While he doesn’t live in a cave of wear a cape, James Bond has more in common with a certain Gotham-based crimefighter than either party would be willing to admit. At least in their cinematic outings, they both have parallel histories of strong starts to their respective series followed by eventual and continuous decay as the franchises devolved into campy schlock. In the case of Batman, the downward spiral involved increasing numbers of villains, Joel Schumaker, a Bat-Mastercard, and nipples on the Batsuit. For Bond, the trend toward cheesiness occurred over a longer time span and so was more incremental, but it is still easy to see. 007 is an M.I.6 agent tasked with international espionage. Voodoo, space lasers, and ice palaces are as far away from the roots of the character as it is possible to get.
And so it was that both franchises were rebooted with an eye toward getting back to the basics of each character, taking a gritty and (slightly more) realistic approach in order to expose the raw nerve endings that make the characters work. Batman Begins recast the superhero as a damaged and implacable force that created the whole Batman persona as a means of dealing with his loss and pain. In Casino Royale, James Bond had his origin reset to the present day and his adventures were given a more modern, brutally in-your-face aesthetic while the character himself was allowed to be more human, making mistakes and even falling in love. Both films were bold choices that succeeded largely because they eschewed the silly excesses of the films that came before.
But why am I blathering on about Batman in a Quantum of Solace movie review? I think the comparison is apt one, and it goes quite a long way to explaining my sense of dissatisfaction as I left the theatre on Friday night. It was the philosophical similarity between Batman Begins and Casino Royale that gave me hope that Quantum of Solace could be what The Dark Knight was: a game changer. It could have been that rare sequel that takes what as come before and ups the ante without going so far over the top that things get ridiculous. It could have furthered the themes and characters of its predecessor, while digging in to create a deeper and more complexly layered film. That didn’t happen.
Don’t get me wrong, the new James Bond film isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. It is a solidly entertaining addition to the franchise. Quantum of Solace shows remarkable restraint in fighting the urge to up the stakes. One thing that really grabbed me with Casino Royale was the refusal to create an artificial “save the world” scenario for 007. Bond had to bankrupt a arms dealer in order to bring him into custody and learn more about the shadowy criminal organization he belongs to. That is exactly where Quantum of Solace picks up, with Daniel Craig’s James Bond bringing the last link to the mystery group in for questioning. The interrogation does not go well and James Bond soon finds himself pursuing a mystery that leads him to an evil environmentalist and a properly understated scheme to manipulate natural resources in Bolivia. There are no overly-complicated death traps or plots to demand ransom from assembled world leaders. There are no gadgets or invisble cars.
This 007 is more visceral and immediate. Owing to a healthy dose of Bourne-ification, Craig’s Bond is more likely to bludgeon an opponent to death with a heavy book than a laser beam from his watch. Which was awesome.He is also frailer and more human. While the film takes place in a world governed by action movie physics where falls from great heights do not kill or break bones and high speed car crashes cause scrapes and small cuts instead of greivous bodily harm that puts people intraction, there is still an air of believability. This James Bond gets hurt, and he doesn’t always know the right thing to do.
But the latest entry doesn’t do anything drastic to the formula it laid out in the previous film. It is another serviceable entry in the series. While the action sequences are occasionally a bit too choppy to really work out what’s going on there are enough set-pieces to take the breath away of even the most jaded action film junkies. Some of them are occasionally juxtaposed with local color type actions, like a Spanish horse race or an Italian opera production and the effect doesn’t really work. The film is at its best when Bond is single-mindedly pursuing his goals and the focus stays squarely on him. He once again has to go off the grid and pursue his own agenda that only more-or-less coincides with his M.I.6 superiors. Judy Dench is once again awesome as his perpetually exasperated handler M. C.I.A contemporary Felix Lighter is back again in a slightly underdeveloped side-plot about blowback and the willingness of intelligence agencies to deal with some real bastards when their interests happen to align.
There is also the requisite seduction scene, where Bond gets in touch with his archetypal inner Mac and effortlessly puts the moves on a local field agent.
It feels more like the short sideplot is part of the mix because it is expected in a James Bond flick, not because it actually has anything to do with the story. This is odd, because the filmmakers have shown an admirable willingness to break with tradition in service to the plot. His sidekick for the film is less a love interest than a thematic counterpoint to Bond’s quest for vengeance, although it doesn’t really go anywhere. I think I was expecting a bit more introspection on Bond’s part, a deeper look at the man behind the character. I don’t want to see him in therapy talking about his feelings or anything, but a bit more cinematic delving into what drives 007 would have been nice. Craig’s performance is strong, if a little one-note. The sum total is a film that suffers from raised expectations. Quantum of Solace could never do what Casino Royale did. You can only reinvent a franchise once, and without the breath of fresh air quality, what we are left with is a perfectly acceptable continuation of this iteration of James Bond. It doesn;t overreach and it doesn’t fail. If that seems like I am damning it with faint praise, I don’t mean to. I liked it and I am looking forward to the next one, but it does seem like they missed an opportunity here.