It’s hard not to hear the marketing wheels turning during the new James Bond spy thriller “No Time to Die,” which opened over the weekend as both a beginning and an end in the long-running franchise.
The picture labors for relevance with younger audiences by teasing a new Black female 007, played by energetic Lashana Lynch, even as it concludes the five-movie arc of Daniel Craig’s performance as Bond. A gripping pre-credits chase sequence, which starts at a Southern Italian tomb and at one point disrupts a funeral procession, evokes the titular theme of death with vibrant visuals that telegraph where the movie wants to go.
In a hallmark of the Bond franchise, which has always featured convoluted plots for world domination, the film even evokes COVID-19 by depicting terrorists targeting people’s DNA with a bioweapon — at one point, Bond’s phlegmatic boss M, played by Ralph Fiennes, actually tells the unflappable British secret agent to quarantine.
The movie gives the 53-year old Mr. Craig a fitting sendoff, concluding the trend of his films to offer a more sympathetic character study of author Ian Fleming’s dashing government assassin.
Since the 2006 reboot “Casino Royale,” his Bond has proven more vulnerable emotionally and more monogamous in his romances with women than the prior incarnations played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.
That’s part of the problem with this latest effort: It’s not much fun.
As a sendoff for Mr. Craig and for the womanizing image of Bond in today’s #MeToo era, “No Time to Die” makes a pretty good eulogy, even giving the character a daughter. It’s where the movie introduces new elements in an obvious effort to Beta-test the franchise’s future that it tends to fall short of 2012’s Oscar-winning “Skyfall,” the high point of the actor’s turn in the role.
Despite his bioweapons plot, clever name, and cyclopean henchman, Rami Malek’s masked villain Lyutsifer Safin comes across as a middling throwback. Also, the film struggles to commit fully to Ms. Lynch’s fresh new 007, ultimately treating her more like a secondary Bond girl or a sidekick who fades into the background behind leading lady Léa Seydoux, reprising her role as Madeleine Swann.
The film also fumbles a subtle reference to former President Donald Trump as a possible off-screen supervillain.
The reference occurs when Bond’s longtime CIA ally Felix Leiter, reprised by Jeffrey Wright after a two-film absence, introduces his obnoxious sidekick Logan Ash with disgust as a “political appointee” from the State Department.
Ash, played by Billy Magnussen with a vaguely rural accent, turns out to be a ruthless double agent. Then someone references “who he works for” in hushed tones.
Leiter and Bond also discuss their disillusionment with their respective governments.
The film’s idea that the U.S. president may be a shadowy Bond villain, or somehow responsible for appointing a man without honor who sells out his country to foreign terrorists, could go over the heads of some moviegoers with President Biden now in office. Released in October 2021, it seems odd that Bond would gripe about Prime Minister Boris Johnson while Leiter seems to grumble about the Biden presidency.
But “No Time to Die,” the 25th movie in the EON-produced series, was filmed in 2019 and originally scheduled for U.S. theatrical release in April 2020, when MGM postponed it due to COVID-19.
In a lengthy March 2020 interview with GQ, Mr. Craig griped about the “grandstanding” of Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson and told interviewer Sam Knight that Mr. Trump would figure in the new movie somehow.
“We struggled to keep Trump out of this film,” Mr. Craig told the magazine. “But, of course, it is there. It’s always there, whether it’s Trump, or whether it’s Brexit, or whether it’s Russian interference on elections.”
Mr. Craig’s sentiments apparently remain in the movie despite Mr. Trump’s departure from office.
He now departs the 007 franchise after five movies in a way that leaves the door open for Ms. Lynch to take over in a series of spinoff films. That will likely depend on whether Amazon, which purchased copyright-holding MGM Studios for $8.45 billion in May, decides to move in that direction.