Two films in, and Daniel Craig's rookie 007 is racking 'em up nicely: African arms dealers, international terrorists, high-roller lowlifes, gangster bankers...
But, with his girlfriend forced into suicide by the murky QUANTUM crime syndicate, can he outfox the hunters and still secretly serve Her Majesty through a tear-streaked sheen of melacholy flashbacks?
Perhaps fearing a lovestruck Bond playing as a bit of a moper, and mindful of producer Barbara Broccoli's promise of "twice as much action", director Marc Forster has cranked the action up to 11 - and in some cases, 12.
The lights have barely dimmed before we're hurled straight into Bond threading the Aston along a dusty mountain road, scattering pursuers with machine-gun fire, screeching and swerving around oncoming tractors, skidding motorcyclists, fist-shaking locals...
Then it's Bond in a crowd-chase, Bond in a speedboat, Bond in a sewer pursuit (underneath a horserace)... Bond leaping over rooftops (like in Hulk), Bond on a motorbike, vaulting onto a boat... Bond in a dogfight, Bond in a fist-fight (in a lift, handcuffed, nailing a quadruple-captor takedown).
Best is a Bond-vs-baddie clash on collapsing scaffolding which ends with both men jangling and dangling on chains, straining for their dropped weapons...
But, since most of this is frontloaded into the first hour, the pace is fidgety and unsettled, with finger-drumming patches of muddled, talky, plot-exposition functioning as downtime while the stunt-guys set up the next sequence.
With an over-caffeinated, Greengrass-lite, handheld style and a twitchy finger on the Big Explosion button, Forster has delivered a 24-nodding, Bourne-winking action flick which happens to have James Bond as the main character. And that isn't really the same thing as a Bond movie. With 007, the pleasure is in the measure. This is shaken, stirred, whisked and centrifuged. Even Craig looks dizzy.
But Forster at least has the chops to add a sprinkle of artsy spice into the formula, most notably with a spectacular set-piece at the Bregenz opera-house: Bond in feral frenzy, gunning his way out of a restaurant, slaying a mini-army of goons, intercut with the contrasting clinical theatrics of an on-stage death-scene.
Craig and Dench are the twin pillars of class. As M herself remarked, Casino Royale's fledgeling agent was a bluff “blunt instrument”. Here, he's sharper, more angular: a tumbling knife of ire and intent. All the same gristle and bristle, but now glinting with inner steel.
An inevitable torso-shot embodies the progression: wirier, wilier, easy on the beef... And, given his reported creative input, Craig is clearly having fun dialling up Bond's rage-blinded brutality: ruinous low-blows, eye-bursting elbow-smashes... "There's something horribly efficient about him...” (M again). Indeed... As seen in the scene where he calmly waits for a battered henchman's pulse to stop before moving off. Brr.
Dench - chilly, watchful, maternal - glides on by, straining to shorten her mad dog's leash but always packing a quantum of menace. Never before has a woman applied face-cream with such homicidal propulsion.
Shame they're both forced to hump along such a ragged train of supporting characters. Bond Girl 1 Olga Kurylenko is stunning but stiff, with a limp back-story. Bond Girl 2 Gemma Arterton has little to do but play it plummy ("Oh my gosh!") and service a cute Goldfinger riff.
Bond Baddie - the awkwardly mortgage adviser-named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) is just a diplomat with a good tailor; more shifty and shrewd than proper-evil. He's like a stern defensive midfielder: solid, unspectacular, holding the centre, protecting the plot, feeding the major players, neither straying from his mark nor stirring the blood.
"We have begun destabilising the government!" he winks to a clique of lackeys. Blofeld would have dumped him straight down the pirahna-chute.
So perhaps this is work-in-progress more than end product, with the producers cooking up a colder revenge-dish, tracing a more protracted story arc for their rebooted Bond's rooting-out of the QUANTUM ringmasters.
But if they're serious about mining deeper psychological channels, exposing the grief-tainted mechanics whirring inside the mind of a killing machine, they need a director who can do both action /and/ artistry. Someone with a stark, stirring rep for taking a thespy actor and burrowing to the dark heart of a flawed hero. Paging Chris Nolan...
Mystifying title, accident-prone production, awkward end-product... This is 007 in mid-story crisis; a festival of blaring action set-pieces propping up a scrappy script and undercooked characters. From blond Bond to bland Bond.