For those whose cinematic consciousness predates “Star Wars,” the James Bond series may be the primordial experience of franchise films, with all the pleasures and limitations that they entail. The appealing predictability of familiar characters and the excitement of seeing variations on their themes has always gone hand in hand with a sense of overmanagement—of the strings being pulled by some puppeteer far from the set. The feeling that what’s onscreen is inseparable from the demands of the balance sheet has never been absent from the Bond market, and the five entries starring Daniel Craig have only intensified it. Together, the Craig films interconnect to form a sort of Bond cinematic universe whose parts slot all too neatly into a series, with all the dramatic engineering that it implies. The most recent and final Craig film, “No Time to Die,” directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is in that sense a culmination of the series’ necessities, with the boardroom and the writers’ room virtually taking the place of any cinematic action.
On the other hand, the series’ essential virtue was always its extravagant exaggerations—it was gloriously ridiculous and gloriously lacking in self-awareness, its macho ribaldry invested with absurdly high purpose. In the Daniel Craig era, there’s no sense of unconscious or excess expression—it has been digitized out along with any intentional humor. The devices that Bond and his compatriots use are hardly a step from Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone, as are the switch-operated gizmos of his Aston Martin. Yet their depiction and use are so perfunctory that they’re presented as neither silly nor ordinary, just checked off. Craig is a great actor who brings a distinctive affect to Bond—clenched, airtight, impenetrable, abraded. He makes Bond’s social graces seem like the product of work that’s harder than the athleticized superhero business imposed upon the character. Craig’s distinctive persona suggests pathos that the series doesn’t allow; instead, he’s merely used as a Bond-piñata, a straining for an element of realism amid stunts that, in their grandiosity and their excess, preclude it. In “No Time to Die,” Bond is launched with mourning and melancholy: he and his new partner, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), visit the Italian town of Matera, where the tomb of Vesper Lynd (from “Casino Royale”) is found. Bond visits her tomb—which explodes, as a prelude to a mighty chase and shoot-out. He survives but immediately ends the romance with Madeleine, whom he suspects of setting him up.
Five years later, Bond, retired to Jamaica, gets a visit from an old associate, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), of the C.I.A., along with a smarmy young State Department official named Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen). They want Bond’s help in finding a scientist named Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik), who has been kidnapped from a high-security bioweapon facility with a dreadful concoction in hand: a mortal virus-like nanobot, transmitted on contact and engineered to target specific DNA markers, whether of an individual, a family, or an ethnicity. But it takes a visit, that very night, from another M.I.6 operative, Nomi (Lashana Lynch)—who now bears Bond’s former number, 007—to persuade Bond of the urgency of the mission, and he joins in. It seems that Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), Bond’s longtime nemesis (dating back to childhood, as we now know), and Blofeld’s dastardly organization Spectre, is behind the kidnapping. But, infiltrating a Spectre gathering in Cuba, Bond and Nomi note the involvement of another evil mastermind, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), and the mission now involves targeting him along with Obruchev.
Yet “No Time to Die” offers a new piece of the puzzle, a bit of backstory that’s of obvious and major significance (shh) and that, by its very nature, suggests what’s both right and wrong with the franchise reboot in the Craig era. In the film’s opening, pre-title sequence, Madeleine is a child of about five (played by Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), staying with her mother (Mathilde Bourbin) in an isolated house in a snowy field and yearning for the return of her father (Mr. White, introduced in “Casino Royale”). She thinks he’s a doctor; her mother reveals that he’s a killer. Moments later, a masked gunman—Safin—shows up and breaks in. When Safin was a child, he explains, Mr. White killed his entire family, leaving only Safin to survive. Now, seeking revenge, he kills Madeleine’s mother, and prepares to kill the fleeing Madeleine, yet—in a moment of pity that may also carry an element of self-recognition—lets her go. (The moment, like so many others in the film, is merely conveyed in an informative wink rather than actually unfurled at any length.) Along with imparting the trauma and grief that Madeleine bears, the sequence insures that, later in the film, when Safin intrudes into Bond’s affairs, Madeleine can’t be far behind.
This setup implies a broader question about the role and use of backstory in recent movies. In principle, the prevalence of backstory advances an overdue democratization of the cinema: it eliminates the notion of typecasting and recognizes that each individual’s background and experience are distinctive and significant. Yet, like any dramatic method, the planting of backstory can take a decadent form, as it does in “No Time to Die,” where backstory is used to reduce the characters’ motives to single factors. With the setting up of one past experience, the movie bypasses any consideration of Madeleine (let alone Safin) as a character and turns her into a dramatic mechanism—rendering her not more of an individual but less of one. Fascinatingly and dismayingly, backstories are applied only very selectively and deterministically in “No Time to Die.” The movie brings several important new characters into the franchise, starting with Nomi, the new 007, who is a Black woman, and including Paloma (Ana de Armas), a C.I.A. agent who guides Bond into the Spectre meeting in Cuba. (The closest thing to humor that the movie offers is in the contrast between Paloma’s sunny ingenuousness and her mighty skills.) What motives prompted this admirably diverse cast of characters to serve their country in dangerous missions? What range of experience contributed to their ability to do so? The film never says. The diversity here is purely pictorial.
The formulaic drama is of a piece with the movie’s action sequences, which exhaust their ingenuity from the get-go, with the Matera chase and shoot-out. The single best moment is the very first, when, on a narrow bridge, Bond dodges a speeding car with a deft dive behind a convenient lump of concrete. The action soon grows wilder—a leap while holding a cable and a rough landing, a motorcycle jaunt up staircases and over a wall—and briefly offers a moment of tension, with Bond and Madeleine together in the Aston Martin while facing a barrage of bullets that the car’s windows barely withstand. (Bond’s stoic stillness in the face of Madeleine’s panic is also Craig’s best moment.) But, despite these (very brief) clever touches, the filming does this and other set pieces scant justice. Little attention is given to staging and placing, to ensembles and their timing, to the practicalities of massive stunts, whether chase scenes or shoot-outs or trouble on the high seas. What matters isn’t spatial coherence—which is only a virtue in real estate—but coherence of ideas, of emotions, of images. The shots, whether brief and collaged together or closely following Bond in motion, do little but convey the general concept or the basic facts, the input and the outcome. The rapid cutting and rapid camera movement don’t make the action hard to understand; they make it hard to enjoy. For all the agony that the story’s violence suggests, and the sense of rueful wonder, of horrified fascination, that it depends on, the filming gives no sense of experience either onscreen or behind it—merely a sense of dutiful, approximative technique.
“No Time to Die” wants it both ways: it makes watching violent shoot-outs and colossal catastrophes pleasurable while depicting them merely functionally, a coy fusion of the sumptuous and the abstemious. Similarly, the story is built upon an emotional foundation of melancholy and regret, of the sins of the fathers and the pain of their redemption. But these aspects of the drama get neither discussed nor developed, merely signified in the sweep of the action. Moreover, the story is almost completely depoliticized; the only hint of a viewpoint is when Ash is derisively pinpointed as a “political appointee.” All that remains, besides the vapors of nostalgia, are the broad contours of the drama, which are less matters of character or history than of positioning in the movie marketplace. Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond is defined, ultimately, by the melancholy of unimagined possibilities and missed opportunities—for the actor and the character alike.