Bond has come a long way from the days of invisible cars. With the latest “reboot” of the franchise, Casino Royale, they went back to basics and remade Agent 007 more to the mold of the original Ian Fleming novels- a cold, damaged assassin who isn’t made of stone. The latest movie, 22 in a series of blockbusters, keeps that spirit and brings Bond into the true modern age- a world of shadowy quasi-government organizations with immense power, looking to control the world’s most precious resource. And while the latest incarnation definitely studied its competition- namely the refreshing Bourne movies– it makes several nods to its rich past, and Bond is still his own man. Daniel Craig makes him the most exciting version in decades.
Quantum of Solace is named after a Fleming short story and has little to do with it- the story thrusts us immediately into a car chase through the Italian mountainsides, with two Alfa Romeos gunning after Bond in his trademark Aston Martin. As in its predecessor, the action scenes are short, brutal, choppy, but I never had any trouble figuring what was going on. I found the car chase especially good, for how chaotic it was. Sometimes drivers- even Bourne- seem too in control, and even a super-agent can’t predict how other drivers will react, or the pinball physics of crashes. Here it works well, and Bond is always operating by the skin of his teeth.
When the chase is over, we find out that the movie is practically a continuation of Casino Royale– Bond is delivering the ringleader of the previous film’s evil plot to M, where we learn he is just a cog in the machine of a much larger and secretive organization known as Quantum. So once again the title is a play on words- not only is Bond seeking a “quantum,” or smallest possible amount, of solace after Vesper’s betrayal and death, but he’s also after a SPECTRE-like organization with that name (and snazzy “Q” lapel pins). We quickly learn that Quantum has people everywhere, and Bond has to operate mostly on his own to subvert them. They’re so powerful and unknown that they operate in plain sight, discussing their machinations during an opera. At least they use bluetooth headsets and sublingual mikes. Anything else would be gauche.
A secretive group bent on world domination is nothing new to the Bond films, but the secrecy and realism is. We never see “Quantum agents” and they can operate through other governments instead. The man doing their deeds doesn’t wear a grey Nehru jacket and carry a Persian pussycat- he’s just an oily-looking fellow running an eco-friendly corporation, so it seems. And his nefarious plot is much crueler than a laser on the moon or anything like that. For when we realize what the “most precious resource” is, it’s nothing shocking or new. And it makes perfect sense.
The trailers make much of Bond’s vendetta against Quantum for Vesper’s death in the first film, and as he tracks down the leaders, she is always in the back of his mind. When M doesn’t trust him to put personal issues aside, he has to work with old friends from his previous adventure, including the forcibly retired Mathis (Giancarlo Gianinni, Hannibal, Swept Away (1974)) and CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat, Syriana). Keeping these links gives the film the same foundation that M, Q and Moneypenny gave the older films. There are some new contacts as well, namely Camille (Olga Kurylenko, Hitman) who has vengeance issues of her own to deal with. She’s been cozying up to the villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who manages the role perfectly without outlandish theatrics. There’s not a third nipple or disturbing facial scar necessary to make us fear and despise him.
There’s no Bond movie without an amusingly named cupcake, and the girl this time is “Strawberry” Fields (Gemma Atherton, RocknRolla), but I only caught her first name in the credits. Here she’s a paper-pusher sent to rein in Bond, but of course his charm is just too much for her. She’s at least instrumental to the story and not just a bit of crumpet. The film is an excellent techno-thriller without depending on the tech to be the story and excitement. Seeing Bond take cell phone photos of people and get back identification hits has been done on “24” and The Bourne Ultimatum, but they manage to make it plausible, and we see that someone like Bond can only work his magic with an enormous support system behind him. No invisible cars here.
There are some throwbacks to the classic films- they brought back the “gun barrel” opening shot and sexy credits sequence, this time put to Jack White and Alicia Keys. The new song “Another Way to Die” is pretty good and quite different for a Bond film. You’ll also see references to Goldfinger and one of the Moore movies, where a villain is dispatched from a rooftop. Director Marc Forster, probably most famous for Monster’s Ball, manages a fine transition to the paragon of action thrillers, the Bond film, practically a genre of its own. His films Stay, a creepy and surreal mystery, the touching and heart-wrenching drama The Kite Runner, and the offbeat comedy Stranger Than Fiction show that he can’t be nailed down. After this, he’s tackling Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse novel World War Z, so let’s hope he fixes the one flaw this movie has- it’s too short.
At 106 minutes, it’s the shortest Bond film. We get plenty of action and a great finale, but it does seem like it’s over too soon. Perhaps a little more chicanery in Bolivia with Mathis and Fields would have made this a 4-star Bond film like Casino. The one thing the latest reboot has dropped is the Indestructible Henchman, and that’s fine; a hulking man with iron teeth or a razor-brimmed bowler aren’t what we want to see anymore. But maybe someone who’s a better match for Bond in a street fight is in order. Goldeneye, the best of the Brosnan era, had a great fight between two double O’s, and the Bourne films always have him facing off against another superman. Daniel Craig has shown that he can handle the stunts, but let’s see him meet his match.
3 ½ Vesper cocktails out of 4