In 2021, when the world we knew no longer exists, the 25th James Bond film, No Time to Die, quite befittingly carries a sense of wounded vulnerability. Bond (Daniel Craig), too, is not the same anymore. No longer working for MI6, he’s vacationing in Italy with his wife, Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), at the start of the film. The intelligence agency has a new 007 agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch).
But the ‘spectre’ of terror is never too far, and Bond is sucked into the whirlpool five years later, when an MI6 scientist, who has developed bioweapons capable of mass infection (a prescient plot point given the film was slated to release in April 2020), is kidnapped. The hunt for the vicious mastermind, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), completes this tiered circular plot, which starts with the death of Madeleine’s mother decades ago and meets a (literal) explosive finale that is not just bullets and bombs but also poignant dilemmas and personal loss.
For the final film in the Craig-Bond franchise, the climax signals multiple ends.
Directed by Cary Fukunaga, No Time to Die has a sprawling yet sharp plot. With a runtime of 163 minutes, the thriller soaks multiple settings – Italy, Jamaica, London, an island between Japan and Russia – but the clear-eyed writing (by Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge) keeps it focused. Even though it suffers from sporadic flab, especially in the initial action sequences, and the antagonist-driven main plot doesn’t appear till late in the movie, the ascending stakes invite near-constant engagement.
And then, there are the usual elements of a Bond franchise: understated humour (complemented here by some smart wordplay), evocative cinematography (which doesn’t strain to be visually striking, but many compositions hit the sweet spot at the opportune moment – even during transition shots), and an excellent ensemble (comprising impressive additions in Lynch and Malek).
In fact, it is No Time to Die’s curious bi-polar nature – melding relaxed pace and devastating stakes, dread and pathos – that marks the film’s dichotomous, internal and external, journeys.
There is a world to be saved, yes, but what about those who mean the world to you?
The screenplay’s smartness, then, lies in withholding crucial plot elements and revealing them later, so that the movie expands its ambit gradually, inviting and unsettling the audiences at the same time.
But even a piece like No Time to Die sometimes succumbs to the default setting of the genre: the invincibility of the protagonist – and the easy victories greeting him at several turns, making his escape seem destined. Nothing can faze Bond: bullets, bombs, blaze. The thriller starts coming together, however, when several subplots and characters intersect, such as the reunion of Bond and Madeleine (who had parted ways when the spy had accused her of betraying her); Madeleine and her childhood tormentor, Safin; and a short striking meeting between Bond and Blofeld (Waltz). This slow, yet increasingly heady concoction, sets up the perfect stage for the inevitable devastating climax.
The final piece in the puzzle is of course Safin, and it is here that the film departs from its otherwise original writing and takes refuge in recognisable tropes. Safin, like many villains in a ‘superhero’ universe, is almost a… cliché: calm, cruel, soft-spoken.
Besides his tired (and disproportionate) motivation – of taking “revenge” – the writing tries to force-fit the similarities between him and Bond, an interpretation so common that one of its most renowned exponents, The Dark Knight, is 13 years old. Safin likens himself to an “invisible God”, saying he’s made Bond redundant. He’s even called “dispassionate”, as if that wasn’t already evident. But Malek, a terrific actor, brings all his thespian might to the role, giving it a scent of originality and, some much needed, credence.
The most impressive part about the film emerges in its final act, when it turns inwards, and we see a softer and more reflective Bond. That sense of fear and loss – of discarding cool detachment in lieu of craving something personal and real – is quite striking.
But on top of that, what really stays with you is screenwriting restraint. It’d have been easy to get carried away by this new outlet of emotions and stories, especially as Madeleine’s five-year-old daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), appears near the climax, but the makers always keep the big picture in mind. It’s evident even till the very end when, amid large-scale detonations, Bond is compelled to make a crucial decision: not as a veteran spy, or captain cool, but as a husband, as a father.
Bond, to no one’s surprise, saves the world yet again, but he does it at a cost – marked by maddening confusion – that, fleetingly, transmutes him from an on-screen demi-god into a regular audience member.