Casino Royale, the 2006 revamp of the hallowed 007 film franchise, turned out to be the best James Bond outing since the start of Reagan's first term in office, so expecting Quantum of Solace to match or surpass it was probably asking too much.
Indeed, this second effort starring Daniel Craig as the newly minted agent with a licence (preferred Brit spelling intentional) to kill gets off to a rough start, simply because the two elements we can always rely on -- the opening credits and the theme song -- are particularly dreadful. The animated graphics prove to be a real eyesore, while "Another Way to Die," sung by Jack White (who also wrote the tune) and Alicia Keys, will doubtless lead to bleeding ears in Dolby-enhanced theaters across the globe.
And then there's the Bourne factor. Matt Damon's Jason Bourne flicks always struck me as James Bond Lite, but most modern moviegoers obviously disagree, since the trilogy ended up scoring as a box office bonanza (it connected with viewers even more than Vin Diesel's anti-Bond flick XXX). So it's somewhat disconcerting to note that one of this film's first action set-pieces -- a lengthy foot chase over rooftops -- bears a striking resemblance to a similar sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum, and it's perhaps even a little bit embarrassing to later discover the presence of several Bourne vets on the crew of this new picture, as if the master suddenly needed instruction from the pupil.
Fortunately, it isn't long before we're again immersed in the Bond mystique. From the start, Craig again shows that he was a brilliant choice to play the secret agent. Half gentleman, half bruiser, Craig's Bond is still learning the ropes of his newly designated status as a field operative, and it's up to his superior, M (again played by Judi Dench with the right mix of pissed-off exasperation at the monster she helped create and barely concealed pride at the confident, competent male she's released to the world), to try to keep him in line.
In a first for the 46-year-old series, Quantum of Solace isn't loosely connected to past pictures but is instead a direct sequel to its immediate predecessor: To watch it without having seen Casino Royale would be akin to viewing The Empire Strikes Back without having seen Star Wars. In short, the villainous organization on view in the previous picture is still operating full speed ahead, and revenge for the death of a loved one remains foremost on the mind of our hero. M is worried that this will cloud Bond's judgment or distract him from his assignments, but 007 is nothing if not effective at multitasking. And does he have his hands full, whether tangling with the dastardly Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Mathieu Amalric), forming a partnership with the lovely Camille (Olga Kurylenko, among the weaker Bond women and certainly a letdown after Eva Green's brainy, biting Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale), or seeking help from coolly distant allies Felix Leiter and Mathis (returning co-stars Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini).
One of the keys to this franchise's longevity is each entry's ability to adapt to the times, and Quantum of Solace is no exception. A major plot thread involves the attempt of a villain to withhold water from South American peasants until they pay for it, and anyone who's seen the chilling documentary The Corporation knows that this scenario indeed has a basis in reality. With conservation on everyone's mind, it's a clever touch to make the chief baddie, Dominic "Greene," the head of an organization that's supposedly supporting a healthy environment but is instead largely a front for its creator's own avaricious designs. And while the CIA has offered Bond a helping hand on several occasions in past pictures, the outfit here is hell-bent on stopping him, since American interests are better served by sucking up to a corrupt billionaire promising to line pockets rather than aiding a conscientious British agent who can offer no such shady dealings.
But don't think for a moment that real-world issues dominate the movie. The stunts are as outlandish as ever, and the typically lavish settings allow us to live vicariously through Agent 007 (in a Bond film, it's always a toss-up as to whether the women or the locales are more seductive). And fans of the Connery/Moore eras will spot a few neat touches: Gemma Arterton's MI6 employee is named Strawberry Fields, conjuring up memories of such cheeky past monikers as Honey Ryder and Plenty O'Toole, while one macabre sight is vintage Goldfinger.
Continually getting better as it charges along, Quantum of Solace turns out to be a successful second entry in the Craig/007 canon. If I rated with numbers instead of stars, it would merit -- dare I type it? -- a 007 out of 10.
To see the trailer for Quantum of Solace, go to www.qccltv.com.