Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Cobra-faced actor Daniel Craig—the fifth to play James Bond—is in better shape than the new 007 epic “Quantum of Solace." If the previous Bond movie “Casino Royale” struck you as abysmal, the threadbare “Quantum of Solace” (* out of ***) scrapes the bottom of the barrel. David Bradley’s rough & tumble second-unit action sequences and Simon Crane’s stunts provide the only bright spots. Unfortunately, neither Craig’s virile 007 nor the gripping fisticuffs can salvage this mundane melodrama that resumes the narrative where “Casino Royale” left off with Bond confronting one of the villains. Subsequently, if you missed “Casino Royale,” “Quantum's” plot convolutions may mystify you. Since Bond producer Cubby Broccoli died, the Bond movies have hit the skids. “Quantum” is the briefest Bond in history and the least compelling if you’re a traditional 007 fan. In fact, “Monster’s Ball” director Marc Forster looks like he is making a replica of a Jason Bourne thriller rather than a James Bond movie.

Ian Fleming’s secret agent hero made his cinematic debut in 1962 with a lean, mean Sean Connery in Terence Young’s “Dr. No,” and the Bond movies revolutionized spy thrillers. Before most people could pick up a Fleming novel, United Artists churned out a sequel “From Russia, With Love." The third 007 caper “Goldfinger” created the template for Bonds and "Thunderball" ensured the longevity of the franchise. No sooner had Bond redefined the spy thriller than everybody cloned the amoral, womanizing British secret agent with his double-entendre puns in knock-off versions.

Of course, Bond extravaganzas have always embraced adventure rather than espionage. Incredibly, in the Cold War era, the Bond producers—unlike most others—refused to demonize the evil Soviet empire. Instead, 007 battled S.P.E.C.T.R.E, a.k.a. Special Executive for Counter-Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion with larger-than-life villains straight out of old cliffhanger movies like Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serials. The Bond movies displayed no qualms about occasionally slamming the Red Chinese. After "You Only Live Twice" in 1967 the Bonds backed off Mao’s minions.

Since “Casino Royale,” the new Bonds have forsaken everything that made the longest running franchise original. Audiences watch Bond movies for 007’s gadgets, the sexy bikini-clad babes, Bond's wisecracks, the exotic locales, and the outlandish stunts. Not only were the Bond foes arch villains who wanted to destroy the world and remake it in their own demented images, they hatched bizarre plans to achieve these means. Sometimes, Bond movies scuttled credibility to keep up with the times. For example, “Star Wars” inspired “Moonraker.” Nevertheless, 007 gallivanted from one bed to the next for nymphs with naughty names, trumping a gallery of deadly henchmen, and saving the world from extinction.

By 1989, Cubby Broccoli overhauled the series with the gritty, hard-as-nails “License to Kill.” Cubby's strategy backfired, and United Artists refused to promote the picture. After the “License to Kill” debacle, Pierce Brosnan donned the tuxedo and Cubby restored the Roger Moore formula. When production costs escalated, the new Bond producers sacked Brosnan and started from scratch. “Casino Royale” harkened back to the level-headed “For Your Eyes Only,” but the success of prequels—primarily George Lucas’s second “Star Wars” trilogy—caught on and convinced daughter Barbara Broccoli to re-start the franchise with Bond earning his license to kill.

“Quantum of Solace” goes where no Bond has gone. The trademark gun barrel opening scene that started the 20 previous Bonds precedes the end credits. Actually, “Quantum” qualifies as a sequel to “Casino,” something the Bonds have never done. Neither Ms. Moneypenny or Q return. “Casino Royale” wrapped with Bond getting the drop on the villainous Mr. White. “Quantum” opens with 007 careening in his Aston Martin through scenic Italy with a carload of trigger-happy thugs blasting away at him. (Sean Connery's Bond would have made short work of them with a oil slick.) Bond has Mr. White of “Casino Royale”) stashed in the trunk. He delivers White to M for interrogation. No sooner has their interrogation begun than M’s bodyguard Mitchell (utility stunt man Glenn Foster) starts blasting and White makes a break for it. Before he escapes, White chuckles about how the anonymous criminal syndicate that he belongs to has infiltrated virtually every intelligence agency in the world. Scenarists Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade reveal nothing about this syndicate and their screenplay is virutally incoherent where details are concerned. Bond cruises throughout "Quantum" on a mission to find who made Vesper die, but surprisingly we never see Vesper in a flashblack, so it is difficult for newcomers to savor the depth of Bond's rage.

Bond chases Mitchell and kills him. Meanwhile, British Intelligence traces the money Le Chiffre, the chief “Casino Royale” villain, used to a geologist in Panama. Bond tangles briefly with a goon hiding in the dead geologist’s motel room. Every time 007 grapples with a bad guy, Green’s people kill Bond's opponent and frame 007 for the killing. Mistakenly, M believes that Bond has gone amok in his quest to exact revenge on those who killed Vesper in "Casino Royale." Anyway, 007 recovers an attaché case that leads him to a mysterious dame. Camille (Olga Kurylenko of “Hitman”)has been sleeping with Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric of “Marie Antoinette”), a hypocritical megalomaniac environmentalist. Green plans to topple the Bolivian government so he can buy up the country’s water supply and resell it at higher prices to its new president. Green comments a deal with the corrupt General Medrano (Joaquín Cosio of “Hitgirl”) to install him in the presidential palace. Medrano, it turns out, murdered Camille’s father, strangled her mother and her sister. Moreover, Medrano set a fire that cremated her family and left our heroine with a permanent scar on her back. Unfortunately, Medrano doesn't amount to much of a villain. He does little more than rough up two women at the end of the movie and we have no reason to hate him as much as Camille. Camille’s pursuit of Medrano resembles the Roger Moore Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only,” but "For Your Eyes Only" was far exciting. Bond teams up with Camille to thwart both Green and Medrano.

Just as the villains in “Casino Royale” emerged as lightweights, the “Quantum of Solace” villains are twerps that pose little danger to our hero. Green tries to kill Bond with an axe and chops himself in the foot. Green’s scheme to monopolize natural global resources is negligible compared with better Bond villains. The stakes are small potatoes. The fights and the shoot-outs are monotonously repetitive. The dialogue is disposable, and both hero and heroine are too preoccupied with revenge to worry about romance. The Jack White & Alicia Keyes title theme song “Another Way to Die” is a yawner. Judi Dench returns as Bond’s matronly master, but she spends more time being duped while Bond is on the run. The oil covered corpse of Strawberry Fields here is a homage to "Goldfinger." The share the parachute scene recalls the opening stunt from "Moonraker." The fight with the Special Branch operative is straight out of the Cairo scene in "The Spy Who Loved Me." “Quantum of Solace” barely registers on the Richter scale of excitment.