Two years ago, in the autumn of 2006, the modern Bond producer par excellence Barbara Broccoli, the daughter of the Bond maestro Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, sat fretting in a plush European hotel. She had been on Bond sets her whole life, but the latest movie, Casino Royale, was her boldest, most audacious manipulation of the franchise yet. For succour, she invoked the words spoken to her by her father when he handed the franchise over to her and her stepbrother, Michael G Wilson, in the early Nineties.
"Cubby said to us, 'Listen, it's the golden goose and don't let them screw it up. It's fine, you guys can screw it up, because it's your baby, but don't give into pressure from somewhere else.'" Broccoli ruminated upon this for a moment, then added, "I think that was very liberating. You've got to take risks, you've got to make changes, otherwise you'll shrivel up and die." Flash forward to the present, and Broccoli and Wilson are once again attempting a Bondian reinvention with their new outing, Quantum of Solace. Their fears about the performance of Casino Royale - over the critically admired but commercially untested Daniel Craig, the bone-crunching action that had more in common with the Bourne movies than the suave, tongue-always-slightly-in-cheek Bond canon, and the grittier, darker edge that could have infuriated loyalists - have since proved ill-founded. That movie has grossed nearly $600 million (Dh2,203 million) making it the most successful Bond movie ever.
And yet this time round, ironically, even though the risks they've taken with the formula seem less daring, and even though the continuity with Casino Royale is continually underscored, Quantum of Solace might well be the movie to finally justify that deeply founded fear of failure. For a start, everything that was brash and arresting about Casino Royale has become leaden and wearisome in Quantum of Solace. Bond is back, yes, but he is a changed man. Gone are the flirtatious exchanges with the likes of Eva Green's Vesper Lynd that softened the tougher new carapace of Daniel Craig in his debut outing. Gone is the wit and self-deprecation of the infamous "Speedo" moment (this Bond keeps his trunks under wraps). Gone, too, is the haunted and conflicted Bond who stared into the mirror at his own perplexed visage halfway through Royale's card-playing finale to contemplate the loss of his own humanity in violence and murder. Gone too, in fact, is a Bond who can converse fluidly, or express emotion through anything other than a dyspeptic grimace.
In a movie of emotionless punches, kicks, butts and smacks, we are reminded of how different is Craig's Bond, but also of how delicately balanced it is between sympathy and brutality, and how easy it can slip into the latter category. In Casino Royale, Craig immediately claimed his place in the character's pantheon as the toughest Bond since Sean Connery, perhaps even tougher. There was none of Roger Moore's camp mockery or Pierce Brosnan's self-reflexive amour propre. Instead, like Ian Fleming's written hero, he was "cold and ruthless", and seemingly willing to dispatch his luckless victims with bare-handed glee (Casino Royale's opening bathroom murder is a particularly stark introduction to the re-imagined Commander Bond). And yet what made Craig such a draw here and such an appeal to a demographic that included both men and women (teenage boys alone cannot account for a $600 million haul) was that same sensitivity and the aforementioned charm that lifted him above the bestial.
Quantum's Bond, however, in some simplistic and ill-advised attempt at conveying primal bereavement (Vesper Lynd died at the end of Casino Royale), has no such appealing facets. Here, hot on the trail of the man who betrayed Lynd, he is led, via punch-ups and shoot-outs in Haiti, Austria and Bolivia, to a shadowy organisation that deposes dictators, runs governments and controls national assets. Along the way, Bond is nothing less than a mechanistic killing machine, a humourless modern terminator without expression or seeming emotion (and one, presumably, who will be a major disappointment to the franchise's newly converted female followers). Of course, both the director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) and Craig have already laid the groundwork for this performance in the press. "In a way, the most interesting place for a James Bond movie to go is inward - deeper into Bond himself," said Forster, explaining this episode's perplexing shift in mood.
"Bond doesn't have a girlfriend because his girlfriend has been killed," added Craig recently. "He's looking for revenge, to make himself happy with the world again." Overlooking the sheer preposterousness of treating James Bond as if he'd just emerged from the pages of Ibsen or Strindberg, the fundamental flaw here, and with much of Quantum of Solace, is the presumption that our acquaintance with every plot machination of Casino Royale, from major to minor, is enough to propel us through this new movie without the support of freshly created motivation and new character complexities.
Thus, a banknote that was once laundered by Casino Royale's baddy, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), plays a key part in the early narrative of Quantum. Similarly, the former film's second tier baddy, Mr White (Jesper Christensen - remember him? No, me neither), has a key role in the new film. As does Giancarlo Giannini's Italian fixer, Rene Mathis. In all this incessant cross-referencing of the two movies, the filmmakers have made a telling mistake. They have been so blinded by the success of Casino Royale that they lost touch with why audiences flocked to it in the first place - not because of its hardly fascinating plot, but because of how it rejuvenated and revived a flagging cultural icon (Die Another Day, the last Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, made lots of money, but it was a critically derided dud).
Naturally, any quibbling about narrative ineptitude and character motivation would be academic if Forster knew how to handle his action scenes - they do, after all, utterly dominate a movie that at times seems almost nervously resistant to anything other than pell-mell kinetics. For example, in an early harbour scene in Haiti, Bond noisily and needlessly drives a motorcycle off the end of a pier and crashes it into a nearby trawler, just so he can commandeer a small dingy that he could have easily just stepped onto from the same pier. Tragically, Forster, famed for the art house intimacies of Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland, seems uneasy here. Great swathes of action are simply lost in jump cut frenetics and shaky camera hysteria. It's as if Forster watched the Bourne movies, said "copy that", and forgot to note that the action contained therein, though busy, was intelligible.
Here, an opening car chase around Lake Garda is utterly meaningless and conveys only the fact that Bond is driving an Aston Martin, that the villains are driving Alfa Romeos, and that everyone's going very fast. Which, strangely, is also a way of telling us that the most important information in many, if not most, Bond scenes is the nature of the product placement. This has always been a conspicuous feature of the franchise, but in Quantum of Solace, the most heavily "placed" movie so far, it has reached epidemic proportions.
In other words, the alleged $79 million (Dh290m) worth of product placement (the figure, according to The Scotsman newspaper, that companies have paid to the Bond producers for a precious chunk of screen time) can be seen, frame after frame, in the broad and clumsy use of Sony laptops, Omega watches and Sony Ericsson mobile phones. In the latter case, in a scene unworthy of his character, Bond repeatedly takes pictures of international crime bosses using his mobile phone, wielding it like a happy-slapping teenager.
This crassness, combined with a profound lack of storytelling skill, is mildly distracting at first, but midway through the movie, the tedium begins to take over. It's hardly surprising that the critic for the London Sunday Times, among many other disappointed viewers, was forced to wonder aloud, "Bond aficionados must now face a new question - is Quantum of Solace the most boring Bond film ever?" While other critics have been more enthusiastic ("Really, nobody does it better than the new 007," wrote the critic for the London Times), it has not met with anything like the critical plaudits that greeted Casino Royale.
Finally, perhaps the biggest disappointment in Quantum of Solace is the villain, Mathieu Almaric's corrupt industrialist Dominic Greene. As Roger Moore repeatedly proved in adventures such as The Spy Who Loved Me and The Man With the Golden Gun, you can get away with a lot in a Bond movie if the villain is worth the price of admission (in those movies, respectively, Richard Kiel's Jaws and Christopher Lee's Scaramanga perfectly fit the bill). Yet Greene is a white-collar drone who dresses in open-necked shirts and chinos, and whose master plan involves taking over the water supply of Bolivia and, gasp, charging very high prices for it.
Again, Forster has defended this choice, describing how appropriate it is in our time to depict a corporate villain with corrupt governmental officials in his pockets (in Quantum, both the British and American governments offer tacit approval of Greene's expansionist ambitions). But this is perhaps the greatest flaw of them all. To imagine that a Bond movie - a format that's rooted firmly in the fantastical - will benefit from a dose of reality is a crippling delusion. To hope that the mention of duplicitous modern governments and corporate domination will generate a contemporary frisson of excitement that will intrigue prospective viewers is naive indeed. And to risk the very recent successes of a gloriously re-imagined Bond with this gloomy dash of realpolitik is a risk too far. Despite the initial commercial success of Quantum, which broke box office records on its opening weekend in the UK, without a drastic future volte-face, it could fulfil the fears of Barbara Broccoli by bringing the entire franchise to a withering, shrivelling death.