Daniel Craig (James Bond) and director Cary Joji Fukunaga chat on the set of “No Time to Die.” (Photos: Nicola Dove/DANJAQ/MGM)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment

When the champagne corks popped to usher in 2020, streaming movies at home was already a firmly established alternative to heading out to your local theatre to catch the newest movies.

By March, however, the world had been turned upside down by the pandemic, and the future of in-cinema releases was very much thrown into turmoil.

Sounds like a job for 007.

Originally slated for 2019, then an April 2020 release, the producers of “No Time to Die,” the 25th installment of the venerable James Bond franchise, steadfastly resisted making the movie available for in-home viewing. Rather than follow the route taken by studios including Disney – offering new major features on their streaming services simultaneously or instead of theatrical release – MGM, Barbara Broccoli and company insisted on opening the latest Bond exclusively on the big screen.

And thank goodness they did. The result is one of the most entertaining and satisfying entries into the franchise.

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, “No Time to Die” is thrilling, gorgeous, heartfelt and puts forth a solid argument for heading out to the cinema. Ahead of the pre-release screening at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, a video message from Daniel Craig himself thanks moviegoers for their patience and reiterated the intent for this film to be viewed on the big screen.

“I was not part of the decision-making at all, but there was concern on my part during COVID that this might be the end result if the studio just needed to cash in and cut their losses,” Fukunaga said in an interview with IndieWire. “So I’m just really thankful that we got a chance to wait until some people felt safer about coming back.”

Rami Malek, who plays the sinister Safin, goes over notes with director Cary Joji Fukunaga.

Likely fueling the concern was the acquisition of MGM by Amazon, one of the main players in streaming entertainment. Fukunaga said Broccoli, whose family has held the rights to the Bond franchise from the very beginning in 1962, deserves praise for standing up to the technological trend and not cheapening the legacy of the series.

“She still holds the control of this property. They’ve been very good about not diluting the brand. They’ve been offered television shows, spinoffs, LEGO movies, and they haven’t done any of that stuff yet. They’ve kept it very pure, with a traditional release. I don’t see that changing anytime so soon.”

“No Time to Die” finds Bond shortly after where he left off in 2015’s “Spectre” – retired from the spy game. He’s on vacation in Italy with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) as the pair are looking toward a quiet life together.

Of course, that idyllic future is out of the question, as Bond’s past demons blast their way – quite literally – back into his life.

With one of the creepiest villains in the canon, played by Oscar-winner Rami Malek, “No Time to Die” opens with a truly unsettling “American Horror Story”-style sequence, and keeps the tension rising to what is easily the most intense cliffhanger of the series. Reconciling that question will be quite the task for the next Bond film.

A couple of unavoidable ironies surround the release, given the content of the movie that was completed some two years ago. For one, the sinister plot of Bond’s nemesis has a biological weapon that threatens entire populations of the human race. Talk about bad timing.

The story also makes strong reference to the song “We Have All the Time in the World,” beautifully crooned by Louis Armstrong in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” For rabid Bond fans, the wait for this one must have seemed like at least half the time in the world.

Cary Fukunaga, Léa Seydoux and Daniel Craig gather in Matera, Italy, setting of the film’s hair-raising opening sequence.

A Bay Area native, Fukunaga has cited “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as perhaps his favorite in the series, despite it routinely being pushed aside by fans and critics – due in no small part to George Lazenby’s great misfortune of taking over the role of 007 from Sean Connery. So incensed by the resulting movie was the original Bond that Connery actually returned to role for the next film, “Diamonds Are Forever,” in 1971.

By no means, however, is “No Time to Die” a remake or reboot of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” If anything, it’s a redemption of the story that ended with Bond’s new bride cut down on the way to their honeymoon.

Co-written by Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “No Time to Die” has the longest running time of any Bond movie, but the pacing and surprises keep it from ever dragging. Fukunaga has a keen sense for action, tension and humanity, a skill that earned him a directing Emmy for HBO’s “True Detective.”

Craig long ago announced that this would be his last Bond film, and his tenure – the longest of any actor to play 007 – has seen the super-spy reshaped into a far deeper character than any of his predecessors.

Beginning with “Casino Royale” in 2006, it has been a through storyline for Craig’s Bond, with at least two of the films picking up at the exact moment the previous episode ended. “Skyfall” (2012) is possibly the best James Bond movie ever made – yes, even rivaling “Goldfinger” – and those same keys to strength are evident with the latest film.

At age 53, Craig remains well suited to the role, but is shrewdly ensuring that he not overstay his welcome by taking one turn too many in the tux; think back to a far past-prime Roger Moore in “A View to a Kill.”

At the climax of “No Time to Die,” Bond utters words so rarely allowed from his stone exterior: “I love you.” Delivered by Craig looking almost directly into the camera, its almost as if he’s finding a thankful farewell to the fans as well. He’s a fine actor who has demonstrated vast range – he’ll next play Macbeth on Broadway – but his iteration of Bond has certainly defined 007 for a generation.

Fukunaga also had previously said his turn with Bond is finished, but hinted to Rolling Stone that after all the time that has passed since the labor of completing the movie, he might be open to another go.

“Having to tie up Daniel’s run as Bond was a responsibility, but a challenging one. It’s a challenge I wanted … I think. But now that I’ve done it, I’d definitely do it again.”

“No Time to Die” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday. Rated PG-13, 243 minutes.

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