Those of us who adored Casino Royale, the 2006 reboot of the haggard, self-parodic James Bond franchise, had some trouble trying to decide where to place it among the series' finest. Was it better than Goldfinger? Probably not, but close. The Spy Who Loved Me? Maybe so. From Russia with Love? Nope—missed it by this much, to quote another secret agent. Granted, it's all shades of bullet-gray when it comes to Bond, historically riddled with silly, soporific misfires that looked the same regardless of who wore the tux and gulped the gin and gave the girl one last gasp before she drew her last breath.
But Casino Royale was a welcome break from a wearying tradition: It was the first James Bond movie since On Her Majesty's Secret Service to portray 007 as something more than a suave, Kennedy-era caricature—a handsome head perched upon a tailored suit and martini glass. Daniel Craig, an art-house bombshell if there are such things, brought to Bond warmth, humanity, and, above all, gives-a-damn decency heretofore lacking since George Lazenby's sole stint as Connery's stand-in. More than just a good time spent riding shotgun in a tricked-out ride with a bad boy, Casino Royale was a love story masquerading as a spy thriller, with Bond falling for his collaborator and eventual betrayer, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who was working for...?
That, alas, is the question allegedly answered by Quantum of Solace, the first Bond film not named after an Ian Fleming novel (the title comes from an inconsequential short story) and the first to serve as a direct sequel—allegedly, because Craig's second outing as Bond is as frustrating, sloppy, and brusque as its predecessor was engaging, sleek, and unhurried. At 106 minutes, it's the shortest of the Bond films, but it feels like one of the longest as it bounces hither and yon only to wind up stranded in a Bolivian desert, where baddie Dominic Greene (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Mathieu Amalric) is sucking the sand dry of its underwater river. Yawn. Used to be, Bond villains were larger-than-life Evil Geniuses who at least had Grand Aspirations to take over the world, bwah-haw-haw; now, the bad guy's just a phony environmentalist with a thing for deposed dictators and dry wells.
At least, that's what Quantum of Solace seems to be about, though most of the time it's simply too hard to tell—or too pointless to care about—courtesy of the haphazard direction of Marc Forster, who demonstrates by negative example why Bond movies are best served by journeymen with something to prove rather than by would-be A-listers slumming it. From its very first moments—we enter the film mid-car chase—Quantum is a spastic, indecipherable, unholy, and altogether unwatchable mess. Between swerves and smashes, we simply have no idea who's doing what to whom, where they're doing it, or why. What's meant to be kinetic and cathartic serves only to disorient, to keep the audience at a head-scratching distance.
It's as though Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) and his two editors (longtime collaborator Matt Chesse and, get this, Get Smart and Bourne Supremacy vet Richard Pearson) filmed Quantum on a roller coaster and cut the movie with a food processor set on "unintelligible." Consider the scene, only moments after the car chase, as Bond and M (Judi Dench, even more disagreeable than in Casino Royale) question the mysterious Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, reprising his role from the previous film) about his role in Vesper's double-cross and death. The interrogation, but of course, turns into a shootout, with Bond chasing the assassin across rooftops and through broken glass ceilings—a reprise of Casino Royale's thrilling parkour sequence, perhaps the franchise's singular Great Moment. But Forster, whose biggest action sequence to date involved Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton getting it on, interrupts the action with needless, irritating cutaways to inconsequential doings (dunno what, can't say, wouldn't matter anyway) elsewhere that render the entire scene a confounding, alienating muddle. To say nothing of the klutzy opera-house shootout stolen from The Godfather: Part III only moments later.
Written by Neil Purvis and Robert Wade (whose association with Bond dates back to 1999's The World Is Not Enough—yes, the one with Denise Richards) and Casino Royale pinch-hitter Paul Haggis, Quantum of Solace may ultimately prove Bond's worst enemy to date. It's both frantic and boring, a surprising and wholly unnecessary attempt to gin up the revived franchise by turning Bond into Bourne. If Bond is to bound again (which, given the box-office tracking for Quantum, is all but assured), it will have to be with a different director. Forster has done the seemingly impossible to this director-proof series, treating Bond with such disdain as to render him pointless in his own movie.
Craig, stripped naked (literally) and revealed as little more than a "maladjusted young man" in Casino Royale, is still a rookie making clumsy mistakes here, but what seemed human in the relaunching already feels stale in the second go-round. Bond does little more than sulk through the picture—Forster doesn't allow him so much as a grin—while even Jeffrey Wright, back as FBI ally and comic relief Felix Leiter, seethes his way though his handful of scenes. (He's more menacing toward Bond than to bad guy Greene, a nonentity.) If nothing else, there's no need to worry about where Quantum of Solace fits in the Bond pantheon—it's easily one of the worst.