Friday, November 21, 2008

Quantum of Solace

The 22nd James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is an occasionally messy, occasionally bold, briskly-paced adrenaline blast of entertainment that for better or for worse gets more experimental with the underlying Bond formula than any film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service gave us romantic montages and time lapses and Bond getting married 39 years ago. The movie falls short of joining Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, Casino Royale, GoldenEye, The Spy Who Loved Me, and You Only Live Twice in the top echelon of Bond flicks, but for whatever gripes I may have it's still miles above and beyond Generic Hollywood Action Movie X.

Daniel Craig continues to embody Ian Fleming's original "blunt instrument" to a degree that no other 007 actor has. That's not to say that he has in any respect become the only 007; Sean Connery's dangerous, edgy cool is immortal and I continue to treasure even Roger Moore's eyebrow-cocking charm, but Daniel Craig is cold, brutal, and calculating while remaining defiantly charismatic in a way that truly captures what was on the page all those years ago. I'm a huge fan and look forward to seeing him in what is supposedly going to be three more movies.

I also have to give props to the nearly equally badass Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter. As with Casino Royale his part is tragically small, but if the rumors that they are scouting New York City locations for Bond 23 ring true I hope that means we can see a massively-expanded part for the CIA and by extension Felix next time. He definitely warrants it.

The movie has a very steady stream of action from the opening seconds straight through to the end, which is often thrilling if occasionally a mixed bag. The fight scenes are pretty much all really cool - Bond's fight with Mr. Slate near the film's beginning packs almost all the brutality of Bond and Red Grant's fight in From Russia With Love into about 1/6th the time - but Marc Forster isn't really a born action director and overcompensates in certain other scenes by flirting with shakeycam and cutting what seems like several times a second. This can serve to actually obstruct some really cool stuntwork and choreography, such as one otherwise cleverly-conceived scene involving pulleys, more than enhance it. The smooth cameras of Martin Campbell's action scenes in Casino Royale and GoldenEye or Jon Favreau's in Iron Man are closer to the direction I would like to see the Bond movies take.

The Bond girls fare well this time out. Olga Kurylenko's Camille is a well-sketched character who manages to get in on the action without any of the aggravating "warrior princess" shit that plagued Halle Berry's character in Die Another Day, and although Gemma Arterton's Fields isn't particularly deep she's super cute onscreen and makes what she has engaging and funny enough to make me wish she had a bigger part.

But what really makes a Bond movie is the bad guy; the very term "Bond villain" rightfully carries a half-century of weight and expectation behind it. And unfortunately this is where the movie stumbles a bit even as it shows promise for the future. Dominic Greene, a classic Bondian evil capitalist trying to corner the market on a precious resource, is well-portrayed by Mathieu Amalric with sneering, condescending flair, but the script fails to make him a threat to someone as badass as Craig's James Bond. He is never given anything memorably evil to do onscreen - there's definitely no iconic Greene moment to stand up with Goldfinger's laser threats, Max Zorin's mine massacre, or Le Chiffre's sack torture - made more frustrating by the fact that he actually commits a few potentially iconic evil acts OFFscreen.

And we need a return to great Bond villain henchmen (this gripe also applies to Casino Royale). Long gone seem the days of classic number twos like Oddjob, Jaws, and Red Grant; the last awesome Bond henchman was GoldenEye's Xenia Onatopp and that was thirteen years ago. Please, Bond producers, put ample time and effort into Bond 23's henchman.

And Greene's plot, a classic monopoly-grabbing that while certainly selfish and evil and certain to make him rich, doesn't have enough urgency to it. There's no "ticking time bomb" that Bond has to stop lest the world suffer the consequences. That's not to say everything needs to be as dramatic as nuclear war and space lasers like Bond films of the past, but Casino Royale had the threats of a terrorist attack on Miami Airport and terrorists receiving $150 million from Le Chiffre, both of which are grounded enough to be "real" but heightened enough to be "Bond." I hope Bond 23 can find an equally satisfactory balance.

Ultimately the villainy here is probably the Bond series' weakest since The Living Daylights, seven movies and twenty-one years ago, coincidentally for the same reasons - lack of onscreen evil and a relatively unthreatening ultimate plot.

However, I do think that the introduction of Quantum, a new SPECTRE-style global network of criminals and spies and assassins and terrorist financiers that has people everywhere, is brilliant. I couldn't be any happier about this development, and I think that if future Craig Bond films expand on this idea and up the stakes, Dominic Greene's plot will retrospectively play better when viewed as the launching point for something bigger, much as Bond films once considered small-scale like For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights became viewed more favorably years after their release.

As for the way the movie shifts the Bond formula, I have both praise and scorn. The way that the plot of the film unfolds, while occasionally a hint messy, is ultimately more satisfying than in the Roger Moore films of old where Bond's mission is explicitly outlined by M in nearly the opening scene; here, there is spying and improvisation on Bond's part as the various disparate pieces of the villain's plot come together. The film's sense of humor is also probably blacker than any other Bond film. Not that quips haven't been made at the expense of dead henchman before, but when the kills are as brutal as they are here these quips take on a twisted new meaning. I love black humor so I'm all for it.

There are certain alterations I protest though. I am all for dropping comic one-liners and sci-fi gadgets, and I can even make my peace with leaving behind Moneypenny and Q if the producers don't feel we need them in the rebooted series. But I do protest how little the 007 theme song is used in the movie, just a few small hints in the entire picture. I didn't mind in Casino Royale because when it exploded fully-formed over the end credits I assumed that Bond 22 would resume using it. I was unfortunately mistaken, and it's barely here. I just don't understand why; the 007 theme song is the most pulse-pounding pop instrumental of the 20th century, and imagining an aggressive version of it playing over the plane chase instantly makes the scene that much better. David Arnold remixed the theme brilliantly in Tomorrow Never Dies a decade back and I hope they let him unleash it again in the next film, because there is absolutely no reason not to.

And, if I may nerd rage for a moment, it is called the gunbarrel INTRO because it goes at the BEGINNING of the movie. Again, I liked what they did in Casino Royale by placing it at the end of the intro scene as James Bond "became" 007, and I assumed it would be back to normal here, but for some godforsaken reason they moved it to the END of film. No no no. This may be my equivalent of the Star Trek Asperger's brigade freaking out over the redesigned Enterprise, but when the dots and gunbarrel didn't open Quantum of Solace it left a sour and disquieting taste in my mouth through the entire film. You open a James Bond movie with the gunbarrel. Period. End of story. It's a half-century fucking tradition. Don't change it. Change it back the way it was for Bond 23 and never speak of this alteration again.

Speaking of: what are my hopes for Bond 23? Keep Daniel Craig as Bond the ruthless but charismatic killer, Quantum as the new SPECTRE, the black sense of humor, the quality Bond girls, the brutal fights, the grounded sensibility, the cool cars, and badass spying. Just ramp up the evil of the villain and the stakes of his plot, smooth out the cameras during the action scenes (I would be totally fine with bringing back Martin Campbell to direct), expand Felix Leiter's part, bring back the 007 theme song, and PLEASE move the gunbarrel intro back to the head where it belongs. Then we'll be in business hardcore.

3 Stars out of 5

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