We all know what it is to be bored to death, but have you ever been entertained to death?
That is the paradoxical experience offered by the new 007 picture Quantum of Solace, whose "thrills" spring off the screen with such mechanical efficiency and metronomic regularity that you could almost set your watch by them. I glanced at my own perhaps more often than the film-makers would have anticipated; it's amazing how the more rumbustious are the action set-pieces, the less attentive the mind becomes. But then there's nothing so fatiguing as a movie that won't stop trying to excite you the whole time.
This is Daniel Craig's second outing as James Bond after the generally well-received Casino Royale, whose climactic moments saw Vesper Lynd, the spy who loved him, die before his eyes. Apparently, this woman was so important to him that he's made it his personal mission to track down the man who arranged her death. His boss, the increasingly mumsy M (Judi Dench), deplores this self-indulgence – "you are so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don't care who you hurt" – but our James won't be told. It appears to be an effort on the part of the screenwriters to humanise 007, to make of him more than the suavely dispassionate killer that Ian Fleming created. Yet the film's attachment to a new violent realism keeps pulling it in the opposite direction.
It begins in familiar style with Bond flooring the accelerator of his Aston Martin and looking quite unperturbed as he weaves in and out of the oncoming traffic on a precipitous mountain road. Behind him, men are firing machine guns at him from their car windows. Business as usual. Craig's expression of flint-eyed concentration never wavers, even after he climbs out of the car, his pursuers a smouldering heap of molten metal in his wake. The only thing this lean, mean killing machine can't crack is a smile. Craig can pout for England, seems to do a lot of his own stunts, and wears the clothes better than any Bond since Connery. Yet the tight-jawed intensity that was his calling-card in Casino Royale has morphed here into a one-note machismo, and a very humourless note it is. You can blame the screenwriters (Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) for this: I can't think of another 007 film that's so short of wit or even just witty remarks. It's as if someone at Bond Inc is trying to make up for all those daft one-liners Roger Moore used to spout. Well, pardon me, but I rather enjoyed Rog's one-liners. They weren't just a nod to the essentially fantastical blague of Bond; they also lent him that vital British air of self-deprecation.
Even the Bond women seem to think he's a bit of a stiff. When he becomes involved with a Bolivian beauty named Camille (Olga Kurylenko), she almost rolls her eyes as he orders her into his car. "There's something horribly efficient about you," she says. But efficiency is practically all he's got. Charm has disappeared from the repertoire, and his seduction technique looks in severe need of a rethink. When fresh-faced Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) shows up on assignment in La Paz, the first thing Bond does is book them into a deluxe hotel. As she stares wonderingly around the suite, he invites her into the bedroom to look for some "writing paper". Oh dear. Is that really the best they can do? Bond, legendary swordsman of the boudoir, reduced to feeble misdirections about writing paper? (Basildon Bond, we presume.) It doesn't help that Craig is a rather unsensual actor: he looks much more at ease leaping off balconies than he does leaping into bed.
When he is leaping off the edges of buildings, mind, during a chase on foot over the rooftops of Siena, director Marc Forster does his best work. The editing is whip-sharp, the pace is breakneck, the adrenalin is flowing. The one tiny fly in the ointment is that we've seen it done before, and done better, by Matt Damon sprinting over the rooftops of Tangiers in The Bourne Ultimatum. It's the Paul Greengrass films that Quantum of Solace is anxiously checking over its shoulder, as well it might. Perhaps we'll eventually sicken of the Bourne series, too, but at present its kinetic energy and fleetness, unhampered by the baggage of four decades, are leaving Bond way behind.
The villain of this film also accords with the new spirit of realism in Bond. Mathieu Amalric plays Dominic Greene, who sounds like a Foxton's estate agent but is actually a megalomaniac environmentalist – and only marginally more disagreeable. Again, the point of the Bond baddie ought to be his choice line in camp unpleasantries ("Take care of Mr Bond. Make sure he comes to some harm" – Michael Lonsdale in Moonraker), but Amalric isn't rewarded with a single memorable phrase or quip. One might have hoped the writers would treat us to some verbal duelling between the two adversaries, maybe a little stroke of one-upmanship where Bond corrects him on the best vintage of Chateau Latour. Such triviality has been banished. Craig's Bond displays no interest in connoisseurship – he hardly drinks, and he's never seen to eat. Actually, he displays no interest in anything much beyond getting the job done, as ruthlessly and unsmilingly as possible.
It's a pretty dour modus operandi, and, in one instance, a pretty disgraceful one. Having coaxed an old MI6 friend (Giancarlo Giannini) out of retirement, Bond is later required to deal with his corpse – which he duly commits to a dumpster. When Camille expresses her disgust at this, he replies that the dead man was "not the sort to care". Such callousness discredits him: didn't the ties of friendship and loyalty oblige Bond to care? It's a coarse note in a film which, eager to continue repositioning its famous hero, abrades any sense of fun.