Friday, November 21, 2008

The Quantum of Solace: Exactly as Good as You Would Expect

The Quantum of Solace (Marc Foster, 2008) (Park Lane) Bond. James Bond. The Quantum of Solace opens with one of the most gut-wrenching, adrenaline pumping car chases ever choreographed and captured for film. Bond is back in his signature Astin Martin, where he is meant to be. I was gripping the edge of my seat within 45 seconds, and the pace of Quantum rarely relented.

When Timothy Dalton first assumed the Bond persona in 1985 for A View to a Kill we were told that this was a return to James Bond as Ian Flemming created him: a lean, mean, spying machine who was a world removed from the parody that the character had become. The Dalton Bond was not using fantastic sci-fi gadgets at every turn and had dropped the goofy puns that Roger Moore had leaned so heavily upon.

And it might have worked, save for the fact that Dalton (besides being a mediocre actor at the best of times) was cast in Bond films that were 1980s to the core - favorably comparable to Schwartzenegger's Commando or Norris' Delta Force, but little else. These movies stunk.

Quantum, on the other hand, is most definitely a new James Bond, and I like it! Gadgets are virtually non-existent (as is their traditional purveyor, Q) and even lines that could have been puns coming from Moore take on a earnest tone when uttered by the steely-eyed Daniel Craig.

Which, in my mind, points to the secret of the success enjoyed by both Quantum and the preceding Casino Royale: neither film is tongue in cheek and neither is going for cheap laughs or mere explosion-fueled adrenaline rides. In fact, while there is plenty of adrenaline flowing as Quantum unrelentingly drives towards its conclusion, one thing that I noticed in particular was how small the explosions actually were - cars go over cliffs and fall to the rocks below with nary a nuclear device-like combustion to show for it. These are realistic explosions, which is a novel pyrotechnical choice if I have ever seen one (we will discuss the Hindenburgesque conflagration that closes the action later).

But the root of the change in tone evidenced by Quantum and Casino is more fundamental than the trappings of the action: it is the character itself and Craig, the actor that inhabits his skin. James Bond, in all of his glory, has never been more than a two-dimensional character, and we have rarely seen any of the inner thoughts and emotions that motivate his actions beyond the stirring declaration "For England" or the next Bond girl to fall his way. Notable exceptions to this rule include the ironic play on loyalties that surrounds the "For England" declaration in GoldenEye and the less-than-noteworthy George Lazenby's turn as Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where we first saw the secret agent's soft side as he suffered the death of his wife, Contessa Vicenzo in this incarnation rather than Vesper.

In Casino, on the other hand, and even more so in Quantum, we see a James Bond that is trained to use his licence to kill, but also has a heart and soul that can love, lose and suffer. We see uncertainty and torment in Craig's eyes as he seeks resolution after the loss of Vesper, in the process trying to reconcile his role as a spying and killing machine with his experience of vulnerability and trust - a theme that is echoed in his relationship with Rene Mathis.

This shift does not entail tortured soliloquies or primal cries of bereavement on mountain tops, but is clearly evidenced in Craig's subtle protrayal of a thoughtful but disciplined Bond. For me, this shift in tone makes Quantum and Casino more real, and allows me to identify with the character and feel his motivations rather than just going along for the ride.

The Gadgets: Noted by Absence
As a technology-junkie (partially reformed), another aspect of Quantum that I must comment on is the gadgets, or, more appropriately, the lack of them. Now I always loved the Bond gadgets as a kid, and still enjoy them greatly, from the rocket pack in Thunderball to the Lotus Esprit E1 "aqua car" of The Spy Who Loved Me.

However, I agree strongly with the director's decision to essentially cut the gadgets out of Quantum - or at least to make them less prominent and less unrealistic, the latter trend having been evident since Die Another Day, and, as mentioned above, typical of the Dalton films.

The Gadgets in Quantum are all realistic or commercially available technologies: the high-tech ear piece used to hold a conference in a crowded opera house, the Microsoft "Touch" table top used to manipulate multimedia (still just a concept when showcased in Minority Report), and the Sony-Ericsson cell phone that tracks a business card homing device. The key "gadget" in Quantum, however, is the perennially "just around the corner" Hydrogen fuel cell.

In addition to arriving at the hotel in the desert in a hydrogen-powered Ford SUV (score one for product placement), the hotel itself turns out to be entirely powered by prominent and volatile fuel cells set into the wall of each unit. I find it interesting that Ford chose to highlight its hydrogen fuel cell concept car in this film, since the technology does not enjoy the glamour enjoyed by the Touch. Quite the opposite, the rousing "kick out the jams" explosion mentioned above is caused by a chain-reaction of hydrogen fuel cells exploding with fantastic ferocity.

If you were trying to develop and market a hydrogen-powered vehicle, would you do so in a film that makes you think more of the Hindenburg crashing in flames and killing 37 souls than of the clean, green fuel of the future? Seems like an odd choice to me.

That being said, please do leave me comments about your favorite James Bond gadget from movies past

Final Thoughts
My bottom line - if it is not evident from the preceding - is that Quantum of Solace is a very good film. The action is fast-paced and exciting, the story is clear and supports the action well (indeed, at 106 minutes this is one of the few bond films not to suffer from the all-too-common curse of being 20 minutes longer than it should be) and the characters, or at least the title character, are (is) nuanced and compelling.

If I were to nitpick on one topic it would be that I did not leave the theater as bowled over as: a) the opening car chase led me to expect; or b) the overall quality of the film deserved. I think that this is because Quantum, unlike Casino, was exactly as good as I expected. No more and no less. Casino was a game changer, revolutionizing the James Bond franchise, and I left with my jaw dropped open, wondering "what was that"? Quantum continues this trajectory, and does so well - but does not present anything particularly new.

You either like the new James Bond or you do not - and I do :)

(As a closing note, I realize that I have committed a crime of exception in this review, having discussed James Bond at great length without mentioning Sean Connery. Sean Connery - nuff said.)

1 comment:

DreamQueen said...

Great review! I liked this one a lot but agree that it added nothing new that the fantastic Casino Royale did not. They seemed like two parts of one uber-long film. That said, Daniel Craig is perfect and I bite my thumbs at people who objected to him being cast.