On the ride home from Quantum Of Solace I found myself measuring it against You Only Live Twice. As scripted by Roald Dahl — a cranky fabulist who took on every writing project as if it were a personal dare — the fifth of the Connery Bonds pulled in every single trope from the now established series and inflated it to comic proportions. The gadgets were gadgetier, the girls were cheerier and Connery was puffier and amused. He had every right to be: he was box office gold, living the high life of the 60s and sauntering through a movie in which the villain's lair had a retractable lake and a monorail whose only stop en route to escape was a hidden self-destruct button.
From Russia With Love may have established James Bond as a movie franchise, but You Only Live Twice became the standard for it. When Dahl's absurdities were puffed up beyond what the cartoon could bear, we got Moonraker and Live And Let Die. Just the right amount of gas, and we got Octopussy and For Your Eyes Only. Too little, and we got Timothy Dalton.
Thus James Bond became the movie equivalent of Kraft Dinner — garnish it with a little too much of this or that, cook it a little too long, and it was a mess; follow the instructions on the box and it was surprisingly comforting fare. Lost, of course, was any sense of the lethal menace that Bond had in From Russia With Love. But was that really so desirable in an age that brought us Dirty Harry, then Rambo?
Since then, paranoid revenge fantasies have lost their traction with movie audiences. The best of the bunch, the Bourne films, make efficient use of The All-Controlling Establishment as enemy. But this is an ideological holdover from the 70s that seems almost charming as we begin to get some measure of just how dismally the Bush-Cheney republic failed to secure even its own self-interest. Now that we have met the enemy and confirmed that, yes, he is us, the necessity of cooking up some cinematic Other on which to safely vent our frustrations and rage is obvious. Enter “Quantum,” the SPECTRE for the new millennium — Quantum Of Solace, indeed.
It's old news that Daniel Craig and his teamsters didn't just get in touch with Bond's lethal menace, they pumped it up with steroids, and the current movie brings the roid-rage to a high boil, as it should. But what is more remarkable about Quantum Of Solace is how cannily the franchise picks up on Dahl's instincts, and trumps them. Clearly the creative team sat down and listed off everything it liked about the “old Bond” then committed itself to bringing that to the screen and making it work — really work — for today's audience.
Car chase with Aston Martin? Check. State-of-the-art technology? Check. Teeth-rattling fight scenes that leave Bond bloodied but unbowed? Insufferable villain with a cruel streak? Gee-whiz Ken Adams' sets that erupt in pyrotechnic splendor? Check, check, check. Alright then: how about the queasy erotic thrill of a nude corpse covered in gold paint? Take a gander at the babe covered in crude.
Missing is John Barry's swoon-inducing orchestral score — I've never been a fan of Jack White, and would have had trouble stifling my gag-impulse were it not for the distractingly fab graphics. And while some people can't stand the jarring cut-and-paste cinematography that kicks in every time there is an action scene, I had to wonder if the scenes would work at all if the camera was ever allowed to linger. The audience knows exactly how it's all being done — what they require is sufficient distraction from their knowledge, and the new hyper-vérité kinda gets the job done.
The villain is a creep I wanted to see torn limb from limb, and I found deeply appealing the movie's notion that there is a super-secret den of thieves and extortionists taking full advantage of the venal impulses of this beleaguered planet's every nation state. And, wonder of wonders, this marked the very first time that a typically effortless Bond seduction was actually believable.
The film's final success lies in Craig's uncluttered embodiment of Bond. His face has an agelessness that is anything but youthful, while his body moves with a lithe and surprisingly understated athleticism. At one point he hops over a balustrade and strides along a six-inch ledge as if it were the hallway he just abandoned. It's as bold a physical statement as any of the preceding fight scenes: getting away from his pursuers is really just this easy.
I loved it. A 40-year-old franchise has me wondering anew just how it can possibly top itself. Whodathunkit? James Bond really is back.