Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
No Time to Die works variations on the Bond formula, but also holds tight to the chocolate-box goodies we expect. Among the latter: a villain with a false eye that pops out, a car that proves incredibly bullet-proof (an inspired moment in the early going, because there’s actually an emotional urgency to the gradually splintering glass), gadgets and stunts, and an uber-villain who talks too much. And the variations? Partly they come at the beginning and end, and while we’ll skip being specific about the ending here, the opening is worth noting. Instead of a big action sequence as a self-contained set-piece, No Time to Die presents a slow-building collection of scenes, which tie together with previous Bond pictures in the Daniel Craig series but also kick us forward into the specifics of this one. (In the midst of which is a terrific action sequence, in a seaside Italian town.) I’m not sure how many minutes go by before the Billie Eilish song hits the opening credits, but as we spend minutes with Bond being lovestruck and a particularly swoony musical callback to 007 history, you will likely think, as I did, “So this is why the damn thing is 163 minutes long.”
As it happens, I think the damn thing wears its length pretty well. It has no interest in serving adrenaline junkies, which I like, although this seems to have led some critics to describe it as pokey. What it lacks in speed in makes up for in attitude, as the glum mood of the previous couple of Craig titles is leavened with humor and a certain pleasing deftness. Part of that has to do with capable playing by the likes of Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas, and Ben Whishaw, who are so on top of their lines it allows Craig to lay back and react, which is a good look for James Bond. (Nevertheless, I don’t see why the connoisseur part of 007’s persona is so ignored these days; when he picks up a bottle of wine from the table where Q is preparing dinner for a prospective boyfriend, would it have killed somebody to have Bond comment on the terroir of the vintage? Sheesh.) I even enjoyed Christoph Waltz, who never phones it in, in his brief round of mustache-twirling; in fact, the only out-and-out dud in the roster is Rami Malek, doing his patented glazed-over routine as a scarred survivor of (I think) Dioxin.
Director Cary Fukunaga, working from the usual tag-team of screenwriters (but also with the unusual Phoebe Waller-Bridge), is very canny about deploying the bonbons, laying on the sun-drenched Dr. No vibe of Jamaica here, mounting a shoot-out in a foggy forest there. (I must say I found the overall image mystifyingly dim, although this may have been an artifact of the theater that held the press screening.) A running gag about Lynch’s character carrying the new 007 license, much to Bond’s irritation, is well-deployed, and Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter is given just the right amount of space, as is his new American sidekick (Billy Magnussen) who “smiles too much.” Even the very final images of the film are a clever reference to a certain indelible 007 visual signature.
In fact, it’s all so clever, so well thought-out, that there’s almost nothing in No Time to Die (outside the stuntwork) that resembles life—and I don’t mean “real life,” because god knows there’s no need for that in this circumstances, but just life, liveliness, oomph, wildness. With the production company that carefully oversees the franchise, there probably never will be that kind of oomph again, even if the products are often enjoyable. Is there any reason they couldn’t have the Coen brothers whip up a standalone story for the next Bond? That would bring the oomph.
Anyway, to be clear: This product is enjoyable. And I liked that the ending goes for it, too. Is it the movie we need now, for audiences venturing back to theaters in times of pandemic? I can think of many others, but yes, this one will do.
October 8, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.