Producers: Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli   Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge  Cast: Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, David Dencik, Ana de Armas, Billy Magnussen and Dali Benssalah   Distributor: United Artists

Grade: C+

Everyone involved has gone to great lengths to make Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond—the twenty-fifth installment in the long-running series—special, including giving it literally great length (at 163 minutes, it’s the longest Bond movie ever).  The strain to meet expectations shows, and despite the usual quota of big action set-pieces, “No Time to Die” is a glum, undernourished affair, lacking the frisson of the best Bond pictures.

The script, credited to director Cary Joji Fukunaga along with the team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (long involved in the Bond franchise), with a final assist from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, starts where “Spectre” left off.  Bond has gone off with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) to enjoy wedded bliss, but when he visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd, whom he loved and lost in “Casino Royale,” a bomb intended for him goes off, and he jumps to the conclusion that Swann has betrayed him.  Though he saves her life during an assault by an army of murderous agents, he abandons her and goes into hiding.

Bond’s suspicions about Madeleine are left hanging, but an eerie prologue set in the distant past has already indicated that she has a connection to a mysterious, scarred, mask-wearing assassin who will eventually be revealed as Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek).  Safin trudged through the snowy Norwegian wilds looking to kill her father, Spectre operative Mr. White (who committed suicide in “Spectre”) and did slaughter her mother, but saved little Madeleine (Coline Defaud) when she fell through an ice-covered lake and was in danger of drowning. 

Now, some years after James and Madeleine were separated, Bond is residing in Jamaica, where he’s approached by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and his enthusiastic young aide Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) to help in locating Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik), who has been abducted from an MI6 lab by Spectre.  Bond demurs for a while, despite the fact that Obruchev is at the forefront of a dangerous experiment in nanotechnology that involves inserting micro-bots into the bloodstream fatally targeted on an individual’s DNA—and transferable, like an infection.

Eventually James relents and joins another CIA operative, beautiful Paloma (Ana de Armas) in a mission in Havana to capture Obruchev during a Spectre meeting.  Though the scientist is retrieved, a major twist removes him from Bond’s custody, now an ally of the enigmatic Safin. 

That brings Bond back to England, where he is thrown together not only with his old colleagues at MI6—surly M (Ralph Fiennes) and the more supportive Q (Ben Whishaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), along with the new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch)—but also with Madeleine, the psychiatrist assigned to communicate with the imprisoned head of Spectre, Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  He also learns that Madeleine has a five-year old daughter named Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet).

From this point Bond’s target becomes Safin, who is now in control of Obruchev’s technology and of Madeleine and Mathilde, whom he has kidnapped and taken to his base on an island off the Japanese coast.  Safin has conceived the idea of employing the nano-bots to destroy humanity.  Bond and Nomi are sent to the compound to foil his plot and rescue the captives, and a prolonged, spectacular finale follows, with an outcome designed to bring Craig’s Bond stint to a close.

On the surface “No Time to Die” follows the Bond playbook, with a convoluted plot, replete with double-crosses, reversals and confrontations, but the mood is no longer sprightly and frat-boy humorous, as it was in the pre-Craig days; it continues the evolution that’s been occurring in the series at least since “Casino Royale,” toward greater seriousness, with the once-cheeky agent growing more and more dour.  Now he is a decidedly morose fellow, whatever illusions he might once have embraced replaced by grim determination.  The characterization gives Craig more to chew on as an actor, but it’s no longer as much fun for the audience. 

Nor do other aspects of the film respond to the expectations the earlier films invited.  An exciting, whiz-bang opening and great title song were considered obligatory, but this one starts with the creepy Norwegian prologue and violently downbeat breakup of Bond and Madeleine, and the song by Billie Eilish is not terribly memorable, though the visuals accompanying it are certainly eye-popping—if often having little to do with the film that follows. 

Most importantly, though, the film lacks the great villain that has always marked the best Bond movies.  Simply put, Malek’s Safin is quietly unsettling but misses the colorful bravado even of Waltz’s Blofeld, whose brief appearance offers more zest than Malek manages in all his windy monologues toward the film’s close.  (After his drab performance in “The Little Things,” it makes one wonder whether his turn in “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a fluke.)  And while Safin’s motivation in destroying Spectre is plausible enough, why he should then pivot to world destruction is never satisfactorily explained.  As a result the final confrontation with Bond falls rather flat. 

There are compensations earlier on in some of the action scenes, which, as usual, depend far less on CGI than is normal nowadays, and are all the more effective for it.  The Cuban sequence with De Armas’ Paloma is especially winning in its old-style flamboyance, complete with repartee.  While Fiennes’ M is a curiously dull figure, Wishaw’s Q and Harris’ Moneypenny have some engaging moments, Lynch is a striking addition to the team, and Seydoux makes a touchingly conflicted heroine.  Wright’s Leiter is, as always, formidable, but Dali Benssalah is surprisingly bland as Bond’s brutal antagonist Primo, and Magnusson a grinning cipher as Ash.

The picture certainly upholds the quality standards of previous Bond productions.  Though Fukunaga’s direction evinces more competence than imagination, the crafts team—cinematographer Linus Sandgren, production designer Mark Tildesley, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and visual effects supervisor Charlie Noble—do expert work.  One might prefer a less generic score than Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro provide, and the editing by Elliot Graham and Tom Cross could be sharper in the expository sections, but overall this is a proficient job on the technical side.

It would have been nice had Craig’s swan song as Bond proved one of the peaks of the long series, or even his part of it; as it is, “No Time to Die” is at best a middle-grade effort, a respectable enough action blockbuster but nothing special, hardly worth the long pandemic wait and its multiple postponements.