For the Defense: Quantum of Solace

The wonderful Spectre announcement poster.  Excellent use of the old Spectre logo.

This Thursday last gave us the welcome announcement of the title and cast for the 24th James Bond film, Spectre.  Personally, I was delighted.  The cast is pretty impressive, Daniel Craig is back as Bond, as are Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, Andrew Scott (much to the delight of my friend Julia) joins as new MI6 chap Denbigh.  The new additions are probably even more so, ok we'll leave Dave Batista to one side and get into the proper actors, Christoph Waltz as main baddie Oberhauser (possibly Blofeld, we'll wait and see), the lovely Lea Seydoux, niece of Jodorowsky's produce Michel and star of Blue is the Warmest Colour, as Madeleine Swann and, by far the biggest and best part of the announcement, Monica Bellucci as Lucia Sciarra.  Frankly, if Monica kills Bond at the end I'd be happy, Ms Bellucci can do no wrong in my eyes.  I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of Wim Wender's wonderful Paris, Texas at the BFI about six months back with Bond's current director Sam Mendes introducing the film that made him want to direct.  After chatting about the haunting Paris, Texas, and the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory musical he directed in the West End (it is great by the way, I took Ellie to see it when it opened and we thoroughly enjoyed it), Mendes briefly spoke about Bond 24 and stated that nothing would happen until the story was right, "We sink or swim on the story.  If we get it wrong, we are swimming in shit."  Those are strong words coming off the back of Skyfall which was great fun, if very uneven in a lot of places.  Coupled to the big Spectre news, last night came the news that Jesper Christensen, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace's Mr White, is returning for Spectre.  So, with that, we return to the snares of the mysterious Quantum from the first two Craig era Bond's and back to the thorny question of Quantum of Solace.  This post is really based upon the following review by Mark Kermode on the Radio 5 Live show he does with Simon Mayo on a Friday afternoon.  Back in 2008 when Quantum of Solace came out, well, they both hated it and have, in the ensuing six years, repeatedly stated how much they dislike it.  So here is the review:  

So, let us offer a riposte to the Wittertainment grandees about Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace.  Let's get this out of the way first, is it a perfect film?  No, not by a long way, it has all the hallmarks of a film made during the Writer's Strike.  Creative decisions that were locked in at a script stage were forced into the film and the result is uneven and not as smooth as the preceding Casino Royale (despite it's bloated running time).  But looking at it as you should, as a pure Bond movie, it harks closer to Fleming's Bond than to the more commonly known EON Bond.  Fleming ended Casino Royale with the immortal phrase, "Yes, dammit, I said "was".  The bitch is dead now."  Bond then moves on to become the heartless, womanising assassin we know and love.  That is until On Her Majesty's Secret Service when Bond falls for and marry's the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, the daughter of a Corsican mobster and "patient" at Blofeld's Alp top psychiatric retreat.  Following Tracy's murder by Blofeld (Bond's final words to his dead wife became the greatest song ever used in a Bond film, Louis Armstrong's We Have All The Time In The World), Bond tracks Blofeld down in Japan in You Only Live Twice (great, great Bond film that one), leading to a wonderful confrontation in M's office at the beginning of The Man With The Golden Gun were a brain-washed Bond tries to kill M.  This is my point, the Bond on the hunt in You Only Live Twice, is the Bond we have at the end of Martin Campbell's Casino Royale.  The Bond we get in Quantum of Solace is the same Bond that is ravaged by Tracy's death, only transposed onto Vesper, contrary to Fleming's ideal.  But the Bond, pulling the threads of the mystery to get to his revenge are the same.  We get the same Bond we get in the much maligned Licence to Kill, a Bond working to his own rules to get the justice he feels is required.  At the end of Casino Royale, Bond captures White to get his answers, but Quantum of Solace opens with a much bigger question, one M wants him to unravel.  Bond, traumatised by Vesper's death and now the attempt on the one stable influence in his life, M, he spirals faster and faster out of control, until his actions lead him back to Vesper, in the shape of Mathis.

Bond films, the ones considered "good Bond", mostly follow the same four point format:

  1. The Pre-credit Tease - Usually an action sequence setting the story in motion.
  2. The Briefing - Bond's mission as envisioned by M and the collection of gadgets, car and Walther.
  3. The Turn - Where what Bond, MI6 and us is expecting turns out to be something entirely different.
  4. The Prestige (to steal a line from Christopher Priest) - Where Bond, on his own, defeats the bad guy using an unorthodox approach, big explosion, gets the girl and we end with a pithy one-liner.

So what happens in Quantum of Solace is that we get a part 1 that opens with a brilliant car chase that results in the unforgivable destruction of two beautiful Alfa Romeo 159's and, post song and opening credits, the start of The Briefing.  But what is clever is, before White tells us much at all, the rug is whipped out from under our heroes, and us, and we do not know which direction the film will take from here.  We watch Bond films from Bond's perspective.  We have a traumatised and damaged Bond and as such, we are seeing those effects on the screen.  We see him remorselessly hunt down his leads and killing them, grasping at the threads left to him, trying to get closer to Quantum, to the man that made Vesper turn on him.  This is the element of the film that so appeals to me.  We see a man, crossed and left helpless by the events of Casino Royale, raging to get control again and failing, until he links up with the man he betrayed for Vesper, Mathis.  The scenes with Giancarlo Giannini's Rene Mathis are the heart of the film.  Mathis is the only man who truly understands Bond, where he is and tries to get him to release the pain he holds for Vesper and the anger at himself for not seeing what was in front of him.  It is Mathis' empathy that starts to cool Bond's anger and then the realisation that he has caused the death of another friend is what finally quenches that anger, "Do we forgive each other?".  That final discussion between Mathis and Bond, with Mathis slowly ebbing away from his friend, is my favorite in the film.  The beat where Camille asks Bond "Is that how you treat your friends?" is beautifully acted by Craig, the pained looked on his face is simple and explains everything.  The question, the death of another friend, is what he is doing right?  The death of Gemma Arterton's Fields is a direct reflection of the same scene in Casino Royale, where M confronts Bond over the death of Solange.  "How many is that now?" M asks Bond, but its again the look, the acting beat that Craig gives to show that this is different, which is reflected the next confrontation with M after he escapes.  Here he commends Fields and knows that he needs to rely on more than himself, M gives him her tacit blessing and like turning to Mathis, Bond turns to Leiter (the always brilliant Jeffrey Wright) to get the help he needs.  As the film progresses, Bond is softening with each encounter and each loss.  By the time Camille and Bond lie in wait for Greene at the hotel, we have our Bond back.  The advice on a personal kill to Camille, the woman who has more right for revenge than Bond, is what we expect of him and not what we've been seeing.  The final act, the belated Prestige of Quantum of Solace, is a straight forward Bond action sequence.  The bad guys show their colours, Bond extracts his revenge for Mathis and yet, when taunted by Greene that "you've lost another one", after the shot they both think is the end of Camille, the redemption of our Bond is complete, he pulls Greene to safety before going to find Camille.  The final sequence following their escape, the aftermath of the Greene interrogation and the tin of oil, are brilliant, showing us Bond is back to the Bond we know.  When we finally see Bond get to the man who turned Vesper, and who is currently turning Castle's Stana Katic, we glimpse the rage that has fueled our hero in the film and we get a mirror of the opening scene of Casino Royale, Bond waiting in a darkened room.  The rage is tempered when he sees it all happening again with another woman, one he can save before it is too late.  When M says she needs Bond back and he responds that he never left, he is and we are back where we should be, where we expect.  Casting Vesper's gordian knot cast into the snow is Bond overcoming the tie that bound him, as did Alexander, slicing it asunder.

Quantum of Solace suffers from problems throughout its short 106 minutes that it is on our screens.  It's biggest problem is people's expectations.  The fact that it is not another Casino Royal, or Skyfall for that matter, is what makes it a good Bond film.  That we are left grasping for answers along with our hero is what we should strive for in cinema, to be taken on a journey we are not expecting and to see our hero's redemption.  The Bond Fleming wrote is the Bond we see in Quantum of Solace.  Here we have a Bond conflicted, lost and clinging to a duty of which even he is unsure.  In Quantum of Solace we see a Bond that gradually returns to the EON Bond, one that is front and centre in the equally flawed, if better received, Skyfall (see here for why Skyfall is a mess).  Personally, I feel the Bond in Skyfall is a petulant brat (he has always known he is expendable, "Double O's have a short life expectancy", so why is he such a child when M gambles with his life?) and the forced turns to get in as much nostalgia as possible before we get to the conclusion, hamper and bloat the film considerably.  In Quantum of Solace, we have the rug pulled from under us and we struggle to get up, as does Bond.  By the end, we are back and we are ready to be tasked by M again.

Quantum of Solace - What's Right?

  • The unfamiliarity.  The fact that, from the outset, we are taken from our Bond comfort zone and cast headlong into the chase.
  • The pacing.  We never slow, Bond and us never get to pause, until Mathis.
  • The defused, almost matt-effect of the colour palette.  I love how the film looks, it is bright, yet missing it's sheen.  Its our Bond, but yet at the same time, not.
  • The Tom Ford wardrobe.  It is without doubt the best dressed Bond yet seen on screen.  The Skyfall Tom Ford suits are poor until the final scene, the Macau tux an exception.

Quantum of Solace - What's Wrong?

  • The second chase.  The Sienna rooftop case is too long and the dangling rope bit at the end is ridiculous. 
  • The fights are too Bourne.  While Casino Royale rightly took aspects from the Bourne films in the update, the constant stream of baddies in QoS during the visceral nature of the pursuit, the Bourne-esqe take downs, distracted from Bond, who as the late, great, Roger Ebert rightly put it, isn't that sort of action hero.
  • The script.  While getting the basics right, the misdirection at the beginning, the damaged Bond, it needed more polish and the removal of a few of the rougher edges around the Haiti scenes, Camille's characterisation and the jumpiness of the transitions between scenes.
  • The Final Act Fight.  It didn't need the direct fight with Greene.  At no point in the film is Greene a fighter, he is the brains, as far as we know so far, for Quantum.  He has people for the dirty work.  The fight should have been to get to him and then save him, not the silliness with the axe.
  • Quantum of Solace gave us the surly, petulant Bond we have in Skyfall.  While Skyfall is better scripted and plotted, the redeemed Bond at the end of Quantum of Solace becomes a wingey child for the first two acts of Skyfall and it distracts from the better bits.  He forgets he is a tool, a blunt instrument and that is a pity.  If I was M, I would have shot him too.