“Quantum of Solace”
By Jimmy So
Are we being overloaded with bad news about the financial “tsunami?” (As it is called in, of all places, Asia.) What we damn well need is a reminder that somewhere in the world, someone still has the prerogative to budget in an Aston Martin for James Bond to smash up. Of course 007 would deliver a swift uppercut to the global recession, but did the world ready itself for a Bond in depression?
In “Quantum of Solace,” Bond (Daniel Craig) is in mourning, his lover Vesper Lynd having died in the previous film, 2006’s “Casin Royale.” Maybe depression is too harsh—he’s still crashing cars, tackling traitors, making amends with former allies, going to the opera and sleeping with redheads—all in all, dealing with grief quite well.
The story picks up only hours after the end of “Casino Royale,” and Bond is still hurting and doggedly after revenge. In his hunt for last episode’s villain, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who gets away after being captured, Bond finds another color-coded member of Quantum, the secret organization that supposedly “has people everywhere.” Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric) is an unimposing environmentalist whose innocent hobby is overthrowing governments and taking over their water supply. Environmentalism is Mr. Greene’s front, as he is supposedly creating protected reserves but actually corrupting the agenda. Our favorite special agent, on the other hand, leaves a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint in Siena, London, Haiti, Austria and Bolivia; teams up with a new Bond girl, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), saves impoverished Andeans from a drought, and wraps up the movie by driving not his own car, but recycling the villain’s hydrogen-powered Ford Edge.
A few friends have remarked to me: “I didn’t know this was going to be a sequel!” Most of mankind are so used to Bond as a series of stand-alone entertainment filled with epigrams, gadgets, and frivolous seduction that they didn’t expect anything different. Also shocking is that Bond is a loser; everybody he gets close to or cares for ends up losing their life—or are at least shot. He goes fearlessly headlong into every dangerous situation, including balconies in Italy and the backstage of “Tosca.” He smashes things and kills people before he can get intelligence from them (which is supposed to be a big part of his job descrīption, no?), and more often than not he survives thanks to luck. It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Greene shrieks like Maria Sharapova when he swings an axe at Bond, but with a foe as unworthy as Greene—whose most menacing move is turning his awkward eyes at Bond and opening them wide while his minions hurry in chase—Bond needn’t even worry much about survival. Greene’s other favorite move, which he does twice, is the frightening act of leading Camille to a ledge—once to strike fear into her by showing her a body lying in the shallow harbor bed, and once to push her off at a height of no more than three stories. For what? So that she will twist her ankle in the fall? Why they chose the cerebral Almaric to play a Bond villain I will never know.
Greene does have a slightly scary partner in crime, an exiled and lascivious Bolivian general named Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), who’s paying Greene to overthrow his native country’s government. It’s unconvincing that military might can be handed over to the general by the clerical Greene and his book-club-like organization—the members of Quantum do not meet in a war room, or a base in a hollow volcano, or in a nuclear submarine, but at a lakeside concert hall listening to Puccini. Who are the formidable henchmen protecting these terrifyingly powerful dark lords? Greene has a skinny sidekick named Elvis (Anatole Taubman) who looks like Professor Frink from “The Simpsons”—he comes with a bowl cut and all he needs are thick glasses.
Although Medrano claims to have filled his resume with randy violence (which we don’t see until near the end of the film), he and the boys and girls of Quantum could benefit from some show of their rightist terrorism; give a nod to Pierre Dux’s role as The General in “Z” (1969), for instance, who oozes notoriety. It is nearly perverse for a film to show so much of a hero’s violent triumphs—it becomes celebratory—but none of the villain’s atrocities. It is unfortunately very rare that filmmakers of today would use violence only to make you hate violence. I understand that the director of “Quantum of Solace,” Marc Forster, is hinting at the way corrupt power is exercised at the top ranks of global politics—Greene makes a pact with the CIA (much to the chagrin of Bond’s ally, Felix Leiter, played again by Jeffrey Wright) so that the U.S. government would do nothing about the impending Bolivian coup, and Quantum’s members include an advisor to the British Foreign Secretary. Quantum could, I suppose, stage a coup without firing a shot, but even conspiratorial power must be wielded with physical, concrete injuries and threats. What’s more, movie viewers cannot be forced to simply marvel at an action star’s many brutal acts in the name of thrills; we need none of Bond’s fights if we cannot cringe at what thevillains are capable of—if we do not know what Bond is fighting for.StartFragmentLe Chiffre, the antagonist of “Casino Royale,” was also a bit of a joke—he was only a pawn in Quantum and was simply put out of his misery by his bosses. But the movie had its heart in the right place. Director Martin Campbell at least bothered to show Le Chiffre’s attempt to blow up a giant airliner, and the villain positively tickled Bond’s private parts with a carpet beater. It was, therefore, too bad that Bond didn’t get to kick the living daylights out of him. You’d think that “Quantum of Solace,” the shortest-ever Bond film at a mere one hundred and six minutes long, could show us a little of why we should fear Greene and Quantum. Two of Bond’s allies are killed in this outing, assumed brutally beaten, or tortured, or both, but we don’t know which it is—because we don’t even see it. I am all for a minimum of violence in movies, but when Bond is allowed to cause drivers of Alfa Romeos to end up as crunched up crash test dummies in gratuitously realistic head-on collisions and eighty-foot cliff dives, violence that reminds us of what he’s saving the world from should not be spared.
We get, therefore, no thrills from 007 besting his new villains, and we can freely laugh at Greene’s assertion that his organization could make you quiver in your sleep, fearing for the wellbeing of your testicles—he makes the boo-hoo threat and he might be ordering a latte. And since the studio executives will probably not allow their franchise hero take on real threats like Al Qaeda and powers of its ilk, it is pretty much up to Craig to lend the twenty-first century Bond some emotional depth.
Craig’s Bond, we understand, is not the slick super spy of yesteryear. He is more raw, and why? Bond might not have aged, but he has changed as a reflection of the world since 1962. Intelligence warfare has matured, and with maturity things get a little graver. Can you trust a man like the Bond in “Thunderball” (1965)—who is not above blackmailing a nurse for sex—to protect your country?
And since it is clear that “Casino Royale” showed 007 in his beginnings (including earning his double-0, license-to-kill prefix), Craig’s portrayal thus far could be showing the novice’s transformation into Sean Connery’s more composed, slick Bond. Before I saw “Quantum of Solace,” I had known that it would be a sequel, and since I did not expect Mr. White and Mr. Greene’s vast organization to be stamped out just yet, I half hoped that the movie would be “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) of a trilogy, a suffering, cascading, disturbing bridge that plunges into the netherworld. With the depression subtext, Bond clearly still has feelings that can be hurt, a newfound possibility for the special agent. He would be tested and battered, a Connery-Bond in training, and in the next installment, emerge triumphant, changed, and a little more like the spy we know in “Dr. No” (1962).
We get hints of that—as I mentioned earlier, Bond has to heave the body of a trusted friend into a Dumpster, and another ally dies (maybe only as an homage to a scene in 1964’s “Goldfinger”). As Craig’s rugby-player body tumbles its way through glass ceilings without a scratch and bangs his broad shoulders against guards when he’s handcuffed in an elevator—he doesn’t even need arms—it is that big head of Craig’s that we should focus on, that makes him look like a big baby, and he’s even acting in accordance. The rebooted Bond doesn’t deal well with authority, can’t get over his dead girlfriend, and drinks six of the martini she invented in a sitting. He could morph into Connery’s more calculated and relaxed ways in the next movie—Craig’s round, statuesque bust actually looks a little like Connery’s, and with a bit of brown hair dye the transformation could be complete. The suave Scot appeared in “Dr. No” fully formed, but the blond is still scabrous. It is conceivable that Craig could soon enjoy himself a little more, once he gets over the dead girlfriend.
But then, the chauvinism will return. Right now, with this Bond, I can sit back and enjoy a spy who seems as interested in meaningless sex with Camille as Jaws is with dental care. And anyway, “Quantum of Solace” isn’t dark enough. As the title promised, it does provide some consolation. Craig’s Bond did not plummet into the depths of depression. And, in a blessing, nor will he emerge out of it in “Return of the Jedi” (1983) fashion.
Craig’s Bond will always be a bit morbid. It has always been the actors who dictate how we view Bond, and grimness will be Craig’s contribution—it’s unlikely he’ll let such frivolities as plot get in the way of him and his character. What’s more, filmmaking has evolved—we demand a certain level of realism in our thrillers and melodramas—and we now have a man playing Bond who’s too intelligent an actor to revisit old follies. Craig understands that fans will readily accept a sleazy, cool spy, but a good film will not, and the undertakers of the new franchise are trying damn hard to make a decent movie. “Casino Royale” was too gaudy a title—it never fit the raw currents of that picture. “Quantum of Solace” is also a bizarre one, for it makes a Bond film sound scientific—or worse, like a car commercial. But its meaning is dead on—a quantum of solace is all we’ll get out of Bond from now on. ♦