Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bourne Again: Quantum Of Solace

You noticed. Of course you did. You watched the hyper-cut fistfight that unfolds at about five blows per second. You saw the hero speeding around on that motorcycle. You watched him, on foot, leap from one balcony to the next in frantic rooftop pursuit amidst a romantic European setting. You watched him brawl people for reasons he didn’t always understand while wrestling a personal monster within. You saw all this and you said to yourself, man, this James Bond guy reminds me a lot of Jason Bourne. And he does. And that’s the problem.

In a series 22 films long, James Bond has made the mistake of being married before (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). And he’s been silly before (the Timothy Dalton era, for example). And he’s been tired before (most of the Pierce Brosnan era). But he’s never been a wannabe before. Until now. Congratulations, Bourne fans. The circle is now complete. When The Bourne Identity was released in 2002, Matt Damon’s spy was but the learner, but now he’s the master. Quantum Of Solace is many things not-so-good: boring, one-note and often unintelligible. But worst of all it’s this: a white flag of surrender.

Even if you adore Bourne, and even if you’ll never stop loving Bond, it’s a sad thing to witness. It’s like watching Batman emulate Robin, the Fonze trying to be like Richie Cunningham, Jack Nicholson aping Christian Slater. No offense meant to Bourne, but this whole thing is backward. James Bond is James Bond. He’s an icon. He’s a brand. He hasn’t always been worth seeing, but people have been going to see him for 46 years just the same. A guy like Bond is so big-time that he doesn’t realize that a guy like Bourne exists. And if he does, he pretends not to. Heck, it even goes with the character: cocky to the end, shaken not stirred. But Quantum Of Solace finds its Big Man on Campus looking like a fifth-year senior so desperate for relevance that he’s taking cues from the incoming freshmen. Pathetic.

It’s not as if they’re bad cues. Not in principle, anyway. But for all the Bourne-esque elements being added, the trademark Bondian ingredients are disappearing faster than you can say, “Bond, James Bond.” In fact, that celebrated introduction is one of the quintessentials of the 007 series that you won’t find here. Ditto: “Shaken, not stirred.” Also, like 2006’s Casino Royale before it, we’ve still got no Q and no gadgets. A suggestively named female adversary, ala Pussy Galore? Nope. A diabolical villain with grand, Lex Luthorian aims who could be stopped by no one other than Bond? Not that either. So who is this guy?

He’s a brooder. We learned that much in the previous film, and it’s even more pronounced here. Daniel Craig’s Bond spends the entire picture glowering about his lost love, Eva Green’s sultry Vesper Lynd, whose demise at the end of Casino Royale marked what is arguably the most heartbreaking moment in the history of the franchise. And yet even though Vesper’s death and the mystery of whether she was trying to save or betray Bond are designed to serve as 007’s chief motivating force in this picking-up-where-we-left-off sequel, Bond comes off less like a man ruined by love than like a moody teenager who just got dumped and wants you to ask him about it. Casino Royale established the blond Bond as cold, stubborn, unflinching and most decidedly pissed off. This one just seems grumpy.

This is a Bond without swagger, without humor, without charm and, get this, without libido! Bond beds exactly one woman in the film, and we don’t get to watch, and he delivers his pickup line with all the joy of someone ordering a hamburger at McDonald’s. It’s wrong. By snubbing these cherished elements of the series, we’re left with exactly four traits that tie this character to the brand: he looks good in a suit; he works for a broad named M (Judi Dench); he has a British accent; and he calls himself James Bond. That’s it and that’s all. And, sure, you can argue that the Bond series needed a reinvention, because it did. But this is an overhaul akin to building a triangular sandcastle in Malibu and calling it one of the Great Pyramids. To be fine with this character representing the Bond franchise is to be OK with a Superman who can’t fly, a Lone Ranger who doesn’t ride a horse, a Harry Potter who can’t cast spells, or a Catherine Tramell who doesn’t know her way around the bedroom. What’s the point?

But Quantum Of Solace would have been a disappointment even had it aced its character study. For years, Bond adventures opened with action spectacles. In Quantum Of Solace it’s hard to get away from them. Combining the freneticism of a Paul Greengrass Bourne film with the bloat of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the action sequences aren’t just over-frequent, they’re overdone. Each smacks of “bigger,” “faster” and “more expensive,” as if those ingredients assure “better.” They don’t. If you’ve seen Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, you have the right idea. These are action scenes to be endured rather than enjoyed. Watching one of them is like being rattled about in a cocktail shaker. It’s enough to make me wish I could order my Bond merely stirred.

Directed by Marc Forster and edited by Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson, Quantum Of Solace is frequently incomprehensible. Sometimes it’s intentional, such as in the opening car chase in which Bond comes around a bend to see a wall of police cars waiting for him, only to have the “Oh, no!” moment spoiled when 007 simply hangs a left around a corner we didn’t know was there. Sometimes it’s unintentional, such as the boat chase in which Bond and hottie Olga Kurylenko’s Camille bicker, strategize or trade meatloaf recipes; I couldn’t tell you which, because I couldn’t hear a word either of them said amidst the howling motors. (Aside: Wouldn’t this film have been more Bondian with an actress named Camille playing a woman named Olga, instead of the other way around? But I digress.)

I want to be able to dismiss Quantum Of Solace as a single misstep. In the end, that might be all it is. (The 007 series has rebounded before, and it can do so again.) But I fear this is indicative of something more. Until now, the Bond films have largely been paint-by-number, but the films have remained true to their own definitive color palette. Not anymore. It’s no longer a matter of comparing Craig’s Bond to that of Sean Connery or Roger Moore. Because as of now, Bond is back in the tank with the rest of the action heroes, most of them pretenders who would love to establish the kind of celebrated iconography that Quantum Of Solace cavalierly snubs. Which brings us to the other way that this James Bond reminds us of Jason Bourne: He doesn’t know who he is. This is a man without an identity.


Joel Bocko said..., sir, have outdone yourself. I enjoyed Quantum while having many of the problems you did, to a lesser degree (I suppose I'd already sorted through some of them in anticipation of the previous film, which I liked more than I thought I would). Overall, the film didn't make a huge impression on me either way - yet I look around and it's inspiring some of the best writing in the blogosphere. So a hat tip to it for that, I guess!

Richard Bellamy said...

I thought of Bourne as soon as I saw that motorcycle - and the leaps from rooftop to rooftop were like deja vu. I have totally forgotten this movie. Bond spends the whole movie in wrathful vengeance for the death of Vesper - I felt myself getting angrier and angrier that she was dead too - because that meant no Eva Green to grace this film with a seductive presence that helped make "Casino Royale" more of a success than this tired flop.

Joshua said...

I had a similar complaint, which I was trying to articulate to a co-worker just the other day. This is a fantastic piece of writing. Good work.

Christopher said...

This movie is definitely under a Bourne spell. But the Bourne movies were the only good spy thrillers to come out since pretty much The Hunt for Red October.

I hope that future Bond movies aren't quite as faithful to the Bourne formula as this, but nothing could be more stale or tired than the Bond formula.

Overall, an underrated movie. I liked it about as much as Casino. And after decades of Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan it will take a long time for me to tire of a tough, gritty bond.

We have years of palette cleansing to do. This one helps.

sophomorecritic said...

I think that a couple changes were made for the better. i reviewed this one, so i'll just link to it. Quantum of Solace ended up making my top ten list of the year, that's how much i liked it.