...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Day 2861: JAMES BOND: A Quarter of Sausage


A SINISTER organisation making DEALS for squillions of dollars and euros and pounds with foreign DICTATORS to manipulate the British Government… and it’s NOT Barclays Bank!

This sounds like a job for my BESTEST HERO, Mr James Bond!

Yes, my Daddies have taken me to the cinema to see the latest DOUBLE BRILLIANT James Bond movie: “Quantum of Solace”. I LOVED it, even if it is less of a story of its own and more like an extra hour-and-a-half of “Casino Re-al”. Or a REALLY extended pre-title sequence for the next one!

This IS the second one, isn’t it?
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It is a 12A which means that people under 12 have to have a responsible adult with them, but the cinema people kindly said that I counted as a responsible person to look after my Daddies!

Daddy’s review, with spoilers, follows… Roll titles!

At 106 minutes, this is, I’m told, the shortest of the James Bond films. It’s the next evolution of the pared down, grim reality Bond that we saw in “Casino Royale” (and, er, several Jason Bourne films), and it works to make a taut, fast-paced thriller. It works magnificently almost to the end, though I would have to say that the explosive climax is probably a touch over-edited, jumping directly from villain closing his deal to all hell having broken loose. Just occasionally less is really not more. The coda though makes a satisfying conclusion to what is, essentially, the story that began before the titles of “Casino Royale”.

“Quantum of Solace” is a mix of hyper-real violence, moments of highly stylised cinema and simmering emotional undertow, all of which disguises a very traditional Bond plot. (That “exploding villain’s base™” at the conclusion is the point where the mask slips). Villainous Dominic Greene is planning a little regime change coupled with some topical environmental terrorism and a touch of extortion. Bond meets him at a swanky party, finds out his underground secret, and blows up his secret base, er, hotel.

Throw in a dash of meta-narrative though, with back-links to “Casino Royale” and nods towards the sequel, and you’re close to reinventing the wheel, or in this case: “Doctor No”.

As you almost certainly know: in “Doctor No” (the film version), Bond’s mission to uncover the murder of agent Strangways leads him to discover almost incidentally the tip of a tentacle of SpECTRE.

Likewise, in Daniel Craig’s first outing, Bond’s mission to uncover the banker to the world’s terrorists reveals that he is just the tip of a tentacle of a much larger secret organisation of which – “Quantum of Solace” reveals – the Secret Service knows nothing.

So among those many connections to “Casino Royale”, not just picking up at most minutes after the “first” movie ended with Bond’s kidnapping of “Mr White”, not just the emotional fallout of Bond’s doomed affair with Vesper Lynd and the resolution of the plot with her kidnapped lover, not even what may be a running joke about the way Bond checks into luxury hotels, we of course learn more of the organisation: “Quantum”.

Yeah, “Quantum”: that really is a rather rubbish name, and they really are just SpECTRE. Dominic even gets the “we deal with the left or the right” speech, echoing Dr No’s “East, West mere points of the compass” speech from, well, Doctor No.

Mind you, if you ARE all members of the secret “evil-gang”, one that has remained unknown to the secret services of the world, perhaps all going around wearing a lapel pin “Q” (in Neutraface font, according to the BBC) might be ever so slightly giving the game away.

Significantly, Bond does not defeat Quantum by the end of the movie. Those “nods forward” include setting up several possible villains for an “episode three” (“Risico”, perhaps? Or “Property of a Lady”? The alternatives are the bland “007 in New York” or the unappealing “Hildebrand Rarity”.) Most obvious pointers are towards the “friend of the Prime Minister” Guy Haines, caught on camera by Bond at the cartel’s meeting in Austria, and mentioned as a “big bad” by both Mathis and Tim Pigott-Smith’s deliciously slimy Foreign Secretary.

Described as a businessman and advisor to the government, my first thoughts were of Lord Mandelson, but Alex suggested Lord Sainsbury, leading to the delightful image of hundreds of supermarkets as Bond-villain lairs. Never mind “Quantum”, how about: “T”errorism, “E”xtortion, “S”abotage, “C”ounter-intelligence “O”rganisation, anyone?

Daniel Craig continues to bring to this new-era Bond franchise everything that it needs in both brutal action and subtle emotional depth. And, perhaps too easily overlooked, brilliant deadpan humour. He doesn’t have the quips of Roger Moore, but instead a very restrained wry delivery, often implicitly commenting on the absurdity of his situations through his casual cracking-wise. And this is a Bond who needs a defence mechanism as he continues to take hurts, losing friends, allies and acquaintances and, seemingly, M’s trust.

M herself is brilliant, and Judi Dench steals every scene that she’s in, which helps you to overlook the fact that the Head of the British Secret Service appears to be turning up on the front lines everywhere. Here were are in Italy, and look, here’s M; a crime scene in a London flat and here’s M again; Bolivian hotel, guess who: yes it’s M; Russia…blah blah, M again. Does she not HAVE field operatives? Okay, to be fair, she’s just learned that her organisation has been compromised to the highest level and possibly the only people she really really trusts (as opposed to fake really trusts) are Tanner and Bond himself.

But come on, even Smiley had one friend!

(Tanner incidentally – presumably Bill Tanner, M’s Chief-of-Staff – is played here by Rory Kinnear, replacing Michael Kitchen. I’ve nothing against him in the role – he’s got a charming rushing-to-keep-up air that brings some freshness to MI6’s sterile HQs – but he looks so young that it doesn’t half re-emphasise the idea that M is now surrounded by teenagers!)

But yes, it’s clear that for all her carefully placed plausible deniability Bond is the man she trusts. As in “Casino Royale”, it is all down to Dame Judi’s deft light touch, but you can be sure that she is pushing the pieces around and relying on Bond to do what she needs and expects him to do. The crucial scene is the one in Bolivia where she arrives to take him into custody. “I hope you can trust these men,” says Bond. M doesn’t say yes and Bond clearly reads that as permission to knock them all out as they escort him out via the lift; then M – cool as a cucumber – meets Bond outside the lift and effectively give him permission to go and do his job.

There are two occasions in the movie where she implies that Bond has shot someone who, in fact, we know that he hasn’t.. He doesn’t correct her; importantly, he knows that he doesn’t have to. He’s realised that when she gave him the licence to kill, she knew what that meant, perhaps better than he did. In the course of the movie, Bond explicitly links M to the role of his mother, and at the end of the film the relationship between Bond and M is stronger than we’ve ever seen it before.

(Alex reminds me: technically Bond has killed them anyway; it’s just that the villains have made extra-sure)

She also gets several of the film’s best lines; Mr White gets most of the others. My particular favourites being the one about florists and the one about “Tosca”. You’ll remember when you hear them.

The return of “Casino Royale’s” version of Rene Mathis is an unexpected pleasure. He adds a sardonic commentary that compliments Bond’s own worldview. It’s a pleasure cruelly cut short when, shockingly, he is murdered. It’s a sign, perhaps – and another may be the way we are left not entirely sure any more whether we can trust the character of Felix Leiter, Felix Leiter of all people – that this new phase of the franchise is not going to be sentimental about its recurring cast in the way that, perhaps, the Bond films used to be, with the likes of “Q” and General Gogol and even that bloke with the bottle of beer and the double take turning up again and again to do their bit of shtick.

On the other hand, it’s also about closure – Bond and Mathis make their peace after they each suspected the other of betrayal by the end of “Casino Royale” – and ramming home the message that Bond needs to forgive himself for what happened to Vesper. Which, obviously, Bond, or this reading of Bond, cannot do… any more than, say, Batman can forgive what happened to his parents.

(Incidentally, Jeffrey Wright, the other “Casino” returnee, playing Leiter gets to do a lot of interesting work in relatively few scenes, getting to show how much Felix is hating getting into bed with Greene and his organisation, but still going along with it. His boss, Bream, is clearly a jackass, though surprisingly we don’t see him get any comeuppance; we merely hear it reported that Felix has gotten his job.)

Mathis is one of those “sacrificial lamb” characters that the Bond films often use: an ally who you come to like and trust and then the villain kills them to show how, well, villainous he is. Another is Gemma Arterton but, sadly, she is wasted as agent Fields. “Just call me ‘Fields’, she says.” (“You must be joking!” Alex exclaimed on seeing her credited as “Strawberry”!) She’s really very good in the few scenes she gets and deserved to be in more of the movie. Drowning her in oil – “black gold” if you will – is clearly supposed to remind us of some iconic image or other, but I’m at a loss to know what… ahem.

Olga Kurylenko, on the other hand, gets all the screen time that she deserves as damaged anti-heroine Camille. She is both beautiful and yet subtly broken, her own mission of vengeance imperfectly reflecting Bond’s pursuit of his duty. It’s slightly a shame that the truncated-seeming ending has her jump too quickly from taking her revenge to cowering from flames. Yes, her back-story (briefly established) does explain why she would fear the fire, but there was no journey for her from one point to the other. What is nice is the ending where Bond doesn’t get the girl and the girl is left not entirely sure whether she got what she wanted either. Nicely unresolved.

There’s a lot of lovely business in the subtitles, a great many throwaway gags and – very subtly – a taxi driver who won’t shut up actually gives us the first big clue as to what Green’s diabolical plan might be. Speaking of words on the screen, though, someone perhaps needs to tell the graphic designer to calm down a little, as the on-screen location credits as we shift from Siena to London to Haiti to Austria to La Paz are, er, perhaps a little frantic as Bond once put it (in “Live and Let Die” – he was talking about ties, though).

David Arnold’s music is excellent as always, if more understated than on some occasions. I must confess though that Jack White and Alicia Keys’ title theme doesn’t work for me sounding, as it does, like an extended version of the “Never Mind the Buzzcocks” intros round. But the titles are, if not quite as good as “Casino Royale’s” playing card theme, a splendid montage of shifting sands, reflecting both the Bolivian desert that features centrally to the plot and the shifting sands of truth and trust that Bond finds himself walking upon.

And don’t panic about the opening: the classic gun-barrel isn’t missing… just delayed.

And that, in fact, sums up this movie. It’s great, fast, action-packed, very James Bond… and it’s the pre-title mini-adventure for the next Bond film. The end of the closing credits promises, as always, “James Bond will return”. Frankly, I can’t wait!

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

(Found this from a link in your 10th Blogday post.)

Interesting. As a huge fan of both Casino Royale and Skyfall, which I'd rate probably the best and second best Bond fims of all, I've always found Quantum of Solace rather poor -- frantic, confusing, inexplicable, random. (I've seen it twice, and seem to remember liking it a little more the second time, but still not very much.)

So it's provocative to read such a positive review. Makes me want to give it a third chance. Which I will do.