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.


Marc Raymond said...

Yeah, I thought it was pretty decent as well, but then again I'm the opposite of the normal audience for a Bond film or for an action film. The first half hour left me unimpressed (too many action scenes strung together), but I enjoyed the last hour and appreciated that it was, relative for contemporary Hollywood, rather tight. Craig is excellent once again. That said, I watched CASINO ROYALE again recently and it is a much better film. Still, this one is better than most critics gave it credit for.

Ed Howard said...

I haven't seen Casino Royale since it was in the theaters, but it's my impression that you're right, it was a better film, even if it wasn't quite as tight and compact. I'm pleasantly surprised that I liked this new one so much, since the critical consensus on it is fairly negative. I'm not sure what people were expecting out of a Bond film, but it delivered all the slick, stylishly made entertainment I could ask for.

Craig said...

A solid defense of a movie of which I'd hoped to agree with the better-than-everyone-says meme started by Simon Crowe, Dennis Cozzalio, et al. Here's my problem with Quantum of Solace: although, as Crowe perceptively noted, it is the first true sequel in the Bond franchise, in the sense that it's a direct extension of a preceding story, it doesn't build on that story in a meaningful (or coherent) manner. Casino Royale was more than a good Bond movie or even a reboot; it's a near-perfect "origins" tale, and I loved how Martin Campbell (who had previously helmed the best Brosnan Bond, GoldenEye, parsed out the familiar icons of the series -- the gun barrel opener, the villain with a physical deformity, the sumptuous locales, the Bond Girls, the theme, the tux -- as totems to ease us into a scenario that was stunningly fresh and surprisingly emotional. In the final scene (and his closing line of dialogue), Daniel Craig completely becomes Bond; why then does Marc Forster scrap all that? Why such ugliness in his film's character, action and setting? I like the idea of a grieving Bond working out an inner conflict of vengeance vs. justice: to paraphrase what James Wolcott wrote about Mad Men, Forster has his coordinates all mapped out, but what's missing is a sense of dramatic urgency, as well as those totems that are the source of so much pleasure. (Incidentally, I think Wolcott is wrong about Mad Men, but his observation is better-suited here.) This Bond is an unfortunate regression.

Jason Bellamy said...

What was I expecting? I was expecting a Bond film. This isn't one. I don't even think this brooding Bond has all that much in common with the Bond of "Casino Royale."

As for the early action scene, man, your pupils must work faster than mine. I couldn't follow a thing. And so as I said about the film in general in my own review: what's the point?

I quite enjoyed but didn't love "Casino Royale." I had no major expectations of this film. Only that I wanted it to feel in some way Bondian, and this doesn't to me.

Also: Maybe other folks remember "Casino Royale" better than I do, but I think "Quantum" believes that some of the supporting characters left a lasting impression. They didn't. Not for me, I mean. For example: I remembered that Jeffrey Wright was in the first film, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you anything significant about his character. And I was disappointed in the pedestrian nature of the Bond villain. I'm okay with campy, just give me something to sink my teeth into.

In the end, I felt all the allusions to "Casino Royale" backfired. As Craig implies, this movie doesn't move forward. It made me wish I was watching the previous movie instead.

Ed Howard said...

Craig: You have some interesting comments about the way the traditional "totems" of the Bond franchise work in these two movies. I think you're right that in Casino Royale, these markers of Bond history were used to ease people into new territory and a new take on the character. Quantum of Solace seems to assume that, that work having been done already in the first movie, those markers can be more oblique and more widely spaced, and that people will be invested in this version of Bond nonetheless. I certainly was. There are still totems of Bond history here -- Ms. Fields, whose full name is never stated in the film but who provides a Bond girl in-joke for those who check out the credits; her death, which points back to Goldfinger and other creatively engineered deaths by Bond villains; the tux, which is used first traditionally and then subversively in the scene where the rumpled, dusty Bond and Camille return from the desert in full dinner dress.

I also think that Bond's transformation into Bond was not necessarily complete with Casino Royale, and that this film is a transitional work that completes the process: in some sense it represents him dealing with his grief and his desire for vengeance, and by the end putting them behind to some extent, symbolized by Vesper's discarded necklace, the film's final image. I would imagine that the third Craig film will present Bond as still brooding, still somewhat dark, but having passed over the pit of darkness represented by this film. If this film is a bit of a stasis compared to the sweeping action and epic, twisty plot of Casino Royale, I think it's a necessary stasis because its essential journey is emotional rather than geographic. I wouldn't want or expect every Bond film to be like this, but I like that they allowed this kind of quiet (and, to me anyway, satisfying) lull to dwell on Bond's reaction to Vesper's death and betrayal at length.

Ed Howard said...

Jason: I addressed some of what you say in response to Craig, so I just have a few comments. As I said, I loved the rooftop chase scene, despite the similarities to Bourne. I thought it was crisp and very precise, one of the best examples of that Bourne-style editing being used well; maybe I've just gotten used to the style by now, but I never seem to find it as confounding as some people do.

Also, I'm not sure the film expects anyone to remember specifics of minor characters from the first film. I haven't seen Casino Royale since it was in theaters, and have no memory of what Jeffrey Wright's character did in that film. I picked up everything I needed to know about him pretty quickly: he's a conscientious CIA agent who respects Bond and doesn't like his agency's shady dealings with Greene. Quantum of Solace definitely expects an audience that knows the general plot of its predecessor, and I imagine anyone who hadn't seen Casino Royale would be hopelessly lost at times, but I can't imagine that you'd need to know more than Vesper betrayed Bond and then essentially committed suicide, and that Bond then captured an agent from the shadow organization she was working for.

Anyway, other than that, no sense arguing taste. I thought it was a fun action movie that built off its predecessor in emotionally interesting ways. Not quite as good as Casino Royale, but then it's not as bloated and overlong either.

Shubhajit said...

Ed, thanks for the really wonderful review. My personal impression of the movie wasn't positive. But, having read your review and you layered assessment of the movie has managed in reversing some of the negative opinions of mine - only a exceedingly well written review can boast of that kind of convincing power since ordinarily I don't get swayed from my standpoint very easily. Moreover, seldom does a popular/mainstream review manage eliciting such a detailed analysis; I guess the makers of the Bond movie must be feeling proud if they have managed to see your review.

Though a majority of people have overwhelmingly stated that they prefer the charismatic, smooth-talking, chauvinistic Bond we've always known - the one with a fetish for fast cars and faster women, I did develop an admiration for the makers' attempts to present a more real and human spy with complex layers, shades and undertones. At the end of the day, an unglamourized spy thriller with well-etched characterizations manages to provide more satisfaction though a no-brainer 'cool' movie might sell more popcorns. So anyway, in that regard, the last two Bond movies are steps in the right direction. Moreover, Daniel Craig, with his tough son-of-a-gun looks yet a very complex interior, has been doing a terrific image makeover for Bond, as you discussed here. But somehow I felt, the director lacked the will to stay clear of certain eye-catching elements and make a truly great soy movie. Whether this was due to director's lack of conviction/vision or due to the producer's demand to conform to Hollywood machine (at least to some extent so that ticket sales do not drop), I couldn't figure out. So even though I loved the template, I left the theatre slightly disappointed. Or perhaps the real reason lay somewhere else altogether - my inability to digest a Bond easy to identify but difficult to be in awe of. After all Bond movies are part of collective conscience of pop culture.

So, for these reasons, I guess I must thank you for your having liked the movie in the first place!

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