He’s that old friend we hardly recognize anymore, that middle aged idol that’s, apparently, going through a bit of a creative and cultural crisis. Granted, the secret agent is substantially less sexy in 2008, especially when you consider the War on Terror implications of such stealth. And let’s not forget the endless recycling and regurgitation. Over the course of 22 films, he’s gone from suave and dangerously debonair to a pitbull on ADD. He’s been resourceful, laxidasical, and constantly reconfigured to fit contemporary parameters. But the question remains – is James Bond still James Bond? – and better yet, has the latest incarnation put the final stake in the character’s heroic heart once and for all.
When Daniel Craig was announced as the latest incarnation of Her Majesty’s licensed to kill-bot, there was the typical unbridled backlash. Most of the complaints centered on the unknown UK actor’s age (Sean Connery was 32 when he starred in Dr. No – Craig was 28 at the time of Casino Royale), his blond hair, his lack of experience, and the general kvetching that comes with any change in the 007 mantle. While he may have faced more scrutiny than Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton, no new Bond gets off easy. Then again, the Connery vs. Roger Moore/George Lazenby/you name it argument is so old it beats the original spy thriller to the retirement home.
So what’s there left to talk about if we don’t dish on whether actor X can carry legend Y’s Walter PPK? How about the equally erratic aspect of the men behind the lens? In the franchise’s 46 year history, there have only been 10 directors involved in the James Bond films – Terence Young (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball), Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun), Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) Peter R. Hunt (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), John Glen (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, License to Kill), Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies), Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough), Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) and now, Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace).
For many the same old sentiment applies – the older films were far better and truer to the character than the newer, more modern action efforts. Others point to Young and Hamilton as forming the Bond mythos, and the latter lackluster work of Glen for almost destroying it. The decision over the last decade to offer an Alien like approach to the series (a new filmmaking face guided the material each time out) has met with some hesitation, and a lot of head scratching. Was Tamahori really the right person to put in charge of Brosnon’s final fling with the character? Indeed, the same could be said for Apted, a man mostly known for the triumphant documentary anthology The Up Series.
With Quantum of Solace, one assumes that Forster will face the same cinematic struggles. In an era where stuntwork has to be spectacular, massive in scope, driven directly by the narrative, and captured with a frantic ‘you are there’ urgency, the reigning king is Paul Greengrass and the amnesiac black ops icon, Jason Bourne. There is no denying that the two films helmed by this gifted director (Supremacy and Ultimatum) are contemporary action done with a determined artistic merit. Sure, you sometimes get queasy as the camera careens endlessly around the actors, but Greengrass understands the volatility of such sequences, and the violence that typically results.
Forster obviously feels a kinship to this kind of chaos. From the very opening of Solace, he strives to keep the viewer directly in the line of car chase/fisticuffs fire. Of course, it seems odd that the man responsible for Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction, and The Kite Runner is putting on his shaky-cam POV. He’s the last wannabe auteur you’d envision taking over the Bond beatitudes. When the characters interact in the latest installment, Forster is right at home. These moments remind us of why the spy thriller remains a potent genre. But as a creator of convincing spectacle, Forster fails. He’s no John Woo, or for that matter, Michael Davis.
Indeed, by taking this strategy in bringing the character into the 21st century, Quantum stumbles. Indeed, what Davis did with his rollicking Shoot ‘Em Up, or Tarantino does with his typical homage heavy approach is bring the mannerism to the material, not visa versa. In essence, when QT takes on a bit of vehicular mayhem, he draws from the endless canon of same, picking and choosing the best bits to drive his camera/crash choreography. Similarly, someone like Woo works out placement and particulars so that his sequences become dramatic statements on the storyline’s themes and subtext. But in Forster’s case, it’s just copying for the sake of commerciality. There’s even a bit of balcony jumping ala Bourne.
Going back to the old Bond films, one is instantly aware of how clearly defined they were/are. Our hero faces an evil enemy hellbent on taking over the world. He gets help from a hot lady, an entire Aston Martin full of gadgets, and enough mental ingenuity and physical acumen to guarantee at least a chance at success. In the post-millennial 007 universe, the superspy is now a superhero, almost impervious to pain, injury, or unlucky rolls of the plotpoint dice. Taking away the debonair dandy’s vulnerability may be in line with today’s power hungry demographic, but it robs Bond of one of his most important aspects – his humanness. Spies are not gods. They are people playing policy against each other to root out terror and keep the bad guys at bay.
Quantum of Solace forgets all that, and it’s not all Forster’s fault. Indeed, he’s just guilty of giving the camera a bit of an unnecessary nudge every now and again. There will be those who sing the praises of this 22nd excursion into the life of a masterful MI6 mole, and the way the narrative is set up, Quantum plays like the middle act of a much larger cinematic statement (it picks up directly after, and incorporates a lot of storyline, from Casino Royale). Making Bond aggressively badass last time around was a necessary need of a floundering franchise. Making him into the Terminator in a tux just doesn’t seem right. No wonder it’s getting harder and harder to recognize him.