Daniel Craig working on his stance.
The ultimate proof that movies these days are rotten: Quantum of Solace is breaking records at the box office. It’s not the public’s fault; people want to see something move onscreen and they’ll take what they can get. Right now Q of S is the only game in town.
It’s not absolutely terrible, Q of S, but you forget it as you cross the lobby to the theater exit. That’s par for the course with James Bond films, you might say; nobody really remembers Bond films with Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton or Roger Moore. It’s embarrassing to be still clinging to the vivid cultural recollection of the great Connery/ Bond films of the 1960s. But then Casino Royale and Daniel Craig cruelly raised our hopes again. He’s fantastic, we all agree, even with those ears. He spends almost all of Q of S looking as if he were hewn from the living rock. It’s hypnotic, and thank God for it, because the rest of the film’s pretty much a wash-out.
(Is there any real need here to describe the plot, name the sultry females and the arch-villains and all that, quote the dialogue, mock the atrocious theme song? I think not. We know the drill.)
Sadly, the liveliest movie currently in theaters doesn’t move well at all. There are lots and lots of action scenes cut together very badly. You never feel as if you’re getting the impact of the no-doubt exciting things that were staged in front of multiple cameras in locations all over the world. You have to take it on faith that the chase scenes grinding out onscreen involved amazing speed and danger and stunt-work, because it isn’t coming across. In a just world we’d be getting very close to saying R.I.P. Hollywood when directors of top action films can’t direct action. But this isn’t a just world, so we’ll drag on like this indefinitely, watching dull crap and saying, well, it could be worse, at least it’s not High School Musical 3.
Still, it beats me how you could have so many types of movement going on at once and not get the juice out of any of them. You’ve got what’s going on in front of the camera, a car chase, say; you’ve got the option of moving the camera itself in a lot of different ways, tracking, panning, pivoting, shaky or Steadicam effects, shots from inside the car, shots alongside the car, helicopter shots over the car, and so on into infinity; and then you’ve got the impression of movement you can build up in the editing room through montage. Admittedly it’s dizzying to think of how many ways a film sequence can go wrong with all those spinning plates to keep going. Director Marc Forster and his editors, Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson, seem to have located them all and given us the essence of wrongness in this revealing experiment.
They edited the film as if what they had in the can was the most boring footage in the world, and therefore, in order to disguise that fact, they needed to hack it up into a kaleidoscopic spectacle of a million 2-second cuts. But what’s odd is, from what you can see between cuts, most of the footage isn’t necessarily boring. Not scintillating either, maybe—nothing we haven’t seen in a hundred other action films—but still, perfectly serviceable action shots of things like James Bond turning the wheel sharply five inches to the right during the high-speed chase, a bad-guy car plunging over an embankment, a fiery kaboom, etc.
No, the central problem seems to be much bigger and scarier: the filmmakers themselves don’t seem fascinated by physical movement in the world; they shoot and cut filmed action in such a way as to render it oddly inert. Therefore, they are in the wrong line of work and should be run out of town immediately. They won’t be, though.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Early on there’s an action scene that plays out on two levels of a coliseum structure, one above ground at the Palio (annual horse race in Siena, Italy), one below ground in the rooms and tunnels beneath, where Bond, M, and other agents are trying to get information out of their first “Quantum” bad guy. The Quantum people break their guy out and all hell breaks loose below and above ground as the shooting starts and agents and counteragents dash all over the place. The running horses panic, the crowd panics, the chase fans out into city streets, etc. Should be great. An embarrassment of riches, movement-wise.
But the overall effect? Zip, zilch, zero. Messy camera angles plus frantic cutting prevent us from getting a sense of the space sufficient to render the chase exciting. There are even bad shots of the horses, so that they don’t look fast or cool while running—which I would’ve said was physically impossible before seeing Q of S. In fact, they don’t even look like horses. They’re kind of long and stretched and unmuscled, as if Forster and Co. found a band of mutant horses specially designed to look unimpressive while racing. You don’t even get a sense that they ARE racing; though they’re clearly running, they seem to do it in a desultory, rubbery fashion. Regardless, however dorky these mutant horses look, they don’t play any real role in the panic that ensues anyway. The panicky crowd also does nothing but sort of clot around mooing.
So the chase proceeds out into the city, where we get a Parkour sequence that’s now required of every action film—that’s when guys go running through buildings and over rooftops and in and out and around every kind of urban space and obstacle, leaping effortlessly through windows onto balconies across the way, etc. Needless to say, the whole reason this thing became required in action films in the first place was because it looks cool and amazing and low-tech and you can watch somebody actually do these crazy seamless running jumps and rolls and so on. So guess how it’s handled here? Cut-cut-cut. We never see a completed motion. Anonymous bad guy leaps out of fourth-floor window. Cut. Same guy lands on balcony across the way. Why the cut? Why not show the whole leap through space right through the landing, which is, to use porn terminology, the money shot? It’s bewildering. You hire a primo team of stunt guys and then don’t let anybody see what they can do.
What we have here is the melancholy proof that Hollywood directors didn’t learn nuthin’ from Hong Kong action film directors during the Hong Kong vs. Hollywood action film smack-down of the ‘80s and ‘90s. During that period, Hollywood increasingly favored accelerated editing to ramp up the excitement of action sequences (and every other kind of sequence, including tea with the Queen Mother) and also to disguise the fact that our action film heroes couldn’t actually do stunts or move well. Hong Kong films, of course, distinguished themselves by showcasing the amazing physical abilities of their stars and the brilliance of their fight choreographers. Not that they didn’t also specialize in fast-cutting, but Hong Kong action filmmaking teams tended to have a vital interest in bodies in motion and the pull of gravitation forces for their own sakes, and generally edited films to showcase them. Naturally, all these guys got hired away to Hollywood, but what good has it done? It destroyed most of the Hong Kong talent (moment of silence for John Woo here) in exchange for a couple of nice sequences in The Matrix and the Bourne films and Kill Bill I and II, plus a few other odds and ends. Cinematic argument over, everybody lost.
At the end of Quantum of Solace there are a couple of unhappy but typical realizations: 1) that the film only runs 106 minutes when it seemed more like 166, and 2) that it’s still hard to say whether Daniel Craig moves well as an action hero. He stands well. In fact, he stands great, if anybody’s giving out awards for standing. He does a stiff-armed pose holding a gun that’s a feast for the eye. But when, at the end of an action film, you find yourself saying, Wow, that guy sure can hold still, there’s a problem.
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