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Opinion ‘No Time to Die’ is a radical end to Daniel Craig’s run as James Bond

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in “No Time to Die.” (Nicola Dove/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)
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This column discusses the plot and ending of “No Time to Die,” in extensive detail.

By any conventional measure, James Bond is a conservative. He’s a killer in defense of what’s left of the British Empire, an exemplar of bygone gender norms and a tuxedo aficionado in a casual age.

Yet Daniel Craig’s five-movie run as 007, which ended with this weekend’s release of “No Time to Die,” has a radical streak concealed under that Savile Row attire. Craig’s Bond has been criticized as no fun. But a sense of self-hatred and doubt about his mission is precisely what gave his turn in the iconic role its edge, and what made this era’s version of a very old franchise feel, at times, genuinely challenging.

When viewers met Craig’s Bond in “Casino Royale,” he was being inducted into the highest levels of an institution that, while diminished, retained some of its former dash. His boss might long for the clarity of the Cold War; Bond needs help and money from the Central Intelligence Agency to pull off his mission. But MI6 still had power and, more important, moral authority.

That facade crumbles in subsequent Bond movies, sometimes literally.

Two movies later, in “Skyfall,” MI6’s headquarters are destroyed in an attack. The culprit turns out to be a man determined to pay the agency back for the sins its mission makes inevitable: an agent who was disavowed by the British government and abandoned to be tortured by the Chinese government.

The subsequent film, “Spectre,” argued that the broader British intelligence community had decayed beyond mere moral compromise, always a staple of spy stories. Now, it was weak enough to be manipulated from without into adopting programs and policies that violated those ideals.

And in “No Time to Die,” it’s those ideals themselves that are the source of danger. In an effort to create a targeted weapon that could be used to supplant the double-0 program, MI6 head Gareth Mallory greenlights technology that can also be used to wipe out families or even entire genetic lineages. When Bond’s efforts to destroy the technology are thwarted, the only course left is to destroy a facility that Bond is no longer able to escape. After decades of killing on-screen to uphold the values of the British intelligence system, Bond dies to clean up that system’s mistakes. It’s a conclusion befitting a world that spent August grimly riveted by the collapse of the U.S.- (and British-) backed regime in Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

“No Time to Die” ends with Mallory and colleagues toasting Bond’s memory and pledging to get back to work. What they don’t say is as important as what they do. As bad as the villains that this Bond faced off with may have been, there’s no real making up for Britain’s own failures.

And in “No Time to Die,” redemption of another sort remains largely out of reach — of Bond, for his casual treatment of women.

Vesper Lynd, the acid-tongued treasury agent who accompanied Bond to a high-stakes poker game in “Casino Royale,” accused Bond of seeing “women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits.” It was a neat summation of the way the franchise often treated the so-called Bond girls. And while the Craig-era Bond treated sex as both a personal tool and a professional indulgence, the movies also played with another idea: that Bond might be capable of love, but alternatively lacked good judgment in his selection of partners or the ability to trust women who deserved it.

In “No Time to Die,” Bond still mourns Lynd even as he’s attempting to start a life with Madeleine Swann, a psychiatrist he met during the previous film who turns out to have a dangerous secret. But he’s quick to decide that she, too, has betrayed him. His decision to leave Swann turns out to be a fateful one. It deprives Bond of the opportunity to know the daughter he never knew he conceived.

There’s a long tradition of men discovering that women deserve equal rights only after fathering them. In a more sentimental franchise, Bond might have made up for his past failures with women by becoming a present father to one and a good partner to another. In this one, the only thing Bond can do for the women in his life is die for them. Bond may have been a soft misogynist rather than the sort of abuser making contemporary headlines, but for all its other silly touches, “No Time to Die” doesn’t really go in for the cheap idea as a third-act conversion.

As Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny teased Bond in “Skyfall,” the Craig era proved that old dogs and old franchises can learn at least some new tricks. The question these movies leave behind is whether aging empires can make a similar transformation.