“This never happened to the other fellow” quipped a young, eager George Lazenby in 1969. The opening of Peter R. Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is to date the most self-aware the 007 franchise has run in its nearly six-decade history. It established a winking-but-perhaps-necessary acknowledgment for audiences hesitant to relinquish Sean Connery, as if to say “this will be different, we know, but you’ll be okay.” That sentiment is all over No Time To Die, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga is far from subtle about it. From the car to the music cues to the sentimentality at its core, Fukunaga seems indebted to the sixth Bond outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in a way that has fascinating implications for the series and its future. As the first American at the helm, he appears more than suited to the role. That’s to say nothing of the storied production squabbles and rewrites upon rewrites, but the final output would dictate none of that holds sway. What’s on display here has the trappings of rousing, big entertainment. Given the track record of other Bonds’ final bows, Craig has been gifted a ceremonious farewell. That, for certain, never happened to the other fellows.
But No Time to Die has a Spectre problem—it’s in the details and connective tissue that Craig’s final outing gets bogged down. Fukunaga takes mammoth swings at emotional catharsis not seen since Lazenby in ‘69, but is forced to hinge it all on a flimsy-at-best foundation. If Sam Mendes concluded Spectre by doubling down on Bond’s romance with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) despite severe lack of justifiable chemistry, Fukunaga goes all in. It’s a gamble that goes bust, but to Fukunaga the gamble itself is the enticing part. What stems from it are a series of choices one can’t help admire whether or not they ring true.
Thankfully the director also has a sure hand in the stuff that makes these films so lasting, and with (much-needed) punch-ups from Phoebe Waller-Bridge he proves that the aging spy can still deliver the goods. The heavily marketed car chases in Italy and shootouts in Havana clubs make for some all-time setpieces. Where Mendes occasionally made this part of the job play like perfunctory fan service, Fukunaga and company put genuine care into them, understanding the joys of a tuxedoed lothario slugging down martinis while smiling his way through gunfire. Thus Craig, for his part, seems to actually have fun in spurts. That’s more than can be said for 75% of his tenure in the tux. The boyish, fox-like grin he sports from time to time may just be because he’s got one foot out the door, but it at least plays like the decadent charmer we’ve taken a shine to all these decades.
For all the wagers No Time to Die makes on story, it knows where to confidently place its safe bets: the supporting roster. The quips (there are jokes!) and kicks are channeled perfectly through Lashana Lynch and Ana de Armas. Nothing is wasted on them; they both comprise some of the film’s peaks and carry it through the valleys. In addition to a fun surprise via Billy Magnussen, there are clear attempts at uncut joy here. The dastardly plot from Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin (destined to be one of the franchise’s lesser villains) is refreshingly silly. It’s not as banal as gambling for terrorist funds, hatching land-development schemes, or global surveillance. It’s overwrought and undercooked the way a Bond villain’s machinations ought to be. That whimsy (though constituting only half of the nearly three-hour runtime) is firmly understood on the page and behind the camera. No Time to Die has more heart on its sleeve than perhaps any other Bond entry, yes, but it would be K.I.A. without the explicit grasp of Fukunaga, who seems brave and clever enough to harness the comfortable appeal while forcing drastic change. That kind of brazen filmmaking is frankly shocking from a company like EON, but it’s undoubtedly a hell of a thing to watch.
No Time to Die sees James Bond in a trap trickier than any over-elaborate torture device. It is cornered here, asked to cap an uneven, often-clunky saga while calling for a mulligan on its predecessor. Fukunaga’s good intentions at righting the ship are handcuffed to Spectre’s worst narrative choices. If not necessarily the Craig era’s resounding victory lap some might wish, it’s still an exceptional time in a cinema, begging for the largest screen possible. More importantly, a bold, exciting gesture of good faith in 007’s path forward.
No Time to Die opens in theaters on Friday, October 8.