November 17, 2008

Quantum Provides No Solace for Fans

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“Bond. James Bond.” The franchise that has survived five decades of regime changes and Hollywood eras, five different lead actors and countless leading ladies and villains, has become ritualized. The series began with Sean Connery as the titular womanizing action hero, engaging in a Cold War propaganda adventure of espionage and double crossing, diabolical plans and secret organizations. As the series went on and they ran out of Ian Fleming novels to adapt, the plots became more and more formulaic. Roger Moore’s brand of foppishness and successively ridiculous gadgetry replaced Connery’s cool resolve and gentlemanly broguish touch, and then we got Timothy Dalton (yikes) and a seven-year hiatus before Pierce Brosnan exploded onto the scene.
M (Judi Dench) said it best in 1995’s GoldenEye, when she called Bond a misogynistic dinosaur. In the ’90s, despite blockbuster success, Bond seemed an anachronism.
And then, in 2006, the series underwent a complete overhaul. Now that Jason Bourne-style action heroes had become the norm, Bond’s over-the-top nature seemed uncool. Daniel Craig and Casino Royale did for Bond what Christopher Nolan did for the Caped Crusader with Batman Begins. Bond became a haunted, violent figure rooted in reality, too focused to care about his martinis being shaken and not stirred, too busy free-running up cranes to deliver wicked dialogue and too affected by love and loss to charm women. Killing without remorse. A new Bond for a new world. Daniel Craig changed Bond to fit a generation that wants superheroes to cease being fantastic. We live in a world where heroes dwell in the gray areas. And the new Bond does that.
Quantum of Solace breaks from the tradition of episodic, freestanding 007 films, picking up right where Casino Royale left off. Bond shakes off pursuers in a brutal car chase before dragging the perpetrator before M, only to find out that the perp has the upper hand, claiming to be part of an underground organization so secret that MI6 has no idea they even exist, a SPECTRE for a new generation. He then proceeds to unveil that MI6 has been infiltrated by this phantom group, and makes a daring escape as a rogue agent fires upon M and Bond.
Bond’s response is to practically go rogue, and begin hunting down the most apparent member of the organization called Quantum, a rural developer named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). The requisite Bond girl shows up, Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko, as well as a slew of CIA agents and a pretty British agent named Fields (Gemma Arterton, RocknRolla) with whom Bond falls back into his old seductive habits. The mysterious Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) returns as well.
The plot itself is almost incomprehensible. Bond travels all over the world from Italy to Bolivia, but we are never sure why. We don’t know if Greene is after oil, water or plain old power, what the Bolivian coup subplot has to do with anything, who works for whom, if Camille or Mathis are double agents or if both are. The most annoying and incomprehensible parts are the fight scenes. Casino Royale broke from Bond convention by providing realistic, clearly-filmed action scenes. Fighting the desire to obfuscate them with Cloverfield-style camera spinning was what put the film above the Bourne movies and the maddening climax scenes in Transformers. It doesn’t hurt to let the audience see the action. It’s a freaking action movie! Quantum of Solace turns its back on that, and the direction ruins everything.
Combining the stupid direction with some contrived scenes (like the one where the bad guys have to explain to each other why there are gigantic fuel cells in a hotel in the middle of the desert … for no other reason than so the audience knows where the explosions will come from) and the most boring Bond girl ever in Camille (at least Bond spares her one bit of Bond formula), Quantum of Solace nearly undoes all the progress that Casino Royale made toward turning the Bond series from a hokey Cold War cookie-cutter franchise into a compelling mythology for a new generation of viewers.
Is it a thrilling picture, with some level of realism? Sure. And Daniel Craig is certainly the best Bond since Connery, using the emotional weight of the last film to propel his character forward through this movie. Wondering if revenge and heartbreak has driven our favorite super-spy mad is the only reason to watch the movie. And sorry for spoiling, but if anyone wants to know anything about Quantum other than that it exists, wait for the next movie, set to arrive with what feels like clockwork predictability in a few years. The Bond machine turns its wheels yet again.