Critics Debate: Is ‘No Time to Die’ a Triumph or a Letdown? And Where Does the James Bond Series Go From Here?

No Time to Die
Nicola Dove

The release of “No Time to Die” marks a key turning point — for moviegoing in the pandemic era and for James Bond. Variety chief film critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge discuss the end of the Daniel Craig cycle, the legacy of Bond, and whether 007 can really live twice. Warning: This dialogue includes major spoilers.

Owen Gleiberman: “No Time to Die” arrives at a special moment. For months now, even as movie theaters have slowly stirred back to life, we’ve been asking when a film would come along that could break the dam of trepidation and anxiety that so many viewers still feel — understandably — about the prospect of going back into a crowded movie theater. There have been genuine hits, like “F9” and “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” Nevertheless, it’s no insult to those films to say that they’ve all been unabashed pieces of roller-coaster escapism pitched to a youthful demo. The words “James Bond” are, of course, synonymous with escapism — but “No Time to Die,” by wrapping up the Daniel Craig cycle of Bond films in floridly ambitious high style, with a death-defying romanticism that makes it, to me, the best of the Daniel Craig 007 films since “Casino Royale,” now has the chance to be the Big Movie For Adults that we’ve been waiting for. (The fact that we’ve had to wait an entire year for it is the icing on the anticipatory cake.) I think it could be a smash — but beyond that, it could mark the paradigm shift to where movie culture comes roaring back. Peter, what are your thoughts on that?

Peter Debruge: You know, Owen, James Bond is the reason I got hooked on movies. I discovered the series when I was 9 years old, just as a new guy (Timothy Dalton at the time) was taking over the role. I obsessively caught up with every one of his prior adventures and eagerly awaited each new installment on the big screen. From the imaginative gadgets to the globe-trotting exploits, the entire franchise is calibrated to maximize the in-theater experience. So yes, “No Time to Die” could end up being the highest-grossing movie to have opened since COVID-19 struck. It’s an uncanny coincidence that the movie finds its otherwise forgettable villain (Rami Malek) trying to engineer some kind of dastardly “plandemic.” And it’s kind of perfect that this chapter closes the loop on the Daniel Craig cycle of films begun with “Casino Royale,” which effectively rebooted the character, making him a more single-minded killing machine with a capacity to develop emotional connections to the women he seduced (or have the women been seducing him this time around?).

As excited as I was to experience the finale — and as certain as I am that the world shares my enthusiasm — I gotta say, “No Time to Die” was a letdown for me. Despite a running time that rivals “The Last Emperor,” the movie somehow skimps on what I expect from a Bond movie. Whereas “Skyfall” built on the character’s backstory, raising the stakes for exciting new action scenes, this one crams the best material into the first hour and then spends the rest of the time paying off a series of unconvincing threads set up by the stylish yet unsatisfying penultimate entry, “Spectre.” I never believed that Bond would walk away from Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be with Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), and now we find Blofeld (over-actor extraordinaire Christoph Waltz) masterminding a lame scheme from a maximum security prison.

OG: Well, rather than get all defensive on you, I’ll say this: As a fan of “No Time to Die,” I acknowledge that the movie is too long. It didn’t need to be nearly three hours. That said, the film uses its length to enhance the quality — rare for the Bond series — of an emotional journey. I think it’s telling that even a non-fan like yourself thought the first hour was relatively gripping, and the last 45 minutes, to me, is pretty close to popcorn heaven. And not just because I apparently liked Rami Malek more than anyone else did, finding him superlatively creepy. (Though have you ever noticed that the supervillain performances in Bond films age less well than almost anything else about them?) There’s an excitement, a high-wire grandeur to the whole last act of “No Time to Die.” It really is about Craig’s 007 going the distance, upping the stakes — not just for the world, but for himself.

PD: Here’s what I concede that I enjoyed about “No Time to Die”: It’s great that Madeleine gets a backstory, and that it connects her to Spectre, effectively positioning her as someone Bond can’t trust. It was fun to see a classic Aston Martin tricked out with “Spy Hunter”-style self-defense weapons, and I liked Ana de Armas’ too-brief turn as a CIA operative pretending to be the kind of klutzy eye candy Britt Ekland played in “The Man With the Golden Gun.” For this particular moment, Lashana Lynch is an inspired choice as Bond’s successor (I guess they don’t retire double-0’s the way the NBA does jersey numbers). But all that comes in the first hour, and then this stops being an action movie and turns into a very dysfunctional family drama. That last 45 minutes you love hinges on a flipping child-endangerment hook, for heaven’s sake.

OG: What’s wrong with a child-endangerment hook? Did I miss a memo? Is that now against the laws of popular culture? I thought it was precisely that element — and the Rami Malek character’s threat to that child — that lent the last section an added spark of suspenseful urgency. But look, what are we disagreeing about here? I think the movie has plenty of exhilarating action, but who cares if at a certain point it “stops being an action movie?” In the early ’60s, the Bond series set the template for action (at least until “Bullitt” came along), but every third Hollywood film I’ve seen in the last four decades has been an action movie. The Bond series has already been whipped in that department by the “Mission: Impossible” and — let’s be honest — the “Fast and Furious” films. “No Time to Die” works because it has a mythic emotional core.

PD: Now we’re venturing into spoiler territory. Until this film, James Bond never had a child (well, not one that he knew about anyway), and now that he does, it’s all a little too convenient to the movie’s “this time it’s personal” strategy. You see, Bond has been going on personal missions for decades. In “License to Kill,” he resigned temporarily in order to hunt down the drug lord who killed CIA friend Felix Leiter’s wife. And of course, in “Quantum of Solace,” we saw him take revenge on those responsible for Vesper Lynd’s death. Here, young Mathilde feels like little more than a prop/plot device to me. In theory, she should give things an emotional dimension, but Craig’s entire way of playing Bond has been that of a stone-cold killer, so I don’t suddenly believe that this guy who risks his life to save the world is going to suddenly go soft when his family is taken prisoner. While I’m tired of movies (like the Marvel franchise) where the fate of all mankind is at stake, that’s essentially Bond’s job, not playing “Kindergarten Cop” to a girl who dropped her “doudou” in the villain’s secret lair.

OG: Craig’s 007 was never just a stone-cold killer. He has a charismatic scowling-roughneck quality, but from “Casino Royale” on he has had an undertow of vulnerability that Sean Connery never did. And in “No Time to Die,” Bond doesn’t go soft because he’s got a kid. The sacrifice he makes is based on the fact that he’s been infused with a lethally contagious techno poison — and therefore he can no longer be with Seydoux’s Madeleine. And I think that as you watch the ending, there’s a poetry to that. Throughout the Craig cycle, Bond has been haunted by the love (and loss) of Vesper Lynd. Now, he’s finally found another woman he loves, and he’s realized that his mistrust of her was misplaced. But he’s doomed, by cataclysmic global events, to never be with her.

Consider how the ending of “No Time to Die” completes the James Bond films. Think of how many of those movies, over 60 years, reference death in the title. “Live and Let Die.” “Tomorrow Never Dies.” “Die Another Day.” “You Only Live Twice.” The essence of James Bond, as a character, is that he lives every day on the edge of death — and that he embraces that precarious and existential state of being. It’s what liberates him. (It’s what makes him, in the earlier films, a libertine.) But the reason he accepts death is that he knows he’d be dying for a higher purpose: MI6, Britain, Western Civilization. He’s the knight of the postwar world, and he lives out its freedoms and its pleasures. But he’ll die, at any moment, for that life he believes in protecting. And that’s why what he does at the end of “No Time to Die” feels right. It’s not a change of character. It’s a quintessentially Bondian move. He embraces death…as an act of saving.

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“Casino Royale” ©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett

PD: The man has a license to kill. Death comes with the territory, and dying has always been a risk. That’s what has always made these films so thrilling: watching how James Bond manages to escape the most dangerous situations alive. He’s one of the only film characters who goes on saving the world decade after decade even as new actors step into the role, which has been one of the never-explained enigmas of the franchise. “Casino Royale” backed away from the formula, mixing things up in odd ways that I’ve never quite understood (borrowing Judi Dench as M from the Brosnan era, while recasting Moneypenny and Q). And now, with “No Time to Die,” we understand the master plan of Daniel Craig’s arc, which gave the character psychological dimension, forced him to face consequences and strove for continuity between episodes.

Those who live by the sword die by the sword, as they say, and there’s something genuinely enticing about following this unusually dangerous career choice through to its natural conclusion. That was the thinking behind David Chase’s divisive finale to “The Sopranos,” which emphasized the banality — and cut-to-black finality — of a mob boss getting whacked. I always imagined that Bond would die in some totally mundane way, like accidentally stepping out in front of a red double-decker bus or choking on the olive from one of his martinis. Here, the idea is that this designer virus (the absurd sci-fi super-weapon Males’s Safin is mass-producing) curses Bond never to touch Madeleine or Mathilde again, and so he decides to sacrifice himself instead of doing one of his signature nick-of-time escapes from the exploding base. The DNA-targeting nano-bots are a cheap device, and 007’s reaction is a betrayal of the character’s core identity. James Bond believes in impossible solutions, like finding a cure for this thing. He doesn’t just shrug his shoulders and give up. What the filmmakers do with him here enrages me, because choosing to die isn’t the same as being killed. It’s suicide.

OG: He’s not committing suicide. He’s saying, “I’ve fulfilled my destiny.” Or maybe on some level, “I’ve outlived it.” Yes, the man has a license to kill. But he has used it to do an awful lot of killing, and the end of “No Time to Die” is, on some level, all that killing coming back at him. Now it’s his time. But look, the “end of Bond” that the movie presents us with isn’t just literal. It’s mythological. It arrives at a moment when James Bond has come to seem a total anachronism — one that the world (including me) still has a mountain of nostalgia for, but I think the character, for quite a long time, has been running mostly on fumes of nostalgia.

I mean, what is there about Bond that hasn’t been fully ingested into the larger pop-cultural system? He’s a fearless, merciless action hero; who isn’t? He has cool cars and gadgets; who doesn’t? He’s a spy who foils plans for world domination and/or destruction; hardly a week goes by when a thriller doesn’t present us with that scenario. He’s a man who can seduce a woman with a glance; just think of how many B-movie action demigods have acted out that same rule of attraction. About all that’s left of Bond that’s purely Bond is…the tuxedo and the vodka martinis. (As a martini drinker myself, it always bugs me that Bond doesn’t specify the brand.) What the end of “No Time to Die” leaves its audience with is the sensation that James Bond’s time is over. And I, for one, think it is. Of course, this will all be fantastically contradicted when the Broccoli family, which still controls the fate of the franchise, figures out, in three or four years, a way to bring Bond back. Because you know they will.

PD: I read the ending not as mission accomplished, but the ultimate tragedy for a character who’s experienced practically every loss imaginable. He’s lost loves (Tracy Bond, way back at the end of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the first time the franchise tried to get serious), colleagues (M, Felix Leiter, etc.) and now his life — and just when the horizon looked clear for him to settle down with his newfound family. Hence the title, which sounds to those who haven’t yet seen it like another “death”-based play on words, but turns out to be the poetic summation of his fate: After cheating death two dozen times, Bond finally bites it, and at the worst possible time, just when he’d found his purpose. What these Daniel Craig movies have shown us is how the character battles nihilism. He kills without care for the targets, which takes a certain kind of sociopath. This Bond bleeds, he scars, and he carries all that emotional damage with him always, which has made for a darker character.

Over these last five movies, Bond has faced unimaginable misfortune, but Madeleine and Mathilde gave him reason to live. I never quite bought it (a failing of “Spectre” as much as this film), but I would have preferred to leave things where “Spectre” did, rather than the sad-trombone ending director Cary Joji Fukunaga and company give us with here. As Orson Welles (who played Le Chiffre in 1967’s off-brand “Casino Royale”) once put it, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” Yes, “James Bond will return,” as the end credits promise. The question now on everyone’s mind is who will take over for Craig. I suspect future installments will transpire in a parallel (but only just) dimension, the way past hand-offs have gone. That means we probably won’t see Lashana Lynch again. But introducing a Black woman as 007 opens the doors to a whole range of actors, and proves that of course Idris Elba or Riz Ahmed or Florence Pugh (my vote, if any Eon execs made it this far) could fill those shoes. He’s been played by a Scot (Sean Connery) and an Aussie (George Lazenby) already.

OG: I have a fundamental disagreement with you about the character. James Bond isn’t a nihilist, even though he lives like there’s no tomorrow, and he’s not a sociopath either, though he sometimes appears to be as heartless as one. He kills for a purpose. Always. That, I think, is at the heart of our collective nostalgia, going back to the first three Connery Bonds, which I still think are the best. It’s our nostalgia for a time when someone like James Bond — spy, gentleman, hooligan, stud, killer in a dinner jacket — could have a formidable place in the universe. He belonged in the world, and helped to hold it together. You’re right that there’s an element of tragedy in the end of “No Time to Die.” That’s why a lot of people will be crying. But it’s only an element. I think the film has a happy ending, because it’s really about how James Bond fulfilled his mission. He saved the world. He did it every damn time. Now he doesn’t have to die another day.

PD: The franchise has never been able to top those original Connery entries, though Craig came close. I don’t actually see it as such a setback to Bond’s future that Craig’s version of the character is dead. He’s been living on borrowed time since “Skyfall,” when Adele made us all fear the worst when her theme song began, “This is the end.” Ever since Superman bit the dust (first in the comics, and later in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”), dying is now just something heroes do so the world can recognize how much we take them for granted. It’s right on trend.