Monday, December 22, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Quantum of Solace (2008)

So...this is the new normal.

By that I mean that Quantum of Solace (2008) -- the 22nd big screen adventure of James Bond, 007 -- cements the aesthetic direction of the Daniel Craig Era.

It's a cinematic epoch which follows, in sequence, The Sean Connery Era (1962-1968; 1970), The George Lazenby Moment (1969), The Roger Moore Era (1971 - 1985), The Timothy Dalton Era (1987 - 1989) and The Pierce Brosnan Era (1995 - 2002).

Described in a different way, we've had -- more or less -- a signature Bond for each of the previous four decades; for the mod/swinging Sixties, the malaise/disco days of the Seventies, the conservative Eighties, and the roaring Nineties.

Contemplated in a larger context, Daniel Craig's still-unfolding span plainly represents The New Millennium 007, a James Bond who straddles the confusing, contradictory world as it exists today.

It's a world in which international alliances are strained; in which the ends justify the means; in which the West is facing a crisis of principles; and in which dwindling natural resources (whether oil, water or food...) represent the ultimate prize. Trust in government is at an all-time low, and fear (of terrorism, of environmental apocalypse, and of economic meltdown...) is at an...all-time high (with apologies to Rita Coolidge...).

The narrative and stylistic direction for the Daniel Craig Era was established brilliantly in Casino Royale (2006) , a ground-up re-boot of the sturdy action-film franchise. And it is embellished upon succinctly here, in this all-business book-end. For Quantum of Solace is a direct successor that resumes the story of Bond scarcely minutes after the last film ended.

My most significant complaint about Casino Royale was that it seemed to end with so much of the storyline still up in the air, without a real or satisfying (or even particularly spectacular...) climax. By contrast, Quantum of Solace plays virtually as continual climax (a description James Bond would no doubt appreciate...).

The best way to experience the Craig Era right now? Watch these two films back-to-back, because they are connected in intricate, complementary fashion. That's what I did. I watched Casino Royale the night before going out to see Quantum of Solace in theaters, and these two films fit hand in glove. They are dramatically of a piece.

Thus far, and given this background as context, the Craig Era seems to consist of equal part tradition and innovation; continuing the things that have always worked beautifully about James Bond's universe, and adjusting or discarding those elements that don't play so well today.

So yes, this is the new normal.

I must admit -- as much as I enjoy this new approach -- the post 9/11 Bond aesthetic takes some adjusting to; especially for old-timers like me who grew up in the daffy Roger Moore era. Yet in some very important senses, Daniel Craig's spell as Agent 007 is plainly emerging as a new golden age for the legendary, long-lived character, especially if these two installments are an indication of the series' continued energy level, commitment to consistency, and quality of imagination. Not since Sean Connery's apex (in my opinion, Dr. No through Thunderball...) have we had two such engrossing, involving, consistent Bond films in a row.

Some specifics: Quantum of Solace concerns a dogged James Bond (Craig), who -- following the tragic death of his lover, Vesper -- relentlessly pursues the agents of Quantum, a shadowy international organization boasting clandestine operatives literally everywhere (as one explosive sequence aptly demonstrates).

Bond's investigation takes him to Haiti, Italy, Bolivia and ultimately Russia to track down elements of the secretive, multi-headed hydra known as Quantum. James is committed to destroying the organization, perhaps over-committed to it. But whether his dedication arises purely from personal reasons or rather for professional ones is a source of the film's ongoing (but underlying...) tension.

After years now of watching needlessly angsty, vengeful heroes on the big screen (credit Batman for that one...), we're inclined to ascribe to this Bond some deep internal emotional strife (read: EMO), when what he actually displays in Quantum of Solace is something different entirely; a mask. A suppression of his emotions and pain with drink and violence. This is very, very near to the Ian Fleming Bond of classic literature: Bond as (in the words of Fleming to Sean Connery): "a simple, straightforward, blunt instrument of the police force who would carry out his job rather doggedly."


Bond's primary nemesis in Quantum of Solace is the aptly named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) of Greene Planet, a would-be dedicated environmentalist who is actually a dedicated corporatist raider. Greene topples governments of Third World countries at the drop of a hat in order to procure their natural resources and thereby secure a profit. His latest bid for global domination is "Project Tiara," a Bush Doctrine-style pre-emptive first strike in the future global "water wars." Greene successfully cons everyone, from the CIA to the British Prime Minister, in order to secure the water supply of Bolivia, but he hasn't factored in the "dogged" Bond breathing down his neck. Interestingly, Greene is a diminutive little twerp -- like a self-satisfied CEO -- and as such, the perfect villain for our time..even if he doesn't possess any trademark Bond villain deformity (like Dr. No's metal hand, or Renard's bullet in the brain.)

Along the way, Bond teams up with beautiful Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), a woman on a personal quest of her own. She seeks revenge against the Bolivian General Medrano, whom Greene plans to install as the new President after the current government is toppled. Since their priorities align, Bond and Camille lay siege to a remote Bolivian headquarters/hotel -- which runs not too safely on eco-friendly fuel cells -- as Greene conducts his nefarious business with the would-be-tyrant.

While all this is occurring, M (Judi Dench) has a very tough decision to make about her most headstrong agent: Is Bond worthy of her trust? Is he a simple, straightforward blunt instrument, or a reckless loose cannon?

It's "good to have you back," she tells Bond at one point, after the dust has settled. "I never left," he replies, deadpan.

As viewers, we are thus asked to judge for ourselves the honesty and validity of Bond's response. But impressively the film doesn't push one answer or another. If Bond suffers inner turmoil, emotional distress and grief, he does so in solitude; and only inside. This is the last step of his "training" process, the final prelude to truly becoming "007."

Which is why, no doubt, the famous gun barrel opening has been shifted to the film's coda for Quantum of Solace. Because Bond's indoctrination to this shadowy world -- a world where loyalties can never really be known - is finally complete. The end of Quantum of Solace represents the beginning of Bond as a professional.

Quantum of Solace proves an engaging, exciting and rather serious entry in the James Bond film canon. I'm old enough to remember a time when Time Magazine complained bitterly about the Bond films being too light-hearted and even suggested that Bond had become such a self-parody -- so innocuous, androgynous and anonymous (by the time of Octopussy [1983]) -- that he could be played by Michael Jackson. Basically, serious Bond fans spent years, even decades deriding the silliness of the Roger Moore era (Moonraker, anybody?), wishing - hoping - for a return to the relative seriousness of the Fleming books and early Connery efforts.

That dream was half-achieved in the age of Timothy Dalton (a Bond I deeply admire). He approached the role seriously and smartly, but the scripts weren't really consistent enough to achieve the goal. The Pierce Brosnan era was even more helter skelter, opening strong with GoldenEye (1995), but descending by Die Another Day (2002) into a campy, outlandish world of ice castles, invisible cars, laser gloves and a CGI Bond ludicrously wind-surfing tidal waves.

No, it's only now, with the one-two punch of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace -- in the age of Craig -- that the long-hoped for vision of Bond as a real, flawed human being is fully realized. Given that fact, I'm experiencing a bit of whiplash from all the criticism that Quantum of Solace is somehow too serious. One critic even quipped, "Lighten up, James." My answer: the books were pretty damn serious; and one of my favorite Bond films, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is pretty damn serious too. Quantum of Solace doesn't seem out of line, at least to me. Craig is indeed serious -- and believable physically (which Moore wasn't; and which Brosnan wasn't) -- but it's not like he's mopey, down-in-the-mouth or navel gazing. At least not when there's a martini around, or someone to be killed.

Marc Forster can direct action, and he directs the action well in Quantum of Solace. His error, I believe is that he occasionally aims too high when he should have more wisely and conservatively settled just for capturing the essentials. In a few of the big action moments (in two instances, to be specific), Forster apes Coppola-style Apocalypse Now or Godfather cross-cutting. In one scene, for instance, Forster cuts a violent exterior chase between Bond and an assassin with the goings-on at a Sienna horse race. In another action sequence, Forster intercuts a fast-paced gunfight with a performance of Puccini's Tosca.

Now, on the one hand, I always laud ambition and the calculated selection not to go for a lowest-common denominator approach. As a critic, I dig this kind of thing. But on the other hand, in a Bond film this just feels rather pretentious. By the inclusion of the cross-cutting montages (and the use of Tosca) Marc Forster seems to be indicating none too subtly that for him the James Bond world is not enough; that Bond must exist on some rarefied, art-house level.

Still, I'll take this intellectual approach over close-ups of pigeons doing double-takes any day, if you get my meaning.

Some critics have also claimed that the action scenes of Quantum of Solace are incoherent. I disagree. There are a few bad choices (two very similar-looking black cars are featured in the opening chase scene, which makes identification difficult...), but for the most part the action is absolutely thrilling. The violence level is ratcheted up; the pace is extreme, and some of the shots literally assault the audience. There's one amazing moment in which a ledge topples and Bond falls into the camera. Another virtuoso shot follows Bond and a nemesis tumbling downward through a glass ceiling onto a scaffold, and the camera rides the whole way.

I don't think it's exactly fair to state that the "quick cutting" action-style used in Quantum of Solace is ripping off Bourne, either. This is simply the vernacular for action movies in our times. In the old days, Bond fights were made to look more fierce and pacey by literally speeding up the film; by fast-motion photography. Go back and look at the final battle aboard the Disco Volante in Thunderball (1965) and you'll see what I mean. We're experienced enough viewers today, in 2008, that our eyes recognize that trick; we see the film is sped up to apear more thrilling.

Quick cutting is simply the twenty-first century equivalent of speeding up the film-- a technique to enhance our sense of excitement. In forty years, we might laugh at it, see through it, or consider it quaint. But for today, this is simply how action movies are forged and to complain about its prominence in Quantum of Solace is the equivalent of complaining that the Bond films are sexist. Get over it. And remember that Bond films have always adopted the latest popular film trends anyway, from blaxploitation [Live and Let Die] to Star Wars [Moonraker] to parkour [Casino Royale]).

As far as Quantum of Solace's plot being inconsequential, I'll simply say this: in a galaxy far, far away, the Clone Wars began with a trade route dispute in some out-of-the-way solar system, didn't they? The point here isn't so much that Bolivia is imperiled; rather that Bond discovers an international organization de-stabilizing governments so as to control resources in an upcoming environmental end-game. Who's next?

Frankly, this is a highly consequential plot; and one of great, timely importance. Unfortunately, the First World is going to be battling over the Third World for the next several decades (just look at the Two Gulf Wars...), and this is the terrain the Bond Universe has settled on, which is both smart and realistic.

Another way to look at this: is this Bolivian gambit by Greene any less consequential a plot than a mad-man trying to sink Silicon Valley so he can sell more microchips (A View to a Kill?). Or an assassin selling a solar agitator (Man with the Golden Gun) to the Chinese? Or bringing down a drug lord (Licence to Kill?) Quantum of Solace is still about controlling the world; but it's about a covert operation to do so; a "phantom" piece of a much larger, more sinister puzzle.

I also enjoyed Quantum of Solace because it is a movie firmly rooted in Bond tradition, even as it gazes forward rather than back. If you think about it, in Quantum of Solace we have a possibly rogue Bond (in the spirit of Licence to Kill) teaming up with a revenge-hungry woman (For Your Eyes Only), to stop a criminal organization (like SPECTRE) from taking over the world, a piece at a time. But let's be honest, didn't the earlier films bungle the whole SPECTRE story?

Blofeld was played by a variety of actors (Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray), and each film about SPECTRE ultimately played as a sort of alternate-universe stand-alone because of it . Bond's wife was killed by Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but Bond never even mentioned his wife, Tracey, in the follow-up film, Diamonds Are Forever. The human essence of that story -- of Bond's love and Bond's loss -- was sacrificed in the Lazenby-Connery shift, in the Savalas-Gray shift, in the narrative refusal to countenance that Bond's life had changed dramatically; and in the commercial necessity to conform to "business as usual," with Bond happily seducing Tiffany Case and anti-climactically smashing Blofeld on an oil rig.

Contrast that debacle with the rigorous continuity between Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and you begin to understand why the new approach is superior. Here, a mourning Bond doesn't just miraculously forget everything that happened to him in the last movie. There's a real and noble attempt at continuity instead. Furthermore, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace appears to be building-up to a big confrontation with Quantum, step-by-step. That's precisely the sort of thing we never got with the early SPECTRE Bond films, after From Russia with Love. Again, it seems to me that this approach is legitimately a Bond film lover's dream because it takes Bond and his world seriously, the way that Fleming did. It's a world where action have consequences; where memory is long; and in which Bond discovers -- a bit at a time -- who his enemies really are. The cost of his line of work, as he learns, are pieces of his soul.

I have to admit, there was a moment near the conclusion of Quantum of Solace in which I experienced a strange and welcome sense of deja vu. Bond (in sleek black) was creeping stealthily through an enemy headquarters, one that was designed by Dennis Gassner to specifically resemble the designs of the brilliant Ken Adam. For a fleeting instant, I had the distinct impression was watching a Bond film of the 1960s; of the Connery era. Here was an actor with an equal level of gravitas (and physical believability); countenancing a story I cared about (like From Russia with Love, Dr. No, Goldfinger or On Her Majesty's Secret Service), battling against a powerful organization of supreme evil (like You Only Live Twice).

When I recognized that feeling, I realized with sudden optimism and excitement that the Craig Era represents a new Golden Age for 007. We've had standalone visions for forty-six years now. We've had the downs of Moonraker followed up by the ups of For Your Eyes Only, followed by the mediocrity of Octopussy followed by the downs of a View to a Kill...and what did we learn about Bond as a character, as a man through all that? I could make this complaint about the Brosnan era too. GoldenEye was good, but each succeeding film grew progressively and irrevocably worse until the series nadir of Die Another Day. Now -- at long last -- we have the makers of Bond films taking the heroic character and his legacy seriously, attempting to fashion a more consistent, more intelligent, more human, serial vision of this beloved hero. And in Daniel Craig we have an actor who perfectly embodies the three critical "S" factors of any Jams Bond: Sex, Sadism and Snobbery.

I know the purists wince at such proclamations, but the new normal is damn good. Two films into the Daniel Craig Age...and nobody's done it better; makes me feel sad for the rest.

7 comments:

  1. John, the sad thing about "Die Another Day" is that it had the potential to be a great film, since it began with Bond captured and being tortured. There was real vulnerability shown for the first 10 minutes or so of the movie. Then, he escaped, put on a tux, and it was business as usual for the rest of the story.
    On a different note, "Quantum of Solace" boasts probably the worst Bond title song in the history of the franchise, one that makes "Die Another Day" sound good by comparison.

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  2. Anonymous4:53 PM

    Hey John. I can't comment on QofS, as I haven't seen it. I'm just responding to a couple of general statements you made here.

    "Quick cutting is simply the twenty-first century equivalent of speeding up the film-- a technique to enhance our sense of excitement. In forty years, we might laugh at it, see through it, or consider it quaint."

    But John, what if I'm seeing through it now? I have no opinion of Marc Forster (again, I haven't seen Quantum of Solace). I do suspect, however, that all of this shaky-cam, quick-cut business is being used as a crutch by a crop of filmmakers who don't seem to know how to stage action sequences. Or perhaps they just don't care to try.

    Of course, there is always someone willing to defend the use of this technique in any given film. But knowing someone's rationale for the fact that I can't tell what's supposed to be happening (except in the broadest sense) during any of the fight scenes in, say, Batman Begins, doesn't help me enjoy the film any better. Maybe it's just me. I take no comfort in knowing that a movie looks crummy on purpose.

    "But for today, this is simply how action movies are forged and to complain about its prominence in Quantum of Solace is the equivalent of complaining that the Bond films are sexist. Get over it."

    I don't follow your logic here. Those aspects of the series that are perceived as sexist are are among the basic elements of the aesthetic and the character of Bond, in the films as well as the novels (Actually, I imagine anyone who thinks the Bond films are sexist would blow a gasket reading Fleming. But I digress....). Those who are offended by this should indeed "get over it", which I will take to mean "seek a film better suited to their sensibilities". But should viewers complaining that a recent film-making trend is ill-suited to the Bond movie aesthetic "get over it" as well? Maybe so, but I don't see how these two things equate. One is a traditional aspect of a long-running, popular series. The other is a trend. I'm inclined to think that Bond movies should be wary of those. For the record, I didn't think that License to Kill going all Miami Vice on us was a very good idea at the time either, and I'm of that generation. I liked Miami Vice when it was on. Oh, and I should point out that South American drug lords were hugely newsworthy then, too.

    But hey, what do I know? I still say Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the best action picture I've seen in ages. Spielberg was practically giving lessons on how it's done. I wonder if anyone was paying attention?

    -Tony M

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  3. Good comments, Howard and Tony.

    Howard, I agree that Die Another Day started with promise. And then it went straight down hill..

    Tony: I agree with you about Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls! I love that movie! I think it rocked.

    I also understand what you're saying about the quick cutting. I guess my "get over it" remark was based more on the idea that this is some how ripping off Bourne. (I'm sure if I went back, Bourne was ripping off someone else...). Probably ill-stated on my part, as you said, maybe not quite airtight in terms of logic.

    But the action does look good in Quantum of Solace, even with the quick cutting. Now the intercutting...

    ...well, I'll leave that one open to interpretation. I don't think it was necessary, but hey, it was ambitious, I guess.

    An interesting hypothetical: what if we were both born in the late 50s and old enough to see Thunderball in the theater?

    What would we have thought of the fast-motion photography? Would we have seen through it? Would we have judged it appropriate to Bond?

    For me, the fast-cutting works, and it isn't nearly as disorienting as the ridiculous Bat Sonar scene in Dark Knight, which is a total mess.

    best to you both and happy holidays to both of you -- two of my dearest friends!

    -JKM

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  4. As a general rule, I'm not a big fan of the quick cutting trend in action films for one of the reasons Tony highlights, namely that it's hard to tell what's happening. There are only two exceptions I can think of off the top of my head where it has worked for me:

    #1 - The Dark Knight - I actually liked this film in large part because it seemed so counter to what one expects from a Hollywood blockbuster these days. A big part of this was due to the decidedly less than spectacular action sequences. They all were pretty anticlimactic, and they just seemed like non-events. Part of this was due to the fact that they were brief, and the other part was that they didn't really showcase clearly what was going on.

    I was further amused to see the film in IMAX, because it didn't really take advantage of the format. What good is seeing it bigger, if you don't really get to see it clearly. I honestly chalked this up to a deliberate stylistic choice by Nolan to challenge audience expectations (think Alien 3 which had equally incomprehensible action 16 years ago). Assuming my theory is correct, and Nolan wanted to frustrate audiences by creating an anti-blockbuster, I think it's pretty brilliant.

    #2 - The other exception is every Steven Seagal direct-to-video film of the past 8 years or so. All employ fast cutting that would be right at home in Quantum of Solace. In the Seagal films they are just tricks to get around the fact he is not very agile anymore, and are unintentionally goofy (and therefore pretty entertaining).

    So those are the two exceptions I can think of where the quick cutting has worked. Generally I don't tend to enjoy it in stuff like Bourne and Michael Bay films because a) it doesn't really support a noble purpose (e.g. Dark Knight), and b) it just isn't very enthralling. Yeah it's good for a cheap pulse quickener when you string images together in rapid succession, but it doesn't do much for me on repeat visits. It's all sound and fury signifying nothing.

    Here's the kicker - I loved Casino Royale. It had fast action (e.g. the opening parkour chase), but it was still comprehensible because it hit just the right tempo. What strikes me as particularly amusing about the likes of Quantum of Solace is that they clearly spent a lot of money on the film, but you sure don't get to see it.

    All this being said, there are good qualities about the film. I do like the shadowy organization (love the touch when Greene is wearing the Quantum lapel pin), I love the idea that it's a continuing story, and I do like that they are taking it seriously (and that the tone is consistent). They got all that right in Casino, and it was just disappointing to see an opportunity squandered (in my opinion) with the second film's editing choices.
    Honestly, if the only thing distinguishing this from a Seagal DTV film is better actors, it's a trend they need to think twice about riffing on.

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  5. Hey Jim!

    Great comment. It was so smart, it reminded me of where, perhaps, cross-cutting was popularized.

    You mentioned Alien 3 (a film I love), and I actually like the cross-cutting there because it was aping Oliver Stone style battle footage from Platoon in the mid 1980s. In that film, there was no traditional geography...it was pandemonioum (a visual indicator of war's chaotic, anarchic, confused nature).

    I liked the quick-cutting and incomprehensible landscape of Alien 3 because I felt it was used by Fincher for a similar purpose. In other words, those prisoners at the ass end of the space didn't know that huge facility. They were literally chasing their tales. We didn't understand the terrain as viewers, and they didn't understand it as alien fodder. That worked for me.

    I guess quick cutting is absolutely fine with me -- in general -- in films like the Bourne Movies and Quantum of Solace if the director sets up the time beforehand to set up the geography of the battle; if we have reference points so when we leap into "quick cuts," we know where we are. Quantum of Solace did this poorly, I felt in the opening car chase, but far better in later scenes, particularly the boat and plane sequences. The battleground was set up enough that the fights weren't confusing.

    The car chase, in my opinion, was a little confusing.

    The scene in Dark Knight with bat sonar was utterly disorienting. It was just colors, sounds and motion, with no real organization.

    Just my thoughts on a fascinating debate...

    best,
    JKM

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  6. John:

    Sorry - I didn't take the time to read your entire review of QoS - a tad long for me. :)

    I did want to take a minute to ask "What was so wrong with Moonraker?" With the possible exception of the laser war at the end, I thought it was fairly top notch throughout. The photography was nice, storyline decent, etc.

    I've never quite understood why people were so against this film. I know it was trying to ride the Star Wars wave, but other than that...what was so wrong?

    I have the entire Bond series on DVD (save Casino Royale) so I'm due to sit down at some point and watch them all in order.

    Maybe I'll see Moonraker differently this time around?

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  7. Hey Tony!

    Thanks for writing. You know, as a kid, I absolutely loved Moonraker. And for nostalgia's sake, I still do.

    My problem is Moonraker as Bond film. It plays a little too hard for laughs with me (the CE3K door code, the pigeons in Venice doing double-takes, and the cringe-worthy Jaws romance).

    It's Bond as carnival, which is -- by my personal bias -- wrong for a 007 movie. I actually love Roger Moore, but I prefer him in his For Your Eyes Only or Live and Let Die mode. I see those movies as having a more balanced approach to the comedy.

    But I'm hugely nostalgic for the year 1979 and all the genre movies that came out that year. ST-TMP, The Black Hole, Alien, Time After time, and yes, indeed, Moonraker.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I can "enjoy" Moonraker any day of the week, even though I think it's a pretty weak film in terms of the Bond series.

    -JKM

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