Friday, November 14, 2008

Film Reviews: “Quantum of Solace”

Soul Survivor

by Anthony Lane
The New Yorker
November 17, 2008

Olga Kurylenko and Daniel Craig in Marc Forster’s James Bond movie.


Who wants to be James Bond? Everyone of the male sex, pretty much, in the old days. Schoolboys dreamed of growing up to be 007, and middle-aged men lay awake, in the small hours, and wondered why they had grown into something else—how it was that their wristwatches merely told the time rather than spewing out metal ticker tape or magnetically unzipping the back of a woman’s dress. To sit and watch Bond’s recent adventures, however, is to witness that reverie in decline. In “Casino Royale” (2006), he had his private parts given a thorough dusting with a hank of rope. Now, in “Quantum of Solace,” we are taken on a journey into the even more private crannies of his soul—an item of specialist equipment with which he has only recently been fitted, and which may come as a shock to longtime fans of the franchise. Sean Connery smoldered like Troy, but that told us nothing about the fires within. As for Roger Moore, he didn’t need a soul. He had a safari suit. These days, though, the outer Bond gets such a rough ride that you have to ask whether anyone, man or boy, still yearns to get in touch with his inner 007. In short, who wants to be Daniel Craig?

Well, I could use his Aston Martin. There was a nasty moment, in the previous film, when Craig, in his début as Bond, drove a rented Ford Mondeo, in ladylike blue, and he rounds off this new installment at the wheel of a Ford hybrid sedan, like a dad on a fishing trip, but we begin, as we damn well should, at the wheel of an Aston Martin DBS. This our hero pilots around a series of stomach-dropping bends, with Alfa Romeos in pursuit and one car diving smartly off the side of a mountain: all in all, a charming snapshot of ordinary Italian traffic. Two details set the tone. First, Bond’s Aston has a door wrenched off in the mayhem, and, once at a standstill, he clambers out of the gap; filmed from the outside, this would look comic, but the director, Marc Forster, shoots it from inside the car, thus making clear that his own contribution to the genre will have the humor stripped from it like chrome. Second, one of the Alfas hits an oncoming truck, while another piles into a house. Quite right, too, except that both are head-on crunches, and you feel them in the judder of your spine. The same thing happens later, in Haiti, when Bond steals one boat and smacks it amidships into another. That sort of impact is what “Quantum of Solace” is about. The title is too frail by far. Someone should have called it “Total of Wreckage.” Or “Batter of Ram.”

There is a vein of masochism running through this carnage, as if Bond would deem it dishonorable to dish out what he couldn’t take. He dispatches people not for idle pleasure, as his more preening enemies have done, but as a way to beat himself up and stun his nerves out of the lethargy of grief. At the end of “Casino Royale,” he lost his lover, Vesper Lynd, who is paid a forlorn tribute here as he downs six of the cocktails named after her. (In the fog of alcohol, those frightening eyes of his mist over, but they still refuse to thaw.) The new movie gives us Bond in mourning—a condition that issues, according to Freud, in melancholy and a general indifference to life, but which causes this particular sufferer to stab people in the neck and toss them from tall buildings. He is no less indifferent to the lives of others, in other words, than he is to his own, and the casual, shrugging quality of his brutishness makes it especially wounding: watch him flip a guy off a motorbike, kick the splayed limbs of guards back into the elevator where he just laid them out cold, and, worst of all, heave the body of a trusted acquaintance into a Dumpster, as if all life ended in the trash. As M (Judi Dench) remarks, in one of her tarter moments, “If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be deeply appreciated.”

The leads matter, because they promise a solution to Vesper’s death. She was involved with a secret organization, and only by following a money trail does Bond sniff out its master: Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whose name suggests a trainee hair stylist—where are the Scaramangas and Oddjobs of yesteryear?—but whose favorite sport consists of toppling the governments of minor nations and pinching their natural resources. The plot follows the familiar, curious pattern that tends to affect every exploit of 007, with the romance of the peripatetic slowly shrinking to a squabble that feels both crazed and touchingly provincial. This time, having hopped lightly around the globe, paying his brief respects to Siena, London, Haiti, and Austria, our hero winds up fussing about with water supplies at the back end of Bolivia. Is Vesper truly avenged because her beloved James gets to butch it out with the flower-shirted Dominic in what looks like a Ramada Inn? The place is so isolated, and frankly so hideous, that there appear to be no other guests, or even room service. Collateral damage is minimal, the world is saved, and nobody even noticed.

The narrative of Forster’s film is certainly sketchy enough, and early viewers reported a dismaying sense of desiccation: no quips, no gadgets, no time to relax. For the aerial dogfight, both planes have propellers, as if Bond were just a throwback to Indiana Jones. He should wear Savile Row suits, but the costume designer puts him in a black blouson and flat-fronted cream chinos, like a slightly precious soccer fan. As for sex, you might as well stay home with a pair of bed socks and a DVD of “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Bond finds a beauteous comrade-in-arms, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), but she, it turns out, has her own agenda of revenge, and their sole point of contact is the kind of kiss that tennis partners exchange when they win a mixed doubles. I was cheered by the arrival of Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton), an upstanding British redhead, but, after showing Bond her raincoat and her naked back, in that order, she makes an alarming exit. Why, then, days after seeing “Quantum of Solace,” do I find, against expectation, that I can’t shake it off? Given that it seems such a diminution of the Bond legend, boiling him down to the bare bones of aggression, what can it bring to the party?

The James Bond backlist is, like the history of cinema itself, a trade-off between the real and the fantastic. The best thing in Forster’s film is a fabulous sequence in which 007 takes out a few baddies during a lakeside performance of “Tosca”; the intercutting between his own violence and the melodrama onstage, meaner and less swooning than Coppola’s similar set piece in “The Godfather: Part III,” tells you everything about the melding of artifice and pain that has sustained the saga of Bond. I have lost count of the number of times in which we have been offered a darker or dirtier Bond; as M, worried about his sanity, relieves him of duty in the new film, I recalled the unsavory “Licence to Kill” (1989), whose working title had been “Licence Revoked.” The Bond films have nodded to geopolitics but genuflected toward exotica, and the hero is, in himself, a wild concoction—the free-range spy, roaming abroad in the service of a nonexistent empire back home. There may be intakes of breath, in audiences here, when Bond says that American intelligence services “will lie down with anybody,” and when even the temperate M blurts out, “I don’t give a shit about the C.I.A.,” but how can we seriously ascribe topicality to a thriller that pays no heed to actual foes, such as Al Qaeda, presumably for fear of denting the market overseas?

The truth is that one thing alone lends gravity to Bond, and tethers him down to our shared earth, and that is the actor who plays him. This is where Craig and Connery score, and where the others lag behind. “Quantum of Solace” is too savage for family entertainment, but, as a study in headlong desperation, it’s easier to believe in than many more ponderous films. “Everything he touches seems to wither and die,” Dominic Greene tells Camille, and Bond might well agree. “I don’t have any friends,” he says, more as a statement of fact than as a complaint, and Forster deliberately surrounds Craig with unmenacing beta males: pale and flabby types from MI6, plus a bad Boris Karloff impersonator as Greene’s henchman. Even the cocktail waiter looks weak and watery. None of them can match 007, let alone reach out to him, and I found myself relishing his rare flickers of companionship: with the ever more mothering M, for instance, and with Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), his rumpled sidekick from “Casino Royale.” “Come with me,” Bond asks him, with a spectre of a smile, on his way to South America: a request echoed, when they get there, by Mathis’s own distress call—“Stay with me.” In the end, though, Bond’s closest encounter is with a traitor, whom he tracks across the roofs of Siena. They crash through a roof, into a building undergoing restoration, and tangle together on ropes—swaying in the void and grabbing for their guns. It is an airy, murderous parody of the scene in “The English Patient” in which Juliette Binoche, in the same part of the country, is hoisted high in a church to inspect the frescoes. Art gives life, and more than a quantum of solace; but James Bond, aloft and alone, is always the bringer of death. ♦



By Kyle Smith
New York Post
November 14, 2008

REVENGE is a dish best served with bullets, high explosives and giant rolling flameballs. In "Quantum of Solace," James Bond orders the revenge buffet, deluxe.

We begin just after "Casino Royale," with Bond's girlfriend Vesper dead and her (other, missing) boyfriend suspected in forcing the events that led to her death, which was perhaps the first suicide by drowning in an elevator yet recorded on-screen.

With Vesper gone, the only woman around who understands Bond (a well-scuffed Daniel Craig) is Judi Dench's M, and the way these two hurl flameball glances at each other re-creates the kind of raw sexual tension unseen since the early days of the Siskel and Ebert show. Who needs Moneypenny when you've got Wenchy Denchy?

M gets betrayed by her own bodyguard, who is linked to another assassin for whom 007 is mistaken in Haiti by a lynxlike cutie (Olga Kurylenko) who picks Bond up, tries to kill him and introduces him to this evening's villain: Greene (Mathieu Amalric of "Munich"). Greene, as you might guess from his name, is an enviro-goon (I've had my eye on those tree-huggers for just this kind of skullduggery) who, under the cover of his conservationist (i.e. destructionist) group, is fomenting a coup in Bolivia in a swap for a worthless piece of desert land.

You can never take a coup-fomenter at his word, though, and Amalric has the smirky menace to suggest the sleaze of Roman Polanski (both in "Chinatown" and real life). Greene turns out to be well-connected: Among his Facebook friends are the CIA, who share their private plane with Greene as they lead the cheers for his coup. In the background, you can see the favored reading material of these malefactors: The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Bond even manages to turn the Brits against him. The character has never been taken to such extremes, never before been such a cold, isolated bastard. He leaves a friend dead in a garbage bin, dispenses with all niceties (there is no "Bond, James Bond," no casino scene, no loyalty to anyone but himself). When he drinks, it isn't to be suave, it's to get drunk. He can't sleep. "I don't have any friends," he says. Possibly only the Dark Knight and Dick Cheney are as unpopular. The man has been worked as hard as his poor Aston Martin, the one that gets its driver's side door clipped off in the opening chase.

Which is the first of the many action scenes that turn up as regularly as Weather on the 1's. There's no use pretending that the story has any purpose except to link the chase-ems-and-shoot-ems, but director Marc Forster (previously associated with semi-arty films "Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") borrows heavily from the Bourne movies, racing through jagged close-ups that thrust you in the middle, gasping. Forster even turns a phone call into a blaze of graphics that suggests John King simultaneously charting the House, Senate and White House races. I personally would have a lot more confidence in our spy agencies if they could at least come up with a cool interface to explain why they can't find bin Laden.

The action geometry can be muddled. During a rooftop chase in Siena that involves breaking scaffolding, a flying girder, Tarzanish clinging to ropes and sheets of breaking glass, I wasn't sure whether it was Bond or the villain who yelled, "Aaaagh!" Nor could I figure out what was happening in the airplane chase, or how it is that a parachute that opens 6 inches before you hit the ground is going to keep you from shattering into subatomic fragments. But does it matter? Being equally thrilling and confusing certainly made the seventh-grade dance memorable, and it works for Forster.

Classic-yet-new is also tricky. With a script by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, Forster manages. The wit is as dry as the rocky desert where Greene stores his nefarious dreams: "Don't bleed to death," "When they say, 'We've got people everywhere,' you expect it to be hyperbole." A surprise reference to "Goldfinger" is worked in beautifully, while "He just smiled at me - and set the house on fire" and "Yeah, you're right, we should just deal with nice people" bring a bitter hurt unknown to, say, Pierce Brosnan's Bond, the non-brute with the invisi-car.

Kurylenko, who looks like a cross between Am�lie and Thandie Newton, is a big Bond-aid, too: I'm not going to mention the names of any actress who failed on this score, but a Bond Girl must be not only beautiful but also interesting. Denise Richards.

Where "Quantum" falls well short of "Casino Royale" is in the ending. This one is bland, James Bland. Key characters meet their fates off-screen, and it's only because the Bond music blasts you out of your seat to hustle in the next crowd that you know the thing is done. We can only hope the next chapter will deliver something that would burn as hot as Keith Olbermann's temper: Bond vs. Bourne.

1 comment:

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