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Quantum of Solace

The pity is that the folks who run the Bond franchise decided to stick with the new-girl formula. Worse, they killed the last girl off. Clear thinking about the future has never been a hallmark of Bond productions, but the loss of Eva Green to the ongoing saga of the Bond 2.0, starring Daniel Craig and the hottest computers since HAL, can be felt already, in the second installment, Quantum of Solace. Olga Kurylenko looks pretty enough and seems intelligent, but she is no match for the black-velvet allure of Ms Green, who, in addition to looking more glamorous than any woman ever to take James Bond's arm, made the most of the perfect "mid-channel" accent, neither English nor French but quite superior to either. It's true that the French actress might have looked a bit out of place in Quantum's scruffier locales, but undoubtedly her presence would have inspired the producers to make more of the movie's one truly intriguing scene, set at Bregenz in Austria. James commandeers the conspiracy's communication system and sends its members scurrying as fast as their tuxedos and discretion will let them. As they attempt unobtrusive scramming, our hero takes pictures with his super-duper camera phone. Vesper Lynd might have waylaid them in the lobby.

Not that I have any right to complain. Writing about James Bond films does not come naturally to me, if only because they never let me forget that they were not made with me in mind. The idea that there are grown men for whom the Bond films embody some sort of fantasy really knocks me off balance. I have always judged them as more or less inventive amusement park rides, frightening at the same sub-cortical level but equally inconsequential. The very fact that I think of them as rides may anticipate the news that I like the ones that feature Roger Moore the best; with their tongue's planted so firmly up against their teeth, I can at least feel that I'm in on the joke. Quantum of Solace, in contrast, is rather like a joke that I'm the only one to get. A lot of it is quite funny, in a slapstick way. I hasten to say that it is at no point ridiculous. At no point did I avert my gaze from the spectacle of the estimable Mr Craig's embarrassment. Perhaps that's because he seems to be writing the joke.

If I were to get to know the actor personally, I'd probably have to stop watching these movies — just the Bond ones, thank heaven — because it might become impossible to continue to believe that he is their actual writer and director, and that his governing idea is the tension between keeping a poker face in scenes that go over the top. In fact, Mr Craig does not keep a true poker face. His almost relentless expression is loaded with affect: the self-conscious stoicism of working very hard at a demanding physical job. Which is undoubtedly what playing James Bond is. The only thing worse than undergoing all of Bond's harrowing ordeals must be keeping up the appearance, through long shoots, of doing so. It must be murder.

Okay, here's a funny part: Gemma Arterton in a raincoat. Ms Atherton plays Strawberry Fields, the MI5 operative in La Paz. Her job is to get Bond on the next plane back to London. Instead, she lets him seduce her. After that, she puts on a dress, but for preposterous stretch of film she sashays about in a trenchcoat. It is a rather short trenchcoat, and she doesn't appear to be wearing anything beneath it. As a costume for the Bolivian capital, it is quite unsuitable, neither cool nor warm enough. Fields, as she insists on being called, seems to be a bookmark for all the lovelies whose raincoats came off in the Bond 1.0 productions. It is difficult to imagine her job interview.

As for the bad guys, they're for the most part standard-issue South American dictators/drug lords/corrupt cops. Against this clichéd background, Mathieu Amalric stands out as an impressive worm. He is, alas, a truly hateful worm, however, and all I wanted to do was to step on him. Bond villains should never look so anemic; it brings out the bully in one. Mr Amalric is one of the strongest actors in French cinema, but I doubt that his performance as an eco-villain is going to advance his Anglophone career. I suspect that too many Americans will come away reminded of why they don't like the French.

Tell me: does Dame Judi Dench have to make do with two costumes? She appears in a bathrobe at one point, but for the life of me I can't remember her otherwise in anything but a white blouse and dark jacket. When she popped up in La Paz wearing her office uniform, I thought that that was another funny part. But not all the funny parts are sartorial. There's a hilarious parachute jump, and also the elaborate demolition of a remote hotel. At first, the burning walls and rafters look hot and uncomfortable, but, before long, they look silly, visibly awash with accelerant. And then there's the joke about the motor oil.

By far the funniest thing about Quantum of Solace, though, is its reminiscence — surely not unconscious — of Some Like It Hot. Having lost his only true love (Vesper Lynd) in Casino Royale, James Bond is now in the very position that Joe (Tony Curtis) pretends to be in when Sugar Kane Kowalczyk tries to arouse him. Daniel Craig turns out to be unsurpassable at going through the motions. (December 2008) 

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