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Fleming divided his supervillains into two categories: the bon vivant industrialists whose good cheer hid wicked intentions, and the sneering, solitary madmen plotting universal suffering like a sick nerd in his basement. They were alike though in being chatty brainiac-megalomaniacs whose compulsion to explain exactly how they were going to kill Bond (and take over the world) gave him enough time to kill them. Although the novels and the early Bond movies took place during the Cold War, their villains were rarely Soviet operatives; they were closer to those freelance fruitcakes of pulp fantasy fiction, Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless. Issuing dreadful warnings, plotting mass destruction from remote redoubts and sending their thugs to do the dirty work, the Scaramangas and Ernst Stavro Blofelds of Bond fiction could have been the secular antecedents of Osama bin Laden.
That kind of bad guy is no joke these days, so screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade pick their Quantum villain from Column A. Greene is a zillionaire tycoon who uses environmental philanthropy to mask his plan to divert water from the peasants of South America. (Bolivia is the new Chinatown.) Amalric, the French actor often seen in harried, sympathetic roles like the paralyzed writer in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is effectively reptilian here, his whispers tinged with menace, his smile hinting at sadism.
We cotton to his motives early on, when he passes Camille, a former plaything, over to Bolivian strongman General Medrano (Joaquín Cosio). Turns out Camille, like Bond, has a score to settle: she has lost her mother and daughter to Medrano's depredations. This time, for both of them, it's personal; hero and heroine percolate silently, sulfurously, with vengeance scenarios that may somehow intersect. Kurylenko, a lovely Russian-Ukrainian hybrid who is oddly duskied up to look vaguely Latina, does an exemplary job raising the movie's temperature and luring Bond out of his shell.
That's tough work, since Craig, appealingly sturdy in Casino, is near mute here: a cyber- or cipher-Bond with a loyalty chip implanted in a mechanism that's built for murderous ingenuity. "If you could avoid killing every possible lead," M tells him, "it would be deeply appreciated." As played by Dench with a nice mix of the brusque and the maternal, M must be more than Bond's superior; she is his enabler, protector and shrink. Yet Craig's Bond isn't given to soul-searching. He's a brute acting on instinct: Rambo of Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Well, an action figure, real or plastic, is just what this brisk exercise (the shortest Bond film ever) needs. Director Marc Forster--whose résumé includes a lot of gimmicky art-house fare, from Finding Neverland to The Kite Runner--does much better when he has no moral in tow; he can concentrate on shepherding the second-unit stunt work and setting a tempo of nearly nonstop suspense. What's lost in reverberations from the series' blithe old movies is gained in daredevil vigor.
So don't sit shivah over that anachronistic 007. Just enjoy a pulverizing action-adventure film whose hero happens to be named Jason Bourne--sorry, James Bond.