Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quantum of Solace / **** (PG-13)

James Bond: Daniel Craig
Camille: Olga Kurylenko
Dominic Greene: Mathieu Amalric
M: Judi Dench
Mathis: Giancarlo Giannini
Agent Fields: Gemma Arterton
Felix Leiter: Geoffrey Wright
Gregg Beam: David Harbour
Mr. White: Jesper Christensen

MGM and Columbia Pictures present a film directed by Marc Forster. Written by Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade. Running time: 106 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, and some sexual content).

Dear Roger Ebert,

Let me first say that I am a big fan of your work and what it has done for movie criticism and the way many people view movies today. We’ve met, although you’d have to have some sort of miraculous memory to pick out one of thousands you must have met during book signings. I jokingly asked you if you could help me get Gene Shalit’s job. I’ve had a conversation about actor Dennis Haysbert with your wonderful wife Chaz at the Overlooked Film Festival.

I have a great respect for your opinions, and your reviews throughout the years have probably had more influence on my own critiques and movie tastes than any other. “Quantum of Solace” certainly doesn’t mark the first time I have disagreed with your thoughts on a film, but the words of your two-star review came as a shock to me.

You praised 2006’s “Casino Royale” for breaking away from the mold of James Bond films that had become old hat—as many other critics did. You said, “I was becoming less convinced I ever needed to see another (Bond film).” And the new direction “Casino Royale” took the franchise in changed that. Suddenly Bond was fresh again, freed from all the kitsch and overdone clich├ęs of the long-running series.

“Quantum of Solace” picks up right where “Casino Royale” left off, both thematically and quite literally. You say the opening car chase has “no connection with the rest of the plot.” Not only does it have much to do with the plot of “Quantum of Solace”, but it also has a great deal to do with the plot of “Casino Royale” and presumably the next installment of the franchise and maybe more down the line. Bond carries cargo in his trunk during that chase that ties all of what is going on in these movies together—Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, reprising his role from “Casino Royale”).

Mr. White is a classic bond villain in the vein of Bond’s early arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Like Blofeld—a character that was represented in the earliest Bond films as a faceless figure that demanded Bond’s head over a speakerphone while petting his Persian cat—Mr. White is not seen much but holds all of the secrets of the organization that is behind the events in both this movie and the previous one. One difference is that Mr. White does not appear to be the commander-in-chief of the Quantum group as Blofeld was for SPECTRE.

But without much screen time for Mr. White, Bond must still face a villain we can all invest in. Here is it Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Like many Bond villains of the past, Greene is merely a small cog in the wheels of the Quantum group, so his villainous plot is minor is the grand scheme of things. Le Chiffre’s greatest crime in “Casino” was gambling with Quantum’s money.

Your complaint about Greene’s name not carrying some of the flair of past Bond villains is missing the irony of his scheme. A guy named Greene hoarding water supplies in a dessert country? This is from a guy who hides his evil intentions behind an environmentally progressive company. Greene is the perfect name for this Bond villain. It is usually the henchmen who have the wackiest names in Bond films (i.e. Oddjob, Jaws) but I don’t think a character with a name like Ozone would fly with today’s audiences. Maybe Gore-monger would work?

Speaking of Bond names, you expressed your displeasure with the rather plain choice of the name Camille for the lead Bond girl (Olga Kurylenko, “Max Payne”). Admittedly, this is a rather dull choice for a Bond girl name, but the lead Bond girl usually has a more conservative name than the supporting ones. It makes it so much easier to take them seriously.

But “Quantum of Solace” doesn’t leave us without a typical Bond girl (Gemma Arterton, “RocknRolla”). How much more Bond can a girl’s name get than Agent Fields’ full name? She is the one that James seduces. But what is this redhead’s full name? The fact that screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (I don’t really know which one is responsible for Ms. Fields) don’t spell it out for the audience exemplifies the confidence they show in their audience’s intelligence. Not something past Bond writers could be accused of. And anyone with a working knowledge of British pop culture can figure it out.

The treatment of technology is another subtle touch on the filmmakers’ parts. You complained that the Q division had been dropped from the Bond tradition. But just like Bond’s emergency defibrillator in “Casino Royale”, the gadgets of Q division still exist in “Quantum of Solace”. They just don’t have some pun-delivering scientist prophesying just what situations Bond is going to find himself in later in which to use them.

Plus most of inventions of Q’s have become commonplace in our modern society. Maybe our cars don’t shoot rockets out of their headlights, but my wife’s minivan could spin Q’s head. Who doesn’t carry their own personal compact communicator that allows HQ to know where they are at any given minute these days. It just takes the simplicity of Bond’s cleverness to trick one of Greene’s stooges into turning his own cell into an instant homing device. And really, how cool is that wall of instant information in M’s office? I can almost hear Moneypenny’s filing cabinet rusting in some lonely warehouse.

But these are merely quibbles with your sentimental observations on the old versus the new. The statement you made that really fired me up was the leading theme of your critique that “James Bond is not an action hero!” I don’t believe I have ever read such a bold misstatement about any aspect of the film medium. “James Bond is not an action hero!” Roger, are you kidding me?!

There are 40 years’ worth of James Bond movies that beg to differ with that theory. Just watch the alpine skiing meets cliff jumping opening of “The Spy Who Loved Me”, or the bungi jumping/skydiving into an airborne plane opening of “Goldeneye”, or the transvestite fisticuffs to jetpack escape of “Thunderball”, or the stunning “free running” opening chase scene in “Casino Royale”. I don’t see how you can watch any Bond pre-credit sequence and say with a straight face that Bond isn’t an action hero.

You praised the final two Brosnan Bonds, “The World is Not Enough” (1999) and “Die Another Day” (2002), for increasing the amount of action sequences. “Quantum of Solace” is only conforming to Bond tradition by attempting to one-up the previous film in the series with its amped up action. And it does so in spades. This is easily the most action-packed Bond to date.

You criticize the “obvious” and “incomprehensible” CGI work in the opening chase sequence. Well, I couldn’t see the lines, and it wasn’t half as obvious as the goofy night surfing CGI work in “Die Another Day”. Talk about incomprehensible.

I understand what you are saying about the quick-cut editing of the action sequences, however. This style of editing is often a turn off, but here I found myself so riveted by the grittiness of the scenes, I wanted to rewind and see how they did it.

Marc Forster adds “accomplished action director” to his resume with this movie. Where he showed restraint from typical Hollywood melodramatics in his emotional “Monster’s Ball”, here he embraces Hollywood’s overblown mentality to provide an action movie that never stops to morn its victims. Even the most delicate piece of spy work Bond performs in the film—the scene in which he smokes out several members of the Quantum group during a private/public meeting—is juxtaposed against the backdrop of the performance of Puccini’s betrayal opera “Tosca” on a floating stage whose production design brings to mind echoes of the great Bond art director Peter Lamont and production designer Ken Adam.

But Forster doesn’t abandon character development for the action. No, instead “Quantum of Solace” provides the strongest relationship ever seen in a Bond film and fills in some unexplored character motivations in Bond himself. You say Bond is not an action hero, when he is actually not a typical action hero. That’s what keeps him above other action heroes. Now, Daniel Craig (“The Golden Compass”) is a different Bond. Before violence was a necessary inconvenience of Bond’s profession, now just about everything is. But he’s good at what he does—so good that sometimes not even his matriarch boss M (Judi Dench, “Notes on a Scandal”) can discern his motivations. But in the end his devotion to her and his country is always his ultimate motivation, as it should be for the world’s greatest spy.

You say you think with Bond 23 the producers need to start from scratch yet again, which is what they have done every time a new actor has taken up the mantel of Bond. But that is just what they are doing with Craig. This time instead of doing it all within the confines of one movie, they are taking their time in the process to build a better Bond than we’ve ever seen. Usually, they just rebuild the surface of the franchise. The faces changed, while the whole gimmick remained the same as it did in the original Bond film “Dr. No” (1962). With “Casino Royale” they stripped away all the kitsch and gimmicks. In “Quantum of Solace” the filmmakers have gotten down to the essence of Ian Fleming’s superspy—Queen and country above all else.

Of course, yours and mine are just opinions, and neither of us are alone in ours. My concern with your comments deriding this new natured “action hero” Bond is that it gives fuel to those who say you can’t please a critic. We clamor for something new in our movie going experience, and then when we get it we say we wished it were back the way it was. Perhaps in this day and age we do need a lighter-hearted Bond. And certainly he is the only action hero we might be willing to accept that from. But when it comes down to it, I’d watch “Quantum of Solace” again before I would “Die Another Day”.

My sincere respects,

Andrew D. Wells

Read Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun Times review of "Quantum of Solace" here.

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