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In defence of Quantum of Solace

[Warning: spoilers!]

Everyone seemed to love Skyfall on its release. Papers listed it among the top few Bond films, reviewers heaped praise on it and Sam Mendes and Adele’s return for Bond 24 met with popular demand. I liked it a lot, myself, though in hindsight slightly prefer 2006’s Casino Royale, in which Daniel Craig debuts and Mads Mikkelsen’s villain (seven years pre-Hannibal) chews the scenery into succulent, meaty chunks. The interceding entry in the series, Quantum of Solace, is the one fans and critics alike seem to have hated – and no, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.

I recognise the film’s problems. It’s the shortest of all the Bonds, sandwiched between the longest two to date, and also the most violent – an entirely unproductive combination. Royale was gritty in its depiction of a bruised and bleeding hero, but its glamour, humour and storytelling finesse meant it never relied on action; Quantum exhibits not much else. To a large extent, this comes down to the 2007-8 writers’ strike – by the time of filming, the film’s script was only partially completed, leaving the cast and director Marc Forster to devise scenes. It shows: one moment Craig’s Bond is dispatching the icy pith familiar to viewers of the previous film, the next he’s left dependent on pick-up lines like ‘Come up and help me find the stationery.’ (Seriously. Bond says that.) Beyond technical and visual aspects, much of the film just feels underdeveloped, and it suffers greatly as a result. Still though, I don’t think its faults sink it.

Except for single-filmer George Lazenby, each of the past Bonds had a misstep or two: Connery had Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, Moore had Moonraker, Brosnan had Die Another Day. (Moore’s Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, plus Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill, are borderline for me.) If Quantum of Solace is remembered as Craig’s weakest note, it still stands tall next to most of these.

In fact, thanks largely to the talents of its cast, Quantum is far, far better than its half-baked screenplay might have meant. Beside Judi Dench’s reliably spiky M, both main villains deserve special credit: with his Jokeresque laughter under interrogation and quipping, ‘Tosca isn’t for everyone’ disdain, Jesper Christensen takes previously nondescript Mr. White straight to magnificent bastard status, and Matthieu Amalric radiates creepiness, predacity and danger as Dominic Greene, particularly when onscreen with Olga Kurylenko’s Camille – the scene where he threatens to throw her from a balcony is a rare moment in which a Bond villain feels genuinely unsettling, someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet.

Camille herself won’t be going in the Bond woman hall of fame any time soon, but feels like the major casualty of the partial script; had she been given more time and development, perhaps she’d have come across in deliberate contrast to predecessor Vesper Lynd, as a grittier, less refined but similarly wounded and courageous character instead of an inadequate stand-in. The climactic moment when Camille hunches panicked amid a fire, Bond trying to get through to her, echoes his and Vesper’s shower scene from Royale, and it seems her story might have been just as compelling if fully developed. Gemma Arterton feels equally neglected as agent Fields, though her scenes with Craig and Giancarlo Giannini’s René Mathis crackle with wit and charm, and her death scene – an oily twist on Shirley Eaton’s in Goldfinger – is legitimately harrowing.

This film, unusually for Bond, devotes earnest attention to violence against women: where elsewhere in the franchise this is fetishised, here it’s a theme. Camille’s mother and sister were raped, as quite possibly Fields is before her death, and Greene’s relationship with her is shown transparently as abusive; that a trail of murdered women follows Bond is even commented on by M. (‘Look how well your charm works, James’, she says, surveying Arterton’s nude corpse. ‘They’ll do anything for you. How many is that now?’) Unlike other ‘kept women’ in prior films, however, Camille is not seduced by 007 – in fact, in Bond’s closest encounter to date with feminism, it is she who ultimately abandons him, acknowledging his damaged emotional state. Seeing Bond’s torment play out through alcoholism and sleeplessness is itself captivating – Craig is at his tense, brooding best in these moments, and it’s a shame, again, that he’s left little else to do by the film’s unfinished script.

My inner jury is still out on Marc Forster’s direction. Certain cosmetic elements visibly jar: the stylised title cards for the story’s locations feel out of place, for instance, and like the dialogue’s subtitles, don’t match their components in Royale. (It may not seem important, but I notice these things – you have no idea how much it bothers me that the colour and size of the onscreen text changes.) I’m still not sure, moreover, why Forster provides subtitles for two Bolivian extras’ in-taxi exchange. Footage of villagers during a drought captures the travelogue flavour of Fleming’s writing perfectly, though, and in a film over-reliant on action, it’s a good job Forster directs it exquisitely – the scaffold sequence in the opening minutes, in particular, is executed perfectly, and if anything feels like a more natural place for the opening titles to have gone; the rooftop chase leading up to it, similarly, is amazing even as a lesser retread of the Parkour chase from the previous film, and the aerial confrontation just before the final act, while at moments difficult to follow, spectacular. Other highlights include Bond’s hand-to-hand battle with Edmund Slate, one of the whole series’ best fight scenes in terms of both choreography and camerawork, and the entire, breathtaking showdown at the Bregenz opera.

There and elsewhere, Dennis Gassner’s set designs channel the sixties cleanliness of the Connery era: while we don’t get the Shanghai skyline’s modern mystique or the natural beauty of Scotland as in Skyfall, the backdrops of MI6’s new headquarters, M’s apartment, Mathis’ villa and Bond and Fields’ hotel are effortlessly cool. In the case of the operahouse, too, Gassner’s forensic aesthetic helps create a real sense of menace, framing the ensuing shoot-out’s violence like meat on glimmering ice in a butcher’s shop. Quantum, the organisation whose meeting Bond disrupts here, is a superb creation – a kind of global capitalist, 21st century SPECTRE, manipulating world politics for the highest bidder. ‘We’ll supply the private security,’ Greene tells Medrano. ‘We’ll pay off the right officials, and we have twenty-six countries ready to recognise your new, official Bolivian government.’ Chilling indeed. With its boat chase, embattled lead woman, political corruption and gangsterism, and with Bond out of place in a deprived area, the film sometimes brings Live and Let Die to mind – it’s pretty good, too, seeing Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter caught up behind the scenes in shady manoeuvring.

Louise Frogley’s costuming often feels uninspired, particularly in the case of Craig, on whom wider ties and conservative-cut suits just don’t sit right (compare them, for example, to his narrow three-pieces in Skyfall). Bond’s clothes, however, are used to good effect – we see him start out in one outfit at Port au Prince, requisitioning a jacket when needed to cover a knife wound, fly to Austria thus dressed, scavenge for a dinner jacket in the opera’s laundry area, then switch back to his previous outfit keeping the dress shirt. These might seem like trivial details, but deployed in the film, they enhance the sense of a spy on the run, improvising with all resources available – somehow I’m more invested than I would be with Bond’s usual Barbarella wardrobe.

More and more, I’m convinced Quantum’s biggest flaws are in its first few minutes. The opening shot, gliding across Lake Garda to David Arnold’s throbbing strings, has a real air of menace, but the car chase it introduces feels perfunctory and empty. (And why, additionally, has Bond paused to remove his waistcoat since the end of Casino Royale, supposedly only minutes earlier?) ‘Another Way To Die’, the much-loathed theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, has greatly grown on me since I first heard it – White’s lyrics and the shrieking, orgasmic guitars of the middle eight blend passion and danger as only Bond can, and the composition hangs more elegantly together than I thought – but the recut three-minute version used for the opening titles does the song no justice, and I wish Arnold had been in charge of its brass and horn sections. Again, the titles should have played after a moment more dramatic than a car’s boot being opened, and Forster’s freeze frame feels distinctly wrong, but while on seeing the film I wished Daniel Kleinman’s chunky graphics from Royale had returned, I’ve come to admire the sequence’s motifs – Bond roaming the desert, gun pointed in every direction, shadowy female forms rising from the sand.

Both films’ theme songs, in the end, epitomise them: where Skyfall was stylish and classic but sometimes slipped from homage to pastiche, Quantum initially felt crude and structureless, too seemingly reliant on percussion, but improves on repeated encounter. Maybe it wasn’t a Royale flush, but if you loathed it in the cinema five years back and haven’t seen it again since, give it another chance – you might find it’s better than you remember.

See also: Bonding with history - Skyfall‘s postmodern 007

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Comments

  1. kyoseki says

    It’s definitely the weakest of the three latest films (though not even close to the worst Bond movie out there), lacking in overarching structure & story arc, but at least it doesn’t have the eye rollingly cliched plot point of plugging the evil super programmer villain’s computer into the same security network that for some reason also controls the jail cell doors.

    I think it’s biggest weakness is that it’s largely forgettable, there really isn’t anything specific that comes to mind as a defining moment when one recalls the film.

  2. says

    Yes, I’d largely agree. It’s just that it’s remembered often as a terrible, franchise-sinking disaster. It’s not a disaster – it isn’t great, but it’s quite good. Had it come after Die Another Day and not Casino Royale, I think it would have been appreciated.

  3. says

    I hadn’t thought about the fact Quantum came during the writer’s strike. Personally, I thought it was an OK Bond film, but to be fair, I haven’t seen it in a few years. Sounds like I need to go back and watch it again.

    Skyfall bothered me more as a Bond film. I felt there were far too many plot holes for a proper Bond movie. Overall, aside from some Connery throwbacks (the 1969 Aston Martin, I cried when they blew that up) I felt that it was a medium-to-decent action film that had Bond and M grafted onto it.

  4. says

    The most damning thing I can say about Quantum of Solace is that I’ve seen it at least three times, and I can’t remember much of anything about it. The movie slides off my brain like cinematic teflon. After my last viewing, the oil theme did stick with me, leaving me with memories of the Goldfinger-esque death and the guy left in the desert with the oil can, but before that? Every time I thought I remembered something from Quantum of Solace, it turned out to have been from Casino Royale.

    For me, I think, that really pegs its place in the Bond canon. Not a stinker like Die Another Day or Moonraker, but a completely forgettable one. Like Never Say Never Again (which, similarly, I remember nothing about except the electro-shock video game).

    Also, welcome to FTB :).

  5. says

    Thank you! And yes, I think that’s mostly true. It’s a shame the things it gets right are isolated features, while the whole never quite comes together.

  6. ttch says

    Regarding the writer’s strike affecting Quantum, it also noticeably hurt the Star Trek reboot. How the hell do these multi-million dollar productions get anywhere near a sound stage without a top-level script already “in the can”, so to speak? Are the directors all “auteurs” who insist on rewrites for the next day’s shoot so nobody bothers doing it right in the first place?

  7. voidhawk says

    I think Tom Foss has it nailed. I remember nothing about it apart from a vague sense of disapointment.

  8. says

    I was genuinely surprised to see people harshing on Quantum of Solace; I had enjoyed it at the cinema and again on home viewing. In my internal reckoning, it’s not as good as the instalments just before and after, but it stacks up favourably compared to all the Brosnan Bonds. I’d put it roughly on par with GoldenEye, the best of Brosnan’s, though the different positions those two movies occupy on the gritty/fantastical spectrum make it a tricky comparison. One way to phrase it might be the following: I’d be as happy to watch Quantum as I would GoldenEye, but the one I’d prefer to watch on any given rainy afternoon would depend on my mood.

    (Sort-of apropos: one reason why I gave up on Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies after the first two was their inability to choose a happy spot on the gritty/fantastical spectrum, or to coherently and inventively combine elements from different regions of it. Everything about Batman Begins screamed, “Grit! Grit! Darker! Edgier! Realism! Look at us, we’re justifying where Batman’s cool toys all come from, because realism! Take our movie seriously!” And then, hey presto, magic teakettle of doom. Hi there, device which makes water evaporate explosively without any ill effects on human beings standing in the same room. Mandrake, something has corrupted this movie’s precious bodily fluids. The same goes for the “forensics” and the Bat-Sonar in The Dark Knight—they’re all tricks which could work, or come closer to working, in a movie with a different tone.)

  9. says

    I actually liked Into Darkness a little better than Star Trek on a few levels. Maybe the writers strike explains some of the hideously bad science fiction moments in the first film (I mean seriously, hiring Harlan Ellison to give your script a once over and point out that a supernova won’t threaten a galaxy would cost peanuts compared to the rest of the films budget.)

    I liked that QoS picked up mere minutes after Casino Royale, in many ways the film is so action packed and paced so frantically because its essentially the 90 minute fourth act of the first movie.

  10. left0ver1under says

    For such a long examination of one movie, I’m surprised there’s no mention of the heavy-handed use of a heavily political theme in QoS, that of water and attempts to control it for profit (vis-a-vis Bolivia, Mexico, the US, England, and many other countries). This is just one article on the topic, plenty of others can be found:

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/11/1105_041105_barlow_water.html

    Most political topics in Bond movies are “create and solve a problem” within the bounds of real world politics, thus not claiming to have really caused or solved anything (re: cold war movies, North Korea). And in others, it’s outright ludicrous fantasy (re: Moonraker). QoS actually does address an ongoing problem and suggest something that might happen in the real world – or in the case of Bolivia, has already been tried. That sets it apart from all the others.

  11. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Wait – Diamonds Are Forever? It’s the perfect ridiculously hilarious Bond movie. Moonraker is the only one amusing enough to get me to watch a Moore Bond film.

    Maybe we watch movies for completely different reasons. :)

  12. says

    As a fan, I like all the Bonds in some way or another – even Moonraker and Die Another Day and The Man with the Golden Gun. They weren’t great films, but they weren’t ever boring either – they had drama and scope and a huge sense of fun.

    Diamonds Are Forever just… wasn’t.

  13. says

    I have a friend whose favorite Bond film is Moonraker. I compare it to “Under Wraps” being ones favorite Jethro Tull Album. In many ways Moonraker was the epitome of Roger Moores take on Bond. Everything about the movie is over the top silly to me. The redemption of Jaws at the end (due to the love of a good woman no less) was just the lowest the Bond franchise ever fell.

  14. rory says

    I think what I liked best about ‘Quantum’ was its sense of continuity with the previous film. Craig really sold me on the idea of a Bond who lost someone he loved and is struggling to come to terms with it. By the end of the film he’s more or less made peace with what happened to Vesper and he’s done his best to punish those responsible. Contrast this with the throwaway opening sequence of (I think it was) ‘Live and Let Die’ where Bond visits his wife’s grave and then stops off on the way home to drop Blofeld down a factory smokestack.

    Welcome to FTB!

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