Going to see the latest installation in the James Bond series, “No Time to Die,” I had a general feeling of what to expect: a worn-out 007 gets reluctantly drawn back into action in the face of a mysterious threat, reassuming his role in the familiar suit-gray colors we’ve come to know and love. There will be car chases, gunfights, a love interest who brings out his softer side, and a dramatic and personal confrontation with the antagonist. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but I expected these elements to coalesce gracefully, and with enough twists and turns to keep me engaged. Instead, “No Time to Die” clumsily handles the plot and fails to build enough momentum to make its numerous surprises feel meaningful, ultimately creating a film that simply feels unfinished.
The writers had no shortage of ideas for interesting plot points, but they failed to follow through on all but a few of them. In the main thread, it appears as if the criminal organization Spectre, recently a staple foe in the Bond franchise, is hatching a new plot. But a new mastermind named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) overshadows Spectre, and starts experimenting with deadly virus-like nanobots, with which he plans to dominate the world. The film would have been much better off sticking to that core story. Instead, I was distracted with a smattering of undercooked subplots that derailed the central narrative.
For example, there are bits and pieces of a resentment-filled relationship between Safin and Bond’s estranged girlfriend, Madeline (Léa Seydoux), but this isn’t well-explored, leaving me with many unanswered questions. For an assignment, Bond (Daniel Craig) meets with a charming rookie CIA agent (Lashana Lynch) whom we never see again once the mission is over. Characters come and go as if they have cameo roles, and I struggled to know who was actually important. The story effectively restarts over and over, making Bond’s main quest difficult to follow.
The film’s editing doesn’t do the suspense-building any favors, either. Many of the scenes are cut off without proper transitions, leaving dialogue hanging like a sentence without a period. And when the shot moves from place to place, there is often no explanation for how the characters arrived there. At the end of a perilous escape from a sinking ship, Bond looks out on the horizon to see a shipping vessel on the horizon. Then, we are cut to him sitting comfortably in a chair in the MI6 headquarters. We can connect the dots as to what might have happened in the interim, but this moment of confusion disrupts the plot flow — and it doesn’t look pretty either. It’s a wonder how, with all these holes in storytelling, the film still manages to be nearly three hours long.
We’ve always known Bond to have a stiff upper lip, but Craig’s performance in this film leads us to believe that this is all there is to him. Living in Italy with his new girlfriend, Madeline, Bond is abruptly thrown back into a familiar world of danger when an explosion nearly kills him at the grave of Vesper, his deceased ex-lover. He suspects that Madeleine set it off out of jealousy, and tells her to get on a train and never see him again. But his expression while watching Madeline drift away from the platform might as well have been the same one he wore while having a sentimental conversation with her earlier, or even while pursued by evil Russians through the streets. There is little more to indicate the emotional quality of this scene other than sappy background music and Madeleine awkwardly running down the train aisle to see him for a bit longer. The actors’ performances somehow not only lack emotion, but subtlety too. For instance, when Madeline affirms her love for Bond upon their reunion later in the film, her effusive declaration seems more like a statement on the shortcomings of the screenplay than of the depth of her feelings.
Bond’s sense of humor also felt stunted. He makes fun of an unfamiliar CIA agent’s uptight demeanor in a way that is more mean-spirited than clever, and I started to feel that he has lost his touch. Just after, he encounters a beautiful woman named Nomi who appears to be seducing him, but who only does so in order to talk with him in private; she is actually an MI6 agent calling him back into action. Apparently, Bond suspected this the whole time and was just playing along. But there is no shift in tone, or witty remarks to give this reveal any semblance of comic relief. The two simply start talking business as if nothing had happened beforehand. The film attempts to cultivate a rivalry between Bond and Nomi, but this only amounts to a few snide remarks and childish one-upmanship. Their entire relationship seems like the result of the writers rummaging through a box of cliches, and stitching a “young upstart making the old veteran feel insecure” into the screenplay without enough passion or creativity.
If you’re coming to the theater simply looking for espionage and some high-octane action, “No Time to Die” does a passable job. After the explosion during Bond’s visit to Vesper’s grave, we feel the force of the blast in a loud ringing effect that muffles all other sound while he staggers to his feet. It emphasizes the jarring transition from his “normal” life to the world of danger he so often finds himself in. I was especially impressed by Bond’s gruelling fight up a metal staircase in Safin’s WWII bunker turned evil lair. Bond has to go from using his own weapons at a distance, to taking cover behind the bodies of his fallen enemies, to finally defeating the last man at the top in a desperate hand-to-hand brawl. This scene actually built suspense, and followed through instead of throwing it away.
As supervillain schemes go, this one is admittedly pretty clever. Although the nanobots spread to everyone who touches an infected person, a given group of nanobots will only kill someone if their DNA has been programmed into it beforehand, and there’s no essentially no way to know if you are one of the targets before it's too late. Even if you aren’t a target, there is no known way to remove them from the body once you catch them, and you can spread them asymptomatically, killing anyone on the DNA database that makes physical contact with you. The story employs the nanobots for some unexpected twists, including a sudden tragedy towards the end which caught me off-guard.
It’s a shame, however, that the film couldn’t convince me to actually care about the characters. Against the choppy storytelling and unmoving dialogue, these big reveals are like a stool missing a few legs, and pretty much fall flat. I wish I could isolate these final few scenes of the film, which do give Daniel Craig a noble sendoff from his role as 007, and have the story leading up to it retold with more focus. Perhaps a muted performance such as this was necessary under the circumstances — if Craig poured his heart into every one of the stories the writers gave him, we would feel exhausted by the time the credits rolled. I’d have liked to see him keep his concentration, and give his all for one or two causes that really mattered to him. In his last performance as James Bond, Craig deserves to put on a show. But sadly, he simply wasn’t given the opportunity.