Thursday, November 15, 2012

Has Quantum of Solace Been Overcriticized?

At IndieWire Oliver Lyttleton recently offered his list of the five worst Bond films. Unsurprisingly Moonraker, Die Another Day and Licence to Kill were all there, the first two especially being standard on such lists (with the third film also frequently eliciting strong feelings, negative as well as positive). Quantum of Solace was there too, a more recent addition to these listings.

Seeing such reactions I have found myself wondering if Quantum has not been overcriticized. The film had its weaknesses, the action less overwhelming than one might have hoped (especially given the massive $230 million budget), the tone one of Licence to Kill-like grimness. I imagine many were also disappointed by the relationship between Bond and Camille Montes, which did not head in the accustomed direction (though few major critics have been sufficiently un-p.c. to say so).

Still, Quantum was better paced than the bloated Casino, and the dynamics between Bond and the principal Bond girl apart, was to me much more impressive as an attempt to combine the old elements with new ones. And if it was lacking in flash and humor and glamour and fun - wasn't that what critics and audiences were supposedly demanding? Certainly if one was looking for grit in their spy adventures (as supposedly everyone is these days), there it was in abundance - in the decidedly un-touristy Haitian and Bolivian backdrops, in a plot far more substantive than those of the much-praised Jason Bourne films, not least in its featuring a villain who could have come out of a Greg Palast investigation.

But that may have been part of the problem. For all the alleged hunger for the different, the substantive and the "dark and gritty" the critics claim to have, many of them reacted much like the low-IQ lout who yells "BORING!" the second anyone mentions something about politics or the economy in their presence - just as also happened in the frenzy of over-criticism that was the reaction to The Phantom Menace. ("How dare George Lucas use a term like 'trade embargo' in a Star Wars movie!") This is often no more than the small-minded stupidity that it appears to be, but it can also be a veiled way of criticizng a work's political content (which is the way critics tend to do this sort of thing, since they are supposed to be "above" such "pettiness").

Julian Symons wrote in his critical study of the detective story, Bloody Murder, that there are
two traditions in the spy story . . . The first is conservative, supporting authority, making the assertion that agents are fighting to protect something valuable. The second is radical, critical of authority, claiming that agents perpetuate, and even create, false barriers between "us," and "them."
What he did not point out there is that the conservative, orthodox tradition prevails in the popular, crowd-pleasing thriller, as it has from Childers to Clancy, while the critical tradition is the preserve of highbrows who may occasionally pop up on bestseller lists, but generally do not command that sort of following - the Graham Greenes, the John Le Carrès. There are exceptions; certainly in the 1970s, a period when anti-Establishment feeling was especially intense and widespread, a critical element turned up in popular fare, but even there, as in the novels of James Grady or Robert Ludlum, it tended to be of a limited kind, the bad guys rogues of an otherwise upstanding organization or somesuch. This is certainly the case with the Bourne films, as compared with a movie like Syriana (another Matt Damon starrer that made just a fraction of that other film series' grosses).

However, here was a James Bond movie that, in parts at least, played like Syriana. Admittedly the blend of fantasy with realistic critique this entailed was an uneven one, as commentary as well as entertainment. Certainly from the standpoint of the left, what the spies in that movie were up to was not some aberration but standard operating procedure, and not limited corruption that a brave insider can root out, but the way the System works - while the fact that the day was saved by a heroic outsider (the Bolivians who resisted the attempt to privatize Bolivian water supplies in real life just a few years earlier nowhere to be found) was also displeasing. In other words, the shift of the series to the left did not go far enough, and could not have, within the framework of the James Bond series, given what British intelligence has really done historically, the film's need to have 007 save the day, the series' need to have him reconciled with his boss and his Service before the credits roll.

But many must have thought the opposite, that a Bond film which presented the CIA as bad guys, and even worse, one which painted not mad billionaires using their empires' resources in some zany scheme, but multinational corporations going about their ordinary business, as bad guys, went much too far, even when they didn't flatly say so. (The leftishness of movie critics, like that of Hollywood, goes only so far.) And the force of the reaction was such that the reports Bond 23 would round out a trilogy about Bond's battle with Quantum proved short-lived - apparently, to the great pleasure of those who so disliked the last film, who are loving the more conventional Skyfall.

Ultimately, the craving for "grit" in cinema seems, like so much else in critics' artistic wish lists, is a matter of taste in surface aesthetic rather than substance, few having much stomach for the real thing - like adolescents trying to show off how tough they are by saying tough-minded things in front of each other.

My Posts on James Bond
In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels
A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre
A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre
Reflections on the Jason Bourne Series

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