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Non-Review Review: Quantum of Solace

Note: I have another review of the film here, but this was written as part of “James Bond January”, after watching all 22 films in quick succession. This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

Quantum of Solace is a strange film. In many ways, it feels more like a return to the Bond formula than its direct predecessor, and yet it feels like less of a Bond film. It isn’t a case that film takes the franchise in a new direction while retaining its core identity (as Licence to Kill did, for example), but the feeling that there’s been a fundamental shift in the series, occurring under the radar. It feels as if, though the movie can talk the talk, there’s something different in the step – it can’t quite walk the walk, unfortunately.

Don’t leave us dangling…

All the surface trappings are here. In fact, while Casino Royale didn’t resemble any of its predecessors in terms of structure, Quantum of Solace could almost have been a Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan film. The movie’s nebulous evil organisation, QUANTUM, is straight from the old cliche of an international terrorist organisation. Although its presence was hinted at in the earlier film, it skirted enough around the edges that it didn’t seem like the stereotypical cadre of international evildoers.

Here, instead, it serves the traditional role of affording Bond an army of anonymous mooks to tear through with wild abandon. “We have people everywhere,” Mr. White boasts, doing his best Blofeld impersonation. “How can they be everywhere and we know nothing about them?” M wonders, illustrating perhaps just how ridiculously fanciful an organisation like that is. The movie’s nominal antagonist, Dominique Greene, even has his own novelty henchman (if you consider a bad toupee a gimmick, I suppose) with a silly name (if you consider “Elvis” a silly name).

Strawberry Fields forever?

After Casino Royale so efficiently dealt with its villain, Le Chiffre, by having him executed by his superiors rather than Bond (after Bond botched a car chase and endured an unforgiving torture session, no less), here there’s a return to the classic “big showdown at the villain’s secret remote lair” finale for which the series is known. Sure, it’s technically a solar-powered hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, but its stylish architecture and its role in the plot serve the same function as a volcano base or underwater city. Hell, the movie returns to themed names – with an environmentally-aware villain named “Greene” and a Bond girl with the improbable name of “Strawberry Fields”.

Even Greene’s “big evil plan” is straight from the Bond Villain Playbook. Much like Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun or Gustav Graves in Die Another Day, he wants to use a beneficial natural resource (in his own words, “the world’s most precious resource”) as a tool… of eeeevil! Given Le Chiffre was gambling to save his own life, it’s clear that Greene is more of a traditional Bond villain.

That’s snow way to go about a vendetta…

And, yet, the movie feels somehow like less of a Bond movie than its direct predecessor, despite containing more of the classic tropes and formulas. Perhaps it’s purely a visual thing – Dan Bradley, the stunt director from the Jason Bourne films, handles the stunts here as well, so the series looks less like a Bond film and more like a Bourne one. In fairness to Sir Roger Moore, one of the actors to had the part who is never embarrassed or ashamed to discuss it, he expresses the sentiment quite well:

I enjoy Daniel Craig, I think he’s a damn good Bond but the film as a whole, there was a bit too much flash cutting for me.

I thought Casino Royale was better. It was just like a commercial of the action. There didn’t seem to be any geography and you were wondering what the hell was going on but there you are, call me old fashioned and an old fuddy duddy!

I might have mixed feelings about Moore’s time in the role, but he makes a good point.

Making a quick jet away…

In fairness, the action taken on its own isn’t bad. It’s quite a decent action film. However, to be honest, and at the risk of sounding like a fanboy, if I want a decent action film, I’ll go rent one. The whole point of sticking the brand “James Bond” on a movie is to certify that there is something about the movie which distinguishes it from all the other movies, and which can be summed up in those two words.

I remarked in my review of Casino Royale that the best part of that film was the poker game, because that was pretty much essential Bond. I can’t think of another spy or secret agent who would have been in his element at that table, but Bond was perfect capable of playing both the game and the players opposite him. That was Bond, there – Craig might have been a bit rough around the edges, and this version of the character might be more immature or underdeveloped, but that card game was a moment that I can’t imagine playing out in any other film series.

It’s just a quick visit, I’m afraid Bond has to shoot…

There’s very little of that here. Though the backdrop seems like the traditional Bond elements, there’s never a moment in the film where you realise that you’re getting something that you can’t see anywhere else. Bond here isn’t just a “blunt instrument”, he’s practically a bland and indistinct baseball bat. There is nothing here that Jason Bourne couldn’t do without breaking a sweat, which is ultimately quite disappointing.

There is one memorable sequence in the film, a stylised confrontation between Bond and a selection of goons at an opera house. It’s not a kinetic action sequence, but rather one staged with grace and poise. As Tosca plays on the soundtrack, Bond is hunted by several enemy goons, and confronts them swiftly and brutally. It captures the beauty of Bond as a character so perfectly – it’s brutal and effective, but also strangely graceful and elegant. However, the moment is relatively short-lived and – before we know it – we’re back to standard action sequences again.

Some times it isn’t so plane who the good guys are…

Perhaps an element of this is the way that the film radiates towards the Americas rather than the British Empire. Bond is a fundamentally British character, acting out the fantasies of a former empire which likes to consider itself a world power. However, this script is more concerned with the CIA than with MI6. Making disparaging remarks about the Americans seems like a friendly past time in these films, but Quantum of Solace seems intent to adopt a particularly cynical approach to the intelligence community. The CIA are willing partners to Greene, duped by the Bond villain. “You know who Greene is and you want to put us in bed with him,” a disillusioned Felix remarks to his superior, Beam. “Yeah, you’re right,” Beam sarcastically responds, “We should just deal with nice people.”

Fleming’s adventures frequently brough Bond to former colonies and places like the Caribbean. In Dr. No, the villain remarks that Bond himself still has “the habit of empire.” There’s a notable (and understandable) Anglo-fixation in the series. However, Quantum of Solace doesn’t feature Bond patrolling the ruins of the British Empire, but the collapsing political structure that the Americans have tried to construct for themselves in South America. Maybe the series is attempting to move forward – the British Empire, in its death throes when Sean Connery entered the role, is now well and truly dead. Perhaps it’s time the series moved on to focus on another declining empire (if the movie is to be believed).

Does he have Greene fingers?

“It always impressed me the way you boys would carve this place up,” Bond remarks to Felix, making it clear that the movie is trying to position Bond as a phantom of western imperialism in general, rather than the strictly British experience. Felix responds with the only explicit reference to the British Empire in the film, “I’ll take that as a compliment coming from a Brit.” The torch has been well and truly passed.

It’s probably a smart idea, but it still leaves me uneasy. By the time Bond emerged, the British Empire was long gone – so the character could appear a patriotic throwback, a cute reference to a time long gone. He never seemed politically controversial, as (despite the Falklands conflict) Britain wasn’t a world superpower any longer. However, tying Bond to American foreign policy in so strong a manner risks politicising the character, which is a risky move for such a popular franchise. The movie manages to avoid doing anything particularly controversial, but it is something I’d watch out for in the sequels.

Somebody has an axe to grind…

The movie also lacks the beautiful depth of its direct predecessor. In Casino Royale, Bond and Vesper both felt like real characters. There’s less of that to be found in this film. The pacing is a lot brisker and the movie never slows down – but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The movie’s title is never hinted at or explained within the context of the movie. Even the most educated cinema-goer most do a quick google search to find a meaning or definition.

We are told about Bond here, rather than shown. Greene remarks that Bond is a “tragic case” and M spells out Bond’s motivations in case we missed the end of the last film, but these reference the good work done in the earlier film rather than demonstrating any development by the current screenplay.

Running to stand still?

The movie is, in fairness, much better with its chief Bond girl than with most previous instalments. Camille isn’t the franchise’s most developed character (indeed, she lacks the complexity of Vesper), but at least she doesn’t have to sleep with Bond to be featured in the movie. She never really needs rescuing (escape from the hotel not withstanding) and manages to handle herself quite well. Although she’s far from perfect (although this time she’s a physical match for Bond, she’s nowhere near as emotionally mature), she’s perhaps a step in the right direction.

The movie’s obligatory second Bond girl is a more complicated case. Fields seems to exist purely so Bond can have sex with somebody in this film (because he’s not so wounded by his own sense of loss that he won’t hop into bed at the first opportunity). However, the movie acknowledges how coldly and cynically Bond uses these women. “How many is that now?” M demands of him as the pair stand over a dead body. As a gunshot rings out from a room down the hall, Greene goads Bond, “Sounds like you just lost another one.”

Kiss of death?

Bond never seems to actually learn anything from the deaths that he causes, though, which somewhat undermines the point – although perhaps Bond was happy with a purely platonic relationship with Camille because he didn’t want to manipulate or exploit her. On the other hand, as an experienced infiltrator herself, perhaps she could call him on it. “You were infiltrating Greene’s organisation by having sex with him?” Bond asks her at one point, almost as if he wouldn’t dream of using sex in such a manner. “You disapprove?” she replies, forcing him to chuckle it off – and perhaps illustrating that he does pretty much exactly the same thing.

Quantum of Solace isn’t a bad film. It’s probably not even a bad Bond film. However, it is a disappointing one – coming so soon after the more complex and insightful Casino Royale.

We have complete reviews of all of the Daniel Craig films available, if you are interested:

The following bloggers have reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:

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3 Responses

  1. Your 2nd sentence sums up my thoughts perfectly. Perhaps if it offered more in place of everything it stripped away, it would’ve been really good. It’s both an enjoyment and disappointment.

    It had good ideas (like a realistic villain and a non-sexualized Bond girl), but poor execution. It gets corny (death by oil symbolism). Craig, writing the story himself (due to the writers strike), wanted to be as vague as possible. He didn’t want to do anything too crazy like, say, Die Another Day, so play it safe.

    They knew off the bat they weren’t going to give us anything substantial so they just threw in lots of fast action scenes to pass the time. It feels like the making of this movie was more of a chore than an art.

    I enjoyed the overall pathos of the movie: frustration, discontent, grief, betrayal and such (both in the political system and in Bond’s life). In some way, it developed the character of Craig’s Bond. The death of Mathis was cold, but necessary in Bond’s journey.

    Mixed feelings perhaps.

    • Yep. I don’t hate it with the same passion as other Bond fans, but I don’t think it’s an underappreciated classic. It’s not even as interesting a failure as – say – License to Kill.

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