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No Time to Die turns the emphasis to James Bond as a character with a history.

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For the past couple of features in the now-five-film Daniel Craig tenure as James Bond, the franchise has been overtly concerned with justifying its own existence. Both Skyfall and Spectre explicitly dug into the question of whether the "shoot first/have sex next/ask questions if there's time after the shooting and the sex" ethos that has defined 007 for most of the past 60 years remained relevant.

Yet it was also an ongoing fair question to ask whether the Bond series had outlived its usefulness as the quintessential source of cinematic spectacle. It's once-unchallenged supremacy for over-the-top action was slowly overtaken by fantasy franchises, and eventually even the Fast & Furious series; espionage rivals like Bourne and Mission: Impossible delivered their own ass-kicking heroes. Maybe slam-bang escapism had evolved too many other practitioners for Bond still to feel ... essential.

So, rather than face the competitors on its own previously safe home turf, the Bond films with Craig zagged in a different direction. With Craig in the role, the films became immersed not in crazy escapism, but in a sense of consequence. They built on and informed one another, taking off from the traumatizing death of Eva Green's Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and moving through Blofeld as an overarching villain in Spectre. No Time to Die doubles down on that approach, to the extent that it feels like its purpose, more than mere brand extension, is giving Craig's Bond a full arc.

The carryover from Spectre here includes Bond's relationship with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), which seems on the verge of becoming The Real Thing before an ambush forces Bond to question whether he can trust Madeleine. Five years later, he's living alone and retired from MI6 when he's contacted by old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and pulled into mission to recover a deadly bio-weapon that can target individuals based on their genetic code.

The apocalyptic scenario feels like familiar series material, and indeed there's some of the vintage Bond genetic code on display here, like the massive secret lair on a remote island occupied by our megalomaniac du jour, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), and a cadre of anonymous, disposable henchmen led by one more distinctive, somewhat more resilient henchman. As an action film, however, it can tend to feel a little bit thin. Not much in the oeuvre of director Cary Joji Fukunaga indicates a facility with big set pieces, and aside from the pre-credits car-chase through the winding streets of Matera, Italy, most of the punch here is left with fistfights and shootouts—sturdy enough stuff, but not exactly packed with a "wow" factor.

That's because the lion's share of No Time to Die's 163 minutes is devoted to unpacking James Bond's various relationships as they have led us to this moment: with Madeleine, with Felix, with M (Ralph Fiennes), with Blofeld (Christoph Waltz, getting just enough screen time to make Malek's purring villainy feel pallid by comparison). Craig is more than up to the task, finding great performance moments in a man of action who still can't quite figure out when and how to care about anyone. His Bond is a work in progress, confident enough in who he is that he can handle the fact that his "007" designation has been handed off to somebody else since his retirement—and a woman (Lashana Lynch) to boot.

The question is: Will audiences primed for a new James Bond adventure, after six long years and multiple release-date delays for this film, accept this change of direction? We don't get a new "Bond girl" for our hero to fall indiscriminately into bed with, though Craig's Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas does make an impression as a fellow agent wreaking havoc while sporting a plunging neckline; a Bond who says "I love you" is a different breed of cat. A couple of quips trickle out of Craig's dialogue, but it's fair to say that No Time to Die isn't nearly as interested in being "fun" as most of its predecessors. If this is indeed the farewell for Craig's time as James Bond, it wraps up what feels like its own series-within-the-series, and one that found a unique answer to the question of whether James Bond can still matter. As compelling as this story turned out to be, it will be interesting to see how much the next step for the franchise focuses on moving forward, vs. how much it will be about trying to rekindle past glories.

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