Here’s a rarity, an action/spy movie that is intelligent, not exaggerated, that spends more time pondering some of the moral questions of espionage and, especially, “black” ops, than staging phony car chases and fistfights. It may be the only time in years that the hero is a devout Muslim. So what happens? It doesn’t do any business while people flock to see the stupid stunts in Quantum of Solace. More proof for the studio execs, as if any more was needed, that their target audience has very little in the way of brains.
Roger Ebert framed the central question of the movie in his review: “In the war between good and evil, how many good people is it justifiable for the good guys to kill?” We’re not talking about carpet-bombing enemy cities here, or Hamas lobbing unguided rockets into civilian areas, willy-nilly, or Israel using “pinpoint” bombing that nevertheless has killed many hundreds of civilians in “collateral damage.” No, the arena here is the extremely dirty and morally questionable world of spying, where it is sometimes necessary for a deep cover agent either to do nothing while an innocent is killed, or sometimes, if the stakes are high enough (and who decides?) actually perform an act that will kill innocents, people on our side. In a James Bond film, there are huge explosions and epic car wrecks … and apparently nobody but bad guys ever gets hurt. Innocent bystanders may lose their cars, but never their lives. (If you race a car down a crowded sidewalk, for instance, the people on the sidewalks are not stunt men who know the car is coming. You will kill a lot of people. People in wheelchairs, children in baby carriages, the elderly … people like that. Me!!!) This movie does not back away from the fact that, if you unleash violence, innocents often die. And as the Weathermen discovered, no matter how carefully you place a bomb, somebody might be there when it goes off.
I can’t talk about this too much more without spoiling some surprises, but I can give you a sort of moral equivalent. During WWII the British had broken the Nazi codes. It came to pass that the British High Command knew that the Luftwaffe was going to bomb the living shit out of Coventry one night. Dilemma: If you move large numbers of RAF into the area you could certainly save a lot of lives by shooting down a lot of bombers. But then the Nazis would know you’d broken their codes, and they’d switch to another system. Churchill decided to let the bombing happen. It is said that that old drunk got really snockered that night. The next day he walked through the rubble. And, strategically, it was the right decision, to save that valuable edge for a better time. But how about morally …? (Which is one reason why I’ve never aspired to be president. I hope Obama is up to it.)
There is not a fight, nor a car chase, nor anything I can recall that isn’t plausible, doable by human beings. I can’t say much more specifically, but I have to say this movie accomplishes something that has become so rare in an action movie that it just has to be pointed out. It gets the ending right! It came as a complete surprise to me. It seemed it might be a standard race against the clock, with some unlikely outcome, but when the climax happened, I laughed aloud because it was perfect! And I hadn’t seen it coming, and it stayed true to the moral question at the center of the movie. I recommend this one highly.