The release of No Time to Die marks the end of Daniel Craig’s run as James Bond. (This might qualify as a spoiler for that movie, but we’re talking about a man who once said, of whether he’d like to continue playing the secret agent, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists. No, not at the moment.”) No Time to Die is absurdly long and suffers from, in this writer’s opinion, a terrible third act—what if Rami Malek’s strangely ageless villain is actually meta-plotting to tank the film?—but for the most part does what it says on the poster, wrapping up the Craig era with the requisite violence and self-regarding gravity.
The consensus among critics and fans is that the Craig Bonds before this alternated between good and bad. His debut, the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, and 2012’s Sam Mendes-directed Skyfall are widely considered to be among the best in the franchise’s nearly 60-year history. But the best of the last five Bond movies is in fact the one that was roundly panned, to the point where its convoluted title has become shorthand for blockbuster disappointment: 2008’s Marc Forster-directed Quantum of Solace.
Quantum of Solace was criticized at the time for a plot that is supposedly difficult to follow—the locations are, in order: Central Italy, London, Port-au-Prince, Bregenz, coastal Italy, La Paz, exurban Bolivia, and the Atacama Desert, followed by a coda where Bond travels to Kazan—and for action setpieces that are strangely staged and edited. The latter point is the film’s lone shortcoming. An opening car chase is inert, and the CGI in a pursuit that begins around the 10-minute mark grows so cartoonish that the sequence eventually looks like it’s been lifted from Harry Potter. It is easy to imagine the Bourne movies loomed large in production meetings; the shaky handheld photography and frenetic cutting during some of these action scenes is lazily lifted from the Paul Greengrass playbook. (It would be fair to note, however, that this element has aged only as poorly as the ‘Look! Our stunt coordinator knows parkour’ choreography from Casino Royale’s first chase.)
But the action improves as the movie progresses. The sequence where Bond pilots a damaged plane across Bolivian desert is remarkable for the way it communicates the g-force Bond has to fight against; a game of cat and mouse in speedboats off the Haitian coast is the franchise at its Platonic ideal. More important than the stunt work, though, is Quantum of Solace’s political point of view, which is the most sophisticated—and most haunting—of any Bond film, and perhaps any tentpole movie of its kind this century. The best scene in Skyfall is the one where Javier Bardem’s villain, Raoul Silva, is introduced and gives a long, metaphorical speech about intelligence agents as rats who no longer have a taste for anything but each other. Yet that movie resists confirming his belief, instead drawing clean lines of right and wrong, Country and Anarchy. (At one point Judi Dench’s M quotes Tennyson.) Quantum of Solace actually embodies Silva’s view. The boundlessly powerful politicians, spies, and industrialists are all essentially nihilists, willing to destroy anyone and anything for incremental gains of money or influence.
Though the information trickles out the way it always does in these films, the plot is essentially this: A powerful network of billionaires and aspiring billionaires, which has tentacles in private industry, government, and even MI6, plans to stage a coup in Bolivia and seize control of its water supply, selling it back to the new government at an exorbitant rate. (How’s that for a plot device that grows more sinister with age?) That network’s leader, played by Mathieu Amalric, is an environmental philanthropist, claiming the money he raises is for research and reforestation. Bond, along with an ex-Bolivian secret service agent played by Olga Kurylenko, aim to stop this scheme before the puppet government is installed.