Secret agents and odd couples

March 27, 2009 

The Jason Bourne movies essentially reset the template for action-oriented spy movies, bringing a gritty, crunchy and graphically realistic style to the formerly dapper world of international espionage. From the 2006 reboot of the James Bond franchise, "Casino Royale," through to more recent fare like last year's "Body of Lies," spy movies seem to be under compulsory order to feature shaky cameras, quick cuts, and brutal, efficient violence.

"Quantum of Solace," the follow-up to "Casino Royale" and the latest Bond installment to feature the impossibly chiseled Daniel Craig, falls right into line. Picking up about 20 minutes after the last film left off, the movie barrels forward like a 'roided out middle linebacker. Each chase scene or fight is more muscular and harder-hitting than the last, with connective tissue like -- oh, character development, plot -- stretched dangerously thin in the film's occasional quiet moments.

In short, "Quantum of Solace" is the most adrenalized, hyperkinetic 007 installment yet, undeniably entertaining yet curiously unsatisfying. Fifteen minutes after it ends, you'll be hard pressed to recall anything specific about its story, its characters, its particular take on contemporary geopolitical intrigue. There's simply nothing that lingers.

Plotwise, the story literally does begin within a few moments of the end of the last film, with James Bond grimly hunting down the bad guys responsible for the death of his one true love. Dame Judi Dench returns as "M," Bond's handler and increasingly dubious MI5 advocate. As 007 recklessly employs his license to kill across several continents, "M" must decide whether Bond's personal vendetta is compromising his loyalty to the crown.

Jammed somewhat sideways into the proceedings are Olga Kurylenko as new Bond girl Camille Montes, a Bolivian secret agent; and Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Greene, ecoterrorist and archvillain. Both are either affiliated with or opposed to -- I'm still not sure which -- a supersecret global conspiracy known as Quantum, which is either an organization or an agenda. Again, not sure which. The movie doesn't seem to care about clarifying things -- neither should you.

Instead, settle back and enjoy the many, many terrific action sequences and exotic locale scenes, which have always been the bread and butter of the Bond movies. Savor the nuanced supporting acting of Dench and Giancarlo Giannini as 007's old war buddy, Rene Mathis. Admire the hardbody appeal of Craig and Kurylenko as they make love and war. Appreciate the generosity of the production budget, and the perfectly adequate professionalism of it all. Then pop out the DVD and promptly forget about 007 until the next installment.

If you're looking for something more substantial to enjoy, I highly recommend the new two-disc reissue of "The Odd Couple," which just hit shelves this week. In addition to a new digital transfer of the landmark 1968 comedy, you get a nice selection of extras that provide historical and artistic perspective on Neil Simon's original bromance.

"The Odd Couple" is a rare specimen, a comedy so fundamentally sound that it thrived as a Broadway play, a blockbuster film, and a long-running TV series. This reissue is a good example of a classic movie that benefits greatly from its supplementary materials. The featurettes on disc two include a wealth of insights. Interviews with surviving cast and family members suggest some of the reasons Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau clicked so thoroughly as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, recent-divorcees-turned-roommates with diametrically opposed personalities.

For one thing, Matthau and Lemmon were quite similar in personality to their film characters -- Lemmon a fastidiously prepared actor's actor, and Matthau a looser cannon given to improvisation and lateral thinking. For instance, stories from the set reveal that Matthau broke his arm just prior to filming. Rather than bow out or delay the production, Matthau ingeniously used his handicap to invent new bits of physical "business" that also served to essentially disguise his injury. (Watch for the scene where he holds several sandwiches in his armpit.)

Lemmon took another approach entirely, rehearsing bits over and over to achieve a particular comic effect. As will sometimes happen with great movie partnerships, their contrasting methods generated something greater than either could achieve individually. In fact, if you've already seen "The Odd Couple," I'd suggest watching the extras first. They'll clue you into the many hidden levels of craftsmanship required to make comedy look this effortless.

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