A film review by Craig J. Koban

QUANTUM OF SOLACE jj

2008, PG-13, 105 mins.

James Bond: Daniel Craig / Camille: Olga Kurylenko / Dominic Greene: Mathieu Amalric / M: Judi Dench / Rene Mathis: Giancarlo Giannini / Agent Fields: Gemma Arterton / Felix Leiter: Jeffrey Wright / Gregg Beam: David Harbour

Directed by Marc Forster and written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

Ah, yes…Daniel Craig.  To take a page out of Carly Simon’s famous lyrics from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME…nobody does it better.   

Granted, some would say with great exception that Sean Connery may be the greatest 007, but I beg to differ.  Craig certainly may not be the most significant movie James Bond, but I unequivocally think that he is the grandest Ian Fleming James Bond.  If one considers the writer’s initial insistence that the legendary character be seen as an “anonymous blunt instrument” that was a cold hearted, emotionally detached, and frequently ruthless renegade, then…sorry Connery purists...but Craig more than fits the bill better than any previous screen actor to portray the character.  By a long shot. 

Just consider 2006’s CASINO ROYALE, which was Craig’s very first foray in portraying the world’s most famous British Secret Agent, and it was a highly auspicious start, to be sure.  What I loved so much about that Bond adventure – the 21st in terms of the film’s canon – was how it radically and inventively re-created and re-imagined the classic hero for contemporary tastes (much akin to what Christopher Nolan did for the floundering Batman franchise with his brilliant BATMAN BEGINS and his even better THE DARK KNIGHT).  CASINO ROYALE featured a more cold-bloodedly determined and intimidating hero that harkened back to Fleming’s original vision.  The film – most refreshingly – had no outrageously conceived gadgets, no sarcastic and acerbic Q, no Miss Moneypenny, no out-of-this-world action stunt pieces that bordered on pure fantasy, no pithy puns or quips from the hero, no weird looking villains hell bent on world domination, and no intellectually vacant lasses whose only purpose was to bring out the character’s cheeky sexual promiscuity.  No, Craig’s Bond had no time for such silliness: his Bond was all brawn and chiseled fortitude whose only motive was to get the job done via any means necessary.  

In short, a vicious, effective, and authoritative blunt instrument. 

Okay, Craig’s initial casting, at first, sent shockwaves through the fandom.  He was seen as too old, too blonde, and too stoic and too serious to give the Bond legacy its due.  Well, hindsight is 20/20, because Craig proved in CASINO ROYALE that he’s the real deal through and through.  Yes, he may not be everyone’s initial choice of a worthy Bond replacement - he’s not as mischievous and sexy as, say, Connery, nor is he a sharp-witted and campy creation that was Roger Moore’s version.  Moreover, Craig certainly is not as sophisticated and debonair as Pierce Brosnan’s incarnation.  Yet, Craig represents the closet approximation to Fleming’s literary character, and he brought such a hard-edged, brutal, and remorseless quality to his super spy.  He also arguably was the most emotionally layered and vulnerable of all the portrayals listed.  When Craig’s Bond took a punch, the consequences were felt.  If anything, CASINO ROYALE emerged as the finest Bond actioneeer since the glory days of Connery, no easy feat indeed for a film that had such large shoes to fit. 

Now comes the oddly titled QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the long-awaited follow-up to the critically praised and box office powerhouse that was ROYALE, and it marks Craig’s second turn as Bond.  Most of the people behind the scenes have also returned (the icon-altering screenwriting team of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Oscar winner Paul Haggis are back, as are some of the principle actors and production team), but the directing honors have gone this time to German-Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster, whose previous small, art house independent efforts like MONSTER’S BALL and FINDING NEVERLAND kind of indicate him to be the least deserving filmmaker to helm a billion dollar Hollywood franchise.  By the director’s own admission in a recent interview, he stated, “It’s not like I was a big fan of Bond Movies.” 

Forster stepping in as a replacement for ROYALE’S Martin Campbell may seem like an intriguing gamble (perhaps an astute auteur like Forster could grab a hold of the re-envisioned Bondian mythos and continue to bring the character and his universe further down to more resonating and emotionally grounded levels).  Alas, the novel choice of Forster may be the primary reason for why QUANTUM OF SOLACE (sorry…but it is the dumbest title in Bond film history) is a lackluster and wholeheartedly disappointing entry in this new Bond film world.  Instead of using his indie street cred to further carry Bond into dramatic waters he swam in during ROYALE,  Forster is regrettably delegated into serving up SOLACE as a slam-bang, high octane, Jason Bourne-clone action film that’s way too heavy on masochistic mayhem for its own good.  Considering the relative clout of Forster’s past work, not to mention the same writing team from ROYALE that daringly and successfully rebooted a staling and lethargic franchise, SOLACE is a decided letdown: a Bond flick that forgot all of the wise choices it’s prequel made.  Instead, we are given up a handful of mindless and bombastic action sequences and a silly and nearly incomprehensibly dull storyline that drains away any morsel of intrigue and tension that the quieter moments that ROYALE brought to the service. 

SOLACE (the title is lifted from a little known Bond short story by Fleming, and that’s where the comparisons stop) has been incorrectly labeled as the first true, direct sequel to another Bond film (Huh?  Wasn’t DR. NO specifically referenced in its follow-up, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE??).  The film takes place almost directly after (one hour, to be precise) the events of the end of ROYALE, where you may remember showcased Bond discovering that the love of his life, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, who has the most hauntingly beautiful eyes in the movies today) betrayed him, but she appeared to give her life at the end during a battle between a mighty-p-oed Bond and her conspirators.  At the very end of ROYALE Bond captured the enigmatic terrorist named Mr. White (a slimy Jesper Christensen), who is part of a larger and mysterious world-spanning terror organization.  At the beginning of SOLACE Bond has placed the gagged and bound White in the trunk of his Aston Martin and is being perused by a series of White’s machine-gun wielding thugs in a high speed chase from Lake Garda to Siena Italy.  To say that Forster regrettably shoots this would-be rousing and thrilling sequence with borderline incomprehensible editing and annoying, vomit inducing camera work would be a broad  understatement. 

Needless to say, after a brief interrogation of White, Bond and his boss, M (Judi Dench, always a feisty delight) discover that White is just a small part of the larger organization called “Quantum” (think Spectre, but with a different, New Agey name).  For Bond, unraveling this organization is his revenge-filled obsession, seeing as they may have been a part of Vesper’s untimely demise.  This, of course, makes M’s job that much more difficult, seeing as she is getting severe pressure from higher ups to reign in the chaotically violent and trigger happy Bond.  Not as easy at it sounds. 

Bond’s tireless quest for the truth behind Quantum leads him to confront the quintessential Bond megalomaniacal bad guy, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, so brilliant in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, but more than a bit lost with his performance here).  Greene, like past Bond antagonists, has lofty evil ambitions, but his just may be the lamest in the entire Bond legacy.  You see, Green is not out for obligatory world domination, but rather he wants to cause a series of droughts in Bolivia so that he can…oh…wait for it…control their water supply.  If there has even been a more weak and uninspired Bond villain that felt more unimposing and unsubstantial as Greene…please feel free to let me know.  Compared to the cold, cunning, and memorable Le Chiffre from ROYALE, Amalric’s chief baddie here barely makes a sizeable dent. 

Anyhoo’, Bond’s tireless battles with Green has him mingling with some familiar friends and allies, alongside a few new ones.  First, there is the Yankie Felix Lighter (Jeffrey Wright, a great actor marginalized with an inordinately underdeveloped side character), a CIA agent that has a long cinematic history of befriending Bond.  Then there is the unattainably sexy and fetching Russian-Bolivian agent named Camille Montes (played by Olga Kurylenko, who was the only decent sight in this fall’s dreadfully dreary MAX PAYNE).  She has her own emotional wounds with Green and the whole Quantum organization, which makes her an effective companion to the equally resolute Bond.  Perhaps the most disagreeable aspect of her character is that Bond never once really undresses her with his eyes, nor does the thought of bedding this woman come into play.  I liked Kurylenko’s feistiness as Olga (not to mention that she is unfathomably easy on the eyes) but she is a poor substitute to the sly and sexually charged scenes that Craig and Eva Green had in ROYALE.  This is simply zero sexual energy between Craig and the actress here.  

To be fair, the absolute best element of QUANTUM OF SOLACE is, indeed, Daniel Craig, whose performance here capitalizes much on the suave level of rough and ruggedness that he gave Bond in ROYALE.  Very low on quips and cheeky irreverence (aside from one fun scene involving a seduction) and high on macho gumshum, mercilessness, and dangerous force, Craig’s Bond is still agreeably a nasty badass with a suppressed rage and hostility.  Just as he was shown in ROYALE, Craig here is a sheer pleasure, and the way he has carved out a niche for himself by truly inhabiting a character with as much cinematic weight as 007 is to his esteemed credit.  Witnessing Craig’s inventive and tour-de-force transformation of Fleming’s character away from past disagreeable portrayals is a true delight.   He certainly has made this Bond his very own. 

That’s where the accolades stop for ROYALE.  As much as Craig’s work here is here to eat up, SOLACE has replaced much of the splendid location glamour and quietly effective character and story moments of ROYALE with a substandard focus on action.  Any amount of smart rogue-like elegance and refinement that Craig brought to ROYALE has been supplemented by scene after scene of routine and banal action.  There is rarely a moment in SOLACE where the story is allowed to slow down and simmer.  As much as Craig certainly carries every minute of SOLACE, his presence alone is not enough to side-step the fact that the film languishes by failing to capture the most memorable moments of ROYALE that did not solely rely on spectacle (like many of the thrilling and tense poker scenes, as well as the perky flirtation and smart banter between Lynd and Bond).  If anything, the recurrent stunts and over-the-top action pieces grind the proceedings to a halt.  There is not much to really invest in because the screenplay does not have that much time to invest in its characters.  Lamentably, SOLACE tries to compete head to head with the Jason Bourne franchise for one-upmanship, which should not have been the core focus here. 

Marc Forster’s presence behind the camera, as stated, is also a serious issue.  His handling of the many action sequences shows his lack of understanding on how to portray action itself.  The introductory car chase is such a muddled, frenetic, and inexplicably shot and cut sequence that it’s hard to discern exactly what is happening at any given moment (just compare that scene to the clean and no-frills camera work and cinematography of Martin Campbell’s more satisfying handling of similar sequences in ROYALE).  Instead of letting the more visceral moments of SOLACE brew with any level of coherence, Forster engages in the same sort of undesirable tricks that too many disposable action directors utilize (when are filmmakers going to learn that incoherently cutting shots every two seconds is the least viewer friendly manner to showcase action?).  If anything, Forster’s inexperience with big budget filmmaking shows here: he seems bewildered and overwhelmed by the brevity of the material. 

And the there is SOLACE’S truly daft and, let’s face, frequently unintelligible storyline.  Part of the best elements of a great Bond script is its engaging and creatively executed villain and his dastardly scheme.  Although I appreciate Haggis and his fellow script doctors not lazily succumbing to drafting up Bond villains that are borderline cartoon caricatures (as many of the Bond villains have been), Dominic Greene just may be the least impressive of all of 007’s adversaries.  Not only that, but his master plan to control the world’s water supply is asinine at best, which paradoxically makes viewers hearken back to previous inane Bond criminals and their equally silly plans for supremacy.  Worst of all is the fact that there is never once a palpable sense of this character being a worthy and menacing figure in Bond’s crusade.  Remember that vile torture scene with Le Chiffre and Bond in ROYALE?  Nothing in SOLACE packs the same level of dreaded hazard and peril as that moment did.  

Alas, I am not worried…yet.  Daniel Craig, in just two films in a two-year period, has all but cemented himself in the highly cherished ranking as one of the greatest James Bonds with his wickedly amoral and fiercely combative agent.  CASINO ROYALE gave us a supremely teasing taste of what Craig and company would have up their creative sleeves for further Bond adventures.  Unfortunately, QUANTUM OF SOLACE is a full on PHANTOM MENACED-sized letdown in the manner it fails to capitalize on the arresting innovation and daring vision of ROYALE (and don’t get me started on that Alicia Keys and Jack White title credits song, which, for lack of a better phrase, sucks really hard).   SOLACE is so action hungry that it overwhelms any semblance of an involving and intriguing storyline (by the time you get to the closing credits, not much has actually transpired in this new Bond universe, a undesirably calamity that has afflicted most of the recent HARRY POTTER films).  Few BOND films – even the insidiously campy and outlandish entries – have felt as disposable and perfunctory as this one.  There certainly is another grand Bond film for Craig to appear in, but SOLACE is simply not it.  To loosely paraphrase a classic 007 riff, SOLACE is like a vodka martini that is neither shaken nor stirred because the filmmakers have simply flubbed with its key ingredients altogether.

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