Having seen nine of the 25 Bond films, I can with great authority declare that Casino Royale is the best of them all. With a spy movie that good, who needs expertise? Among Casino Royale’s triumphs was the creation of a layered, more human James Bond, setting a bar that the rest of the Daniel Craig run has failed to live up to. Skyfall was relatively self-contained fun, but then came Spectre, a slog of a spy story that turned Blofeld—Bond villain immemorial—into Bond’s secret brother, insisting that he was behind the events of the last three films all along. The Craig run didn’t need “it’s all connected!” shenanigans; it needed to further deepen the Bond character. No Time to Die is the era’s last chance at a course correction.

As is the norm with the Daniel Craig era, No Time to Die doesn’t concoct a new story so much as it retcons an old one, injecting new layers of complication into a narrative we thought complete. You thought you knew Madeleine Swann, Bond’s new love interest and daughter of Casino Royale villain Mr. White? Turns out she’s been connected to another villain all along. No, not just Blofeld, another villain—though she is Blofeld’s psychiatrist now. You thought Skyfall cleared the new M’s name? Turns out he’s been doing some shady stuff behind the scenes—et cetera, et cetera, it’s still all connected. This addiction to continuity in an episodic franchise is exhausting, and even worse, it’s reminiscent of another popular franchise that’s currently on its 25th movie. Unlike that Disney-borne scourge, however, Bond won’t reach movie 27 in a matter of months. No Time to Die is mercifully dedicated to an ending.

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The film’s four writers keep the end squarely in sight. The roads there may be needlessly convoluted, but there’s a pervasive sense that the roads are converging. No Time to Die moves with purpose, justifying its nearly three-hour runtime with the promise of finality. Some of the plot could’ve been pared down without cheapening the conclusion—a double-cross here, a villain cameo there—but more threads are cut than dangled anew. This is a film of payoffs.

With such a concerted focus on finality, though, it’s the newer characters that most disappoint (excepting Ana de Armas and Billy Magnussen, who bring immense charm to small roles). Generally, the more recently a character’s been introduced, the flatter they fall. There’s simply no time for development. Swann is still so thinly sketched that throwing her motives up in the air makes no real difference, as she never felt grounded in the first place. Worse off is the new villain, Lyutsifer Safin—undeniably the film’s weakest link.

His whole deal is ill-defined. Rami Malek plays him with a grim severity befitting the Craig run, but he’s written like a villain from the Moore/Brosnan eras, bent on world domination via deadly virus (oops, accidentally topical). Safin is plucked from a more recent stock of Hollywood villains: the “environmentalist, but like, too environmentalist” cliché. And his intentions are vaguer than those of his “kill the world to save it” contemporaries. Who does he want his virus to leave behind? What does he plan on doing once the global population is thinned? No time for answers. Instead, the film zeroes in on Safin as another evil reflection of Bond, seeing as they both kill in pursuit of a better world. It’s a moot comparison. The point is to complicate Bond’s character by playing up his similarity to Safin, but only one of them is comfortable offing billions of people at the push of a button. That’s not an insubstantial difference. Safin is too cartoonish a villain to make the parallel work.

Also getting the short shrift is Nomi, a new MI6 agent with the uncanny ability to disappear into the background—because the DP doesn’t know how to light Black skin. Lashana Lynch brings a perfect playfulness to the role, but the film isn’t sure what to do with her. She recedes into the narrative backdrop as much as she does the frame.

Beyond lighting Nomi, No Time to Die is shot quite nicely. Director Cory Fukunaga maintains the series’ love for wide-open angles and gorgeous vistas, capturing the action as clearly as the views surrounding it. Early set pieces in Italy and Cuba are the main highlights—vibrant, spacious, and gleefully balletic. As the action pivots to the underbelly of a secret lab, samey corridor shootouts become the standard, which is decidedly less exciting. But it’s still fun to watch Craig exercise his physicality, balancing a body made of steel with the reflexes of a deadly reptile.

No Time to Die really is Craig’s film. His Bond can go from hardened spy to broken boy in an instant, and he’s given plenty of opportunities to flit between the two. The film’s structure may scream Spectre, but its heart is Casino Royale, and it does right by Craig’s iteration of the character. This is the more human Bond, a James Bond with range—Craig’s dive into the character’s softer side leads to some genuinely emotional places. It’s just a shame that his climactic moment is overscored to hell by Hans Zimmer, taking the finale from tear-jerking to eye-rolling with each new scream of the strings.

For its many faults, it’s a feat that No Time to Die didn’t turn out worse. There’s enough of a character focus to cut through the noise. It’s no Casino Royale, but it’s a worthy enough denouement for one of the best Bonds in franchise history.

★★★½   (3.5/5)