|Directed by Marc Forster 2008, 106 min. PG-13, MGM|
Since its first prototypes were unveiled at the CEATEC exhibition in October 2000, the Blu-ray disc has captivated the public, reinforcing the scientific community's long-held theory that a blue-colored laser would be more appealing than one tinted in lavender. But during a recent symposium at the Sorbonne, themed “The State of 1080p HD and Towards a Higher Definition in 1081p,” film scholars reluctantly concluded that the superior disc will not achieve mainstream acceptance until many classic movies are released—for example, films such as the Clint Eastwood/Lee Marvin musical Paint Your Wagon and Matt LeBlanc's Ed. Sad to say, this shortfall forces us to seek the alternative: to watch big-budget action films that the Hollywood PR machines herald as deep enlightenment for society and therefore branded as “Must-See” movies. (Indeed, not watching these films is to risk ostracism.) As a result, while Bergman's Persona is not available on Blu-ray, we are impelled to be delighted that there are 762 copies of Transformers 2 at the local video shop. The mandate is clear: everyone must be entertained by the magic of stupid action movies!
In accordance to this Hollywood decree, I recently rented Quantum Of Solace, the frenzied action film/Bourne knock-off/gay camp starring Judi Dench, a team of pyrotechnic specialists and, in the words of my neighbor's teenage daughters, “That old guy who looks like Vladimir Putin” (alas, so much for Hollywood's youthful target audience). It was also my attempt to give the movie another chance and, for some retrospection, to commemorate its release. For it was two years ago this autumn that QOS (as its fans call it) landed in theaters, and all of Bondian filmdom hasn't been the same since. While the empire today has fallen into upheaval, facing an apocalypse now of bankruptcy and takeover bids (thanks to inept studio executives of the moribund MGM), we can delve into a nostalgic look at the 22nd Bond film in full 1080p! We can savor the film as a hallmark in the pantheon of Bond films, or regard it as a unique interpretation in the long-running series. Or we can simply regard this entry for what it is—a bottomlessly horrid movie that never fails in its incompetence. The film did make an impact on its opening weekend, marching into theaters with high expectations of complex characterizations, sheer intelligence as a thinking man's action film, etc., and delivering, true to those expectations, relentless action, a muddled plot, and about seven seconds of dialogue—a scheme that somehow raked in $70 million domestically, while at the same time provoking abysmal reviews, its popularity waning by the second week of release when the entire world embraced the vampire love story Twilight, although the film did maintain, according to my source, wild popularity in Latvia, where it was known as Kvantu Gada Mierin ã jums. All this leads to one undeniable fact: audiences everywhere are hungry for the Bourne films, even devouring the bizarre imitations.
The film takes its title from an Ian Fleming tale. It is a hopeless endeavor on the part of the producers: today, we can be virtually certain that most audiences have scant knowledge of the Fleming novels, let alone a quiet tale about marital discord published in the story collection For Your Eyes Only (1960). Also rather ironic, there's not much plot in the film version that isn't described in the title. To summarize: there is an evil organization called Quantum and, apparently, it is of the solace kind. Not much is made of this attribute, but the film does celebrate the classic Greek Tragedian elements of explosions, car chases, motorboat chases, fight scenes, and effeminate men in tuxedos casting lingering glances at one another. Yes, the Quantum group consists of these chaps who obviously think so little of themselves that they allow French actor Mathieu Amalric to boss them around. Fleming would be hard put to recognize his work in any of this: he would wonder why the hyper-reality he created—with its emphasis on glamorous fine living seething with danger and evil beneath it—has been jettisoned for bland scenes in the Bolivian desert, while the rest of the film is presented in extreme close-ups and abrupt editing, obscuring every scene and making it difficult for us to discern what is happening. He would wonder why M, of all people, is so astounded that treachery exists in the world of espionage; that there are moles within British Intelligence, orchestrated by Quantum (“What the hell is this organization?” she asks. “How can they be everywhere and we know nothing about them?”).
Moreover, Fleming would wonder why the villains are portrayed as a bunch of pansexuals without any dramatic significance.1 Or why his hero has been emasculated—gone is the virile playboy, replaced by a meek metrosexual persona and completely unbelievable as the dashing secret agent who could bed any woman. In the lone romantic scene with the young consul officer (awkwardly inserted in the film as if it were an afterthought), Craig's 007 resorts to a hopeless—and laughable—seduction line, proving to audiences that he's both very clumsy and a total wuss (“I can’t find my stationery,” he tells her. “Will you come and help me look for it?”). Earlier in the Bolivian desert, alone in a cave with a beautiful woman (Olga Kurylenko), he engages her in a serious discussion about “loss.” Despite this gripping suspenseful topic, we sense she'd rather sit through a three-hour documentary on the Bolivian tax system as narrated by the lively Alan Greenspan. Indeed, any of the previous Bonds would not have hesitated to turn on the 007 charm for this woman.
Whereas for the new Bond, seduction of a woman is not his strong suit: he seems more at ease with all those effeminate guys in tuxedos. It becomes obvious that the filmmakers expended some thought on matters of political correctness, of appeasement to feminists and gay audiences (Fleming would have raised a swift objection to any of that) but were clearly at a loss on how to proceed. Nevertheless, there are times when the Craig-Bond and the villains are reminiscent of the Sprockets character, Dieter, that Mike Myers was spoofing, a slinky gay German gadding about in tight black outfits. This is a coincidence that cannot be overlooked. I suspect the Bondian filmmakers ran across the old SNL sketch when they found themselves at a dead end with Craig's 007—and when the beery shenanigans gained momentum during the script conferences, everyone agreed to heighten the homoerotic aspects of the characters, thinking the approach would make this Bond film palatable to, oh I don't know, the crowds that line up to see midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Back to the plot: realizing they didn't have one, the filmmakers trot down the road taken for Die Another Day—yes, that Bond film, the most vile work in all of human history according to the fanboys at the Internet forums. Yet there must be some sort of paradoxical law at work; for the creative team behind Die Another Day (excluding director Lee Tamahori) essentially concocted Craig's two Bond films. Hence, just as Die Another Day includes nods to previous films in the series, Solace blatantly rehashes scenes from Bond films of yore: to name a few, the car falling off the cliff in the opening sequence is a retread of the hearse plummeting down a Jamaican mountainside in Dr. No; the sequence with the Craig-Bond and Camille Montes flying in a Douglas DC-3 plane to investigate the villain's land acquisition, only to be shot down by the enemy, has shades of the finale in GoldenEye, where Bond's plane flies over the Janus complex and is shot down by missiles. Solace also features a journey in the Bolivian desert by the Craig-Bond and the feisty Camille that smacks of Roger Moore and Barbara Bach's trek in the Egyptian desert of The Spy Who Loved Me. Their bedraggled arrival at the hotel in La Paz is reminiscent of the Brosnan-Bond's disheveled entrance at the fictional Royal Rubyeon Hotel in Hong Kong in Die Another Day (yes, that film again). And, of course, the young woman lying dead in the bedroom, covered in oil, is a direct steal of Shirley Eaton’s gold-painted Jill Masterson in Goldfinger. The only thing missing is a parodic title song as homage to Tom Jones's “Thunderball,” with Mr. Engelbert Humperdinck crooning “Tell me when will you be mine/Tell me Quantum, Quantum, Quantum.” As it is, the pseudo-Rap tune by Jack White and Alicia Keys (“Another Way To Die”) is remarkably pleasant when heard with ear muffs.
Even Craig's Bond is a throwback to Timothy Dalton's revenge-seeking agent in Licence To Kill. He is eager to find those responsible for the death of that pale woman near the end of Casino Royale and finds himself, ever action-oriented, in fight scenes, car chases, motorboat chases, and even falling out of an airplane, clearly demonstrating that vengeance is not the therapeutic solution to grief that it's always being advertised. Still, he does encounter villain Dominic Greene (Amalric): assuming Greene is behind the pale woman's death, the Craig-Bond vows to bring the villain down as well as destroy anyone associated with the color green, except singer/actor Jim Nabors because the agent is fond of the entertainer's rendition of “The Green, Green, Grass of Home.”
At this point, the movie, after spinning its lousy attempts at emulating the look-and-feel of the Bourne films, moves into political thriller territory and fails at this as well. Convoluted, half-baked polemics against American imperialism are cloaked in bland intrigue, all of it rushed near the end during explosions in the Bolivian desert so no one notices how bad it all is. Above all, the central message of Quantum Of Solace is the type that makes even the weaker episodes of Mr. Belvedere seem compelling.
Watching Solace again on Blu-ray you can see that practically all of its defects are from director Marc Forster and lead screenwriter Paul Haggis, e.g. an unfocused plot that no one can take seriously and a narrative that relies on exposition delivered by M, who pops in and out of the story as she trails the Craig-Bond to various countries. The overall result is a film that's laughable while it attempts to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of kitsch as there is, and Solace is indeed a profound, pretentious misfire of kitsch. But as another source of the mess, one could also point to the renowned Bond producers, who no doubt had the last word and dictated that large portions of the film be removed from the director's cut, probably anticipating disaster and wanting to taper the film to an adequate theatrical running-time. Even on Blu-ray, it's not hard to see where a lot of these cuts were made—the movie has the feel of being gutted, intentionally sparse.
The picture quality of the disc emphasizes the weakness of the cinematography. At times, the transfer is outstanding with solid detail, excellent contrast, and a rich color palette. But certain locales have a layer of harshness and grain. The Haiti sequence, for example, has a deep sense of grain and the color is subdued, giving the film a cheap look. The sound, though, is spectacular, which is something we've all come to expect from a big stupid Hollywood action film. From the opening scene to the finale, the deep low frequency from the subwoofer and the discrete effects from the surround speakers bombarded my home theater.2 With Blu-ray we reach, ever closer, the spirit of the theatrical experience. I can even confirm that there is heightened drama, approaching Shakespearean dimensions, when a motorboat explodes in DTS-HD 5.1 channels of full-range surround.
The disc's supplements are decent enough. The menu interface is quite slick, and the disc is loaded with a music video, seven brief behind-the-scenes featurettes, and two trailers. In the featurettes, the crew and cast recount proudly how it was a deep heartfelt experience to be part of such an innovative Bond film. Their comments are, of course, unintentionally hilarious; after all, they had collaborated on Quantum Of Solace, not a seven-part documentary on Renaissance art. You don't hear such bloated self-congratulatory remarks from the makers of The Brady Bunch Movie. Nevertheless, if you long for a James Bond film with the essence of La Cage aux Folles, then Quantum Of Solace is for you.
|1||The astute Bond fan will recall that the producers had ventured into this territory in the past. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) comes to mind: a bizarre film in its own right that forces us to wonder what the producers were attempting to accomplish, considering the emphasis on comical gay assassins (though in the Fleming novel they're dangerous characters), implied lesbianism in Willard Whyte's female acrobatic bodyguards, and a foppish Blofeld who even appears in drag. But the film is so light-weight, practically lampooning itself, an approach that reinforces the glitzy Las Vegas setting and the abundance of outrageous action scenes. As a result, the film is a circus act, inviting us not to take it seriously. Solace, on the other hand, is bonded and packaged for universal export as a serious entry in the franchise and not to be associated with the nonsense of its predecessors—the marketing strategy thus far for the Daniel Craig tenure. The filmmakers have therefore set the rules: Solace is a serious film that demands serious thought from audiences. Hence, my tough criticism.|
|2||For the record, at the center of my review system is a 50-inch Panasonic 1080p Plasma HDTV, connected via HDMI to a Pioneer Elite Blu-ray player. The surround system consists of Rotel gear and B&W CDM SE speakers. It is under this home theater guise that I am able to enjoy the dramatic nuances of Vin Diesel's performance in The Pacifier.|