Quantum of Solace
For a synopsis of the latest 007 adventure I turn to that doyen of cinematic criticism, the redoubtable Fearne Cotton, speaking on Radio 1:
Only hours after the death of his girlfriend Vesper Lynd at the end of Casino Royale, James Bond embarks on a global mission to hunt down the evil Dominic Greene who is trying to take the world’s natural resources hostage country by country. M thinks Bond is out of control, the CIA aren’t very friendly either – it’s literally 007 versus the rest of the world. But is it through doing his duty, or gaining revenge, that Bond will find his Quantum of Solace?
Despite the hyperbole, and the weirdness of using Cotton as an informed source for anything, this is a close as any coverage has come to summarising the point of Quantum of Solace. It is categorically not a ‘revenge movie’, not in the traditional sense at least…and in that distinction, plus director Marc Forster’s decision to keep things as frenetic as possible, we have a film that seems to be dividing critics, fans and regular moviegoers in equal measure.
So let’s get the obvious statement out of the way up-front: this is not as good as Casino Royale.
How could it be? That movie was such a massive truckload of fresh air. Refuting the excesses in ways even previous ‘serious’ Bonds never dared. Emotionally closest to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the only film at that stage not to end with Bond copping off), Casino Royale looked back to a film that, while a fan favourite, is generally rejected by casual viewers. Dry wit replaced droll puns, characters superseded caricature. Box office, critics and fans (one grumbling subset aside) were united in their delight. It’s a great movie, arguably the best Bond film to date.
You just can’t live up to that.
Quantum of Solace assumes that the leg-work has now been done. That we all saw the last movie and all agree that Bond is able to be a substantial, layered character. Forster is not interested in re-stating what was already said. Instead, he takes a damaged professional and fires him, like a bullet, at a target.
This trajectory makes the first half of Quantum of Solace a challenging watch. In the immediate aftermath of Vesper’s demise Bond is single-minded, and there’s barely a moment’s pause. You have to dig your nails in, because the movie might shake you off at this point and never get you back. Action follows action and leads to action. A neat trail of bread-crumbs requires your attention to keep up – the plot is generally very straightforward, but you’re treated as smart enough to keep up. Switch off and you’re lost.
The approach to the film’s action is equally single-minded; nothing is permitted to outstay its welcome. Set pieces are more likely to last three minutes than ten. No indulgent, ‘will it ever end?’ chases this time. This Bond has learned his lessons, and he’s now coldly efficient – fights and chases are brisk and to the point. Neither we nor Bond can relax as things just ‘carry on for a bit’.
The sequences themselves are hit and miss, but thankfully favour the former. The car chase that opens the film is arguably too choppy to feel satisfying, and a motor boat battle struggles to keep track of everything (though both contain some great touches). But the much-teased rooftop chase is utterly thrilling, several hand-to-hand fights have real snap to them, and the final battle contains everything the Brosnan finales should have managed but never did. Much of which is about having a good eye for detail – loose roofing tiles, billowing curtains, and an eye on what a character feels about what’s going on.
With so many sequences available, Forster gets the chance to experiment with differing styles. The boats and villain’s lair are classic old Bond, the car chase much closer to Frankenheimer and Bourne, an escape at an opera house is more ‘art house’ in its cross cutting, and a conflict in the air aims towards Hitchcock. (Listen to the audience breathe a sigh of relief when this one concludes!)
After a breathless first half, thankfully, Quantum of Solace settles down. We take in an opera, visit the villain during a party, grab a few drinks on a flight. It’s at this point that Quantum of Solace recovers ground it seemed to be losing. So long as you still have your fingernails dug in, you’ll be rewarded by some of the fine character work that made Casino Royale such a pleasure. (And it’s worth noting that Royale had a similar structure, powering ahead in its first half and only putting Bond and the female lead together half way through.)
Forster’s films almost always focus on pairs and parallels, be it author and subject (Stranger Than Fiction), best friends (The Kite Runner) or man and woman united in grief (Monster’s Ball). Here, he puts his weight behind Bond’s fleeting time with Camille, a woman whose mission mirrors Bond’s own – she’s out for revenge and needs to go through villain Dominic Green to get it.
Her target is utter bastard General Medrano, and her reasons, when revealed, are as visceral as can be. But Bond is a professional, he’s not entitled to the kind of emotional reaction Camille is acting upon. Daniel Craig proves his worth with material like this, consistently underplaying and leaving the viewer to draw conclusions. One remarkable moment sees Bond instructing Camille on just how, exactly, to take down her target. For some it’s a standard ‘what we do next’ exchange, but for those paying attention its a scene about wish-fulfilment. Bond is living vicariously, living through Camille’s revenge because he knows he can’t take his own.
So we see two sides of grief in this shady underworld (which has never been subjected to so much harsh sunlight, the barren desert locales both informing a story about water and reflecting Bond’s barren internal landscape). One side is hot-blooded, the other has ice in his veins. One is forced to go unsatisfied, the other gets to extract their vengeance. And the layers of reading you can apply to that outcome should fuel lengthy dinner conversation after the movie – how rare and wonderful that is. (The actress in question, Olga Kurylenko, acquits herself well, the dark and dangerous glances making up for occasional struggles with the English dialogue.)
Bond’s other allys are used more directly, but are no less interesting for that. Judy Dench continues to play a different version of the M character seen in the Brosnan flicks, far more akin to Fleming as she heads towards expletives in moments of stress. She has also become Bond’s nagging conscience, the only person who can give voice to concerning truths. A scene where the two of them stand over the body of yet another dead bedmate, visually recalling the ghastly fate of Solange in Casino Royale, is among the best of the series.
M is also part of the establishment, though, and as such her orders are open to moral questions. Early on she states a clear intention to have a suspect tortured for information, and her place as government servant is made more specifically clear than ever before. When the people are at the top are in bed with the bad guys, which way should Bond go? And how much leeway can M allow him?
Giancarlo Giannini returns as Mathis, a character left as a possible suspect at the end of the last film and this time an apparent ally. He’s once again played affable and warm, but with a taste for wine and women that posits the character as a version of Bond in 20 years’ time. Both he and Bond are amused by the arrival of officious agent Fields (Gemma Arterton, playing so ridiculously up-tight-old-school-British that it must, surely, be deliberate), sharing a knowing quip about handcuffs. And once again Jeffrey Wrights’ Felix Leiter is charming, plain-spoken and sadly underused.
The villains continue Casino Royale’s theme of middle men working for a larger power. This time it’s Dominic Greene, environmentalist, businessman and total devious bastard. Mathieu Amalric is wonderfully reptilian in the part, though there’s no torture sequence or card game in which to really let him lose. Where Royale took from Fleming the notion that villain and hero are mirrors of each other, this time Forster places his parallels between Bond and Bond Girl – more time for the bad guys would have unbalanced the whole exercise. Still, at least when it comes right down to it Greene picks up a fire axe and fights like a good ‘un – though not before loosing henchman Elvis, whose value on screen is mostly visual rather than vocal. (His various humiliations come close to being a running gag.)
For a film that forms part of another ‘serious’ Bond era there’s a lot of snappy wit on display in Quantum of Solace. “We have people everywhere,” Dench bemoans, quoting Mr. White, “Florists say that!” There’s a surplus of good lines and moments, all stemming from character and thankfully pun-free (Bond interrupting a meeting of evil organisation Quantum is a delight), and every so often we’ll get a visual touch that raises a warm smile: when 007 hands an unconscious body to a stranger on a dock it’s as if he’s tossed the valet his car keys.
There’s a running theme of bodies in the boots of cars, too – happening on three occasions and always part of an interesting or surprising development – while Forster maintains his eye for interesting imagery. From a body underwater to a hotel in the desert via a beautiful underground reservoir, Quantum of Solace is visually delicious, and all the more remarkable for the number of times these things are found on location. (Which is not to denigrate Dennis Grassner’s lovely production design, though lets heap a little praise on cinematographer Roberto Schaefer.)
Reality in violence is kept to the fore as, once again, we watch the bloodied 007 clean himself up in the mirror. But the standout in this area is Camille’s reaction to the final battle, discovering Medrano in the middle of a sexual assault and finding herself trapped in a burning building. On its own, it’s horrible – coupled with the character’s back-story, it’s deeply upsetting.
The final moments of the film recall the thrillers of the 70s. Snow falls outside – a chilling shift after the heat of the Bolivian desert – and Bond, in overcoat and gloves, finally comes face to face with a key player in his own downfall. It is, in all senses, chilling. Morally and emotionally complex, with a cold colour palette, there’s a touch of the Harry Palmers to it.
Through it all we have David Arnold’s score. Cut loose from an era where it was appropriate to blast the Bond theme out during every battle, now he’s reaching for more interesting styles. The travelogues remain, but the theme itself hits only at specific, generally post-action, moments. (Arnold is wrong to claim that the theme always equals victory, but certainly in a film as taught as this there really isn’t room to sit back and take a breath as it plays through.) Flawed-but-underrated title song Another Way to Die also creeps in here and there in subtle, careful ways.
So how does it all come together? Certainly you may struggle to find yourself endeared in those early stages. Your respect and interest is arrogantly assumed rather than requested. This is the third act of a story – Casino Royale containing acts one (Bond begins as a double-O) and two (Bond loves and loses) – and seems designed to be watched as part of a double-bill.
Casino Royale gave you an erratic, wall-crashing 007, then Samson-like brought him a woman who would take something from him. While still headstrong, the single-mindedness has been focussed to a fine point. He’s a guided missile now, a bullet – aim and fire. Kills take a third of the time, there’s not an ounce of doubt left in the man, no hesitation. But at the same time he’s now a beast of duty, and as such nowhere near as impulsive as he is mistaken for. His tragedy, ultimately, is that he is required not to kill men he might, in other circumstances, desire to. Duty comes first, and that means leaving alive those he wants dead – and, conversely, killing some he would have preferred to leave alive.
Get over that first-part hurdle, then, and there’s all the style, wit and action you could want. In the wonderful opera sequence, Bond swipes a tux, scopes the area, captures a comms device and listens in to the bad guys’ chatter…before tactically alerting them to his presence in order to reveal their own identities. Later, things get even better – arriving back at his hotel Bond finds M waiting. After the ‘dead girlfriend’ scene mentioned above he proves why he’s the best in the service – defeating MI6 agents in a lift and skipping out across bannisters with every inch of Connery’s smooth, animal elegance.
There are other flaws, of course. Forster reigns in the product placement, but goes nuts with his regular graphic artists MK12 – using different fonts for every location description and compiling a title sequence that feels like it belongs more to the videogame than the real thing. (Though the new-style gunbarrel, appropriately placed at the end of the movie, looks great. Clean and simple.) Complaints of violence and fast editing I have less interest in, particularly from fans of the series who by now should be aware that the 60s films often irked the censor for their levels of violence, and famously developed an editing style that was seen at the time as shockingly high-speed. Aside from the action rhythms, the intention was to remove ‘shoe leather’ between scenes – an ethos this movie takes to extremes.
Go into Quantum of Solace expecting to sit back and relax and you may come out disappointed. You have to work to stay involved, and you certainly have to concentrate to keep up with the simple-but-under-expositioned story. But that investment of effort is absolutely worthwhile, with the series continuing to bring emotional consistency and genuine intrigue.
This is a film about the character who stated “The bitch is dead” at the end of Casino Royale, who has chosen to replace his hollowed-out soul with duty. This won’t be played out in lengthy, emo-Bond dialogue scenes – it’s an action movie, and they’re never sending the guy to a shrink. But it’s in the implications, and in Daniel Craig’s startling blue eyes.
Could be better, then, but this is still a remarkable era for Bond.
SECOND THOUGHTS – Spoilers:
Having seen the movie again, I’m glad to say that I enjoyed it every bit as much. Interesting to note that some things which seemed implicit were actually explicitly stated, albeit in gentle, subtle ways. While Bolivia always seemed arid, with water blatantly scarce and villagers scrambling for the last drops from a water tank, it’s interesting to note just how often conversation in the film turns to the subject. Both Guillermo del Toro’s ADR cameo and the ‘comedy’ cab driver are on-subject in moments that could be filled with blander chat. It’s a neat layering in of a theme – by the time the underground reservoir is discovered, you’re already aware of the crisis going on, though you may not be sure how.
Similarly, there’s a neat suggestion throughout that Bond hasn’t slept since Vesper was killed. Executed with a light touch – arguably too light when we’re not exactly used to watching 007 catch a few Z’s unless knocked out – the story is told in questions from those around him. M at first, Mathis in the middle, Camille at the end. The film’s pace, then, matches the never-rest nature of a damaged character. Greene’s back-story also sticks out a little clearer, with a story from his childhood that has chilling implications but perhaps got lost the first time around as we put together other information.
Weird to spot that the film has a very similar structure to Casino Royale, at a lot of points you could almost trace one over the top of the other, though the makers are wise to reverse certain outcomes – especially noticeable at the end where losing a girl to water becomes saving a girl from fire. Still, there are similarities aplenty – a one-on-one knife fight in this film evolving from a one-on-one knife tussle in the last one; rooftop suspect chases appearing in the exact same place in both; the two pairs of girls are utilised in similar ways; and both films go for a gangbusters-action first half before slowing down for the second and ending on a key series icon. That said, the film has three acts rather than Casino Royale’s four, and a fascinating intention to base key action sequences around the elements (fire, water and air are all clear; earth is a bit of a toss-up between two sequences that both include dusty construction work)
Also – having stated that this isn’t a revenge movie at the top of the review – it’s worth noting that the time Bond spends as a rogue agent, stripped of his licence as opposed to his credit card, is less than two minutes. Instinctual and pro-active, the bulk of his mission is authorised either directly or implicitly. He may not come when you call him, but – like the cop who performs the stakeout himself when the chief won’t give him any men to follow his hunch – he’s rarely all the way off the radar. The time from M taking him off active duty to her agreement that, trusting his instincts, he’s doing the right thing can be counted in seconds. (And it’s a great little moment between two beloved characters played by great actors.)
As the reviews and reactions continue to pour in and audiences remain split, this is, at very least, a wildly interesting Bond film. Arguably it takes a Marc Forster approach to storytelling (naturally; in fact in some ways it works as a Kite Runner companion piece, particularly in its themes of violence and sexual abuse revisited on a new generation) when audiences may prefer, and be expecting, something a little more Martin Campbell – less The Kite Runner, more The Mask of Zorro (and that’s not a diss to either; I love them both) – but for those who take to the style, it’s equally rewarding the second time around.
Plus the idea that a Bond film has such an artistic and creative perspective that it encourages lively debate is a thrilling thing indeed. We’re a long way from the by-the-book formula of Brosnan’s enjoyable but unambitious era of hired-hand directors now. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of this unique film series.