Cut to the Whatever

2008-11-14 (General release)

The best part of Quantum of Solace is also symptomatic of what precisely is wrong with the film. In a smartly-executed sequence set at an avant-Euro production of Tosca, Bond is trailing the members of a shadowy clique of international villains who are known only as Quantum and are amoral enough to possibly convince those in Bond’s earlier nemesis SPECTRE to think about switching jobs and giving back to the community. After infiltrating their board meeting (which seems pretty arduous to set up, do they have to locate the nearest Wagner festival in order to vote on a stock offering?) and setting villainy ascamper, Bond gives chase, confronting the lot down in the lobby.

At that point, director Marc Forster does something unexpected. Instead of just intercutting between the resulting gunplay and the rising crescendo of Puccini playing out over the shooters’ heads, Forster edits the shootout into a nearly abstract and soundless tableau of vaulting bodies and shattering glass. It’s something beyond cinematic shorthand, almost as if the filmmakers are saying: You know what’s going to happen here. Bond’s not going to get shot, he’ll take down a couple of the baddies and there will be a final confrontation outside, after which point the chase will continue; the film has some running time left, after all. And sure enough, pretty soon Bond is outside, soundtrack reengaged, as though the whole fracas inside the concert hall was nothing terribly important.

If Quantum of Solace were a better film, this would have been an audacious move. There’s a quivering hint in the script of Bond’s bone-deep tiredness, the hopeless grind of sadism and vengeance that is the only thing giving him purpose after the death of Vesper Lynd in the (vastly superior) Casino Royale. (Never mind that the last film gave us the impression that Bond was just a fresh face in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Now we’re supposed to see him already as a scarred and bloodied old lion, just another operative with a thousand-yard-stare who couldn’t care less whether his martini is shaken or stirred, so long as the bartender keeps ’em coming.) Such an elliptical slipping past the particulars of a shootout could be seen as an expression of Bond’s inhuman distance from mere issues of life-and-death. But instead it seems a more cynical thing, a wink to the audience: Yes, we’ve seen this all before, haven’t we? Now, on to the next one!

It isn’t that Forster is trying to be too clever by half in Quantum of Solace, though. The problem is easier than that: he doesn’t appear to know what makes Bond different from any other spy out there. Prior to Royale (which Quantum tries to ape but consistently gets all wrong), there was certainly a lot of dead franchise weight that needed to be shed. All those hokey mannerisms, and the “Bond, James Bond” ticks that kept popping up in rigidly formulaic film after film. After a while, it was only the girls who were different, and even they began to blur together. Does anybody really remember anything about the Pierce Brosnan films? Casino Royale cut through all that and gave us a Bond who was certainly leaner and meaner, but also much closer to the charmingly callous and arrogant bastard whom Ian Fleming had originally imagined. There seemed a hint of a real person inside that tuxedo.

From the opening bit of Quantum of Solace, however, all that seems to have been jettisoned. Picking up practically immediately after the last film let off, the film rockets into a rather shabbily cut-together couple of chases across Italian roadways and through beautiful Siena. One has the feeling that Forster has been overdosing on the boxed set of Bourne DVDs, trying to emulate their machine-gun pacing. But he’s not half the artist that Paul Greengrass is and can’t survive on that knife’s edge, all his whip pans and jumpcuts blurring into a confusing muddle. By turning Bond into just another 21st century techno-spy pastiche, Forster loses any inkling of what made his character unique in the first place.

It’s a shame, too, because the film had at least a few elements going for it. Matheiu Amalric turns his shadowy environmentalist villain (yes, eco-billionaires are not to be trusted, apparently) into a sniggering sadist with little more than a few glances from those coal-black eyes; no eye patches or jagged facial scars needed here, thank you very much. Also, this installment’s girl, Olga Kurylenko, seems much more able to survive on her own than the franchise’s norm, and a few salty lines from Judi Dench can help rescue just about any film.

But the plot is just so much noise in the end, somehow both over- and underdone. For his part, Bond is something even uglier than he had become in the previous film. Shorn of the barest inkling of character, he just cuts his way across the screen, jettisoning ammo clips, friends, and smashed-vehicles like so many used tissues. We’re supposed to feel the man’s pain and loss, but by the time he’s done destroying the world, one is almost pining for Roger Moore to show up, smirking in a smoking jacket and wondering why this Daniel Craig chap looks so serious, anyway. There’s something to be said for the acknowledgement of one’s essential ridiculousness.