Warning – spoilers!

After the initial flurry of five films in six years, which exhausted Sean Connery, the Bond producers cranked out a new instalment every two years, pretty much without fail between 1967 and 1989. Not the loss of their star, the break-up of the partnership between Broccoli and Saltzman, rival movies exploiting rights that Eon didn’t control nor even the rise of AIDS and political correctness could halt the machine. And when the bandwagon stopped in 1989, it roared back into life six years later and Pierce Brosnan starred in four films over seven years which together earned nearly $2bn.

Daniel Craig’s tenure has been nothing like as smooth. The chaotic Quantum of Solace sprinted out of the traps just two years after the amazing critical and commercial success of Casino Royale. But Skyfall took four years and the uneven Spectre another three. After four films in nine years, Craig was exhausted and ready to retire. The news that he would be starring in a fifth film was surprising, and the Eon team reunited writer John Hodge and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) to have the movie ready for November 2019.

Eventually, Hodge and Boyle moved on and long-time Bond scribes Purvis and Wade got their old job back, with Cary Fukunaga becoming the first American to direct a Bond film. The new release date was April 2020 and I bought tickets as soon as they went on sale. I eventually saw it in October 2021. Eon resisted various suggestions that the film go to streaming, and stubbornly sat on their prize cinematic asset until it could get a theatrical release. The gamble seems to have paid off, with box office records tumbling.

But is the film any good?

After the amazing reinvention of the series in Casino, the disappointment of Quantum, the lavish extravagance of Skyfall and the rather clumsy Spectre – not to mention the 18-month delay – my anticipation could hardly have been more fervent. Formulas are funny things. It can be reassuring to see a familiar sequence of events – why did it take four movies before we got a Daniel Craig gun barrel at the beginning? – but they can get stale very quickly. And yet it can be hard to attract and retain fans if you stop giving them what they want. That’s one of the thrilling things about Skyfall. It absolutely feels like a Bond move through-and-through, while constantly giving us things we’ve never seen in a Bond film before. But when Spectre’s at its worst, it’s straining to be Bond Chapter IV, despite that fact that none of the previous films have in any way prepared the ground for that.

Like Quantum before it, No Time to Die picks up pretty much exactly where Spectre left it (following a brilliantly eerie flashback sequence). For the first time, we see Bond continuing the relationship which ended the previous film. The stunning action scene which follows is a continuation of that storyline, rather than a standalone Bond-on-a-mission, and although the song is terrible and the titles a bit uninspired from the usually excellent Daniel Kleinman, I loved the evocation of the Dr No graphics in the transition from teaser to credits.

What follows is certainly unhurried – this is the longest Bond film by a considerable margin – and there is a sense of the plot doing a laborious three-point-turn in the middle of the film, but it feels purposeful, deliberate and carefully calibrated. As the various narrative elements converge – a terrifying bio-weapon, Blofeld’s revenge from captivity, a plot against SPECTRE itself, Bond and Madeleine’s relationship, Bond and MI6’s relationship and Madeleine’s history with Safin – the length feels justified and Fukunaga holds his nerve, letting moments breathe when they need to, giving us jokes when we want them (possibly thanks to script doctor Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and staging the action brilliantly.

Even more so than in Casino or Skyfall, Bond, Madeleine, Felix – even M and Q – feel like proper lived-in characters with agency, history and a sense of connectedness. Meanwhile, over-the-top elements like the bonkers science, the pockmarked Safin and a wonderful cameo from Ana de Armas mean that we are still allowed to have fun – lots of fun. What works slightly less well is the introduction of a new 007. Lashana Lynch is fine, but seems far more relaxed and charismatic giving interviews than she does as the surnameless “Nomi” and the business of them swapping the 007 moniker back and forth seems like a comedy bit searching aimlessly for a punchline.

After the hugely entertaining springing of Obruchev, the terrifying sight of Bond and Leiter trapped in the bowels of a doomed yacht, Bond’s reunion with his MI6 colleagues and an amazing chase / hunt / fight in a bafflingly misty Norwegian forest – the stage is set for the big finale at the Terrifying Villain’s Secret Lair. Bond is retired. Leiter is dead. 007 is a girl now. What can this film possibly do to ring the changes one last time?

Casino Royale, the 21st film in the series, was the first time we’d seen a first mission for Bond. Every other actor’s first film in the role has been just another chapter in the continuing saga. And now, for the first time, the 25th film shows us Bond’s last mission. Infected with a deadly pathogen which will kill the people he cares most about in the world, he sacrifices himself to ensure that the missile strike wipes out Safin’s nanobots. Wow.

It’s an extraordinary end to a finely-calibrated film that knows exactly when to be Bond part V, when to be Bond part XXV, when to be entirely its own thing and when to tip its hat to Fleming (the garden of death owes a lot to the novel You Only Live Twice, at the end of which Bond is presumed dead). Spectre is so clumsy in its attempts to retrofit earlier films into an overarching story that it nearly makes me like Skyfall less. No Time to Die is so well-constructed that it actually makes me like Spectre more. And it has the guts to stick to its convictions and take this incarnation of the character to the only logical end that he could ever have. And yet, the credits end with the familiar phrase: James Bond Will Return.

Will he? But how? Bringing Craig back from the dead (as Fleming did with The Man with the Golden Gun) seems like it would betray everything that this film set out to do. Having Henry Cavill stroll into Ralph Fiennes’s office and start bantering with Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris would be weird. Yes, it worked with Moore and Dalton (and even Brosnan had Desmond Llewellyn connecting him to previous incarnations) but none of them got obliterated by Royal Navy missiles.

Another reboot? Yes, we’ve had – what is it now eight Spidermans in four years? – but surely there’s a limit. And in this post-Marvel, peak TV world, we’ve become accustomed to a consistent chronology, making perfect sense (if you squint) across years if not decades, and in various media.

So, what? I think the only sensible option now is to take Bond back to the 1950s. Ignore the Craig and pre-Craig stuff completely and tell stories more like Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (written in 1954, three years before Sputnik, let alone the Apollo programme) in which a crazed ex-Nazi is plotting to aim a nuclear missile at London. This has been pitched before – Tarantino wanted to do a period Casino Royale with Pierce Brosnan in the early 2000s – but now I think it’s the only way of carrying on the franchise.

For the time being though, Barbara and Michael should toast their success. It may have taken fifteen years (making Craig the longest-serving Bond) but these five films as a package overcome the weaknesses in the two lesser efforts and tell us, for the first time, The Bond Saga. It’s an amazing achievement and I can’t wait to watch this fantastic film again.

Russell’s back