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Remember the opening sequence in Casino Royale? In grainy black and white, the world’s newest James Bond, Daniel Craig, destroys a Prague men’s room as he beats the life out of some baddie, getting a little knocked around himself. Bond drowns the guy in a sink; his first government kill, as he tells the man who’s about to become his second. But then back to the bathroom—the bastard’s not quite dead, and just as he pulls a gun on his assassin, 007 whips around, encircled by the franchise’s trademark gun barrel. The grungy guitar riff of Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” blasts while paint-thick blood drips down the screen.
It was thrilling and fresh, James Bond meets Reservoir Dogs. And the decades-old series that had started to become a parody of itself was reborn.
Quantum of Solace, the 22nd Bond film and follow-up to Craig’s 2006 debut, begins with…a car chase. Granted, multiple vehicles are involved, and it takes place on winding hilltop roads in Italy. There are a couple of “whoa” moments—one vehicle is flung sideways off the pavement as if by slingshot—but no spectacular ones. And then Jack White’s and Alicia Keys’ lackluster theme, “Another Way to Die,” plays, accompanying what feels like the longest opening-credits sequence ever.
Director Marc Forster’s introduction is an apt omen. Quantum of Solace actually breezes along at a quick clip, but when it ends, you’re left wondering if what you just saw contained any shred of a story. The script, credited to Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, the same trio who wrote Casino Royale, picks up minutes after its predecessor ended. The agent’s love, Vesper, has just been murdered, and Bond (Craig) wants revenge, though he won’t admit it to his boss, M (Judi Dench, looking fabulous). Instead, James goes a little rogue, killing informants before they actually give up any information and occasionally offing the innocent as he investigates a super-double-secret organization called Quantum. (At least the awful title, taken from an Ian Fleming short story, makes a little sense.)
The MI6 didn’t even know Quantum existed, and M doesn’t put up with Bond’s overzealousness for long. “What’s today’s excuse?” she asks an assistant. “That Bond is legally blind?” M tries to suspend her agent, cutting off his credit cards and passport, but naturally that doesn’t stop him from chasing Quantum’s leader, Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s Mathieu Amalric). Greene’s not-too-clear—or, more important, not-too-interesting—agenda is utility-related, specifically taking control of Bolivia’s water supply. Meanwhile, a woman once associated with Greene, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), becomes Bond’s sorta-girl, helping him get Greene as she pursues some vengeance of her own. Camille’s so obsessed with these goals, in fact, that she doesn’t even sleep with her handsome partner—which is about as radical a move that a Bond reboot could make.
Forster, director of such decidedly non-action films as The Kite Runner and Finding Neverland, is a bit out of his element here. Quantum’s big-bang scenes are adequately frantic and engrossing, taking place in dirty corners as well as exotic locales as Bond hops, Bourne-like, around the world. But none of it is particularly inventive, nor as cool as the character himself. Craig’s Bond has overcome the alleged handicaps of his blond hair and blue eyes—oh, those blue eyes!—and rescued 007 from slick caricature. He uses his fists instead of gadgets, he gets roughed up and out of breath, he’s capable of both impulsively violent outbursts and deadpan one-liners while appearing utterly unflappable and possibly incapable of letting himself smile.
The highlight of the script is, improbably, its humor, particularly Bond’s somewhat playful relationship with M even when she’s unleashing a furious dressing-down. Craig and Dench alone are enough to keep Quantum of Solace entertaining, superior to the goofy Pierce Brosnan flicks if not nearly as impressive as Casino Royale. After 46 years of building cliché, a film in which 007 doesn’t even know what he’s drinking is still a laudable achievement.