James Bond goes MIA

'Quantum' features Bourne-esque take on spy

“Quantum of Solace” is the first James Bond film in which I didn’t for one moment want to be Bond. This is not a good sign. The key to Bond, dating back to his first appearance as Ian Fleming’s imaginary self-projection in the 1950s and especially to the arrival of Sean Connery’s still-potent incarnation in the early 1960s, is that he’s an ultimate male fantasy figure, an impudent, self-possessed, worldly man of action who is a villain-killer by vocation and a lady-killer by avocation.

Post-Connery, this image has been upheld to varying degrees of success by George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and now Daniel Craig, who, by general consent, my own included, filled Bond’s shoes, tux and bathing trunks with great success in “Casino Royale.” The action of “Quantum of Solace,” the title of which I still can’t explain even after having seen the film, commences one real-time hour after the bitter conclusion of “Casino,” in which Bond lost Vesper Lynd. So there was reason to hope that the action would continue not only narratively, but stylistically, in the same vein, as Bond sought his ladylove’s killers.

Unfortunately, Bond as we’ve known him is scarcely to be found in “Quantum of Solace.” The character, whose oft-submerged sadistic side Craig commendably resurrected last time out, has turned into a veritable killing machine, his other dimensions — humor, urbanity, savoir faire, connoisseurship — cast aside. Only in a few moments, notably in his dealings with his sometime CIA colleague Felix Leiter — a character whose importance, given the caliber of actor Jeffrey Wright, ought to be increased in future — do some Bond character shadings come through.

In “Quantum of Solace,” Bond seems to have been deliberately merged with Jason Bourne. As in “The Bourne Identity,” Bond’s mission is driven by the death of his girlfriend, with an international chase, and several brutal fights, ensuing. At 105 minutes, “Quantum” is the shortest James Bond film ever made, and part of the reason for this is the brutal editing style, which goes beyond cutting to the bone. In fact, it cuts into the bone to the extent that some of the action is simply incoherent and, in the final analysis, just bad editing; in a fight scene in a church under restoration, Bond and a nasty try to kill one another while dangling from swinging ropes, and you can rarely tell which man is which. In contrast with previous Bond films, but in the style of so many other contemporary action thrillers, this one just wants to pummel you into submission. I resisted, and was unhappy being provoked to to so.

One aspect of the Bond films rarely spoken about is that they have all been directed by Britons, except for “Die Another Day,” which was helmed by Lee Tamahori, who, as a New Zealander, sort of counts as a member of the Commonwealth. Harry Saltzman, Albert Broccoli and, subsequently, the latter’s daughter Barbara and Michael G. Wilson could easily have recruited top American action directors to capably put Bond through his paces over the years, and Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino have publicly voiced their desires to take a crack at a series entry.

But the producers evidently had their reasons for keeping the series in the British fold and, in retrospect, it seems to have been a good idea, even if the available field wasn’t always chockfull of top talent. There was always a certain respect for, or at least a tip of the cap to, the essential Britishness of Bond and the world he represented. These may be intangible qualities, but they inarguably carry some weight and meaning. In choosing Marc Forster, who’s Swiss, Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson abandoned this 45-year-old tradition, and you can tell. It’s particularly startling to learn that Forster had never even been a particular Bond fan growing up, hadn’t followed the films and sort of had to be persuaded to direct “Quantum of Solace.”

Perhaps taking a different road this time seemed like the thing to do after years of playing it safe during the Moore era and then making a shrewd choice by going with Craig. But, no fault of Craig’s, Bond has gotten lost in the process. When I go to a Bond film, I want to see Bond, not Jason Bourne — he’s got his own series, and there’s room for both. And there are more very good British directors to choose from now than there were around 1970. Danny Boyle on Bond, anyone?

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