Nov 22, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum Of Solace (2008)

The trailers were so awesome. The concept of a direct continuation within the Bond series held so much merit. I really believed that this movie had the potential to be even more incredible than its genuinely illustrious predecessor, Casino Royale (2006). Regrettably, it isn’t.
Quantum of Solace is far from a Die Another Day-level disaster, to be sure, but–sadly–it’s also far from a Casino Royale-level success. And coming on the heels of such a masterpiece, that’s a fairly crushing disappointment.

My heart sank as soon as the gun barrel failed to appear on screen. I had the same sinking feeling at the beginning of Casino Royale, but that movie quickly demonstrated its right to be different, and, indeed, it was a good choice not to begin it with the classic James Bond opening. But at the end of Casino Royale, when Daniel Craig uttered the line "Bond, James Bond" and The James Bond Theme kicked in on the soundtrack, it was clear that Craig’s neophyte 007 had earned his stripes. Therefore, I was expecting some classic elements of the series to fall back into place after the experiment of Casino Royale. Foremost among them, the gun barrel.

There is a gun barrel sequence in Quantum of Solace, but it doesn’t come until the end of the movie. Yes, I understand the implication. Bond has dealt with his own emotions regarding Vesper’s death; he’s ready to move on and become the 007 we know from the other movies. That gun barrel signifies the opening of every adventure to come. But that’s not the purpose of the gun barrel sequence. The gun barrel opening, along with the distinctive theme music that accompanies it, is designed to get the audience’s pulses pounding. To get the adrenalin pumping. To prepare us for the ride to come. It simply doesn’t work at the end of a movie. And, besides, the gimmick of putting it there is too repetitive after Casino Royale. Bond has a decidedly different arc in Quantum of Solace, but closing with the gun barrel makes it feel far to similar to what came before.

Anyway, back to the beginning: director Marc Forster started his movie in a hole for me without the gun barrel. He’d have to dig himself out quickly. Luckily, that should be entirely possible. After all, we’ve got an opening sequence with all the classic Bond elements one could ask for: one sleek Aston Martin and a few fast pursuit cars leaden with machine guns careening along some beautiful Italian countryside. (Tim Lucas points out in his review that one of the locations is even the tunnel from Mario Bava’s spy classic Danger: Diabolik, so there’s another thing going for it!) Furthermore, we’d all read about how the filmmakers wrecked two Aston Martins shooting this sequence, and a stuntman came perilously close to losing his life. Surely, all that hard work would pay off in something great?

Again, it saddens me to no end to report that the answer is no. All the elements are there, yes, but Forster and editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson don’t ever let them stay on screen long enough to pay off. We’re thrust into the midst of a chase already in progress, but never situated. I am not averse to shaky, hand-held cameras or ultra-fast cutting in an action film. The Bourne Ultimatum used these techniques masterfully. But director Paul Greengrass had already used two other films to perfect them, starting with the not-entirely-successful Bourne Supremacy. Forster had never done an action movie at all before, and plunged into this most difficult of contemporary styles. As chaotic as the action appeared in The Bourne Ultimatum, it was all expertly orchestrated. There was never a moment where I felt like I didn’t know what was going on. In the opening scene of Quantum of Solace, I never felt situated. I never felt like I knew what was going on.

The spectacular stunts (Alfa Romeos going over cliffs) happen so quickly that it almost doesn’t matter that the stunt team worked so hard on them. They might as well be CGI. A James Bond pre-credits sequence should be about allowing spectacular stunts to unfold before our eyes, causing us to exclaim, "I can’t believe a guy actually did that!" Cases in point: the ski jump from The Spy Who Loved Me, or the bungee jump in GoldenEye. Here, the stunts happen so fast that they didn’t elicit much more than a shrug from me, I’m sorry to say. Maybe they really did that, but who’s to know? Not only are the stunts denied a chance to breathe; so is the scenery. We never get a sustained establishing shot, so we never get to bask in the beauty of the Italian countryside. We never even get a beauty shot of the Aston Martin DBS, so it doesn’t really matter that it even is an Aston Martin DBS. This is James Bond! These things should matter! The exotic locations and the luxury marques are part of the appeal!

I suspect that the sequence was well-written, and I’m positive that a lot of hard work went into creating it. But Forster and his editing team have rendered it incomprehensible, using those potentially fantastic elements to instead create the single worst pre-credits sequence of the entire series.

Things don’t improve with the entirely lackluster title sequence, either, courtesy of MK12. Why was Danny Kleinman not brought back after doing the best work of his career on Casino Royale? I certainly hope he returns for the next Bond. Jack White’s theme song, "Another Way To Die," never really made a strong impression on me one way or the other before seeing it in the context of the film. I didn’t love it, but I certainly didn’t hate it either. A suberb title sequence to go with it could have easily elevated the song to love for me, but the one we get unfortunately does nothing of the sort. I like that the girls are back, but it’s weird that the first one rears up out of the sand to accompany Judi Dench’s name, and their dancing seems pretty uninspired. Additionally, there’s altogether too much of 007 himself in the titles. This worked well in The Spy Who Loved Me and Casino Royale, but the concept has lost its originality in Quantum of Solace.

Immediately following the credits comes yet another incomprehensible action scene, this one a foot chase across the rooftops of Siena against the incredible backdrop of the Palio. Again, it should be a winner. All the elements are there. It’s a great Bondian setting, and how can you mess up a rooftop chase? Sadly, Forster manages. As with the opening, the sequence is cut so poorly it’s often difficult to tell which figure is James Bond. The chase culminates in what was probably a pretty amazing setpiece on paper, with Bond and his opponent dangling as counterweights to each other, each man trying to get his hands on a gun. As it plays, though, the device is never given the single set-up shot it requires for the audience to fully appreciate the situation. Furthermore, there hasn’t been a break in the frenetic action for a plot to manifest itself yet, and I found myself wondering why I was even supposed to care about the outcome. Who was this guy anyway? Forster’s rapid cuts and disassociated camerawork serve to completely relieve the scene of any stakes whatsoever.

So for the first fifteen minutes of Quantum of Solace, I was slumped down low in my seat, fearing the worst. Happily, things get better after that.

While the action direction remains atrocious, the story is finally allowed a chance to kick in, and it’s pretty good. The script, credited to Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, appears to be quite solid beneath the movie’s iffy veneer. And performances are top notch across the board. Daniel Craig once again makes a truly compelling 007, Mathieu Amalric hones a creepy intensity (somewhat reminiscent of Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Maximillian Largo in Never Say Never Again) to elevate an otherwise unremarkable villain into a genuine scene-stealer, and Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini both give incredibly solid supporting performances as two of my favorite Ian Fleming characters, Felix and Mathis. When she first caught my eye in Hitman, I remarked that Olga Kurylenko didn’t have much to do with her character other than look nice, but she intrigued me enough that I’d like to see her with the chance to do more. Here she gets that chance, and she fully rises to the occasion as one of the more fully rounded female characters of the series. She also continues to look great.

The globehopping locations are amazing (and I like the stylized titles identifying each one), but Forster never allows us one of those great, lingering travelogue shots to fully take them in. The action is fairly wall-to-wall, but I cherished the brief expository moments where the camera calmed down and the editor actually let shots play out for more than a few seconds to focus on the performances. These moments, rather than any of the copious action sequences, become the movie’s standout scenes: a shared drink between Bond and Felix, developing their still-testy friendship, or a rooftop reunion with Mathis and his sunbathing companion. Here, Forster excels.

The centerpiece of Quantum of Solace takes place at an opera house in Austria. There was a lot that I loved about this sequence, including the giant eye motif of the stage, the villains’ ingenious method of meeting secretly and Bond’s interruption thereof, and the way Craig manages to simultaneously look both perfectly comfortable and slightly out of place in a tuxedo. The sequence also proffers the movie’s funniest line (levity is fairly scarce in this Bond entry), courtesy of the enigmatic Casino Royale holdover Mr. White (Jesper Christiensen). As the villains make hurried retreats from the audience, thus identifying themselves to MI6, he remarks, "Tosca’s not for everyone." Neither is Forster’s affinity for cross-cutting, which intrudes a little too much on this whole sequence. Making matters especially confusing is the fact that it’s a modern-day staging of Puccini's Tosca we’re seeing, so all the players–on stage and off–are brandishing guns. Still, by this point in the film I was at least accustomed enough to the direction that it didn’t bother me too much.

I’d hoped that Craig’s second Bond film would echo Connery’s, From Russia With Love. In that movie, the actor used a down-to-earth espionage plot to iron out any rough edges on the character, shaping him into the cinematic icon he is today. I was looking forward to witnessing that once again, a bit more intentionally this time out. Instead, it plays out like a mixture between the second Bond films of Dalton and Brosnan–Licence To Kill and Tomorrow Never Dies–but not as good as either of those. It’s the revenge-driven, rogue agent Bond of Licence To Kill in the nonstop action Cuisinart of Tomorrow Never Dies. In 1997, the favored action style of the moment was wire-heavy Hong Kong chic; now it’s a grittier, Bourne-driven hand-held style. Both cases are examples of 007 following the pack rather than leading.

Following the resonant conclusion of Casino Royale, I’d expected a more fully-formed James Bond this time out. Instead, he’s still a work in progress–though his real arc is getting over Vesper’s betrayal and death. (The film’s final scene is one of its most successful, bringing that storyline to a truly satisfying conclusion.) I really hope that next time we get to finally see Craig come into his own as a suave, assured 007. I think he’s more than capable of carrying that off, and I’m dying to see it!

I don’t have any problem with nonstop action Bonds; Tomorrow Never Dies is actually one of my favorites. But that’s discernable action. My problem with the action in Quantum of Solace is that it’s mostly incomprehensible, and never particularly inventive. There isn’t a single action setpiece–like the foot chase in Casino Royale, for instance–that I would consider a 007 classic. I simply had higher hopes for the follow-up to Casino Royale.

Does this mean that I won’t see Quantum of Solace again? Of course not! I’m going to try to see it again this weekend, and I plan to revisit my review after watching it a second time. Perhaps I’ll like it more. Perhaps less. Either way, I think it’s worth revisiting. Hopefully not being so hung up on the style will allow me to enjoy the substance more... or just focus more on my more petty gripes like the lack of Q and Moneypenny, or the fact that the new villainous organization isn’t SPECTRE!


Anonymous said...

This review is spot on again, I couldn't agree more. Thanks Tanner!
Hope Eon reads your blog...

Ted said...

I agree with virtually everything you wrote. I can only hope that there will be a correction for the next Bond film.

I've made this point to several people discussing the film: Watch the rooftop chase in You Only Live Twice and then the one in Quantum of Solace and see where the modern Bond is in danger of slipping into a generic action series.

I can only hope that next time a script is written, spy thrillers and adventure movies serve as inspiration. Quantum is still worth seeing twice though! If only for the Q lapel pins, which rival those octopus Spectre rings Blofeld and associates used to wear. Very covert!

Keith said...

I agree totally with you. I didn't hate this film, but I didn't love it either. I think what makes it even worse that it came after Casino Royale. That film was so amazing. This one is such a big letdown. There is so much I could gripe about. I really hope they bring back so many of those elements we love about Bond which separate him from a guy like Bourne.

Christopher Mills said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Mills said...

I avoided reading your review until after I was able to see the film and record my own impressions. Now that I've read yours, I'm not surprised to find that we had much the same reaction to the film.

Good review.

(Previous post deleted due to excessive typos.)

Anonymous said...

Great review, it almost mirrors my feelings exactly. Quantum of Solace was so close to being a great Bond movie but is let down completely by the action sequences. They happen so fast that they completely diminish any excitement, the complete opposite of what was intended.

Since I doubt that a re-edit will ever take place, we can only wonder what Marc Forster could have done with more editing time.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I thought this film was dire - It's not a Bond movie and nor, in my opinion, was Casino Royale