We're deep into the fifth decade of James Bond movies, and up to 23 installments: the longest, most successful franchise in film history. Mazel tov! At this point, does it really matter that the high of "Goldfinger" was followed by the waterlogged disappointment of "Thunderball," or that the overproduced "Moonraker" failed to live up to the splendid delirium of "The Spy Who Loved Me"? For most of our lives, a Bond movie was as inevitable, and as anticipated, as Christmas morning. As you got older, you may have outgrown your excitement (like ceasing to believe in Santa Claus), but even when the individual movies disappointed, there was the pleasure of watching a new generation discovering the delights of the dapper superspy.
When "Dr. No" came out in 1962, we hadn't seen anything quite like it. It was the height of the cold war, JFK (whose favorite pulp writer was Ian Fleming) had infused political power with style and libido, and American movie audiences were looking overseas—toward an about-to-be swinging London—for role models. Agent 007's cosmopolitan swagger made him the perfect fantasy figure for male pipe dreams and women's erotic projections, urbanity and machismo rolled into one well-tailored package. The Bond movies also coincided with middle-class America's newfound passion for travel. Cinematic tourism was always an essential part of the formula: "From Russia With Love" took us to Istanbul, "You Only Live Twice" to Japan, and every movie since has mixed thrills with travelogue.
But five decades later, we'd seen plenty of the world, and plenty of movies like "The World Is Not Enough" and "Die Another Day." By this point in movie history, overproduced cliffhangers are a dime a dozen, and the CGI revolution has made it possible for anyone with a good-size budget to outdazzle the gravity-defying stunts that made the pre-credits sequences of Bond movies special. Trying to keep up with the new FX-ridden superhero franchises, the Bond movies became desperate and decadent. Invisible cars? Those belonged in a sci-fi movie, not an Ian Fleming adventure. In those final Pierce Brosnan go-rounds, the wonder, and the credibility, got a little frayed. The filmmakers tried to give Bond a postmodern self-consciousness about his anachronistic style—it wasn't easy being a world-class womanizer with a license to kill in the era of political correctness—but making jokes about his own sexism wasn't enough to overcome the feeling that The Commander had become a bit old hat.
And then came Daniel Craig. "Casino Royale" pumped fresh (and real) blood into the series, scraping away the barnacles of camp and gadgetry and replacing the stale air of a Hugh Hefner bachelor party with Craig's urgent, contemporary virility. He marked his turf with a memorable retort in a Bahamian casino, when asked if he'd like his martini shaken or stirred. "Do I look like I give a damn?"
There's always been a running argument in the franchise between fantasy and realism: every few years when the whimsy and the wink-wink went too far, the pendulum would swing back to a more brutal, down-to-earth Bond. When Roger Moore's linen-clad lounge act got too ironic for its own good, Timothy Dalton was brought in to supply a whiff of psychological grit.
Sean Connery had it all: a lowdown masculinity that cut through the raised-eyebrow sophistication. He may have been able to name the precise vintage of a 19th-century port, but his quips couldn't hide the inner thug who relished tossing villains into shark-infested waters. The beautiful thug re-emerged with Craig, but under the toughness was a passion we hadn't seen before, even in Connery. His romance didn't seem just an arch game: when he fell in love with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, and lost her, her death carried a sting.
In "Quantum of Solace," the pendulum swings even further away from the slick fantasy figure surrounded by bikini-clad hotties with smutty monikers. There isn't even the traditional through-the-gun-barrel graphic that introduces a silhouetted Bond in black and white and dripping-blood red. This is the first 007 movie that's a sequel: the action picks up right where "Casino Royale" left off. An enraged, revenge-minded Bond is determined to get the villains who murdered Vesper.
For anyone who missed "Casino Royale" ( and even for those who saw it), this poses a problem. We don't even get a flashback glimpse of his lost love—did director Marc Forster consider it too tacky?—to remind us why Bond is so heartbroken. It's like watching a story with the first reel missing. At 105 minutes, this is the shortest Bond ever, and probably the most action-packed, starting with a furious car chase up the Italian coast. But not one of the elaborate set pieces can match that wild chase through an African construction site that got "Casino Royale" rolling—because the editing chops up the action into tiny, frenetic, almost incomprehensible "Bourne"-like pieces. Bad move.
"Quantum of Solace" isn't frivolous or cheesy, but it isn't all that much fun either. Craig is still the right guy for the job, but for his boiling-on-the-inside performance to work, he needs more to play with. He's doing a dark character study in a movie that rarely stops to catch its breath. Couldn't he have been allowed a little of the superspy's rakish charm?
Forster, known for indie fare like "Monster's Ball" and "Finding Neverland," clearly wants to infuse the franchise with contemporary significance: the corporate villains want to monopolize Bolivia's natural resources, and the movie has a savvy, cynical view of the CIA's and British intelligence's willingness to get into bed with unsavory powers. But rather than make us feel that he's given Bond 21st-century relevance, Forster has made a movie that feels like a watered-down version of other, more au courant action movies. The good news is that if you're James Bond, you don't only live twice, or even 23 times. Twenty-four just might be the magic number.