AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES – Balance is tough for any action film to get right, especially in franchises known for their blockbuster effects and grand set pieces. Too easily, action flicks can fall into the trap of having so many fists flying, guns firing, and cars doing backflips that it all becomes tedious, or worse yet, silly. Yet with No Time to Die, director Cary Fukunaga keeps James Bond – known for his lavish style and excessive action- grounded in emotional reality. More impressive, Fukunaga deftly balances reverence for the franchise’s past with reinvention of the character for the present. And at the center of that balance, he crafts an emotional and satisfying send off for Daniel Craig’s iteration of Bond.

A counterbalance to the gleam of cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s sleek and artsy camerawork, Fukunaga presents an emotionally damaged Bond. Craig’s Bond is the kind of man who prefers the high life, ready for retirement with his beloved Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). But after years of being double crossed in the world of espionage, Bond can swing from suave and charming to guarded and paranoid in an instant. Throughout No Time to Die, Bond’s duality gives him a sense of emotional vulnerability; he’s a man who will push away those closest to his heart the instant he gets suspicious of their intentions. Fukunaga and Craig explore the question central to this Bond’s final character arc: Can he ever learn to fully trust others? Will he ever allow himself to be truly vulnerable around the woman he loves?

Speaking of which, Fukunaga also finds space on screen for a strong array of women who round out the cast of No Time to Die. In addition to Madeleine, whose relationship with Bond gives the film a rich emotional center, No Time to Die introduces two new secret agents whose skills rival that of Bond. As freshman CIA operative Paloma, Ana de Armas couples the awkward charm she brought to Knives Out with a physical confidence that shines when the action kicks in. And Natasha Lynch’s Nomi — an ambitious MI6 agent who replaces Bond after his retirement — presents a challenge to Bond’s ego when he (as always) returns to the job. Each of the women around Bond compliments, contrasts, and/or challenges some part of his personality, all while being well-developed characters on their own. Playing off the archaic gender politics that have plagued the Bond films, Fukunaga shows that the women of the franchise are ready for a turn behind the driver’s wheel (figuratively and literally).

But although No Time successfully integrates the classic Bond style with a reinvention of the character, it also brings along some of the less than stellar tropes from prior Bond generations. Viewers who’ve seen previous Bond flicks (or really any spy film) will notice a few tired pieces of screenwriting gadgetry: an underdeveloped vaguely Mediterranean and/or Middle Eastern-ish bad guy, an island lair, a twist betrayal that’s only slightly less telegraphed than a punch from Roger Moore, and an evil plot that uses some nano-bio-chemical tech to…uh…destroy Europe or rule the world or something? (Like I said, it’s underdeveloped.) Still, none of the outdated storycraft takes enough screentime to distract from the stylish and emotionally weighted spycraft. There’s even some dialogue between Bond and M that subtly pokes fun at how many times they’ve gone through this routine together.

No Time may have some predictable flaws, but they are all outweighed by a stellar cast of well-written characters. And just as each character has a unique relationship to Bond’s personal history, Fukunaga also establishes a relationship between his films and the installments before it. No Time to Die takes the best of the Bond aesthetic, layers in a complex emotional arc, and pushes Bond (the franchise and the character) beyond the gender politics of old and into new frontiers. Fukunaga skillfully combines each relationship, character arc, and theme like a well-mixed vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred, of course. Well shaken.

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