In an age when audiences crave more than just glibly e-quipped, perfectly coiffeured, impossibly unflappable heroes to don the Bond mantle, more from villains than skills with hats or tough teeth, and more from heroines than ridiculous monikers and training in the art of being a pathetic damsel in distress, we were introduced to Casino Royale, the 2006 series re-boot starring the latest James Bond, Daniel Craig. Based loosely on the Ian Fleming story by the same name, Royale introduced us to a tougher, more brutal British assassin, an almost-rogue, force-to-be-reckoned-with, who jets across continents tracking foes using the latest hi-tech equipment and preventing global terrorism. He made mistakes, got beaten and tortured as if it were par for the course, left a swathe of dead bodies and wrecked vehicles in his wake, and even had what little was left of his increasingly cold heart broken along the way. And at the end of an intense two-and-a-half hours (the longest film to date in the series) Bond, having been betrayed by the late love of his life Vesper, was in a vendetta kind of a mood, determined to get to the bottom (or top) of the mysterious organisation that she was being blackmailed by, and that the villain he beat at poker, were working for. The credits rolled after Bond had tracked the shady Mr White (a post-partum tip from Vesper), his only lead left in the investigation, to a secluded residence on Lake Garda. Despite the long introduction, audiences knew in no uncertain terms that this was just the beginning.
Quantum of Solace picks up just a few minutes after the end of Casino Royale, continuing where the first film left off, and kick-starting straight into what would turn out to be 106 minutes (officially the shortest Bond film) on back-to-back action set-pieces, charting Bond's quest for revenge, or at least the truth, as entwined with a complex plot involving the shady organisation behind it all. A car chase (in the vein of Bourne) leads to a foot-chase across the Italian rooftops (parcour really has become the next big thing), a boat chase in the Caribbean (a Bourne-style-edited variation on the Boat chase in From Russia with Love), and a plane chase and skydive in Bolivia. There is no time to even catch your breath as Bond crosses continents and kills his way to the truth, uncovering the name of the shady multi-global terrorist organisation - Quantum - and one of its minions, a nasty little man called Dominic Greene, who is planning to choke the water supply in Bolivia and then massively raise the utilities prices, and is using a sadistic General - who wants to become a Dictator in the region - and the double-dealing CIA, to put his dastardly scheme into action. Sigh. Take a breath.
Let me start by saying that, in its own right, Quantum of Solace is a pretty mediocre Bond movie at best (if it can even be classed as one, given the distinct lack of trademark characteristics). As a post-Bourne-era spy-thriller, it is hard-nosed and brutal and thoroughly action-packed, but in this series it stands out as the least glamorous, least 'Bond'. I know that many big fans out there are crying out that these last couple of movies have been the most faithful to the original source material but - really - how many of the books pitched the cynical, edgy character as a man who could perform any of the stunts - let along fight - like Craig's Bond does? No, sorry, the 'faithful to the source material' line just doesn't cut it with me. Bond was, and always will be, about the glamorous girls, big action set-pieces, suits, martinis, expensive fast cars, scheming villains and global threats. And whilst Royale gave us half of these things, we had to wait until Quantum to get the other half. The end result is the first official Bond sequel but, for me, it was less of a sequel and more of the completion of one single Bond story arc. If you watch the movies back-to-back you basically get the plot elements of any of the previous Bond movies - in order - and you also get a much better feel for where they wanted to go with this reboot. This really is Batman Begins for Bond, only we haven't got to The Dark Knight yet, we're still rounding off what happened in the first story and establishing elements that will be seen throughout the next few.
I think that it is quite telling that you cannot write a review of any Bond film these days and not use the word “Bourne” a single time because - across the last four decades of these movies - there has never been such an influential alternative franchise. Back in the late sixties, within a couple of years of the debut of the Bond franchise and with Sean Connery securely in the role, three of Len Deighton's Harry Palmer books were brought to the big screen with Michael Caine as the eponymous hero - a short-sighted, cockney low-level spy who has to worry about paperwork and whether he can get a small advance to pick up a cheap car and still manages to get embroiled in relatively plausible espionage plots in Cold War Europe and America. Although arguably 'more faithful' to the original (and possibly better) source material, and still critically acclaimed (certainly Ipcress File has gone down as a classic spy thriller), the trilogy never had any direct impact on the Bond franchise. Similarly in the late eighties and nineties, when Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books started hitting the big screen with stars like Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford (who made the best Jack Ryan) and eventually Ben Affleck, took on the role, we were given another thinking-man's spy hero, but - again - it did not really affect the debut of Brosnan in the Bond role. With Bourne, however, it appeared that Hollywood sat up and took notice (probably for fear of the Box Office receipts), even going so far as to employ many of the same production crew members, and stunts and photography experts to work on the new Bond films so they would have the same film.
Crash's Paul Haggis, with the assistance of Neal Purvis, wrote these last two reboot tales, and they even follow the same plot as Bourne Identity and Supremacy, mirroring the story arc and even some of the scenes (Identity effectively charted the evolution of the character, and showed us what he was capable of, then giving him the chance at a new life with a newfound love, Supremacy had her killed and had him track across the globe to get to the truth and bring down those behind it all, whilst clearing his own name), so between all that and the fact that the unarmed combat scenes and all the chase sequences are done in the new Bourne style (fast editing, harsh impacts) what you have here is a reboot that is actually very familiar indeed. Stick Bourne in a suit and you would be forgiven for getting confused between the two. This new creation strikes more of a resemblance to 24's superspy Jack Bauer than the quintessential Bond of days gone by. Whilst I do understand why this had to happen - audiences now crave believable superheroes (a la The Dark Knight) and intelligent plots - the series has never before gone quite so far off the rails in the name of cultural changing with the times.
Bond, for me, always existed on its own plain - never playing by the rules and living in a fantasy world of gadget-laden cars, one-man-against-an-army scenarios and impossibly beautiful women who seem to actually desire to become just another notch on his bedpost after the merest of glances from the suave super-spy. Die Another Day was possibly the nail in this character's coffin - too much of an extreme in all of those respects, with invisible cars and para-surfing on CGI icebergs pushing even the biggest fans over the edge. It was such a shame considering the promise offered by the opening credit sequence, where Bond is captured and tortured, released on prisoner exchange and then has his very loyalty questioned by his own Government, but with the emergence of annoying diva Halle Berry and one too many silly setpiece, culminating in an inane fight with a robot-suit-wearing villain on board a plane, things had clearly gone too far. It was too ludicrous even for this fanciful franchise, and so a reboot was understandably commissioned.
Bringing back the old traditions appears to be the intention even with this new franchise, so while Daniel Craig's Bond is on his vendetta we do get plenty of nods towards some of the best of the classic tales - the vengeance-spurred female ally Camille (the exotically camouflaged Olga Kurylenko) is reminiscent of Carole Bouquet in the best Roger Moore effort, For Your Eyes Only (Moore's version was also paid homage to in the scene involving dropping a villain from a roof), Bond ally Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) reappears as a nod to Connery's ally in From Russia with Love, the franchise's classic CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) finally comes into his own, and there's more than a little On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Licence to Kill thrown into the mix (the death of a loved one and the subsequent revenge), as well as the creation of a SPECTRE-like phantom terrorist organisation which Bond can repeatedly go up against. But even with this double-whammy reinvention, he is far from complete and I'm not entirely sure where they're going to go. We have the potential for villains, maybe more gadgets, and we know M can trust him (although she is a little whimsical with her fickle treatment and abandonment of her best agent, then - literally moments later - complete reversal of stance), but what about the girls? I'm not suggesting he needs anything more than the occasional love interest but, realistically, where exactly is this new guy going to go? He's proven repeatedly now that every single girl he beds gets either drowned or, more often than not, tortured and then drowned, whether he cares for them or not - so why would he ever take the risk of getting intimate again. Seeing the new Bond fancifully chase after the next hot young chica he sees seems almost as improbable as his falling in love again, mainly because he is now more Bourne than classic Bond, and there is no reason to risk an on-mission love affair again (what he does in his spare time is a lot more plausible). So, where do we go from here?
Quantum of Solace is Bond for the Bourne generation, and makes for top notch entertainment. Frenetic chase scenes (at times incomprehensibly shot), massive set-pieces (although the fight whilst dangling from the ropes is a little too much), exotic locations (the villain's stupidly flammable lair in the desert was a nice touch) and non-stop action certainly keep your attention, but any substance was largely used up in Casino Royale, this merely making an action-packed final act to the former's set-up. I approve of most of where they were going with this reboot (apart from the aforementioned girl issues) but perhaps not with how long it has taken to even give us a hint of classic Bond. If Royale and Quantum combine to make one complete adventure, we basically waited a year to find out that we were getting “One Bond Film For the Price of Two”. With Craig (and although he makes an excellent variation for the modern generation, I still wonder how Clive Owen would have fared in a more traditional interpretation) signed up for two more entries, the creators have their options open on where to go (even leaving out a bookend they filmed for Quantum that would have tied things up in respect of the shady Mr White) and promise more traditional stories, only told with this up-to-date character, contemporary relevance, hard-hitting realism and frantically-edited style. On time will tell whether they can return Bond to his own realm, standing alone from the crowd in the world of Bournes and Bauers, but he certainly is not there yet.
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