That’s the big question that seems to be running through all the recent (and largely negative) reviews of Quantum of Solace these days. Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post began her review with the statement “It took two men to kill James Bond: Austin Powers and Jason Bourne” (and she makes a good case for that thesis), and Peter Travers over at Rolling Stone said: “Bond seems to have come down with a serious case of Jason Bourne penis envy, leaping across rooftops from Bolivia to Haiti like a jug-eared Matt Damon.” Making a comparison between the first Daniel Craig Bond movie and the latest, Pajiba critic Ted Boynton notes that “where the foot chase scene opening Casino Royale offered bold, steady tracking shots showing mesmerizing stunt work and flinch-worthy hand-to-hand combat, Quantum too often trots out the nauseating Quake-o-Vision style of The Bourne Supremacy.”
True, it’s hard to miss all the similarities to the Bourne movies, from the protagonists’ driving passions in each case to those rooftop scenes to that frenetic editing. (Revenge is a great plotline, no matter what, but that editing was really way over-the-top, not just derivative of the Bourne movies, but Bourne done bad.) But while the new Bond film may have been influenced by the skillful artistry and tremendous success of the Bourne trilogy, I don’t think that you can simply conflate the two characters or these movies. The Bourne trilogy may have provided the impetus to revitalize the Bond franchise, but that’s a good thing (and I say that as a longtime fan of the full series) and it’s certainly provoked the filmmakers to examine Bond a little more closely as a character — a real plus for these films, and something that the new film’s harshest critics seem to miss. Has Bond become “little more than a deranged, if well-dressed, serial killer,” as Hornaday claims? Or is Pajiba right in discussing “Bond-as-blunt-instrument,” elaborating that “Craig’s Bond is an expensive, unpredictable super-weapon, and as with a nuclear missile or a biological WMD, nasty collateral consequences nearly always occur when he is deployed”?
While Pajiba may provide the more nuanced (and ultimately more politically persuasive) position, I do think that there is some attempt at exploring psychological motivation here — again slightly influenced by Bourne but exciting and illuminating in its own right. While we know how revenge motivates Bourne through parts of the trilogy, we as viewers are not sure here exactly what’s driving Bond: Is it revenge for what happened to Vesper at the close of Casino Royale? Is he pushed ahead by allegiance to the Crown, looking after the best interests of the British Government even after that government seems to have turned his back on him? And in a related subplot with Felix Leiter (played by Jeffrey Wright), what are the ultimate responsibilities when ideas of personal integrity and morality conflict with political and institutional policy?
I won’t argue that Quantum of Solace delves very deeply into these questions — a much better moral thriller along those lines is something like Michael Clayton from last year — but the film does keep those questions up in the air almost as often as Bond himself is up in the air, jumping those rooftops or hanging from scaffolding or piloting that burning plane. (And to that end, it’s worth noting, of course, that the film also succeeds as a nearly nonstop thrill ride.)
Some of the movie’s final scenes (spoiler alert) begin to examine more completely Bond’s motivations and the potential for his emotions to color his decisions or to impact his sense of duty. Of particular interest is a nearly dialogue-free scene between Bond and the equally vengeance-minded Camille (new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) huddled together as a hotel incinerates around them — importantly, the second building that has burned down around Camille. And a final series of scenes at the end extend that idea, with Bond tracking down Vesper’s boyfriend and then debriefing M (Judi Dench) in snowy Russia with a forced sense of detachment, a pair of encounters whose resolutions provide a sense of closure without being too pat or predictable. And with questions about Quantum still up in the air at the end of this installment, there’s promise (surprise surprise!) of more layers of this storyline opening up in the next Bond. Mark your calendars now for Bond 23 in 2010?
— Art Taylor