Craig resurrects brooding Bond in 'Quantum of Solace'

by Joseph Debonis | 11/20/08 3:18am

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Daniel Craig, the sixth face of 007, stars with a solid cast in
by Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes / The Dartmouth

"Solace" is the moody, brooding 22nd installment in the illustrious Bond franchise and its first-ever direct sequel, picking up where 2006's smashing success, "Casino Royale," left off.

Critics hailed "Royale" as a welcome rejuvenation of the series, bringing the films back to Earth (remember Bond's invisible Aston Martin in 2002's "Die Another Day"?) and injecting the lead character with a dose of emotional maturity.

Bond (Daniel Craig) has captured a man connected with Quantum, the organization responsible for the blackmail and death of Vesper Lynd, "Casino Royale's" Bond girl; his desire for retribution coincides with MI6's own quest to uncover Quantum and bring its members to justice.

What follows is a typically contrived plot chock full of exciting locales and nefarious enemies. Bond pursues a lead to Haiti, where he becomes entangled with the mysterious Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who has a mission all her own.

Both are seeking men tied to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a well-connected business tycoon"turned-environmentalist obsessed with buying up useless tracts of desert in developing countries.

Bond pursues Greene as soon as it becomes evident that Greene is after a commodity far more precious than oil. Questionably involved with Western governments and tied up with a revolutionary coup d'etat in Bolivia, Bond is forced to run from his own agency, as M (the divine Dame Judi Dench) fears he has gone rogue in a blind pursuit of revenge. Stripped of his credibility and forced to save the world while avenging Vesper's death, Bond faces some formidable stakes in "Solace."

While the convoluted plot may be typically Bondian, its set of destinations reflects its rougher and less refined aesthetic, as well as its newfound social conscience.

The film opens with a bang in luxurious Siena, Italy, and Bond dons a tuxedo (the only time in the entire movie) at an opera in Bregenz, Austria. Much of the rest of the film, however, takes place in locales that hardly cater to Bond's martini-sipping, Aston Martin-driving lifestyle, stopping in Haiti and finally playing out in the dusty desert of Bolivia.

Bond tears across that Bolivian desert in a hydrogen fuel cell"powered Ford Edge. Coupled with the plot themes of climate change and the social needs of developing countries, "Solace" feels like a dated 21st century incarnation of Bond's adventures.

While we can certainly applaud the film for its social awareness and concern for contemporary issues, it is missing the treasured element of escapism that audiences expect. The polished and chic Montenegrin casino of "Royale," replete with fabulously dressed people drinking fabulous drinks and driving fabulous cars, maintained the self-indulgent and retro feel of the Bond franchise. "Solace" seems to interpret "self-indulgent and retro" as "socially inconsiderate and anachronistic."

Part of this mistrust of the Bond aesthetic may stem from the direction of Marc Forster, effectively the George Lazenby of Bond directors. His past films include "The Kite Runner" (2007), "Finding Neverland" (2004) and "Monster's Ball" (2001), which helps to explain at least part of the sobriety that pervades in "Solace."

Ironically, in a film that exhibits disturbing echoes of Jason Bourne (a spy gone rogue from his own government, a brooding ethos of vengeance), Forster would have done well to pick up on some of the magic that Paul Greengrass brought to those films.

"Solace" calls for grimier, dirtier and more realistic action scenes a la Bourne, yet Forster shoots them in a sweeping, artistic style that detaches the viewer from the action and ultimately causes many of the scenes to fall flat.

It is in the action that Forster's weakness shows, and action is fairly essential to a successful Bond film. The opening car chase (regrettably the only scene in the film featuring the gorgeous platinum-colored Aston Martin, a Bond staple) ends stunningly with an Alfa Romeo tumbling down a cliff. Thereafter, "Solace" does little to innovate with its action and chase sequences.

Bond chasing a man across the tiled roofs of Siena feels like a sloppy, more realistic sequence out of 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (though it makes clever use of scaffolding and rope); a Haitian boat chase falls short as compared to the Venice romp in the 2003 remake of "The Italian Job;" and the ambitious Bolivian airplane chase is slow and dated.

What Forster does do well, perhaps to distract from his own action-based timidity, is to juxtapose the most exhilarating action scenes with non-violent "action" native to the setting. A torture scene contrasts with a festive parade just outside in the streets of Siena, while an aggressive chase on foot through ancient Italian sewers mirrors the thudding of a horse race in the same parade. Forster's technique is particularly effective as an exhilarating gunfight is drowned out by and juxtaposed with the Austrian opera happening just inside of an enormous, modern theater in Bregenz.

Intriguing original music, composed by David Arnold, complements adrenaline-pumping orchestrations with brooding, melancholic tracks -- a welcome addition to any action movie soundtrack, regardless of your thoughts on the newly introspective James Bond.

Despite the very brooding that has garnered so much discussion, "Solace" leaves my opinion of Craig as Bond neither shaken nor stirred. He is the ideal actor to lead the 21st-century rejuvenation of the franchise.

Diehard fans and the press attacked his blond hair, blue eyes and shorter stature as decidedly un-debonaire, un-intimidating, and un-Bond when he started filming "Royale." Rumors even suggested that he could not drive stick shift.

Yet Craig brought realism and emotional gravitas to the character that, combined with the requisite ability to drink a martini and look oh-so-good doing it, made "Royale" one of the most successful films in Bond's 40-year history.

He makes the most of what the writers give him in "Solace," looking suave and delivering some great one-liners: He seduces Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) with the line "I can't seem to find the stationary."

Craig is flanked by a very solid cast. Ukrainian beauty Kurylenko, recently named the "hottest Bond girl ever" by Maxim magazine, is Camille, whose tortured past is reminiscent of Lucy Liu's character in "Kill Bill" (2003).

Dame Judi Dench, resuming her role as M, is as magnificent as ever -- the snarky, tech-savvy, MI6-running grandmother that we all wish we had. Amalric, the French actor most known for his superlative turn as a paraplegic in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (2007), is delectably villainous as Dominic Greene.

Daniel Craig and the rest of the "Solace" cast are one of many reasons to see this film. It may not be the typical Bond film in all its martini-sipping, sports car-driving, womanizing glory that we have come to love, but it is a fine film in its own right.

In addition, the obvious and total resolution that comes at the end of its 106 minutes, like a heavy book thudding to a close, suggests the demise of the brooding Bond and the possibility of a fine return to form in Bond #23.