Review: 'No Time to Die' ends Daniel Craig's James Bond run with a stirring if flawed effort

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

James Bond movies are famous for guns and gadgets, cocktails and cocksure heroes.

But the recent spate of films starring Daniel Craig gave the man with the license to kill a heart and mind to match. And while the actor's final bow in “No Time to Die” has its issues, the latest action adventure nicely places the exploding cherry on top of an evolutionary period in the British superspy’s cinematic life.

Wrapping up the five-movie mini-saga that began with 2006’s “Casino Royale,” director Cary Joji Fukunaga (the first American to helm a Bond film)ventures where none have dared to go before in the franchise'sstoried 25-film history – and it's not just giving somebody else the 007 handle.

In “No Time to Die” (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters now), Craig's secret agent wrestles with mortality and finds himself on the opposite side of Her Majesty’s secret service amid the familiar aspects fans adore: death-defying situations, ridiculously cool cars, globetrotting scenery and, of course, a random European supervillain threatening the globe.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) hits the bar with Paloma (Ana de Armas) in the latest 007 film "No Time to Die."

The new film picks up where the last – 2015’s lackluster “Spectre” – left off, with Bond and his main squeeze, Austrian psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), zooming around in an Aston Martin D85. On an Italian getaway, 007 visits the grave of a departed love, and a bomb explodes. Bond survives but is pursued by goons from the evil organization SPECTRE, leading him to question his trust in Madeleine and force an unfortunate separation.

Five years later, Bond is retired and living the good life in Jamaica. He’s found by an old CIA friend, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who wants his help tracking down a kidnapped Russian scientist and a high-tech bioweapon used to target people through their DNA. Bond's old pals at MI6 have moved on with a new 007 named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), he has an initially awkward reunion with Madeleine and when he's fully back in suit-bedecked action, he's forced to play mind games (again) with incarcerated SPECTRE boss Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).

But Bond discovers that the main baddie this time is a mysterious figure named Safin (Rami Malek), who has a connection to Swann, a sweet island lair and a vengeful agenda.

Nomi (Lashana Lynch) is MI6's new 007 in "No Time to Die."

Clocking in at 2 hours and 43 minutes, “No Time to Die” is the longest Bond film to date, and you feel it in an emotionally satisfying finale that takes forever. At least the first half zips along with the best sequences in the film: Early on, an Italian vehicle chase is classic Bond, and a fantastic Havana scene teams Bond with rookie CIA agent Paloma. Played by a delightful Ana de Armas, who continues her great “Knives Out” chemistry with Craig, she’s a breath of fresh franchise air, side-kicking dudes while in a high-slit dress.

Lynch's character doesn’t quite live up to her potential: Nomi initially comes on strong as a swaggering, engaging presence, but by the climax she’s kind of a non-factor. And Malek's Safin, a strangely accented megalomaniac lacking bite, can’t measure up to 007’s deep bench of uber-bad guys. On the other hand, Dali Benssalah’s one-eyed Primo is an enjoyable henchman in the Oddjob and Jaws mold.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is reunited with his love, Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), in "No Time to Die."

While the film goes to some pretty dark places, there's a lightness to “No Time to Die” that’s a welcome change to the Bond landscape – and it’s safe to assume we have co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Killing Eve," "Fleabag") to thank for that. The dialogue is never Roger Moore-era goofy (although the over-the-top plot is another story). Yet there’s unexpected, energizing levity with a lab workplace bit about “weaponized smallpox” and an antagonist saying, “I was a big fan of his!” after trying to blow up Bond.

“No Time to Die” never reaches the heights of “Skyfall” or “Casino Royale,” though it's certainly better than the low point of Craig’s run. (Sorry, “Quantum of Solace.”) But the English actor’s final round as 007 is one of his best, giving the iconic role gravitas, humor and most importantly, soul. Amid seriously high stakes, Craig makes you root for Bond like never before in a swan song that’ll leave die-hards shaken, if not stirred.