Saturday, November 29, 2008
Quantum of Solace
Quantum of Solace is Daniel Craig's second picture in the role of James Bond, continuing his reinvention of the suave British superspy as a brooding tough guy with cold-steel eyes. The film picks up in the immediate aftermath of the previous Bond film, 2006's Casino Royale, marking the first time that this kind of direct continuity shows up in the usually self-contained Bond universe. It is one of many departures that these new films represent for the franchise. The films are darker, more bluntly violent and less light-hearted, with chopped-up, frantic action scenes inspired by the fast cutting of the Jason Bourne movies, which for better or worse seem to be the new template for modern action flicks. And in the aftermath of Casino Royale's climax, Bond is devastated and driven by a thirst for revenge, having lost Vesper, the woman he loved, soon after finding out that she had betrayed him for a shadowy international espionage organization. This is a very different Bond from the wisecracking, smooth-talking, martini-sipping gentleman of the classic franchise: when this Bond enjoys his signature drink, he gulps it rather than sips it, and he does it to get drunk.
There is, inarguably, something missing in this new Bond; there's a reason he's such an enduring, iconic figure, and his playfulness was always a big part of that, along with the often campy situations and outrageous villains he was pitted against. The new Bond risks becoming unrecognizable by jettisoning so much of his past and refashioning his image so drastically. The new film makes fewer nods than ever to the Bond of the past: he still drives a flashy car in a high-speed chase, and he still looks dashing in a tux, but there are no gadgets, no tongue-in-cheek quips unless you count Craig's deadpan announcement that an agent he was tracking was "a dead end," a code for "I killed him" that even his handler M (Judi Dench) recognizes. He never gives his trademark introduction ("Bond. James Bond.") in this film, nor does he ask for a martini "shaken not stirred," and the typical sequence where the agent walks into the sight of a gun barrel, then turns and fires, doesn't appear until the very end of the film instead of preceding the opening credits. One could go on for quite some time enumerating the ways in which Craig's Bond departs from tradition.
Still, even if the classic Bond is somewhat mourned, this new Bond is interesting and enjoyable in his own right, and Quantum of Solace is a surprisingly satisfying sequel that both ties up loose ends from the previous film and sets up the groundwork for the new Bond status quo. The film opens with Bond continuing to track the secret organization that took Vesper from him, partially for revenge and partially because MI6 is equally interested in their doings. His search leads him to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a sinister businessman who's setting up a military coup in Bolivia in order to gain control of the country's water supply for himself. Bond also finds himself tangled up with the mysterious Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a girl who's using Greene as part of her own quest for vengeance against a deposed dictator (Joaquin Cosio) who murdered her family when she was a young girl. As Greene realizes, she is like Bond in many ways: they are both "damaged goods," both killers trying to put the ghosts of their pasts to rest.
They are also both perfectly willing to use sex for their own ends, and this is perhaps the first Bond film to explicitly question the ethics of 007's trademark seductiveness. Camille admits she slept with Greene in order to get close to him, and asks Bond if he judges her for this. He gives a wry smile one of the only times he shows any hint of mirth in this film and it's obvious that he realizes he habitually does the same thing. Indeed, he does the same thing even in this film, to British secret agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), who's memorably introduced wearing a trenchcoat and seemingly nothing else underneath; one expects her to launch into a stripper routine at any moment. Bond seduces her from her purpose of reining him in, and her association with him gets her killed in a way that recalls the old inventiveness of Bond villains who would strap the agent to a laser or suspend him over a shark tank. It's an oblique nod to the franchise's past, very welcome in a film that otherwise makes few acknowledgments of this past, but Fields' death has a very specific purpose, to point out the amorality of Bond's treatment of women. Bond's charm and ease with the ladies is one of the few facets of his persona that is retained in these new 007 films, and even this aspect of his legend gets interrogated and cast in a new light.
The reinvention of Bond's personality, imbuing him with a complex personality and a dark past, is the most obvious change in the 007 reboot, but the hyperactive action scenes, using the Bourne series as the model, are equally important to changing the franchise's character. Director Marc Forster came to the film with no background in action of this sort, quite unlike Casino Royale director Martin Campbell, an old hand who had even helmed a Bond film (Goldeneye) before. Forster's handling of the action scenes is inconsistent as a result, sometimes resulting in the muddled incoherence that the worst Bourne-style editing is often accused of, but at other times turning out some crisp, satisfying thrills. The whole opening stretch of the film is a fantastic example of the latter, with a viscerally exciting car chase as Bond escapes while bringing in the shadowy Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who he captured at the end of the previous film. This sequence leads into a beautifully executed building-to-building chase that pays direct homage to the rooftop chase sequence from The Bourne Ultimatum. The editing is fast and frenetic, the action chopped up into bite-sized pieces, but it's always clear exactly what's happening at every moment. There's a precise geometry and economy to this sequence, a sense that the architecture and geography of the chase and fight is perfectly calibrated and choreographed. Bond's final dispatch of a would-be assassin is well-earned, resulting from the flawless timing of every element in the scene: a rope and pulley system, a pair of guns, a multi-level building under construction.
Forster surprises by pulling this scene off so well, avoiding the trap of too many tight close-ups and the confusion between the protagonist and his adversary that has plagued other Bourne imitators. Forster has a good eye for chopping up and condensing these scenes without losing sight of the whole, which is perhaps why he shows a predilection for including periodic overhead shots, bird's eye inserts that step above the fray and take in the entirety of the geography. Even so, several scenes in the latter half of the film don't have quite the same clarity and coherence. He does a nice job with Bond's clever scheme to listen in on Greene's plans when the businessman meets his partners in plain sight at an opera house, but the subsequent firefight is sloppily handled. Forster cross-cuts back and forth between the battle and the action of the opera, which takes place on a bizarre set with a tremendous eyeball that opens up to reveal what looks to be a chorus of Catholic bishops inside. The surreality of the opera's staging is a nice touch, but the clarity of the action is sacrificed as a result. The film's explosive climax, at a rapidly burning hotel in the middle of the desert, is equally incoherent at times it's not always clear why Bond seems to be running along the hotel's rooftop at one moment and through its corridors the next, or even what's causing all those explosions in the first place. And unless my theater managed to cut out something from Bond's final encounter with Greene in the middle of the desert, there seems to be a big chunk of action or dialogue or even a convincing transition in there somewhere.
Despite the sometimes shaky action sequences, Quantum of Solace is a strangely satisfying second installment in the new adventures of James Bond, one that definitively establishes Craig's version of the character. By the end of the film, he has completed his transition from fun-loving ladies' man to complicated killer, and he has achieved some closure if not quite vengeance. The film isn't perfect, but it's exciting and has more than enough visceral thrills to make up for any weak stretches. It's a post-Bourne action movie that in many respects is even better than any of the Bourne films, perhaps because its hero is so ingrained in the popular consciousness and thus more moving in his new, emotionally wounded incarnation.