Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Bond Identity

You're all talk: The new 007 adventure focuses on characters and feelings more than gadgets and explosions.

Today my wife and I went to the movies to check out the latest 007 adventure, Quantum of Solace. The second film to feature Daniel Craig as James Bond. This time out, Bond somberly pursues revenge on the mystery men who killed his girl Vesper Lynd in the prior film. The trail leads Bond to a shadow company of intelligence operatives and big money buisness people that none of the official intelligence community has a clue about. Tracking down these people is Bond's professional assignment as he knows its all tied together with whoever is responsible for Vesper's death.

Revenge has been done before with Bond in the equally somber Licence To Kill (1989) but the results are far more satisfying here. Real effort is made to deepen the character of James Bond in ways that hit closer to the Ian Fleming origins. In Q of S, Bond is a hard drinking insomniac haunted by the death of both Vesper and the people he's killed. Craig owns his performance, commiting fully to making his Bond the most lethally cunning of them all. Also developed in this movie is a better relationship with his boss M. While Dench's M remains a maternal scolder, her role is similar to Richard Crenna's Colonel Troutman in Rambo. Her exasperated responses to Bond's latest killing spree hypes his character to new levels.

Quantum of Solace also gets a little deconstructionist of the Bond legacy by bringing in a real artsy director, Marc Forster. Forster plays against the traditional 007 structure by playing up his surroundings. In most Bond films, 007 is the center of attention everywhere he goes. Forster shows Bonds locations in detail through scenery and overlapping dialogue with extras, whether its in dilapilated cities, shiny buildings or the desert-Bond is a moving piece in a puzzle and not the final solution. Quantum of Solace, more than any James Bond film that has ever preceded it, is set in a current political climate of Foreign Wars, Oil shortages, the interlocking of international events and a wave of resource hording set in motion by the U.S. A fairly stinging indictment coming from the best known fictional Western spy in history.

The direction leans heavily on mood and characters, delving into the emotions of people more than blowing things up. In the film's best sequence, Bond crashes a secretive meeting of bad guys during a play. The movie toys with sound, sometimes even no sound and juxtaposition of the events in the play versus the action to strong effect. This new approach effectively shakes things up and makes you see 007 in a new way even as certain imagery (such as a blatant nod to Goldfinger mid film and the return of the Walther PPK as a weapon of choice) reminds you this is a Bond film. The villian, played by Mathieu Americ, continues Casino Royale's penchant for middle men bad guys. This time the baddie is the head of a conservationist company that comes off more like a ruthless buisnessman than a mastermind.

There are weak points to the movie though. Forster (Monsters Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner) directs the action sequences in a way that is exciting but confusing. The shaky closeups create a splashy style that makes it easy to lose your bearings in. The Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko, is given a superfluous role that the movie would have actually benefited without. And while I was digging the focus on characters and spy agency vs spy agency interplay, there are some long gaps between action sequences that left some of the audience yawning.

But the real weakness in Quantum of Solace is how much it borrows from The Bourne Supremacy, the best of the Jason Bourne films. In Bourne Supremacy, Jason Bourne is out for revenge of his murdered lover to a certain degree, the early hand to hand combat scenes and high tech spy agency quarterbacking also echo in Q of S. Even the muted coda at the end has shades of Bourne Supremacy to it.

With these critcisms you might think I didn't enjoy Quantum of Solace, but I actually liked it a lot. The Bond film makers are trying to give Craig his own style and succeed in giving James Bond some emotional weight. It was fun to see how 007's actions reverberate across the spy and governmental community. Also, I think James Bond hasn't done this much intelligence gathering since From Russia With Love (1963). Quantum of Solace is likely going to go down as a "stand alone" venture like On Her Majesty's Secret Service because of its art house leanings making it hard to categorize. For my money, I consider Quantum of Solace to be one of the better Bond films even though it falls short of the great ones.

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