We can only blame Casino Royale. The 2006 reboot of James Bond was so brilliant, so satisfying, so organically of the moment that it could only prove hard to top, and even hard to equal. You have to appreciate that, on an intellectual level, going into a sequel like Quantum of Solace, even though your movie-loving gut is getting all squirmy with anticipation like you’re a kid waiting on Christmas morning. But that doesn’t make it any easier to take when what your head tells you is likely to be the case actually turns out to be the case.
Absent Casino Royale, I’m pretty confident I’d be hailing Quantum of Solace as a smart, sophisticated action movie, one that gives us all-too-believable villains and an antihero to fight them who’s only a few shades off the bad guys’ brand of scariness, a “good guy” whose goodness is questionable, though he does seem somewhat appropriately chagrined to learn of the damage he leaves in his wake. There’s that to celebrate, for one: here’s a big, loud, wild action movie in which the protagonist is forced to face the damage he leaves in his wake, and in fact appears to be affected by it.
But not affected enough, not in a way that lingers through the film. It’s not Daniel Craig’s fault — he’s a dangerous presence, and a thoroughly masculine one, in a thoroughly modern way that acknowledges that men are feeling creatures too. I blame screenwriters Paul Haggis (Letters from Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby) and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who both wrote Johnny English and Die Another Day)… though they also wrote the previous film, so I’m not sure what the hell happened. But Casino Royale was about Bond in a way that Quantum of Solace is not, which sounds contradictory, seeing as how the whole plot is pretty much set in motion and kept in motion because Bond is driven by a desire to avenge the betrayal he suffered in that flick… or maybe just by a desire to understand it. But his motives feel not just secondary but entirely superfluous to everything that happens here — if it weren’t his grief it’d be something else that’s the excuse for it all, and it almost doesn’t matter what the excuse is. His emotional state of mind — I know, a Bond with an emotional state of mind! that’s what made Casino so fascinating — is just the thin icing on a cake, and the cake acts like it doesn’t particularly want any icing on it, since it’s already so crammed with enough creamy action filling for anyone to stuff his face with.
The action is indeed creamy and delicious. The flick opens with a car chase — complete with a hearty exchange of gunfire, natch — through heavy traffic in narrow tunnels and then onto treacherous quarry roads. It’s exhilarating, in a theme-park ride way, and expertly directed by Marc Forster (The Kite Runner, Stranger Than Fiction), who, if he doesn’t show much hint here of the heady imagination he’s shown in his previous films, well, at least there’s still something movie-movie to enjoy. Next up there’s a footchase across the crumbling infrastructure of medieval Siena, Italy, complete with slides off terra cotta roofs and daring leaps on and off balconies, that left me exhausted just watching it. There’s a plane chase that ends spectacularly. And so on, and on.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of action bits that are stylish and clever and pulled off in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being pandered to: that’s hard to do, and it’s always welcome. But Casino Royale led me to believe that I’d get more from its sequel than I do. Hell, I’m the choir a film like this is preaching to, with its evil corporate oligarch (Mathieu Amalric: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) as the evil villain, who destabilizes governments at the behest of his corporate buddies and for the benefit of corporate profit. With its theme of ecological devastation itself as something be considered “evil.” And that all feels like icing, too, like the tweak in the motives of the bad guys that could just as easily have been, you know, the simple evil desire for sharks with freakin’ lasers on their heads.
Here’s the thing: Quantum of Solace feels too much like the Bond movies of old that Casino Royale promised us were done for good. The opening credits feature an animation that harkens back to the silliest aspects of the old Bond… like the anonymous female bodies meant to represent the playboy aspect of Bond. (Casino’s harkening-to-the-past animated opening avoided that.) That’s so not what even Solace is about — certainly, Olga Kurylenko’s literally kick-ass Camille is pretty much the awesomest Bond girl ever, from a feminist perspective. But Solace feels like it’s trying to be old-style Bond, without the camp but also without the, dare I say it, heart that Casino had. Bond isn’t quite an empty tux here, but almost, and it might only be Craig’s (The Golden Compass, The Invasion) grounded performance that keeps him this side of real.
So, you know, it’s not at all a bad thing that I could spend half of this movie trying to decide whether I like Craig best in the tux, in the white jeans, or in the dark jeans, but that’s not enough. We’re not anywhere near this yet, but if this trend continues unchecked, Bond could turn into a, well, Bond guy, a fetishized version of himself. I don’t want to see that happen. I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.
Craig has been joking to the press that, what with the world economy collapsing and all, they might have to shoot the next Bond film in Birmingham, eschewing all the glamorous global locations the Bond flicks have always indulged in (this one being no exception). And you know what? That would be great. That would force the creative team to be, you know, creative in their storytelling, force them not to rely too much on what Bond has been before and put their own uniquely 21st-century stamp on the character and on the kinds of stories he can play a part in. That’s what made Casino Royale so very, very good. It seems to have been forgotten here.