Saturday, December 3, 2011

Definitive Bond Marathon: Quantum of Solace (2008)

(directed by Marc Forster)
In the aftermath of 007’s (Daniel Craig) mission to trap Le Chiffre, Her Majesty’s Secret Service received a rude awakening concerning the existence of a new terrorist organization: Quantum. How was it that this seemingly sophisticated, well funded and fully operational group could come to be without our knowing was baffling to say the least, but reality hit home when, upon interrogating one of its high ranking associates Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) in Siena Italy, an MI6 traitor attempted to assassinate M (Judi Dench). 007 chased down and liquidated the thug, but the event created new clues to the whereabouts and goals of the terrorists.

Haiti was Bond’s next destination where curious discoveries were made. First, almost all the leads on hand at the time led 007 to a certain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a successful business, philanthropist and environmentalist who was shaking hands with the devil: exiled Bolivian general Medrano (Joaquin Cosio). The reason behind this alliance remained a mystery for a while, but things grew ever more interesting when a renegade Bolivian agent, the stunning and headstrong Camille (Olga Kurylenko) not only made her presence known but demonstrated her own vested interests in getting close to Greene. She was, at first glance, the entrepreneur’s current lover, but Bond’s association with her helped reveal some of the truth behind Greene and General Medrano. Camille in fact wanted Greene dead for some very personal reasons, and 007 needed to stop him before controlling one of the world’s most precious resources...

Following the titanic success of Casino Royale in 2006, the producers felt it smart to directly continue Bond’s mission from that very film. After all, he had not been entirely successful. The organization behind Le Chiffre was still at large and the mystery behind Vesper’s betrayal remained unsolved. For the first time ever, therefore, the James Bond franchise would be venturing into direct sequel territory. It was a bold move considering that part of the series’ strength was its continued ability to deliver fresh, stand alone adventures for over 40 years. Nonetheless, the fans wanted more, so it was decided to acquiesce.

The fruit of their efforts produced mixed reactions among the fans, general movie goers and critics. It certainly was interesting to see a direct sequel to a Bond film, but it felt vastly different from its immediate predecessor. The tone, the adventure, the visual style, it felt like there was a disconnect between the two films rather than a strong connection, the latter being what one would come to expect from a sequel. Yours truly had a similar immediate reaction when seeing the film back in the fall of ’08. Indeed, it was somewhat puzzling to witness a movie that supposedly picked up where the previous one left off and yet feel as if it might have belonged in a different franchise. But that was the gut reaction and, if I am to be honest with myself and the readers, it was result of a wave of negativity that washed over me. I went with the flow and thought, like the majority of people, that the film was not very good, or at the very least a major letdown. As is so often the case, time is the best judge of how good or bad a film really is. This is a Bond movie, meaning I’ve watched multiple times even though it’s only a few years old. I certainly have not seen it as many times as the other instalments, but a good handful of times.

Now, I think we still a long way from realizing that QOS is another OHMSS, which was not so well received back in 1969 yet today is regarded as one of the best episodes in the series. There are, let’s say, some aspects to the film that go against some of my own cinematic principles, but underneath it all I now understand that QOS is actually...not bad. Three principle reasons are the source of QOS’s ability to redeem itself despite its flaws.

The first and second reasons go hand in hand. They are Daniel Craig and the journey James Bond goes on. The actor at the center of it all is just as good in QOS as he was in CR, even though he gives a decidedly different performance. It is a shame that we’ll have waited 4 years for SkyFall (I love that I can actually write the title of that movie. No more Bond 23!) because Craig has an incredible presence as the famous secret agent. More adventures with his type of Bond are a must. That magnetic look of his is back this time, as is his undeniable physical presence. Some might argue that he is a bit too one-note, not demonstrating too much emotion, but I beg to differ. His interpretation of the character is more serious, but also more humane than many previous versions of the character, and to see him work with a script that thrusts Bond into very dark, ambiguous emotional territory is really quite interesting. Which brings us to the story, and by story I’m not referring to the villain’s plot, which we shall discuss a bit later on, but rather the personal journey of James Bond. It is reminiscent of LTK in way, with Bond going rogue, somewhat, in a personal attempt to learn what truly guided his now deceased lover Vesper Lynd to betray him at the end of CR. It is darker territory than usual, thus giving the protagonist fewer moments of wit and charm than he normally gets. There is a little bit of that (like the scene where he pretends to be a teacher to get the nice hotel room in Bolivia), so all is not lost, but overall, one should realize that QOS is not the kind of Bond adventure in which a lot of jokes and wit is required. This isn’t TSWLM or YOLT. This adventure sends Bond on dangerous ground, and not just because of the hordes of villains he encounters. He operates directly against some of M’s orders, killing people left and right, even potential informants. That recklessness we saw in CR is back, but now it is driven by far more personal reasons, which in a way makes 007 even more dangerous. In that respect, even though the screenwriting trio of Wade, Purvis and Hagis don’t deliver on the same level as they did in the previous film, they nonetheless produce a good enough script in regards to Bond’s inner demons. 

The third reason that lifts Marc Forster’s film from mediocrity is one that many people criticise, that is, the leading Bond girl, Camille, played by relative newcomer at the time Olga Kurylenko. I remember reading and listening to reviews of the movie and witnessing people’s real disappointment with the character and the actress. I never had a problem with either of those aspects. Is Kurylenko one of the best actresses to play a Bond girl, No, I don’t think so. That being said, she puts on a solid performance as an especially dangerous women living the same situation as Bond is. There is some grit to her performance and one can tell that the emotional baggage has created an unmatched determination, discounting Bond himself of course. While it might have satisfied the masses if Camille and Bond had shared a vintage moment of 007 lovin’, it would never have felt right for the picture. Forster wisely understands this and refuses to give into tradition. There that single moment near the end when they share a quick kiss, but the moment passes as quickly as it arrived. Given their near-identical journeys, both characters work well with one another. Seeing Camille go rogue to punish general Medrano is like Bond seeing himself in action. At that point he has to wonder which of the two, the mission or the vendetta, means more.

Now that the film has received its fair share of praise, the time comes to study what does not work as well. Well, for one, those title cards whenever Bond visits a new location. Just kidding! I actually kind of like those. In all seriousness, there are some incredibly important aspects of QOS which unfortunately don’t jell well together. There is a saying, I believe, which states that a hero is only as good as his villain. While Bond can afford to be the exception because of his iconic personality and style, that does not excuse the existence of a villain as boring as Dominic Greene. Let us be clear, Mathieu Amalric is a fine, fine actor, maybe one of the best actors working today. Suffice to say, he does not really work as a Bond villain. It feels as though Forster was trying to replicate the success of Le Chiffre, who was physically strange, very smart and conniving. One might be led to believe that Amalric fits the bill, but the performance simply never feels as convincing as it should. He has a good stare, true, but that is essentially the end of it. Him going toe to toe with Bond at the end is completely ridiculous. In all honesty, Craig should be totally crushing this little man. His plot is equally disappointing, what with Quantum desiring to control Bolivia’s water resources. Sure, water is precious and in our day and age of environmental sensibility, its worth has taken on an entirely greater meaning, but that’s a rather paltry goal, is it not? Zzzz....

One other miscue, or miscues, is the erratic editing chosen by Forster and his team to show off what could have been outstanding action sequences. I distinctively recall watching the video diaries during all of ’08 in anticipation of the film’s release and seeing all the remarkable preparation that went into the stunts. Co-producer Michael G. Wilson was excited about using an old cargo plane for a dog fight in the sky, there was going to be an insane boat chase, a hotel was going to blow up in the middle of the desert, Bond would chase someone on rooftops in Siena, Marc Forster was thrilled to be directing an action film for the first time, etc. This was supposed to have better action than CR and on paper, it does. The variety of crazy things Bond performs in the film is impressive on paper. On film, much of it is an incomprehensible mess. For the number of times I’ve watched this movie, I could not tell you what happens, beat for beat, in that opening car chase. A gun is fired, Bond swirls his car, his driver side door is ripped off at some point by something, maybe, I don’t know. It really is a massive letdown to witness such dedicated preparation not pay off on film because of the editors and director. There are moments of hope, glimmers of brilliance, but on the whole QOS is terribly below par when it comes to the action.

By the time all is said and done after 110, my general feelings are that some critical opportunities were missed, ones that just might have made the best Bond film ever. A strong character piece mixed with some stunning stunt work. Plus, there was a female version of Bond living the same turmoil as him, thus offering our hero with a mirror view onto himself. It is strange that one of the aspects that drag the film down happens to be something the series has always prided itself on: incredible action to thrill audiences. That is the single biggest disappointment. Bond films have offered subpar villains before, but never has the action been as poorly showcased as it is in QOS. And yet, despite what holds the film back, I believe there is a fair bit of merit to be found here.



Multiplex Slut said...

Really excellent review of a problematic film. I wouldn't be as generous as you with my final mark (the story is a real mess, and marks are lost automatically for blatant product placement), but you raise some very interesting points about the unusual, challenging and positive aspects of the film.

edgarchaput said...

@Multiplex Slut: You are not the first to complain about product placement in a Bond film. That aspect has never bothered me, but then again I come from a different perspective than most. I'm a very serious, die hard fan of the franchise, including the original books. Even in those the author would mention what brand of cigarettes or drinks Bond preferred to consume since he was such a picky guy, so to me the product placement always felt natural: these are the brands a sophisticated James Bond feels comfortable with.

Multiplex Slut said...

OK, I agree in principle (Stephen King makes a similar argument when criticised for his use of brand names, such as Excedrin in The Shining), but I can't accept that James Bond would wear an Omega (he'd prefer a Corum), nor would he drink Bombay Sapphire (sooner Plymouth Gin or Tanqueray). The Bond of the novels, to whom Craig is closest, would scoff at either of these ersatz luxury brands.

I also don't need the lingering shots of Sony kit (though it does make a change from Apple).

edgarchaput said...

@Well, we could get into offers up hypotheses all day long about what 21st century brands of watches of drinks he would enjoy. I think the purposes is that he consumes expensive things that people want. I think there needs to be a certain connection with what people are familiar with as well.