Quantum of Solace / Ted Boynton
Film Reviews | November 14, 2008 | Comments ()
My missus has an expression she sometimes uses after seeing movies like Quantum of Solace, a sort of left-handed compliment referring more to the state of the film industry than to any specific representative of it: “Well,” she’ll say, “That was better than 90% of the shit we usually see.”
Quantum of Solace is better than 90% of the shit we usually see, yet the film leaves behind a distinct feeling of what might have been. Alternating exhilarating moments of inspiration with disappointingly derivative sequences reminiscent of a Bourne Identity knock-off, Quantum stands strongly rooted in the brazen charisma of James Bond messiah Daniel Craig but still struggles to maintain its identity separate from the cartoonish self-parodies of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras. Director Marc Forster seems to specialize in these exercises in ambivalence, with films such as Stranger Than Fiction and Finding Neverland simultaneously displaying a solid grasp of filmmaking art while never quite finding their groove to leave a lasting impression. Yet Quantum ends as a worthwhile endeavor, if for no other reason than, hey, there’s Daniel Craig in a $5,000 suit kicking much ass, real hard.
Quantum picks up immediately where Bond left off in Craig’s freshman effort, Casino Royale. Bond has just captured Mr. White, the apparent mastermind behind the organization that caused the death of Bond’s Casino Royale paramour, British Treasury agent Vesper Lynd. Opening with the de rigueur action setpiece, Quantum has Bond escaping from Mr. White’s henchmen in a kinetic chase scene through the hills of north-central Italy, culminating in a reunion at Siena with Bond’s superior, M (Judy Dench), to investigate the underpinnings of Mr. White’s organization. They quickly realize they have seen only the tip of the iceberg, one tentacle of an outlaw espionage network with disturbing power, access, and complexity.
Tasked with tracking Dominic Greene, a wealthy super-criminal and associate of Mr. White posing as an environmental activist, Bond leaps into intercontinental pursuit, literally with a vengeance, motivated by his confused rage over Vesper’s betrayal and death as much as by his duty. Bond soon encounters a fellow traveler on the road to revenge, breathtakingly gorgeous operative Camille (Olga Kurylenko), as she stalks one of Greene’s business associates to settle an old score. Among Quantum’s strengths is Kurylenko’s surprisingly strong turn as a genuine dramatic counterweight to Bond; in the trailers Kurylenko smacked strongly of achingly bad “Bond girl” acting, but she turns out a worthy successor to Eva Green as an important player on the chessboard — eye candy to be sure, but fortified with nine essential vitamins and minerals.
The supporting players range from adequate to strong, with Giancarlo Giannini standing out in reprising his role as an Italian operative who provides crucial support to Bond when British intelligence disavows its rampaging agent. Dench, excellent as usual, has quickly become nearly as essential to the New Bond as Craig and looks more every year like an icily worrisome Siamese cat, rendering her perfect as Bond’s exasperated yet maternal handler.
Alas, those hoping Quantum would continue to pyramid on the innovative changes in style and narrative brought in Casino Royale will likely be disappointed, as Quantum relies much more heavily on reprising the look and feel of the Jason Bourne series. While still a vast improvement over the schlocky likes of The World Is Not Enough, the latest entry’s bag of tricks mainly consists of bits we’ve seen before, from close quarters martial artistry heavily reminiscent of The Bourne Identity to a rooftop chase scene borrowing liberally from … well, The Bourne Ultimatum. More often than not, Quantum successfully melds the Bourne grit with the flamboyant international espionage motif of 1960s Bond entries such as Dr. No. The failures are noticeable and distracting, however, not to mention quite frustrating because skilled action directors typically avoid them.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the second film in the James Bond “reboot” is that it falls into the same visual trap as the second Bourne film: Unable to conjure more inventive action sequences, Quantum falls back on transparently gimmicky editing tricks, i.e., the jumpy camera work and frenetically choppy sequences that weak action directors mistake for “edgy.” For example, where the foot chase scene opening Casino Royale offered bold, steady tracking shots showing mesmerizing stunt work and flinch-worthy hand-to-hand combat, Quantum too often trots out the nauseating Quake-o-Vision style of The Bourne Supremacy.
The writing is also somewhat choppy and inconsistent, with occasional gaping holes in the plotting. Obviously no one expects cinéma verité from a Bond film, but Casino Royale proved that the suspension of disbelief need not be so extreme that one must accept just any nonsensical occurrence. Craig’s Bond is supposed to be the new Sean Connery, the rugged, two-fisted spy who provides extraordinary abilities in an ordinary world. To be fair, Quantum fitfully delivers on this promise, most notably in the way Bond displays the physical wounds acquired in his physical encounters. Craig spends most of the movie squinting and grimacing through lacerations and bruises on his face and arms; when he fights, he and his clothes typically end up a bloody mess, and the film is much the better for it — has anyone ever looked better for having had the hell beat out of him than Daniel Craig? Craig skulks through the movie as a lean, grim emissary of death, even in the intimate character moments — as a shirtless Bond chats with Mathis in a hotel room, his muscled torso is a map of the brutalities visited upon it both in this film and the last.
In contrast, Bond’s encounters with his targets occasionally feel overly contrived, as if someone — Haggis! — decided, apropos of nothing, “We just really need a confusingly staged boat chase right here.” Possibly more damaging, the big plot payoff showing the villains’ nefarious ends mildly undermines Quantum’s gravity, as the reveals designed to show us the depths of their depravity more strongly indicate that England sent a Bond sledge to do the work of a Barney Fife tackhammer. (**SPOILER**: I mean, really — the United States has spent the last five years destroying a country over a relatively meager oil supply; would we really allow some low-rent Aristotle Onassis wannabe to monopolize the water supply?)
In the end, however, Quantum gets it mostly right, continuing the central theme of Bond-as-blunt-instrument. I initially reacted negatively when Quantum seemed to go derivative on its own mythology, with villains so well-connected that Bond is forced, yet again, to go rogue against his own government to fight them. Bond’s decisions echo the flagrant disregard for orders and near-pathological disdain for established rules of the espionage game, just as in Casino Royale. On further reflection, I realized that Bond’s renegade nature is the part where Quantum maintains a critical continuity. The Daniel Craig iteration of Bond may not realistically portray espionage, but this depiction has the stones to grapple with the philosophical dilemma of using ultra-competent covert operatives to accomplish what legitimate diplomacy and lawful police work cannot.
Craig’s Bond is an expensive, unpredictable super-weapon, and as with a nuclear missile or a biological WMD, nasty collateral consequences nearly always occur when he is deployed. He burns through assets at an alarming rate, leaves a shocking wake of dead bodies, and kills with a near-psychopathic affect. At one point, after defeating an assassin in hand-to-hand combat on a balcony, Bond dispassionately knifes the man in a major artery and calmly holds him down while he bleeds out, all the while peering over the railing, expressionless, to ensure that no one has seen him. Quantum may not be the reality of government espionage, but its ruthless examination of the type of person required to do it provides the critical foundation that has rendered Bond relevant again. It’s an enjoyable film that is true enough to the new Bond spirit to give hope for more meaningful entries in the future.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.