Moriarty Is Baffled By People Not Digging QUANTUM OF SOLACE!!
Published at: Nov. 14, 2008, 3:44 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
As I was checking my e-mail and glancing at various sites this morning, I saw someone else echoing this complaint about QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the new James Bond film starring Daniel Craig and directed by Marc Forster, this same “it has no plot” complaint that I’ve been hearing since the night of that first preview screening in London a month ago, and I realized that I’m not only not in synch with this opinion, but I’m actively confused by it. Of course it has a plot. Things happen. By definition, that’s a plot. It may not dazzle you with narrative construction, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the story it tells. Maybe I'm over-simplifying it a bit, but let's take it character by character and see if there is or is not a plot.
Olga Kurylenko is perfect casting to play Camille, the Tilly Masterson/Melina Havelock role, gorgeous and bruised and burnt and absolutely ripe for revenge. There’s a dude, a General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) who’s a really greasy sweaty scummy bad guy, complete with attempted rape scene, so you know he’s really, reeeeally bad, and he killed her family when she was a child and so now he’s going to die. They paint in broad enough strokes that you have to get the point. She tries to kill Medrano a few times. Maybe she does. Maybe she doesn't. That’s the plot for Camille. Seems solid enough to me.
And as for James... well, he’s got Mr. White (the outstandingly wormy Jesper Christensen), the dude we saw him shoot in the leg in the closing moments of CR, and he’s going to question him and find out who had Vesper killed. MI6 has considerably bigger plans for White, but the first interrogation goes... well, let's just say less than well, and after a brutal fight/chase sequence, Bond’s off and running on a search for these phantoms, these mysterious people who are in some alliance that no one knew about. No real solid leads. Just a few hunches and whispers...
... and then serial killer James Bond goes on a hilarious rampage across the globe, racking up a wicked body count in his effort to savagely strangle some answers out of the world at large. And despite his constant assurances that he’s not doing it for revenge, he is absolutely positively motherfucking sure doing it for revenge. And why not? He’s got a license to kill, right? Why issue you one of those if you’re not going to use it? The close-quarters fighting in the film is my favorite stuff because of the sheer animal savagery of the staging.
Mathieu Amalric, so brilliant in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, does hilarious and slimy work as Roman Polanski. Oh, sure, he’s using the nom de plume of “Dominic Greene,” but Amalric is playing Roman Polanski. And the idea of Roman Polanski as a James Bond villain is so epic and perfect that I salute all involved. He’s a hopped up little French turd, secure in his ability to slip out of any situation that goes south, manipulating power with glee. And his connection to Mr. White is what puts Bond on his trail, and that’s what eventually leads Bond to QUANTUM, the secret organization, in an opera sequence that is a stunning piece of physical staging for the opera combined with a clockwork-precise set piece of suspense, and for my money, it’s one of the most thrilling moments in the film. Bond stays on Mr. Greene for the rest of the film, enlisting the help of Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), the man Bond wrongly accused of being a spy at the end of the first film, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), the CIA guy who helped Bond at a crucial stage in the poker game in CASINO ROYALE, and Miss Fields (Gemma Arterton), a rosy-cheeked English agent who ends up naked and homaged-to-death. Eventually, he does some crazy stunts, fights some bosses, and wins the game. And like I said... that’s a plot. I mean, this is the same series of films that includes MOONRAKER, A VIEW TO A KILL, and OCTOPUSSY. These are films that feature plenty of “plot,” but most of it is jaw-droppingly ridiculous.
QUANTUM OF SOLACE is a fairly sober, focused little film that plays out one character note, and the way Forster and his writers (Paul Haggis, working again with Purvis & Wade, the three of them all writers I’m not crazy about who seem to somehow combine into one serious James-Bond-writing-three-headed-badass) keep everything focused on Bond getting through this moment. The title, so roundly razzed since being announced, turns out to be a bit of a mission statement. Bond is looking for something very particular, and the moment he finds it, he’s done. He’s ready now to finally be the James Bond we are used to. He needs to know that something he trusted was, in fact, real, and until he knows it, he won’t stop killing and wounding and beating his way through as many people as he has to. Watching him piece together his penance, watching him work through it... that’s the movie. And that’s what makes this such a radical departure from any other Bond film before.
It’s not the plot that’s important, anyway... it’s how that plot is played out. And that's where Bond fans will never see eye to eye, because there are various schools of thought, as permanently divided as religious sects. Instead of Bond stealing space shuttles or wrestling giant snakes or running around a volcano hideout, this is about human-scale villainy as part of a global network. Mr. Greene’s big plan in this film has to do with cornering the market on a particular resource, and there’s just a hint of a political statement in what it is that Greene’s trying to control. In the next 50 years, that particular control is going to be very important around the world, and it may well be as big an economy as oil is now for the Middle East. It’s a real concern, and here’s this unctuous dwarf sneering down his nose at everyone as he uses an environmental warrior cover to justify his fairly amoral approach to resource management. It’s not the only thing he’s done... just the current one... but it gives Bond a good look at the way the guy operates. They’re not wrestling for control of the world in a “HA! HA! HA! I HAVE A DEATH RAY LASER THAT WILL DESTROY THE WHITE HOUSE!” way, but more in the way that whoever controls certain natural resources pretty much does rule the world. His plot’s not the most immediate threat to the safety of people around the world, but he gets in Bond’s way, draws his attention, and he’s dirty enough that Bond has a reason to go after him.
Uncovering QUANTUM is a bonus for Bond in this film, but it’s not his goal. As a result of doing so, though, the Broccolis may have just bought themselves another extension on the series, because I’m really curious now to see if they can play that story out. QUANTUM could be a great way to update SMERSH or SPECTRE, and the end of this film sets up a series, not just a sequel. To me, it feels like CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE are one movie. KILL BILL VOL. 1 and 2, if you will, for the James Bond series. And taken as one long ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE-length movie (that film, for those not up on their Bond trivia, is the longest of the series, clocking in just north of eleven and a half hours), I really dig it. I don’t miss the fetishistic museum piece touches of the series at all. I don’t miss Q branch. I don’t miss the Moneypenny banter. I don’t miss the breezy “let’s have a chat” style M briefings. Honestly... there are 20-something Bond films in that style, and like most Bond films, I've seen every film more than once. Some of them, I've seen many times. That adds up. I think it's safe to say if you count individual viewings, I've seen something like 180 James Bond films in my lifetime. All with that same rhythm and style and the same cast sadly growing older while James Bond mysteriously hovers around the same age in one of the weirdest continuity choices in franchise history. Like I said, I don’t miss the formula of it all. And frankly, if the Daniel Craig era never quite gets back to that, I’m perfectly happy. I wouldn’t mind at all. They made those movies. Lots and lots and lots of those movies. When I look over at the shelf of my office where every single one of those 20-something other Bond films are, the last DVD release that was the tricked-out-but-still-not-HD transfer, it’s this huge stack, all the same, all rigidly adhering to that formula.
And I enjoyed those films. Some more than others, and some much more than others, but I generally enjoy the Bond series. I prefer the Fleming novels, which are, of course, the source and the purest version of Bond, and I think Fleming’s Bond has still never truly been captured on film. I would enjoy a straightforward absolutely faithful take on the books someday down the road, almost as an arthouse experiment separate from the “money” franchise, but I doubt anything like that would ever be allowed. Instead, Bond is a blockbuster machine, and so maybe the reason so many people are so irritated with this entry in the series is that it’s more like the breath between the bigger stories. This is that moment of personal anguish that sometimes happens when an agent has a particularly personal or difficult field assignment, when things go wrong, when people die. This is the reaction to the last film’s action, and it has to happen for Bond to continue as Bond.
So relax... no one’s going to burn the franchise to the ground permanently. I’m sure the producers are going to eventually get back to movies so ridiculous that people just snicker when they see the posters... it’s just the nature of this property and these producers... from film to film, I think they basically just react to whatever’s happening in film at that time, whatever’s big and popular and interesting. I think they try to ride the zeitgeist, like when they totally revamped the direction of the series after THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and STAR WARS, bringing back one of the most popular villains of the series and totally ripping off the outer-space vibe of Lucas’s monster hit. Or when LICENSE TO KILL took a decidedly Joel Silverish turn in the late ‘80s, at a point where Roger Moore had burned the action-hero credibility of the series to the ground with his last few doddering effete grandpa performances in the series. For now, the thing they’re doing is imitating the more serious, hand-to-hand type of brutality that’s been dominating the last few years worth of big-budget action. And that’s okay with me. They're doing it pretty damn well. I like this style of action. I think it’s staged better than it’s shot in this film, and I think some of why it’s shot the way it is stems from Forster’s inexperience in this particular genre. And even so, even with the shooting and cutting of the action being the weak link in the film, I’m okay with it, because I like so much of the rest of it, and it is staged pretty well even if it’s not always clear what’s happening, and overall, the film works.
The reason these two films work for me is simple: Daniel Craig. For the first time since Connery, every element of Bond seems to be in place. He’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s a rugged action lead, he’s able to turn on the charm when he needs to, and he’s identifiably human and vulnerable. He doesn’t depend on the one-liners after every kill, but he’s got a dry wit that made me laugh out loud a few times. His skill set is extraordinary, but it seems possible as presented so far. I like the way he and Judi Dench have a tangible rapport that she never had with Brosnan, and their relationship is developing in some very interesting ways so far. Her chemistry with him is totally different than it was with Brosnan, and even though she’s a hold over from those films, the recasting seemed to have forced her to completely reinvent what she was doing, too.
Marc Forster’s work in the film is a mixed bag. Like I said, I don’t think he’s a confident action filmmaker, and much of his energy seems to be focused on getting in close to show you that Daniel Craig is really there in the midst of the action or really the one in the fights, but since we know that’s not really true, and there are plenty of stuntmen involved, I’d rather have a few choice “reality” shots and then action that is shot in a way that shows me the aggressive, dynamic staging by Dan Bradley and his stunt team. It’s not terrible, but it’s frustrating. When it all gels, though, it delivers because it feels personal, and that’s always more gripping to me in an action sequence. Everything else, Forster handles with aplomb, and I particularly like the small aesthetic choices, from the way the film just starts mid-car chase or the way he subtitles each new location they move to or the opening titles or the placement of the familiar James Bond gun barrel logo... it’s a very lean and clean Bond film, and I think the franchise is as healthy as it’s ever been right now. Can’t wait for the next one, and I hope Craig plays the character for years and years to come.