Nov 15, 2008

Entertainment Columnist -Vir Sanghvi reviews Quantum of Solace

I have a confession to make. Though nearly everybody else in the world thought that Casino Royale was the greatest James Bond movie of all time, I thought it was massively over-rated. Nor did I buy the line that the series had gone back to the spirit of the Ian Fleming books or that Daniel Craig’s Bond was a throwback to the glory days of Sean Connery.

And one more thing: though many Bond fans have hated the new movie, Quantum of Solace and it has received mixed reviews, I loved it.

It’s a far, far better picture than Casino Royale.

Okay, now let’s go over all the above, step by step, shall we?

First, why didn’t I think Casino Royale was so hot?

Well, because judged purely as a film, it was too long, over-bloated and did not really hold together at all. Its various bits seemed a little like different episodes of a TV show (or a whole bunch of TV shows, actually) rather than a coherent movie.

Second, why did everybody else love it so much?

Well, largely because the James Bond series is caught in a mysterious phantom zone where it has to keep crossing the lines of time. There are people who like the sex and snobbery. They love it when Bond beds a woman and purr with delight when he orders caviar (both of which he did in a totally gratuitous scene in Casino Royale). There are others who like the idea of a dinner-jacketed Bond at the card table — remember, in the Roger Moore days, the classic photo had Bond with bow-tie and gun — and sure enough, Casino Royale had loads of all that.

But these traditional Bond movie elements seem a little incomplete in an era where James Bond seems like the grandad of two new JBs — Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer. The success of the Bourne movies has blasted the Bond franchise out of the box office listings and the producers clearly felt the need to appeal to a new audience that liked stripped-down spy movies with laconic heroes. And 24, in which Jack Bauer is the accident-prone hero, had shown them that even on TV, lots of gratuitous violence, murder and torture are what really works.

So Casino Royale was really The Bond Identity or The Bond Ultimatum. It took the character and some of the things he carried with him (the sex, the high-living, the suits etc.) and placed them in a fast-action, jump-cut kind of Jason Bourne world.

That’s why it had so many different elements and that’s why it never really held together.

But it did please everyone: fans of Bond and fans of Bourne included.

Third, why didn’t I think that Casino Royale either captured the spirit of the Sean Connery movies or the Bond of the Fleming books?

Well, because people who spout all this nonsense have a) forgotten (or never seen) the Connery movies and b) never bothered to read the Fleming books (fair enough: they have not aged well).

It is now part of mythology that all the elements we laugh at in the Bond series were added when Roger Moore took over the role. This is nonsense. All of them were in the Connery movies.

The single best Bond movie Connery ever made, From Russia With Love, was full of gadgets — a whole briefcase worth of them. The tradition of the Mao-suited villain with a massive lair is pure Connery-Bond, right from the first movie, Dr No, to Ken Adam’s influential set for the climax of You Only Live Twice. The nonsense about fine wine is Connery-Bond too — at the end of Diamonds Are Forever, he unmasks an assassin when the hit-man fails to realise that Mouton Rothschild is a claret.

The only real difference between Connery’s Bond and the ones that followed (Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan etc.) was that Connery seemed capable of cruelty and real violence (not the pretend variety). In that sense, yes, Daniel Craig is in the Connery mould. But that’s about it.

As for all this crap about how Fleming would have hated Roger Moore and had wanted a tough guy to play Bond, the truth is that Moore was a candidate for the role before Connery was selected — and this had Fleming’s approval. Fleming was horrified by the choice of Connery and his own candidates for the role were people like Cary Grant, Richard Burton and David Niven — hardly tough guys or action men.

And finally, why do I like Quantum of Solace?

Well, mainly because it holds together. It is a (largely) coherent movie that shows us a single Bond, not a character who is composite of Bond through the ages.

There’s hardly any sex (one needless scene), no snobbery, no vodka-martinis shaken not stirred (he has his cocktail with gin), no gadgets (no instant revival-from-death kit in his car), very little high living, no caricature villain who bleeds from his eyes and no big climax.

It does have a Bourne-like editing style so the action can be a little jarring if not downright confusing and the screenwriters have taken on board Bourne director Paul Greengrass’s prejudices so the CIA is on the side of the bad guys in Quantum of Solace. But these obvious borrowings do not detract from the movie’s appeal. And the nods to previous Bond movies (the desert walk from The Spy Who Loved Me and the Shirley Eaton-style death scene that references Goldfinger, for instance) are subtly done.

It’s a dark, largely sensible movie and it even passes the one test that no Bond film has for twenty years: if the character was called Joe Smith and had none of the Bond trademarks, would you still be interested in the movie?

I reckon you would. And you should.

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