Following up one of the best Bond films made with one of the worst, ‘Quantum’ is nothing less than a crushing disappointment – a barely plotted, poorly filmed, hyper-edited and most of all utterly flat vehicle that commits a crime far worse than even Roger Moore’s outlandish last few films – it makes James Bond dull.
It’s interesting in the way that this new incarnation of Bond is mirroring a pattern created by one of his predecessors, Timothy Dalton, two decades ago. Like Daniel Craig, Dalton came onto a franchise that had become a punch line and in his very strong first effort, “The Living Daylights”, delivered a serious and contemporary Bond that still kept many of the hallmarks which made it work (gadgets, naughty humor, exotic locales, elaborate villains, well-filmed action set pieces). His disappointing follow-up “Licence to Kill” however ditched that in favor of a more realistic and smaller-scope story of 007 going off the grid for revenge against a Central-American drug dealer. The end result was a rather generic 80’s Joel Silver-style action film that almost sunk the franchise in spite of a few commendable qualities (such as Robert Davi’s effective villain).
Just shy of twenty years on a similar situation has occurred, although this time the franchise is in no such economic jeopardy. “Casino Royale” brilliantly brought the Bond film franchise into the 21st century – well cast, smartly written and deftly directed, it ground Bond in a more serious and modern tone but held tight to the character quirks and light touch of male fantasy which made the films work. ‘Solace’ ditches all that, opting for the already rather common format of action movies this decade – a cold, brutal loner with a tortured past and no personality out for revenge (preferably drawn out across several serialized sequels). It would be fine if he had either a compelling story or emotional arc to follow but in this case he has neither – prompting the film to play out very much like the flat middle act of a much larger film.
The most glaring surface fault is also its most obvious influence – the hyper-kinetic filming & editing style of the Paul Greengrass-directed “Bourne” sequels. Like it or not that film series signature style of sacrificing clarity, character depth and scope for relentless intensity has become a frustratingly copied trend by lazy filmmakers to pull in a Redbull-addicted generation brought up on ‘blink and you’re dead’ FPS video games. The doubly bad news is that the lifting here seems to come from the confusingly shot ‘Supremacy’ rather than its more cinematically effective follow-up ‘Ultimatum’ where Greengrass acknowledged a need for wider establishing shots, less jittery camera operators, and cuts of more than two seconds length so we as an audience could follow the action.
Thus ‘Solace’ contains what looked like a number of great chases in cars, old airplanes, speedboats, and across rooftops that have all been lost amidst shockingly amateur cinematography and a frantic editing style that renders all the sequences barely comprehensible let alone thrilling. One of the less talked about reasons ‘Royale’ worked was because of Director Martin Campbell’s classic way of filming the action – in spite of its fast pacing, one completely understood every beat of the brilliant free-running sequence and where the two opponents were at all times.
The action scenes in ‘Solace’ are shorter and much more frequent, but far less original and mostly superfluous to the plot – combined with the bad choice of filming style it robs them of pretty much any impact and leaves you wanting for them to be over so you can at least see some character interaction again – something I thought I’d never say about a Bond film. Also, for those who proudly go on about the more hard-edged realism of the Craig-era, don’t cite the noticeably CG and ultimately unbelievable parachuting scene to me when making that argument (at least it’s nowhere close to the tsunami windsurfing ridiculousness of “Die Another Day”).
Unfortunately the script doesn’t take up the slack either. Though the Bond films, especially the Connery-era, have had elements and subplots (his wife’s death, Blofeld, SPECTRE, General Gogol) that have flowed across numerous films – this is the first direct sequel and the idea is a pretty sound one as it’s the ‘Royale’ elements which contribute to its best moments. References to Vesper and Le Chiffre, the quiet and effective coda involving Bond and a figure mentioned but not seen in ‘Royale’, recurring characters like M & Felix, and a subplot involving the return of the charming Mathis into Bond’s life are the only things that really stand out.
Otherwise there’s a very slim main storyline about the previously referenced secret organization helping a deposed Bolivian general launch a coup in exchange for control of a natural resource of that country. Bond spends much of the film crisscrossing the globe in search of them with funky title cards to point out where we are – despite the characters already mentioning where they’re going in the scene before. There are a few inspired moments such as the obvious homage to Jill Masterson’s fate in “Goldfinger” as well as a scene set around a villain’s meeting at a performance of Tosca, but there are also plot threads brought up which are very visibly left forgotten at the end – where did Mr. White go? What happened to that personal advisor of the PM’s that was mentioned twice?
Other elements notably suffer from the films brutally truncated 106 minute runtime. The humor for example is reduced to a sparse smile-inducing quip or two – most notably one showing that even corrupt leaders in developing countries prefer euros these days. There’s a touching moment about the fate of those in this business that is the film’s most poignant scene, and yet it’s rushed through to get to the next action scene. M spends much of the film trying to reign a Bond gone rogue in, and yet suddenly changes her mind after a short meeting in a hallway that doesn’t really explain anything.
Whenever the film brings up interesting political aspects, such as the CIA’s backing of regimes useful to them or the fate of South America in the post-Iraq environment, it sadly skips on to the next scene. Despite numerous picturesque locations, the filmmakers really only fully utilize the Austrian opera and Italian locales. Panama City substituting for Port-au-Prince and La Paz doesn’t entirely work, and the truly stunning Atacama Desert sadly only gets one or two beauty shots. Finally there’s a near rape scene in here for no real reason other than to show that one of the baddies is a nasty man because he looks more like a happy TV chef on Telemundo than a corrupt South American general
What’s decidedly missing here is the fun. Both the Bond books and films, even the serious Connery ones, always had various layers of satire to them which unfortunately blossomed into pure farce a few too many times. The casual misogyny, hedonism, materialism, wit, savoir-faire, British sensibility and cold ruthlessness when called for are all key elements that define the character. Unlike the Bournes and Batmans of this world who are tortured by what they do, Bond is someone who has always reveled in it. ‘Royale’ brilliantly setup the notion of Bond being a brutal former SAS officer who began incorporating those touches into his character as the film went on. Rather than logically expanding on that, ‘Solace’ goes backwards and reverts him to a thuggish persona that bares only a passing resemblance to Fleming’s vision. Also don’t be fooled – there’s a LOT of reviewers saying Craig fits Fleming’s vision perfectly but from their writing have quite obviously not read the books.
The blame here lies squarely in the filmmakers camp, though who in particular it’s hard to say. Going outside the Commonwealth for the first time, the producers hired Swiss auteur Marc Forster to direct. Bringing many of his own regular crew members to do the film rather than utilizing the previous regulars, he was a decidedly odd choice as he’s never helmed action before and has his own personal style – something discouraged in big franchises like Bond or Harry Potter where a more anonymous job that comfortably fits the franchise’s pre-existing style is required. Rushing a script through just before the writer’s strike, a director who vocally expressed frustration during shooting, key crew who’ve never worked on a Bond film before let alone the first $200 million one, is it any wonder that the fundamentals are somewhat lacking here?
One thing that can’t be faulted is the cast. Daniel Craig in particular shines and remains a truly great choice for the role, bringing that fierce and athletic sensibility that has cemented his place in the series as one of the best after just one film. His range is decidedly more limited in this than in ‘Royale’ and his character is stripped of almost all his identifiable traits on paper, but Craig is able to lift it beyond that and his presence more than anything often saves us from losing interest.
The returning actors are in top form and while none of the newbies are particularly memorable, they still do a solid job with what little they have. Olga Kurylenko gives her pouty Camille a drive, ferocity and quite feminine playfulness that makes the character and her rather cliche back story more than just a pretty face. Gemma Arterton as the oddly trench-coated British consulate officer Fields has barely any scenes and plays the young office girl along expected lines – a shame as both she and the character deserved more time and depth. Mathieu Amalric as the oddly Roman Polanski-inspired slimy French eco-industrialist Dominic Greene is a great actor stuck in an underwhelming role – he does what he can but even he can’t save it from being one of the franchise’s most forgettable antagonists.
Judi Dench returns for her sixth outing as ‘M’. Granted more screen time than ‘Royale’, Dench continues the compellingly abrasive yet vaguely maternal relationship she shares with Craig’s Bond. However, despite her extra minutes she spends most of it stuck in MI6’s high-tech offices rather than being involved in the thrust of the main story like her kidnapping in the under-appreciated Brosnan entry “The World is Not Enough”. Jeffrey Wright, stuck essentially in a cameo, and Giancarlo Gianni make welcome returns and the Bond-Mathis scenes in Italy and Bolivia are easily one of the film’s high points.
David Arnold’s score is solid, even inspired at times, but on the whole not particularly memorable. It’s stands up far better than the atrocious theme song (and lackluster desert-theme graphics) which wastes some decent musical backing with two singers of such clashing styles that it sounds like two horny cats brawling over mating rights. Production values are solid but surprisingly low-key, making the film look decidedly cheaper than ‘Royale’ despite being notably more expensive.
I’m a long-term Bond fan, the film series is my personal favorite of all the film franchises out there, and thus I rarely dislike a Bond film and they all mean a lot to me. For those hardcore fans this film is a major disappointment. Those new to the franchise who came in on ‘Royale’ will also likely find this a lackluster follow-up but be more forgiving of the flaws. Even those easily pleased action fans who prefer this streamlined, filler-free, violence-focused approach to Bond will label it as a lesser copy of the Bourne films which is a fair argument. There are hints of a more complete film here, both in action and dramatic terms, that have been lost to a brutal editing process – leaving this feeling very rushed and unfinished. It’s certainly more of a ‘bridging’ film between entries (much like “Star Trek III” or “Star Wars: Episode II”) rather than a natural progression to a bigger and better franchise (eg. “From Russia with Love,” “The Dark Knight”).
Often descending too far into camp, the franchise has gone the other way this time – taking Bond in an all too self-serious, dour and frantic direction where the stakes mean little, the atmosphere is oppressive, and the emotional involvement of both the character and audience is negligible. Some more time for reshoots and new editors may have been able to salvage a solid Bond entry from this – what we’re stuck with is 20-25 minutes that work as a satisfying coda to ‘Royale’ jumbled together with 30-minutes of perfunctory action sequences and a 40-45 minute generic Steve Seagal-like action movie.
Held up in comparison to the 007 legacy, it is one of the least entertaining of the series and certainly feels amongst the most incomplete – even some of the campier and decidedly worse entries have far more re-watch value than this. By all means keep the cast regulars, all of them do excellent work, lets just hope next time the producers actually take proper time crafting a compelling story with the right Bond-ian touches and a production crew with a better appreciation of the series and its strengths.