Friday, November 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace: Quantum thrills

Quantum of Solace (2008) • View trailer for Quantum of Solace
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.14.08
Buy DVD: Quantum of Solace • Buy Blu-Ray: Quantum of Solace [Blu-ray]

One expects many things from a James Bond film — furious action scenes, mordant one-liners, compliant female companions — but political topicality isn't high on the list.

And yet Quantum of Solace boasts a central plotline ripped from today's headlines: a subject so serious that a grim documentary, Flow, has been making the rounds even as this newest Bond adventure explodes on screens across the world.
Somewhat worse for the wear, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Camille (Olga
Kurylenko) manage to escape from one tight spot, only to find themselves in
the midst of an even worse predicament. Truly, though, what else would we
expect of an 007 adventure?

Daniel Craig once again cuts an impressive figure as both the most physically imposing and vulnerable 007 the 22-film series has delivered, and he also fills the stylish Tom Ford suits with considerable aplomb.

As was the case with Casino Royale, though, the much-welcomed series reboot isn't limited merely to the actor whom naysayers once foolishly dismissed as "the blond Bond"; scripters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have built another ground-level thriller as far removed from the cartoon megalomania of (for example) Moonraker and Tomorrow Never Dies as could be imagined.

Clearly, the re-booted Bond formula has been influenced heavily by the success of Matt Damon's Bourne entries, but that's just fine; we need to remember that Bond was there first anyway, when the series debuted back in the 1960s, with the more realistic From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Both those earlier films also had an emotional undercurrent that vanished as Bond moved into the 1970s and '80s; watching Craig resurrect that aspect of our not-so-secret agent is a welcome sight.

Quantum of Solace begins minutes after the adrenalin-pumping finale of Casino Royale, as Bond bundles the injured Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) into the trunk of his car — you'll recall that 007 shot White, having deduced that this shadowy figure had something to do with Vesper's death in the previous film — and attempts to deliver this baddie to an interrogation session with M (Judi Dench).

First, though, we're treated to a literally smashing car chase — Aston Martin vs. Alfa Romeo — taking place on a crowded, enclosed mountainside highway along Northern Italy's Lake Garda: a novelty because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic which you'd think would make such an action sequence impossible.

The subsequent session with White also hits an unexpected snag, which leads to the film's second breathtaking action sequence: a footchase that manages to outdo the "free-running" sequence that so stylishly kicked off Casino Royale. Second unit director Dan Bradley and stunt coordinator Gary Powell do astonishing things with this hell-for-leather pursuit; the result is a visceral thrill-ride that'll literally catch your breath.

This, above all else, is the best part of the Bond series' return to basics: the sense that we're once again watching real people risking their lives for jaw-dropping, hare-brained stunts ... rather than shaking our heads and sighing skeptically at the invisible car or notoriously ridiculous wind-surfing sequence from Die Another Day.

That said, even this new film succumbs to a bit of CGI nonsense during its explosive finale, and the result is somewhat anti-climactic ... in part, as well, because director Marc Forster front-loads the best action sequences into the film's first half.

But that comes later.

Bond's early skirmish with White leads to the mysterious Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, well remembered from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), who fronts a well-respected "green" corporation while actually conducting sinister business well beneath the radar. Unfortunately, the American CIA has gotten into bed with Greene because of the latter's willingness to help topple a corrupt (read: anti-U.S.) Bolivian president, and replace him with the more compliant Gen. Medrano (Joaquín Cosio).

The fact that Medrano is a power-hungry thug doesn't seem to bother the on-site CIA handler in charge, although it clearly disgusts this fellow's associate, Bond's always reliable friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, reprising his role from Casino Royale).

Further complications arrive in the form of Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who seems to have slept her way into Greene's inner circle, although this villain's trust evaporates just as Bond enters the scene. Camille's actual identity and purpose remain concealed for a bit, but we share Bond's belief that she probably can be trusted.

And Bond needs somebody to trust. White's scornful, untroubled boast as his interrogation commences — "The first thing you should know is that we have people everywhere" — proves truer than even M could imagine, and suddenly the entire British intelligence community seems suspect. Bond also can't count on American assistance; the CIA already is furious because of 007's repeated interference with Greene.

That leaves only one possible ally: Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini, also reprising his role from Casino Royale), abducted and tortured by Bond's people as the previous film concluded, but now revealed to have been on the side of the angels. Although possessing every reason to hang onto a well-deserved grudge against Bond at this point, Mathis can't help respecting the British agent's apology.

This scene could have been a tough sell, but the flinty-eyed Giannini makes it work, in that honorable-spies-must-stick-together sort of way.

Forster concentrates on this and similar scenes that delve into the troubled souls of these characters; such dramatic moments are to be expected from the director who helmed Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland (making him one of the more interesting choices to chaperone a Bond thriller). This story's emotional undercurrent is powered by Bond's repeated refusal to confront his feelings about Vesper, a dangerous lack of candor that prompts one of M's best lines, delivered with Dench's usual chill authority:

"I think you are so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don't care who you hurt. When you can't tell your friends from your enemies, it's time to go."

Kurylenko is an intriguing female lead: She makes Camille angry and unhappy for the same reasons that fuel Bond's blind fury, and that gives Kurylenko and Craig an intriguing chemistry. The more playful side of Bond's nature emerges in the company of Gemma Arterton's cute Agent Fields, a desk agent assigned to return Bond to London when he pops up in Bolivia, but who can't help succumbing to 007's charm.

(With Craig's inviting blue eyes put to such good use, who could blame her?)

Amalric is an interesting choice as a primary villain. He lacks the physical flaws that characterize most Bond baddies — no jagged scars, no tears of blood — and instead manifests the aristocratic sophistication of Michael Lonsdale's Hugo Drax (Moonraker) or Jonathan Pryce's Elliot Carver (Tomorrow Never Dies). That makes Amalric's Greene more credible as a human being, but less threatening as an evenly matched adversary.

The notion that Greene could hold his own against Craig's Bond is simply laughable; Christensen's Mr. White is much more menacing.

Forster's obvious skill with dramatic interplay notwithstanding, the director obviously isn't as comfortable with the film's more frantic stuff. Everything's fine when left in the hands of Bradley and his second-unit crew, but one gun-blazing confrontation, staged against an opera taking place at Austria's Bregenz Festival House — a truly striking location — is much too "arty" for a Bond film.

Forster tries for dramatic counterpoint, as David Arnold's score, the sounds of gunfire and furniture-spilling havoc are dampened beneath the climactic music and singing of Tosca, taking place on the massive floating stage above; the result just feels wrong.

Speaking of wrong, while this film's title credits are a welcome return to the silhouetted female forms that have become signature icons in Bond credits sequences — Casino Royale was such a disappointment, in this respect — Jack White and Alicia Key's title song, "Another Way to Die," is just as ghastly as Madonna's hiccuped monstrosity in Die Another Day.

Honestly, whatever happened to Bond title songs with lyrics one could understand, and hum during the subsequent drive home? Can't these tunes be melodic any more?

Fortunately, a single oddly uninvolving action scene and a botched title theme don't leave enough of an impression to damage this film's greater ability to deliver in all the important ways. At an economical 106 minutes, Quantum of Solace also is one of the shortest Bonds, and that's good; Forster understands the merits of economical storytelling. He gets on the stage, tells his story and then gets off again ... with no flab in evidence along the way.

And as the iconic gun-barrel logo crosses the screen to unveil the film's closing credits, I'm left with only one thought and desire:

On to No. 23!

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