Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Theaters: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace poster from
I came away from QUANTUM OF SOLACE with a very unusual reaction. I didn’t like the action sequences that much, but everything else worked. This is not what the makers of the latest James Bond film were likely aiming for, and not ideally how the series should work, and yet it does. Marc Foster’s inexperience in the action genre may be to blame, but the Bond series has often chosen talent from strange places, and in this case it mostly works. The film is a step down from CASINO ROYALE, but it flows very well as a direct sequel.

In fact, this entry picks up right where the last film left off. Bond has captured one of the top ranking members of Quantum, a secret organization that both employed the lovely Vesper Lynd and killed her. Bond insists that he’s not doing this to avenge the woman he loved, but when a double agent in MI6 kills Bond’s quarry before he can say anything, he tries to find higher links in the chain for a mix of personal and professional reasons. Soon he runs across a Quantum plan to stage a coup in Bolivia to return a vile dictator to power, in exchange for which they’ll receive exclusive land rights over a seemingly worthless patch of desert. The rumor is oil, which interests several world governments for good and for ill. Of course, both the U.S. and Britain need oil and decide they’re going to back the evil guy so long as he’ll give them what they want, and that, in addition to Bond’s increasingly high body count, prompts MI6 to prompt M (Judi Dench again) to try and pull him back. But in the meantime, he’s also run across Camille (Olga Kurylenko), sometime-girlfriend to trusted entrepreneur, creepy Quantum bigwig, and Roman Polanski lookalike Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), and she’s got a vendetta of her own.

At some point somebody is going to have to sit down with modern action directors and ask them why they feel compelled to wave the camera around to create pretty streaks of color that don’t actually tell you what’s going on. The cynical answer is that fast edits and shaky cameras are needed to hook today’s audience with their short attention spans and iPods and so on, but I’m not sure that really explains it. For one thing, nobody’s actually tested this assumption. I can’t recall any well-promoted, widely-released action film that flopped because it used longer takes and a tripod. (I don’t remember if IRON MAN was this jittery, doesn’t seem like it, though.) Secondly, this approach, as used in this film, ends up being fairly inefficient. The really blurry and jumpy shots don’t convey information very well, and if you cut them from the assembly what’s left would probably flow a lot better.

A personal theory of mine is that the action movie is entering an impressionist phase, where conveying what’s happening is not quite as important as imparting a sense of disorientation in the viewer. But I think that backfires too. I was able to follow the action in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, at least in a general sense, but the jumpy edits and occasional blurriness made me feel more distanced if anything. There are big stunts and lots of things blowing up spectacularly, but I felt I was missing the full impact because the framing, the timing, the focus was always just a little bit off. Again, this may just be down to inexperience on Foster’s part. Still, it’s a trend I hope the Bond series moves away from as quickly as it can. The tripod is your friend.

Fortunately, my disappointment with the style of filming subsided soon enough as I began to get caught up in the story. In keeping with the more realistic tone set by CASINO ROYALE, the villains’ diabolical masterplan involves not world domination but the exploitation of an already frequently dumped upon people, and all the sordid dealings that the major world powers make to keep their countries on top. Bond follows a solid trail of evidence in between making people wish they’d never been born, and we get the familiar jetting between exotic locales and decadent high society events. There’s a lot more of the traditional Bond here than some critics have alleged; the formula has been tweaked, but it hasn’t exactly been thrown out.

Daniel Craig is once again in complete control of the picture; not only does he have the swagger and bravado that Bond needs, but he manages some fairly sophisticated playing. You’re never quite sure just how hung up he is on Vesper, or at least how consciously he’s letting what happened to her guide his actions. His is not an overt form of brooding- you can tell something’s going on beneath the facade but you can’t be completely sure of what. What’s still most surprising are the moments when he allows himself to have fun; Bond smiling is a disarming sight. Dame Judi Dench plays against him terrifically, even when they’re not in the same room. As for the new Bond girl- well, she’s very pretty and not a bad actress, as far as I can tell. But the producers have made an obvious mistake. Midway through the film we are introduced to Fields (first name Strawberry, though she never says it), a young redheaded agent who’s been sent on her first field assignment to escort Bond back to London. Gemma Arterton plays her as cute, energetic, clever, and frankly much more appealing than Camille, but because Camille is exotic (i.e. non-British) and has a tortured past of some kind, she’s in the lead female role while Fields, well, you know what happens to the secondary Bond girl most of the time. Complete waste of potential there, it must be said.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE is an interesting next act in Bond’s current story, and I’m definitely interested in what will happen next. As flawed as the film is in places, it gets enough right to make you think the franchise is still in good hands. Maybe they need to stop serving Red Bull to the editors and someone needs to look into making Ms. Arterton the next Moneypenny or something, but I enjoyed myself so no need to nitpick too closely. The style’s a bit tarnished, but the substance is there.

Based on characters created by Ian Fleming
Screenplay by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade
Directed by Marc Forster

Grade: B

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