Well, that didn’t last. Picking up in medias res minutes after the ending of the invigorating Casino Royale, this second James Bond installment to star Daniel Craig as a brutish, psychologically complex Agent 007 is a more typically uneven entry in the series, but disappoints in some odd and counterintuitive ways. Quantum of Solace plays almost like a feature-length epilogue to its predecessor, and the novelty of the franchise reboot hasn’t so much worn off as been squandered on a scenario lacking in genuine thrills and long on ill-advised navel-gazing. The recent Spider-Man and Batman smashes set the dismal course; now the Bond fantasies have joined the trend of pulp gone pretentious.
Beginning with a collision-laced highway chase (edited by an atomizer into incoherence) that delivers a wounded baddie to an interrogation site, Bond’s escalating ferocity is a symptom of his need for closure after the sacrificial death of his duplicitous paramour Vesper Lynd in Casino; fueled by guilt, rage or simple revenge, he’s determined to smoke out the leaders of the phantom global crime web that ensnared her. Their plot this time is orchestrated by billionaire and environmental philanthropist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, Craig’s Munich castmate), who’s planning to return a Bolivian dictator to power—with the pragmatic blessings of the C.I.A.—in exchange for rights to a swath of desert that’s seemingly barren of oil or anything else of value. (The twist in Greene’s scheme, like his slick method of disposing of a short-lived Bond conquest, is derivative of the infinitely more playful Sean Connery-era classic Goldfinger.) Teaming up with the villain’s mysterious ex-lover, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), to pursue his quarry from Haiti to Austria while making bureaucratic hell for his MI6 boss (Judi Dench), Bond ends up hunted as a rogue by the Secret Service when the British government declines to reconsider Anglo-American support for the Greene-backed coup.
Marc Forster, perpetrator of Finding Neverland, among other holiday fruitcakes, was a maverick choice for this assignment, and may be the first Bond director who’s handled the human factor semi-credibly while making near-total hash of the action sequences (an exception being a dual aerial freefall). Not content just to artily crosscut a double agent’s mayhem with a festive horse race in Siena, he takes the same tack a few reels later by heavy-handedly matching an opera house gunfight with the climactic violence of Tosca. The emphasis on 007’s grief-driven motivation is half-salvaged by Craig but still feels forced. “There’s something horribly efficient about you,” Camille sniffs at Bond, and if the adverb is a bit harsh to describe Craig’s incarnation of the superspy, he sweats, leaps and scrambles in the role more naturally than he cradles a dying ally. (Coldly depositing the corpse in a dumpster is a piece of cake for him, but emblematic of the soft/hard seesaw to which the filmmakers have strapped their hero.) In support, Dench’s mother-hen concern is becoming rote, and Jeffrey Wright actually has a wee bit more to do this time as Bond’s dour C.I.A. pal Felix Leiter, though not enough to wonder what an actor of his caliber is doing in a role that’s as inconsequential as when it was filled by Jack Lord.
As for Amalric, his crocodile smile and slithery snark has an amusing Peter Lorre vibe but suffers from the lack of physical menace brought to Casino Royale by Mads Mikkelsen. In their last fiery faceoff, you expect Craig to toast him like a marshmallow. The writers put liberal objections to the realpolitik of working with scoundrels into intelligence pros’ mouths, but as with Bond’s high-octane grieving, it’s not a good fit with the proficient stunt work and dopey exposition. Updating this anachronistic cash cow with the scrappy and sexy Craig still looks like a wise move, but it requires a greater quantum of style than Solace provides.