It sounds more like a sensitive literary little indie, maybe something to do with a Physics teacher passed over for tenure and consoled in the arms of a fatherless grad student, but Quantum of Solace is in actuality the name of the twenty-second James Bond film, by official count. That count leaves out not just the first, spoofy Casino Royale of 1967 but even Never Say Never Again, to which the comeback of Sean Connery lent a legitimacy lacking in all but five other Bond films. The new one is also, to be sure, the second James Blond film, which is to say the second appearance of towheaded Daniel Craig in the role, following up the second, unspoofy Casino Royale.
A true sequel, really the first such in the series, it picks up 007 on the trail of vengeance after the death of his ladylove, Vesper, at the end of the last installment. (Frankly the details of the death — how? who? why? — are a little hazy in my mind, based upon one viewing two years ago, and are not much sharpened during the unfolding of events in the sequel.) This was a trail closed off to the newly widowed Bond at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when Sean Connery was first coaxed back to the role and poor George Lazenby, the only one-timer in the series, got booted out the door as if he never should have happened.
No doubt the vengeance trail is quite hospitable to the new, grim, quip-free, and gadgetless hero, though he does take time off from his grief to bed a token Bond girl who is identified on screen by the simple surname of Fields — the Internet Movie DataBase reveals her unfortunate given name to be Strawberry — and who ends up dead on that bed, her prostrate nude body painted in black gold (a direct copy, but for color choice, from Goldfinger), one of the countless casualties littering the trail. It’s a trail that leads, by way of Italy, Haiti, Austria, Bolivia, and Russia, to a phony environmental group called Green Planet, a front for a shadowy unknown SPECTRE-like organization with “people everywhere,” close enough in fact to take a point-blank shot at Bond’s boss, M. (Judi Dench, the lone holdover from the Pierce Brosnan regime, again occupies the role, droller and drier than Bond himself: “If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be deeply appreciated.”) Their current nefarious project, a bit modest by Bondian standards, having an eye only on local water rights rather than on world domination, is the strictly moneymaking scheme of a Latin American military coup, with a complicit CIA that belongs more to the world of John le Carré than to that of Ian Fleming.
For all that, the film fails to solidify, much less build upon, the promise of the fresh start in Casino Royale. Anything good to be said about the new direction would or should have already been said. It of course could all be said again, but with cooling fervor and fading hope. In the obligatory pre-credits sequence, we are thrown instantly into the midst of an incoherent car chase that soon narrows down to an Aston Martin and an Alfa Romeo (the new director, Marc Forster, boasts few credentials as a man of action, from among his experiences with The Kite Runner, Stranger Than Fiction, Stay, Finding Neverland, and Monster’s Ball, and none at all as a man of large-scale action), and the rapid succession thereafter of foot chase, motorbike chase, boat chase, plane chase, punctuated by shattered glass, swinging girder, stitcheries of bullets, blossoms of fire, etc., is held together by the thinnest shreds of connective plot tissue.
The totality perhaps meets the fundamental requirements of action and pace, hurtling forward with only the briefest of pauses and coming in at a tidy hour and three-quarters, the shortest Bond film, if I’m not mistaken, in the entire series. As a likely result of that, it can seldom make time for the preparation that would give the action scenes sense and import. They are little more than turbulence. And the underlying split personality still remains: Why bother to infuse the Bond character with a greater air of reality if he’s going to continue to be allowed the acrobatics of a Jackie Chan? Surely our rougher and tougher superspy wouldn’t want us snorting in derision, or even chortling in delight, when he’s busy exacting payment for the snuffed-out life of his beloved. James Bond appears to be turning little by little into Jason Bourne. It’s not a step up.
The world-weary Giancarlo Giannini and the inscrutable Jeffrey Wright, carried over from the previous adventure, are sadly underused. The diminutive French villain, coal-eyed Mathieu Amalric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is unimposing at best, although he’s at least, in contrast to that other performance, ambulatory. And the nut-brown Olga Kurylenko, an unbedded Bond girl on a trail of vengeance all her own, looks fully up to the assignment of cover girl on a Get-Even issue of Cosmo. As she’s named Camille and not Compline, she stood little chance to replace Vesper.
This month’s program in the Cinema en Tu Idioma series, Friday through Thursday at the UltraStar Mission Valley, is not one film but three, two of which are among those I was glad I selected to see at the San Diego Latino Film Festival last March, El Violín and XXY. The third, El Baño del Papa, is new to the area. Showtimes are juggled from day to day, so be sure to check, as they say, your listings.
And if you can squeeze it in by Thursday the Thirteenth, Silvio Soldini’s Days and Clouds at the Ken is truly something to wrap your arms around, a mature marital drama of middle-class, middle-age economic crisis: lost job, lost house, lost prospects, lost self-respect; set in Genoa but general in application; a bit dull in image but intense in empathy and emotion. Antonio Albanese and Margherita Buy, models of restraint, hide their individual suffering behind the four walls of shame, incomprehension, disbelief, dignity.