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Tim Robey reviews the breathless new James Bond film Quantum of Solace.
When we last spied James Bond, at the end of the forceful if oddly-structured Casino Royale, he announced his name while pointing a submachine gun into the sky above Lake Como. The image said: he's back, and nothing if not well-endowed.
Quantum of Solace begins minutes later, with the elusive killer Mr White (Jesper Christensen) now in the boot of Bond's Aston Martin, and a breakneck pursuit in progress which makes claims of a different kind for this new Bond and his supersized franchise.
This film catches Ian Fleming's hero on the run, keeps him running, and zips along with a jolting, almost offensive velocity, catching its ragged breath in the rare opportunity for dialogue. Fans of the series who like to slow down and savour the scenery, enjoying a drip-feed of dodgy innuendo, may consider this a rude awakening - it's the shortest Bond movie to date, and easily the most terse.
But consider how many of the pictures, to include Casino Royale, run out of steam as they drag themselves across the two hour mark, if not long before. Quantum of Solace may hurtle through its own (sketchy) plot as if it's not quite the point - there have been more satisfying narrative pay-offs than we get here - but its best sequences bring you up short in the best way, adding up to the giddiest straight ride since The Living Daylights.
In a career filled with diligent but pedestrian Oscar-bait (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland), it's a true surprise that director Marc Forster has come up with the goods as often as he does. Working with many of the action crew, among them editor Richard Pearson, who made the Bourne series so snappy and exhilarating, he closes in on the set pieces with refreshingly creative skill.
The starting point can be nonsense - when Mr White, murderer of Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, is sprung from captivity in a dungeon beneath Siena, it's too, too Bond that it happens to be on the day, hour and very minute of the Palio horse race.
The gambit of cross-cutting from bolting nags to scarpering baddies starts out strident and doesn't seem necessary. But Forster is biding his time with this skittish prelude: we emerge into the crowd for a chase on foot, across rooftops, and down some scaffolding in a church, and the ensuing scramble with ropes, swinging girders, and out-of-reach revolvers leaves you gasping with its constricted tension and vertigo.
It's briefly to London for some Paul Haggis-scripted soundbites about our changing planet, and then to Haiti, where we meet pouting Bolivian agent Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and villain du jour Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a petulant eco-criminal busily finessing the oil and water reserves of South America for his own gain. Amalric, who with every goggle-eyed smirk cements his credentials to star in a Roman Polanski biopic, brings a wickedly childish spite to this role, certainly proving a more interesting foil to Bond than his latest foxy-but-cross female sidekick.
James, of course, is still hung up over the betrayal and demise of Vesper in the last instalment, motivating a morose six-martini binge while he's flying across the Atlantic, as well as his avoidance here of any serious entanglements, save those in stray lengths of rope dangling from the roofs of Tuscan churches. He isn't alone: Camille, having had her family raped and burnt alive by a deposed Bolivian dictator, also has her mind on other things. Instead, there's a just-for-fun fling with MI6 emissary Gemma Arterton, who pitches up looking like a John le Carré strippogram in a trenchcoat, and exits in a homage to Shirley Goldfinger Eaton which had me reaching for bad oil puns. Crude? Unrefined? It's not exactly slick.
What's clever, and slick, and even a little ingenious about the movie, though, is how it postpones Bond's Vesper vendetta by submerging it beneath his present tasks - he gets an angry kick out of scuttling this international cabal of utility profiteers, who in the barmiest conceit get to negotiate through earpieces while seated for a state-of-the-art production of Tosca.
If there was any remaining doubt that the world is bartered and sold by people who can afford opera tickets, it's roundly dispelled, though how Amalric persuades his backers that Haiti, of all places, is some kind of model example for neocapitalist progress leaves us just a little foxed. "I don't give a s--- about the CIA," announces Judi Dench, inimitably, but it's not the best line in the movie: those are all the ones on Daniel Craig's face, particularly the deep vertical groove between his eyebrows when he's found yet another score to settle.
Quantum of Solace offers next to no solace, if we mean respite, but in plunging its hero into a revenge-displacement grudge mission, it has the compensation of a rock-solid dramatic idea, and the intelligence to run and run with it.
Rating: four stars
Length: 106 minutes