Quantum of Solace(11/14/2008)

                I’ve been a huge fan of the James Bond franchise for at least a decade, and my fanatical love for the series will probably show itself in this review.  Bond is one of the few things that I can be a little fanboyish about, but don’t worry, you probably won’t see this side of me again until Watchmen comes out.  The coming of a new Bond movie is always something I look forward to with excitement, but I’ve had a bad feeling about this one for a while.  The main concern I had about the project was the decision to hire Marc Forster to direct.  Forster is one of my least favorite directors working today, his films tend to get bogged down in whimsy and he’s the biggest Academy Award panderer this side of Edward Zwick.  The guy is basically a poor man’s Ron Howard, who in turn is a poor man’s Robert Zemeckis, who is himself a poor man’s Steven Spielberg.

            Another cause for alarm was that this would be a direct sequel to Casino Royale, which is an unprecedented move for the series.  There was a little bit of continuity in some of the early Bond films, mainly revolving around the villain Blofeld, but for the most part they remained self contained stories.  What’s more, I had a lot of mixed feeling about Casino Royale to begin with.  I was all for making Bond a darker character, and I liked what Daniel Craig did with the role, but I was not at all enthusiastic about the notion of “rebooting” the whole series and making Bond a young agent who just now achieved his 00 status.   It turns out; all of my concerns were completely valid.  The newest Bond film, Quantum of Solace, is a mess.

            The film picks up moments after Casino Royale’s coda.  Bond has the man he captured at the end of that film in the trunk of his car, and he’s headed for a safe house.  An ensuing car chase acts as the film’s underwhelming pre-credit sequence.  The title sequence is not too bad, it has a nice desert theme and the song is all right.  Soon thereafter, it’s revealed that the man Bond had captured was part of a SPECTRE-like evil organization called Quantum.  Bond’s mission is to investigate this organization.  His investigation will lead him to Haiti and Bolivia, where he will track down another of Quantum’s operatives named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who is working with the CIA on a mysterious evil deed.

            Few, if any, of the Bond movies are truly great; in fact they are only great insomuch as they are part of a greater whole.  Every Bond movie is part of a forty year cinematic tradition, and that’s why we’re still interested in these otherwise kind of marginal action movies.  Casino Royale, striped away a whole lot of what we go to Bond movies to see, but it got away with it because of some clever screenwriting.  Most of the missing elements were addressed in that film, but in self aware ways, for example: Bond never ordered a martini “shaken not stirred” in the film, but he did order a number of other drinks that got closer and closer to the famous drink.  In other words, he got closer and closer to being the Bond we all know and love by the end of the film, and by the end he was pretty much the Bond we all know and love.  It was a very self contained character arc, one that was finished.

            Quantum of Solace would have been an excellent opportunity to simply take this fully formed Bond and put him into a traditionally structured James Bond adventure, but the writers are under the mistaken impression that Casino Royale didn’t already finish his origin arc.  The film plays out like the second half of Casino Royale, which is straight up revisionist history.  Casino Royale was based on a self contained Ian Fleming novel which more or less ended exactly where the film ended. 

            The story here is simply a mess. Casino Royale benefited immensely from the fact nit was based on that aforementioned Ian Fleming novel.  It helped ground the movie and kept it down to earth; it’s an element in that film’s success which is frequently overlooked.  Quantum of Solace is not based on a novel by Ian Fleming, or anyone else.  It’s based on a half-assed story the writing team probably though up in a week and never refined.  The film’s plot is very hard to follow, which would be all right if this were some kind of elaborate yarn, but it isn’t.  In fact, if the story were told properly it would be rather simple, that’s the film’s worst sin; it’s confusing rather than complicated and the root cause of this is poor storytelling.  This is the same problem that sunk the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, and it may be for the same reason: they’re trying to make up a direct sequel to a movie that wasn’t really planned out as a multi-part story but which did have a cliff hanger of sorts.

            An unwelcome addition to the film’s storyline is a political subplot about the CIA playing along with the villains in order to secure Bolivian oil.  The intelligence community working with unsavory elements is probably an unfortunate reality in the world, but there’s really no place for this material in a James Bond movie.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with political statements in film when it’s appropriate, if this were something like Syriana or The Constant Gardener it wouldn’t be a problem.  The thing is: this isn’t Syriana, in fact it isn’t even Body of Lies, it’s a James Bond movie.  The setting for this movie doesn’t even begin to resemble the real world, there’s a SPECRE like organization behind everything and there are action scenes so unrealistic it would make Arnold Schwarzenegger blush.  No one is going to take the politics in a movie like this seriously and most of the arguments don’t really stand up to scrutiny anyway, the politics frankly just seems like a distraction to hide the film’s ongoing story problems.

            I maybe could have let the story telling off the hook if I thought the action sequences really delivered, but they don’t.  Many have complained about the film’s use of a Greengrass-esque camera and editing style.  I’m usually a defender of this style of filmmaking, but in this case they’re right.  The thing about the “shaky cam” is, one has to know when it is appropriate to use the technique and when it isn’t.  In the case of the Bourne series it is appropriate because those are movies about a man who’s constantly confused about his situation, he has no memory and very little control of what’s going on around him.  James Bond may have the same initials as Bourne, but as spies they couldn’t be more different.  Bond is never confused about his situation, in fact his complete control over everything that goes on around him is a big part of what makes him Bond.  As such the “shaky cam” is completely inappropriate.  What’s more the technique  really needs to be done just right or it won’t work at all, in the hands of someone who’s honed the style like Paul Greengrass it can work perfectly, but in the hands of someone like Marc Forster, who’s never made an action movie before, it will fall flat.  The style here has been blatantly ripped off from the Bourne franchise, it feels like a derivative imitation of the real thing.

            I would have been more forgiving of the style if the scenes themselves had been a little more inspired, unfortunately, even without the ripped off style most of these scenes were fairly cookie cutter.  There’s a pretty standard car chase, a middling boat chase, a particularly bad airplane scene.  The final action scene is helped by the fact that it’s at least an interesting location that they are exploding, aside from that the only creative action scene is a foot chase early on which ends with some interesting rope acrobatics, but the aforementioned editing style is particularly badly done in that scene.

            I might, just might, have been a little more forgiving of all that if the film had only stuck to the traditions of the James Bond franchise.  I can forgive a whole lot in this series if only because they are continuing a film tradition.  When Casino Royale ignored a lot of the traditions it opened it up to a much higher standard then the rest of the films in the series, but it delivered the quality required by this new standard.  Quantum of Solace doesn’t.  The film is a mess, it’s a poor film in its own rights and to make matters worse it pisses on a film tradition that is important to millions of fans. 

            So, what do I want out of the next Bond film?  Well, what the producers need to do is make sure they only make changes to the formula that need to be changed rather then change things just for the sake of change.  To steal a phrase from Barrack Obama, they need to examine the series with a scalpel rather than a hatchet.  For example, they were right to de-emphasize gadgets, they were becoming ridiculous and were often used as a crutch by the writers, but did they need to eliminate Q division altogether?  I don’t think so.  What was the point of moving the gun barrel from the beginning to the end?  There was no reason, they just pissed off bond fans for no reason with that move.  It was right to go for a darker, more down to earth James Bond, that doesn’t mean turning him into a moody robot.  Bond is a character who’s really a brawler but who wears a suit and a smirk in order to infiltrate classy locations. Also don’t assume Daniel Craig can make gold out of bad material, if you don’t give him meaty scripts he’s not going to be all that different from Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton.  I put up with this rebooting silliness when it delivered Casino Royale, but this garbage will not do. I want James Bond back, the real James Bond, not this impostor.

*1/2 out of four

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