In his debut as James Bond in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig carved his signature onto the role in blood. He didn’t just prove himself. He took violent possession of the character, slammed it back down to earth, and reminded us that Bond was a killer—that the most glamorous and successful action hero in the history of cinema is, essentially, a high-priced thug. After 45 years of the Bond franchise, Casino Royale wiped the slate clean and retooled 007 from scratch. Like Batman Begins, it was a prequel. Now comes the sequel to the prequel, the strangely named Quantum of Solace, which shows Craig firmly in command and firing on all cylinders. Before seeing the new movie, I talked to Daniel Craig for a piece in Maclean’s, which you can find by clicking on: Bond’s Revenge. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I can appreciate what Craig was telling me—that the ultimate Bond girl, and perhaps his deepest love, is none other than Judi Dench’s M, the spy-master as Queen Mum. In the new movie, the brilliant interplay between Craig and Dench lies at the core of the drama, even if it’s overshadowed by spectacle.
Just as every actor who plays Bond re-brands the role (and himself), every director who comes to the franchise puts his own stamp on the formula, either by screwing with it or paying homage to it. Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster does both. Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) has never made an action movie before, and as with a lot of non-action directors who tackle Bond for the first time, this must be a big part of the attraction: an opportunity to play with some serious toys. Quantum of Solace is much more of a flat-out action movie than the previous one. Anybody who got bored during the marathon poker scenes in Casino Royale. won’t have that complaint this time. Bond doesn’t even set foot inside a casino; not once does he introduce himself as “Bond, James Bond”; or step up to a bar and order a martini shaken not stirred (although we do see him looking sodden after downing eight martinis that employ a revisionist recipe of vodka and gin).
For the most part, Quantum of Solace quotes the franchise’s tropes, rather than recycling them. But it does open with a souped-up version of the classic Bond car chase, involving an Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo hugging a cliff-side road on the Italian Riviera. (You can consider it homage or larceny—Bond producers singed a three-picture $100 million deal with Ford for exclusive vehicle product placement rights). Then the revisionism kicks in with a vengeance, by reversing the usual protocol of credit music. Instead of running the vintage John Barry theme and gun-barrel shot over the opening, that’s saved for the closing credits. Instead, the new Jack White/Alicia Keys theme song plays over the opening title sequence—a lazy bullet drifting through dunes and skin—and both the song and the animation are vapid and slickly over-produced, telegraphing the cold-blooded tone of what is to come.
That pre-title sequence is followed by another two back-to-back chase scenes, a bone-jarring footrace through Siena’s cobblestone rooftops and a boat-ramming harbour battle. Forster’s cutting is fast and furious, in the style of The Bourne Identity franchise, as if the editing is designed to match the brusque, ruthless style of Craig’s Bond. But some of the action is confusing: with two guys in dark suits chasing one another, half the time I couldn’t figure out which was which. The film’s most magnificent set-piece is a chase scene intercut with a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” opera, which was shot at the floating opera stage on Lake Constance at Bregenz, Austria.
There are some nifty surprises, which I won’t spoil (wait for the Canadian CSIS agent). And there’s no risk of me giving away the plot because I could barely follow it. The story revolves around revenge, with both Bond and a Bolivian beauty (Ukranian Olga Kurylenko) pursuing personal agendas. And the intrigue hinges on the usual criminal conspiracy for world domination, this one headed by Eurotrash mastermind named Dominic Greene—played with sinister elegance by Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)—who’s using eco philanthropy as a front for capsizing Latin American governments, and whose global organization makes the Mafia look small-time.
Between the fireballs and gunfights, there is some nice character work, including a sentimental turn by Giancarlo Giannini, who appeared in Casino Royale. And the screenplay, again co-written by Paul Haggis, has some sharp barbs of wit, and doesn’t bother with the cheesy double entendres that had become a franchise cliché.
Craig, who injured himself three times during the shoot, ricochets through the movie with an athletic intensity that we’ve never seen in a Bond movie. In a film where dialogue is sparse, he also has an ability to convey physical menace with the tiniest physical gestures, whether flipping open a cell phone or grabbing a set of keys off a dresser.
Bottom line: it’s a better Bond movie than most, but not as good as Casino Royale. For my money, there’s too much wall-to-wall action, and not enough dialogue. And when you’ve got actors as good as Daniel Craig and Judi Dench, that’s a sad waste.
JCVD and the world’s most unlikely thespian
For my money, the best film opening this week is JCVD, an extraordinary meta-movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme playing himself as a washed-up action hero. For more on this, to to my piece in the magazine: Hot Damn, Van Damme can act!
The Slumdog Millionaire Bandwagon