One year on from the oft-delayed No Time To Die, we remember the long run-up to something quite unprecedented in the James Bond series – a finale.
This feature contains major spoilers for No Time To Die, Daniel Craig’s other Bond films, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
“You have all the time in the world.”
James Bond will have other big anniversaries and many of them will come with retrospective Bondrambles that go from Dr No all the way through to the most recent film at the time. With any luck though, the 60th anniversary will be the only time we start with the very first Bond film and end on the closest thing we’ll ever get to a final Bond film.
In the 12 months since No Time To Die originally hit cinemas, (and about 31 months since it was originally supposed to arrive… arf arf) we’ve gone through the rapturous early reviews, the inevitable backlash. and the beginnings of some consensus. It’s a year where we’ve thinking and talking about Bond a lot, (some of us more than others) and the film is now starting to settle a bit.
No Time To Die picks up where Spectre left off, with James Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) happily retired, but a pre-titles brush with global bastards in Matera drives a wedge between the two. As we segue into Billie Eilish’s sombre title song and Daniel Kleinman’s trademark kaleidoscopic titles, Bond is alone again.
Five years later, we find him alone but rested, but so does his old CIA mucker, Felix Leiter, (Jeffrey Wright) who’s got a job for him. Though MI6 has long since promoted a new 007 (Lashana Lynch), Bond is brought back into the fold for a mission that spans from Jamaica to the Sea of Japan, and involves kidnapped scientist Valdo Obruchev, (David Dencik) secretive adversary Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), and a UK-manufactured designer virus called Heracles.
Made first and foremost as a closer to the Daniel Craig era, the film plays differently rewatching it one year on, never mind after rewatching 24 other films in the series too. In terms of what went before Casino Royale, this fifth and final instalment incorporates more of the Moore-era twinkle that Craig and director Sam Mendes were so eager to restore, but with the same overriding solemnity and seriousness that steered those films.
Plus, it most blatantly references On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where “all the time in the world” is both a poignant repeated callback and a rough estimate of the colossal 163-minute running time. This is the culmination of the unintended Craig-era project to turn Bond into an event film in the modern sense, fully transitioning from the type of semi-regular attractions that Marvel Studios now owns to a kind of epic spy opera.
The long run-up to this one was all in Film Stories’ lifetime, so we’ve covered this one a lot on the site before – as with other films in recent weeks, Simon’s done a more comprehensive summing-up of the making-of story on an episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below:
Extended by both production delays and the global pandemic, that long run-up is now somehow as much as part of the context of the film as its reception and aftermath. At the end of a discrete series of 007 films that trade heavily on the symbolism of James Bond as an icon rather than the character we met a few films ago, the real-world context became the story.
This is James Bond vs the incredibly deadly virus… and the film that also had one of those in it. Oh, and if you’re still waiting to catch up with this one, there are absolutely humungous SPOILERS to follow, right after this image of Bond stepping outside for some fresh air.
Firsts and lasts
Unthinkable as it may seem, it’s a choice that seals this run off from the looser, more conventional continuity, making it both easier and harder for the series in Bond 26 and beyond. And we’re sure this was on his mind too, but it also saves Craig from the endless questions (and maybe even the temptation) of doing a Never Say Never Again later on.
So, we have to imagine this outcome was on the cards from early in the development of Bond 25, even despite the widely reported uncertainty about Craig returning for a fifth film. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson certainly gave their star some time to decompress after the hectic shoot of Spectre (and that unguarded remark about wrist-slashing) before approaching him.
Happily, they found Craig was up for a final outing, the first in which Bond would die at the end, and his return in Bond 25 was confirmed in August 2017. It’s a film of firsts and lasts like that, and older readers may remember I rambled about this aspect of the film shortly after release, which you can see here if you fancy some further reading along those lines:
Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
For such a departure though, it took its time in development. And by now, we know a little of what Danny Boyle intended to do with Bond 25, starting with how writer John Hodge’s script replaced the version that series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade started working on in March 2017, and ending with Boyle’s comments in a May 2022 interview with Esquire UK about the pitch being more of a traditional Cold War thriller.
Due to the long lead-times on Bond films, we also know that production designer Mark Tildesley had been directed to work on a Russian gulag set on location in the Canadian mountains and a 350-foot-tall rocket at Pinewood Studios, before Boyle and Hodge left the project due to creative difference.
These elements didn’t show up in the finished film. Utilising the manmade virus idea they first suggested while pitching The World Is Not Enough, Purvis and Wade’s draft became Plan A again, with further contributions from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the first credited female screenwriter on a Bond film since From Russia With Love, and Cary Joji Fukunaga, Boyle’s replacement and the first Bond director ever to get a screenwriting credit on the film.
Understandably, the various stop-and-start marketing campaigns for the film had no hints of the final twist, but it also obscured the nature of Heracles. Experiences may differ, but if you made it to your cinema seat in September last year not knowing that it’s a virus, it’s like something clicks into place.
But if there’s a reason why this, of all the big movies originally intended for 2020, delayed its release date early and often, it’s not only plot related. Broccoli and Wilson saw and understood that the return of cinemas would largely depend on a new Bond film and stuck to their guns in waiting for the end of lockdown and the re-opening of cinemas worldwide.
Meanwhile, one of the things that Boyle and Hodge brought to the table that made it into the film was the idea of Bond having a daughter, marking the first time (that we know of) that he’s fathered an child. Still, a lot of these firsts are directed at the finality of the ending, taking Bond from the cold, blunt instrument of Casino Royale to a man who finds out he’s got something to live for, and therefore, something to die for.
After the film’s release, Wilson suggested in a spoilery Variety feature that killing this Bond off was ‘the fitting way to deal with a situation where a person is risking their life all the time. Eventually, the odds catch up with you.’
He’s right, and you can see the progression from Casino Royale. The only difference is that if Bond died in a sequel to Casino Royale, it would be the inevitable result of a dangerous lifestyle, with 007 paying the ultimate price. However, Bond dies in a sequel to Skyfall and Spectre, so in keeping with the monumental status of those films, it’s amplified to the level of Greek tragedy.
Death by runtime
However, one side effect of starting this right after Spectre leaves the only gap in story time for the Craig era between Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall, which is where most of this incarnation’s fun and games seem to have taken place, off screen. Still, we also get some in the first hour of No Time To Die.
There’s a double meaning in cinematographer Linus Sandgren shooting so much of the movie at magic hour, before sunset – first in the sense of an ending that builds right to the climactic moments, but second in that solid hour of old-fashioned Bond magic we get at the top of this.
Despite the attendant emotional trauma and crisis, Craig is quite at ease in the role by this point. Right along with him, the film is refreshingly confident in hitting various firsts, be it the slasher-movie prologue that gives the villain his first and last good impression (we’re getting to him) or the introduction of Nomi, the first female 00 (the world still awaits the first female 00 with a surname, but hey, they’re trying).
The delay between losing Boyle and hiring Fukunaga proved fortuitous as well because it gave Daniel Craig a window to work on Knives Out with Ana de Armas, and recommend that the producers find a role for her in this too. Her brief but bubbly turn as Cuban liaison Paloma is roundly agreed to be the highlight of the entire film and it caps off that first hour of fun and games spectacularly.
However, the solemnity of it all does tend to overshadow the entertainment, not to mention the giant strides it takes in terms of female representation. There are more major female characters in this than any other Bond film, and they all make it out relatively unscathed. It’s definitely progress that neither she nor any of the other women are bedded and/or dead by the end, but Nomi is definitely ill-served by the script, lumped with meta-jokes and an eventual deference to Bond that’s severely underwritten.
(Incidentally, calling this “a #MeToo Bond” as some have is miles away from the point, as if stopping movies treating fictional female characters like shit was the primary goal of the movement, rather than an increasingly welcome side-effect.)
On the other hand, we mentioned last week how the latter end of the Craig era explains everything to death as an overreaction to the critique of Quantum Of Solace being “too confusing”. Here, that baldly feeds us twists and character details well in advance of them either being discovered by Bond or unsurprisingly unfolded.
Think back to how we get scenes with Le Chiffre and Greene before Bond confronts them, and compare them with how every film since Skyfall has obscured the villain for effect until a long time into the film.
The only trouble is, as seen in Safin’s first conversations with both Obruchev and a grown-up Madeleine, the film repeatedly telegraphs its twists instead of letting them unfold surprisingly. Coupled with the long running time, it makes for stodgy stuff, bordering on death by runtime.
Here, we don’t meet Lyutsifer Safin for a long time, while the film feints at being Blofeld-centric again, but then maybe the Safin-less grace period is good for a reason. Having recently had big build-ups to “Scaramanga but a cyber-terrorist” and the more literal “Blofeld but as a secret brother”, the series brings us “Dr No, but a knobhead”.
Fresh off an Academy Award win for Bohemian Rhapsody, Malek’s not-great performance feels a bit like the very first Bond movie villain but with the name filed off – I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point they’d planned to reveal him as a riff on Dr No but got cold feet after the similar reveal with Blofeld in Spectre.
Speaking of which, this was the second film in a row that tried to surprise us with Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld, but the secret was out by the time the first teaser trailer was released in December 2019. As structured, his 30-years-too-late Silence Of The Lambs riff bloats the second act of the film, when it would have been neater and more surprising to have him attend his birthday bunga-bunga massacre and die with the rest of his gang.
But for whatever reason Safin is underwhelming, he feels set up for a fall. If you’re the villain who kills James Bond, you should probably stand out in some way from any other adversary he’s faced, instead of feeling like a half-remembered prestige version of older characters with facial injuries and vague accents. The scene at London’s Hammersmith Bridge where Bond and M discuss how they don’t know who he is or what he wants feels like an unaddressed script note that accidentally made it into the dialogue. Altogether, it’s one of the weakest villain characters and performances in the entire series.
Still, a villain who postures about his legacy mirrors Bond’s journey thematically. The well-worn “we’re not so different, you and I” speech at least resonates from the point of view of Bond’s journey, going from dishing out carnage and death to having a family. But the challenge is so obscure as to be underwhelming, and you’re left with the feeling that Bond should have shot Safin in the face three times an hour earlier.
As we said, it’s Bond vs virus, where the virus is an astonishingly literal plot device for converting the running theme of Bond’s job being dangerous to those who loves into something MI6 made that will kill Bond’s family if he doesn’t stop it.
And counter to the depiction of ordinary corruption in Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace, this preposterous plot also leaves Ralph Fiennes’ spectacularly unlikeable M as the de facto villain, the architect of Heracles, but formula dictates that he’s essentially a good chap who’s trying to make up for a daft mistake. It wasn’t so long ago we were watching him on a tribunal panel for Judi Dench’s much less egregious transgressions, but never mind, pip pip!
Hey, at worst, it’s still a vast improvement on Spectre, a film that burns twice as much goodwill to say nothing at all.
As you’ll have surmised by now, we’ve come to praise No Time To Die, not to bury it. Despite the solemn tone, this is a victory lap, and it makes as persuasive a case for closing its self-contained story as Casino Royale did for starting it.
It’s the first time James Bond dies in a film, but this is explicitly not the same James Bond as the one in all the non-Craig films. He never has been, and the journey from not caring how his Martini is mixed to having a running gag about how important the 007 number feels like it happens in Mendes’ wild detours from the original disarmed and stripped-back reboot. What this instalment does is reconcile the two approaches with some much-needed emotional clarity.
It also presents as a superficial and subversive homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, (from the crossovers between Kleinman’s opening and Maurice Binder’s classic titles, to the reprise of Louis Armstrong’s gorgeous vocals over the end credits) but it’s still more a product of the blockbuster market in which it was created.
Of course, the biggest comparison for this era is Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which were themselves influenced by the Bond films that the director grew up watching. Having started somewhere close to Batman Begins in Casino Royale and touched some Dark Knight bases in Skyfall, No Time To Die handily maps onto the climactic tone of The Dark Knight Rises about a decade later and subverts that too.
Films like Avengers: Endgame and Logan may also have been more recent comic-book-movie touchpoints for the dadding and dying that Bond does here, but the repeated explanations of the DNA-targeted virus acts as the subversion of the autopilot that saves Batman’s life in that earlier trilogy topper.
But in terms of the symbolism that’s accrued around these last few movies, the build-up to that ending will always mirror the build-up around the film’s release. It’s one thing for James Bond to die saving the world, and quite another for him to die in the film that saved cinemas.
By far the most expensive Bond movie ever made once all was said and done with the release delays, No Time To Die was also the biggest film of 2021 at the UK box-office (December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home only overtook it in February this year) and took a deflated but still strong $774m worldwide. Its critical and financial success completely vindicated Eon’s refusal to follow other studios in flogging their long-delayed films to streaming services. Plus, it shores up the series as a big-screen draw too, anticipating what must be another long wait for the next instalment.
A year later, the film still carries these feelings along with it, but it will continue to grow out of this as time goes by. It’s as flawed as any of the Craig Bond movies after Casino Royale, but it’s got lots more fun stuff in there too. And with all its exhausting and epic scale, it emphatically closes a chapter for Bond on screen.
So, where next for Broccoli, Wilson, and the franchise? I’ll have some more thoughts on that in next week’s climactic Bondramble, but for now, let’s reiterate the post-credits caption of this one and perhaps the only remaining surety in cinema – “James Bond Will Return”.
No Time To Die is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 30th September.
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