Lately I've been chronicling the movement toward more "real" heroes -- whether that be Batman nodding to the war on terror in its periphery, Hellboy dealing with a pregnant girlfriend, watching Iron Man build his suit for 2/3 of the movie, or Bond actually falling in love -- yet the action itself is becoming less and less coherent. Quality actors like Jeffrey Wright, Daniel Craig, and Mathieu Amalric play the heroes and villains with personality, not just cardboard. The plot deals with more contemporary concerns, if in a silly shallow way: Dominic Greene heads up an apparently benign environmental agency that is actually in bed with corrupt politicos.
At the bottom of it all, though, we still come to see these movies for their promised action and bad-assery. These are action movies and we want guns, gunfights, fighting with maybe guns, and babes. So, why is it that whenever an action scene comes around in "Quantum of Solace," it's a big jumbled mess of indecipherable flurry?
More and more of these films, and particularly the twenty second installment of the James Bond franchise, slack on the delivery of their promise. Has there been a contemporary Hollywood action movie that integrates these new more "real" elements with plausible, clear, coherent action? I would think that coherent action is itself the very foundation of realism, and would be necessary to make this new breed of super / heroes a success. Hell, it doesn't need to be plausible, just make it understandable.
What's surprising about the two most recent 007's, and what's kind of the biggest bummer about the whole thing, is just how much potential bad ass each film has. "Solace" starts with a car chase during which Bond's car has its door ripped off; follow that with a parkeur sequence atop Venician roofs, and a the best fight scene in the whole movie -- a hotel knife duel. I love that this Bond is an effort to reclaim not only the coolness that dropped out of the franchise in the 90's, but also a reimagining of attitude. Craig's Bond is not slick or suave like Connery. In fact, Bond has totally eschewed any semblance of the "secret" part of "secret agent." He needs to get in a boat, so he launches a motorcycle off the dock onto one boat, drives the bike onto another boat, beats the hell out of the boat driver, and drives off. Bond then T-Bones his target's boat. He is a force, but not a brute. As Emma so emphatically puts it, "Bond just doesn't give a fuck." Which, in its own funny way, is awesome.
So, tons of bad ass to go around. The thing is, director Marc Forster chooses to execute these scenes in a wild clutter -- super-quick cuts and all kinds of shakey camera -- and this serves up an action flick that inherently has some great potential, but more often than not leaves me confused to exactly what's going on. I say that the knife fight is the best scene in the movie for two reasons: it's by far the simplest, and because of this is the closest thing to clarity, and it is the most base example of this new Bond's DIY attitude. "Solace" is at it's best when Bond is given full reign, with few or no gadgets to get in the way.
I think this might be because of Marc Forster's track record, which should be admired for its consistent variety. He's turned out some fair movies, none of which really turn my crank, but a guy who can get Halle Berry the Oscar for "Monster's Ball," make Will Ferrel cry in "Stranger Than Fiction," adapt the critic's darling "The Kite Runner," then brings together Wright and Amalric, two of Julian Schnaebel's actors, into a 007 movie must be doing something right. Forster is people-oriented, not action-oriented, and this meshes well with Bond's isolation. Unfortunately, this also means that the action scenes are at best only almost coherent.
But, weirdly, Forster not only acknowledges this short-coming, but runs with it. In the middle of the film, Bond sneaks into an opera with an audience speckled with bad guys making secret deals in the audience. If there ever was an opportunity for a beautiful action sequence, this is it: a view of the whole audience, one by one suits exiting, surreptitious panic among the mass of tuxedos. But, no. Forster instead delivers a bizarre, expressionistic action scene in the lobby and kitchen and roof and .... well, basically every where else that doesn't require any "secret" to be a part of the equation. The sequence doesn't even try to make sense. It just happens, blurry, weirdly, while the opera goes on. It seems almost obligatory, like Forster is saying, "Well, it's already out of hand, so why not just let it slide?"
It really is the supposed obligations that bring the movie down. The little ones are gone, woo hoo -- no "Bond, James Bond," or "Shaken not stirred" -- but the big ones remain, like having Bond fly a plane around in an air battle, only to parachute safely to the ground without his own parachute. The plane chase is more confusing than the boat chase, but less confusing than the car chase. No trains presenent, alas. I have read some disappointment from uber-fans about Bond not declaring his name, last name during the movie, and needless to say this is a gross miscalculation of priorities in my eyes. It must be this mind set that requires Bond to have every vehicle possible at his disposal, regardless of the fact that they are much less interesting than, say, Bond's hands-on foray into urban spelunking. Man, parkeur is cool. If I'm given the choice between a confusing parkeur chase and a confusing plane chase, I'll pick the much more unique of the two, even if I don't exactly know what's going on.
Here's a link to a portion of the car chase.
I've written (read: complained) about this lack of coherence in modern action flicks before. David Bordwell of Film Art Blog "think[s] that the filmmakers are worried about the implausibility of the action scenes and so muffles them by a haphazard handling." Maybe, but I also find that implausibility is totally welcomed in these kind of movies. I think it is more likely that the filmmakers are leaving it up to the audience to fill in their gaps: gaps not in plausibility or logic, but space, blocking, cohesive action, and time. Whatever the reason, I left the movie ambivalent, not riveted.