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The Bond Identity

MOVIE REVIEW
Quantum of Solace (2008)

PK-19
Karen Ballard/Columbia Pictures

James Bond is suffering an identity crisis. The series – which began with 1962's "Dr. No" – has always had its ups and downs, not least the changes of lead actor. Despite 22 installments of varying quality and silliness, the franchise has always bounced back, mostly unscathed by the changing times or the parodies and imitators which have also filled our screens. Then came Bond's greatest adversary, 2002's "The Bourne Identity," in which Matt Damon picked up a pen and changed permanently how violence could appear on screen. What was previously stylized or intentionally amusing now looked dated and ridiculous. EON Productions, which controls the series, has been running scared ever since. Based on "Quantum of Solace," Bond has yet to find himself.

The success of Bond – and the reason for its enduring appeal – was that it tapped directly most of the male fantasies at once: the cars, the guns, the ability to fight to the death without breaking a sweat, the tuxedos, the gadgets, and of course the endlessly varied array of beautiful women with stripper names. Who don't sometimes wish that they had a license of kill, and know that they would look great while doing it? Most people, regardless of gender, also wouldn't kicking Halle Berry, Eva Green, Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg out of their shower. When Ian Fleming's books first appeared, he added the glamor of international travel and the snob value of brand name-dropping to boys' adventure stories to create this hugely successful cocktail. 2006's "Casino Royale" was a "reboot" of the series on film, introducing a new Bond (blue-eyed beefcake Daniel Craig, who continues to triumph in the role) and a modern attitude to the above-named fantasies. But it also stayed true to its roots: the plot – in which Bond must prevent a terrorist-funded financier from winning millions in high-stakes poker – managed to balance the thrills and danger with real feeling. The death of Bond's love Vesper (Ms. Green) is the starting point of "Quantum of Solace." A hidden text message on her phone directs MI6 to Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who blackmailed her into stealing those millions for – well, for whom?

The chase is on, as Bond leads the hunt for Mr. White's employers across Italy, Haiti, Austria, Britain and Bolivia, where the final confrontation takes places in an eco-hotel in the Andean desert. A trace on a 20-pound note leads eventually to a performance of Tosca and the first clues to a shadowy organization run by Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, who looks like a baby immediately after its first sneeze). The henchmen of this shadowy organization are everywhere. They control everything, and seem even to be in cahoots with the CIA, to the displeasure of Bond's old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, who has yet to step wrong since "Angels in America"). Along the way, Bond picks up Greene's ex Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton, disposable), but the main woman in his life is M (Judi Dench).

It turns out the issue at the bottom of all this is water rights, and controlling the price of this basic utility across an entire country. It's hard to imagine more topical, important or frightening issue; certainly it's more relevant than a flying circus nicking the gold from Fort Knox. But somehow Marc Forster's direction sucks all the vitality out of the film. There's no thrill in the chase. With the exception of an absolutely first-rate fight sequence on scaffolding in a church under renovation, Bond is having no fun at all. The audience at the screening laughed too eagerly at the few jokes within the film; we were desperately trying to enjoy ourselves. It's not clear why we didn't. It felt like whole swathes of the plot – most importantly, Agent Fields' first name – got left on the cutting room floor.

Mr. Forster was considered an unusual choice for the role; nothing in his previous movies implied an action-movie franchise was in his cards. Indeed, he has stamped "Quantum of Solace" with a clear visual identity: vertical lines, the height and weight of the objects, shattering glass, fire, and sweepingly bold buildings. But he has also followed the Bourne series too closely; two hand-fighting sequences and an ill-advised coda are pastiches of "The Bourne Supremacy." If "Bourne" was supposed to depict the reality of being a secret agent, Bond was the fantasy of the same. "Quantum of Solace" tried so hard to update itself into the modern world that it forgot to tap into the fantasy. Where were the ludicrous pieces of technology, the tuxedo underneath the wetsuit, the smart-ass quips?

No one knew what to expect from "The Bourne Identity," which is why is was such a breath of fresh air, and its pace and momentum is leading to a third sequel. Bond comes heavy with the weight of 46 years of experience and expectation. Does the film stand up without the series behind it? Almost. It was clearly conceived as a sequel to "Casino Royale," and a great many secondary characters are in both films. Otherwise, it doesn't stand up so well. If "Casino Royale" was Bond reborn, "Quantum of Solace" is Bond as a gawky teen. That said, the main action set pieces – the opening car chase, another chase sequence in a working harbor, and a dogfight in the mountains between unevenly matched planes – are pretty impressive. The best is that fight on the scaffolding, where Bond and his adversary shatter glass, dangle from ropes, drop their guns and bleed. It alone was worth the price of the ticket.

It was also delightful to see that the producers at last decided to cover their heroine – and not the villain – with scars. It's about time the movies noticed that physical abnormality does not evil create. Mr. Craig practically carries the film on his own, while Ms. Kurylenko's toughness and calm should lead her to a long career. The worry around "Quantum of Solace" is that it might finish off Bond's. If the creators of the series don't learn to embrace their hero with his personality flaws intact, the series might cease to be relevant anymore. That would be a shame, as it's been a wonderful ride.

Oh – the title. It's sort of addressed within the film, but not in any form resembling the "love equation" explanations seen over the last few years. If only we'd even learned whether or not he achieved it. It's almost even the only thing we have left at the end: a glimmer of hope that the next one will be true to the Bond we know and love.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

Opens on Nov. 14 in the United States and on Oct. 31 in Britain.

Directed by Marc Forster; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis, based on characters created by Ian Fleming; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Matt Chessé and Richard Pearson; music by David Arnold; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Daniel Craig (James Bond), Olga Kurylenko (Camille), Mathieu Amalric (Dominic Greene), Judi Dench (M), Giancarlo Giannini (Mathis), Gemma Arterton (Agent Fields), Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter) and Jesper Christensen (Mr. White).

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