Quantum entanglements

Tuesday, 18 November 2008 — 6:30pm | Film, Full reviews

Watching Casino Royale was like witnessing the restoration of a rejuvenated monarchy. It restored the name of James Bond to a credible position of leadership in espionage cinema when the genre needed a capstone to its brief renaissance, with Munich arriving the year before and The Bourne Ultimatum and Lust, Caution hot on its heels—and while all four are destined to be spy classics, Casino Royale had the further distinction of being an old-fashioned popular action flick when blockbusters as a whole were sorely lacking in grit. It wasn’t merely a great Bond film: it was an admirable piece of cinema by out-of-franchise standards.

I spent most of Quantum of Solace missing Casino Royale.

I missed the absolute clarity of the wide-angle view we had of the action, stitched with a pulsating tandem of escalation and diminuendo that pervaded the showpiece sequences with a shot-to-shot rhythm rivalling the finest fruits of Steven Spielberg’s longtime collaboration with editor Michael Kahn. I missed how Bond was constantly and seriously endangered on all sides. I missed the dutiful preservation of Ian Fleming’s greatest balancing trick: the ability to draft characters that look like comic-book figures on paper and still make them belong in a milieu of hard-boiled, no-nonsense realism.

Nowhere in Quantum of Solace will you find anything to match the tension at the poker table, the tics of Le Chiffre, or the topping of Daniel Craig’s devil-smile when the airplane sabotage sequence finished with its controlled-explosive kerplop.

This isn’t to say that Quantum is a bad time at the cinema. It’s good fun, it’s technically accomplished, and it retains the brains, topicality, and calculated coarseness of its predecessor. There is even a shocking homage to Goldfinger‘s most iconic image that literally drips with the post-9/11 ethos, capturing the essence of the new James Bond in a single frame. And I know it’s a cosmetic trifle, but the locational title cards are superb.

But they borrowed the right Fleming title, for this film is a quantum indeed: discontinuous, and in need of a unified theory.

The best thing Quantum of Solace has going for it is its stark departure from formula, a consequence of its situation as a direct sequel to Casino Royale—and I mean it when I say direct: it’s a short drive from one to the other. The newer film gets considerable mileage out of extending the arcs of characterization that were already in place. Bond is still too trigger-happy for his own good, and not entirely honest to himself about his lingering connection to Vesper Lynd; M has the same agitated personality as in the preceding film, wherein she had a very distinct characterization from the M of the Brosnan era despite how both of them were played by Judi Dench.

Really, the sense of serial continuity is such a surprise next to the episodic reboots of the past that it is enough to make Quantum feel wholly unlike anything the film franchise had hitherto produced. The plot follows no predictable curve. There are surprises galore, twists around every bend, as moles show their hands when you least expect it.

Co-writer Paul Haggis’s fingerprints are all over this film, and at this rate it’s only a matter of time before he directs a Bond film himself. I mean this as an observation, not as a positive or negative remark: I’ve been paying attention to Haggis since all he was known for was an obscure Soviet rock-and-roll romance called Red Hot, before Million Dollar Baby and Crash made him a big player. He became involved in Casino Royale in the later drafts to add some polish, and while I’m saying this on a hunch, I believe his presence helped substantially without taking over the script. In Quantum, which has no bedrock of Ian Fleming to sit on, Paul Haggis characters are everywhere—from the ostensible Bond girl from Bolivia played by Olga Kurylenko to the mustachioed caricature of a CIA regional branch director, to the CSIS agent who shows up at the end. (Count on the Canadian writer to give Canada a nod, however small.)

One of the reservations I had about Crash was its habit of beating hot-button issues with the blunt hammer of a news-reading dilettante, and Quantum of Solace is guilty of the same: it is so eager to play whack-a-mole with everything under the sun—oil exploitation, climate change, water commodification, CIA-backed dictatorships, and more—that it all amounts to a wild tangent from what we really care about: the looming threat of a subversive global organization reminiscent of SMERSH and SPECTRE in their Cold War heyday.

Quantum‘s opening scenes promise a continuation of Casino Royale‘s suggestion that by messing around with Le Chiffre, MI6 has poked its finger into a much bigger pickle jar than they are prepared to handle. For a while, we are lead to believe that the film will actually go somewhere with this, but as soon as we get a tease of the organization—a merry band called Quantum that meets over performances of Puccini—all Bond ends up pursuing is another appendage of the operation.

Not a very interesting one, at that: the world of Quantum of Solace is full of delicate characters in bold-stroked political situations, in dramatic contrast with the Ian Fleming ideal of bold-stroked characters in delicate political situations. It’s casual Friday at the office for the supposed Bond girl and the alleged Bond villain, and while I don’t know the proportion of Haggis’s contribution to the script compared to his returning collaborators Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, I smell the distinctive odour of Crash, Crash, Crash.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to criticize Quantum of Solace for not being Bondish enough when it is here to try something new. But one would be right to accuse it of taking a few too many cues from The Bourne Supremacy and inheriting the same case of middle-child syndrome. It feels organically connected to Casino Royale thanks to the returning minor characters, the reliable linchpin of Daniel Craig, and the retention of the rubble-flecked texture of sandstone and shrapnel that draws its power, I suspect, from its resemblance to the war photography we have seen come out of the Middle East. Structurally, the plot development mimics The Bourne Supremacy more than I’d like, with the open ends on either side, the returning minor characters I alluded to above, and the pursuit of grudges unrelated to the main plot to settle an unresolved score or two.

Make no mistake: there’s room for another Bond yet in the Daniel Craig era, and probably some more after that if the next film wanders off like this one without answering its own compelling questions. I like the idea of a tight continuity over several Bond films, creating a series within a series, but there needs to be progress and direction every step of the way. For an unorthodox entry to the franchise—the first film in the series extrapolated from the events of a preceding Fleming story—Quantum of Solace exudes an odd impression of returning to business as usual. The Bond film series currently has the good fortune of existing in a world where geopolitical intrigue is the most exciting it has been since the height of the Cold War. Let’s not squander the moment.

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