by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - December 1, 2008) Watching Quantum of Solace, the latest and most obstreperous of all the James Bond oeuvre, feels a little bit like being serially mugged by a relentless psychopath whose favorite "high" is swallowing lit firecrackers. Daniel Craig, the present holder of the license to kill, spends most of the film either chasing evasive villains who, no matter how hard they are pounced upon, never succumb to the punishment of 007's physical abuse. When he is not giving chase, he is himself eluding capture by blowing up vehicles, maniacally maneuvering motorboats or speeding lethally through traffic jams that inevitably disintegrate under the force of his superior velocity.
There is a slither of plot about a villainous attempt to take over the water supply from a Latin American republic that has been targeted by international exploiters and a sub-plot that loosely concerns Bond's attempt to get over the loss of a beloved sweetheart from his previous adventure in "Casino Royale." But it is a waste of both our time to delineate any further as the film is about as plausible as Bond's own recovery from lethal gunfire or maniacal escapes from blown-up airplanes whose parachutes open miraculously ten or twelve feet from terra firma.
In short, we are not really watching a story unfold, characters develop, or themes being dramatically illustrated, but simply the film hero's obsession with struggles and escapes from vehicular slaughter. Indeed, the only real development that takes place is that each blow-up is cleverly arranged to be nuttier and more extreme than the last. Like a pack of cards made up only of royal flushes and no numbers.
To appreciate to what depths the franchise has sunk, one has to recall the rather tasteful Bond films that were enlivened by their original protagonist, Sean Connery, who always seemed to imply that these were cinematic pastiches drawn from Ian Fleming's fecund imagination and not intended to be taken seriously. Indeed, so firmly was the "tongue in cheek" that we could almost catch Connery winking at us, as if to say: "Of course, it's all bullshit -- but that's what movies are all about, isn't it?" Connery always suggested that he, like us, was in on the joke and that accounted for a lot of the dry, satirical humor; total and jolly belief in the unbelievable. The early Bond also had a much more discriminating taste in women (Ursula Andress, Martine Beswick, Claudine Auger) and those earlier films had what you could legitimately call "a throughline" -- something that led from one place to another. Solace is too busy blowing things up and trying to rattle our sensibilities to concern itself with a forward thrust of narrative and consequently, we care nothing about the reasons behind the chases and escapes and watch them as arbitrary bits of digitalized action and super-duper special effects. A kind of mobile series of lantern slides that whisk by so quickly, one is taken up only with the speed of their projection.
Daniel Craig, Bond the Sixth, broods, simmers, tries to contain repressed emotions, occasionally allows one to spurt out, vaguely suggests there is some kind of repressed vengeance motivating his cockier exploits but lacks anything that resembles charisma. He is muscular and well-built and opportunities often arise to allow him to show off his bulging biceps, but would he had more colors in his palate than grey and red.
Bond's foil, according to the established tradition, is Judi Dench's "M," a kind of gentrified Ilse Koch; a well-bred dominatrix who obviously enjoys whipping or being whipped and who treats Bond like a delinquent younger brother rather than the unblinking murdering masochist he really is. (I guess if you have a license to kill and you don't kill someone every ten minutes, what's the point?) This Bond is perhaps the most bloodthirsty in the series and "M," his mentoress, obviously mixes nuts and bolts into her breakfast cereal. It is, of course, a horrific waste of a great acting talent, but even superstars need to garnish their British pittances with big chunks of American moolah and so I can understand Ms. Dench's need to humiliate herself in films such as these.
Quantum of Solace (presumably a reference to our hero's inability to forget his lost beloved from the previous Bond flick) is simply another addition to the 21st century cinema's obsession with action for its own sake; the more rowdy and obstreperous the action, it seems to say, the better the film must be. But it is precisely the arbitrary nature of those action sequences that place a pall over the film and a drowsy veil over its spectators. We know that the technical advances of movie making are astounding and there is virtually nothing that can touch the technical ingenuity that links this film together like great hoops of rattling chains, but without the basic requisites of narrative, character, mood, and viewpoint, films like Quantum of Solace simply brandish technological ingenuity before a public now accustomed to tightening their muscles and anticipating one cataclysmic boom after another. One will have to come up with another nomenclature for films like these. They are not "motion pictures" because that implies some modicum of emotion as well as motion. You could, I suppose, call them "movies" in that they frantically insist on ladling one frantic, suspense-filled, action cliché on to another. It would however be a gross insult to call them "cinema" because that word contains memories of work by masters like Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, and Resnais -- and no one in their right mind would think of making comparisons of that kind with the steamrollering rumble generated by director Marc Foster. No, they are simply a series of popped balloons such as we all enjoyed when we were pimply adolescents. Indeed, it is primarily for an audience of pimply adolescents that the present rash of "explosive" films are being made. When adults are lured back into the movie houses, films like Quantum of Solace will be used to exemplify the juvenile lunacies that monopolized filmgoers in this, the first decade of the 21st century. The biggest and most earthshaking explosion of all will come when taste, intellect, and the subtleties of developing narrative are restored to the cinema so that we can stop praising the masterpieces of the last century and begin lauding a cinema that has once again found itself.
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