Tuesday 23 October 2012

From the archive: "Quantum of Solace"

In 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, a rogue intelligence operative with the initials JB, haunted by the death of a loved one played by a prominent young European actress, went after those who may have been responsible for her death. It's a sign of just how the Bourne movies have rewritten the rule book for mainstream action cinema that Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond film, should effectively replay the same set-up. This latest entry begins where 2006's Casino Royale, the franchise reboot, left off, with 007 (Daniel Craig) trying to track down the killer(s) of Vesper Lind, the atypically babelicious accountant he dallied with on his last mission. Along the way, Bond will run up against a cabal of multinational ne'er-do-wells - the QUANTUM of that vaguely silly title - who've been plotting a coup in Bolivia in order to sell off the country's oil supply to the American and British governments; taking them down doesn't do our hero any favours with representatives of the CIA or MI6.

The European influence that marked Casino Royale so is carried over: chief bad guy is a smirking Mathieu Amalric, who - in the highlight of his performance - turns up to the final confrontation blithely snacking on an apple. (Because even the nefarious rich need to get their five-a-day.) In one sense, this refitting of 007 for the corporate era has been a success: as fleshed out by Craig, Bond is now a thug in a Tom Ford suit, at least as ruthless as those he's pursuing, and almost pathologically unable to pass a plate-glass window without throwing himself and somebody else through it. The actor is at his most expressive when at his most physical: tripping up a motorcycle for the hell of it, or ripping the handle off a disabled toilet door. (That'll teach 'em, James.)

There remains a strong sense, however, that screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are still tinkering with the character of 21st-century Bond, leading to a number of inconsistencies. Getting Bond sloshed on cocktails to forget his true love is a neat twist - but he still ends up bonking a raincoated MI6 orderly (Gemma Arterton) in the very next scene, so I'm guessing his heart isn't too bruised; trying to convince us James Bond has emotions means having to convince us James Bond is a real human being, rather than an accumulation of tics and accoutrements (martinis, guns, cars) - something no recent Bond movie has managed.

The marked failing of these recent Bonds is that, despite being able to afford the very best (potentially great leads, interesting villains, unusual Bond girls, the best stunts and stuntmen in the business), they've almost all been anonymous, interchangeable, utterly lacking in character. This one has both Haggis (Crash, In the Valley of Elah) on the credits and Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Stranger Than Fiction) behind the camera, and yet upwards of 80% appears to have been shot by the second-unit. (You'd have to have an extraordinary faith in the auteur theory to claim that, as elsewhere in Forster's filmography, morbidity is key to an understanding of Quantum of Solace: the film is littered with bodies, yes, but not one of them is mourned.)

And so, writing and thinking about a Bond film has become an exercise in bookkeeping, all credits cancelled out by debits. The mix-and-match theme tune, by Jack White and Alicia Keys (why both? Why not just one?), simply isn't very good; the bland, tanned Olga Kurylenko is no Eva Green; and some of it hints at a major failing of intelligence. Why on earth would the villains take as their secret lair a massive fuel deposit, so that as soon as one jeep crashes into it, the whole building goes up in smoke? Casino Royale looked very much to me like business as usual for this franchise; at 106 minutes, you could possibly argue that Quantum of Solace is a more time-efficient Bond, but it's typical of a frustratingly mixed entry that this, the first Bond for some time to come in under the two-hour mark, should feel as ploddy as the series ever did.

(October 2008)

 Quantum of Solace is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox.

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