Back when I begrudgingly picked Spectre over Skyfall as a better James Bond movie, I hadn’t seen No Time to Die. I said that I’d heard that the latest movie was even more self-referential than Spectre is, and I couldn’t imagine how that was possible.
Now that I’ve seen it — I made sure to watch it a couple of months after its theatrical release, so that I both missed seeing it on a big screen and had the privilege of playing big-screen prices to rent it — I’d agree that it is even more self-referential than any of the others. But instead of just going through the motions, it feels like a celebration of the franchise.
I think No Time to Die is the easily the second best of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, after Casino Royale. The problem is that the first half was on track to be my favorite of any of the Bond movies. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes long, and it really does feel like two Bond movies smashed together: the first is absolutely fantastic, but the second just descends into the same kind of muddled mess as the last three. Repeating the same old story beats to try and bridge the way into the final act, which is a journey into a supervillain lair filled with plot developments that just don’t make sense.
But this is about the positives! And even as the plot starts to fall apart, the movie nails the tone throughout. It feels like the only one of the Craig movies that fully embraces being part of the James Bond franchise, instead of poking fun at it or trying to turn it into something deeper and more mature. There are stunningly gorgeous locations, impressively over-the-top stunts, three disfigured villains, beautiful women kicking ass, and double-crosses piled on top of double-crosses. Bond even (finally?) makes a lame quip after murdering a guy.
The movie’s front-loaded with great, genuinely tense action sequences: one in a flashback, a blockbuster of a sequence in Italy, and then another in Cuba bringing multiple agents together. That last one is the one that brings in Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch, giving them guns and plenty of opportunities for stunts, so that it’s not just Craig getting all the action. Ana de Armas is just as great as all the buzz had led me to believe, but I wish Lashana Lynch had been given more to do. It mostly feels like she’s there for no reason other than to escort Craig out of the franchise.
Those sequences flow together so well that it had me thinking the entire series has been like a machine learning algorithm: iterating on the James Bond formula (and throwing the Jason Bourne movies into the dataset) repeatedly until it got everything right. No Time to Die seemed to be incorporating something from every incarnation of Bond — not just the cars and the “shaken, not stirred” martinis, but everything. The cars and the Caribbean locations called back to Connery, the henchman Cyclops to Roger Moore and Jaws, the doomed love affair to Lazenby, the sequence with Felix Leiter back to Dalton’s version, the over-the-top stunts back to Pierce Brosnan (I guess?), and the production design (plus the mentions of Vesper Lynd) to Skyfall and Quantum of Solace.
And those are just the references I picked up on. I got the sense that the entire movie was a celebration of the movies. Not just the culmination of Daniel Craig’s run, but of the entire series.
Best of all, it was the first one I’ve seen in forever that felt like it knew what it was. These movies have been so dour and so expensive for so long, that any time they embraced the silliness of the Bond franchise, it felt like a clumsy mis-step. No Time to Die seemed to get that the series is best when it’s clever, fun spectacle. When the movie is fully aware of its own absurdity, but Bond and all the characters surrounding him are treating it like the entire world is truly in jeopardy and that they’re all essentially super-heroes capable of taking care of it.
Also, the movie is so adamant about being contemporary that for the first time, I’m re-thinking my opinion that future installments should be set in the Cold War. Q isn’t just played by a gay actor, but specifically mentions having a man over for a dinner date. Paloma plays up her own naivete and enthusiasm (and is, obviously, preternaturally gorgeous), but is in absolutely no danger of being seduced by Bond. Nomi isn’t just presented as a competent agent with her own sense of Bond-like vanity and self-confidence, but her identity as a black woman isn’t just treated as incidental, either — a villain boasts to her that he’d be able to wipe out everyone of the “West African diaspora,” and it doesn’t go well for him at all. And Moneypenny has been completely transformed from a lovesick secretary to someone who respects Bond for being able to get the job done, more often than not.
No Time to Die feels like a series that’s finally matured enough to have fun with itself. It’s acknowledging that it can no longer treat homosexuals and non-white people as exotic oddities, or women as either sexy victims or femme fatales. But more important than that, it recognizes that Bond as murderous lecherous super-hero isn’t the core of what makes the franchise. It’s not just trying to re-hash the past, or over-correct for the past, or pretend to be anything that it’s not. Much of it has the spark that makes for the best Bond movies: spectacle, travel, memorable henchmen, and over-the-top action.