Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

James Bond: Quantum of Solace

By David Luhrssen
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Quantum of Solace is the future of cinema, a movie whose splashiest scenes are tailored to the dimension of big screens. It opens with the camera zooming like a cruise missile, skimming the surface of the sea as it hurtles toward the Italian coast. There, on a winding road in his Aston Martin, James Bond outmaneuvers his high-speed pursuers in trucks and cars; the cameras put viewers in the midst of chaos, careening amid the splintered metal and shattered glass. It’s like being immersed in a video game for giants.

Just imagine some dweeb downloading Quantum of Solace onto his cell phone! In the future the experience of major motion pictures, the event movies, must be at a level that can’t be fully enjoyed at home or on the run. Quantum demands to be seen the first time in movie theaters—the Blu-Ray disc can wait.

The new Bond movie picks up where Casino Royale, its predecessor, left off. Daniel Craig reprises his role as the implacable and angry 007, playing it for real, not bracketed by quotation marks of irony. The action sequences are a little fantastic but he exits them bruised, cut and battered. Versatile and talented director Mark Forster (Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner) is new to the Bond world, attracted by the thorough revamping of Casino Royale, which—in the most successful movie franchise reboot ever—brought Bond back to Earth and out of the cartoon clouds where the series had drifted for decades. Quantum of Solace is even better—shorter, punchier in rhythm and without a wasted moment.

Quantum of Solace was inspired by a short story from Bond creator Ian Fleming, more because someone thought the title sounded cool than for content. Contemporary in theme, it features a slippery villain, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), ostensibly a transnational corporate hero, a venture philanthropist saving the world from global warming. It’s all greenwash of the most toxic brand. Greene’s corporation is a mask for the hidden masters of the global economy, for whom so-called “developing nations” are nothing but pools of cheap factory labor. In one of the many well-turned asides that define character and scenario in rapid strokes, Greene references Haiti, specifically the Roman Catholic priest who became president and tried to raise the minimum wage to a dollar a day. Greene credits himself with overthrowing the reformer. “Look at what we did to this country,” he says proudly, surveying the crowded streets of poverty. Unlike the grotesque monsters of earlier Bond cycles, Greene is a deceptively mild and relaxed villain, the sort of friendly chap who pals around with Bill Clinton and delivers sanctimonious speeches at international conferences. His villainy is scarcely less realistic than the agendas of many CEOs.

Greene’s current scheme involves installing an exiled general as president of Bolivia in a CIA-backed coup—all to gain control of the country’s water resources. The plot sends Bond across continents faster than a bullet train on bone shattering foot chases over the slippery tile roofs of Sienna, splashing speedboat chases in Port-au-Prince harbor and a dogfight in propeller powered planes amid the treacherous peaks of the Andes.

This year’s Bond girl, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a dark and exotic beauty of Russian-Bolivian heritage, is pursuing Greene’s puppet general in her own vengeance quest. Judi Dench returns, playing M with the regal disdain of Her Majesty in a very bad mood. She’s concerned that 007 has become a rogue agent. After all, the road he travels is paved with the bones of those who stood in his way.

While Quantum of Solace represents the future of cinema with its splashy choreography of big screen violence, it also taps into a long tradition that began with Les Vampires and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and led to North by Northwest and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s pure cinema, all forward motion and minimal dialogue, a kinetic contest of opposing wills mounted with heart-thumping action and eye-popping special effects in a funhouse mirror of the real world. Quantum of Solace is the best Bond yet.

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