Enjoying a jaunt around Europe, Madeleine Swan (Lea Seydoux) and James Bond (Daniel Craig) find themselves caught up in a race between two rival organisations who want to steal a secretly developed chemical weapon. Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) must somehow be leading the resurgent Spectre, yet he remains imprisoned and the mystery leader behind their opponents is yet to reveal themselves…

Delayed for several years – the “creative differences” that led original director Danny Boyle to depart were then rendered miniscule by the small matter of a global pandemic – Daniel Craig’s farewell to arms has arrived. Although in some areas it rather bravely puts its money where its mouth is in terms of giving the audience something new, it still feels like a vertical slice of the Craig era in that the superb parts never coalesce into a satisfying whole.

Opening with a home invasion scene that creepily expands on the history of a returning character from the underwhelming Spectre, NTTD quickly stops all that low key character-building nonsense by jumping to the here and now and getting on with the explosions. Bond’s romantic getaway is interrupted by the criminal organisation Spectre (plus the ever-excellent second unit) exploding what emotions may be lingering after Casino Royale. It’s a classic Bond opening action scene, complete with skilled motorcycle jumps and ye olde Aston Martin doing doughnuts in a village square whilst aimlessly gunning everything to rubble (if that’s not symbolic of Britain’s current place in Europe, I don’t know what is). From there, we head to Ian Fleming’s old stomping ground of the Caribbean, where Bond is restlessly relaxing into a dotage that fits him even worse than that suit from the end of Casino Royale. These are the strongest parts of the film, where intriguing threads are dangled ready to be pulled. One of these appears in the form of old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, unseen since Quantum Of Solace), who of course coaxes Bond into One Last Mission. Another is the new 007, Lashanna Lynch, coming in hot matching Craig’s mad swagger whilst throwing sharp digs about Bond’s age and suitability for the job. She’s great in the part, although it feels her involvement could have been expanded. Double that for Ana De Armas, who storms in midway through as the backup for an infiltration into a Spectre event in Havana, and leaves taking the entire film with her.

And that’s not an understatement, as post-Cuba the film begins to deflate. A jaunt to Norway contains revelations that mean the film could have conceivably been retooled to start in the fjords. The reasoning behind the masterplan of the mysterious Safin (Rami Malek) reveals itself, and sadly so does the Craig-era quirk of casting ridiculously good actors – see also: Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Almeric and Christoph Waltz –  and giving them nothing to do but occasionally show off a facial disfigurement. If you think Waltz was hard done by last time out, what with being cast as a Blofeld hobbled by a lame backstory and given zero underground volcano lairs (because God forbid Bond’s greatest enemy be interesting), then wait until you get a load of his brief sub-Lecter appearance here.

The film rallies somewhat near the close, and the ending promises something new for the franchise. What that is will remain unclear for a while, but overall it’s still comforting to see the “James Bond Will Return” post-credit scrawl appear, going down easy like a vodka martini before a gunfight – or even during, to reference a ridiculously great Bondian touch from this film.

Look, it’s not NTTD‘s fault it’s slightly underwhelming. The over-arching problem with Craig’s Bond movies is that they began telling their own story, albeit with recognisable mise en scene – Judi Dench here, high-stakes gambling in a classy joint there. Somewhere between the cool reception to Quantum and the release of Skyfall howeverthe films were reoriented to include commentary on the history of the franchise and the place it has in contemporary cinema. Which is all well and good, but this meant it all got slightly po-faced, and began to lean on that history to generate tension. Watching Casino Royale back, it’s a joy to see Craig and Eva Green bicker, banter and fall in love, the natural chemistry given time to grow so that the final twist in the tale carries the required sting. There’s been none of that playfulness in subsequent movies, save for the nudge-nudge-wink-wink theatrics in Skyfall of Javier Bardem – a performance that paradoxically lifts that film just as its script is about to collapse in on itself. Here, depth is instead provided by the finality of Craig’s contract running out, nostalgic Louis Armstrong needledrops, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it Easter Egg for Robert Brown’s version of M (which must muddle the continuity), and a twist ending that leaves all of 5 minutes for the film and its audience to digest. It’s a hollow finale in the grand scheme of things. Where Casino Royale asked us to take a journey into an unknown future for a character thought past-it, No Time To Die begins with Bond past-it, jettisons any attempt at character building, instead using 60 years of aggregate audience goodwill to meander through to its (plothole-ridden, yet effective) sudden stop.

To explain it in terms of comparison to Billie Eilish’s theme song: although accomplished and shows off the talent involved, it’s rather one-note and it lacks the grandeur of Skyfall.

In fairness, the success of Craig’s tenure has been down to the risks taken. Eon have gone big with behind-the-scenes talent, especially bringing in world-class cinematographers that have upped the game considerably (all hail Roger Deakins). The action scenes have been stellar, and the stories rooted in a realistic world bereft of giant space stations or invisible cars (well, until this film skirts the fine line between epic and camp, escalating into a world-threatening plot that gifts Ralph Fiennes a line about a bionic eye that perhaps only he could make work). Most of all, Craig’s casting was a triumph, taking Bond away from the sub-Moore flab that Brosnan’s tenure had melted into, towards a style more befitting Fleming’s hard-boiled “blunt instrument” character description, except with a burgeoning beating heart. Two of his movies – Casino Royale and Skyfall – are series highlights, whilst the rest are at least watchable for their scale and commitment to making the franchise wholly cinematic (as opposed to just pointing a camera at whatever Ken Adam or the stunt team had cooked up). Overall, whilst it can’t quite be said that nobody does it better – Bond is, and always will be, defined by our beloved Big Tam – Daniel Craig has recalibrated the character and set a new bar for modern action leads. 

No Time To Die is out now on general release in the UK