Originally slated to open in November of 2019, the 25th official 007 adventure “No Time to Die” was first rescheduled before it even started shooting, due to the departure of director Danny Boyle during preproduction, and was then famously delayed several more times between April of 2020 and this week’s actual, “at long last” opening. The high-profile blockbuster quickly became a poster child for pandemic motion picture postponements and something of a running joke among friends separated during lockdowns — “see you at the James Bond movie” became our wistful refrain — while the studio blew lord knows how many millions of dollars on abandoned advertising campaigns. (Daniel Craig was promoting the film when he hosted “Saturday Night Live” 19 months ago.) After surviving such a frightening, frustrating time, finally sitting down in a theater to watch the new chapter in cinema’s longest-running franchise can’t help but feel like something more than just another Bond picture: it’s a sign of a world on its way back to normal. 007 might be two years late, but he feels right on time.
It helps that the movie’s pretty good, too. “No Time to Die” is the best Bond since Craig’s initial outing in “Casino Royale,” and the first since the character’s 2006 re-introduction to remember that these films are supposed to be funny. The increasingly dour Daniel Craig installments bogged down 007 with a tragic family history and all sorts of miserable emotional baggage unbecoming of a character whose appeal is rooted in his playboy panache. (I don’t go to these movies to hear about James Bond’s sad childhood. I like him because he likes martinis, cool gadgets and having sex.) Thanks presumably to a well-publicized dialogue polish by “Fleabag” writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “No Time to Die” is full of punchy, prickly banter and has a refreshing silly streak. Characters who would normally be glowering exposition machines are all a little loopy and slightly off-center. For a lumbering, 163-minute blockbuster it’s surprisingly light on its feet, if still egregiously overlong.
Conceived as a farewell tour for Craig — who initially intended to bow out after 2015’s dismal “Spectre” but couldn’t bear to leave on such a bum note — the movie attempts to tie up all sorts of dangling plot threads from the previous four pictures that should never have been serialized in the first place. The most beautiful thing about James Bond movies is that up until recently they were blessedly free from continuity. You could fall asleep in front of the annual Thanksgiving marathon on TBS in a tryptophan coma and it wouldn’t matter which movie was running when you woke up. You don’t just have different actors playing Bond, sometimes the same supporting actors play different characters. (“Who is Joe Don Baker supposed to be in this one again?”) That’s how you got 007 facing off against Blofeld in “You Only Live Twice” and then the two meeting for the first time in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” two years hence. Bond’s wife was murdered in that 1969 film’s shattering final scene, her name never mentioned again until 1981’s “For Your Eyes Only,” six movies later.
But you can’t get away with being so laissez faire about franchise mythology these days, which is probably why “No Time to Die” begins with Craig visiting the grave of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, who stole his heart (and mine) in “Casino Royale” some 15 years ago. I had absolutely no recollection of the revelation in “Spectre” that her murderer was the father of 007’s latest love interest, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who believe it or not is the first Bond Girl ever to carry over into the next movie and curiously, also the one with whom he has the worst chemistry. The pre-credit sequence tends to so much business I’d forgotten from “Spectre” that it briefly felt like I was being called on in class and hadn’t done the reading, but then luckily for us there’s a big betrayal before the movie begins again in earnest with a bad Billie Eilish song.
We pick up five years later with the retired Bond coaxed back into action, working for the CIA alongside his shady old American drinking buddy Felix Leiter (played again by an enormously entertaining Jeffrey Wright) only to find himself being shooed off the case by Lashana Lynch’s svelte new Agent 007. “I bet you thought they’d retire the number,” she teases. The frosty relationship between Bond and his former employers at Her Majesty’s Secret Service eventually thaws during the race to recapture a gloriously goofy assassination device that runs on nanobot technology spread via skin-to-skin human contact. (How eerie that the plot of the most high-profile pandemic-delayed blockbuster could be solved by social distancing.) I loved every ridiculous flourish of this nonsense, especially Blofeld’s henchmen wearing ill-fitting bionic eyes that transmit what they see to his secure prison location. Even better is the villain’s secret island lair surrounded by poisonous plants.
Even before the space disco hijinks of “Moonraker,” Bond movies have always been adorably a little behind their times, desperately trend-chasing and retrofitting the basic character tropes around whatever’s fashionable at the moment they’re filming, so by the time they arrive in theaters they can’t help but be a couple steps in back of the zeitgeist. (Like when Bond discovered blaxploitation in “Live and Let Die.”) Young people like to write essays saying these movies “age badly,” but I think that’s what makes them such fun time capsules. It’s why Timothy Dalton’s 1989 sophomore effort “License to Kill” was like a two-hour “Miami Vice” episode right when the show was getting canceled, and even a movie as recent as Craig’s “Casino Royale” has a hilarious mid-2000s date-stamp on it with all the parkour, Texas hold ’em and a Chris Cornell song. “Skyfall” was for all intents and purposes a Batman movie with Javier Bardem as the Joker, fixated on Bond’s dead parents and giving him an Alfred the Butler played by Albert Finney. And what was the messy serialization and frantic retconning of “Spectre” but an attempt to build 007 his own Marvel Cinematic Universe?
“No Time to Die” is deeply derivative of the “Mission: Impossible” and “Fast & Furious” movies, which themselves owe so much to old James Bond pictures there’s a pleasing ouroboros effect. The post-“Avengers” emphasis on teamwork once again has Ralph Fiennes’ M and Naomie Harris’ Miss Moneypenny getting in on the action, but with Waller-Bridge writing the one-liners you won’t mind how crowded these scenes can sometimes get. (I’d actually have preferred a standalone adventure that was just Bond cracking wise with his replacement. Craig really sparkles working off anyone who isn’t Seydoux. A mid-movie detour with Ana de Armas’ deceptively ditzy secret agent is the film’s screwball highlight, especially when the two pause mid-action scene to enjoy a cocktail.)
But maybe most importantly, this is a big movie. Not just in its elephantine running time but in director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s commitment to widescreen spectacle. Shot using 65mm IMAX cameras for the action sequences and establishing shots, the movie is bloody massive. We’ve grown so used to crummy-looking superhero sagas being shot in green-screened Georgia warehouses with backgrounds composited in later via computer, it probably shouldn’t be this exciting that someone decided to go to actual places and photograph real people doing stuff in staggeringly beautiful locations. Bond movies are all about sensual pleasure, and after a year and a half stuck at home the gratuitous globe-trotting is especially appreciated. Judging from box office trends and my own unscientific anecdotal evidence, “No Time to Die” is probably going to be a lot of people’s first movie back at the movie theater. The screening I went to had a videotaped intro from a tuxedo-clad Daniel Craig thanking us all for coming to see it on a big screen. Sure, it’s a little long and more than a little bit ridiculous, but this enormous scale is the kind of pleasure you can only get at the movies, and the comfort you get from a character you’ve known your entire life, even though they don’t let 007 smoke cigarettes or screw around anymore. (They’re still apparently allowed to have fun with his insane alcoholism, though.)
However ironic in this case, the closing credits once again inform us that “James Bond Will Return.” I hope he will. And I hope we’ll keep coming back to the movies, too.
“No Time to Die” is in theaters beginning Oct. 8.