First things first: Daniel Craig has been a great Bond. As the longest serving 007 (three years more than Roger Moore, albeit with fewer films than either Moore or Sean Connery), he’s brought the dated franchise into the 21st century and made it work for an era in which it’s harder to tell the good guys from the bad.
The films themselves, though, have been a mixed bag. Casino Royale was radical for a Bond film, but everything subversive – bar the posing pouch – had already been done in the first two Bourne movies and the Bond-blind cottoned onto that fact when Quantum of Solace satisfied no one. But Craig came fully into his own with Skyfall, not just a career high, but a series high: a big, bold, beautiful-looking blockbuster that showed Craig’s take on Bond could lead as well bleed.
No sooner had the series found the right groove, though, then it blew it all with the bloated Spectre, which hedged its bets on whether Craig would return by sending the ageing double-o agent off into the grey dawn of retirement in an Aston Martin with a woman 20 years his junior.
Mercifully, No Time To Die gives Craig another chance to say adieu on his own terms and he more than delivers. Right from the blistering pre-credits opener, the much-delayed 25th instalment gives you everything you want from a Bond film, just in a way you’ve never seen before.
The action’s outlandish yet grounded, the gadgets are ridiculous but work beautifully within the framework of a story, the call-backs to the Bond mythology are fun yet resonate on a deeper level, and the emotional stakes are supercharged but hit hard. It even reinvents the concept of the Bond girl in a way that makes sense for Craig’s take on 007.
The film picks up his story with James in retirement in Jamaica, having apparently been betrayed by the aforementioned Madeline Swann (once again played by Léa Seydoux). Living in a bit of a bubble, he’s coaxed back into the fray by his old CIA cohort Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to track down a rogue scientist recruited by yet another facially disfigured megalomaniac bent on world destruction. This is Rami Malek’s suitably sinister Lyutsifer Safin, a bio-weapons obsessive whose plot to disrupt the world has potentially dire consequences for Bond.
Though the particulars of the plot are best discovered for yourself, suffice it to say they make for a meaty, globe-hopping adventure that successfully ties off the over-arching narrative of Craig’s run in a way that makes not only makes narrative sense but is really quite moving.
That also means the film is stuffed to the brim with familiar faces from the previous four outings and you could burn through the word-count of a review just listing the returning characters. But it’s the new faces in front of and behind the camera that help distinguish Craig’s final outing.
Arthouse and prestige TV director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, True Detective) gives the film a visceral immediacy that’s quite different from the previous outings – and script contributions from Phoebe Waller-Bridge have certainly beefed up the female characters, with Craig’s Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas brilliant as a newly qualified CIA agent he encounters in Cuba and Seydoux’s character given the sort of complex arc and no-nonsense attitude that was sorely lacking in Spectre.
As for the endless amounts of speculation about whether newcomer Lashana Lynch’s position as the first female 00 agent represents some kind of woke betrayal of the franchise, her character is only likely to ruffle the feathers of the sort of Bond purist who objected to the colour of Daniel Craig’s hair all those years ago. Lynch is pretty kick-ass in the role of M’s latest prodigy, Nomi, and she more than holds her own alongside Craig, injecting the early parts of the film with a fun spy-vs-spy energy.
Besides, this kind of progress is only a problem if the film feels like it’s trying too hard to make a point: everything in No Time to Die feels like an organic evolution, a way to leave the winking sexism of old in the rear-view mirror once and for all.
As for Craig, he might have one busted-up leg out of the door, but he hasn’t let himself be sidelined in his own movie (it’s not a Marvel film). Confronted by all these upstarts, the “taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold” that Ian Fleming wrote about may have slipped to reveal a kind of playful mentor figure who’s grudgingly tolerant of the younger generation, but he's still able to show them a thing or two. Whether he’s casually ditching a still-moving motorbike, executing bad guys with extreme prejudice or knocking back vodka after a gun fight, Craig proves that nobody does it better.
No Time To Die is in cinemas from 30 September