17 November 2008

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace

I was not a James Bond fan until Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale (2006). Before then, a slavish devotion to formula ruled the series above all else. Even more bothersome was the self-referential tone that marked much of the Pierce Brosnan era.

By the time the franchise turned to Craig, a previously little-known, stage-trained actor who had appeared mostly in small, independent films, two important things had occurred in the film world:

1. The Bourne series (The Bourne Identity, 2002, and The Bourne Supremacy, 2004, were released prior to Casino Royale) redefined the spy genre with a grittiness, intensity and relevance the Bond movies could not hope to match with their established milieu.

2. Batman Begins (2005) proved it was possible to give a longstanding, beloved character a makeover, take him back to his roots with a new focus on character and psychological drama.

Casino Royale, featuring Craig as a young 007 more than a little rough around the edges after first earning his license to kill, became the most successful Bond film to date, grossing nearly $600 million worldwide and earning almost universal praise. Not bad for the 21st entry in a series.

Film No. 22, Quantum of Solace, offers another change of pace: It is, for the first time in franchise history, a direct sequel, picking up within hours of the end of Casino Royale. That’s both good and bad.

The good: It continues to show the consequences of Bond’s actions and the bodies left in his wake, particularly Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the British treasury agent with whom Bond fell in love only to have her betray him and then die at the hands of the organization for which she was secretly working.

The bad: Quantum cannot even hope to stand on its own. It also is hindered by a script, written by the returning team of Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, that lets the earlier film do most of the heavy lifting. Bond is still dark, brooding and intense—and Craig fits that bill quite well—but the character is essentially unchanged from when we last saw him and stays that way. Any emotional resonance from Quantum is due to the expert work done on Casino Royale.

Also working against the movie is a brisk 106-minute running time (Casino Royale ran 144 minutes). The action feels rushed as, in typical globetrotting Bond fashion, it jumps from Italy to London to Haiti to Austria back to Italy to Bolivia to, finally, Russia. It is as if director Marc Forster, known for smaller, character-driven pieces such as Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, tried a little too hard to get out of his comfort zone when a bigger taste of his specialty is what the movie needed.

The plot concerns Bond’s quest to avenge Vesper’s death. It leads him to Dominic Greene (an appropriately slimy Mathieu Amalric), a faux-environmentalist working to restore Bolivian General Madrano (Joaquin Cosio) to power and seize control of the country’s water supply. Bond’s self-appointed mission coincides with that of Camille (Olga Kurylenko), whose family died at Madrano’s hands.

The movie continues to strip away the familiar Bond trappings. Never does he give his signature introduction of “Bond, James Bond” or utter “shaken, not stirred” while ordering a martini. The high-tech gadgets that seemingly provide him an answer to any given situation are gone. There’s no heat between Bond and Camille, this movie’s “Bond girl.”

Key to Casino Royale’s success was its ability to balance old and new; it offered a new take on the character but enough was familiar that it still felt like a Bond movie. All Quantum gives us is few returning characters: MI6 Agent Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and, of course, M (Judi Dench), the no-nonsense head of MI6.

It feels like it is trying to out Bourne the Bourne movies, but Forster doesn’t have the chops to pull it off.

There are a few effective set pieces—the early rooftop chase in Siena, Italy, and especially the shootout at the opera Tosca in Austria immediately come to mind. Craig is the best thing the movie has going for it and he stalks through the movie like caged tiger, waiting for the script to give him something a little more interesting to do.

Rather than being The Dark Knight to Casino Royale’s Batman Begins, Quantum of Solace plays like Batman Begins Part 2. It is better than the average action movie and I’m still looking forward to future installments (Craig is signed for two more). But it falls well short of Casino Royale’s greatness.

Grade: B-

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some sexual content. 106 minutes.)

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