Much like the man himself, James Bond movies live by their own rules. ClichAcs, repetition, recasting main characters — those things avoided or sheepishly employed by most movies are, by makers and fans of this series, welcomed like old friends, relished and rejoiced.
The latest Bond, “Quantum of Solace,” opens as we expect, with an elaborate chase sequence that bears almost no relation to the movie that follows. It doesn't matter; the audience explodes with admiration anyway. People will find themselves out of luck, however, without the appropriate reverence for requisite sequences, references to previous movies, and level of attention paid to gadgets, since there's not much else to think about. “Impress me,” M (Judi Dench) demands of Bond (Daniel Craig) in an early scene, summoning the intentions behind the entire enterprise in two words.
“Quantum” is a sequel of sorts to 2006's “Casino Royale,” an attempted refashioning of the series after Pierce Brosnan closed out his run with “Die Another Day” in 2002. Again, true to the franchise, the connection from one to the next is tenuous at best. Bond is ostensibly tracking a group named Quantum, but it doesn't make much of an appearance except for one Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a cross between Serge Gainsbourg and Simon Legree who helps topple governments for aspiring dictators in exchange for natural resources.
Greene's supposed to be an environmental baddie, but the movie plainly shows Bond doing more damage to the planet. Needing to scout Greene's Bolivian desert operations, for example, our hero uses a cargo plane. He shows up at an environmentalist party in a shiny new Land Rover, and, most frustrating, refuses to do anything about Greene until the end of the movie.
“Quantum” is directed by “Stranger than Fiction” director Marc Forster from a script written in part by the prolific Paul Haggis (“Crash”). If you agreed with some people that the previous installment, meant to close the gap with the more reserved character in Ian Fleming's stories, erred on the side of excessive conversation, you'll appreciate this movie favoring stamina over both style and substance.
Rarely does Bond engage in anything remotely resembling espionage as he zips from one exotic locale to another in pursuit of Greene and his associates, chasing and being chased: in cars, on boats, in airplanes, on rooftops and in alleys. How did he get there? The answer does not matter. He's there and the only question is what kind of big, cool vehicle he'll be in next.
The overall feeling is that what we are watching is merely a series of convenient inventions, neat stuff built to impress for the moment, but to be ignored or even refuted later when necessary. In one alternately confusing and humorous moment, Bond spies on Quantum leaders in a theater from a great distance. When we see them from his position they are too far to make out clearly, but when we see them from his eyes they are in close-up.
Bond's martial arts skills are equally erratic. Faced with a lone attacker he engages in prolonged Jason Bourne-style combat with household objects. In another scene he briskly takes down a trio of guards with swift, unimpeded moves. And yet he has considerable trouble with a wildly flailing pipsqueak during the finale because, one suspects, it's the finale. (To be fair, the pipsqueak himself never makes much sense, either. Why is it that the villains in action movies pull every diabolical trick they can in an effort to save themselves, only to taunt the hero as soon as he threatens them with death?)
The tart answer to all these quibbles, of course, is that realism isn't the point, that this is James Bond, and a James Bond movie. It's entertainment. But so were the vastly superior recent “Bourne” movies, to which “Quantum of Solace” owes at least a nod of gratitude. “Quantum” is 007 in clever poster design only, a garden-variety action film mostly devoid of the sex, wit and panache that are the trademarks of the early films that fans wait in vain to return. It ain't going to happen because, for one thing, it isn't the 1960s anymore. But saying so, or asking whether Craig makes a good Bond, or Dench an M, is pretty pointless. The fact is the film itself doesn't care about them at all. It only wants to impress. (PG-13) 106 min. HIIII S