No Time To Die (4 stars)

No Time To Die

Daniel Craig's highly enjoyable final hurrah pits his Bond against dual adversaries

'C'mon, it'll be like old times,' Jeffrey Wright's CIA agent Felix Leiter promises a retired James Bond – played for the fifth time by Daniel Craig – as he tries to lure him back into action. The actor's own reluctance to return to the no-doubt highly demanding role, for at least the last couple of instalments, has been well-reported but this, we're assured, is his final effort. With Sam Mendes vacating the director's chair following the wildly successful Skyfall and Spectre, the excellent Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Beasts Of No Nation) replaces him.

Pre-credits scenes find a loved-up and free-as-a-bird Bond in Italy's Matera with Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann. Such relationship bliss is sadly short-lived and he's soon helping Felix and Bond fanboy Logan (Billy Magnussen) rescue a kidnapped scientist (David Dencik's Valdo), who has designed a DNA-targeting chemical weapon which, inevitably, falls into the wrong hands.

Returning cast members include Christoph Waltz as Bond's foster brother / nemesis Blofeld in Silence Of The Lambs-evoking scenes, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw as Q, whose home-life we get an amusing glimpse into. Lashana Lynch is Bond's work rival Nomi, a young Black British agent who represents the next generation of talent, while Bohemian Rhapsody's Rami Malek plays a new foe, the disfigured poison enthusiast Lyutsifer Safin, who first appears during an opening sequence which strikingly swaps the expected heroics for shuddersome horror traditions.

In its overall polish, peril and likeability, No Time To Die improves substantially on Spectre. Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge was drafted in to liven up the script and her influence is evident in the winning humour. Posing as a diver, Nomi tells Bond of her fondness for 'old wrecks', while Whishaw and Dencik in particular make the most of the lighter material. Waller-Bridge's fellow screenwriters are Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who have worked on every film in the franchise since 1999's The World Is Not Enough, with very mixed results) and Fukunaga himself.

This is one of the more beautiful Bond films – huge kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer Mark Tildesley – and Fukunaga is such a terrific director that his expert execution of the set-pieces papers over the numerous cracks in a plot that delivers a decent pay-off, but feels desperately generic. Malek's baddie lacks coherence in his scheming and relies on the lazy trope of facial scarring to create chills, while Waltz was a disappointment in Spectre and fails to particularly improve on that here, with the hype surrounding his character feeling hollow.

The need to people-please across the spectrum means that No Time To Die has a tendency to give with one hand and take with the other. After introducing a formidable Black female 00, the next woman we meet is Ana de Armas's Paloma, who despite the actress's clout and spark comes across as a slightly depressing and impractically-clad airhead. Elsewhere, Bond and M get stuck into some geriatric moaning about how things used to be better in the old days. Grittier or more laidback elements that bring the franchise into the 21st century exist alongside a place called Poison Island, home to a lair straight out of The Spy Who Loved Me. Other fan-satisfying nods include lots of lovely geeky touches (a car with inbuilt machine guns, bionic eyeballs) and On Her Majesty's Secret Service as a repeated reference point.

Craig has his moments here, though he mainly looks pissed off in the role these days, and with its cursory and cliched approach to romance it's not always as emotionally engaging as intended. And although Lynch, for example, struts her secret agent stuff with aplomb the characterisation of anyone other than Bond himself is a shamefully neglected afterthought.

But the impactful conclusion is what stays with you and people will forgive a lot with Bond films as they always have done; this is, after all, the 25th in the series. If it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, No Time To Die provides tremendous, emphatically cinematic entertainment – a wonderful chance for audiences to fall back in love with the big screen. Whatever the niggles, it exists on such a heightened plane of gloriously-rendered insanity it's hard not to get swept up in it.

Available to watch in cinemas from Thursday 30 September.

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No Time to Die

  • 4 stars
  • 2021
  • UK
  • 2h 43min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
  • Cast: Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Jeffrey Wright, Ana de Armas, Dali Benssalah, David Dencik, Lashana Lynch, Billy Magnussen
  • UK release: 30 September 2021

The 25th James Bond film is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and sees Daniel Craig in the lead for one last time.