Sunday, November 16, 2008
It Stands At Zero
When I saw THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH on opening night back in 1999 it felt like a huge disappointment but over the years the film has played slightly better on repeated viewings. It’s not that great and certainly isn’t a model of screenplay construction, but the fact that the story has a little bit of meat to it definitely helps. By contrast TOMORROW NEVER DIES, which I loved back in ’97, hasn’t aged all that well, partly because the film is such wall-to-wall action that there’s not as much to pay attention to. The DVD audio commentaries reveal that there did used to be more to the story but various rewrites seem to have siphoned out all the stuff that would have been of interest and the film is ultimately hurt by this. I mention all this because my own response to QUANTUM OF SOLACE as soon as the end credits rolled was the sort of thing where I found myself saying, “It was all right,” wondering if I was avoiding tell the truth to myself about what I really thought of it. Of course, there’s always the possibility that I’ll think differently of it down the line.
If lessons were learned from CASINO ROYALE, which I loved beyond reason and still think plays surprisingly great, then it seems they were the wrong ones. There was action in that film, yes, but there was also a surprisingly strong love story and a middle section of poker playing that had a cool feel of that fantasy world we look for in Bond films. It also had an extremely strong narrative backbone, partly coming from Ian Fleming’s original novel and as it turns out storywise QUANTAM (title taken from a Fleming short story it has no relation to), which picks up immediately afterwards, isn’t much more than an addendum to that film. I don’t have it in me to recount the plot right now, but it doesn’t really feel like a story so much as a way to shoot Bond around the world from one action scene to the next and ultimately feels hugely unsatisfying. We do get action, lots of action, just about all the film’s makers seem to have paid attention to, and it’s seemingly deliberate choice to not pay any attention to coherence, all done in the BOURNE style of staging and incomprehensible editing, comes off as a huge comedown after the extremely satisfying action of the previous film. The character of Bond himself is much more Jason Bourne than he was last time and, with his tendency to suddenly go rogue every five minutes, there’s a little bit of Jack Bauer in there as well. I love those characters, but what about Bond? Can’t the film take just a few minutes to, I don’t know, dwell on him enjoying a fine meal or something? (for Ian Fleming fans paying attention, at least the character of Bill Tanner appears) At 106 minutes, it’s cut to the bone…beyond the bone, probably. There are various points where it does feel like something is missing or has been abbreviated, but I can’t bring myself to get very upset about it. I certainly can’t imagine this story having the weight to warrant CASINO ROYALE’s 144 minute running time and I wouldn’t particularly want to see a version that was expanded to that length. It’s slickly made, as expected, but every beat feels like it wants to get to the next beat before we can absorb anything and visually there’s a much more claustrophobic feel to it, unlike the previous film which displayed great confidence in how it’s wide, roomy imagery had an almost old-school quality to it. Even the most stylistic elements, like intercutting an action scene with a nearby opera performance of Tuccini, seems to overreach for some significance that isn’t there, almost as if its makers were ashamed of the movie they were making.
The thing is, everyone has their own idea of what a Bond movie is supposed to be, whether they want it to be faithful to Fleming or not. To say that I wish this film were more ‘fun’ does not mean that I wish it had a villain with an underwater lair, funny henchman and lots of wisecracks. CASINO ROYALE found a cool, adult tone that acknowledged a degree of pulpiness to the foundation and that in itself was enjoyable. Even its lighter moments—it doesn’t feel right to call them jokes—like Bond’s “I have a dinner jacket” protest or the other poker players following Bond’s lead when he orders a Vesper cocktail for the first time feel appropriate in that context and succeed as wit. In QUANTUM it never even feels like we get that much of a relief from the dour tone and I almost want to say that this wouldn’t be a problem if there was strength to the story or if the action were well-done but this isn’t the case and besides, what is wrong with wanting a James Bond movie to be enjoyable? It’s not SYRIANA, after all, even though the story at one point seems to head in that direction--even the music in one scene sounds like it was temp-tracked with the score from BABEL, of all things. But most of all, it never feels like it has that indefinable Bond thing, that moment in these movies which you can’t quite define where it feels like all the elements onscreen, from the action to the music to the mood, coalesces and seems to state loudly, “This. Is. James. Bond.” as the film itself celebrates everything about what it is. I never got that feeling from this movie, making me wonder if director Marc Forster was ever really interested in making it. Shouldn’t they have found somebody who had that interest? Wouldn’t you? Even a few direct visual references to GOLDFINGER and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME did very little for me and feel like they were shoehorned in to convince us that the people who made the movie are familiar with previous entries in the series. It takes more than that.
I like Daniel Craig. I thought he was terrific in his first crack at the character and I have no problem with what he does here, but he’s hurt by the fact that the basic material isn’t as strong. The character of Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko, feels like a semi-retread of Melina Havelock in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, a daughter out to avenge her family, but she doesn’t even get a “when setting out for revenge, first dig two graves,” type-speech from Bond, who seems to have little more than a ‘whatever’ type attitude towards her goal. I guess it cuts down on the dialogue. For the female lead, Kurylenko doesn’t really make much of an impression. Of course, she’s hampered by comparisons with Eva Green and the film, for better or for worse, doesn’t try to contrive Bond falling for her which makes sense since he’s still got Vesper Lynd on his mind. But there’s not much chemistry of any kind between the two of them to make up for that. Kurylenko’s kinda hot in a vacant sort of way but, frankly, if it wasn’t for the billboards splattered every ten feet all over town I’m not sure I’d be able to remember what she looks like. Much better is Gemma Arterton as Agent Fields, who brings some genuine pep and spark to her scenes, but she ultimately doesn’t have enough screentime to affect things that much. Mathieu Amalric, terrific in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, is one of the most ineffectual Bond villains ever as Dominic Greene and it feels like no one was able to come up with any character for him to play. Giancarlo Giannini makes a welcome return as Mathis and his scenes, for obvious reasons, feel more like CASINO ROYALE than anything else. For a few minutes, it’s like we’re in a real movie. Jeffrey Wright also turns up again as Felix Leiter, able to do something with moments where he has nothing more than a single word of dialogue. Giving what has to be the most distracting performance I’ve seen in a movie in a long time has to be actor David Harbour, as CIA agent Gregg Beam, who for some reason seems to be doing an impersonation of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, both in appearance and mannerisms, to the point where every time he appeared onscreen I found myself sitting there thinking, “Wha? Huh? WHA??”
The end of the movie indicates that the character has fully and truly become the character that we know of as James Bond which, come to think of it, is pretty much how the last movie ended. I can’t help but think that after a few years maybe we were looking for a little more than just a blank getting filled in. The very last moment before the credits feels like it was tacked in there to give us an ‘up’ finish where one doesn’t otherwise exist, but it’s not enough. All it really does is remind us of what we didn’t get to see. I don’t hate the movie. In all honestly, throughout I kept thinking to myself, “Well, I didn’t dislike that as much as I might have.” Even the Jack White/Alicia Keyes song is something that I would expect to hate yet strangely don’t (the credit sequence is another can of tuna entirely). Maybe all these feelings are just a reminder of how I genuinely, truly wanted to like QUANTUM OF SOLACE. But, ultimately, it just does next to nothing for me. Maybe multiple viewings will cause me to look at it more favorably. But that would require having a desire to see it again, something I don’t particularly want to do right now. Still, I suppose that in the future anything’s possible.