We all have our own relationship with James Bond. Mine goes back to being high school age, giggling over popcorn as Roger Moore said wisecracky things and drank martinis and drove too fast and … well, I was never quite sure what exactly Bond was doing over there in the British Secret Service, whatever that was, but it all felt terribly grown-up and fun. And though now I’m older and presumably a tad wiser, my Bond-meter seems to have been permanently set long ago. Bond movies are supposed to be fun, and while I’ve found a lot to admire in the Daniel Craig era (my favorite: “Skyfall,” for the Roger Deakins cinematography and for the great Judi Dench), I do miss the silliness.
I share this background because how you respond to “No Time to Die,” Craig’s fifth and final Bond outing (he’s long said this would be his last), might have a lot to do with how your personal Bond-meter is set. There’s a lot of validity to the idea of a grittier Bond, one who’s faced the darkness inherent in getting shot at all the time — one who’s, my goodness, growing and developing as a person — and the Craig movies embraced that. But all that darkness isn’t much fun, particularly when the world has quite enough darkness already. “No Time to Die” has moments of pleasure, lots of them, but ultimately it feels heavy in a way a Bond movie shouldn’t; its pacing is off and it can’t quite sell the earnestness and even sentimentality of much of its storyline. (And of course it’s way too long at 163 minutes. Be forewarned.)
Things pick up here just after the events of “Spectre,” with Bond and psychologist/love object/Woman-With-a-Secret Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) having an idyllic canoodle in a stunning Italian hotel (really, we should have gotten a few more shots of that room). Suddenly, the past intrudes, explosions ring out, secrets are revealed, some truly excellent motorcycle-riding is executed (by Bond, natch), and our star-crossed lovers part. For some movies, this would be an entire plot; for a Bond movie, it’s just a pre-credit sequence (albeit a very long one). “Five years later,” the screen informs us, Bond is retired in Jamaica but gets pulled back into The Life — one last heist, as it were — thanks to archvillain Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), whose name alone tells us all we need to know. (Well, that and his weird cracked-glass complexion.)
Spoilers abound in this movie, so I’ll just say that it’s a treat to see a few old friends again — Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw’s Q (and to meet Q’s cat!), Ralph Fiennes’ M — and to get acquainted with some new ones, most notably Lashana Lynch’s extremely badass new 007, Nomi, who demonstrates an uncanny ability to fire a gun while simultaneously dragging some unfortunate fellow by the scruff of the neck. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the first American to direct a Bond movie, gets good work from the actors (I also enjoyed a sly turn by Ana de Armas as a brand-new and very chic spy), but struggles with pace. Some of the action scenes are whip-quick and thrilling, such as an early one on a bridge; but the movie’s second half drags, with Malek never quite getting the impact his character should.
And Craig, in his swan song? Well, he looks splendid in his tux, and takes more bullets than seems proper, and every now and then gives the teeniest hint that he might be having a bit of fun. But just a hint. My favorite moment in this movie, weirdly, had nothing to do with action or plot or fashion: Bond, wearing a visitor’s pass at MI6 headquarters, leaves in a suave huff, tearing off the pass and tossing it in the general direction of Moneypenny’s wastebasket. It soars elegantly through the air and lands in the basket, perfectly; he doesn’t even notice, because he knew it would. That’s Bond. James Bond. May he return, in another actor’s capable hands — and bring a little more escapism with him next time.