No Time To Die. M, 146 minutes. 4 stars
With the inventive American filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga at the helm, the 25th film in the official James Bond franchise is a dark and assured piece of filmmaking, enjoyable from start to finish. And that finish line seems a long way away at a whopping 146 minutes, the longest Bond film to date.
The earlier Bond films stood narratively alone but since the franchise's reinvention with the Daniel Craig Bond in the 2006 Casino Royale, the film's plots have bled into each other.
The 'Bond girl' in No Time To Die, Lea Sedoux's Dr Madeleine Swann, is the daughter of Jesper Christensen's Mr White from Casino Royale and as this film opens we meet her as a young girl, escaping the clutches of Rami Malek's villain Lyutsifer Safin.
Years later, Swann and her lover James Bond are holidaying in Italy. Swann wants James to visit the grave of Vesper Lynd, the lover whose death still haunts the secret agent.
Lynd's grave is a trap for Bond and, surviving the explosion, Bond is convinced that it was Swann who has tried to kill him, and he puts her on a train and tells her they will never see each other again.
His heart broken a second time, Bond escapes to his home in the Caribbean and gives up life as a British secret agent.
But we're only a quarter of the way through the film, and Bond is pulled back into action by his old CIA pal Felix Lighter (Jeffrey Wright) who, along with agents Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) and Paloma (Ana de Armas) attempt to take down a meeting of the organisation Spectre.
That mission doesn't go quite to plan for reasons involving the return of Lyutsifer Safin, heir to a chemical weapons dynasty, and the theft of a genetic weapon developed in Britain by the scientist Obruchev (David Dencik). It's up to Bond to return to his old stomping ground and assist the likes of former boss M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to save the world. Again.
Cary Joji Fukunaga is obviously a great Bond fan, and fellow devotees will enjoy his constant referencing of previous adventures and visual elements. The usual Bond film moments are here - the car chases, the opulence, the violence.
I loved the humour of revisited Bond tropes - the funeral procession impeding the car chase - and the revisiting of Louis Armstrong's We Have All the Time in the World from the 1969 Bond On Her Majesty's Secret Service, referenced a number of times in the dialogue and musically over the closing credits.
Fukunaga shares screenplay credit with some big names including long-time Bond writers Neale Purvis and Robert Wade working with Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Killing Eve fame.
You can only imagine who wrote which line but I'd like to think Waller-Bridge is behind the smart female characters driving the narrative, replacing the superfluous bikini-clad adornments of Connery-era Bond.
Among those smart women is Cuban actress An de Armas paired with her Knives Out co-star Daniel Craig. The two have a brilliant chemistry on screen and she brings an ease to one of the film's funnier roles as an undercover CIA operative in Cuba.
Without spoiling her role in the film for you, Lashana Lynch too is a brilliant paring with Craig, who looks rode hard and put away wet throughout most of the film. Physically, he is so much more believable as a hardened killer than his predecessors.
There is a moment early in the film, in the stone Puglia township of Vesper Land's grave, where Madeleine and James write secrets on pieces of paper and then set them on fire, setting their secrets free. If only it were all that simple, of course, but filmmaker Fukunaga makes it all seem simple. If you've seen his ground-breaking television crime drama True Detective, you know he is a skilled weaver of multiple threads, capable of subtlety and enormous moments.
Bond has a charismatic charm, the plotting is contemporary and the villains are everywhere and they're as understandable as they are fallible.
The staging is as expected, gorgeous locales including Puglia, Norway and Britain, and a particular note, amongst all the craftspeople and artisans working behind the scenes, on the film's lighting design. The Cuban scenes particularly are dripping in blue washes over wet streets, and the villain's lair at the film's end is designed with geometric walls of dust-flecked light for James to moodily stalk through.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about No Time To Die is how effectively its studio was able to lock it down for 18 months from its originally intended release date of Easter 2020, just as the COVID pandemic had other ideas. No leaks along the way, it has been something to look forward to, and worth the wait over what has been a rough few years for all of us.