Sunday, May 23, 2010

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Looking back at previous actor's second stab at the role of James Bond something is revealed. You can see how the tone would flow into the rest of their films. From Russia With Love gave us the beginnings of all the elements that would coalesce in Goldfinger. Roger Moore's Man with the Golden Gun focused more on humor than thrills. Pierce Brosnan appeared in Tomorrow Never Dies a movie that tries to balance thrills with comic book style action. What does Quantum show us about the direction of the Daniel Craig films?

British secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) has managed to get his hands on the mysterious Mr. White. White reveals that he is part of a much larger organization before all hell breaks loose and M (Judi Dench) is nearly killed. Bond loses White but is determined to find out who is pulling the strings that lead to the death of Vesper. He finds himself entangled with the lovely Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and her obsessive pursuit of Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). What does Greene have to do with the mysterious Quantum group, and what does it have to do with buying up acres of wasteland in Bolivia? Bond finds himself hurtling from Italy to Haiti, engaging in boat chases, dangerous plane flights and of course good old-fashioned explosions to reach a Quantum of Solace.

Good Points:
  • Daniel Craig and the rest of the cast are very good.
  • Excellent location choices and some very good scenes showing them off.
  • Ties up some of the unanswered questions from Casino Royale.
Bad Points:
  • Poorly executed action scenes
  • A plot moving so quickly and with so little down time that the viewer is never invested in the story or the characters.
  • Really weak opening theme.
A movie with solid groundwork ends up getting lost in the execution. As a result, the shortest of the Bond film feels like one of the longest. While the film does perform as a nice cap to Casino Royale it comes across more like an extended coda than a fully realized Bond film.

Score (out of 5)
Visual Aspects - 3
Sound Aspects - 5
Music - 3
Acting - 4
Script - 3
Direction - 2
Entertainment - 2
Final Grade: 3

In Depth Review

Not since Goldeneye has a first stab at a James Bond film really clicked with the public. Casino Royale was the type of James Bond film everyone wanted to see, and nearly everyone loved it. For the first time in a long while we got to know James Bond, got to see what made him tick, and what kind of a man he was. Sure some of the changes made things feel a bit off. People missed the gadgets, Q, Moneypenny, even some of the obvious humor. Me, not so much. I enjoyed this fresh take on 007. It was nice and gritty, a variation on what Dalton did in 87 and 89, and I enjoyed Dalton's take on the part.

So when I heard that Quantum of Solace was going to be a direct follow up to Casino Royale I was happy. I hoped they'd take what they had established in the previous film and just continue on that path. There was plenty of interesting places to go and it was obvious that Daniel Craig was up to the task. I wasn't hoping for a movie that would surpass Casino Royale. To me, that would be difficult to pull off. But I figured that if the story continued in the same style it would be a worthy follow up.

The final result was a movie that has its highest ratings in the sound and acting department, but is average or below average everywhere else. This hasn't happened in a Bond movie before to my knowledge and it reveals something interesting. Quantum of Solace ended up suffering at the hands of its creators. Let's take a look at what works and then see how it was diluted down.

All the ingredients for a excellent follow up to Casino Royale are in place. The script follows Bond as he attempts to find a line into who was the direct cause of Vesper's death. As he digs deeper into the mess, he finds out about Quantum and their plans for accumulating wealth and power. It seems that Greene is a key in those plans and the he was connected to Le Chiffre. Bond finds himself entangled in Greene's plot and a direct target for the powerful man. But Bond's cold fury isn't directed at Greene per se, he's after Vesper's old boyfriend. All the leads end up tying back to the mysterious man and Bond confronts him at the end of the film, after he's taken care of Greene.

Quantum of Solace offers a complex story, and one that requires us to feel with Bond. I'm sure it appealed to the cast, and they do an excellent job bringing the script to life. Daniel Craig is cold and hard in this film. He is focused on achieving his revenge and taking out anyone who gets in his way. His singular drive is completely revealed in his eyes and his stony demeanor. Some nice dialogue with Mathis and M helps bring out some of the finer points, but we get lots of physical cues from Craig.

Kurylenko as Camille also fits into her mold of a woman driven by revenge. Like Bond she is cold and calculating, but can turn on the charm to get what she wants. Her desire for revenge against General Medrano is convincing. When she finally achieves her desire, the emptiness of the execution and her situation engulfs her (not to mention the peril of the burning and exploding building) and we see a woman broken by getting what she wants. It's a very good performance and one that has plenty of ties back to Vesper.

Amalric is a top notch French actor with quite a impressive list of credits. So it seems a bit of a waste to cast him in the part of a sleazy and manipulative jerk, with little depth. He's a man who wants power and will do whatever he has to do to get it. His casual act of nearly pushing Camille to her death is chilling. His confident manner in bargaining with General Medrano was good as well. But when faced physically against Craig's Bond, it takes some stretching of imagination to see Greene as any type of threat. He does it well enough that you are satisfied with his exit.

Supporting cast was up to the challenge. I enjoyed seeing Giannini return as the weathered and worn Mathis. He's given a bit more to do this time around and his final scenes in the film add a good punch. Dench is excellent as M, she's fitting in perfectly with the new harder edged Bond film. Gemma Arterton has a small but key part as Fields, Bond's only female conquest in the film. She's good, but you wish she had a larger role. Cosio plays General Medrano with a cruel delight. He's the type of unstable creep you'd expect in a Bond film and he's a good opponent for Camille.

The locales for Quantum of Solace are pretty impressive. You start off in Sienna, Italy and get some great beauty shots as well as some horse race action. A foot chase is contrasted in an interesting way with the horse race, something that should have worked well but... I'm getting ahead of myself. Then it's off to Haiti for a key meeting with Greene and a boat chase. Then back to Europe with a stop in Vienna. This is an elegant setting with lots of cool blues and blacks. It includes one of the most impressive Bond settings with a modern opera going on and an enormous eye staring out into the audience. Then it's over to Bolivia for the bulk of the action. You've got a nice mix of scenes set in La Paz, the capital city and then into the wastelands of Bolivia with some serious heat coming off the screen. The movie wraps with a scene in snowy Russia. This is an excellent setting for the revelation at the end, a cool down for the heat of the previous scenes.

Most of the set work is very good. The new MI6 headquarters room is all done in cold white and glass. Sure some of the computer graphics are over the top, but we expect that in a Bond movie. I also enjoyed the desert compound in Bolivia. The interior was convincing as an actual building and it worked well once the action scene kicked in.

David Arnold comes back for his fifth turn as the composer. His score works fine with the action, delivering a score that matches the film in its distant style. There aren't too many flourishes of the Bond theme here, just lean mean pulse driving action. Some hints of Vesper's theme from Casino Royale slide in here and there and work well to tie the movies together. Of all the scores that Arnold has done, this has the least character to it. Not a bad score, but more functional than colorful.

Since Goldeneye gave us some serious explosions to rock the seats with, James Bond has not skimped in the sound department. Quantum falls right in line. The action scenes give you plenty to enjoy with bullets flying, water splashing, fire raging, explosions erupting and opera music rising. When the movie slows down enough to hear the atmospheric sounds, they add to the feature.

Now moving on to the less than stellar issues. The first is the extremely unimpressive theme song performed by Alecia Keys and written by Jack White: Another way to die. I'm not entirely averse to taking Bond themes in a new direction. I just wish that the title song was good enough to be worked into the movie score. This would not only contribute to giving the score it's own identity, but would have given the song a bit more personality. As it stands, this may be one of the most dispensable opening themes since All Time High from Moonraker. This weakness contributed to my lower music grade. The best Bond scores work the theme song and other themes into the score to create a solid musical feel for each movie. It just didn't happen here.

As for the script, there seems to be a lot of good intent here, as I pointed out above. But from the final product I don't feel like everything was addressed in a complete manner. The biggest failing is that the ending of the film does not deliver the punch that I think they were intending. It's a bit flat, feeling like a punctuation on something that never was an issue. And yet, I got the feeling that the cast knew that there was something deeper going on - so maybe the script was solid. But in the final product, it just feels less then complete.

In the end the execution of the entire film rests on the director. He guides how the movie is going to turn out, from filming up to editing and postproduction. I think what happened here was a director who was put into very different waters and was at a loss on how to proceed. Maybe there were complaints that Casino Royale was too long and didn't have enough action. So the verdict was to make a shorter film with more action.

I think that effort to streamline the complex story was the first nail in the coffin. I understand the need to keep the plot moving, but they way the movie ended up unspooling was actually a detriment to it's entertainment value. The characters, so well defined (for a Bond movie) in Casino Royale were really just flat here. Bond's motive and goals are never defined for the audience. The delivery of Greene's scheme is tossed in with such a blasé attitude that it never seems like a threat to anyone. Bond sees some thirsty people, OK, but he never seems moved by their plight. It's just as if he happens to stop Greene on his way to a bigger goal.

Then there is the action scenes. There is a current belief that the faster the cuts and the more movement in the camera the more thrilling the action scenes are. Put the audience into the action with hand held cameras and they will be on the edge of their seat. Or maybe it's because they are feeling ill because of the motion, or a just trying to figure out what is going on.

For a James Bond film (and any film where action set pieces are key) a lot of time and money goes into making action scenes as realistic as possible. The free running chase in Casino Royale was a perfect example of how to execute an exciting, action scene. It was clear what was happening at all times. It was fast paced, but not confusing. It moved the story forward and kept you guessing at how Bond was going to end up catching the guy. Compare this to the pre-credit car chase in Quantum. Fast edits show us cars moving, trucks driving. Cars dodging. Bond in danger. Bad guys with guns. Police watching the chase. Cars crashing. Bond in danger. More speed. More driving and then it's over. I had no clue who was in what car at what time, and didn't really care about it. In most of the other pre-credit sequences, we get a nice mini movie. Some of the best ones, like The World is Not Enough or The Living Daylights give us a bit of story with a key action scene. Here it's just a mish mash of sound and fury with a slightly funny one liner at the end.

All the action scenes suffer from this. There is no clarity here and it only makes things boring or worse, funny. The boat chase in Quantum is a perfect example. It was fast and wet and there was some kind of action going on. But I have no clue how Bond got out of it. There was an anchor and he threw it and then the boat was gone. It made me laugh. I suppose he used the enemy's anchor, but it looked like it was his own. In any case, it wasn't as thrilling as I think they hoped it would be.

For me this Bond film just didn't really meet the requirements to keep me entertained. It was fast and noisy, but other than that, it never really engaged me on any level. It was nice to see the characters again, but the execution of the story and the mismanagement of the action scenes made the movie feel so much longer than it was. It's a shame really, because there is a lot to like here, but I really think this movie could use another longer edit with better work in the action editing and you'd have a worthy follow up to Casino Royale. As it stands now, it's probably the weakest Bond film since Octopussy, something I never thought would happen during Daniel Craig's tenor as Bond. It made me appreciate the skills of a solid action director (like Martin Campbell - Goldeneye and Casino Royal and John Glen The Living Daylights, For Your Eyes Only) brought to these films. Well, it can only get better from here.

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