Quantum of Solace
Director: Marc Forster. Cast: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Judi Dench, Mathieu Amalric, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright, Joaquín Cosio, Jesper Christensen, David Harbour, Rory Kinnear, Anatole Taubman, Glenn Foster, Neil Jackson, Oona Chaplin, Simon Kassianides, Stana Katic. Screenplay: Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade.

Photo © 2008 MGM/Columbia Pictures
"Get in," barks Olga Kurylenko's bright-eyed and plushy-lipped Camille from behind the wheel of her silver sports car, not three seconds after Daniel Craig's James Bond has sauntered onto the street from the lobby of his Haitian hotel, a fresh kill just logged upstairs, a chrome-colored mystery suitcase just dropped into his hands by an unsuspecting concierge, and spiffed up with a black, tailored Tom Ford jacket nicked from his still-warm victim, a snazzy addition to the black short-sleeved sports shirt and the ass-hugging khaki slacks that he's already donned for this tropical misadventure. Get in? No need to ask him twice, with double-O-entendres surely intended, especially when the asker looks like Camille, notwithstanding her couture variation on Master P bling, nor her dubious choices of pale lip gloss and strapless papaya top with that deep smoky suntan. As it happens, she does ask twice, repeating the same line about an hour later in theater time (who knows how much later in narrative time) when both everything and nothing has changed between her and Bond, with the surprising caveat that they haven't yet been to bed. Well, not together. But get in? No problem. With Craig in the role and with Marc Forster, a less expected font of delight, earning his payday at the helm, you don't have to ask me twice, either. I'm well in.

To be honest, I did put up a small fight: not a Bond-grade mêlée, just an M-kvetching-in-the-PM's-office sort of tantrum, because much that can go wrong in a Bond picture does start to go wrong, albeit temporarily, at the outset of Quantum of Solace. The explosion into action is a bit bludgeony and baldly Bourne-derived, in the form of a high-speed seaside car chase between 007's Aston Martin and some Eurotrash mongoose's Alfa Romeo. In relation to the Bourne franchise, and to Supremacy in particular, Quantum never stops attempting quite literal and therefore unbecoming imitations, like a petulant younger brother trying too hard to fill the older sibling's shoes, sometimes to the extent of renouncing its own father; in look, rhythm, plot structure, and transplanted technical crew, Quantum owes more on balance to the Greengrass-Gilroy films than to the quite impressive Casino Royale. Furthermore, the compulsory opening song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, titled "Another Way to Die," is both a limp and a strenuous exercise in harsh, failed Cool, leaving one wondering just how bad the laid-down Amy Winehouse track and the rumored Leona Lewis record turned out to be. Worst, Forster comes close to making a hash of the second major skirmish, which begins as Bond climbs, leaps, tumbles, and scrambles after a would-be assassin, in a too-close and second-best approximation of Royale's gorgeous and gravity-free opening chase. It certainly doesn't help that Forster keeps cross-cutting to the requisite local color of a famous Sienese horse race, which sunk me into cranky memories of those sporadic, flappy-bird inserts amid the big Monster's Ball sex scene. Chase scenes are the sex scenes in a movie like this (and sex scenes are sort of the chase scenes), and had Forster stayed this easily and emptily distractable, we'd have gotten quickly into a lame and permanent fix.

However, even as Quantum of Solace sets about exposing its weaknesses, it emits tasty and potent signals of accumulating strength. Too much cannot be said in the prologue of an action movie for a brilliantly-plotted grace note like the massive truck that Craig swipes off the edge of that windy cliffside road, only to menace him afresh four beats later when the carcass of the thing, trundling loudly down the mountainside, threatens to pancake that Aston Martin. They should teach this in school: supersonic driving is lovely, but only in reverse proportion to the likelihood that you'll plow right into your own lethal debris. Somebody, whether Forster or his Bourne-bred second unit, has got a zesty flair for kinetic choreography, plus the extra bit of absurdist cheek that this franchise has always allowed, which enables giddy and splendid climaxes like the finale of that rooftop chase. However rotely rough-and-tumble that bit seems at the beginning, it concludes with Craig and his fleet-footed quarry lunging at each other on a church restorer's scaffolding, literally pulling the supports right out from under each other, and whizzing around on ropes and pulleys that turn out to be more tentacly trouble than they're worth. The energy and the camerawork of the sequence are liberated just as the characters get grossly ensnared, full of vertiginous aerial shots that have mercifully been edited by someone down to two cups of coffee a day, rather than the usual dozen. The sequence flexes and vibrates but also laughs at itself, as though someone revisited that scene of Juliette Binoche soaring around the flare-lit tabernacle in The English Patient and wondered how they could spoof it and sensationalize it as a spindly but muscular mano-à-mano: a task gloriously filled and capped at the end with perfect punctuation. The picture's shaky blast-off, then, eases into a richly entertaining groove of studio-aesthetic excitement, which seems to eradicate all the thin feints at whimsy and the dully earnest conceptions of character that Forster tossed out in Finding Neverland and Stranger than Fiction. I wouldn't argue that Quantum of Solace reveals him to be James Cameron or even John McTiernan, but it does emancipate the good-time fellow that has previously been stifled by the pent-up protagonists and wan sincerity of his earlier films.

Quantum sustains from the best of the recent action movies a taste for well-governed location filmmaking, punchy and dimensional performances, and corporeal credibility, by which I mean that when Bond crash-lands on a balcony or thwacks against a wall, you recoil reflexively from the blow, and you can track the skin-splits and bruises that accrue to Daniel Craig's stone-cut yet emotionally suggestive face. This, of course, remains a welcome shift from the Goldeneye obsession with preserving Pierce Brosnan's immaculate side-part against all the buffetings of superspy experience. Indeed, key characters remark in the early going that Bond looks weary and tired in this film, and though Craig's version of puffy-faced fatigue runs endless rings around my best possible day after eight hypothetical years of imaginary personal training, you do recognize the extra tension and the incubated grudges that have saturated his person in the wake of Casino Royale. He's been an arrogant and trigger-happy Bond in both of his outings, but he's acquired something bordering on a soured, even malignant spirit in this latest chapter, a character shift better evoked in Craig's physical comportment than in any of the speeches that Paul Haggis and his fellow screenwriters occasionally furnish as vestal offerings at the Temple of the Obvious. "I wish I could set you free," someone murmurs to 007 from the passenger's side of his car, "but your prison is in there," and here she touches his Easter Island head. Jolly well true, I'm sure, but a drossy leftover from Crash all the same. This script is on much surer footing when Judi Dench is lashing out, "I don't give a shit about the CIA or their trumped-up evidence!"—one dreams of hearing her say this over a morning's brunch with the Washington Post—or when Jesper Christensen hisses out a well-placed quip about Tosca, or when James and Camille, amid a wordless free-fall from their ravaged airplane, can't quite agree whether the single available parachute is meant for both of them.

Threaded through the whole movie is the kind of sound directorial judgment that truncates a shoot-'em-up chase sequence at the precise second you find yourself wishing that Forster would let up on those for a spell, and that sneaks in some extra morsels of gratuitous sensual merriment by introducing each new locale with its own 1000-point font face, and that ballasts the hideous burn scars on Camille's back, a half-explained mark of her terrible past, with a swift pan over to the obviously production-designed, strawberry-colored blood smear down the front of James's tuxedo shirt. Mathieu Amalric, as resident villain Dominic Greene, is licensed not just to kill but to do so without cyborg endowments or macabre accents like Mads Mikkelsen's bloodletting tear ducts. He's simply a human monster, hiding behind his eco-friendly surname and his well-financed mirage of searching for untapped oil, while he sets about his actual plot to hoard and ransom the Bolivian water supply (something that has actually happened in the past, as you'll learn from The Corporation). Watching Bond grapple with an all too human compulsion toward petty vengeance, which the script and the filmmaking approach with equal parts insight and obsessive literalism, I appreciated seeing him square off with a dastardly but equally man-sized opponent, as well as seeing him supervised by a fully rounded boss, who applies cold-cream to her face while listening to maximum-security briefings in her boudoir. M is apparently not immune to admiring the beauty or absorbing the vanity of the dashing company that she, like us, continually keeps in these movies.

Quantum of Solace lacks the headiness and the badinage of Casino Royale's best sequences: nothing on offer is as saucily delicious as James's and Vesper's wry, mutual exchange of "Upgrade U" evening wear for their first night at the poker table, and whatever equivalent seductions the script once attempted with Gemma Arterton's Agent Fields lie stranded somewhere on some Avid editor's hard drive. But that doesn't mean that Quantum of Solace doesn't consistently spike its own punch with chuckly or impertinent throwaways, like a quick-cut close-up to Amalric's bug-eyed disgust at David Harbour's vulgar American argot, or the piquant sight of Daniel Craig's nipples hardening with the endorphin rush of improvised assassination, or a cinephiliac run-up to a Xerox from Greed that abruptly halts and shrugs itself off with a peremptory fuck-you punchline. Got motor oil? Quantum of Solace does, whether for humor, or horror (a dead woman, dripping with the stuff, drooled across a white bed), or for easy-reach political resonance that mostly avoids sanctimonious pandering. Lively with color but dotted with chic black-on-white motifs, splashed with escapist enticements without losing its grip on James's curdled spirit, suggestive of interesting fragilities in the time-honored MI6 chain of command, and graced with a Bond girl who ...well, I guess you can't have everything, but Quantum of Solace is an unpretentious and well-built success, with easily a full price ticket's worth of takeaway pleasures and gratifying textures.

I fear that the action thriller will be iron-bound to Bourne's example for some time to come, and I hope that Craig gets a bit more of a thespy workout next time out than he does here, though he's at least relieved from shouldering any storyline interval as silly as that endless honeymoon in Casino Royale, just before (you're kidding!) Vesper turned out to have more up her sleeve. Though, come to think of it, I don't ever remember her ever wearing a sleeve. Like The Bourne Ultimatum, but with an obviously longer lineage to live up to, Quantum isn't the apex of its series but it's a trusty and proud entry, and its timing couldn't be better, with critics feeling friendly and audiences almost as parched by now as the Central Casting Bolivians. The final title card promises that Bond's adventures will continue, and though I can't say I harbored any doubt on this point, I am already eager for the renewal and extension of such capital pleasures. Jeffrey Wright's Felix, lurking in the bullpen of under-exploited characters, nonetheless warns that "if we refuse to do business with villains, we'd have almost no one to trade with"; he might just as well have preached that if we refuse to patronize mediocrities we'd have almost no movies to go to. But Quantum of Solace, however far from art, is rarely a mediocrity, and when it threatens to be, it always recovers. It places a good, stylish stamp on that passport to solid entertainment that used to be the birthright of mainstream moviegoers. Wherever else this Bond chooses to travel, he's becoming an auspicious ambassador for the sunny state of pop contentment. B

Permalink Home 2008 ABC Blog E-Mail