Quantum of Solace (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)
"Bond. James Bond."
Once, those three words stood nape hairs on end for fans of the action/adventure genre. A lot has transpired since 1963 when Dr. No was brought to the screen, but Bond has been a great constant through all those years. One thing that has kept the series fresh has been its frequent re-invention. While the stream of actors has represented the most obvious change - Connery to Lazenby to Connery (again) to Moore to Dalton to Brosnan to Craig - there have been other, less obvious alterations. For most of Brosnan's reign, Bond was trying to go toe-to-toe with superheroes and Michael Bay-inspired plastic creations. With Brosnan's departure, the decision was made to try something a little different. Casino Royale was, therefore, a departure from what 007 had become in the '80s, '90s, and '00s. It felt new and different but it was really a return to what Bond used to be. From a personality standpoint, Craig is more like Connery than any of the actors who played the part in between. And, from an emotional standpoint, Casino Royale is a cousin to Lazenby's only outing, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Those are the only two films in which the unflappable hero fell in love. And both lead directly into a subsequent adventure in which revenge is served cold. Quantum of Solace (the unfortunate title is taken from an Ian Fleming short story, but nothing of the narrative remains) is more of a direct sequel than Diamonds are Forever was, but both films show Bond at his coldest. Deprived of love, he has become a formidable killing machine.
Quantum of Solace meets the Bond of the Moore/Dalton/Brosnan era halfway. It is not as intentionally low-key as Casino Royale, but neither is 007 the indestructible Superman he had become during Brosnan's watch. Prick him, he will bleed. But there is no Q and therefore no gadgets. This Batman has no utility belt. The only constant between the Brosnan and Craig eras is Judi Dench as M. Her presence creates headaches for continuity fetishists, but she adds just the right mix of acid and base to keep things balanced. And Jeffrey Wright is again Felix Leiter, representing only the second time in Bond history that an actor has returned to play this role. (The other: David Hedison in Live and Let Die and License to Kill.)
The plot is standard-order Bond, albeit with less heft than one usually expects. After all, the megalomaniac bad guy, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), isn't out to dominate the world - he only wants to cause a few droughts and control Bolivia's water supply. Bond gets involved because he's tracking down the people who were responsible for Vesper Lynde's death at the end of Casino Royale. Clues lead him to the sexy but dangerous Camille (Olga Kurylenko). She in turn, brings him to Greene who is, of course, happy to finally make Mr. Bond's acquaintance. Meanwhile, M is getting pressure from her superior to rein in 007… or else. This gives Judi Dench an opportunity to get out from behind her desk. She hops from country to country as easily as her subordinate, and there are about six location changes.
Sadly, there's something a little hollow about the proceedings. There's no real catharsis. In fact, the whole thing doesn't feel like a complete movie, or at least not a complete Bond movie. While there are plenty of nods to previous Bond outings (such as the Goldfinger-inspired human artwork), the missing staples leave unfilled holes. For example, there is no utterance of "Bond. James Bond." There are none of the verbal puns and one-liners we have come to relish. There's no bloody iris at the beginning (it's at the end). Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme" is relegated to subtle cues in David Arnold's largely generic score, with the "full play" occurring only over the end credits. At least one of the Bond girls has a typically outrageous name: Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) - but you have to sit through the credits to learn that; in the movie, she's simply called "Fields."
The film's biggest problem is its director. Marc Forster is an experienced art house filmmaker with impressive credits (most recently, The Kite Runner), but he is clueless when it comes to action sequences. His approach seems to be to shake the camera as much as possible and, to further obscure what's going on, to allow no cut to last more than about a half-second. Most of the action scenes, including a car chase, a boat chase, and a couple of fights, are so incoherent that it's necessary to wait until they're over to figure out who's still standing. (The plane chase is a little better, but not much.) We've seen this technique before, but never with Bond. And, to be frank, it's not something I ever want to see again in a 007 movie. Why bother with so many elaborately choreographed sequences if they're going to be ruined by the way they're shot and edited? Forster seems to have taken the phrase "shaken not stirred" too literally, applying it to every scene with a pulse.
As the film's chief nemesis, Mathieu Amalric is about as weak as one could imagine. Despite the creepy sneer, Greene is neither frightening nor intimidating. Amalric, an excellent actor, is entirely defeated by the role - although, in fairness to him, he's not aided by the writing. Model-turned-actress Olga Kurylenko (recently one of the best things in Max Payne) is a perfect Bond girl - sexy, capable, and bound to Bond by ties that have nothing to do with love. She has a forceful screen presence and meshes well with Craig. I wouldn't mind seeing her in the next installment. Giancarlo Giannini shows up again as Mathis, although his character is treated even more shabbily here than in Casino Royale, as difficult as that may be to believe.
The SPECTRE-like Quantum, an organization that has members in places no one suspects, is likely being established as an umbrella villain for future stories. Their role here is shadowy, and the way they are handled is part of the reason why the movie feels incomplete. Then again, perhaps after Casino Royale, it was too much to hope that Bond films had reached a new, higher plateau. This is the least satisfying production since The Living Daylights, and that goes back a while (and it has what may well be the worst opening song of all time, making one yearn for Madonna). But, as has always been the case with good films and bad ones, there's comfort to be found in the one thing we can rely on: James Bond will return.
Quantum of Solace (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright
Screenplay: Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer
Music: David Arnold
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures