The latest 007 picture is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, and a worthy successor to its franchise-reinvigorating predecessor. If A Quantum of Solace is not quite as artistically satisfying as Casino Royale, still it’s both a successful action thriller in its own right and an excellent James Bond film by any measure, certainly far less of a drop-off in quality than the second and third Jason Bourne pictures were from The Bourne Identity.
It was risky for producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson to reboot the James Bond franchise, as they did with 2006’s Royale, but it would have been riskier to let it continue to stagnate in the grips of its own formula. My personal preference, if they were going to reboot Bond, would have been to make the series a period piece, and return the character to his Cold War roots. They certainly didn’t choose that route… but if the cinematic Bond is now well and truly severed from the life history and political context Ian Fleming imagined in his novels, he’s also far more interesting than he’d been at any point in the last 30 or 40 years, and feels like he actually belongs in the 21st century.
Casino Royale stripped away all of the detritus that had accumulated around the character. No more implausible one-off gadgets, no more morbidly punny one-liners, no more femme fatales with licentious names, no more outlandish high-tech schemes for world domination. No more camp. It was a straightforward spy thriller that intended to be taken as seriously as the genre allowed. The production values and action sequences were as spectacular as ever, but kept (just) within the bounds of believability. And Bond himself, as embodied by Daniel Craig, stopped being a cardboard cutout and gained a sense of gravitas. No disrespect to the panache of Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton, much less to the inimitable Sean Connery and his mordant wit, but Bond had never before been a character with actual emotional depth. The story was suspenseful and gripping, and the tone throughout seemed adult rather than adolescent.
There has already been some negative critical reaction to Quantum, and I confess that I don’t really understand the reasons for this. The most noticeable change in this latest film is in the directing style and cinematography, and admittedly it’s not an improvement: the stunt setpieces in particular are presented with so many rapid cuts and changes of angle that it’s difficult to follow the action, in contrast to the steady and composed camera of its predecessor. Aside from that, however, it retains the best of the vividly reimagined Bond offered up by Royale.
Importantly, it’s not just another iteration of formula. It pulls off the difficult narrative trick of telling a complete story in its own right, while still being a genuine sequel to the last film and leaving strings to be picked up in the next. Bond himself doesn’t have quite as rich a character arc; Royale brought him from being just a “blunt instrument,” in M’s words (and Fleming’s), to a more sophisticated and subtle player, and one with actual motivations underlying what he does. There’s less progress for him to make here, unavoidably, but he does at least achieve some emotional closure from events in the previous film (thus justifying this one’s somewhat quixotic title). Paul Haggis’ hand in the screenplay is once again visible, as not only Bond but his female accomplice (played by Olga Kurylenko) are well-rounded characters, capable of feeling pain and regret. (Kurylenko’s Camille doesn’t forge quite the same rapport with Bond as did Vesper Lynd (the superb Eva Green) in Royale, but then it would be thematically wrong if she did.) The film makes good use of the talented supporting cast as well, including Judi Dench as M (also more of a real character than a plot device now, playing out an interesting subtheme about trust), Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, and Geoffrey Wright as CIA agent Felix Leiter.
The story itself lives up to its predecessor in terms of dramatic impact. It’s not as labyrinthine (and even less connected to anything Fleming ever wrote), but it’s satisfyingly grounded in real-world politics and economics, concerning among other things the issue of water privatization in Bolivia. This is the sort of world from which Bond had too long been detached, one with rules and consequences, one in which geopolitical machinations in the halls of power are as important as chases on the streets of exotic locales.
If high expectations set by the previous film have left some critics disappointed, however, they seem to have enticed audiences: Quantum appears on track to dramatically outgross the box-office returns of its predecessor. I hope the producers will live up to their commitment to take creative risks with future installments. The last thing we need is a backsliding return to camp and excess.
(I must confess grave disappointment in one thing, however: at the screening I attended, there was no evidence of the expected Star Trek trailer!)Tags: 007, Daniel Craig, James Bond