In this latest installment of the blockbuster action franchise, our man Jason ... no, wait: It's James. James Bond. You can hardly recognize the guy anymore. True, he's still packing that Walther PPK, the one that Q, the old MI6 Quartermaster, gave him back in the "Dr. No" days. But where are the breezy jokes, the stylish environs, the preposterously larger-than-life villains? All gone.
This is as it should be, of course. The original Bond was a creature of long-ago geopolitical intrigues, and the 007 who dragged his Licence to Kill through 13 more movies after Sean Connery bowed out of the series in 1971 was a weary anachronism. The un-Bonding of Bond, long overdue, got seriously underway with the last film, "Casino Royale," when laser-eyed Daniel Craig was brought in to butch things up. Now, with "Quantum of Solace," the process is very nearly complete. JB doesn't even properly don a tuxedo in this one, nor does he take time out to order a barman to shake a martini for him (rather than, you know, doing the other thing). He does knock back a bunch of martinis in one scene, but that's solely for the purpose of getting smashed. (Very un-Bond — but then, he's mourning the loss of his late girlfriend, Vesper Lynd, who you'll recall died of lagoon inhalation in "Casino Royale.")
So now Bond stands before us shorn of all idiosyncrasies — of all fun, you might say. Craig's 007 never cracks a smile — his lips remain grimly pooched throughout. And with the Goldfingers and Blofelds of old chucked down the memory hole, his latest criminal adversary turns out to be a rogue environmentalist named Dominic Greene (played by the fine but not-at-all-scary French actor Mathieu Almaric).
Thus downsized, James Bond, the man and the brand, is now just another action figure in a movie world dominated by the Bourne pictures. A certain nervous awareness of this on the part of the producers was evident in "Casino Royale." Here it's at full sweat. There are some nifty stunts in this film — I especially liked the one where Bond pastes a bad guy in the face and knocks him and his motorbike upside down. But there's a two-man smack-a-thon in an apartment that's straight out of the second Bourne movie, and some rooftop window-leaping that's suspiciously reminiscent of the third one. (Gary Powell, a stunt coordinator on that latter film, did the coordinating on this and the last Bond picture, too.)
As for the plot, well, "Quantum of Solace" is the title of an old and fairly obscure short story by Ian Fleming, 007's creator. It consists in its entirety of Bond having an after-dinner chat with an old geezer who monopolizes the conversation. The movie to which this title has now been affixed has nothing to do with that; in fact, it has little time for conversation of any sort. The picture opens in the middle of a roaring car chase through a mountain tunnel in Italy, then lights out for Haiti, Austria, Bolivia, a quick change of socks in London and ... I believe I saw Russia in there somewhere, too.
The story picks up right where "Casino Royale" ended. Bond is still annoyed about Vesper's death and determined to find the man responsible for it. He thinks Dominic Greene knows. Greene comes on all save-the-Earthy in public, but behind the scenes he's a top operative in the ominous Quantum, that SPECTRE for the new Bond age. (Without SPECTRE's sinister style, though: When Quantum members want to plot a new scheme, they meet in an Austrian opera house, mid-"Tosca," and use mini-mikes and ear pieces to ... well, it's very silly; you'll see.) Greene has an associate named Camille (Olga Kurylenko). She's hot. She also seems to have an agenda of her own involving a corrupt Bolivian general named Medrano (Joaquín Cosio), who wants Greene's help in staging a coup d'état, in return for which he'll give Greene ... what? We think we know when a girl named Strawberry Fields, I'm afraid (although she's played by bubbly Gemma Arterton, who livens things up), arrives on the scene to take charge of Bond in the name of MI6. Strawberry's luckless Bond-girl fate is to get a quick jump from James and then die. When her naked body turns up covered in oil — not the fun kind, the fill-'er-up kind — we suspect we know what Medrano is offering Greene. (Are we right? I don't want to spoil anything. Or is that a spoiler?)
Whenever the action ebbs, which is rarely, a number of familiar faces drift in through the litter of spent cartridges and smoldering auto parts. There's M (Judi Dench), Bond's boss, who's become so maternal in her dealings with him that you half expect her to slip a lollipop in with his next travel itinerary. Fellow agent René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) is also back, lured out of retirement; and so is Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) — although what exactly he's doing, and why he's doing so little of it, is never quite clear. Bond leaves them all in his dust in any event — he and Camille are on their way to confront Greene at an ecologically correct hotel in the Bolivian desert (the least snazzy showdown locale in a Bond film ever).
At this point, not really surprisingly, a lot of stuff starts blowing up. Explosions and crashes and furious beatdowns — all shot by director Marc Forster in the flurry-cam style done so much more coherently by Paul Greengrass in the Bourne movies — are this picture's real subject. The movie does its job: It slams you against a wall for the better part of two hours, and leaves you in a happy, gasping heap on the floor. Well, in a gasping heap, anyway. But it's too choppy and humorless to do much more than that. In fact, the most amusing thing in the film is the soundtrack: The composer, David Arnold, cleverly alludes to the classic "James Bond Theme" throughout the picture with teasing little harmonic doodles that never quite evolve into the theme itself. When he finally does bring it in, you wonder if Craig's Bond, now set so far adrift from his origins, will even recognize it.
Check out everything we've got on "Quantum of Solace."
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