Sunday, January 04, 2009

Quantum of Solace

I didn't write a review of Quantum of Solace when it first came out, because I didn't get around to seeing it for a while and by the time I got to it, I thought the world might be a bit saturated with Quantum reviews.  But then stuff happened.  First, I went to see the film again over Christmas with my James Bond loving brother and enjoyed it, again.  Second, I read that Quantum of Solace topped Peter Traver's list of most disappointing films of 2008.  Now, finally, after re-watching Casino Royale last night on Showtime, I find I cannot keep silent anymore.  Quantum of Solace is a great movie.  Apologies to Travers and Roger Ebert who both gave Solace poor reviews, but you guys are dead wrong. 

Anyone who knows me knows I love James Bond, but that doesn't mean I don't recognize a bad movie when I see it.  There are many installments of the Bond oeuvre which aren't great and a few that flat out suck.  Most of them fall into the category of "fun".  A few of them actually qualify as "memorable" (as in, having a plot remarkable enough to distinguish them from the 22 others), including On Her Majesty's Secret ServiceThe Living Daylights and Die Another Day (I'm sorry but I really couldn't think of a memorable Roger Moore one, and I've seen them all, many times.  I think we could easily replace all of the Roger Moore episodes with a copy of Disney's The Incredibles and be as entertained, if not more.)  A select few are truly great films, in or out of the James Bond series, including Dr. NoGoldfinger and, I would argue, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  

When the Broccoli family decided to do a reboot of the franchise after Die Another Day, they were taking a big risk.  Pierce Brosnan was a fine Bond, combining at least some of the sex appeal of Sean Connery along with the comedy chops of Roger Moore and absolutely nothing of Timothy Dalton.  Die Another Day was high note.  It was a turn towards a more serious Bond, with an actual plot with stakes that felt higher than usual (After being imprisoned and tortured by the Koreans, Bond escapes to find he's been sold out and his creds revoked).  Brosnan wasn't interested in retiring, and the Bond machine easily could have churned out several more episodes of "insert villain Slot A, gadget Tab B with a dash of women with dirty sounding names and shake well" with no one complaining. 

The problem, which the Broccolis recognized even if doubters (including myself) did not, was that the landscape for James Bond had radically changed.  Bond's signature had always been to combine action (which tended to schizo between cold war hi-jinks and science fiction), hot chicks, high tech gizmos and humor based on bad puns.  When the James Bond franchise began, Victoria's Secret models were not readily available on every tv station but, by 2005, the average teenage boy did not need to buy a movie ticket to see a really hot chick in a bikini.  The nifty gizmos that Bond hid in every shoe were now pretty much available to anyone with access to a Radio Shack.  

Elsewhere Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne were busily defining what it meant to be a lone wolf secret agent man in a post Cold War/9-11 century.  Most significantly, the biggest problem facing the Broccolis in the new millennium was the wild success of the Austin Powers franchise.  Double entendres about Christmas coming only once a year wilted in comparison to single entendres about flying penises.  The Bond films were in danger of becoming a pale imitation of themselves and completely irrelevant to new generations of potential fans. 

Casino Royale, which earned universally high acclaim, stripped the franchise down to its gears and rebuilt something familiar but also refreshingly new.  The one liners were gone, replaced with still present but very dry, lightly administered humor.  The action was dirty and raw.  When Daniel Craig chased bad guys through the jungle he actually sweat.  When Craig fought with villains, one got the impression that effort was being expended.  When he was hit, he bled.  The plot was set firmly in reality.  (Note to any of my mothers who are reading this: When I say "reality", rather than suggest that a high stakes poker game the funds from which, if not successfully intercepted, will go to fund terrorism is actually "likely", I mean to say it is plausible within the physical laws of time and space, as opposed to, say, a device which if not stopped will DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD, MWA HA HA HA!).  Bond had something approaching an adult romance with Vesper Lind, a woman whose name is not a double (or single) entendre for a part of her anatomy (and who does not once appear in a bikini), and he gets his heart, an organ which had made possibly one other appearance in the 20 previous episodes, completely trashed.

Quantum of Solace proves that the Broccolis were serious when they started this renovation of the Bond series.  It is, in many respects, even more stripped down than Casino Royale, which had a glitzy casino backdrop and running gags about martinis to lighten the blow for those overly attached to Bondian kitch.  It's true that Solace is essentially Casino Royale, Part 2.  If you haven't seen Casino Royale, you're missing necessary pieces of information to fully appreciate Quantum of Solace.  This is a huge departure from traditional Bond episodes which always existed completely detached from each other, for better or worse.  

Except for a nifty computer interface back at the office, which probably actually exists somewhere, Solace features no wacky space age bachelor pad technology.  We get cell phones, head sets, maybe some RFID readers while I wasn't paying attention.  Bond's Astin Martin, which is quickly disposed of in smashing fashion, features no rocket launching exhaust pipe.  Bond's pen, which he still might use to kill you, is just a pen.  These developments seem to upset some people.  Myself, I found them really entertaining. 

A lot of the negative reviews of Quantum of Solace seem to focus on the ways in which the film departs from traditional Bond boiler plate.  It's too serious.  It somehow is both boring and/or has too much action.  Bond doesn't wear a tux enough.  There are no bad puns.  There are no gadgets.  These quibbles, however, are confusing what have become some of the signatures of James Bond movies with the actual reason we find Bond so compelling in the first place.  The hook of Bond has never been the puns or the gadgets.  It's the duality of the character's nature.  He's the man who can mix with high society effortlessly, excuse himself to kill a villain, then return to the baccarat table none the worse for wear.  It is this improbable combination that makes him interesting, and separates him from the likes of a Jason Bourne or a Jack Bauer, neither of whom could crash an opera opening in Austria as effortlessly as Bond does in Quantum of Solace.       

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are nothing less than the origin tale of James Bond, just as Batman Begins/Dark Knight have been the origin tale of Batman.  No one minded that Christian Bale didn't wear a bat suit in the first half of Batman Begins, because we all knew a bat suit was coming.  What mattered was not the suit, but how he got to it.  Royale/Solace show us just how this dual natured devil, the suave gentleman and the killer, came into existence.  We see Bond transform as an agent from a loose cannon to an effective and loyal agent.  As a man, we see him transform from a callow Jack-the-lad, all too aware of his charm and good looks, to a man who recognizes the cost both he and the people around him pay when he relies on his magnetism rather than his sense.  By the end of Solace, Bond is the cool, calm and collected agent we have always known, but now we also know the cost of getting him there.  

There are clearly schools of thought that feel making James Bond experience character development is excessive and unnecessary, like putting lipstick on a pig, or making Superman wear a helmet.  Personally, as someone who has seen every single one of the James Bond films, I think it's safe to say that the well had run dry on all gizmo and action plots.  Adding a human element to Bond gives the story energy.  It gives Bond a purpose.  It gives the characters around him motivation, and meat to work with, especially in what may the best part of the new Bond-verse: the expanded role of M.  Judy Dench should earn her own movie franchise for her portrayal of Bond's exasperated boss, a woman who is experiencing her own evolution in learning how to deal with this conundrum of an agent.  

Quantum of Solace isn't perfect.  The lack of a giant dam explosion flooding the Bolivian desert is unforgivable, really (You'll just have to see it to know what I'm talking about.  Once you do I'm sure you'll agree with me).  But as an entertaining and exciting end to the journey started in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace delivers.  And now that we know where this International Man of Mystery is coming from, I suspect that further installments will be lighter.  There was never anything wrong with the double entendres, hot and cold running bikinis or martinis for everyone, but they were always the frosting, not the cake.    



Lopez Kilpatrick said...

this version just left me more to think about than the previous ones. We saw casino royal on net flicks the day before we saw this one, and it was just fantastic. The writers and actors all did a great thing. What most struck me is the skill Daniel Craig has as bond. He says more silently than the double entendres (sp?) ever communicated. It was a great flick!

Kati said...

My original post threatened to be significantly longer, with in depth analysis of Bond's development as both a killer and a human bean. But then I thought it might be a bit much, more theses than blog post. Maybe I'll throw the analysis on separately.