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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quantum of Solace

I was just barely out of second grade when my father took me along with him to see the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, back in 1962. I had about as much interest in going to see it as a squid does in learning algebra, but my father didn’t care. He dragged me along on a lot of his misadventures I didn’t want to participate in, some of them even legal. Over the next seven or eight years, we saw all of the subsequent Bond films, though I only really remember Goldfinger, and mostly because wrestler Harold Sakata, who played the villainous Oddjob, was a friend of my Dad’s and spent a lot of time hanging out at our house. As a ten-year-old, there was nothing quite as unnerving as recognizing that the guy who drank shots with your father was also the man with the lethal bowler hat who seemed to get way too much enjoyment out of decapitating folks with a toss of his chapeau. Weirder yet, he wore that damned hat in real life everywhere he went. When he came over I usually stayed in the basement until he was gone.

By the late ‘60s my father was single and fancied himself as smooth as James Bond any day. He lived in Las Vegas and would spend his evenings in a white dinner jacket sauntering in and out of the fancy hotel bars trying to cruise women with what he thought was the same finesse as a Sean Connery or Roger Moore. His favorite come-on act involved him taking a seat at the bar next to his target du jour, his would-be Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead, or Plenty O'Toole (such classy Bond heroine names).

He would give the woman a one-moment-too-long glance and then stare down at his watch. Inevitably, the woman would fall for this and ask something like “Is your date running late?” to which he would reply “No, I’m here alone. I was just testing this state-of-the-art watch.”

If she responded, he knew he had hooked her and just had to reel her in. “State-of-the-art? What’s so special about it?” the would-be Pussy Galore would ask.

"It uses alpha waves to telepathically talk to me," he’d explain.

"And what's it telling you now?"

"Well,” my pervy Dad would smile, mustering up his best Sean Connery impression, “It says you're not wearing any panties."

The faux Goodhead inevitably would blush, then reply, "Well it must be broken because I am wearing panties!" which would be his signal to have the bartender refill both their glasses. Then he would pause, tap the watch a few times, and exclaim “I’ll be damned! It must be running an hour fast!”

You wouldn’t think that would work, but there are either a lot of dumb or extremely easy women in
Las Vegas because it was a carousel of coochie around our house as I was growing up. There were weeks I felt like I saw more boobs than a mammogram technician just by poking my head out of my bedroom and taking a peek into the hallway between my father’s bedroom and our shared bathroom.

I’m not sure I could ever picture my Dad as anything close to Bond, James Bond, but he did manage to score like his favorite secret agent, which was more likely due to booze (hers) than charm (his). That probably explains why, by the age of nine, he had me trained in the fine art of making the perfect martini (shaken, not stirred), although his recipe included the addition of something he told me was a dash of sugar. Years later I would eventually realize this sugar was actually a drug called gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), the precursor to today’s date rape drug Rohypnol. Good old Dad. Closer to Blofeld than Bond, except that Ernst Blofeld at least liked cats.

In any case I can thank my father for stirring my interest in what was going on in the world of Bond
, and I went with the ebb and flow like the rest of the world. I grieved when original Bond Sean Connery abdicated the role, suffered the Lazenby fiasco (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), watched the campiness grow exponentially during the Roger Moore years, reaching its pinnacle of eye-rolling foolishness with 1985’s A View to a Kill. From there Bond achieved an air of charming rigor mortis as played by Timothy Dalton for a couple of movies before he was replaced by the much more alive and still charming Pierce Brosnan, who brought Bond into the new millennium with Die Another Day. Unfortunately for Pierce, he wouldn’t get that chance because producer Barbara Broccoli decided he could Die That Day, and she axed him in favor of a newer model and a fresher idea, rebooting the entire franchise and taking Bond back to his beginnings as a novice agent in a much more “real world” setting than he had been before. Gone were the billionaire madmen taking over the world with their stash of nuclear missiles; there were no more secret lairs stocked with swimming pools full of great white sharks, and Bond no longer was blessed with a cache of perfect-for-the-plot super duper spy devices guaranteed to save the day at just the right moment. With 2006’s Casino Royale, James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, became a three-dimensional human being for the first time. He showed emotion, was flawed, bled when he fought, and didn’t always get his man (or woman). He was a sensation! And he still is in his latest release, Quantum of Solace, which picks up almost immediately following the action of Casino Royale.

And action is definitely the word, from the first frame until the last; Quantum of Solace seldom stops the thrill ride stunts, fights, chases, and gunplay. Despite Bond’s struggle to keep his emotions in check and not make this mission about revenge against those who killed his girlfriend Vesper at the end of Casino Royale, he is grimly determined to put those feelings aside and pursue those responsible because they represent a much larger threat to his beloved Britain than anyone ever realized before a traitor within MI6 revealed himself at a most inopportune moment and let a few bullets fly where they could do their most harm.

The ‘Quantum’ of the title is the name of the organization which represents this pervasive evil that MI6 and the CIA were both oblivious to until Bond’s spying in the last movie began peeling back the façade and brought this revelation to the forefront now. Thanks to forensic intelligence (and some of those same fancy schmantzy software graphics so popular on “CSI: Miami”) MI6 is able to track down money going here and there and they zoom in on Quantum’s activities in Haiti, so off James goes with a stylish island GQ-perfect wardrobe ideal for any boat chasing, machine gun-ducking adventure he might encounter.

It takes only a few minutes before James has offed the man he went to snoop on (oops!) and has hooked up with the beautiful but surname-challenged Camille (Olga Kurylenko; Max Payne), who either wants to kill him or help him. Either way, she leads James straight to Quantum’s leader, the Roman Polanski lookalike toady, Dominic Greene (French actor Mathieu Amalric; Un conte de Noël).

So, boom, boom, boom, in typical Bond movie style, we bounce all over the globe and get parts of the high octane hijinks in places as far-flung as Italy, Austria, Russia, and Bolivia, with an occasional pit-stop back in the Motherland so Bond can get scolded on his home turf by the Big Boss, M (the always delicious Dame Judy Dench; Notes on a Scandal). This isn’t to say Dench doesn’t just do her finger-wagging back at the office. In a departure from former “M”s, this head of MI6 isn’t afraid to mingle with her troops and you never know when M is going pop up and play ‘M’ as in ‘Mom’ to her stressed-out spy.

If there is any one thing that feels out of place in Quantum of Solace, it is the over-arching conspiracy angle of the plot this time around. Instead of world domination or destruction, the plot is actually focused on an ecological theme, with Greene (get it, Greene/green) wanting to buy up desert lands with water under it. That’s right. Water. Forget oil. This guy is out to control the water supplies in arid countries, so he can sell it at exorbitant prices. Wouldn’t it just be easier to sell bottled water and save all this shooting and manipulation? I mean, geez, Greene even goes so far as to get involved with a scumbag would-be dictator named General Medrano (Joaquín Cosio; Arráncame la vida) and offers to overthrow the existing regime in Bolivia for him if the General will sign over the land rights to the Bolivian desert to him. So much fuss just to make little Pedro and his donkey thirsty enough to beg for some Quantum Water. I’ll bet it never occurred to him that before he could even get his pipes laid Dunkin Donuts would already be cranking out Coolattas® in every village in the country to keep the asses fat and the kids from being parched. He may be building a liquid empire, but good old American capitalism can’t be stopped. Quantum may be able to squelch the efforts of MI6 and the CIA, but just try to screw with McDonald’s or Starbuck’s. Even Dominic Greene knows his limits.

Directed by Marc Foster, who is better known for cerebral films like The Kite Runner and Stranger Than Fiction, Quantum of Solace is anything but a slow and thoughtful essay. It begins like a life-sized pinball game with the audience on the inside and never lets up. The screenplay is by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, the trio responsible for Casino Royale, so the “new” tone established by that reboot is carried on admirably and the cringe-worthy puns and overdone sex scenes of previous Bond regimes are a thing of the past. This is the best Bond ever thanks to the writers and delivery by Daniel Craig, who smolders in the role but also provides the steel necessary to kill without remorse. A Quantum of Solace is all Bond will allow himself, even over the death of someone he loves. Now what we must live with is a quantum of patience until the next sequel. I hope it won’t be too long.

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