Saturday, November 15, 2008
By His Majesty's Secret Directive
Today's movie: Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace.
This is something like the 22nd movie in the Bond franchise, and the second with Englishman Daniel Craig playing the indestructible British Intelligence agent. His first outing as Bond, 2006's Casino Royale, was lean and visceral, an auspicious start both to his stewardship of the character and to the newly-retooled franchise. Prior to that movie there seemed a widespread conviction that the series had been overrun with gadgets and that the producers had over the years allowed Bond's essential character to wander afield from Ian Fleming's original conception as a spy with cultivated tastes and understated talents.
Every time a new actor is brought on board to play James Bond, we are promised a return to the fundamentals that made the first couple of movies work so well. But like big-money lobbying in politics, the lure of technical gadgetry and cartoon bravery and throw-away lines appears irresistible to whomever has the final say with Bond movies (alas, hope springs eternal). Sean Connery set the stage, providing the character against which all newcomers must be gauged, though the gadgetry was taking over already during his reign. Things really reached their nadir with the paternal Roger Moore in the lead role, though to be fair some of Moore's Bond movies have aged badly because special effects have come so far.
However it happened, we found each new movie promising more, more, more--gadgets, guns and girls--as though it was the quantity of something that made the whole business work. Well, maybe that's what the surveys were saying. But they were clearly also saying "get back to basics," since that was the promise with Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan. And now with Daniel Craig.
Casino Royale made some very positive steps back toward this ground zero, at least purging Bond's character of the penchant for cheesy one-liners. And now the new film, the incomprehensibly-named Quantum of Solace, seeks to build upon that new foundation. And from that perspective--evaluating how well the new movie rescues the franchise from the excesses of old--this movie is mostly a failure. While Forster does not rush back to the embrace of all the old excesses, he also does not move forward with a revitalization of the character of James Bond.
I read a snippet of Roger Ebert's review of this movie (conveniently letting him do some of my work here), and his headline "James Bond is NOT an action hero!" is typically right to the point. Daniel Craig is given only a handful of lines here, and spends most of his time grimly engaged in brutal violence. His Bond is supremely capable at tracking and dispatching people--sometimes whole crowds of them weilding all manner of deadly weapons (at which I cannot but roll my eyes: aren't we past this?). He's very dangerous, but he doesn't seem very cool. Bond needs to be cool. The violence should be regrettable and almost incidental, not the piéce de résistance of the film. Instead, Craig's Bond performs almost a live-action version of Bugs Bunny reaching off the screen for whatever he needs--a ladder, a hammer, a saw, a policeman. He travels very light, yet has unlimited ammunition; he is unerringly at the exact place he needs to be, no matter how secret; he always walks unwaveringly to exactly the right unmarked door of whatever strange building he's in; he knows how to operate, without fumbling or thought, every gun and car and airplane and machine he encounters; and, of course, no woman fails to be seduced by him. This all sounds good on paper (or at least very Bond-like), but without some development of his character it fails to make him a compelling man. Character development doesn't need to mean bruised by love or damaged by a rotten childhood; but Terminator-like violence and mayhem won't do it. He doesn't have to be a likeable character; but we must see something of his character to invest in him. This movie never gives us the chance, and we're forced to rely on our James Bond baggage to enable the story to work.
Lastly, I criticized the last movie for substituting mayhem and confusion for proper plotting at times, though there were some real eye-opening scenes in that movie as well (like the opening running scene). This movie seems to emulate all the wrong things from the first. The film opens with a car chase that neither makes sense nor seems particularly good as car chases go (see John Frankenheimer's Ronin for that). Shortly afterward there's a fight scene where Bond and his adversary are almost indentically-dressed. Given that the scene gets an extreme wiggly-cam treatment, its absolutely impossible to tell who is who. So we can only conclude that 1) you know Bond is gonna win anyway, and 2) the key thing is not who does what, but that lots of shit is happening. And that basic idea happens again and again at key points of the movie.
Screw that; I'd rather see a story unfold.
There is a story here, but I'd be hard-pressed to give you many details about it. Maybe that's OK; not every story needs to be plotted for sixth-grade comprehension. But when two hours of twists and turns turn out to be all wrappings and no mummy we have a problem.
Quantum of Solace doesn't make me despair for the future of the franchise, and it was reasonably entertaining for its two hours. But I'm still waiting for the right director to return James Bond to glory.