Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Something Of Boris?

Before I begin to discuss the latest Bond movie in a rambling, incoherent, and spoilery manner, some clarification on what the title of this post means:

We saw Quantum of Solace last night and were not nearly as blown away by it as we were with Casino Royale, which, as I've said before, instantly became one of my favourite Bond movies to date. That's not to say I didn't like it; it had punching, explosions, spies, subterfuge, creepy-looking Euro-villains, and someone getting killed with a tiny pair of nail scissors; how could I not love it on some level?

The good parts included Daniel Craig (of course), who continues to be the most exciting Bond since Connery, with his sexy body, excellent voice, and commanding screen presence. Playing Bond as half wounded romantic, half unstoppable force, it's impossible to take your eyes off him as he slams a variety of brawlers through doors and windows or juts his bottom lip out when he's trying not to let his emotions show. His amoral streak shows up regularly, be it killing various leads (which puts him into conflict with M) or impassively driving a boat while ignoring the unconscious woman at his feet.

That said, more than any other Bond so far, he's also incredibly bratty and cheeky, exposing the members of evil terrorist organisation Quantum at a performance of Tosca by jumping in on their communications chatter, an impulsive move that, despite working brilliantly, ends up with him shot at and framed for murder. Since the previous movie, where he loses the one thing he cares about, he has become even bolder, running from one lead to another without pausing for breath, all the while eluding those chasing him with embarrassing ease. One lovely moment shows him effortlessly outmaneuvering M's goons in a hotel, skipping onto ledges and into lifts while they thunder back and forth in futile pursuit. Considering the brute force on display elsewhere, his cocky playfulness shines through.

Also great is Dame Judi Dench as M, but that's no surprise. It was a magnificent casting decision that has paid dividends over the years, and I dread the day she hangs up her pantsuit. Her relationship with Bond in these two movies is far more interesting than her arc with Pierce Brosnan's Bond, which went from politically correct sneering (oh God I sound like Richard Littlejohn) to "Oh James!" after he saved her life during The World Is Not Enough. Now she's almost a reluctant mentor, trying to tame him and his darker impulses, and unable to believe he is not the monster she assumes him to be.

It's not a Bond film without a sleazy European bad guy out to exploit some natural resource or other, and here Mathieu Amalric (so great in Julian Schnabel's glorious The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) does a great job as Dominic Greene, evoking the creepy malevolence of Christopher Walken's Max Zorin and the weaselly physical presence of Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre, manipulating the Bolivian army and the CIA while pretending to be an environmental saviour. He also reminded me of Klaus Maria Brandauer's Maximillian Largo (from the non-EON Bond movie Never Say Never Again), with his nasty air of sexual inferiority and subsequent overcompensation, and I especially like that the plot, which revolves around acquisition of water utility rights, is compared so often to Chinatown, as Amalric's resemblance to Roman Polanski is notable (at least, I see the similarity. Apologies if that's just my brain being weird again).

I doubt he'll be seen as one of the great Bond villains, especially as he doesn't have a suitably evil/silly name, but he's better than almost all of the Brosnan villains (except maybe Electra King and, at a stretch, Alex Trevelyan). However, the Craig Bond movies have so far lacked any fun henchmen. Okay, so at least we're not getting a genetically altered albino Korean with diamonds embedded in his face, but dopey guy with hilarious bowlcut wig is at the opposite end of the ridiculous/boring spectrum of Bondian henchmannery (sorry for bringing up the truly dire Die Another Day. I'll try to ignore it for the rest of this post).

It's also not a Bond movie without ladies of the hott persuasion, and Britain's New Sweetheart, Gemma Arterton, barely registers as anything other than a startlingly glamorous minion of MI6 who gets to die in a manner reminiscent of the iconic murder of Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger. With far more screentime, and an A-plot-mirroring subplot of her own, Olga Kurylenko is adequate without being memorable. After the blinding performance from Eva Green in Casino Royale, it was going to be hard to cast someone to match that, but then, of course, the movie would fail if Bond immediately found someone as alluring and lively as Vesper. Casting someone who spends the entire movie looking very very very pissed off was probably very astute. One thing Kurylenko does well is be as stoic and inhumanly driven as Craig's Bond, and one of my favourite moments in the movie is their long walk through the desert, motivated so totally by revenge and duty that they don't speak to each other.

I was less pleased with the short-shrift Jeffrey Wright got as Felix Leiter. Apparently his role was cut down as there was already too much plot, which I can readily believe. It's a shame as Felix has never been a particularly well-used character, and finally, with an actor of the calibre of Wright in the role, we could have seen some real progression. As it is, he still manages to bring the character to life with little screentime, reacting with barely veiled disgust at the brazenly immoral machinations of his partner, CIA South America section chief Gregg Beam, played with nasty relish by David Harbour. Next time around, please can he get more screentime? Please? What a waste of a terrific actor.

While I was mostly happy with the cast, the film itself is problematic. Millions of column inches have been barfed out commenting on how the Bond franchise has had to reinvent itself in the wake of the successful -- and magnificent -- Bourne series, paring down the craziness, such as those ever-popular orbital lasers and whatnot, and concentrating on character and increased plot momentum, especially as many of the Moore Bonds ambled along for what seemed like hours (though I exempt the hugely underrated Octopussy from that, with its superb mid-film setpiece involving Bond chasing a nuke). For Casino Royale this worked brilliantly. With the majority of the movie revolving around the lengthy poker game, the film felt rooted in something approaching sturdy reality. Except for the first half of the film, Bond wasn't jumping from country to country, which annoyed some but pleased me. We learned more about him, Vesper, and Le Chiffre, all without going overboard with exploding oil tankers or invisible cars. It was all about the game, with its many deceptions. Stripped of all the bullshit, and with the stakes raised, Bond became fascinating again.

Quantum of Solace ditches that entirely. Restlessly jumping from one country to another, it's infinitely more complicated than Casino Royale, and as a result loses a lot of that character-based momentum, despite the frenetic editing and numerous action scenes. The Bourne movies don't feature much action, but they feel exhausting because we care what happens to Bourne. Same with Casino Royale. In Quantum of Solace, we're barely given time to digest even a single bit of information before we're whisked off to another location, be it Haiti, Italy (twice), Bolivia, or Austria. And England. And Russia. I came perilously close to losing track of what was going on a couple of times, though that was probably fatigue (I'd been playing Civilisation Revolution all day; very tiring).

What was touted as a revenge movie (which certainly made me think it would have a simple structure) is labyrinthine, detailing a plan to acquire water resources in South America by convincing the US government and the CIA to sign off on a coup in Bolivia, and that's before we get to Bond's quest to kill the men who made Vesper betray him. On top of that we also have Camille Montes and her plot to kill the man who, yes, killed her parents while she was a child (a disappointingly hoary subplot), as well as evil Greene's plans to kill Camille for some reason or other (I'll admit to missing that one). Beyond even those complications, there is Bond's psychic turmoil, which everyone thinks is making him a murderous crazy person, when in actual fact he has managed to compartmentalise his grief, creating the cold-hearted misogynistic assassin bastard that we all know and love. It's a lot to take in on first viewing, but I guess the best compliment I can give it is that I can't wait to see it again to absorb it properly.

Most frustrating is director Marc Forster's pacing. While the plot is so ambitious and globe-trotting that it literally never rests for a second, it doesn't help that Forster has cut the action scenes down so much that while we might get more fightyboomboom in this movie than in Casino Royale (if measured in minutes), none of the scenes last long enough to make an impression. It's not just a case of the usual overediting; while Canyon was annoyed by it, I thought it was bearable, though the end of the boat chase made little sense. Luckily for Forster, seeing Eagle Eye, with its utterly incomprehensible chases, makes any subsequent car chase look like it was filmed by Peter Hyams and edited by Frank J. Urioste. [/action movie nerd]

No, the real problem is that instead of a few memorable and lengthy scenes, we get numerous tiny moments that are good but ultimately forgettable. Compared to the wondrous free running scene, or the beautifully designed airport sequence (which built momentum as brilliantly as anything in the Bourne movies), there is nothing comparable in Quantum of Solace. The on-foot chase through Siena gets better as it progresses, finishing with an awesome rope-swinging battle, but ultimately just isn't long enough to be truly satisfying. It's the same with the brutal fight with a knife-wielding assassin (which takes far too many cues from the awesome Bourne vs. Desh fight in Bourne Ultimatum), the dogfight (which made very little sense), and the boat chase. The finale could have been longer as well; I have to say that considering the hotel where Bond has his final battle gets totally destroyed in the space of about five explosive minutes, I'm thinking fuel cell technology is definitely not the way to go.

It got to the point where, during the Tosca sequence, the editing of the action was either made as impenetrable and anti-exciting as possible by Forster because he wanted to intercut the usual carnage with operatic excess as some kind of statement, or because he was just bored with putting action in the movie. He also managed to wreck the flow of the Siena chase by intercutting it with the Palio di Siena horse-race, an event he seems to think is worthy of inclusion despite having nothing to do with the plot. While I'm impressed at the epic sweep of these two sequences, and am grateful to him for adding some glamour to Bond's adventures (something that has been lacking for a while) it smacks of pretension, with Forster adding extravagant distractions to the movie where more focus would help.

That's not to say that the action isn't well filmed. Everything looks great and hyper-exciting, with special praise for Craig who really sells the action, which I suspect reflects well on second unit director Dan Bradley, who gets a credit in the opening sequence, a rarity even for the most complicated of movies. Though I don't know how much of the action was handled by Forster or Bradley, I suspect that Bradley is responsible for much of it, seeing as how he has been a stunt coordinator on some of the most exciting movies of the past few years, such as the Bourne films, Spider-Man 2, and Art School Confidential. It's just a shame that the beautifully photographed and staged action got edited into irrelevance.

I will give kudos to Forster for making this the best looking Bond ever. Some scenes are unarguably gorgeous, and the decision to go back to Ken Adams-style excess really pay off in the finale. It's an interesting trade-off, sidelining the action in favour of visual splendour, though maybe not a trade-off I would make. Goldeneye and Casino Royale director Martin Campbell is derided by some as workmanlike or uninspiring; Harry Knowles seems to have a vendetta against him, but perhaps that's because Campbell replaced his buddy Robert Rodriguez on The Mask of Zorro. Fair enough, but seriously, considering the variable quality of Rodriguez' movies, we should be grateful Campbell turned out such an impeccable and thrilling adventure movie. As for his Bond movies, he has done excellent work rebooting the series twice, and doesn't get enough credit for directing actors. No matter how exciting it was, Casino Royale worked because Daniel Craig and Eva Green were a heart-breaking and convincing match, bringing genuine romantic emotion to the franchise for the first time since On Her Majesty's Secret Service (and was significantly more affecting as both actors are better than George Lazenby or even Diana Rigg, who is great nevertheless). Compare that to Pierce Brosnan's barely convincing feelings for Electra King in The World is Not Enough, or Paris Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies. Craig and Green worked wonders with this material, given confidence by Campbell's sure hand and a terrific screenplay.

Still on the subject of Campbell (sorry), he's willing to allow an action scene to breathe, to fill up the screen for however long it takes for the mini-story of that conflict to play itself out. As a result he's created two of my all-time favourite Bond scenes, the St. Petersburg tank chase and the free running chase, both of which last for a significant amount of time. Quantum of Solace is that rarest of Bond films; one without an iconic action sequence or moment that makes you remember the movie even if the contorted plots fall away the minute you leave the screening.

These are off the top of my head: Casino Royale had the free running, Tomorrow Never Dies has the bike/helicopter chase, The World Is Not Enough has the Thames boat chase, The Living Daylights has the Afghanistan plane finale, From Russia With Love has the brutal proto-Bourne fight with Red Grant, Goldfinger has the never-bettered Fort Knox battle, Moonraker has the much-derided gondola chase (and wacky space-station laser battle), and You Only Live Twice has a bunch of ninjas attacking a fricking rocket launchpad hidden inside a volcano, people!!! Hell, even The Man With The Golden Gun has the incredible car stunt. There's only a few Bond movies that lack that one scene that blows your mind. Quantum of Solace has several contenders, but none of them are given a chance to really shine, which would be fine if that meant more focus on the characters, but as there is so much going on (in a shorter running time than Casino Royale), that's not the case, with Camille's sub-plot seeming to be especially hackneyed and underwritten.

Speaking of The Living Daylights (which I adore), by now, with Bond allowed to do more than be a n00b, we see that Craig's interpretation, as a post-romantic stoic killing machine, bears a resemblance to Timothy Dalton's humourless incarnation, especially as Bond goes rogue in this movie just as he did in Dalton's second movie, License to Kill (which I definitely do not adore). Thankfully, Quantum of Solace is infinitely better than that pile of doo-doo, but the lack of humour has stuck in the craw of many critics, who are now pining for a return to the wise-cracking playboy Bond of old. Of course, these same critics had turned their back on the series numerous times in the past, stating that the formula was outdated, so I won't even be treating their whining with the traditional pinch of salt, but though Quantum of Solace seems to be doing well at the box office, I do fear that a backlash might be in the offing, with the same audiences that embraced Casino Royale changing their minds after seeing the new deadly serious installment.

Hopefully the efforts of writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis (not to mention the uncredited Joshua Zetumer) will convince that Bond will continue to grow with each movie, generating an increase in audience empathy that has faded in the past when Bond movies appeared to be generated by some kind of robotic production line. The Bond of Quantum of Solace is almost impenetrable, but M and Camille give us enough of an insight into his thought processes that we feel for him as his grief threatens to consume him. While I'd argue he's not as far along as those characters think, he certainly has difficulty dealing with his emotions, and the final, ambiguous shot doesn't give us a hint as to whether he is unable to get over his sadness over Vesper's death and betrayal, or if he has, but those feelings have been replaced by psychic tumult caused by exposure to extreme levels of death and destruction, not to mention the realisation that the Quantum organisation is an enormous, potentially world-threatening hazard.

Still, I'm grateful that moment was left to the viewer to decode. Though I think Paul Haggis has done some of his best work on these two Bond films, he still manages to overegg the pudding with depressing regularity. After his miserable and unsubtle work on Crash (aka "AUDIENCES! RACISM IS TEH BADD!!!") and Flags of Our Fathers ("AUDIENCES! HEROISM IS KIND OF A NEBULOUS CONCEPT AND HEROES MIGHT NOT BE SO HEROIC AFTER ALL BUT HEY IT'S THE LABEL THAT COUNTS!!!"), he has tainted both Craig Bond movies with obvious statements about what he considers to be the theme of each film.

With Casino Royale there were the continual references to Bond's arrogance, and Quantum of Solace is marred by a particularly egregious speech from Giancarlo Giannini, who says the word "forgive" about 65 times in the space of a minute. M barks the word out a few times as well, just in case we missed the point. Apparently Bond has to "forgive" Vesper, and himself, before he can move on. For all the explosions and violence and sexual tension, Haggis tries his hardest to turn the film into an installment of some godawful, pedestrian TV show, with some dime-store psychology threatening to overwhelm the proceedings. The excellent actors make that shit work, but someone has to find Haggis and tell him that his signature style is tired and weak and please can he trust the audience a bit more, instead of pointing at his themes with a neon-green foam finger and screaming, "THEEEEEEEEEME!!!" Poor Giancarlo Giannini. Brutalised in the first movie, and then forced to beat Bond over the head with embarrassingly anvillicious dialogue.

It sounds like I hated it, but I really didn't. Though it didn't match up to Casino Royale (I didn't expect it to), the drop in quality was much smaller than the drop between Timothy Dalton's two films (i.e. precipitous) or Brosnan's first two (almost as bad, but saved by the inclusion of the reliably awesome Michelle Yeoh). The franchise still has massive potential, and if this installment didn't rock my world, it still managed to keep me hooked and hopeful for the next one. Fingers crossed they'll find a director who is willing to let the film breathe a little bit.

That was a lot to write. If you've made it this far, congratulations. Take it away, Jack White and Alicia Keys!

That's how you do it, Chris Cornell / Madonna / Garbage / Sheryl Crow / Tina Turner and Bono / Patti LaBelle / A-Ha. (Wow, the last good Bond theme was A View to a Kill?)


Douglas said...

Hello! I think you've got that pretty much spot on, sir! I saw it on Monday and, personally, I was a *little* disappointed in it. I thought there wasn't enough characterisation, and Gemma Arterton Strawberry Fields (isn't that the worst name since Christmas Jones?) may as well not have been in it! Lastly, didn't the Tosca scene remind you of The Spy Who Loved Me?

Admiral Neck said...

Indeed it did. The bit in Cairo where Roger Moore knocks the guy's hand away and sends him to his death, right? I love the flashes of brutality in the Bond movies. Brosnan had a good couple of moments, like gratuitously braining a guy with a really heavy glass ashtray in Tomorrow Never Dies.

That said, it drives me crazy that Bond didn't bother explaining to M that he didn't kill that guy. I understand that he probably realised she wouldn't believe him, but still, it was exasperating.

Is it bad that Gemma Arterton's voice got on my nerves? I felt bad about that. She's Britain's Sweetheart!

Douglas said...

Yeah, that's it! There is some sort of lecture/performance going on there too.

I thought it was odd he didn't just say: "Er.. I just chucked him off the roof, Boss. The other guy shot him." It wouldn't have taken much and it might have cleared some nagging doubts from M's mind. (Totally agree with you about the Dame, too).

Regarding GA's voice, I thought she was dubbed at one point!

thechauffeur said...

Well done. Most of your review was indeed spot on, though I disagree with M's assumption that Bond is a monster (I think the opposite is true, actually) and I didn't like the movie enough to want to see it again and attempt to make sense of the silly, convoluted plot. My only criticism, given the many, many, many words of this review, is that you couldn't spare a few to acknowledge how Daniel Craig rocks the shit out of suit. Daniel Craig is bespoke porn. No critique should fail to mention that.

Admiral Neck said...

I was considering pointing out Craig's suit-wearing ability, but it would have taken me down some alleys I don't intend to (like admitting I'm totally gay for him OMG his bod is totally HOTTT). Thank you for mentioning it for me.

As for M, I got the feeling she was worried she had helped create a monster early on, and was both trying to fix him and get him the hell away from the action in case he made things worse. Eventually she realised he was on the level, or at least thought so, and let him get away from her goons, which he did by skipping across a balcony like Zorro. It was all very amusing.