Daniel Craig is a fiercely compelling James Bond, with blue eyes so cold they scorch, but my heart sank a bit when, during a sad moment in Quantum of Solace, he drank himself into a stupor and professed neither to know nor care what he was drinking. Sean Connery’s 007 was every bit as masculine-hard but could still tell you on which side of the vineyard the grapes had been grown; he was an irreducible mixture of brutality, irony, and elegance. That said, Connery’s Bond was an unusually bogus construct, meant to demonstrate the enduring potency of the old-boy English upper class; it was a fine irony that the producers needed a roguish Scotsman to put the whopper over. Craig embodies the new, anti-elitist Bond, the unstable toughie in a world of ever-shifting alliances—a world of neither queens nor supervillains. He looks splendid in a tux, but he’s not at home in it; he’s more in his element when shirtless, his chest and arms so engorged he can barely sit up straight. It’s the body of a brooding obsessive—humorless, forsaken, shaken and not stirred. I miss the erudite, bon vivant Bond, but Craig is a 007 for an earthier, edgier age.
Quantum of Solace is the most cynical of the 007 films, stopping well short of The Dark Knight (the champion popcorn-movie downer) but acidic enough to ask: How can even the most resolute spy make a dent in our despair? Our next president will, with luck, instill in us the audacity of hope—and, not incidentally, bring back the age of optimistic superheroes. For now, we cling to the hope of audacity.
Damaged goods after the romantic tragedy of Casino Royale, Bond here is undermined by his own government and the CIA, both of which agree to look the other way while a multi-tentacled outfit (part SMERSH, part Halliburton) installs a murderous general in Bolivia in return for rights to the country’s natural resources. That the slippery baddie, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), works under the guise of an environmentalist is the ultimate insult: The plunderers have appropriated the vocabulary of saviors. Against this, Bond is icily single-minded. Damn protocol, damn alliances, damn M (Judi Dench), he will chop away at this edifice of evil.
The story line is fast and deliriously convoluted, one scene hurtling improbably (but ingeniously) into the next, Bond’s impulsiveness and calculation working thrillingly in tandem. If the staging were as witty as the plotting, Quantum of Solace might have been a corker like Casino Royale. But when the action starts, art-house-refugee director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) mashes together close-ups in the manner of The Dark Knight, and every big set piece is borderline incoherent. On the neat side of that border is a battle in which Bond and his foe seesaw up and down on pulleys to reach a gun—a war between gravity and force that might have been conceived by a tipsy physicist. On the other side is a boat chase so bewildering you only know it’s over when something finally blows up. The movie opens with a car chase that’s also a hash, but nowhere near as ghastly as the theme song that follows, an anti-fusion of Jack White’s caterwauls and Alicia Keys’s breathy soul stylings called “Another Way to Die.” Worst Bond theme ever? Let’s just say Madonna is now off the hook for “Die Another Day.”
The screenwriters, Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, take their cues from two of the best (if not the two best) Bonds, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger—but the differences are telling. Angry and guilt-ridden after his catastrophic Casino Royale love affair, 007 does not put the moves on the distractingly luscious (if tightly wound) Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko, a forbearance which left at least one male viewer in need of a cold-shower equivalent. (Seth Rogen naked on a nearby screen?) The other, related difference is the absence of catharsis. Robert Shaw’s blond assassin and Harold Sakata’s Oddjob had classic comeuppances, whereas the Quantum villains meet their fates offscreen. Granted that modern action filmmakers are over-promiscuous when it comes to avenging “Die, you sucker!” climactic skewerings. But don’t we deserve some release?
Central to the new Bond’s ambivalent universe is the role of M, a scolding mother who dispatches agents to waylay her prodigal son and is quietly (so quietly) pleased when he eludes them. What a mixed message! And what a surrender. As much as I love Dench’s exquisite deadpan—that scowl contains multitudes—it’s a pity M has become another in a line of movie and TV authority figures who tacitly say, “Do what you feel is right. but I won’t back you up. I’ll vilify you to my superiors. I’ll put obstacles in your path. If you succeed, I won’t even give you a hug.” The message is that it’s impossible to do good if you work within the system—the antithesis of the phony old Bond adventures, but possibly in its glib pessimism even more pernicious. Craig’s Bond needs to learn to savor an aged Bordeaux and navigate the tony clubs, if only to infiltrate the ruling class and beat it at its own rigged game. He’s James Bond, for Pete’s sake. Who wants him to be a common malcontent?