Few things tickle me more than hearing a great French actor ask in French-accented English, "Do yooo theenk I am stooopid?" After hearing Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) spit out that line like tainted meat, I wasn't sure Quantum of Solace could get back its gravitas. It does, thanks to Daniel Craig, the most Byronic of 007s, who, with scarcely any help from the filmmakers, manages the astonishing task of rooting an outlandish yet sober-sided movie in reality and bringing it an air of wicked amusement, too.
Craig's Bond is emotionally wounded and psychologically all shook up, but he knows exactly what his strengths are. They include his ruthless cunning and his determination to follow the straightest line to a destination, even if it means racing through an Italian street procession or the Austrian amphitheater that houses a mammoth production of Tosca. That gives Bond the edge over everyone else in Quantum of Solace, except Judi Dench's magisterial M. She and Craig get more rhythm going than anyone else in the movie. He's the rebel with a cause. She's the mother figure as dominatrix.
Quantum of Solace, an entertaining mess full of jarring editing and artsy touches, is not a new series entry in the old Bond-movie sense, but a sequel to Craig's debut in Casino Royale. In that movie, Craig's Bond earned his 007 license to kill, used it with alarming abandon, then fell for voluptuous accountant Vesper Lynd. She was operating secretly for the criminal empire Quantum but was in love with James, too. The new movie tells how Bond avenges Vesper's death and strikes back at Quantum while getting to the bottom of an unsavory international green-industry syndicate run by the aptly named Dominic Greene (Amalric), whose greatest weapon is his disarmingly casual touch.
Complete with the hero mourning his true love, Quantum of Solace bears the same relation to Casino Royale as The Bourne Supremacy did to The Bourne Identity, but it isn't as good as the other three films. Casino Royale, at 144 minutes, might have been a classic if it were a half-hour shorter; Quantum of Solace, at a mere 106 minutes, wouldn't make the grade if it were a half-hour longer. It's a bit ho-hum to see Bond go rogue and partner up with an exotic knockout named Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who has her own grudge match against a corrupt South American military dictator in cahoots with Greene. Kurylenko, with her full, round features and her tough, taut body, is a sensuous camera subject, but the supposedly explosive chemistry between her and Craig never reaches detonation.
The problem is, Bond and Camille travel on parallel lines, seeking breakthroughs on separate if similar crusades. Emotionally, nothing connects, at least not with ardor. The hero and heroine merely sympathize with each other's quest.
Craig generates the good will that sustains our rooting interest to the end. Bond's renewed working relationships with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and Italian liaison Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) bring the film a smidgen of warmth. And the director, Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) and the writers, Paul Haggis and the team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (the same threesome behind Casino Royale), strive to whip up a pungent air of moral drift.
In the film's nasty world of makeshift power alliances on a planet that's grown more dangerous and fragmented since the Cold War, the best men and women of any country or intelligence outfit must operate on their own. Wright sounds a note of self-disgust as Leiter tries to help Bond while remaining under the double-dealing thumbs of the CIA. Giannini imbues Mathis with seasoned humor as well as poignancy; he can't help loving James like a continental older brother, despite 007's way of hurting his friends. The writers give the actors few good lines - the ironies are so obvious, you may think, "Does Haggis think we're stupid?" And Forster never lets the characters stay in any one place long enough for emotions to take root.
The filmmakers whisk you around the world with a nudge and a wink - or an elbow to the ribs and a smack to the jaw. They create a tony running gag by using different styles of calligraphy to set the place names, such as a flowing antique script for Siena, Italy. (The one for Kazan, Russia, looks like it was part of a decorative LP cover for an Imperial Russia greatest-hits collection.) They don't come up with many good jokes for the actors, though the cast looks primed to deliver some, especially playful young redhead Gemma Arterton as the initially officious Strawberry Fields. Ordered to keep a close eye on James, she gets as close as she can and wins a sensational Bond-series homage and sendoff.