Monday, October 22, 2012

No horsing about: Taken for a Quantum of Solace

When Quantum of Solace's title was announced, it was met with derision, probably from a bunch of men who are members of the Real Ale Society and think that Sean Connery was at his best in The Man With The Golden Gun. It was a silly and meaningless, nothing more than a sign of how far the series had veered from the True Path of Fleming. I suppose it was convenient for them to forget that the genius who came up with the title for Octopussy was one Ian Fleming, Esq. But what can you do? It would be no good telling anyone that Quantum of Solace is itself a Fleming title, rather than a bit of murky garbage like Die Another Day or Tomorrow Never Dies. People's minds were made up; Casino Royale was an aberration and Quantum of Solace would be rubbish, unlike all the Bond films in the good old days.

Obviously nobody had watched Thunderball lately. Or Diamonds Are Forever. Or Octopussy. Or A View To A Kill.

I shouldn't be so defensive, but I often feel alone in a harsh universe, the only person to extol the virtues of Daniel Craig 2.0. Every time I watch it, it gets a bit better. There's the stunning car chase that it starts with, without any pointless exposition or scene setting. There's a sudden and surprise betrayal, and then a headlong charge through some Italian tunnels and then a horserace that feels like a more desperate version of the chase that kicks off Casino Royale. People will criticise Quantum of Solace for hyperactive editting, but the shot of Bond falling through the glass ceiling of the half repaired church is just gorgeous.

Ok, Craig is still portraying Bond as Thug Supreme, MI6 is still as porous as a bathsponge and there's the glaring continuity error of his waistcoat from the end of Casino Royale, but there's a bit more humour now, whether it's M complaining that "florists use that expression" or Bond coming up against a dead end in Haiti. Hell, even the theme song isn't so bad this time around.

Dominic Green is not a villain in the mould of Goldfinger; he's just an oily, untrustworthy type, but this means we're spared all those "you and I are not so very different" speeches and he just gets to concentrate on having people killed after he's had sex with them. (I'm still waiting for this Bond to start killing people after they've got into vehicles with him - neither Strawberry Fields or Mathis count because it's somebody else who gets the job done.)

It's not perfect; for every nice retro Bond moment:
"I think she has handcuffs"
"I hope so"
there's a glaring improbability, like the entire CIA knowing who Bond is when all he's done is won a game of cards and been hit in the knackers with a bit of rope once too often. But the film powers through these without displaying any worry. It's a sign of confidence that Green's evil scheme is to hurt the poor people of Bolivia, rather than the gentlement of the Home Counties; the film is addressing global issues, rather than some berk in a stealth sub or a loon with a diamond powered laser.

There are references to previous Bond films, but not in a way that screams out "look, knowing irony!!!!!!". The plane duel is either exciting or a poor rehash of The Living Daylights, without a killer milkman, but the finale in the hotel is both the polar opposite of the ice hotel in Die Another Day, and a callback to Casino Royale's shower sequence. (This Bond is spending a lot of his time comforting women, rather than winking them into bed like his predecessors would.) There's also the near-constant refrain of Bond films, that all millionaire philanthropists are Not To Be Trusted; they'll think nothing of stealing your water or ruining your hotel bed with a gallon of oil.

At the time, I remember a thunderous drone of complaint that Richard Branson's Virgin was being shoehorned into everything. Apart from that sounding more pervy than the average product placement, it was hardly worse than anything we've seen before. Plus it meant we got to see Bond with a couple of pints of vodka in him, apparently unfazed. Maybe after Vesper he's been pissed the whole time, which would explain his driving. Hell, if everyone's been drunk for the last two years maybe that's how the organisation got infiltrated by Quantum. The only reason they're conserving water is a desperate bid to stay sober.

Who comes out of this badly? Well, the British Special Branch, who fall off buildings with aplomb. Bond's colleagues, who he batters with ease in the lift. Dominic Green, who deserves to chop his own foot off with an axe after his toddler-level screeching. And ... hang on. What about the poor woman from room service? Ok, it's a pretty shit hotel (middle of a desert, only one member of staff ever appears, building has a bad habit of exploding) but did she have to almost get raped and then burn to death? That's a long way past an angry letter to the manager.

Meanwhile, in America in 2008, Liam Neeson was dicking around trying to purchase a karaoke machine for his daughter, a horsey girl who's slightly less stupid than the pony she gets for her birthday from her new, improved dad. "Bryan" (why didn't they call him "Colin" and see just how bad it could sound?) is divorced and has to shepherd Holly Valance between concerts. When she almost gets stabbed, Bryan cheers her up by getting her to drink an Orangina. Why is this? Is it because he is wise in the ways of the European? Is it the lamest product placement in the history of the universe? Did Bond drink so much alcohol flying across the Atlantic that there's literally nothing left in North America? Who knows... Holly should have choked on the Orangina though, because as Taken teaches us, Europe is a Bad Place.

Still, if your dad was Passive Aggressive Bryan, you'd be desperate to get away too, even with a moronic friend who only exists to be annoying and wear Ugg boots. I mean, only exists to be annoying.

So Bryan's daughter goes to Paris and is picked up at the airport by middle-European white slavers (one's black - does that make the whole concept more or less racist? Figure that out for yourselves.) And here it jumps off the rails of believability. My mate lived in Paris for a year, and spent it in Irish bars full of drunk Scots (big shout out to the Hairy Lemon, circa 1997), and never once was he kidnapped into drug-fuelled sexual bondage. Ok, he's a six foot lad from Cheam with an academic interest in attitudes towards masturbation in 13th century French literature, but ... Where was I going with this?

Ah yes. Europe, as presented to the assumed American audience, is dangerous and evil, and they will steal your daughter. That's partly because nobody pays attention to criminals, which is how Bryan sneaks into a locked up block of flats, and presumably how he avoids being arrested after chasing a man off a bridge in full view of an airport full of police. (And it must be said, I've become quite jaded if a man jumping from a bridge and then being flattened by a truck arouses nothing in me but a fart of derision.)

Anyway, whereas Quantum of Solace is loud and in your face from the start, Taken is really quite slow, spending ages proving to you how much Bryan's daughter deserves to be abducted, before suddenly going all ultra-violence.

You know the way films run out of budget and have a laughably rubbish ending (Blade, cough cough)? Well, with Taken it feels like the opposite: the first half hour is character driven and quiet (except for the Orangina) until all of a sudden somebody found the cash for endless gunfights, car chases and some excessive torture with two nails and a chair.

Speaking of chairs, what was with the last decade? If it's not Bond having an 'itch' scratched by Le Chiffre, it's Bryan Interesting nailing somebody to a chair and then plugging them into the mains.

Maybe they got confused and thought that was what heroes do. Liam Neeson certainly watched Dr No, because he knew to get smacked on the back of the head just when he should be triumphing.

Before that he's been very nasty to a woman who's married to a half-pint David Walliams lookalike, and a bunch of Albanians who seem like they all just need a cup of tea and a hug.

The end of Taken feels like the mangling of a dozen more films. There's the high speed driving from Ronin, there's the jumping on things from Bourne, there's... A man being beaten up with a toilet?

What most distracted me about the finale of Taken is that the evil butler appears to be Russell Brand with a machinegun. Well, I knew he was evil, I watched Rock Of Ages on a plane last week, I didn't need this too. The Brand X Brand is handy with a knife and gives a good fight, but the Big Boss is just a big disappointment, shot out the way so Bryan can take his prize pony back to safe, crime-free, no-perverts-here America.

I felt more ambushed by Taken than by Bond: Sean, Roger, George, Tim and Pierce never gave us half an hour of how-hard-done-by-am-I schmaltz before going postal. Maybe Bryan was just bottling it up too long.

Like the Orangina. I wish I was being sponsored: that's three mentions in one day.

But now we are approaching the 23rd Bond, and we should pause to consider the improvements. Craig Bond is a darn sight less ramshackle, less embarrassing, more watchable than many of the films that had gone before, and also (because all the women he boffs die) doesn't have a daughter with (ironically) no horse sense, which means he can go to Paris to relax, instead of having to murder Albanians.
Unless that's what Bryan finds relaxing, of course...


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