IN A NUTSHELL : Bond's 22nd big-screen outing is a slick, solid but unexcitingly average continuation of the blockbusting, cash-cow franchise. It's escapist, globetrotting, luxuriously-appointed fare which satisfy – rather than dazzle – ticket-buyers worldwide and will likely find plenty of takers in these increasingly cash-strapped times.
As John Peel always used to say about The Fall, the thing about James Bond movies – certainly since the franchise's 1995 Goldeneye reboot - is that they're "always different, always the same." We've been told numerous times before that the new movie will (A) strip Bond back to basics, keeping catchphrases and other ritual to a minimum (B) reduce or eliminate the fancy gadgets, (C) introduce a new, three-dimensional type of independent 'Bond girl'. And, each time, such pronouncements are reverently received and relayed as ground-breaking novelties.
But such colossal sums of money now depend on the continuation of the globally-renowned, luxury-goods-magnet Bond 'brand' (XXII and counting) that directors and scriptwriters have hardly any room to manoeuvre – a fact that all surely understand long before they sign up. Though critical consensus apparently regards Quantum of Solace as a comedown after 2006's Casino Royale, there's hardly anything to distinguish the two films in terms of originality, elan or excitement.
The plot is the usual combo of macro (current geopolitics) and macro (personal revenge) – here pivoting on the South American operations of businessman Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Like the western governments ("right and wrong don't come into it – we're acting out of necessity!" barks Tim Pigott-Smith as a dyspeptic Foreign Secretary) he seeks to manipulate, Greene is motivated by pragmatically Kissingerian realpolitik rather than anything resembling ideology: "we deal with the left or the right – with liberators or dictators." And while it's nice see the occasional nod to real-world events (passing mention of the 2004 Haiti coup that unseated President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, plus the idea that with the US "tied up in the middle east, South America is falling like dominoes"), it's jarring and somewhat opportunistic to have schoolmarmish M15 boss M (Judi Dench) threaten a helpless captive with what sounds very much like extraordinary rendition.
Greene, meanwhile, is revealed – behind his genial eco-pioneer frontage – as a member of a shadowy international network known as 'Quantum.' The latter seems more of a casual, cosy cartel – a sort of Caucasian-heavy Al'Qaeda-variant – than any kind of particularly dastardly SMERSH enterprise, its apellation evidently chosen by QoS's scriptwriting team for no other reason than to (flimsily) connect the movie with Ian Fleming's source story whose title it shares. That, and Bond's presence, is as far as the similarities extend: Fleming's tale is a talky chamber-piece analysing the nature of romantic love, in which 007 does nothing more strenuous than sit and listen. In that specific literary context, the phrase "Quantum of Solace" makes sense; as the title of a multiplex movie it sounds more than a little pompous and ridiculous – although it is relatively offbeat.
Anyone going along expecting the film itself to be anything like as outre or unusual is, however, delusional – the prospect of the Bond producers entrusting their cash cow (that 1995 outing should really have been called Goldenegg) to anything other than reliably safe hands is laughably improbable. Marc Forster, "fresh" from worthily dull Kabul-childhood tale The Kite Runner, duly goes through the motions: borrowing heavily from Paul Greengrass's Bourne pictures (there's even a grim Russian apartment-building epilogue, just like Supremacy – Richard Pearson co-edited both films), and adding a dash of seedy tropical exotica that indicates a debt to Michael Mann's unfairly-reviled big-screen Miami Vice.
There are a few nifty touches along the way and, as with the Harry Potter franchise, the main protagonist is by some way the least interesting personage on view: arthouse favourite Amalric (last seen on this kind of lush Hollywood turf alongside Moonraker's uber-Bond-villain Michel Lonsdale in Munich) has fun in an underwritten role, and gives Greene some girlishly high-pitched hockey-yelps during his final mano-a-mano with Bond (Daniel Craig.)
Jeffrey Wright, in a couple of appearances as Bond's old CIA mucker Felix Leiter, brings a refreshing air of languid post-millennial, post-ideological je-m'en-foutisme to the party ("move your ass, James," he drawls, just as all hell breaks loose in a Greeneland bar).
And there's a short-lived but noteworthy minor character, flame-haired agent 'Strawberry' Fields (Gemma Arterton), an office-bound pen-pusher who pays a high price for her naive desire to experience 007's world – and thus can be perhaps seen as an intriguingly unflattering kind of audience-surrogate.
The fact, meanwhile, that the 106-minute running-time is the shortest ever for a Bond picture is very much to Forster and his two editors' credit (and a quiet indictment of all their predecessors). But this is otherwise a time-passingly unremarkable, undemandingly escapist, luxuriously glossy sort of affair, another example of what's long been a low-ceiling, high-floor kind franchise – primarily designed neither to dazzle nor delight, but to ensure that, as the interminable closing titles inevitably (and, when you think about it, somewhat meaninglessly) assure, JAMES BOND WILL RETURN.
106m (BBFC timing)
director : Marc Forster (The Kite Runner, Stranger Than Fiction, Stay, etc)
Richard Pearson (Get Smart, Blades of Glory, United 93, etc incl. The Bourne Supremacy)
Matt Chesse (The Kite Runner, Stranger Than Fiction, Stay, etc)
seen 6.Nov.08 Newcastle (Empire cinema : £5.95)