The newest Bond pic borrows too much from that other spy franchise.
When you get older, fellow agent Rene Mathis tells James Bond, "villains and heroes get all mixed up."
Indeed, a conspicuous moral ambiguity infects virtually every scene in Quantum of Solace, the long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s franchise "reboot" Casino Royale. Bond’s task is ostensibly to cut his way through it to clarity, but in the end he fails — even as Quantum fails in almost every other way to equal its dazzling predecessor. Where Casino Royale offered an updated and evolved but unmistakable 007, its sequel — and this really is a sequel; for the first time in Bond history, the plot and timeline of one film flows directly into the next — has more the flavor of a Jason Bourne installment than the further adventures of the world’s favorite fictional MI6 operative.
Quantum projects itself as a vengeance flick. When we last saw him in the memorable closing scene of Casino Royale, Bond had shot out the knees of the mysterious Mr. White, whom he knew to be connected with the death of his love interest Vesper Lynd. The opening sequence of Quantum finds Bond hauling White back in the boot of his gloriously roaring Aston Martin DBS. At the interrogation (which takes place, in the first of many contrasts between shadow and color, in a dingy dungeon located just off Siena’s festive campanile) Judi Dench’s M wonders aloud whether she can trust Bond to pursue White’s cronies, since he must obviously be bent on revenge for the death of the woman he loved — even though Bond himself deadpans that "she means nothing." When M’s own life is briefly threatened, Bond expressly adds his boss’s honor to the "avenge" list, and then he’s soon only too happy to team up with a beautiful young Bolivian woman on a quest to — you guessed it — find the banana dictator who killed her parents and aerate him but good.
Apparently Bond has come a ways since Roger Moore lectured the vengeance-minded Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only, "Before setting out on revenge, you first dig two graves."
But is it simple revenge that Bond seeks? Not so much as closure. In a manner so labyrinthine that actress Eva Green reportedly had to have it spelled out for her on charts, Vesper Lynd betrayed him in Casino Royale, even as she loved him and, ultimately, saved his life. Bond kills so many people in Quantum that his inability to take a live prisoner becomes a grim running joke, but the end of his pursuit is not to avenge Vesper’s death but to rehabilitate her memory.
The mixed character of that memory is emblematic of the moral ambiguity that lies at the film’s thematic center. Mathis’s observation about heroes and villains is doubly pithy, since he was incorrectly marked for a traitor in Casino Royale. But he’s only one reminder of the atmosphere of paranoia and duplicity that runs through Quantum. Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Rife with undetectable moles. The CIA? Cynically (and rather stupidly) pursuing American interests through any means, no matter how sinister. The British government fares little better — hoping only to grab a slice of the pie that the U.S. and China are hogging for themselves. Environmentalist crusaders are scammers out to make a buck, while greedy capitalists and tin-pot generalissimos compete to see who can more thoroughly screw the proletariat.
It’s little surprise, then, that Quantum should be a "rogue Bond" story, as were License to Kill and Die Another Day (although Bond’s struggle against British bureaucracy and mistrust is a feature of many other films, particularly in the Brosnan era). In a world in which we’ve lost confidence in flag and faith, in which we expect our leaders to have feet of clay, this is what passes for heroism. No more "keeping the British end up, sir" — Bond’s task here is to navigate through all the corruption until he reaches its heart, and see if he can’t, by restoring to purity the love that he shared with Vesper, achieve some small measure of purely existential comfort: a quantum of solace. And I think we’re meant to believe that he finds it, but with so little goodness in this Bond universe to provide reference, to the audience it’s a hollow achievement.
The paradigm for the modern-spy-hero-as-rebel-against-the-machine was of course set by the enormously successful Bourne trilogy. Like Bourne, Bond finds himself hunted by the amoral system that created him, and to which he once pledged unquestioning allegiance — before traumatic events caused the scales to fall from his eyes. Like Bourne he’s tracked and tagged by faceless monitor-jockeys, wielding the kind of intrusive information-retrieval hardware that gives ACLU’ers the night terrors. MP5-carrying goons from various agencies, under orders to "bring him in," lurk always just a step behind. Even his Universal Exports credit card is cut off, forcing him to fly coach.
The similarities don’t end there. Unfortunately, director Marc Foster decided to borrow another page from the Bourne playbook in the shooting and editing of action scenes: close shots and quick cuts are the order of the day. I suppose the aim is to draw the viewer into the speed and violence of the melee, but for this viewer it’s just plain disorienting. More than once I found myself wishing for pause-and-rewind controls. Making matters worse is the sheer amount and relentless nature of the action; never has a Bond film been this noisy, this busy. For me, and for all viewers whose visual processing powers haven’t been honed by hours of daily Playstation 3, the makers of Bond 2010 would do well to pull the camera back and let our eyes linger just a little longer.
Quantum of Solace’s particulars are a mixed bag. The plot, although it advances our understanding of the shadow organization (think of the X-Files conspiracy, delete the aliens, and add many busy accountants) introduced in Casino Royale — Bond learns it’s called "Quantum" and, in the film’s best scene, cleverly exposes and ID’s several members during a performance of Puccini’s Tosca — also inherits its convoluted storyline. Then it tacks on a rather underwhelming main plot involving a Bolivian coup d’etat negotiated by Quantum operatives with secret plans for that nation’s hidden resources. Madmen living in hollowed volcanoes firing deadly lasers from space there ain’t. It doesn’t help matters that lead villain Dominic Greene is so thoroughly unimposing: a short, damp-looking piece of Euro-trash with yellow teeth.
The rest of the cast, in marked contrast to the strong writing and uniformly excellent performances in Casino Royale, is likewise uneven. Daniel Craig is solid in his second 007 outing, although (again in Bourne fashion) he seems to have traded a few degrees of wit and emotion for a few degrees of ruthless combat skill. Judi Dench is back as M — the lone holdover from the Brosnan days — but isn’t given much to work with: alternately fretting, chiding, and applying face cream while listening to Bond shoot bad guys on speakerphone. Olga Kurylenko as fellow vengeance-seeker Camille works as eye candy but little else; however, bit player Gemma Arterton as Agent Fields (stay for the credits to get the first name) is a delight — English-schoolgirl prim in her bobbed hair, button nose, and raincoat. (When the proprietor of a dingy Bolivian hostel asks her, "Como estas?" she replies stiffly, "Very well, thank you.")
Taken together, there’s a strong sense that Quantum of Solace‘s plot, dialogue, and characters are underwritten (plausible rumors suggested that the script was rushed to beat the screenwriters’ strike). The tradition is for Bond films to be bloated and overlong, but this one clocks in under two hours, and feels sketchy rather than tight for it. Thematically, it attempts some ambitious goals, but is hamstrung by these basic deficiencies, and, ultimately, by its own cynical outlook. For the blurring of good and evil is not an inevitable byproduct of maturity; sometimes our heroes and villains remain unmixed.
Todd M. Aglialoro is the editor for Sophia Institute Press and a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com.