Still angered by the death of Vesper Lynd, James Bond (Craig) goes after the shadowy international organisation he holds responsible, even when M (Dench) orders him to stand down. Bond clashes with Dominic Greene (Amalric), who is cornering Bolivia’s water supply, and teams with Camille (Kurylenko), who has her own mission of vengeance.
Quantum Of Solace picks up moments after the credits rolled at the end of Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig’s bereaved and blooded Bond in Siena, wrecking his Aston Martin in a pre-credits car chase complicated by thick traffic, twisty mountain roads and emotional Italian drivers. In his car-boot, with a bullet in his leg, is Mr White (Jesper Christensen), a higher-up in the cartel (Quantum) which employed and then killed the baddie of the earlier film, and who Bond blames for the death of the girl he loved last time round. Mr White is taken to be grilled by M, just as the local horse race (the palio) is taking place (obviously, the filmmakers saw the documentary The Last Race too), only for the villain to sneer that MI6 and the CIA obviously know nothing about Quantum’s many well-placed agents, whereupon someone presumably trustworthy pulls a gun – and Bond is back in action, leaving wounded enemies and allies behind as he barges through crowds, runs up stairs, dangles from scaffolding and dodges swinging girders to get his man.
In an era marked by franchise bloat, it’s entirely admirable that Quantum of Solace is the shortest Bond movie to date – it drops a great many of the long-running series mannerisms (callous quips, expository lectures, travelogue padding, Q and Moneypenny) as it globe-trots urgently from Italy to Haiti to Austria to Italy again to Bolivia to Russia with stopovers in London and other interzones. The major gadget on offer is a neat trick with a mobile phone, which the film trusts us to follow without a pompous lecture on how it works, and there’s a nod to traditionally absurd Bond girl names in Gemma Arterton’s Agent Fields – she refuses to give her real, silly, embarrassing name which we only find out from the end credits (it’s not Gracie or London). Everything in this movie is edited as if it were an action sequence, which means that when the set-pieces come they have to go into overdrive to stay ahead of the game, with Bourne veteran Dan Bradley staging more brutal, devastatingly fast fights and chases. We get striking locations (including primaeval caves and a South American desert) and absolutely gorgeous, stylised art direction – but there’s little lingering on the backdrops, since a brief establishing shot is usually enough to set up the nimble, nifty, explosive action that takes place against them.
Previously, the Bond films have been a series, but this is an actual sequel – an approach Ian Fleming used in his books, but which was dropped from the movies because the novels were filmed out of order. This makes for a film which hits the ground running, but also means we get less to latch onto emotionally since Daniel Craig became the complete 007 over the course of Casino Royale, and here just has to be set loose. The sparks struck between the wounded hero and scarred heroine Camille – whose revenge-driven sub-plot owes a lot to July Havelock, the girl from the story ‘For Your Eyes Only’ – don’t match those between Craig and Eva Green last time round because this Bond is human enough to start worrying about how regularly his girlfriends get killed. The slinky, sultry Olga Kurylenko is in fact so fixed on murdering her enemy that it’s possible she technically doesn’t even count as a Bond girl – she’s good, but doesn’t get the breakout showcase Green landed in Casino Royale. However, for the diehard romantics, Bond does tenderly hug a dying male friend before disposing of his corpse in a dumpster (‘he wouldn’t care’) and gives Camille handy tips on professionally assassinating the extremely unpleasant would-be dictator who slaughtered her family.
Casino Royale had one of Fleming’s best plots to stick to, but Quantum of Solace is on its own, taking only its title from the 1960 story. Extrapolating from hints dropped in the earlier film about who ran the late LeChiffre, it introduces Quantum, a SPECTRE-type organisation which ought to be good for a few more movies. The notion of an international alliance of high-stakes criminals with heavy political ties is Flemingesque, but gets a credible, cynical 21st Century spin in that the American and British governments (and security services), above criticism in Fleming’s day, are perfectly happy to get in bed with killers and megalomaniacs so long as the oil keeps flowing – which forces Bond out on his own, pursuing a crusade either for utterly altruistic (helping drought-blighted Bolivian peasants) or utterly selfish (getting his own back on the one small fish directly responsible for Vesper’s plight) motives. Quick jabs evoke highlights of the earlier films, as Craig’s sea-bathing in Casino Royale referenced Ursula Andress in Dr No; one major character’s fate is a stark black updating of one of the most famous early Bond images, and signals which commodity has become most prized in a world where Goldfinger or Blofeld would seem like jokes.
Daniel Craig continues to be his own man as Bond, though this instalment scarcely gives him breathing room between strenuous activity to show off his more stylish or snobbish aspects. When he chugs his signature martini (take notes as the bartender rattles off the recipe) even devoted allies worry that seven brain-numbing drinks in a row might not be good for the agent’s long-term mental state or ability in the field. Craig looks good in a tux, blending into the crowd at an opera first night where the villains have convened to mutter evilly through Tosca, and wears his bruises and scratches like badges of honour. He shows a certain expense account flair in turning down a modest La Paz pensione to check into the poshest hotel in the city by insisting that the ‘teacher on sabbatical’ he is pretending to be has won the lottery. But, presumably coached by Bradley, he is at his most elegant in tiny action moments – upending an idling motorbike to send a minor thug flying, casually stepping off balconies and walking along ledges, efficiently crippling a liftful of agents trying to arrest him.
With all the ills of the world down to Quantum, the baddies we see are – like those in Dr No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball – junior associates of archfiends who operate at such a high level we don’t even get to meet their cats. The French Mathieu Amalric makes the smarmy fake environmentalist Greene a suitably loathsome character, as much for his persistently cruel treatment of his mistress Camille as his complicated scheme to overthrow the government of Bolivia and grab the country’s natural resources; like Mads Mikkelsen’s LeChiffre, he’s young and fit enough to hold his own in a scrap, but has a nice line in craven delegation, posing a minion with a gun to face certain death as he tries to escape the climactic spectacular conflagration, and gets some of the smart, threatening, witty script patches we assume Paul Haggis dropped in. A nod also to the Mexican Joaquin Cosio, who plays a South American would-be dictator whose filthy foreign habits (like celebrating a big deal by raping a waitress) Fleming would have enjoyed despising.
A pacy, visually imaginative follow-up to the series relaunch. If it doesn’t even try to be bigger and better than Casino Royale, that’s perhaps a smart move in that there’s still a sense at the finish that Bond’s mission has barely begun and he’ll need a few more movies to work his way up to demolishing the apparently undefeatable Quantum organisation. As with The Dark Knight, the only real caveat is that while it’s exciting and imaginative, it’s not exactly anyone’s idea of fun. To keep in the game, perhaps the next movie – The Hildebrand Rarity? Riscio? The Property of a Lady? – could let the hero enjoy himself a bit more.