Bond, All Knotted Up
Friday, November 14, 2008
It took two men to kill James Bond: Austin Powers and Jason Bourne.
At least that's the impression left by "Quantum of Solace," the newest and most joyless installment of one of cinema's most venerable franchises. In his breakout 2006 performance as 007 in "Casino Royale," Daniel Craig proved an able successor to the man who defined the role, Sean Connery. In its sequel, all the dash and elan of that film has disappeared, leaving Bond as little more than a deranged, if well-dressed, serial killer.
"Quantum of Solace" presents an almost unrecognizable Bond, a man, as one of his colleagues puts it, in the throes of "inconsolable rage." Haunted by the death of his lover in "Casino Royale" and out for answers and revenge, the MI6 superspy with preternatural sangfroid and Bombay Sapphire eyes has gone rogue. Now he's less on a mission than a killing spree, casually murdering criminals, random high flyers -- and even allies -- with the pathological relish of Freddy Krueger in a tux.
Gone are the lush locales, libidinous sex scenes and painful puns that have historically made the James Bond movies such playful, if admittedly eye-rolling, fun. Gone are the gadgets and gizmos and outlandish evil lairs that gave them their camp appeal. In an apparent effort to withhold ammunition from any future "Austin Powers" spoofs, the filmmakers have decided to play it straight, making "Quantum of Solace" -- even the title reeks of self-serious pretentiousness -- a surprisingly ham-handed exploration of Bond's psychological shadows and, of all things, a sanctimonious treatise on environmental politics.
"Quantum of Solace," which has been directed without distinction by Marc Forster ("The Kite Runner," "Monster's Ball"), begins pretty much where "Casino Royale" left off. Bond, still mourning the loss of the sensationally beautiful Vesper and still unsure whose side she was on, is hot on the trail of the guy who killed her. After a ganglia-jangling car chase that ends in Siena, Italy, and an interrogation that goes awry -- and after a visit to London headquarters, which has apparently borrowed CNN's "magic wall" -- Bond shifts his focus to Haiti, where a mysterious mogul named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) green-washes his wicked doings with eco-minded philanthropy.
It's in Haiti that Bond meets Camille (the ravishing Olga Kurylenko), who has her own issues to work out. As the "Quantum of Solace" producers proudly proclaim in their promotional literature, Camille is the first Bond girl that James doesn't sleep with. Like that's a good thing.
From its hyper-edited, incoherent opening sequences to the dreary monotony of Bond's revenge kick, "Quantum of Solace" is one brutalizing bummer of a ride, a chain of increasingly explosive fight scenes strung together by bits of talky exposition. Even the locations, long part of the lush vicarious enjoyment to be had at a James Bond movie, have no zing.
The film's central set piece, a postmodern production of "Tosca" in an Austrian opera house, lacks all of the taut style and intensity of the memorable marathon poker game in "Casino Royale." We might get a tantalizing glimpse of the Tuscany coast, but in large part the action takes place in planes on their way to very dry places, finally culminating in a dusty, isolated fortress of a hotel in . . . Bolivia.
Trying desperately to appropriate the edge and urgency of "The Bourne Identity" and its successors, "Quantum of Solace" winds up looking merely like just another action thriller, filmed on the fly and whip-edited into a mash of spite and mayhem. Craig spends nearly all of the goodwill he rightfully earned in "Casino Royale," delivering a scowling, ungenerous performance of Bond hitting rock-bottom (he even gets almost-sloppy drunk at one point, another taboo senselessly smashed).
His supporting cast members are more hit-and-miss. Amalric, best known for his extraordinary performance as the paralyzed protagonist in last year's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," affects the same unblinking stare here, to far less salutary effect. Kurylenko, a sultry beauty, grimaces with suitably sultry allure, and Judi Dench, as M, provides the film's only moments of genuine peppery brio. Jeffrey Wright is also on hand, reprising his role as a friendly CIA agent.
Indeed, Wright's character provides "Quantum of Solace" with yet one more of its pseudo-political subtexts, in this case the moral ambiguities of global realpolitik. It's not just Bond's dark side that's on display here, but Dick Cheney's, too. "Quantum of Solace" makes a frantic attempt to be relevant, from its digs at American foreign policy to Jack White and Alicia Keys performing its theme song. But in the end, it plays like a glum, grim and unforgivably dull artifact of a dying age.
Quantum of Solace (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and sexual content.