The standard bearer of British soft power is back, in a film yanked from cinemas back in the time of the toilet roll shortage, based on a literary character conceived when sugar and meat rationing was still in force, and now emerging in cinemas as Britons are fighting for petrol in the forecourts.
Bond, like Norma Desmond, is once again ready for his closeup – and Daniel Craig once again shows us his handsome-Shrek face and the lovable bat ears, flecked with the scars of yesterday’s punch-up, the lips as ever pursed in determination or disgust.
And Craig’s final film as the diva of British intelligence is an epic barnstormer, with the script from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, with Phoebe Waller-Bridge delivering pathos, action, drama, camp comedy (Bond will call M “darling” in moments of tetchiness), heartbreak, macabre horror, and outrageously silly old-fashioned action in a movie which calls to mind the world of Dr No on his island.
Director Cary Fukunaga delivers it with terrific panache, and the film also shows us a romantic Bond, an uxorious Bond, a Bond who is unafraid of showing his feelings, like the old softie he’s turned out to be.
A queasy and dreamlike prelude hints at a terrible formative trauma in the childhood of Dr Madeleine Swann (a gorgeously reserved Lea Séydoux), that enigmatic figure we saw in the last movie who is now enjoying a romantic getaway with James. But a shocking act of violence destroys their idyll, as we knew it must, and Bond has some spectacular stunts as he hurls himself from a bridge.
It all has a lot to do with a sinister biowarfare plan called “Heracles” being developed by M (Ralph Fiennes) using a renegade scientist Obruchev (David Dencik) – but both creepy boffin and weapon are stolen in a sequence of preposterous action comedy, incidentally involving a sullen, bickering scientist played in cameo by Hugh Dennis.
Both MI6 and the CIA want this man back – but British intelligence does not care to involve Bond who is now in retirement in Jamaica, perhaps in tribute to Ian Fleming’s holiday retreat, and M has handed over his 007 status to a new agent Nomi, stylishly played by Lashana Lynch.
But the Americans, in the form of his old buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and an uptight new state department appointee Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) persuade Bond to take on the job as a freelance, and send him to Cuba, where he liaises with an untrained operative: Paloma – a witty and unworldly turn from Ana de Armas whose rapport with Craig recalls their chemistry in Knives Out. The Cuban nightclub scene has something genuinely bizarre about it, bringing us a henchman with a surreal glass eye.
The awful truth is that M has allowed “Heracles” to be compromised by the creepy Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) who is being kept by the Brits in Lecter-ish imprisonment, but has managed to direct this new plan from his hi-tech cell, but who is now himself under attack by the new ubervillain in town – Safin, played with pouting disdain by Rami Malek, another in the endless gallery of antagonists who have conceived a personal obsession with Bond himself.
It is of course a festival of absurdity and complication, a headspinning world of giant plot mechanisms moving like a Ptolemaic universe of menace. Perhaps nothing in it measures up to the drama of Bond’s rage-filled hurt feelings at the very beginning. But it is very enjoyable and gleefully spectacular – Craig and Seydoux and Malik sell it very hard and you can see the pleasure everyone takes in this gigantic piece of ridiculously watchable entertainment which feels like half its actual running time.
And the big finish shows that the 007 franchise-template is still capable of springing a surprise on the fanbase – and it could be that the world of Bond has taken something from the Marvel and DC universes, with their own sense of cartoonish grandeur and mystery. No Time To Die is startling, exotically self-aware, funny and confident, and perhaps most of all it is big: big action, big laughs, big stunts and however digitally it may have been contrived, and however wildly far-fetched, No Time To Die looks like it is taking place in the real world, a huge wide open space that we’re all longing for.