How much is a quantum? Less than a little and next to nothing. Ex.: "In high school I studied a quantum of physics." Or, as James Bond might say, "I'll have a vodka martini, shaken not stirred, and instead of a side of pretzels give me a quantum of solace."
The Bond films want to remain faithful, in their fashion, to the Ian Fleming fictions that spawned them. But Fleming wrote only 12 Bond novels and eight short stories before his death in 1964, back when only two of the films had been released and nobody dreamed that the series would reach, as it has now, 22 "official" features over 46 years. (There were two rogue Bonds: a comedy version of Casino Royale in 1967, not to be confused with the one released two years ago, and Never Say Never Again, a Sean Connery solo project, in 1983.) So this time the keepers of the 007 flame went with one of the short story titles, which sounds more suited for an Antonioni film than the highly torqued action adventure that is Quantum of Solace.
The new Bond, starring Daniel Craig in his second spin as 007, had its gala premiere in London Wednesday, with the Princes Harry and William in attendance. The film opens in Britain, France and Sweden today, in 61 Asian, European and South American countries next week, and in the U.S. Nov. 14. So this review is for TIME.com international readers' eyes only. The rest of you, no peeking for two weeks. For now, we'll just say you have some thrills and rough fun in store.
Our overseas readers will recall — they'd better, if the plot and emotions of this film are to make any sense — that the 2006 Casino Royale was a conscious return to the young agent on his first big case as an operative of Her Majesty's Secret Service. While dispatching the usual number of foreign villains, he falls for the lustrous Vesper Lynd (as in West Berlin; Fleming was addicted to pun names for his Bond girls), an agent for the British Treasury Service. A misunderstanding about Vesper's motives leads to her death, for which Bond blames himself. Quantum of Solace begins an hour after the end of Casino Royale.
The 2006 film had the longest running time in the series: 2hr.24. This one, the first true Bond sequel, is the shortest, at 1hr.46, and it wastes no time shifting into high gear. It begins in the middle of a car chase, with Bond's Aston Martin being pursued by a convoy of nasty cars on the hairpin turns of a mountain road outside Siena, Italy. Doesn't matter if the bad guys have enough artillery to stock a Third World uprising; Bond's superior driving skills, and the series' reluctance to kill off its hero in the first reel, make him the victor and survivor. At one point on that narrow winding stretch he negotiates a 360-degree turn, maybe a 720 — with all the flashy editing it's hard to tell — and makes his way safely to a hideout where his boss M (Judi Dench) awaits. He has a lovely gift for her in the boot of the Aston Martin: a suave crime boss, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), brought in for MI6's brand of extreme rendition.
Fleming's idea of Bond villains was that they were inbred, disenfranchised Euro-aristocrats, their vocation twisted from nation-building to world-conquering; and the movies have honored that antique notion. The baddie conglomerate, once known as SPECTRE, is now Quantum, but their role is the same: to spit out snide threats in an upper-crust accent of indeterminate nationality.
One of these is White, who tells M and Bond a little secret; that Quantum has people everywhere. That's the cue for M's trusted bodyguard to pull a gun on her and reveal himself as a Quantum hireling. More fighting and chasing and leaping, intercut with the running of Il Palio, the famous horse race held in a Siena's main piazza. Director Marc Forster — known for gimmicky art-house films like Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction and The Kite Runner — turns out to be a natural as the helmer of a high-energy, high-gloss action film. He also holds the viewer's powers of concentration and retention in such high regard, he often has two action scenes going at once.
Vesper's death hangs over Bond like black crepe, spurring his sense of revenge and most of the plot. His chief nemesis is Dominic Greene (French star Mathieu Amalric, of last year's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), a zillionaire member of the Quantum board who uses environmental philanthropy to mask his sick dreams of diverting water from the peasants of South America. (Bolivia is the new Chinatown.) Greene passes along one of his plaything-victims, the seductive Camille (Olga Kurylenko), to the Bolivian strongman Gen. Medrano (Joaquín Cosio). Turns out Camille, like Bond, has a score to settle. This time, for both of them, it's personal.
Bond Bourne Again
The Bond films carry such baggage and have been imitated so many times that during any scene there'll be another playing in your head: one from some other movie that scriptwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (all of whom worked on Casino Royale) are either citing or borrowing from. Bond films, for a start. Q's gone missing, but M's there, and the sympathetic CIA agent Felix Leiter, making his ninth appearance in the series (played here, as in Casino, by Jeffrey Wright). And a rooftop chase that's the stunted little brother of the terrific parkour exertions in Casino Royale. And the startling image of a dead nude woman painted head to toe in black oil, a reference to poor gold-plated Shirley Eaton way back in the 1964 Goldfinger.
You'll feel reverbs from other old movies, like Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (whose climax of an assassination attempt in the Albert Hall gets an update here) and Jackie Chan's Police Story (jumping from a building to the top of a moving bus to another building across the street). The globe-hopping itineraries of our favorite secret agent and his targets — Italy, England, Austria, Haiti, Bolivia — will remind you of the geographic restlessness on display in Syriana, Body of Lies and other war-on-terror spy capers. And like hundreds of action-film thugs, the marksmen in this film are fatally slow on the trigger
The major touchstone is Paul Greengrass's Bourne Ultimatum, surely the most influential action film of the decade. Quantum appropriates Bourne's tilt-a-whirl camera and ADD editing, not to mention the vigorous skirmishes on roofs, in cars and hotel rooms. But the big similarity is in the two films' heroes. James Bond and Jason Bourne are both company spies whom their governments want dead, and both are coping with their girlfriends' violent deaths.
From the first moment of Casino Royale, Craig was a different sort of Bond. Instead of the 007 of the Fleming canon — a tough but smooth gentleman spy, schooled at Eton and Cambridge, radiating wit and warm sensuality — Craig seems a cyber- or cipher-Bond, with a loyalty chip implanted in a mechanism that's built for murderous ingenuity. ("If you could avoid killing every possible lead," M tells him in this installment, "it would be deeply appreciated.") In lieu of the double-entendre bons mots assigned to Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, Craig communicates in grunts and sullen, conceivably soulful, laser stares. Spying is no game with this 007; it's a job that's become a compulsion. Craig's Bond is a brute, Rambo with muscles bulging through his tux.
Appealingly sturdy in Casino, Craig is near-mute here. This Bond is a crippled titan, "blinded by inconsolable rage," as M gently puts it; he shows as much emotion as a crash-test dummy and endures nearly as much damage. But since MI6 currently has more turncoat agents than a Whack-a-Mole game, and Bond is the functioning spy M can trust, he's obliged to save the world on his own, while other branches of the government want him captured or killed.
Every Bond movie needs two Bond girls. One is a British operative (Gemma Arterton) named Miss Fields — in the credits she's ID'd as Strawberry Fields — and her job is to relieve Bond's sexual tension and add to the body count. The other is Camille, who has lost her mother and sister to one of the chief brigands. For Bond, then, she is both a mortal threat and an emotional tonic. Silently sulfurous with vengeance scenarios, she and Bond can purge their demons in the only acceptable action-movie fashion: by killing the men who were in some way responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.
The movie suffers from the absence, even in flashbacks, of seraphic-satanic Eva Green, who played Vesper in Casino. But Kurylenko, a lovely Russian-Ukrainian hybrid who is oddly duskied up to look vaguely Latina, is a whiz at raising Quantum's temperature and gradually luring Bond out of his stolid shell. It's a pleasure to watch this model-turned-actress, also seen briefly illuminating Max Payne, turn into a model actress. Here's one Bond girl who's a richly appealing woman, with or without Bond.
I could go on, but who am I kidding? Critics aren't expected to review Bond films so much as test-drive them. In that spirit, here's a quick rundown, on a scale of 0 to 10. Opening credit sequence: 5 — the usual semi-abstract woman's form, liquid and monumental. The song: 4 — Jack White and Alicia Keys duet on a power-pop number that's tenacious but not delightful. Chief villain: 6 — Amalric, who normally plays underdogs, hasn't the stature of a Dr. No or a Salamanca, but he's got the evil sneer down pat. Bond girl: 9 — Olga Kurylenko is more than OK. Fight scenes: 9 — frenetic, if familiar. And Bond — 7: Craig certainly fills the frame of a modern, wounded action hero; but, just once or twice, could he, and this mostly knuckle-cracking, often crackerjack film, crack a smile?
6 months ago