By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — “Casino Royale” came along just as the James Bond franchise was sinking into a lazy rehash of all that had gone before. It jump-started 007 with its seamless mix of action and emotion, and now “Quantum of Solace” keeps it humming along — in a familiar, but forgettable, gear.
The car metaphor is appropriate: “Quantum of Solace” starts out with a thrilling chase through the winding, mountain roads of northern Italy that’s one of the film’s few highlights. But this is a very slight Bond movie, and it feels especially so compared to “Casino Royale,” easily one of the best of the long-running series.
And it’s unusual in that it’s a sequel — that’s never happened before. Director Marc Forster’s film picks up right where “Casino Royale” left off — literally, an hour or so afterward — with Daniel Craig’s Bond trying to avenge the death of the only woman he ever loved, Vesper Lynd. (The smart and sultry Eva Green, the rare Bond girl who was truly the super-spy’s equal, is sorely missed here.)
He’s also trying to pin down the mastermind behind a plot to control the water supply of Bolivia, and maybe, someday, the world! Mathieu Amalric, star of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” plays the role of Dominic Greene with a calm, cold-eyed creepiness.
Yes, “Quantum of Solace” is about water and as convoluted as “Chinatown.” In theory, it could have had a relevant ecological message. Instead, the water angle feels like an afterthought in the surprisingly thin plot from writers Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who also wrote “Casino Royale.”
“Quantum of Solace” suffers from an awful title but marks yet another intriguing entry in Forster’s eclectic filmography. He’s found success with small character studies such as “Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland” and “Stranger Than Fiction,” but he might not have been prepared for the enormity of a 007 actioner.
Along the many elaborate adventures Forster lays out for him, Bond hooks up with the leggy, mysterious and dangerous Camille (Ukrainian model Olga Kurylenko), who is on her own revenge mission. Then again, you’d have to be leggy, mysterious and dangerous to be a Bond babe — except for Denise Richards, the worst Bond girl ever, in “The World Is Not Enough.” Kurylenko holds her own here just fine.
Craig is, of course, sexy and masculine and formidable as always, and he plays beautifully off of Judi Dench who blissfully returns as M, the head of the British secret service. They share scenes that are both teasing and meaty, and their exchanges provide the movie with some much-needed substance. They’re enough to make you wish the two could spend the entire movie together, solving problems and sparring.
But despite his innate intensity, Craig seems a bit ... bored, maybe? Underutilized, despite appearing in nearly every frame of the film. His visceral combination of physicality and acting ability, which allowed him to practically burst through the screen in “Casino Royale,” seems somewhat subdued here. Part of what made his first outing as 007 such a thrill was its back-story nature— the fact that it was a prequel, that it showed the iconic character before he’d ever driven an Aston Martin or ordered his first martini. This time, though, there’s little to connect the character with his beloved history. Sure, he kills indiscriminately when duty calls, loves brazenly without having to make booty calls, and looks great in a tux. But it almost feels as if he functions in a vacuum, as if character were as secondary as plot.
It certainly isn’t Craig’s fault, though — he’s more than up for the challenge. It’s the material, which seems simultaneously truncated and too action-packed. Similarly, Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini, both returning from “Casino Royale,” bring grace and class to their few scenes but get woefully little to do as Bond’s CIA counterpart and his old MI6 colleague, respectively.
Forster’s film has a couple of standout action sequences as it bounces in obligatory fashion across Europe and South America; besides the opening car chase, there’s a wild fight in which Bond and a bad guy are beating the hell out of each other while hanging upside down from scaffolding. There’s also a coolly suspenseful cat-and-mouse scene in the middle of a stunningly inventive performance of Puccini’s “Tosca.” (If you’ve never been to the opera, it may actually make you want to go.)
But the climactic showdown — at a completely empty boutique hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert — merely feels like an excuse to blow up a boutique hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert.
“Quantum of Solace,” a Sony and MGM release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content. Running time: 106 minutes. Two stars out of four.