A guide to all things Bond at Alternate Ending.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Cary Joji Fukunaga and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Premiered 28 September, 2021

I have to give it credit for being a basically perfect summary of the entire movie: it's much too long, it assumes that the emotional lives and backstories of its characters are fare more compelling than is actually the case, the action is pretty phenomenal when it shows up, and you do have to wait a bizarrely long time for said action, given that is the 25th film in what is ostensibly an action franchise.

Things open on a flashback to a wintry lakeside landscape, where a little girl (Coline Defaud) and her mother (Mathilde Bourbin) live in a clearly expensive but still fairly cozy home. Into this tidy domestic space comes a man wearing a Noh mask, declaring that he is there to get revenge on the man who killed his family. So he kills the mother, but the girl gets the drop on him, and almost succeeds in disposing of the body; but he comes too, and chases her onto the lake, where she falls through the ice. After hesitating, the man pulls her out.

That's an awful lot already, and we're not even halfway. The girl grows up to be Madeline Swann (Léa Seydoux), who we catch up with shortly after the events of the last Bond picture, Spectre; she and James Bond (Daniel Craig) have arrived in the small Italian town where his last one true love, Vesper Lynd, was buried (this is accompanied by a huge in-joke: Bond tells Madeline "We have all the time in the world", as the song of that name from On Her Majesty's Secret Service plays on the soundtrack; the line's extreme significance to the franchise is made to pay off, ironically, twice. It's clever but a bit effortful). In so doing, Madeline hopes to help Bond exorcise his hang-ups about the past, so he and she can make a simply, honest life together. So far, so good, except Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the imprisoned head of international crime syndicate SPECTRE, has rigged a trap for Bond; this involves a chase on motorcycles, ending with Bond putting Madeline on a train and curtly informing her that for both of them to be safe, they must never see each other again.

I am sure this is somebody's idea of a great, epic way to start the first Bond film to ever function as a grand finale to one actor's tenure in the role; it is certainly not mine. My interest in Madeline ended somewhat before Spectre did, and this sequence spends a whole lot of time slowly working through not just her unspoken traumas, but also the relationship between her and the retired superspy, and how not speaking those traumas is putting a strain on it. It's boring as hell, and I felt every millisecond of it (which will remain true for all 163 of the film's minutes, a franchise record). That being said, the action, once it deigns to show up, is utterly fabulous, including a motorcycle jump that earns every last bit of its hype. So I'm not angry at this opening. Just disappointed.

Rating: 3 Union Jack Parachutes

Upon hearing that Billie Eilish had been selected to sing the new Bond song, what feels like many years ago (thanks to the pandemic-related delays that have kept No Time to Die out of theaters for a year and a half, Eilish has managed the neat trick of winning a Grammy for a song written for a movie, several months before anybody saw that movie), I was convinced it would be a farrago. "What do the kids like?" is an ongoing stumbling block for this franchise and has been pretty much since the 1960s, and every attempt by producer Albert R. Broccoli or later on his children to court The Youths has gone from ineffective to mortifying. Color me suitably surprised and impressed, then, that Eilish turns out to be a rock-solid Bond singer. Her droning, mumbling style won’t put anybody in mind of Shirley Bassey or even Nancy Sinatra, but it's perfect for the morbid fixation of all the Craig-era theme songs, while thankfully exuding more real emotion and honesty in that morbidity than Sam Smith's terrible falsetto caterwauling on Spectre’s "Writing on the Wall". The song itself leaves limited impression on me (to be honest, Eilish's singing makes it hard to work out the lyrics), but the heavy mood it creates is pretty perfect for a film that is obsessively fixated on the end of things and the pain that causes.

Rating: 3.5 Shirley Basseys

Anything would have been a relief after the catastrophe of the octopus & flashbacks-oriented opening credits sequence for Spectre, and Daniel Kleinman has gone reasonably basic and straightforward. Little graphic representations of Bond and Madeline are trapped in the guts of a clock, the steady movement of the gears pulling them away; because time passes, you see, and that makes things feel doomy. Later, there are some unfussily creative little design touches, like a DNA double-helix made out of handguns. And all of it is expressed with a somber color scheme. Nothing to knock your socks off, but it's a stately and confidently subtle approach, a great match for the elegiac song, and appropriately monumental for the film to follow.

Rating: 3.5 Silhouetted Women

Strip it down to its barest expression, and this is the most straightforward "Bond has to stop a world-threatening plot by a gaudy madman" film the series has done since Craig put on the tux: a fellow named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) - the Noh mask killer from Madeline's past - has acquired plague-carrying nanobots, and must be prevented from using them. Setting aside that nanobots are a bit overdone and '90s-feeling to trot back out for a Bond film well along into the 21st Century, that's a perfectly solid, meat-and-potatoes sort of thing. We can work with that.

Lamentably, in order to get to that point, we have to trudge through what feels like a full 90 minutes of tying off all the loose ends from Spectre, finding Bond hiding in Jamaica, where he is found almost simultaneously both by the current MI6 agent 007, a woman named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), as well as CIA agents Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, taking the record for most appearances in the role, at three) and Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen), both of whom want Bond's help in finding a bioweapon that has gone missing from a British lab. This weapon is part of a shameful secret past involving M (Ralph Fiennes), Bond's ex-boss, so the retired spy angrily finds his way back into the life, first working with CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas) to infiltrate a SPECTRE meeting in Cuba before returning to England to meet with Blofeld in prison. Here he crosses paths with Madeline, currently serving as Blofeld's psychiatrist, which feels pretty fucking dubious to me, but we're like an hour in, the movie has to start connecting dots sometime. Skip ahead a bit, or maybe it's backwards, there's a lot to keep track of and I don't quite remember all of the particulars, it turns out that Safin is both a dedicated enemy of SPECTRE but also a dangerous madman in his own right, and so Bond and Madeline - eager for some revenge of her own - trek off to the Sea of Japan, to find his base and stop him.

This is all down to a matter of taste. Depending on my mood, I either tolerate the Craig-Bond era's newfound love of continuity or serialisation, or I hate it; I have not ever once enjoyed it, and No Time to Die is absolutely drowning in continuity. Every James Bond film basically since the beginning has been chasing some trend, and here, it's very obvious that the trend is the kind of serial shared-universe storytelling made popular by the Marvel Cinematic Universe pictures, where no story can just be a story, it has to be a cog in a greater narrative machine. I don't like it when the MCU does it, and just because I am more inherently invested in Bond than I am in Marvel superheroes, that doesn't mean I like it now. This is cluttered and drearily convinced of how important it is to tell as story About James Bond's Feelings and not just put him in a position to shoot guns and drive cars. And I simply did not care about the story it was telling, both out of a general preference for simplicity, and for some other reasons given in the next couple of thousand words.

Also, bluntly, once your James Bond movie has come in at two hours and forty-three fucking minutes, you just plain screwed up. You have to go back and cut shit. I'd start with the Blofeld scene.

Rating: 2 Stolen Nukes

Part of the problem with Lyutsifer Safin - my God, what a name! I don't even remember the last Bond movie to give any character such a top-shelf masterwork of a label - is simply that he doesn't show up for like eight hours. The scene with Child Madeline sets him up as a ghostly terror (and also raises the question of whether it's supposed to be quite so noticeable that Rami Malek is only four years older than Léa Seydoux), and the Noh mask is instantly striking, but they aren't enough to establish him as an actual presence in the narrative. By the time Safin actually re-enters No Time to Die in any meaningful capacity, it feels like the movie should already be winding down; if it's going to perk back up, it had better have a real firecracker of a domineering bad guy to give it fuel. And Malek's Safin is almost exactly the opposite of that: the performance is extremely small, with the actor basically making one choice with his voice (raspy, whispering menace) and one choice with his body (keeping his hands primly tented together), and letting the "badly burned by chemicals" make-up do the rest of the work for him. Apologies to Malek; I think I could have enjoyed this performance quite a bit more in a film that made better use of it from earlier on. But by the time he shows up, I was already getting pretty bored with the whole thing, and the whispering was a killer in that context.

I am not sure if I would have liked Safin more or less if they'd gone the last tiny bit into making a character who is basically Dr. No in every way except for having the name "Dr. No" actually turn out to be Dr. No.

Rating: 2.5 Evil Cats

History is made! Léa Seydoux's Madeline Swann is the first romantic lead to come back for a second Bond film (Maud Adams played a character in both The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, but they weren't the same character, and she wasn't a the leading lady in the former). I liked her quite a bit for most of Spectre: she's a terrific actress and she put up enough walls between herself and Craig that she came across as a much more dynamic psychological presence and independent figure than the vast majority of Bond's romantic partners do. Until this happened:

"And then it all goes to hell, with the filmmakers forcibly trying to convince us that Swann and Bond are some kind of soulmates, in a galling manner that's clumsy and tone-deaf even by the standards of a tone-deaf final third."

That's where No Time to Die starts off, and I don't think it ever improves. Seydoux herself is given practically nothing to do: Madeline has been reduced to a weepy damsel in distress for most of the film, a figure who only ever reacts and whose revenge arc gets swallowed up in the general cacaphony. And there's just not an ounce of chemistry between her and Craig - of the four women who have major roles in the film (Seydoux, Lynch, de Armas, and Naomie Harris as dogged, ingenious secretary Moneypenny), Craig has more natural, playful rapport with every one of the other three. I feel bad dinging the character too hard, since Seydoux is still a great actor, but I am extremely confident I'd have liked No Time to Die more if she hadn't been it, or at least if she'd been written out after the opening sequence.

Rating: 2.5 White Bikinis

The Daniel Craig Bond films haven't been much for colorfully weird murderers, but at least we get a visually striking one in the form of unspeaking mercenary Primo (Dali Benssalah), who has replaced his left eye with a big, staring prosthetic, which he uses to feed video to whomever has hired him. If I am being perfectly honest, my score here is overrating him something fierce: the character doesn't really do anything, and Benssalah doesn't honestly have all that much presence to come across as any sort of actual threat, just a repeated annoyance. But in a run of Bond films as ruthlessly denuded of any hint of camp or kitsch as the Craig era has been, it takes only a very little amount of strikingly demented imagery to make an impression, and he's very striking.

Rating: 3 Metal-Plated Teeth

The story goes that co-producer Daniel Craig insisted on hiring Ana de Armas on the strength of how much fun they had working together on Knives Out, and it was the single best thing Craig contributed to No Time to Die. Which isn't any slight to his performance as Bond, it's just that de Armas is the best part of the movie, and literally the only complaint I can possibly come up with is that she's simply not in remotely enough of it, only getting maybe 10 minutes total (and I suspect less) between her first and last appearances. The latter of which finds the camera rather brusquely panning away from her, right after Paloma and Bond have just successfully negotiated a henchman-filled death trap, and she says a quick good-bye. A great damn pity. The character is a bit of an odd figure to be placed in like she is, a goofy prattling nitwit in her first scene, breathlessly excited for her first real spying job, who turns out to be an ace gunslinger and combatant when she needs to - without  lightening up on the goofy prattling. It's downright miraculous how smoothly de Armas negotiates that turn, and how much incandescent screen presence she has while doing so. Plus, she and Craig are unbearably charming together, even without any romantic tension between them. If No Time to Die insisted on being about James Bond fighting for the love of his life, why the hell couldn't it be her?

Rating: 5 Golden Corpses

This is a real tough one to judge. The action we get is pretty great: the motorcyle jump at the start would be the best single stunt in many earlier Bond films. As it is indeed the best stunt in No Time to Die. Plus there's a pretty fantastic car chase in the Norwegian woods that is exciting as hell for the 30 seconds it actually lasts; and I have alluded to the fight against a practical army of SPECTRE agents that Bond and Paloma have to push through. And that's kind of... it? A lot of people get shot, but that does not inherently make for an action setpiece. 163 minutes is a loathsome amount of time for a James Bond movie to run, but if a good thirty of those minutes, lets say, had been wall-to-wall action, I might have been much less grumpy about it. As it is, almost everything we get is heavily frontloaded into the first hour, leaving practically an entire (shorter) Bond movie's worth of running time with basically nothing to speak of action-wise. Again, what we get is great. It's just woefully insufficient

Rating: 3 Walther PPKs

I don't know, I think his watch does something. The way the nanobots are described seems pretty neat, but they're not really "gadgets" as such. The thing that gets me most excited about the end of the Craig era is the desperate hope that the series swings backs towards idiotic sci-fi nonsense again, and we starting getting some more damn gadgets. Also it turns out that Q (Ben Whishaw) is gay, in case Q's sex life ever mattered to you even a tiny bit.

Rating: 1 Easily-Riled Welshman

THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
The one thing that the runtime does manage to be good for: we visit a whole lot of locations, and a lot of them are pretty great. The best ones bookend the film: Madeline's childhood home is a perfect blend of "happy warm family nest" and "the remote fortress of an international assassin", and Safin's fortress is an imposing warren of massive concrete tunnels surrounding an incongruous water garden that's crudely, defiantly placed into a lifeless industrial circle. Other clever little spots poke up throughout; Blofeld's prison, transformed into a terrifying nightmare of square angles and straight lines, the glass maze of the bioweapon lab. It doesn't every quite turn in a "cool" location, and Safin's lair ends up feeling a bit samey by the time we're done with it, but this is a more than credible array of sets that we've been given by series newcomer Mark Tildesley (who I imagine was brought onto the project when Danny Boyle was set to direct - they've collaborated several times).

Rating: 4 Volcano Fortresses

It's just not the thing the Daniel Craig films care about, which is a big part of why, even though he is objectively a better actor than at least four and maybe all five of his predecessors in the role, he'll never be more than my third-favorite Bond, behind Sean Connery and Roger Moore (I can feel your contempt even from here and I accept it). Anyway, given how much the Craig films aren't even putting escapist, reactionary fun on the table, one has to snatch it where one can. In this case, it is Bond's Jamaican hideaway, a delightfully sprawling cabana full of hidey holes and liquor, kissed by the twilight sun glowing over the Caribbean Sea. In 25 films, it's maybe the single location I would most like to live in, and that has to count for something, even if he leaves it pretty early and no such thing ever comes back. At the very least, if you asked me to pick between this house and Madeline Swann as the one I wanted Bond to end up with, that's an easy choice.

Rating: 3 Vodka Martinis

Bond has to clearly give his identity to an unimpressed security guard.
Forced or Badass? As forced as it gets - I haven't disliked any delivery of the line this much since Pierce Brosnan seemingly forgot how to pronounce the word "Bond" in Tomorrow Never Dies.

MADELEINE: Do you know what your biggest problem is?
BOND: My timing?

These are just not funny movies. Phoebe Waller-Bridge does what she can, and you can pretty easily pick out a lot of her contributions, but they're all very context-dependent to even parse them as jokes.

So here we are, at the end of the Daniel Craig era of James Bond, and it's safe to start making some generalisations, of which the first one is: at least the last two of them were made for a different kind of Bond fan than I am. I don't want Bond to have a character arc, and I cannot for the life of me see where the benefit is to have given him one, other than it has given Craig something to keep himself amused (he is, for the record, much more dialed-in to the role here than in Spectre). I certainly don't come to a Bond film because I'm hoping to have a meaningful emotional reaction to it, and for well over half of its running time, that's mostly what No Time to Die has to offer. It's not unlike Spectre, in that it starts off better than it ends, bombastic and action-heavy and relatively fleet, until it gets strangled by its pretensions towards continuity and world-building; while I will freely allow to No Time to Die that its endgame isn't nearly as aggressively awful as what its immediate predecessor does in its final third, I also think it's starting from lower heights (nothing in this film is close to as good as the Mexico City prologue in Spectre).

That's all subjective as hell, of course. Objectively, No Time to Die is fine - not more than fine, I can't convince myself, but not really worse than fine. It is a very attractive movie, thanks to cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who embraces some highly saturated colors, especially blues, giving the film a slightly jeweled look. It's certainly not up to the amazing things Roger Deakins and his sharp, shiny digital camera achieved on Skyfall - comfortably the best-looking Bond film ever, and among the best-looking action films of the 2010s, so no harm in missing that bar - but it's a pretty comfortable #2 prettiest-looking movie in the Craig run of films, which almost certainly would make it  the #2 of the franchise overall.

Besides, just because I don't really care about Bond's journey in the film, that doesn't mean it's been executed ineffectively. Craig seems to care about it, at least, and while I don't know that the character he's playing her significantly overlaps with the character he's played four times previously, he's very good at the beats of regret and pained optimism that the script and Fukunaga hand to him.

The big problem, simply put, is that running time. It is deadly for everything. Very clearly, the people making No Time to Die understood that they were under no real obligation to be efficient with it, and this results in some shockingly slack, baggy scenes. The blatant offender is Waltz's cameo as Blofeld, an act of raw indulgence that does nothing but hammer home "yep, this is a finale", and tie off everything that might even slightly have resembled a loose end. But there are so many moments, all throughout the movie, where scenes just kind of wander about with no particular shape, piling up lines of dialogue that eventually manage to advance some aspect of the story, after filling space for a while. The SPECTRE party in Cuba is a clear example of this, or the amount of time spend giving M a dark secret that doesn't end up mattering to basically anything. Even some of the things I liked a lot is really just kind of aimless filler, such as Bond and Nomi warily bantering over how much they super don't care who gets to be called "007", it totally doesn't matter, I'm actually laughing about it. Honestly, for all that I greatly enjoyed Lynch's performance and would enthusiastically watch a spin-off movie or three built around her, everything about her character feels a bit like a dead end: the producers wanting to have the cake of "my God, what if Bond was a Black woman!" while eating "but of course, he's still a white Englishman, I mean, he's Bond", and in so doing, pretty thoroughly fumbling Nomi as anything but a plot device.

The result is, rather than a propulsive, operatic, crescendo of a finale to Craig's tenure as Bond, a pretty shaggy, indulgent one. Maybe, after 25 films in 59 years, the series has earned that indulgence, and probably this will age well, and benefit from being just another Bond picture, rather than the current Bond picture. But for right now, I just found it kind of boring, and no Bond film should be that.