A really good movie has a really good story to tell. Without a strong story, all of the other elements of a movie will never quite feel right. This is the problem with Quantum of Solace. Without a strong storyline presented in a good script, the movie kind of wanders around in a desert, not at all unlike the way about half of the primary characters do at one point or another.
Story: We begin abruptly, with a car chase sequence in media res, which feels odd because the danger, stunts, and action seem to lack context, and the eventual exposition of what is going on lacks a satisfying punch. After that, we follow Bond as he pursues leads about the shadowy organization that killed his sweetheart Vesper Lynde at the end of Casino Royale. Bond and other very photogenic spies globe-trot in exotic and sometimes glamorous locations as they play cat-and-mouse with what ultimately turns out to be an attempt at a coup by a deposed general who appears to command literally an entire soccer team's worth of soldiers. Plenty of characters from Casino Royale make re-appearances, and their relationships to Bond are not fully explained -- which will be very confusing if you don't remember them.
Script: There is supposed to be a tension about whether Bond is motivated by trying to gather intelligence about this group, or seek revenge for her death. There is also supposed to be mystery and tension about how far this group has infiltrated various intelligence agencies like MI-6 and the CIA. None of that is really fleshed out because the allegedly compromised people are given almost no screen time or development. Maybe they're saving that for the next one. The heavy in the movie is also not particularly credible, well-conceived, or well-developed. There is not enough dialogue or exposition to really flesh out what is going on, and it seems that whatever story arc the producers are trying to develop has either not been put together well, or they are planning to parse out information about this sinister group with miserly reluctance over ten to twelve movies. This, it seems to me, is a mistake -- a mutli-movie story arc is fine, but it should span three or possibly four movies at the most.
Cast: Daniel Craig has picked up the Bond character where he left it off in Casino Royale, and does a good job of looking haunted by his past and closing down his emotions in response. Particularly when he kills, he gets a look of icy, clinical dispassion which fits nicely with the original Sean Connery conception of the character. He's really a great choice for the role. Judi Dench is fantastic as "M" in this installment. A nearly show-stealing performance comes from a delicious young British actress named Gemma Arterton who portrays what we are told is a low-level field office MI-6 agent in Bolivia. I'm hoping we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the future.
Cinematography: Bond movies are ultimately about the action sequences, and these were shot very well and with a perversely loving eye for the brutality of Bond's hand-to-hand combat. There are some edits that are just a bit jarring to indicate the passage of time. Wipe-outs in the car chases are very scary. Location scouting was quite good for this surprisingly short (107 minute) movie; the camera had a good eye for some of the more dilapidated and slummy kinds of places where the wet work got done.
Costumes: Bond is supposed to be a handsome devil who looks especially good in a tuxedo. He spends a lot of time in a tux here. The two Bond Girls are luscious, creamy delights to the eye; both Olga Kurleyenko and Gemma Arterton get to show how sexy both casual and formal wear can be in the movies. One of the CIA guys could have used better -- and more realistic -- hairstyling, and the big baddie of the movie got put in some clothing that looked like it belonged in a European gay porn film, not in the wardrobe of international tycoon.
Effects: The action sequences were great. Every bit as good as you would hope for. And they blew stuff up. A lot of stuff got blown up. Some of it looked really good when it blew up and others didn't seem quite right for what was being blown up. Gratefully, not every car that was tapped by another vehicle instantaneously burst into a fireball; the producers wisely allowed the sudden transformation of smooth metal into a moving body of dents and folds to speak for themselves. Victims of gunshot wounds did not seem to bleed enough to be realistic. One of the characters gets killed in a way that is never explained and you can't be sure that the body you're seeing was really that character -- leaving room for a return in a future film? But it didn't look right for what we were told it was. So a mixed bag for effects.
Music: The orchestral score was pretty good; while somewhat obviously using rhythm and variations on the classic James Bond theme music, there was not enough of the jazzy, classic theme itself. The dark, brooding tone of the movie may not have been appropriate to music that swaggers that much, though. The opening song, "Another Way To Die," was performed by Jack White (of the White Stripes) and Alicia Keyes. I thought it was terrible, and I usually enjoy both of those artists. An important sequence of scenes takes place at an opera, which is certainly a fine setting for a James Bond film, but the opera music going on during the sequence was mixed in too loudly with the dialogue and other effects, which made it very difficult to understand what was going on.
Comments: I strongly recommend renting and watching Casino Royale again very shortly before seeing Quantum of Solace so you'l remember who some of the characters are. Bond's CIA friend Felix Leiter is easy enough to identify, and Dame Judi Dench is fantastic, but aside from that you'll have a hard time coupling up some of the other characters without a recent viewing of Casino, unless your memory is much, much better than mine.
Mainly, what the movie needed was a better story. It could have been better with a more fleshed-out script, richer development of the bad guys, a less murky plot, and a substantially altered opera scene. Tosca just isn't for everybody. A lot of people have complained about the soulless direction of the movie, but I don't think it's the director's fault. I think it's the producers' fault, for settling on a script that seems to have been just mailed in with little editing or thought to story arc.
It begins and ends, it succeeds or fails, with story. That element makes the rest of it work. THis movie had the rest of it, but a weak story didn't tie it all together and involve you emotionally. So, I rank Quantum of Solace somewhere around The World is Not Enough and The Spy Who Loved Me as an enjoyable enough Bond film, but one that leaves you thinking that a lot of potential got wasted.
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