Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Quantum of Solace

Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kuryenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Quantum of Solace, the 22nd entry in the 007 franchise and the first direct sequel of the series officially marks the arrival of a leaner, meaner James Bond film. Trimming the excess story fat and winking tone of previous installments and clocking in at a mere 106 minutes, it's a rather obvious attempt to (d)evolve the franchise into a Bourne-style thrill ride. Not a bad idea in theory, but the results are wildly mixed with a few flashes of greatness here and there, especially when it comes to the action. I wouldn't be so quick to flat-out dismiss the film as a disappointment, but that's only because it's impossible for me to be "disappointed" by a Bond film. I'm just not really a fan of the franchise to begin with. So that even I felt somewhat let down by this can't be a good sign.

It's no easy task to follow-up 2006's Casino Royale, one of the stronger (arguably the strongest) entry in the entire series. It had something for everyone and even those who aren't fans could lose themselves in the story and appreciate it. In Solace, director Marc Forster (taking over for Martin Campbell) adapts competently to the material but this movie is for the diehards and that's it. No one else will enjoy it because the story is just basically a retread of any other-by-the-numbers action flick thus making its enjoyment entirely dependent on the audience's relationship with the hero. I appreciated the effort to tighten things up but the major drawback is that the film felt like a series of exciting action scenes strung together and by the end I didn't care about the story, or most importantly, any of its characters. As far as Bond films go, it's well-made but forgettable.

Picking up only minutes after the events in Casino Royale conclude as Bond (Daniel Craig) is out for revenge after being betrayed by Vesper Lynd. After an exhausting car chase he zeroes in on the shadowy Quantum group who have "people everywhere," one of which is businessman Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Under a creepy guise of eco-friendliness, he's cozying up to exiled General Madrano (Joaquin Cosio) in order to take control of Bolivia's water supply. To stop them Bond hooks up with the exotic and dangerous Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a Russian-Bolivian agent who has her own axe to grind with the General.

Usually I really look forward to the opening credits of a Bond film but this is the first instance I can remember where I had to cover my ears and couldn't wait for it to end. The idea of teaming Jack White with Alicia Keys to record to record the newest Bond theme ("Another Way To Die") must have looked very enticing on paper but the result is so muddled you'll actually want to consider giving Madonna a call again. Anything would have paled next to Cornell's song for Casino Royale but this reeks of a stunt rather than an honest attempt to create a piece of music that reflects the tone of the film, whatever that even is. Always a welcome presence (especially in this installment) Judi Dench returns as M and seems more pissed off at Bond than ever, which adds some welcome tension. Jeffrey Wright is back as Felix Leiter but has significantly less to do this time around which is almost a given considering how short the film is.

Many unfair criticisms have been leveled against model-turned-actress Olga Kurylenko, but she oozes sexiness and danger and handles herself like a pro opposite Craig. The real problem has less to do with her performance than how the character is written. Since the Brosnan films it seems there's been more of an effort to have the Bond girl become more physically involved than she did in the Connery and Moore eras. This was originally a welcome change but now its reach a point here where the Bond girl is starting to become almost TOO INVOLVED. They could be considered a glorified sidekick, kind of like Shia LeBouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That helps make this feel more like your typical popcorn movie than a Bond film.

Eva Green's Vesper was Bond's equal in every way and her performance reflected that. We cared about her and her betrayal and subsequent death in Casino Royale hit the audience as hard as it hit him. Kurylenko isn't given anything to work with except a weak backstory cribbed from just about any other action flick. In her brief moment of screen time, Gemma Arterton's "Strawberry Fields" feels more like our textbook definition of the quintessential Bond girl and I found myself wishing she was in the movie more. Mathieu Amalric (best known for his brilliant work as a paraplegic in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) wisely avoids hammy cliches as the baddie but he's kind of a bore. You won't care about him or his plan and he seems rather conventional for a Bond villain. This reflects a larger issue within the entire film in that there's a lot going on, but not much incentive to see how it turns out.

After the success of Casino Royale it was almost inevitable that the Bond film settle back into a groove of sorts and generally the franchise is going in the right direction, with no need for drastic changes. I've actually heard some suggest that after this film's underwhelming performance Craig should be replaced as Bond. That's absurd. If anything, he's the reason why this installment even comes remotely close to working. He's by far the best choice of actor available right now who can project the necessary amount of confidence, suaveness and danger that are prerequisites to playing 007. Get rid of him and this franchise is dead in the water.

What surprised me most about Quantum of Solace was my attitude going in. I actually wasn't dreading it, which could indicate my stance on the series and character is softening. Casino Royale likely played a big role in that and after watching this I'm starting to wonder whether that film was slightly better than I originally gave it credit for. This isn't in that league at all but far from the disaster it's been made out to be. It even almost comes together in the third act, with a highlight being a clever body art tribute to Goldfinger. The title isn't the problem nor are Forster's shaky cam shenanigans. It all comes down to the story and in that regard Quantum of Solace doesn't give us anything different or special that sets it apart from not just the other Bond entries, but any other empty Hollywood action spectacle.

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