Quantum of Solace

In theaters.

In a 2007 Associated Press article that endeared him to me forever, Matt Damon was quoted derisively contrasting the classic James Bond with Jason Bourne, his own franchise character:

[Bond is] an imperialist and a misogynist. He kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it. Bourne is this paranoid guy. He’s on the run. He’s not the government; the government is after him. He’s a serial monogamist who’s in love with his dead girlfriend and can’t stop thinking about her. He’s the opposite of James Bond.

Paul Greengrass, director of the last two Bourne movies, agreed:

[Bond is] an insider. He likes being a secret agent. He worships at the altar of technology. He loves his gadgets. And he embodies this whole set of misogynistic values. He likes violence. That’s part of the appeal of the character. He has no guilt. He’s essentially an imperial adventurer of a particularly English sort. Personally, I spit on those values. I think we’ve moved on a little bit from all that, the martini shaken, not stirred.

I quote Damon and Greengrass at length partly because I love how cutting they are in their assessment of the Bond mythos (“I spit on those values”—wow!) but mainly because I think it’s striking how the Bond reboot, starring Daniel Craig, seems to reflect their critique. I’m not suggesting that the Bond crew is responding specifically to Damon’s and Greengrass’s opinions (the timing is off, for starters). Rather, they seem to have recognized independently just how dated—often offensively so—the character is.

The funny thing is that the new Bond looks a lot like Damon’s Bourne: less quippy and gadget-oriented, at odds with his government, and in love with his dead girlfriend. Personally, I appreciate the change—and I adore Craig’s performance—but is he even Bond anymore? I mean, I shed no tears for the loss of the classic Bond, whom I find tiresome, but for those who did love the old guy, it must be weird to see him so inverted.

Quantum of Solace, Craig’s second Bond movie, picks up almost immediately after Casino Royale, his first. Bond is still broken up over Vesper Lynd’s betrayal and subsequent death, and his handler, M (Judi Dench), is concerned that he’s not entirely stable, and perhaps not even trustworthy. Meanwhile, the shadowy puppet-masters of Casino are still pulling strings, and when they attempt to assassinate M, Bond’s investigation leads to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a French businessman whose environmental philanthropy hides darker motives. Along the way, Bond joins forces with Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a mysterious woman with her own need for vengeance.

Much has been made of how dark and even somber Quantum is, but I think that case is overstated. True, it doesn’t have the punny, double entendre silliness of its predecessors, but it’s not humorless. Craig’s Bond has a dry, biting wit, and he and M share a charmingly deadpan back-and-forth. Plus, Bond’s crisp, cool manner is funny when he’s single-handedly taking down bad guys or exposing top-secret, highly illegal negotiations. I laughed out loud throughout Quantum, so I don’t think much of the whining about how Bond isn’t any fun without characters named Octopussy (as if that’s the very height of hilarity).

Maybe what those critics are trying to get at is the movie’s cynicism, which I don’t dispute. The moral landscape of Quantum is muddy and frightening, and it’s somewhat disconcerting to see the American agents serving as Greene’s dupes, at best. At some points, Bond essentially turns rogue, but it’s never clear how much good he can accomplish in the long run. As with Casino, the conclusion of Quantum allows some satisfaction while leaving the ultimate bad actors at large. Innocents die, justice is elusive—Bond’s world doesn’t trade in happily-ever-afters.

I liked it, though. It’s that cynical, twisty, ambiguous plotting that makes Quantum so entertaining, however darkly. Director Marc Forster isn’t much for action scenes (the opening car chase is an incoherent mess), but his light, elegant touch works well in the less-explosive set pieces, particularly the spectacular sequence at a sleekly modern production of Tosca. That kind of art-to-violence cross-cutting has been done before, of course, but Forster executes the technique to great effect. Plus: Tosca! Fun!

None of that would work, though, without Craig. His performance is magnetic and smart and always intriguing. Like Damon, he pulls off the trick of letting you see the character thinking, calculating his next move, which is more compelling than any car chase. And though his take on Bond might be reminiscent of Damon’s broody Bourne, it’s not derivative: Bond is more willing to play the game, even if it’s on his own terms, and his crackly relationship with M doesn’t exist in the Bourne universe. Craig makes James Bond fresh and exciting (and, not incidentally, gorgeous)—and wholly his own.