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Killing speed
A film review of QUANTUM OF SOLACE by Camus
 
"And the idea was for me to, that the movie feels like a bullet.
I wanted just to make this really tight, short kind of movie.
Which just, like, takes you."
Director Marc Forster
interviewed on Dark Horizons

 

He's not kidding. Quantum Of Solace isn't projected. It's fired directly at you. The bullet takes you, yes, but in too many instances it takes you out. You fall and cannot get up again. You really want to go with the movie but it's like spotting the dust trail of a cheetah – you know the movie's there because you have physical evidence but it's three steps ahead of you and moving so fast that confusion inveigles itself in between the cuts like oil lubricating an engine. When a shot appeared on screen for longer than three seconds (a credit card unlocking a door) a little part of me sighed in relief. But I will go against what seems to be the tide of critical opinion and say that Quantum Of Solace is a fine movie made with skill by a film-maker with his own voice. Of course, you can't reinvent Bond too much. There's only a small part of the canvas to sign but Forster has done a sterling job. The producers cast their directors extremely well.

The only personal nit-pick is a technical one. Film-makers are now telling their stories with so many short-cuts and flash cuts that, overused, make a mockery of narrative unless you're really, really specific (Bourne sequels helmer, Paul Greengrass, take a bow). The action scenes of Forster's movie are (deep breath) too rapidly cut for first time consumptive comprehension – and I am speaking from an editor's perspective so I do know how easy it is to cut faster and faster because you and your creative partners know your material so well – but the audience doesn't. And it's not just an industry weary, forty-seven year old's opinion. Two twelve year olds who were with me were confused throughout and always asking me to clarify the on screen action. I pretended, to my shame, to know what the hell was going on. Most of the time, I used logic to fill in some gaps but boy, do I need to see that movie again to really 'get it'.

Reinvention has been a necessary Bond sub-genre staple ever since the franchise got too unwieldy with beloved aspects engulfing the story-telling in a sort of pantomime fug. Gadgets, girls and guns, and in Roger Moore's case, an overuse of the arched eyebrow – or is that just the memory of the Spittin' Image satirical barbs? But after Casino Royale, surely no re-boot was necessary? I imagine, after his Herculean efforts, director Martin Campbell needed a few years off and as with the Harry Potter franchise, new directors reinvigorate what could get samey and dull very quickly. So here we are with Bond twenty-two, the first direct sequel in the series' history. Regular producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Brocolli have recruited the least Bondian director one could imagine since Die Another Day director, Lee Tamahori, got arrested in drag for soliciting in Los Angeles. To be fair, he'd already completed his Bondage. Yes, I did take a while to decide to make that a capital 'B' or not.

Marc Forster, a singular and choice-eclectic talent, has been quoted many times about preserving character over action. His best films to date in my opinion (The Kite Runner and Finding Neverland) are character pieces with little high adrenalin action. Bond movies have their share of action but as with most Bond outings, the 'family' of technicians employed on successive Bonds have the second unit action stuff down to an art. It's the director's job to approve the storyboards and let them do their thing. Forster's only real challenge then is to make us care about our heroes (and villains) so we can invest in (and understand) the narrative. That would be a "Yes," and an "Almost..."

The action starts with no pause from the ending of Royale. Bond is taking back to HQ the only human link to an organisation that cruelly preyed on his ex-girlfriend's unfounded fears, forcing her to kill herself for betraying him. The Bourne-like chase sequence is certainly dynamic and visceral but you never get a cold, clear shot indicating the extent of Bond's enemies. I mean, why was the HGV after him too? I appreciated the rather novel opening (beauty shots of the Aston inter-cut with a sweeping aerial moving over the water towards the road) but it soon became clear that I would have to pay the strictest attention to figure out what was going on. Craig was barely glimpsed in the chase and having such an asset, it seemed a waste not to let him be on screen for longer than a second a pop.

Again Daniel Craig is the movie's greatest asset. His face, so often a mask of singular and violent determination, is brutally treated this time out. That jaw-line of intent convinces in seconds that if there is one man you would not like to get on the wrong side of, it's Mr. Craig. Yes, John Cleese's humorous taunt in a 'Time Out' interview with Craig about his height hit home playfully; "How tall do you think Bond should be?" eliciting the reply "Bastard! Tell him to fuck off! Shorter than John Cleese!" But who cares? When you have an actor of real skill and conviction, no one's going to worry that he's not six feet tall. His brutal dispatch of a number of bad guys in Quantum leaves you in no doubt that here is a man who takes his role and character very seriously. There's not a dishonest moment in his performance and I believe he has the scars to prove it.

As far as the plot is concerned, it seems there is a shadowy and necessarily evil organisation called Quantum (its meaning here presumably, a small number of operatives making a bloody big impact) and it is the only nod to the bizarre but beguiling title (a Fleming short story that has nothing to do with the movie's narrative). They have people everywhere and Bond follows a trail that takes him to a nasty Frenchman in Haiti (played by the current shining light of French cinema Mathieu Amalric) who seems to badly want a large part of the desert that has no oil to mine. The convoluted plot (and it is convoluted) doesn't help when the action kicks in, as it does with surprising frequency. Bond's barely out of the car from the frantic, frenetic car chase when moments later he's required to run someone down. So the mixture of a meandering and complex plot which takes some time to unravel, combined with action scenes cut faster than a BBC apology makes Quantum Of Solace hard work but it's not unrewarding.

There are moments that make you smile and there is a cut to an angle that covered such a surprising piece of action that I mentally patted Forster on the back for it – it's quick (duh) but it involves a motorcycle. Look out for it. During one action sequence I was happily surprised to feel my palms sweating. Yes, it probably had more to do with the fact that it was an aerial sequence with aircraft (not my thing, flying, despite the fact I make two flights a month on average) but the fact we know Bond is in no real danger of dying meant that something embedded in the sequence must have been firing. Forster's talent afforded these sequences with a real threat despite the fact the audience is complicit with him knowing that Bond will not actually expire on his watch. His inter-cutting of action scenes with 'real life' events is particularly effective. The moment Craig signals his presence at a performance of 'Tosca' reveals human nature as essentially stupid despite the high tech trappings. What's the first thing evil-doers do in public if they've been audibly identified as evil-doers? They stand up and leave the show prematurely allowing our hero to take their pictures – classic. And very Bond.

Given the varied ways in which film-makers tell us where we are these days, Quantum did a very good job of graphically designing the actual letters to be in keeping with the places they were identifying. In J. J. Abrams' X Files knock off, Fringe, the 3D CGI titles as fixtures in the actual locations are very nicely done but Forster's more restrained low tech approach here works just as well. In this Bond, we go all over the globe much to the movie's credit because most of these places have not been seen too many times on screen so the film feels fresh and weathered with exotic detail (just like the early Bonds). There is a specific glutinous nod to Goldfinger and I'm sure a whole host of other references but perhaps they went by so quickly I didn't notice them. I was also thrilled not to notice the numerous product placements, which I'm assured, were in there somewhere. I did expect – after the two and a half hour advert for Sony products that could have been Casino Royale's sub-title – to be irritated a great deal but all I really saw was a Virgin ad behind Bond's head at some point (let's not count all the close ups of legitimate gadgets out there in the world with a big "THIS IS A SONY PRODUCT – BUY ME, YOU FICKLE IDIOTS!" sign on it).

The richly deserved success of Royale had pushed expectations of its follow-up through the roof and lead-like onto Forster's shoulders. After the dribble of negative worldwide first responses, I had that almost contrary attitude which may have flavoured my review. I stand by the quality of Quantum. It's the execution of the next one that needs to ease the tempo down a bit for clarity's sake. Softly, softly, catchee box office. Cut any faster than this and you can kiss narrative goodbye. Chillingly, perhaps that's the future of movies. I can wait... Mostly because I will have to watch these super fast movies more than once to ‘get them'... So that's their evil plan!

Quantum of Solace

UK / USA 2008
106 mins
director
Marc Forster
producers
Barbara Broccoli
Michael G. Wilson
screenplay
Paul Haggis
Neal Purvis
Robert Wade
cinematography
Roberto Schaefer
editors
Matt Chesse
Richard Pearson
music
David Arnold
production design
Dennis Gassner
starring
Daniel Craig
Olga Kurylenko
Mathieu Amalric
Judi Dench
Giancarlo Giannini
Gemma Arterton
release date (UK)
31 October 2008
review posted
1 November 2008