Responding to the bloat of films like Die Another Day, 2006's Casino Royale pared the James Bond film franchise down to its base elements. Then it just kept paring until much of the mythos established by the 20 Bond movies before it had been discarded as well, leaving only a thrillingly straightforward adventure movie of blunt violence, high stakes, and human casualties. The film found the ideal back-to-basics leading man in Daniel Craig, who played Bond as a man more brutal than dashing and more prone to brood than smirk.
The problem with bucking formula is that you can only do it once before the new order itself becomes a formula. Reprising every element that made Casino interesting—particularly a tone set by its star's unsmiling face—Quantum Of Solace lacks the shock of the new. It also has trouble sustaining the appeal of the old. The action sequences vary wildly in quality, from a thrilling opening in Siena, Italy to a muddled confrontation staged against an avant-garde production of Tosca to a finale that's somewhere between, and which lasts several quantums of forever.
Yet it still feels like the right Bond for the time. Picking up shortly after Casino Royale, Quantum quickly establishes that Bond and M (Judi Dench, excellent again) play for global stakes against subterranean players. Suggesting that the new series will have a greater commitment to overarching story than in the past, the film spins elements from Royale into a convoluted plot that takes Craig's Bond from Europe to Haiti to Mexico in pursuit of a villain (Mathieu Amalric) posing as an eco-friendly entrepreneur. Olga Kurylenko plays a sidekick who only barely qualifies as a love interest, in part because her focus on revenge is almost as single-minded as Bond's.
Director Marc Forster, better known for dramas like Monster's Ball and Stranger Than Fiction than for action movies, keeps things focused and moving forward. The film feels, to use a phrase one character applies to Bond, "horribly efficient": It's dark and exciting, but with little breathing room. Where Casino went the Batman Begins route, figuring out what makes an iconic 20th-century character work and retrofitting him for 21st-century relevance, Forster fails to make Bond's Dark Knight by deepening the themes and expanding the scale. Instead, Quantum is content merely to be the second episode in what's shaping up to be a viable series, good enough but disappointing for those expecting greatness.