When James Bond first hit the screen he was a cold killer under a suave veneer. The balance is perfect in Dr No, and swings a little to the veneer side in From Russia With Love, before finally starting to stiffen and solidify into all-veneer all-the-time from Goldfinger on, reaching a mummified climax in the Roger Moore years, when the double-0 became a license to utter glib puns after being replaced with a stunt double. The first attempt at a return to the roots was when Timothy Dalton brought a Healthcliffian darkness to the role, but after three* films he was even less memorable than George Lazenby in the public’s eyes (though not in mine). Dalton’s darkness was picked up by Pierce Brosnan in his tenure, but by Brosnan’s last Bond film the veneer had reasserted itself with invisible cars, iceberg surfing, and a tossup for worst Bond moment ever between Madonna’s cameo and Madonna’s title song. Both of which make you yearn for that moment in Dr No when Connery, cigarette drooling from his lower lip, casually informs an attempted assassin that he's out of bullets with the immortal line "You've had your six," before shooting him in the heart the way another man would flick ash from a Parliament.
That's the spirit in which Daniel Craig currently embodies The Icon That Connery Built, first in Casino Royale and now in Quantum of Solace. Craig, who looks like the bastard child of Sting and Victor McLaglen, has about as much veneer as a ball peen hammer. He bulls his way through everything, but he's also a bull with a brain -- you can see him thinking as he's chasing that freaky runner in Casino Royale, figuring angles and approaches. And there are moments in each movie where you can see him becoming the Bond we know, the know-it-all babe-bedder with a bullet and a wisecrack for every occasion. But he's not that Bond, at least not yet; which is why, I think, this movie has gotten such a lukewarm reception from the film critics.
It seems to me that the same reviewers who cried "Wow -- we're watching Bond become Bond!" when Casino Royale came out are now whining "Where's the Brosnan panache? Where's the arcane knowledge of Andalusian wines? Where's the meaningless sex? Cripes, he doesn't even tongue kiss the female lead!" In other words, they're tired of the origin story already; they want to fast forward to the golden years --or in this case, flashback to Goldeneye. Don't show us Prince Hal learning the ropes; skip right to the part where he's the King.
What they all seem to have missed is that this movie, even more than Craig's first one, is setting up a group called Quantum as a SPECTRE/SMERSH for the 21st Century, a group that destabilizes governments, has a finger in every illegal and political pie, and whose line agents can be anyone, no matter how trusted. And the mysterious Mr White (the guy who got shot at the end of Royale) looks to be its Blofeld. There's a key scene in Solace where Bond forces his enemies to break cover and reveal themselves -- all but Mr White, who keeps his cool (and his seat) like the mastermind and survivor he presumably is. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to find him stroking a white cat in the next flick.
As for Bond 22, as it was known in pre-production? It's fast, dark and dirty, with very little to laugh at. The action scenes are little too Bourne-blurry. There's no climactic release or revenge scene -- a major death occurs offscreen, two key conversations are only referred to after the fact -- but there's also no gratuitious silliness. Solace advances and deepens everything we thought we knew in Royale, upping the stakes as it ties up some loose ends, unfurls a few more to be tied up in the next movie, and totally isolates Bond and M (and Felix Leiter) as the only trustworthy souls in a world corrupted by accomodation and evil. In other words, it's The Two Towers. The character of Bond is still in mid-journey. He doesn't even know where Mordor is, never mind who's sitting on the Dark Throne. (I say nine men at a round table, the Nine Unknown who secretly rule the world.) But he'll smash his way through Middle-Earth until he finds it.
There's also a timely political subtext to the film. Craig's Bond is a thuggish blunt instrument who may dress like the tony rich but would never be mistaken for one of them any more than he would consider respecting any of them. You don't find the villains in dark alleys in this film -- you find them at the opera house, hiding amongst their own. They're the real rulers of the world and therefore the real reason why the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And Bond doesn't so much have a license to kill as a license to go rogue in order to get the job done. The system is broken, and the only person who can fix it is someone who's working from the outside, not the inside. Anybody inside is potentially corrupt. Can the rogue agent do it? Can he beat the bad guys? Repeat after me: Yes he can.
So what can we hope for in Bond 23? I can think of 6 things:
1. The producers ignore the critics and go right on doing what they've been doing, rebuilding the character and the franchise from the ground up.
2. No Moneypenny or Q. Has anybody missed them these last two movies? I know I haven't.
3. A better opening song. If the franchise lasts another 46 years, I will give you any odds you like that this movie's title song, "Another Way To Die," will still be the shittiest Bond song ever written. Madonna is now totally off the hook for "Die Another Day," and should pay Jack White accordingly.
4. Quantum becomes to MI6 what Thrush was to UNCLE, which means that
5. Craig's Bond has to go up against his opposite number on the other side, an agent just as clever and ruthless as he is (think Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love). Which would make a fitting climax to not just a movie but a trilogy which would logically end in
6. The return of the king. *See comment below--this should be two, not three.