Monday, November 17, 2008

Stirred, Not Shaken: Bond Seeks "Quantum" of Revenge


directed by Marc Forster
starring Daniel Craig, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini

I’ve never been a huge fan of the James Bond series, mainly because its basic formula always seemed a little too silly for me to buy into the fantasy it was selling. (Put it this way: I’d take “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” any day over all the Bond movies put together.) Yet seeing the latest installment, “Quantum of Solace,” got me wondering: if you take away the silliness and the superficial gloss—from the cartoonish supervillains to the expensive, intricate gadgets that are made to be broken, to the martinis and the terrible, terrible puns, what do you have left?

The answer is: a perfectly serviceable spy thriller that just happens to feature an agent whose name is Bond rather than Bourne. The franchise reboot, “Casino Royale,” stood out because it was essentially a love story—with terrific chemistry between its leads—as well as an origins story of sorts. “Quantum,” which picks up directly where “CR” left off, maps a fairly standard-issue revenge narrative over a murky plot revolving around the shadowy global organization responsible for the death of Vesper Lynd, the woman who broke Bond's heart. The film is pretty well executed as far as it goes—with enough hand-to-hand fighting, hard knocks, and high-octane chases by car, foot, and plane in various exotic locales to satisfy the sharpest pangs for an action fix. But it doesn’t go much farther than that, despite Daniel Craig’s best efforts to convey the tautly coiled intensity of a man who’s turned his grief inward and his rage towards a single-minded purpose.

That said, Craig’s the best thing in the movie, even if it’s hard to connect his killing-machine version of .007 to the humorous, urbane detachment of the Bonds of yore. Indeed, the general direction the character is taking, while interesting in itself, doesn’t always jibe tonally with the franchise elements that still linger—such as the obligatory two babes, one disposable, the other less so. The disposable babe (Gemma Arterton) seems to be there more as a homage to the Bond tradition than for any real function in the storyline, while the less disposable one (Olga Kurylenko) starts out making bedroom eyes at Bond only to become, in the next minute (and for the rest of the movie), as dour and stonyfaced as he is. Maybe it’s contagious; maybe it’s because her backstory and agenda are designed, not very subtly, to mirror his. Kurylenko gamely tries to earn our sympathies as well as Bond’s, and mostly succeeds—but let’s face it, she’s no Eva Green.

The rest of the cast plays it down rather than up. French actor Mathieu Almaric (so excellent in last year’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) makes an adequate if unremarkable villain, exuding a quality of menace that’s reptilian rather than flashy. Dame Dench brings her usual reliably flinty presence as .007’s boss, M; never mind that it’s a role she could do in her sleep. And it’s always a pleasure to see Jeffrey Wright (as Bond’s CIA counterpart) in any role, though he deserves more screen time than he gets here. Ditto Giancarlo Giannini as an old foe-turned-ally who tries to help Bond in his quest. The overall restraint in the acting fits the tenor of the movie as a whole: it’s as if we’re supposed to believe that all of this could actually happen, quietly and furtively and at the margins of our consciousness. One could argue that this is the right kind of Bond for these grey, uncertain times, where a pregnant silence speaks volumes more than the most elaborate threats or explanations. Still—what is a Bond movie without a little grandstanding?