The various trailers placed in front of Quantum of Solace confirmed the status of contemporary pop cinema as, largely, a remix culture. Just as Freelance Hellraiser spun Christina Aguilera his way by laying her vocals over a backing track by The Strokes for the groundbreaking “A Stroke of Genie-us,” or the now-mainstream-hot Dangermouse placed his own stamp on The Black Album by layering Jay-Z’s raps, playfully, with music by The Beatles, now we’re looking forward to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (Young Emo Remix), Roland Emmerich’s The End of the World (2012 Redundancy Version) and Zach Snyder’s Watchmen (Shallow Beatz). Along those lines, James Bond 22 sees director Marc Forster stripping the iconic secret agent of his brassy John Barry musical arrangements and saddling him instead with something like a murky drum-and-bass track, all low-end thud and rumble, neither shaken nor stirred.
Well, OK — composer David Arnold can’t help hinting at the classic “dum di-di dum dum” theme as the film progresses, and it does finally return in earnest at the end titles. But Jack White’s “Another Way to Die” only hints at the newly somber mood of the once-swinging 007. A steely Daniel Craig saves the day, but the film suffers from its generic plotting (nefarious French mastermind plots to control water supplies plus dual revenge scenarios) and relentlessly minor-key character moments. Stylistically, Forster fumbles the action sequences, which make precious little editorial sense — this despite hiring not only the ace second-unit director and stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, who wrangled similar stuff for the second and third Jason Bourne movies, but also The Bourne Supremacy editor Richard Pearson — and, honestly, don’t seem to be his interest.
What’s distinctive, instead, is Forster’s uneasy engagement with the material. Initially working in smallish dramas (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) but now in transition to high-budget epics (next up according to Variety: an adaptation of the Max Brooks zombie-apocalypse novel World War Z), Forster’s leftover character sensibilities seem to be well in evidence. As Bond strangles one adversary in an early hotel-room invasion scenario, Forster holds on Craig’s face as he glances around, efficiently, concerned only with the possibility of witnesses to the killing. In the aftermath, as Bond searches the room, Forster cuts back to the corpse one more time, as though still stunned by the fussless coldness of Bond’s approach. Later, Bond is seen arriving backstage at a cinema-sized performance of Tosca in a Kubrick-white chamber that suggests he’s a germ in the laboratory — a nasty bug invading a clean room. Before too long, he’s eavesdropping on high-value conspiracies, scrambling away from gunmen, and casually dropping a bodyguard from the roof. Bent on revenge for the death of his girlfriend, Vesper (Casino Royale‘s Eva Green), he comes off as more Jack Bauer than Jason Bourne.
Forster and his screenwriters, Bond stalwarts Neil Purvis and Robert Wade plus Paul Haggis, seem to be graduates of the Godfather school of action filmmaking, opting to stage most of the set pieces through cross-cutting, placing one scene next to another in a way that might highlight similarities or contrasts between the images. For example, an underground chase scene early in the film is intercut with footage of a horse race taking place overhead, which might feel like wry reflexivity in a movie that allowed itself a sense of humor. Alas, Quantum of Solace is all about Bond’s punishment for his cavalier attitudes toward the people around him — already, only two films into the much-vaunted series reboot, Craig’s embodiment of the character is expected to shoulder the karmic burden of more than four full decades of PG-13 callousness.
Simply put, this film is often exciting, but it’s not very much fun. Two movies in, Craig’s Bond is already such a killing machine that it’s hard to imagine how the next film in the series will recalibrate his moral compass. Sexually, it’s downright reactionary. The fate of poor Miss Fields, who makes the mistake of sleeping with Bond and thus dooming herself to a horrible death, is not just a distracting shadow of a similar torture-death in Goldfinger but dispiritingly punitive. Smoldering Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (I’m still not clear on why a Ukrainian actress is cast as a Bolivian national) fares better, largely because her relationship with James is sexless; bent on her own vengeance, she becomes a symbol of Bond’s redemption in darkness.
On some level, a platonic Bond makes sense — if the new James Bond is already so inured to the suffering around him that he won’t think twice about ditching an inconveniently dead friend in the nearest trash dumpster, maybe he would also go into mourning for his lost libido. But the result is a movie that wallows in cruelty while not just avoiding the depiction of sex, but making both parties regret that they ever engaged in it. Who thought that, even in the 21st century, the filmmakers behind James Bond movies would turn into a bunch of friggin’ prudes? B-