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Looking for trouble: (l-r) Craig and Arterton in Quantum of Solace.

A Killer for Our Time

By Laura Leon

Quantum of Solace

Directed by Marc Forster

 

So I hear Roger Moore was dissing Daniel Craig’s 007, saying that this latest incarnation of James Bond is too violent and lacks the “lover and gigglier” quality of his own interpretation of the Ian Fleming agent. This, from the man who starred in such lesser franchise flicks as Octopussy and Moonraker. Of course, Moore, saddled with scripts that had bad sci-fi effects and lame attempts at comedy (the Tarzan yell, anyone?), held his own as well as could be expected, considering he was usually wearing a khaki leisure suit. The latest two Bond films are decidedly darker and more action-packed, benefiting greatly from phenomenal stunts and computer-generated effects. But to imply that that is the sum of their parts is to miss the key point: Not since Sean Connery has the franchise had such a virile actor believable as a trained killing machine.

In Craig’s Bond debut, Casino Royale, a reboot of the franchise designed to free it from its four-decades-long cinematic history, the M16 agent finds love in the person of Vesper Lynde (Eva Green). There’s a nice bit with a high-stakes poker game, and some suspenseful moments when James looks to be a sure goner. When Vesper turns out to have been a double agent, Bond goes after her associate Mr. White, ending that movie by shooting him before pronouncing who he is: “Bond. James Bond.” But of course. It was a thrilling reentry to relevancy, which I realize sounds silly, since Bond, after all, is pure fantasy. Nevertheless, in Quantum of Solace, Bond, still reeling from his loss, tries to reengage by using his whole self as a sort of one-man battering ram against all of MI6’s enemies, leaving a trail of broken and bloodied bodies. “Do us a favor,” implores M (Judi Dench), “try not to kill all of our leads.” When she asks Bond what happened to a latest lead, who is dead on a Haitian hotel floor, Bond curtly responds that he doesn’t dwell in the past. This is the sort of dark, cynical humor, rooted in Bond’s bitterness, that one gets in Quantum—so unlike Moore’s “gigglier” 007.

Quantum begins soon after the conclusion of Casino Royale, with Bond racing his car through Italian tunnels, Mr. White bound and bleeding in the trunk. Turns out that the secret group to which Mr. White belongs is an extraordinary web of international connections, headed by one Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Posing as an environmental advocate, Greene actually buys up natural resources in unstable countries, with the purpose of taking over the world’s water supply. As Bond villains go, Greene is lackluster, both in name and in appearance, but apparently this was a conscious decision by the filmmakers, to show that today’s face of evil often wears a suit (or, in Greene’s case, ugly floral shirts) and a benign expression. Bond pummels through one violent exchange after another, at one point dueling with an assassin while both are suspended, upside down, from ropes connected to a veritable Jenga of scaffolding and beams. He’s assisted in his efforts to bring down Greene by old ally and sometime nemesis Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), vengeance-craving Camille (Olga Kurylenko), and an oh-so-efficient MI6 assistant, Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton). M, concerned that Bond has completely taken leave of his senses, revokes his license to kill (and his credit cards), but these things are mere hiccups in the action. In this case, the final confrontation takes place in the Bolivian desert, where a corrupt colonel meets with Greene to finalize plans to screw the natives out of their own resources. Can you say, I think not, little puppies?

Granted, this is a decidedly darker Bond, one without the expected bedding and gadgetry. Bond does get it on with one lovely, only to find her—like that poor lady in Casino Royale—dead in a particularly fetching cinematic way. His relationship with Camille is more tutor to mentee, as he helps her understand the particulars of the kill. About the closest he gets to real emotional ties is to an extremely vulnerable Mathis, or when he goes ballistic on the man who tried to kill M (not M!). In part, it’s Bond coming to terms with grief and forgiveness, but the script also shows us a James Bond who is beginning to realize that it’s not so easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys anymore. When M sanctions the prime minister’s plan to do nothing about Greene, and supports this with the approval of the American CIA, Bond is incredulous that his own group would bed down with, well, just anybody. This doesn’t make 007 seem weak or naďve; rather, it adds a sense of gravity to Bond, much like what occurs with many of the protagonists, poised between two changing worlds, of the great 1950s Ford and Boetticher westerns. The times are a-changing, but that doesn’t mean that our 007 is going to turn pacifist; and with Daniel Craig committed to plumbing the depths of his character’s dark side, we should be in for a series of stellar adventures in the future. A girl can hope, at least.

Lose the Lions, Keep the Penguins

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath

In this, the sequel to 2005’s popular but not terribly good Madagascar, Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) and his escaped zoo buddies Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) try to make their way back to good old Manhattan, courtesy of a rickety plane piloted by penguin Skipper (Tom McGrath) and his similarly feathered buddies Kowalski and Private.

Needless to say, the travelers don’t get far, crash landing in the movie’s only true action sequence in the middle of an African preserve ruled by Zuba (Bernie Mac), who turns out to be Alex’s long lost daddy. The father-and-son reunion is cut short when Zuba’s rival Makunga (Alec Baldwin) reveals the startling truth about Alex’s terpsichorean tendencies.

The resulting confrontation between pussycat Alex and another lion is uncomfortable, but not as much as the movie’s blatant racial and ethnic stereotyping. The characters played by black actors display the cool factor of, say, Chris Rock or Bernie Mac. Oh, yeah, that’s who plays them. Then we have will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas doing a Barry White imitation to the hippo who wants to unsubtly have at it with Gloria. Mandingo anyone? More troubling is the fact that, yet again, fat and sassy equates with a black actress’s voice (at least Smith’s not playing Hollywood’s usual choice for black actresses in animated movies, the skunk), just as neurotic and hypochondriacal connote Jewish. There are also the usual humanizations of the animal world, such as Alex’s daddy, the pride of the pack, being a chief caregiver. (Then again, maybe that explains why Alex is kidnapped as a cub.)

The best parts of the movie involve the efforts of the first movie’s crazy granny to rouse her fellow New Yorker tourists into action, not despair, after their jeep is commandeered by—who else?—the penguins, who take top honors for restoring any interest in the story. The deadpan delivery of McGrath and company make this reviewer yearn for a movie sans Alex and company, but centered on these crafty penguins.

—Laura Leon


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