When the 16th James Bond film, Licence to Kill, was released in 1989, it was widely reported that its working title, Licence Revoked, had been altered thanks to a survey revealing that fewer than 50 percent of Americans knew the meaning of the word "revoked." How far we have come since then. Bond's last outing, Casino Royale, was not only his best in over three decades, it was also his smartest, and its franchise-record grosses evidently persuaded 007's custodians that we Yanks aren't quite such a load of morons after all. How else to explain Quantum of Solace, the year's most obscurely titled release not directed by Charlie Kaufman?
Like Licence to Kill, Quantum is a tale of vengeance; unlike it, the new film is also a sequel, in which the lethal debt to be paid off is held over from a previous picture. Specifically, Bond (Daniel Craig) goes off the grid to track down the shadowy villains responsible for the death of his Casino Royale lover, Vesper, who was in life a mouthwatering accountant and remains in death a mouthwatering martini. (Denied the consolations of the former in Quantum, Bond permits himself those of the latter.
The film opens with a breakneck car chase along the rocky Mediterranean coast in which British Aston outduels Italian Alfa, enabling 007 to arrive in Siena minus one car door but with the prisoner in his trunk--Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), whom we saw him shoot in the leg at the conclusion of Casino Royale--intact. Following an interrogation by M (Judi Dench), Mr. White ultimately leads Bond to one Mr. Slate, who in turn leads him to a Mr. Greene (Matthieu Amalric). That's right: The global conspiracy this time around isn't SPECTRE, but some rogue wing of the United Colors of Benetton.
Greene, it turns out, is an environmental activist whose company makes covert deals with corrupt governments and then strips their nations of natural resources. In this case, his group promises to return a deposed Bolivian strongman (Joaquin Cosio) to power ("We've already begun destabilizing the government," Greene informs him, as casually as he might report third-quarter earnings) in exchange for control of a remote desert which may contain oil or perhaps a still more precious resource. (It's not hard to guess which.) As Bond untangles Greene's plot, he crosses paths with Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a comely Bolivian pursuing her own parallel, but unrelated, mission of vengeance. (If his narrative is loosely borrowed from Licence to Kill, hers comes from For Your Eyes Only.) Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini reprise their roles from Casino Royale as Bond allies legit and not-so, and Gemma Arterton makes a brief appearance as the Officious MI6 Handler Whom 007 Will Quickly Cajole Into Bed.
Moreover, there is evidence of backsliding toward a few of the more tired franchise tropes that Casino Royale had so sharply repudiated. Where that film made fun of the sex-pun sobriquets doled out to female characters (Bond teased Vesper that her cover identity was "Miss Stephanie Broadchest"), this one saddles Arterton's agent--herself a bit of a throwback to the 007-as-incorrigible-gigolo years--with the name Strawberry Fields. Even the title sequence brings back a hint of the PG prurience that was so pleasantly absent from Casino Royale's stylish opener.
Yet despite such disappointments, there is solace in Quantum, and its name is Daniel Craig. Ever since Sean Connery first brought Bond to life onscreen, his successors had been imitators. Yes, Roger Moore was a little softer, Timothy Dalton a little harder, and Pierce Brosnan a little more dapper. But despite the variation, Bond had remained pretty much the same character, periodically changing faces. Craig is the first inheritor who has worn the role rather than let it wear him.
To a greater degree even than in Casino Royale, Craig's Bond is shorn of the frilly vanities and amusements that long dominated the character. His job is not to charm people, it is to kill people, and he does this not because he takes pleasure in it but because he knows he's better at it than anyone else. Creator Ian Fleming once described Bond in Reader's Digest as "an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department," and Craig's portrayal in Quantum is just that, minus the government control. This is probably the cruelest Bond of the series, and certainly the most murderous, shedding more blood during an average twenty-minute stretch than Roger Moore seemed to over the course of seven films. When, at one point, M chides him, "Bond, if you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be deeply appreciated," she is not speaking metaphorically.
Under other circumstances, I wouldn't applaud the surfeit of brutality--which still doesn't approach what you can find elsewhere at the multiplex most nights--but, as in Casino Royale, it is a useful corrective to the flabby excesses of the franchise, which so often portrayed 007 as ass-chaser first and assassin second. Moreover, Craig is so very good as the hitman with a heart of lead that it's hard to begrudge him his lethal mandate. His blue eyes are colder than even Fleming could've imagined, and his spare but fearsome frame seems, unlike most Hollywood physiques, built more for performance than for show. (Most of the women I know will be disappointed--and most of their husbands relieved--to hear that Craig takes his shirt off a good deal less than he did in Casino Royale.)
Apart from Craig, the chief pleasure of the film is Dame Judi Dench. In her earlier collaborations with Brosnan, I could never shake the sense that she was holding back a bit, lest the quiet domination of which she (and sometimes it seems only she) is capable might overwhelm her leading man and throw their scenes together out of kilter. Craig, by contrast, can and does withstand the full-on Dench, and their scenes together crackle with amiable ferocity. Who needs Bond Girls when this Bond Woman is so much more compelling?
The film's direction, by arthouse refugee Marc Foster (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner), will provoke strong reactions--positive, negative, and in some cases both at once. Following the temper of the time, Foster presents the movie's many action sequences in a wash of choppy, hyperedited shots, but he pushes the tendency to such extremes that he makes the Bourne films (on which Quantum is clearly modeled) look like Rope. The result is a near-total lack of spatial continuity--I have fifty dollars for anyone who can put salt shakers on a table and show me what took place in a particular boat chase--but an unmistakable visceral intensity. If, as it appears, this is where action filmmaking is headed, concession stands of the future will make a killing in Ritalin sales.
Quantum of Solace is not nearly as strong a film as Casino Royale, and the filmmakers seem well aware of this. It is, after all, set up as a kind of coda to its predecessor, an effort to extend its success rather than genuinely replicate it. (It's telling that Casino Royale was the longest of all 22 Bond films at 144 minutes, and Quantum is the shortest at 106. You'd think the filmmakers would understand that there's a happy medium to be found here.) Yet, thanks to Craig's ruthless performance, Quantum is still better than all but a few of the Bond offerings of the last 30 years. As Kurylenko tells 007 late in the film, "There's something horribly efficient about you." Amen.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.