchmen or so, he puts Madeleine on a train and tells her it’s the last time they’ll see each other. Bond goes off the grid for a prolonged period of time (a la “Skyfall”) and is either forgotten or presumed dead, but just when he thinks he’s out, they pull him — well, you know the drill.
Jeffrey Wright’s world-weary CIA operative Felix Leiter returns, this time with a robotically efficient associate named Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), and they recruit Bond for a mission that will take them to Cuba, where there’s some kind of ridiculous SPECTRE convention taking place, and I’m not kidding.
Suddenly we’re in vintage Bond territory, as James makes contact with a sultry CIA agent named Paloma (Ana de Armas), who is wearing a runway-ready dress and hands Bond a tux that fits him perfectly, and while they share drinks and some banter, this is 2021 so when Bond mistakenly thinks Paloma wants to hook up, she’s having none of it. (Alas, de Armas has less time in “No Time to Die” than she had on the red carpet promoting “No Time to Die.” Perhaps Paloma will resurface in a subsequent Bond movie.)
Meanwhile — and there’s always a lot of meanwhile going on in James Bond’s world — we meet the new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch in a blazingly good performance), who makes it clear she’s not about to give up those digits to this old warhorse, and we also learn about Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin (how’s that for a bad guy name), a terrorist who fancies himself a savior and speaks as if he’s giving a low-energy Ted Talk about how great it is to be a terrorist who fancies himself a savior. (Malek is a great actor, but Safin is all mannerisms and affectations, and when he shouts at his minions, he sounds like a spoiled trust fund baby.)
Christoph Waltz returns as Blofeld, who is locked in a plexiglass cage that looks like an upgraded, sleeked-down version of the cell that once housed Hannibal Lecter. Ralph Fiennes’ M alternates between cagey machinations and old friendships, and perhaps M’s sometimes unconvincing ambiguity can be attributed to the aforementioned unfinished script issues. Thankfully, Ben Whishaw’s Q and Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny are on hand to lend heart and humanity and vulnerability — and loyalty to Bond, even if he’s no longer with the company. Eventually, Seydoux’s Madeleine returns to the action (and to Bond) after years away, and let’s just say the personal stakes for Bond are taken to an unprecedented level when they reunite.
Whether we’re in Great Britain or Norway, Italy or Jamaica (or the legendary Pinewood Studios), “No Time to Die” looks every bit the global adventure, with spectacular backdrops, improbable car chases, missiles flying through the air — and of course, more than a few rounds of quick-cut, hand-to-hand combat.
Daniel Craig’s final moments as Bond rank among the most moving sequences in the history of this franchise, which has long favored the fantastic and the eye-popping in favor of genuine emotional stakes. This time, you might even choke up a little as we close the book on this version of James Bond.