Where does a character go
once he's been reinvented? Stripped down to the bare essentials, the James Bond of Casino Royale - the 007 that Ian Fleming would have approved of - proved extremely popular with audiences and critics alike, enough for them wipe the slate clean and agree to start afresh. Bond now rebooted, battered physically and emotionally, therefore comes into this sequel a fully-formed, grounded character with places to go: a man with drive, reason, purpose. But despite his passport getting a workout thanks to a jet-setting narrative that takes him half way across the globe, the James Bond of Quantum Of Solace goes precisely nowhere. At times, you feel you can see the character - and by proxy the writers - actually thinking, "So what now?"
We pick up with Bond, James Bond, mere minutes after the finale of Casino Royale
- in Italy with the sinister Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) in the boot of his car, nursing a painful looking leg injury. But perhaps British intelligence isn't what it used to be. "We used to be so paranoid," laughs White, "looking over our shoulders, thinking you were listening to our conversations. But you didn't even know we exist!" White claims his organisation Quantum - think SPECTRE but without the awesome lairs - has men everywhere, and he's not wrong. Bond travels to Haiti, London, Bolivia and Russia chasing Quantum goons, principally the weasely Dominic Greene; a smarmy eco-crusader in public, but reptilian facilitator of evil deeds behind closed doors. Think Al Gore gone insane with power.
Bond's arc here ought to be revenge; the death of Vesper Lynd the righteous cause. But Craig's emotionless visage is so blank, the script so bereft of character, Quantum Of Solace feels like just another day at the office for 007. Sure, he kills a few people he shouldn't. He breaks the rules. He goes off the grid. But what kind of Bond would he be if he didn't? It isn't until the final scene that you'll actually remember Bond's motivations, so meaningless are his exploits up until that point.
Craig, it must be said, is excellent. Any doubt he could inhabit the role must surely now evaporate. His Bond is a real bruiser: smacked, cracked, bleeding and beaten from pillar to post, Craig looks like hell in the best possible way. The problems with Quantum Of Solace should not fall at his feet. This is the best Bond he could be given the circumstances.
No, the issues are with the studio's choice of director in Marc Forster. This is a man who knows how to put dramatic audiences through the wringer (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) but he's completely out of his depth handling a franchise this large. High-tempo sequences, like the opening car chase and an extremely Bournian rooftop pursuit, are disorientating in the extreme: too fast, too sloppy and too ruthlessly edited. Often, things change in the blink of an eye - one second Bond is lying on his back, the next he's jumping out a window, the next he's swinging from a rope. It's often impossible to keep up.
Fight scenes often seem practised and stagey (Bond smashes an opponent through a wall with ridiculous ease), while one shot sees 007 riding a motorbike... at about 25mph. These are all hallmarks of a director unfamiliar with action; perhaps former Paul Greengrass protege Dan Bradley should be held responsible (it would certainly explain the feeling of deja vu - as Bond jumps through yet another window, you may feel like yelling, Alan Partridge style, "STOP GETTING BOURNE WRONG!").
What's more, the realistic tone struck by Martin Campbell in Casino Royale has taken something of a leave of absence here. MI6 use flashy, over-the-top Minority Report-style holo-computers, when anyone who reads the papers knows that British intelligence can't even hop in a taxi without leaving their laptop in the back. Bond, leaping on a bad guy's bonnet, finds time to fire of a clunky quip before his bullet. Amalric's bad guy lurches uncomfortably from believably slimy to ridiculously evil, lunging at Bond with an axe in a final showdown. Though I hesitate to compare it to Indy's infamous 'fridge' escape, the scene where 007 jumps out of a plane without a parachute and survives
seems a little too far-fetched even for a Bond movie. All we ask is for some consistency - this isn't Crank, this is Bond.
This is not a disaster on par with Die Another Day. In fact, in parts it's quite watchable - Craig is a magnetic lead, those piercing blue eyes are quite the attention grabber. Judi Dench, meanwhile, is once again magnificent; all British reserve, stiff upper lip and frosty delivery (a low-key scene with M at home, removing her make-up while issuing orders, is perhaps the most disarming in the entire movie). The Bond girls look the part, too, even if Olga Kurylenko (ticking the boxes marked 'feisty' and 'headstrong') lacks personality and Gemma Arterton (Agent Shagwell) lacks any decent screen time. On a second viewing, perhaps the topsy-turvy storyline settles a little - a menagerie of accents does mean some important plot points will be missed first time around.
But make no mistake, Quantum Of Solace is a crushing disappointment. Try as you might, you'll be unable to invest in any of the characters - now Bond's heart has been broken, it's like nothing ever changed and the character exists simply to get to the next location and car chase and gun fight. It's a perfectly average action film, certainly better than the last few Brosnan outings. But when Casino Royale set the bar so high, it's not acceptable for a follow-up to simply stroll under it. Once again, Bond finds himself at a cross-roads, standing still, without direction. So... what now?