Film review: Quantum of Solace
QUANTUM OF SOLACE (12A) *** DIRECTED BY: MARC FORSTER STARRING: DANIEL CRAIG, JUDI DENCH, OLGA KURYLENKO, MATHIEU AMALRIC
'THERE'S something horribly efficient about you," says new Bond girl Camille (Olga Kurylenko) at one point in Quantum of Solace. She's referring to 007's habit of dispensing bad guys in brutal, bloody, bone-crunching fashion instead of bringing them in for questioning, but she might as well be referring to the film itself.
Cold, pared-to-the-bone and devoid of human emotion, the 22nd official entry into the 007 canon often feels like a ruthless attempt to transform this often turgid franchise into a lean, mean action machine for 21st-century audiences weaned on Jason Bourne.
That it has none of the soul of the last two Bourne films – and no matter how much its makers try to deny it, Paul Greengrass's brainy, blockbusting, genre re-defining action films are its biggest influence – only reinforces how mechanical its quest for kudos and relevance sometimes feels.
From the moment its tyre screeching opening picks up the action just moments after the conclusion of previous instalment Casino Royale, the film barely pauses for breath, pin-balling Daniel Craig's Bond around the globe (Italy, London, Haiti, Bolivia) on a Bourne-like quest for answers.
The particulars of his off-the-grid mission may be different (he wants revenge for the death of Vesper Lynd and some answers about the shadowy organisation that might have made her betray him), but its cinematic execution is way too reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum to genuinely take the breath away.
If that film threw down the action gauntlet, Quantum of Solace's response is to replicate everything with more intensity. As a result, while it's fast and furious, jaws remain thoroughly un-dropped as Bond participates in yet another frantically edited high-impact car chase, another rooftop run, another motorcycle escape and another close-quarters fight to the death (during which I swear I even saw him use a hardback book as a weapon). These scenes leave Bond more battered and bruised than ever (and the plasma-stained Tom Ford suits do make for an arresting sight).
But Bond needs to lead as well as bleed. It's only when he starts a ruckus at a riverside production of the opera Tosca that he is afforded a set-piece that transcends its influences. Shooting and fighting his way out of the restaurant of the Bergenz opera house, director Marc Forster suddenly drops the sound of gunfire and lets the brutal action unfurl to the strains of the Puccini – a nice little nod to the battle sequence from Kurosawa's Ran I like to think, and the kind of sophisticated blend of high culture and gutsy violence that makes it seem like the first new and true Bond moment of this current reboot.
There's very little time to savour such things though, so frantically does the story move. Amid the wall-to-wall action, Forster drops in a dizzying array of plot points, some of which require a detailed knowledge of Casino Royale to understand their significance, some of which get forgotten about as the film cuts to the chase. This makes for an odd viewing experience: on the one hand there's a lot of instant gratification, on the other, it leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied as the thrill of its initial go-go-go energy gradually gives way to a suspicion that perhaps its speediness is symptomatic of how rushed and unfinished it all feels.
The absence of a menacing villain certainly doesn't help matters. Bond's personal vendetta puts him on the trail of Dominic Greene, a phoney philanthropist whose eco-business is a front for an insidious scheme to control the world's water supplies.
Played by French star Mathieu Amalric, he's deliberately bland in appearance and manner, presumably in a nod to the way corporations that do terrible things to the world take care to make themselves appear benign on the surface. Alas, that blandness extends to his characterisation; he's underpowered and unthreatening. What's more, such attempts at credibility seem entirely redundant the moment you catch a glimpse of his bowl-cut-sporting henchman who is straight out of Euro-villain central casting.
He doesn't even get a proper showdown with Bond. It's so ruthlessly curtailed, you half expect a Grindhouse-style "reel missing" notice to flash up on screen. The same goes for Bond's encounter with Gemma Arterton's submissive MI6 flunky, Agent Fields. No sooner has she appeared on the scene in an effort to bring Bond back in line (on the orders of Judi Dench's increasingly maternal M), she's making a sticky Goldfinger-referencing exit (although, given that she's the most irritating Bond babe since Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough, perhaps its best not to complain too much about that).
Despite all these negatives, there is something oddly fascinating about Forster's handling of Bond. Fans of the leisurely paced and ludicrously over-praised Casino Royale may be a bit wrong-footed by the absence of dialogue and explanatory character development. But whether intentionally or not, in choosing to define Bond through ruthless action, Forster and Craig (who really is brilliant here, delivering a muscular performance in every sense of the word) have unleashed a very dark, nihilistic streak that makes it easier to swallow his motivation.
It's a handy save, especially considering Casino Royale director Martin Campbell's failure to make Bond's relationship with Vesper Lynd resonate in any meaningful way on screen last time out has made it virtually impossible to buy into the idea of Bond having his heart ripped out.
Forster's Bond, then, is not really a heartbroken man out for revenge: he's a sociopath feigning the behaviour of a heartbroken man. Watch closely and you'll see there really is something horribly efficient about him.
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