16 November 2008

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace (2008)
Directed by Marc Forster. Starring Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amarlic, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Gianni, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright, Joaquin Cosío

Amazing. Only two films into the re-boot of the James Bond series, and the enterprise has already run off the rails. I don’t know how Eon Productions achieved it with such speed, but they’ve gone from a fresh start to a tedious, mindless picture in a mere two years.

Yes, Quantum of Solace is a bad film. It’s loud, dumb, filled with uninvolving action scenes, and plotted with a pencil tracing straight lines along a ruler from Point A to Point B without any reason except that the movie has to get to Point F eventually. It thieves form the Bourne series relentlessly, can’t work up any of the actual drama that its predecessor managed, and is so workmanlike under director Marc Forster that for all the pyrotechnics it is acutely, painfully boring. At least it clocks in under two hours.

Quantum of Solace is a direct sequel to 2006’s Casino Royale, and unless you’ve seen that film recently, you’ll have plenty of trouble figuring out what’s happening in the follow-up. (Even if you have, good luck caring about any of it.) But Quantum of Solace is really a re-make of 1989’s Licence to Kill. The plots are identical. Bond goes on a personal vengeance quest, causing MI6 to turn against him as a rogue agent and getting him tangled in American involvement with the adversary he’s pursuing. Licence to Kill is not a good film, but it did have Timothy Dalton as Bond, who hit dead-on target what revenge means to a man like James Bond. Dalton must have carefully read the novel You Only Live Twice. With Quantum of Solace, we’re stuck with Daniel Craig, giving one of the most misguided and uninteresting portrayals of 007 yet to grace the screen. He plays Bond as thuggish, boring, and actually flat-out stupid. He bears no resemblance to Fleming’s character at all.

The film again starts without the gun-barrel logo (don’t fret, the editor snuck in during the dead of night and tacked it to the end) and straight into a car chase on a cliff-side Italian road. No introduction, no chance to know what is going on. Therefore, not exciting; and very reminiscent of a scene from a Jason Bourne movie. This will happen many times throughout the film. Action scenes pile up ceaselessly, shot and edited with machetes and leaving no impact at all. There’s a boat chase, a fight inside a Spanish dome on scaffolding, an airplane pursuit, fisticuffs for no reason, and Bond shooting people randomly. The finale in a compound in a Bolivian desert flies up so fast that as a viewer I hardly had time to realize that this was the finale before it was over. At least I got to see Mathieu Amalric swinging an axe while screaming a hilarious high-pitched yowl.

Only one action sequence works, and it’s the best scene in the film: an artfully choreographed encounter at an outdoor opera where Bond tries to flush out all his enemies at once. This was the only point in the film where I felt my interest stand up and take notice.

The story? All right, if you insist.

Bond goes on the trail of the organization behind the death of his love Vesper. The organization, SPECTRE Quantum, is an alliance of powerful folks who will do any deal for any government if the price is right. They supposedly have people everywhere, but as a ghostly threat, SPECTRE Quantum vanishes very soon. Bond starts killing people on his vengeance path, not the best planning for an “intelligence” operative, which makes him a rogue agent to MI6. Also, the U.S. and Britain have dealing with some of SPECTRE’s Quantum’s clients, and halting the group’s activities, such as an upcoming coup in Bolivia and the control of the country’s water supply, might go against the national interest. Bond gets a semi-partner along the way, Camille, a girl with her own vengeance quest against a Bolivian general who killed her family.

Drama could arise out of this, but not until the halfway mark does the script start to make any use of the character relationships, and at that point it’s too late. Camille as portrayed by Kurylenko is a cipher, and gets upstaged by sacrificial-lamb Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton). Amalric, who did such a fine job as a man who wrote a book using only his left eyelid in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a weak main villain who is nothing more than an unethical businessman. For someone creating a drought so he can control the public water supply, he’s no Noah Cross. Much more interesting is secondary bad guy General Medrano (Joaquin Cosío), a sadist with more at stake in the story.

Perhaps most disappointing among the supporting cast is the way the movie tries to dredge up two of Bond’s allies from the Fleming series who appeared in Casino Royale, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and René Mathis (Giancarlo Gianni), only to waste them away. Leiter might as well not be in the film, and since Mathis was handled poorly in Casino Royale, there isn’t much for him to do here.

On to the heart of the problem, Daniel Craig.

I was never part of the “anti-Craig” brigade that sprung up when his casting was announced for Casino Royale. The whole “Craig Not Bond” online ordeal was more about complaining that Craig wasn’t Pierce Brosnan or Sean Connery. A separate faction sprung up with the attitude “Craig Best Bond Evah!” which was equally annoying considering the film hadn’t even come out yet. I took the “wait-and-see” attitude about Craig, and saw some interesting possibilities in him in Casino Royale, but still felt uncomfortable with his portrayal of a character so important to me. The possibility that the character would “grow” as seen in Casino Royale allowed me cut Craig some slack in that film. But no more. Daniel Craig, for the good of the series, please resign. The movie series should take a few years break, wait for the third Batman film to get made, and then the producers should do what they should have done in the first place: cast Christian Bale as 007.

A few odds and ends:
  • The movie copies the most famous shot from the most famous Bond movie of all, Goldfinger. The filmmakers do themselves no favors by reminding me of Goldfinger.
  • Composer David Arnold sounds bored. He was such a relief when he scored Tomorrow Never Dies because of the hideous score that Eric Serra had written for GoldenEye, but now I think he’s reached his limit. I know John Barry will never score another Bond film, but Eon should look into hiring Michael Giachinno for the next movie. My evidence: The Incredibles.
  • Long-time 007 production designer Peter Lamont retired after Casino Royale. I miss him already.
  • The title song, “Another Way to Die,” performed by Alicia Keyes and Jack White, is horrible. But Bond songs ceased being quality a long time ago. Would somebody please do a jazzy number instead?
  • I do like MK12’s credit sequence, sort of Bond meets The Sheltering Sky meets Copernicus. But the “ethnic” fonts used to identify world locations: stop it, please. Helvetica 12 point will do fine.
  • The movie of course has nothing to do with Fleming’s short story. But the short story is Bond listening to the governor of the Bahamas tell him about a failed marriage, so no surprise there. I do recommend reading it, however.
Usually, I see a new Bond film in the theaters at least twice. I will now break that tradition. Station W6N signing off.