It was a little less than two years ago that Casino Royale, Sony's daring James Bond series reboot featuring newcomer Daniel Craig in the role of Agent 007, revived a tired franchise and reestablished it as a major player in the action-film world. While some longtime fans derided the film for eschewing many of the traditional Bond elements (no gun-barrel sequence, no gadgets, less tongue-in-cheek humor), the overwhelming majority embraced the new, gritty Bond, propelling the film to a worldwide box office of over half-a-billion dollars.
Casino Royale's follow-up, Quantum of Solace, arguably bears even less of a resemblance to the Bond films of old than its predecessor. Doggedly emphasizing story over spectacle, director Marc Forster (Stranger than Fiction, The Kite Runner),keeps the focus trained squarely on the emotional costs involved with being the world's greatest secret agent. There are still plenty of exotic locations and big-action set pieces throughout the film, mind you -- its reported $200-million budget wasn't just for catering -- but they're largely supporting players in this moody character study.
The story picks up barely an hour after the events of Casino Royale. Still smarting from the death and betrayal of his paramour Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), Bond is given little time to mourn as M (Judi Dench, once again showing who's boss) sends him off to uncover the truth behind the mysterious Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, reprising his Casino role), and the shadowy terrorist organization that employs him.
The trail leads squarely to one Dominic Greene (clammy, simmering Mathieu Amalric), a prominent environmental philanthropist who secretly serves as an agent (or possibly the leader?) of said shadowy terrorist organization, which we soon learn goes by the name Quantum. Greene and his Quantum cohorts aim to use their considerable resources to help restore a deposed Bolivian dictator, General Madrano, to power. In return for his organization's services, Greene seeks ownership of a seemingly worthless swath of land in the Bolivian desert -- an arrangement to which the corrupt Madrano all too happily agrees.
Still a relative rookie at the spy game, Bond quickly finds himself in over his head. It seems that the British have vital -- and politically sensitive -- petroleum interests in the region, as do the Americans, whose CIA, led by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and his smug boss, Gregg Beam (David Harbour), are secretly backing Madrano in the hope that a regime change in Bolivia might help them secure more favorable trade terms with the oil-rich nation.
The forward-thinking Greene, on the other hand, has little interest in the oil business. No, his sights are set on a substance that will soon replace black gold as Earth's rapidly diminishing -- and thus increasingly valuable -- natural resource du jour: water. Hidden beneath his recently procured patch of barren landscape in the Bolivian desert lies a vast reservoir of the stuff, which he plans to harvest and sell to the country's drought-stricken populace (at a drastically inflated price, of course).
Angered by the recklessness Bond displays in his pursuit of Greene, M orders 007 to abandon his mission and return home. Bond refuses, of course, and is left with no choice but to go rogue. With two of the world's most prominent spy agencies -- and one very sophisticated band of terrorists -- after him, Bond's odds of successappear exceedingly slim.
Fortunately, he attains one very effective ally: Camille (model-turned-actress Olga Kurylenko, in an improvement over her Hitman performance), a feisty former Bolivian intelligence agent who harbors her own vendetta against General Madrano. Together, the unlikely partners set about putting a stop to Greene, Madrano, and the nefarious scheme they're set to unleash.
Structurally, Quantum of Solace is superior to Casino Royale, with more consistent pacing and a tighter, if less involving, script. Clocking in at 106 minutes, it's roughly 20 minutes shorter than its slightly bloated predecessor. In nearly every other regard, however, Forster's effort fails to measure up to the admittedly high standards set by Casino Royale.
Quantum of Solace is still an entertaining action flick with above-average brains and heart -- though Ishould note that it really is a James Bond movie in name only. Nods to the archetypal 007 flourishes -- the tuxedo, the martinis, the women -- seem almost perfunctory, and not a little depressing at times. Forster's film has more in common with the Bourne Ultimatum than Dr. No or Goldfinger -- a resemblance most evident during the film's numerous chase scenes, all of which are shot in the same chaotic, cinema verite fashion famously employed by Bourne director Paul Greengrass. Fortunately for Forster, James Bond is a more interesting character than Matt Damon's Jason Bourne (who, let's face it, is really just a pissed-off automaton, acting out a version of The Terminator in reverse), and Craig's portrayal, radiating with intensity and dark charisma, is superb.
There is a silver lining for fans of the traditional, more light-hearted 007 flicks. Quantum of Solace effectively closes the book on the grim storyline that began with Casino Royale, leaving us with a more-fully formed 007 who's now (hopefully) free to finally move on from the whole dreary Vesper affair. Carefully placed throughout the film are intriguing bits and pieces that could serve nicely as the foundation for a return to the Bond of old (Quantum, for example, is clearly a modern-day SPECTRE) should franchise caretakers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson decide to head in that direction.
Let's hope they do. Nobody expects James Bond to go back to the days of preposterous plots, bad puns, and over-the-top archvillains surrounded by henchmen in brightly colored jumpsuits, but it would be nice to see the chap lighten up a bit.