Friday, January 2, 2009

Quantum of Solace, Part 2: Tosca Isn't for Everyone

Hey, all you Bond fans who are clamoring about Quantum of Solace being a heinous crime against the Bond legacy and cinema in general? Do me a favor and shut your cryholes.

As I've confessed to a few folks, this review is probably going to sound a little defensive (the cryholes comment gives me away, I suppose). I can't help it, because it's nigh unto impossible for me to look at a Bond film objectively. So here we go, and my apologies in advance for my excuse of a structure and the tangents that frequently break it. Also, some spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen the film, I'll have more respect for you in the morning if you don't read this.

While not a perfect film,
Quantum of Solace is an astoundingly great addition to the Bond canon (title and all). Frankly, it boggles my mind as to why people are so up in arms about it. The main complaints, as I see them, are three in number: 1) there's too much action with too little story, 2) the villain isn't really interesting, and 3) there's not enough humor in the film.

Almost every Bond film is, to some degree, a response to its immediate predecessor.
Quantum of Solace is no different. Casino Royale had its share of complaints (e.g. that there wasn't enough action--ridiculous, I know--or that the film was too long and too poorly paced), so it really shouldn't shock us that QOS would seek to improve on CR's perceived weaknesses. Thus, it stands to reason that there would be more action this go-around. However, all of the action sequences felt perfectly well motivated to me.

I thought that the car chase that opened the film was possibly the best teaser sequence in all of the films. The intercutting between tracking in from the sea and the quick shots of the Aston Martin's wheels, the enemy's bullets, Bond's eyes--all before we hear the punch of a pedal and the blaze of the bullets. Damn, that was spectacular (also surprising to me, since I was expecting the gun barrel sequence to start us off as opposed to that mountain shot). The airplane sequence was also especially tense and contained some really brilliant shots--especially that camera tilt inside Bond's DC-3 where the enemy plane first swoops in, guns blazing. Admittedly, I thought that the foot chase in Siena and the boat chase in Port au Prince could have been cut just a little less quickly, but still, the action was paced to within an inch of its life.

Indeed, I'd say that of the film as well. In 1 hour 46 minutes time, I'd argue the film gives us the best cinematic translation of the Fleming sweep. We visit a multitude of locales throughout the picture, but we never feel like we've jumped in and jumped right back out, nor do we stay in any one place too long. Apropos of the locations, I'm often annoyed by title cards indicating where we find ourselves, but
QOS cleverly, amusingly integrates them into the film, particularly when Bond and Mathis hit La Paz, Bolivia, where the title becomes a part of the airport signage. And I'm grateful they went with "London" instead of "London, England." Stuff like that is why title cards annoy me.

And yet, back to the complaint--not enough story. Um, okay. Let's review: Bond's on the verge of a violent breakdown after the death of Vesper, the only woman he's ever loved. Untrusted by his own government, he relentlessly seeks out members of a heretofore unknown global organization, both out of personal anger as well as an attempt on M's life. Bond soon discovers that said organization is steadfastly taking control of the world's natural resources, countries at a time. Oh, and he also joins forces with a beautiful agent pursuing her own personal vendetta against the movie's other villain, which mirrors Bond's own grief in a very palpable, intelligent way. And Bond must also deal with his own guilt for the way he treated his friend Mathis in the wake of
CR's events. And all this and more is pulled off in 1 hour 46 minutes--along with all that action over which people are so earnestly fussing.

Really? Not enough story? The story is actually like Bond's martini (called a Vesper, incidentally). It's got all the ingredients. They all mix well. And it's a damn fine drink going down.

So let's come to the second point, then. Our villain: Dominic Greene, excellently played by Mathieu Amalric. I remember seeing him in
Munich and thinking almost instantly, "That guy needs to be a Bond villain." I really can't fathom why people think that Greene is less compelling than Le Chiffre from the previous film. Is a poker savvy money-mover really more fascinating than an environmental magnate who's toppling regimes and playing intelligence agencies off of each other? And don't say it's because of Greene's lack of physical distinction (i.e. don't say it's because his tears aren't bloody), as that will upset me. Amalric alternately exudes cool menace (love the "ants under my skin" and "balls in your mouth" lines) and an almost psychopathic rage (the guy swings an axe like Monica Seles swings a tennis racket), and Bond's first meeting with Greene--to the tune of Puccini's Tosca--is the stuff of which epic confrontations are made. I love the fact that, in that moment, the two men exchange not a single word.

Besides all that, though, one of the central points of the film is that, as Mathis says, it's difficult to distinguish between the heroes and the villains as you get older. The Bond films have definitely gotten older and, at last, wiser. I think
CR and QOS have found a way to make their villains sufficiently Bondian while keeping them grounded in a very believable way. These films are also a little bit more politically interesting than previous entries. After all, both the British and the American governments are after Bond by the latter half of the film, and I think this fact is indicative of another of the film's core strengths: Bond's relationship with M.

Bringing Dame Judi Dench over from the Brosnan films was the absolute right move. Her sternly maternal presence plays well with Daniel Craig's equal parts rational and rash portrayal of 007. Actually, there's a line from
CR that tidily encapsulates what this diptych is really about at the end of the day. M says to Bond, "I need to know I can trust you, and that you know who to trust."

CR was about Bond discovering who to trust, QOS is in no small measure about M being able to trust Bond. And in the execution of that aspect of their relationship, M and Bond in this film remind me a great deal of The Sandbaggers' Neil Burnside and Willie Caine. We have both chief and agent, trying their damnedest not to be pawns in their own masters' political ends, fighting to protect both each other and their country. I love the fact that early in the film, when M's bodyguard reveals himself as a double agent, before Bond runs him down, he looks back to make sure M was able to escape. I don't know if I'd have thought twice about that part if it wasn't there, but it was, and it helped make the film better.

And no humor, huh? Well, I confess, the film lacks the charming byplay that
CR had between Bond and Vesper. But saying that the film is without humor is just patently false. It may be as dry as the Perla de las Dunas, but it's there. More than that, it's intelligent. Take, for example, the scene in the bar where Felix and James are trading barbs about their governments' imperialistic natures:

Bond: "It's always amazed me how you boys have carved this place up."
Leiter: "I'll take that as a compliment coming from a Brit."

I laughed like crazy when I heard that line, as well as this exchange.

Bond: "You see, that's the thing about American intelligence; you'll lie down with anybody."
Leiter: "Including you, brother. Including you."

It's nice to see Bond and Leiter's relationship a little more realistic in terms of what I'd expect from an interaction between an MI6 agent and one from the CIA, and yet those sorts of exchanges also give us an increasingly solid feel for the friendship that these men are developing.
But, sorry, back to the humor. It's not only dry; it's subtle. Take Agent Fields for example. The lovely, inimitable...I'm sorry, give me a moment...

...Agent Strawberry Fields. The scenes between her and Bond are wryly playful ("teachers on sabbatical" was pretty hilarious), but I'm pleased that it took the credits to reveal her first name. "Just Fields," she insists in the film, but the credits deliver the very clever punchline. While the full name itself is by no means subtle, the script could have easily contained a couple of jokes about this, but the writers chose wisely in omitting them.

"Don't bleed to death."
"She's seasick."
"Tell her Slate was a dead end."
"I'm not dwelling on the past; I don't think you should either."
"If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be greatly appreciated."

To say nothing of Bond throwing keys and phones around with abandon.

Really? No humor?

One quick note--that subtlety that I mentioned earlier also extends to the dramatic. Camille speaks of the "mark" that General Medrano gave her as a child. Referring to the burn scars on her back, we don't see the mark when she speaks of it. This was a great touch, as we'd seen the scars already a few times. We didn't need to be spoon fed the image to accompany the dialogue.

Speaking of quick notes, I have more to say, but it's probably best if I keep the rest brief. I may come back to some or all of these later, but at the time of this writing, it'll be amazing if anybody but me and all the unnecessarily pissed fans still care about this film enough to discuss it.

Without further ado, a "few optional extras" (22 in fact), in no particular order:

  1. I've already written about the song, but I'll also say that the titles sequence is really quite stunning. The women emerging from the sand dunes, the zoetrope-esque images of the women spinning round...did I mention that the women are back in the titles?
  2. Speaking of women, Olga Kurylenko does a superb job as Camille. Bond's female mirror in almost every respect, I really want her to return in a future installment.
  3. I do wonder how many of the people who flat-out don't like the film are new fans who jumped onboard with CR and who don't really get the pedigree of these films. I'd wager quite a few.
  4. It's easily the most stylish of the films, at least with respect to fashion. I mean, how about those sunglasses, kids?
  5. No Moneypenny? No Q? No gadgets? No worries.
  6. I'd contend it's got the best acting of the series. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, gives a fine performance, particularly the film's star. It's not "Daniel Craig as James Bond." It's "Daniel Craig is James Bond."
  7. QOS offers the two most moving moments of the series, next to Vesper's death in CR. First, Mathis' death, particularly when Mathis asks Bond, "Do we forgive each other?" I'll admit that chokes me up (after all, I have no armor left). Second, the final scene of the film, when M says, "Bond, I need you back," to which Bond replies, "I never left."
  8. And how cool was that final scene, particularly when Bond yells, "SIT DOWN!" As the man says, I nearly took a fraidy pee.
  9. Bond apparently carries a knife. Good to know.
  10. The fight with Slate was fantastic. Quick. Savage. Bloody. Terrific.
  11. Speaking of terrific, how about Bond slapping that guy off of his motorcycle? That's the stuff.
  12. The fight in the elevator could have been shot/cut better. I know it's close quarters--and an elevator--so we don't need that much spatial definition...but still.
  13. David Arnold has truly outdone himself and provided the film with the best score of the series. And people who say there's not enough Bond theme in the score: a) need to listen closer, and b) honestly ask themselves if the Bond theme has ever been overused.
  14. On the subject of music, the whole opera sequence was amazing from start to finish, particularly that giant eyeball. I've got to visit that place.
  15. On the subject of the opera sequence, don't you love how Mr. White didn't get up with the rest of the Quantum members (or is that Q.U.A.N.T.U.M.)?
  16. There was fine production design throughout, but overall we could have stood more camera time for it.
  17. The film does a wonderful job with homages to the previous installments. Obviously there's Fields' death--a blatant nod to Goldfinger--but I really enjoyed the nods to The Spy Who Loved Me (Bond throwing Haines' bodyguard off the roof in Bregenz, and the business card with the alias Robert Sterling, which was the alias Bond used in TSWLM).
  18. Nice to see M's Chief of Staff, Tanner, back in action as well.
  19. I didn't mention it above, but I noticed that M put two copies of the same photo of Vesper and her boyfriend Yusef in the file that she hands Bond. Why would there be two copies? Was M tacitly inviting Bond to chase him?
  20. The scene where Bond talks with Camille about killing is fascinating to me. It's an odd one. Bond is so calm while talking to her essentially about how to successfully achieve her vengeance, but we know he's still working through his own vendetta. He can still be the "blunt instrument" of CR, but by the film's end he also demonstrates the capacity to move beyond that.
  21. While I think the ending of the film gives great closure to Bond's emotional arc, I do wish we'd seen the original ending with Bond, Mr. White, and Guy Haines. While I know the filmmakers wanted to free themselves to go a new direction, I want a trilogy out of this story.
  22. Regardless of my feelings on the ending, I think the film serves incredibly well as a bookend to CR, a bridge to the next film, or most importantly on its own.
Quantum of Solace: Great Bond, or the Greatest Bond? Definitely great Bond. I'd put it at #2, behind only Casino Royale. I'll be intrigued to see how QOS ages, though. After all, CR was a film that I'd waited practically my whole life to see. It's almost impossible for anything to contend with that. Maybe time will convince me otherwise.

Aside from my gratitude to you for making it this far in my paltry piece, only two things left to say:

First, thanks to everybody who saw the film with me, all of whom contributed to this review--whether you know it or not--through your lively, erudite, and often hilarious conversation. You know who you are.

Second, the best four words in the English language: JAMES BOND WILL RETURN.

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