'Quantum of Solace'
But it fairly races by, a sexy, sadistic, cruel and crackling thriller that is the shortest Bond film since "Goldfinger," and certainly the most brisk. Craig coolly settles in, Mathieu Amalric reminds us of the old Hitchcock saying, "Good villains make good thrillers," and the maternal love affair between Bond and his boss, M ( Judi Dench, in her glory) comes to full flower. The direction, by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland"), is breathless, with lovely grace notes; he uses silences to end his action beats. And if this incarnation of Bond still doesn't inspire affection, he does command respect, awe, a sense that a real man is risking life and limb for queen and crown.
As in the Bourne movies, "Quantum" picks up our story very close on the heels of the climax to "Casino Royale." Bond is hunting down the folks who set up his beloved Vesper, the woman who betrayed him, and died. He's not in a rage. But he's not pausing long enough to ask the questions that would quickly unravel the vast conspiracy of industrialists who seem to be behind it all.
In one memorable moment, the killing machine that is 007 averts his eyes as a man whose neck he has snapped gasps, sputters and breathes his last. Chilling.
The hunt for masterminds takes Bond from Siena, Italy, to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Bolivia and Austria. He seeks the aid of an old foe (Giancarlo Giannini from "Casino") and a future friend, the CIA agent Felix Leiter, played by Jeffrey Wright with a sneer of distaste over what his boss and his government are up to in South America. That's where industrialist Dominic Greene (Amalric, of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "Munich") of Greene Planet is plotting land grabs and luring a former dictator back to Bolivia to put him in charge.
"You want your country back. My company can give it to you."
Amalric is a pale, iguana-eyed ogre, something reinforced by a shot of a real lizard in the desert where Bond and the former Bolivian agent Camille (Olga Kurylenko of "Max Payne") go for clues.
The viewer is probably three steps ahead of Bond at this point, catching that phrase "the most precious substance on Earth" from Greene, spying the little "Q" lapel pins he and his fellow robber barons sport.
But no matter. Bond goes "off the reservation," dodges even his own MI6 agents (and beats down a few), flies an ancient DC-3 through a dogfight, grabs a motorcycle in a gesture so effortlessly cool it recalls Sean Connery, gives chase over rooftops and is chased in boats and an Aston Martin.
"There is something horribly efficient about you," Camille purrs. But it's not what you think. He's too busy for that. Well, almost.
Bond films are all "greatest hits" packages these days, and "Quantum" references "Goldfinger," "Live and Let Die" and "For Your Eyes Only." But it's not the solace of the past that makes the heart race here. It's the realization, with every bit of derring-do, that someday, if he learns how to deliver a pithy one-liner, this blond could become the best Bond ever.