The​ new Bond film, No Time to Die, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, begins inside a memory and ends with a kind of apocalypse. Sound familiar? Not really. Memory has never been a prominent theme in the series, and the mood of this instalment is different in many ways, even if the concerns of the plot and most of the main characters come from Spectre (2015). At the end, lives are saved, humanity is slightly less threatened, and we are assured, in case we were beginning to worry, that having a licence to kill is not at all the same as being a hitman. But the cheery bumper-off of bad guys is long gone.

The initial memory doesn’t belong to Bond (Daniel Craig, for the last time, as he keeps telling us). A little girl talks to her mother at a lakeside cottage in a cold country, snow everywhere and a frozen lake nearby. The mother has had too much to drink and is about to have a little more. We have seen the place in long shot through the eyes of a man approaching it, and now we see him. He wears a plastic mask that makes him look like a manga character, and he is carrying a gun. He tells the mother he is avenging his family, all killed by her husband, and he shoots her. The girl hides, and for a moment it looks as though the man may not realise she’s there. Then he glimpses her under a bed, and she jumps out with a gun and shoots him.

He seems to be dead, and she drags the corpse towards the lake. Then he sits up, and she runs for it, out onto the ice. The further she goes, the thinner it gets; finally she falls in and can’t get out. The man shoots at her, but he isn’t trying to kill her, just to break enough ice so that she can surface. Having endangered her life, he saves it. He is Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), our new bad guy, destined to surpass Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) later in the film. The girl does surface, but before the camera sees her above water she has turned into another person: her grown-up self, swimming in a different latitude. She is Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), from Spectre, now living happily with a retired Bond in Jamaica. I’m not sure what to make of this shift of twenty years or so between shots, but it’s certainly memorable, and makes you think there may be little time for dying or anything else.

One of the meanings of the shift must be to suggest that past time is as real as the present, and Bond asks the remembering Madeleine ‘Where did you go?’ rather than ‘What were you thinking about?’ I wouldn’t mention Proust if I hadn’t seen the connection made elsewhere, but ‘Madeleine’ and ‘Swann’ undeniably bring us close to the idea of lost and unlost time. For good measure, Bond’s first words in the movie are: ‘We have all the time in the world.’ To do what? To deal with the past, especially with the memory of Vesper Lynd, who died in Casino Royale (2006). He and Madeleine set off on a trip to Matera in Italy, where Vesper is buried, and Bond makes a pilgrimage to her vault, where he is almost killed by an exploding bomb.

At this point the film produces its finest set piece. Blofeld, who laid the trap, has filled the Italian hillside town with men in cars and motorbikes, just in case the bomb doesn’t do the trick. Bond, naturally, is driving an Aston Martin. There is a magnificent chase along the improbable streets, the town becoming the nightmare negative of a racetrack. And we haven’t even arrived at the film’s credits yet. I don’t want to say it’s all downhill from here, because, quite apart from the merits of the pun, there are other fine moments in the movie. But nothing is quite as good as this perfect combination of scene and story and the over-fulfilment of expectation.

There’s an excursion to Cuba that is a bit of a mess, both cinematically and in terms of storyline, but it has the advantage of introducing Ana de Armas as a sort of avenger in evening dress – well, half in and half out. She’s only had a few weeks’ training as a secret agent, she tells Bond, but she shoots and drinks as well as he does, and at one moment performs an amazing swivelling act on the floor while taking out a few assailants. Bond also meets his replacement, the new 007, played in great laconic style by Lashana Lynch.

Bond is in Cuba because that’s where Blofeld is celebrating his birthday – remotely, because he’s imprisoned in England, where he ended up at the end of Spectre. But what’s also happening is that Safin’s organisation is taking over from Blofeld’s, and a scientific device is being used against his men. The device involves so-called nanobots, which allow viral interference with the DNA of people you want to get rid of. Its deployment was M’s scheme, not Blofeld’s, and was meant to make life (or rather, other people’s deaths) easier for British agents. But M, in the shape of a distressed and depressed Ralph Fiennes, has lost control of its diffusion.

Safin is initially an interesting figure, inviting us to wonder why revenge is so wrong and aggressive foreign policy so right. But before too long the film gives up on all its complexity, and decides it wants lost time to take over. We get the Bond scenery and conversations we’ve had for 59 years: island, laboratory, secret hide-out, fascist monologues, lots of running and shooting. Safin becomes just another old-fashioned villain who for no reason at all wants to rule the world. Everyone needs a tyrant, he says: ‘We all want to be told how to live.’ This puts Bond back in place as the defender of liberty and we can comfortably drop all the questions about the right to kill, and what it means to need a gun, even as a child – the questions that Spectre and this latest film have raised. To Daniel Craig’s credit, he doesn’t look too happy about this. He doesn’t do sorrow and discomfort and error very well – his speciality is looking ruggedly unwilling to face reality – but he gives it a try. The best thing about the end of the movie is the music, by Hans Zimmer, which becomes Wagnerian. Swooping slow orchestral chords make spectacular dying sound like something we might all aspire to – in an opera, that is, or a movie.

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