Thursday, November 20, 2008

REVIEW: QUANTUM OF SOLACE (****)

Simply put, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (****) is the best action picture of 2008. This year has seen a dearth of high-octane action thrillers so I was beyond happy when my ass got kicked by James Bond in his latest (and most brutal) outing. Directed by Marc Forster (MONSTERS BALL, THE KITE RUNNER) and written by the team of Robert Wade, Neal Purvis, and Paul Haggis, all of whom combined forces on the previous Bond picture, CASINO ROYALE, this new 007 adventure has clearly been inspired by the kinetic style of the last two Bourne films, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, both of which were aggressively directed by Paul Greengrass. Those two films have featured a streamlined narrative and have employed an in-your-face shooting style buoyed by hand-held camera work and jagged editing patterns. Forster’s decision to move the Bond universe in this direction comes as a surprise after the more classic action stylings of CASINO ROAYLE helmer Martin Campbell. Some viewers may complain that Forster has stripped away too much of the Bondian flavor that was reinvigorated by Campbell in the last film. But I am all for the changes that have been made. Gone are the over-the-top gadgets (refreshingly so), the wise-cracks (don’t really need ‘em), and the ludicrously named villains in favor of a more realistic spy scenario with a more believable nemesis and a more violent attitude to the action sequences. I enjoyed CASINO ROYALE, mainly for Daniel Craig’s excellent performance as Bond, and for the wonderful action cinematography. But the plot was a bore in many spots, and way too much time was spent watching actors sitting around card tables and taking each other’s money. I responded well-enough to the love-story angle in CASINO ROYALE without ever becoming totally gripped by it; Bond has never been a passionate lover and it seemed in CASINO ROYALE that the filmmakers were attempting to make the film more of a romantic drama (albeit one spiked with action) than an out-right spy caper. QUANTUM OF SOLACE does things very differently, and for me, much more successfully. I don’t need to see a Bond in love. Bond in lust is fine; that’s the way he’s always been. Bond is a man of action, someone who can assess a particular situation and then get the results he needs. In Forster’s brutally effective film, Bond goes looking for the answers that eluded him by the end of CASINO ROYALE. He’s back to being the “blunt instrument” that M. so astutely referred to him as in CASINO ROYALE, a bluntness that I found to be quite entertaining to watch.
Picking up about an hour after CASINO ROYALE ended, and starting mid-car chase, QUANTUM OF SOLACE packs in the action and keeps the story moving at an extremely brisk clip (it’s the shortest Bond movie ever clocking in at roughly 100 minutes). It’s also the first time that a Bond film serves as a direct sequel to a previous installment. Still reeling after the death of his lover Vesper Lynd at the end of CASINO ROAYLE, Bond is picking up the pieces and trying to get to the bottom of her supposed betrayal, while exacting revenge on anyone he feels that may have played a part in her death. He follows his leads until he crosses paths with the oily Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, looking eerily similar to filmmaker Roman Polanski), a member of the Quantum organization who is posing as an environmentalist. It seems that Greene intends to stage a coup d'├ętat in Bolivia in order to take control of its water supply. He plans on acquiring barren dessert land which secretly holds a plethora of underground water. By draining the area, he’ll have a control on the water supply, and as a result will make a windfall by privately selling off the water to the impoverished inhabitants of the area. The C.I.A seems to be mixed up in all of this as well, as Bond comes into contact with his supposed ally Felix Leiter (an underused but sly Jeffrey Wright). Bond is joined by the mysteriously alluring Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), who has her own vengeance issues to deal with. Bond hop-scotches across the globe (naturally), from Italy to Chile to Austria to Panama, seeking to uncover the key participants in the Quantum group while also trying to solve the many questions regarding Vesper’s demise. Routinely scolded by M. (Judy Dench, excellent) for leaving too many dead bodies in his wake, Bond is operating in a more cold-blooded manor in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, which befits his attitude after the tragic ending of CASINO ROYALE. One element in QUANTUM OF SOLACE which bodes well for the plot is the beefing up of M.’s presence in the story. Dench is finally able to get some quality material to work with, as her character starts to really understand who Bond is, and who he’s shaping up to become. The interplay and dialogue between Craig and Dench is a solid asset to the entire film. By the end of QUANTUM, most of Bond’s questions will be answered, but a whole new set of problems will have been created, which would seemingly be the impetus for the next film.

Craig really has nailed the character of Bond. He’s buff without looking like a superhero, and his steely gaze (along with those piercing blue eyes) is almost enough on it’s own to suggest the inner turmoil of his character. Speaking in short, terse sentences, he doesn’t waste words, and he’s more than ready for the many physical demands of the production. It’s quite clear from Forster’s tight framing that Craig is doing most of his own stunt work (the car stuff is extremely impressive), which heightens the intense visceral nature of all of the action beats. Craig moves with cat-like agility during the many chases yet he still has a graceful calm when the scene requires it. He may not be old-school suave like Sean Connery was, but Craig has the right mixture of all the ingredients that make up a potent Bond: edge, smarts, sex-appeal, and brute force. Amalric downplays the more obvious and cartoonish impulses that have plagued Bond villains over the years. He’s relaxed, sophisticated, and always one-step ahead (or so he thinks…). By not going over the top and playing it close to the chest, Amalric registers as one of the more believable baddies in a Bond picture in years. Kurylenko, for her part, is sexy and tough, and she’s actually a pretty solid actress as far as these roles go. She’s got her own arc and she’s not just along for the ride as so many other Bond girls have been. One interesting aspect of the film is that Bond never sleeps with her; that’s saved for a quick roll-in-the-sack with a fellow British operative named Fields (played by the cute Gemma Arterton). Because the narrative moves so fast and Bond and Camille have so much to accomplish, it never seems to cross his mind that he should be getting in some sexy-time with his gorgeous counterpart. And Dench, once again, makes for a perfect M.; she’s got more to do in this film than she ever has before and it’s a real treat to see her character get the attention she deserves. All of the other supporting turns are solid.

But what about the action? Because after all, that’s what the Bond films have always been about, right? Boasting the biggest budget ever for a Bond film (reportedly close to $200 million), the action is nothing short of breathtaking. Working with his long-time cinematographer Roberto Schaeffer, regular editor Matt Chesse and editor Richard Pearson (who cut the BOURNE films and UNITED 93 for Greengrass), Forster shoots in a gun-metal, grey-black palette, splashing the frame with blood-red every now and again. There is an icy, desaturated visual motif to much of the film which really looks terrific. From the stylish, extreme close-ups that begin the film which lead into a hard-charging car chase along twisty Italian mountain roads, Forster goes for a more frenetic pace which adds to the immediacy of the entire film. Many people seem to hate fast-paced editing and tightly-framed action compositions. Not me. I feel as if I am in the picture, rather than just watching it. I got the same vibe from last year’s hot-blooded actioner THE KINGDOM; everything is juiced up to the extreme in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Forster exotically intercuts footage of the Palio horse race in Italy with a heart-pumping roof-top foot-chase and then later, elegantly cross-cuts between the lavish opera Tosca and a violent stand-off between Bond and his enemies. There is a fantastic boat chase, a dizzying aerial pursuit, and an extremely explosive finale set in a green-themed, hydrogen-fuelled hotel in Bolivia which is probably the major highlight of the film. Working with master second unit director/stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, also a Bourne veteran, Forster demonstrates some serious action chops, which have never been exploited before. He’s an interesting filmmaker who has bounced all over the genre map; his films include the searing family drama MONSTER’S BALL, the quaint FINDING NEVERLAND, the surreal thriller STAY, the meta-comedy STRANGER THAN FICTION, and last year’s under seen adaptation of THE KITE RUNNER. He always brings a professional polish and unassuming style to whatever picture he’s creating, but with QUANTUM, he ups his game considerably. There are some individual, point-of-view insert shots in QUANTUM OF SOLACE that are incredibly hair-raising; look no further than the wild final action scene in the hotel for evidence of this.

My one complaint would be that Forster and composer David Arnold skimp out on the iconic Bond theme; you hear it from time to time and there are some nice riffs on the classic song, but I could have used a bit more. Forster’s intent was to make a Bond film that didn’t really feel like any of the other Bond films, so in that respect, I get what he was doing with downplaying the more obvious moments of the Bond template. QUANTUM OF SOLACE represents a new type of Bond picture, one that might disappoint older fans of the series, but should delight most paying customers. There’s action aplenty, a suitable story, solid performances, and a quiet but powerful style that feels very contemporary. This is my favorite Bond picture that I have ever seen, but I should also note that I have never considered myself a passionate fan of the series. I have seen a handful of the older entries, and I suffered through the garbage that the Pierce Brosnan era brought us (although I really enjoyed GOLDEN EYE). The Bond series has been the most enduring Hollywood franchise of all time. It’s amazing to think that for the last 40 years, audiences around the world have been entertained by the same character. As times change and filmmaking styles evolve, the Bond films have been weary about mixing things up. It’s great to see that the overlords of the Bond pictures, The Brocoli’s, aren’t completely against making changes to their beloved character. QUANTUM OF SOLACE gave me exactly what I wanted and I felt very satisfied when the lights came up at the end. I can’t wait to see it again.

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