A Review of
No Time to Die
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for No Time to Die.**
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I still remember the chaos that ensued following the announcement of Daniel Craig as the next actor to inherit the role of James Bond. Concerns about his acting abilities and his rugged appearance abounded, chief among them complaints that his hair was the wrong color.1 As far as the popular culture was concerned in 2005, the man just didn’t look like James Bond; rather, he did not match the residual cultural image. Nor did he seem to match well with the character Ian Fleming originally envisioned, whose “grey-blue eyes looked calmly back with a hint of ironical inquiry and the short lock of black hair which would never stay in place slowly subsided to form a thick comma above his right eyebrow. With the thin vertical scar down his right cheek the general effect was faintly piratical.”2 Appearances notwithstanding, rarely has the collective consciousness been so wrong in its initial assessment of an actor’s ability to make critics eat their words and turn around and thank him for it.
Looking back on Craig’s tenure, it’s hard to imagine a time in which he did not don the tuxedo. Though he has not appeared in the most films (that distinction goes to the late Roger Moore, who appeared in seven), he is nevertheless the actor who has held the role the longest, with fifteen years having passed since his debut in 2006 and his fifth (and final) film in 2021. So thorough has been his reinvention of the character that Craig’s time as Bond is and will continue to be looked upon as an asterisk in the history of the sixty-year-old film series, a unique thing emerging from a cultural milieu that has witnessed twin towers fall, whistles blow, and women become ascendant.
Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die (2021) marks the definitive end of Craig’s time as Bond — and what an ending it is. The circle closes, every dangling plot thread is tied off. By the time a weary, heart-broken Bond stands bloodied and dying in the cold light of day, staring death full in the face and embracing it, all of the villains who sought to harm him, his friends, his country, and the world are gone. “There’s no one left to hurt us anymore,” says Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) — and she’s right.3 In the end, Bond emerges victorious, but the cost…oh, the cost.
New Friends, Old Enemies. The film picks up in the aftermath of Spectre (2015). Bond is galivanting around the world with his newfound love, Madeleine — the very thing that he attempted to do with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in 2006’s Casino Royale, right up until the moment she betrayed him. Now Madeleine has dragged Bond to Matera, Italy, the place where Vesper is buried. Because, as Madeleine knows, Vesper is the last tie to Bond’s old life that has yet to be severed. If the first cut is truly the deepest, then Vesper cut Bond to his core. Madeleine gives Bond an ultimatum: if they are to have a future, then Bond must forgive Vesper, a remarkably mature moment in a series known for remarkably immature relationships.
So, Bond heads to Vesper’s grave. In keeping with the folkloric tradition of the local Materan festival, Bond takes with him a scrap of paper that has written upon it his darkest secret, his ultimate burden. At her grave, he lights the paper and watches the simple, painfully human words he wrote there burn away: “Forgive me.” And this, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrates just how deeply Craig’s run understands the character that Fleming originally wrote. James Bond is not a hero. He is an anti-hero, “a man with years of dirty, dangerous memories — a spy.”4 A man who hates himself for being human, and therefore capable of being hurt.
Then he notices something peculiar: a calling card bearing that ominous black octopus, the iconic symbol of the villainous organization SPECTRE. Bond barely has enough time to react before Vesper’s grave explodes, nearly killing him. As SPECTRE agents close in and suggest that Madeleine set him up, Bond recedes into himself once again. Madeleine, it seems, is just another Vesper. This time, he reasons, he will be the one to walk away. He will not allow himself to be hurt once more. After escaping their pursuers, Bond puts Madeleine on a train alone and tells her she will never see him again.
Five years later, Bond lives in quiet solitude in Jamaica, far removed from Her Majesty’s Secret Service, SPECTRE, and the murky world of spies he used to inhabit. But, of course, that changes when he’s contacted by an old friend, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), seeking his help in recovering a scientist kidnapped by SPECTRE. Bond agrees to help, somewhat reluctantly, and soon finds himself embroiled in a plot far more sinister than originally believed. New faces like Paloma (Ana de Armas) and Nomi (Lashana Lynch) join the hunt for the scientist, but the trail eventually leads Bond back to Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the head of SPECTRE and Bond’s ultimate nemesis. Only this time, Blofeld is himself a target. Someone is out to destroy SPECTRE and doing a bang-up job of it. And the only person who knows the truth is none other than Madeleine Swann, whom, Blofeld reveals, never betrayed Bond. Blofeld staged the attack at Vesper’s grave and played Bond’s own cynical nature against him. Bond rejected Madeleine because he refused to trust her.
World Domination, the Same Old Dream. The man behind SPECTRE’s destruction is Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). Of all the villains Craig’s Bond has encountered, Safin represents the purest, most archetypal realization of the classic Bond villain — a megalomaniacal super-genius with a god-complex whose motivations are simple: destroy the world as it is, then recreate it in his own image. Safin has cultivated what Blofeld did in Fleming’s original novel You Only Live Twice: “a disinterest in humanity and its future, an utter boredom with the affairs of mankind.”5 According to Safin, people want “oblivion,” and he sees himself as the only man capable of giving it to them.
But the stakes are higher for Bond this time, because Safin knows Madeleine’s secret: she has a daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet). And she is not just any child, she is Bond’s child. And Safin has taken her. The final act of No Time to Die plays out like a tragedy of Grecian proportions. Safin, obsessed with Madeleine ever since encountering her as a child, desires to take Bond’s family and make it his own. Bond goes to war against him and his army of mercenaries with not only his family’s fate hanging in the balance but also the fate of the entire world. No Time to Die is Bond’s Odyssey, his attempt to return to his family and find some semblance of peace.
The storytelling elevates the standard Bond formula to epic proportions, and mythology is all over this movie. Moments before SPECTRE is wiped out by the poisonous bioweapon Safin has hijacked (codenamed “Heracles”), Blofeld calls SPECTRE “the gods of Mount Olympus” returning from their pariah. Bond, who has continually been called a “blunt instrument,” is personified as a literal trident (a Greek psi) during the raid on Safin’s private island. Safin wipes out the old gods, destroying SPECTRE and eventually killing Blofeld, before setting himself up as the ultimate god of oblivion whose bioweapon has enabled him to wipe out humanity while “crawling under their skin.”
The key to understanding the way No Time to Die chooses to tell its story lies in these mythological underpinnings. In the Greek myth, Heracles’s story ends when he is tricked into wearing the poisonous tunic of Nessus, and he chooses to incinerate himself rather than live alone and only in pain. In No Time to Die, Bond kills Safin, but not before Safin poisons Bond with the Heracles bioweapon. The bioweapon targets specific DNA, and the DNA that the poison will target belongs to Madeleine and, by extension, Mathilde. Bond saves the world, but the result is that he can never again be with his family. No Time to Die finds a way of literalizing the notion that Bond harms those closest to him, the cold irony here being that Bond has finally learned his lesson. He is willing to sacrifice himself for the world (“If we don’t do this,” he says, “there will be nothing left to save.”) but would rather die than be without those he loves.
And die he does. In perhaps the most unprecedented move, No Time to Die does indeed feature the death of 007. His final exchange, as literal fire rains down from heaven, is Daniel Craig’s finest hour as Britain’s treasured icon: “She has your eyes,” Madeleine tells him, confirming that Mathilde is indeed his daughter. “I know,” Bond replies, tears in his eyes, but a smile on his face. “I know.”
The End of an Era. After his death, Bond is eulogized by M (Ralph Fiennes). The lines he reads are from Jack London, which Fleming himself featured in an obituary for Bond in the novel You Only Live Twice: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”6 As used in Fleming’s context, the London quote deals heavily with Bond’s aversion to boredom, which Fleming treated quite thoroughly in his novels. In Casino Royale, Bond ponders the role boredom plays in the disintegration of human relationships.7 In Live and Let Die, Mr. Big, the villain, confesses he is “prey to what the early Christians called ‘accidie,’ the deadly lethargy that envelopes those who are sated, those who have no more desires.”8 In a foreword to a book Fleming edited on the seven deadly sins, Fleming wrote, “Of all the seven, only Sloth in its extreme form of accidia [sic], which is a form of spiritual suicide and a refusal of joy…has my wholehearted condemnation, perhaps because in moments of despair I have seen its face.”9
No Time to Die, at long last, recaptures to some degree this unique vision of Ian Fleming. Bond’s hedonism in the novels is frequently treated as his defense against this uniquely Christian notion of “acedia,” which medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas defined as tristitia de bono spirituali, “sadness in the face of spiritual good.”10 During Bond’s self-imposed exile in Jamaica, he is alone, but he is not content. When Felix comes knocking, though Bond initially rejects him, he cannot resist the urge to return to the fold. Nomi calls Bond’s life there “a little bubble,” a carefully constructed fortress within which Bond dwells, having walled himself off from the world. This is Fleming’s Bond, a fragile man who flirts with acedia, with the spiritual torpor of having nothing to live for, while at the same time hating himself for it. The problem has traditionally been, of course, that Fleming (and the films) tend to have Bond err on the side of receding once again into himself. He flirts with acedia, and lives like hell as a defense against being swallowed up by it. This has been Bond’s modus operandi for sixty years, and it is this condition that has kept him firmly in the category of anti-hero.
The immense freedom that comes with structuring No Time to Die as the definitive conclusion of Bond’s story results in daring storytelling risks. Rather than move Bond back into himself by story’s end, he is capable, in his final moments, to move beyond himself. He allows his family, his daughter, to become bigger than an entire world of pain. “You have made the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Bond tells Madeleine. “Perfect, because she came from you.” Only at the end does Bond become truly heroic, a figure to whom we can look and emulate.
Ian Fleming once described himself as “some kind of a sub-species of Christian.”11 In lectures and papers, I have described Fleming as Christ-haunted. Bond, like Fleming, was a man haunted by goodness. In his final moments in No Time to Die, Bond finally surrenders himself to it.
How desperately I wish Fleming were alive to see it.
Cole Burgett is a seminary graduate, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- Paul R. La Monica, “Blond, James Blond,” CNNMoney.com, November 17, 2006, https://money.cnn.com/2006/11/08/commentary/mediabiz/index.htm.
- Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012, 1953), 49.
- No Time to Die, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Beverly Hills, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, 2021). Unless noted otherwise, subsequent quotations are also taken from this film.
- Ian Fleming, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012, 1963), 2.
- Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice (Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012, 1964), 197.
- Jack London, quoted in Ernest J. Hopkins, San Francisco’s The Bulletin, December 2, 1916.
- Fleming, Casino Royale, 163–164.
- Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die (Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012, 1954), 70.
- Ian Fleming, “Foreword” in The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1962), ix.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q. 35, A. 3.
- John Pearson, The Life of Ian Fleming (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 219–220.