ST. LOUIS — How much bad can a good man get into while wearing a killer suit?
Every James Bond film carries a certain allure while guaranteeing a few things: thrilling shootouts, exotic and gorgeous locales, a doomed love story, and some plot involving a mad man triggering the end of the world. Daniel Craig's tenure has been marked by tragic romances and ghosts from his past popping up, trying to impede his future. Cary Joji Fukunaga's "No Time To Die," the long-awaited finale for Craig's take on the spy who shags a lot, continues that trend with this epic finale that both hits and misses the mark.
The movie gets off to a fast start-after a little early backstory catchup-that finds a happily (not for long) in love James living off the coast of some pretty beach spot with Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), the psychologist he met and fell for in his last adventure, "Spectre." Their love only lasts as long as you can get settled in your seat, with bad men (led by Deli Benssalah's unstoppable and bionic mercenary) coming for Bond--with multiple chase scenes ensuing.
"No Time to Die" is at its best in these moments, when the action hits a top level and every other tedious aspect of the film is pushed to the side. Craig racing around a small town overseas on a motorcycle while evading shooters plugs viewers into the film. It's the kind of sequence that echoes around a theater.
The stunt work in this film is off the charts, and that starts with the car chases and ends with the tight editing. With each new Bond adventure, the action ante is thoroughly upped with realism becoming less and less of a worry. But Craig's ability to anchor the part amidst the chaos is why he's the best guy to ever wear the suit.
He's always been a soulful bruiser, a Bond ripping away at his inner demons while outrunning his crowded past of mistakes. Even when the overcooked script (with four different sets of hands attached) lets him down here, Craig finds a way to keep us glued to the screen. It's not much of a performance per say, but a reminder that he can do this role in his sleep and do it very well.
This time, it's a mysterious tyrant called Safin (Rami Malek) who is causing the trouble. Armed with poison plants and a mass destruction plot that weaponizes human beings, Safin also has a beef with Bond and Swann as well--one that stretches back decades. The previews for the film also teased the reemergence of Christoph Waltz's "Spectre" antagonist Blofeld, and there is a great scene between Waltz and Craig that comes off as better than the sum of that entire movie.
But it's a very busy movie, one that runs close to three hours by the time the end credits finish. Bloated is the word, as if the filmmaker tried to create the sendoff for the ages without tightening the script in the process. Callbacks to previous Craig films create a long jam in Fukunaga's film instead of deepening the story.
Many characters, both new and familiar, show up with mixed results. A quick shootout with Ana de Armas has a disarming element to it but is very brief. Jeffrey Wright's work here is a mere plot device, while Naomie Harris' Moneypenny only gets a few moments to shine. Ralph Fiennes fares better than most in the supporting cast, even if his M is stuck on the sidelines for most of the film. Lashana Lynch makes a killer entrance as a younger, deadlier 007. She disarms the audience faster than she can Bond, but the script often flies right past her character. You want more with her Nomi than more filler moments between Craig and Seydoux.
There are two main problems I had with "No Time to Die," with the first being the romantic link between Bond and Swann. The plot thread that carried a huge chunk of the film's heart never resonated with me, coming off more as a device to tie old threads together rather than enliven on its own. That failure short-circuits certain elements of the film. The actors are capable, but it comes off as forced.
Call me old fashioned, but I don't think every Bond adventure needs to have a romantic subplot. Remember the greatness of "Skyfall?" ZERO romance required there. Not being a fan of "Spectre," this forced romance upended the film's third act. Bond should be a man apart, not one bound by a love gone wrong.
The other issue is Malek's villain, who underwhelms. The audience should bite down initially on his evil Safin, but there's something missing in the writing here. The Oscar-winning actor doesn't have a problem convincing he is bad, but has a harder time making us really care about it. He's a stepping stone for the hero, and never a real threatening one. Without a great villain and a poorly-rendered love story, certain limitations are met.
The film is incredibly-shot and carries a very Christopher Nolan-esque score from Hans Zimmer, who barrels our eardrums with enough noise to make Dominic Toretto and his racing crew jealous. The action sequences match the intensity of the music, enabling the overlong finale with its mad crescendos and visceral visuals.
Billie Eilesh's opening theme song is one of the all time Bond film bests, a highlight of the movie. It's slow moving yet poignant embodiment of the entire scope of the Craig stint.
Here's the thing. As disappointing as certain elements of the film are, I was locked into this film to the very end. Craig drives that home.
When the movie has a one track mind and cuts out the extra nonsense, there's a sweeping allure that encapsulates the final 30 minutes. Predictable in parts and not quite sticking the landing in others, Fukunaga's film does give much-needed closure and pays respect to Craig's tenure. It's a decent, if not great, movie that should please fans of the series.
Maybe I expected more going in. It could have been an 18-month wait to see it. Whatever the cause, "No Time to Die" has enough electric moments to make it a worthy, if slightly overcooked, endeavor.