‘No Time to Die’ review: Daniel Craig leads a fond Bond farewell, both nostalgic and grim

Daniel Craig in "No Time to Die." ( MGM Studios/TNS)
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Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune (TNS)

As Robert Graves wrote when he was ridding himself of stultifying English conventions, a generation before Sir Ian Fleming created James Bond: Goodbye to all that.

Watching the final Daniel Craig iteration of 007 settle his affairs and get right with his emotions in “No Time to Die,” the most plainly divided of all the Bond movies — nostalgic-retro, depressive-ashen, frisky-jokey, apocalyptic-sentimental — one can’t help but think a dozen hyphenated things at once.

Let’s start with: Good-great job, Mr. Craig.

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Fleming’s visual conception of the chain-smoking, borderline-alcoholic intelligence agent with the “cruel” mouth may have been modeled on Hoagy Carmichael, as various characters in Fleming’s stories noted. But Craig was his own guy, surly, hunky, bat-eared and unpredictably coiled. He was the Bond the franchise needed, when it needed it: grave, full of tamped-down, barely concealed rage, a man introduced in “Casino Royale” (2006) in swim trunks that said HELLO! but enough of a broken figure in need of healing to justify the long, therapeutic goodbye of this movie. Here’s the official review, for your eyes only, never to be shared, though of course we should never say never again.

“No Time to Die” was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who made the superb “Beasts of No Nation” (now on Criterion). Working from a script he cowrote with several writers, including “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, this is an autumnal spy blockbuster of no fixed mood or attitude but a pleasingly expensive air of life on an unlimited expense account.

Somehow that oscillating tone becomes this film’s strength, not its weakness. It’s overlong (the longest Bond yet, at 163 minutes), and Rami Malek’s murmuring supervillain isn’t really much. Malek is a fine, distinctive presence but he’s never been much for the pace of a scene. The movie, luckily, has enough rhythmic and emotional change-ups to compensate. I like “No Time to Die” partly for reasons I really like director Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi”: It’ll enrage the purists who live in constant fear their adolescent memories are about to be destroyed.

It starts on a winding road on the Italian coastline, with Bond and his steady, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), on a personal farewell mission. Bond’s great love Vesper Lynn lies buried nearby and Bond is visiting her grave before he and Swann can move on to whatever’s next. Cozying up to a daughter of SPECTRE: never wise. Oh, James!

Five years later Bond’s retired in Jamaica, then pulled out of his shell by his old CIA pal Felix (Jeffrey Wright). There’s a job in Cuba that needs doing, and as the globe-trotting commences — I haven’t mentioned the Norwegian prologue, introducing Swann’s childhood trauma into the story — Bond meets up with two women worth noting.

Ana de Armas, Craig’s co-star in “Knives Out,” plays an operative who seems overmatched by the assignment but turns out to be terrific, a screwball heroine lost, but found, in a Bond picture. Here, too, Lashana Lynch enters the action in the Cuba scenes (something to do with Blofeld and SPECTRE and mass killings at a birthday party) as 007′s MI6 colleague. The women truly register on the movie’s radar in a way that’s unusual for this series, even among the better Craig-as-Bond years.

Anytime a screen Bond chugs past the age of 50, the old-man “dinosaur” references commence, and “No Time to Die” does its duty. One scene featuring the now-incarcerated Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) has him tauntingly referring to Bond and himself as “old men” stuck in their respective New World Order roles. The spy games have gone on a while for both. As a commercial action filmmaker for hire, Fukunaga is trying, and mostly succeeding, to run with that idea, while leaning into the script’s meaner, heavier, rougher stretches, particularly in the final 40 minutes or so. (The first half of the movie’s considerably more fun.)

Bond of course will be back, as the end credits remind us. As the movie itself reminds us — twice, in a bit of office politicking involving 007′s official designation once he slumps out of retirement — “it’s just a number.” Well, that’s a lie, just as for many characters in “No Time to Die,” the title lies like a Connery-era Bond girl on a bearskin rug. My own moviegoing history with Bond started with Roger Moore and the inarguably racist and inarguably popular “Live and Let Die,” at age 12. I remember my parents getting a sitter three years earlier so they could see “Diamonds Are Forever.” I remember seeing “The Spy Who Loved Me” with my dad a few years later. (It’s the best of the Moore outings.) I remember seeing Craig in “Casino Royale” 15 years ago and feeling gratified that we were back on planet Earth, with relatively human-scaled crises. (What is testicle-smashing if not a human-scaled crisis?)

As a culture, we’re hardly ready to say goodbye to all this. I appreciate director Fukunaga’s confident, swank handling of the action, and his juggling of tones. Transitional shots such as the enemy agents descending a London skyscraper exterior are pure visual class. Bond coming out of retirement in “No Time to Die” coincides somewhat awkwardly with Craig stuck on the runway of his own Bond retirement party for nearly two years longer than expected. But as bittersweet farewells go, this one’s quite good. Also, in a pandemic when many of us are still working at home, isn’t it nice to imagine bumping into Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny or Ralph Fiennes’s M, that old basset hound, in the hallways on the way to lunch?

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‘NO TIME TO DIE’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive material)

Running time: 2:43

Where to watch: In theaters Friday

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