“Quantum of Solace” — More Quantity than Quality — 2 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

After injecting the 007 franchise with a novel bit of leaner, meaner James Bond in “Casino Royale” (2006), Daniel Craig’s second assignment in producer Barbara Broccoli’s service finds its way home to the same old wenching, spying and killing. Which can be good or bad, depending on the mix of said elements. Here it is just so-so.

Unnecessarily complicated, “Quantum of Solace” would like to think it has sewn a thread of mystery through its rambunctiousness. But “The Usual Suspects” (1995) this is not. And too often in the early going, when James is spinning like a pinwheel down elevator shafts, jumping across rooftops and chasing up alleys, we don’t quite know why.

Oh, we assume the rat our cat is pursuing is involved in an unspeakable nefariousness. But just knowing who the evildoer in the lead speedboat is, without the niggling quandary of identity and motive distracting us, could make the splashing derring-do so much more enjoyable.

So it shouldn’t be a misprision if the critic informs that the cynically named Dominic Greene, played with slimy ease by Mathieu Amalric, is the bad guy. Not a commie or Hitler-like madman with visions of world domination (a country or two will do), he is a villain for his times, a cheap chiseler falsely representing a good cause for monetary gain.

Certainly there are few callings lower than phony environmentalist. It makes delusional tyrant seem almost classy. However, the cover has thus far kept the international extortionist off many a secret service organization’s radar screen. And, there’s no discounting the fortune he’s amassed in contributions from the well intentioned wealthy.

It also gives one the chance to mix business with pleasure via endless fundraising galas, black tie of course. While no Bond will ever fill a tuxedo with the roguish élan that Sean Connery epitomized, Mr. Craig does okay. Or at least well enough to infiltrate such gatherings, unearth the skinny and find true love in the bargain, albeit for just a while.

Mr. Bond’s main female accompaniment this adventure, the kind of gal who pulls up in a battered VW Beetle just when a secret agent could use a lifesaving lift, is Camille Montes. Played by Olga Kurylenko, she’s involved in the greater gambit for a reason. But since being the mysterious woman is in effect her prime allure, it won’t be disclosed here.

However, we’re pretty much assured that 007 won’t be falling too hard this time. The script makes a fuss of the possibility that our favorite spy is harboring a hurt from the last episode, which ended just a few minutes before this one begins. Particularly fretful is Judi Dench’s M, who scrutinizes her lovelorn charge like a post WWII schoolmarm.

Bond scowls at the allegation like a playground kid being teased about having a girlfriend. Though dramatically a big waste of time, the ploy offers reason why James must keep his game face on and prove he can do his job nonetheless. In fact, he’s so zealous that it gives his boss cause to unleash the secret agent genre’s biggest cliché.

There ought to be a law: No studio can use this hackneyed mechanism more than once a decade. But absent that statute, expect Mr. Craig’s Bond, after unexplainably dispatching all sorts of folks Her Majesty’s Secret Service felt important to their cause, to be cut off, left out in the cold. Which means now he has to do it all on his own. Well, almost.

There’s still inscrutable Camille…maybe. And reminiscent of when Bogey’s Rick Leland, in need of a gun in “Across the Pacific” (1942), petitions his “shopkeeper” friend Sam (Lee Tung Foo), James visits his old adversary/new pal, Mathis. Portrayed by a welcome Giancarlo Giannini, this gives Bond a rare opportunity for some male bonding.

Aside from this minor bit of soul-searching, replete with obvious pieties about forgiveness (“Let it go, man—just let it go”), expect no great character studies. This is, after all, a Bond film. Thus the bulk of effort is put into the non-stop action. Pity is, while the choreography is phenomenal, like Mr. Bond it is pretty much left to fend for itself.

Without a solid base from which to reference, action for action’s sake cannot be appreciated beyond the purely technical accomplishment. As a result, swamped by the helter-skelter, sheer freneticism of it all, we pine for some comedy relief, a pause. Geez James, take a coffee break. Stop into a diner; ask someone how his or her kid is.

Surely we don’t want our hero too human. But neither do we want the license-to-kill guy diluted into a video game character. Despite the saving grace of some travelogue-like scenery piquing our wanderlust, this unimaginative, cowardly retreat to formula allows “Quantum of Solace” to portion out only a smidgen of entertainment.

“Quantum of Solace,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Marc Forster and stars Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko and Mathieu Amalric. Running time: 106 minutes.

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