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What the hell is this organisation, Bond?

Quantum of Solace
(2008)

(SPOILERS) Way to throw all Martin Campbell’s good work under a bus, Marc Forster. Quantum of Solace isn’t a Bond movie that turns bad, the way Die Another Day turns bad, although its action sequences set a new standard for lousy incoherence, but it’s utterly banal, lacking drive or momentum in a similarly manner to earlier Bond-out-for-revenge escapade Licence to Kill. The entire enterprise feels like the makers are fulfilling an obligation to continue their story directly from Casino Royale, rather than actually having one to tell. At every turn the finished picture is bereft of the inventiveness and freshness that informed its predecessor.


The cardinal culprit in this, understandably, has been identified as Forster. The kudos he received for dramas Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland likely attracted Eon to him as a guy who could provide Bond with the (now) prerequisite character beats demanded by the series. Forster fails even at that, though, and worse, he ensures the action is borderline incomprehensible. As an overt statement of his intentions, he brought in Dan Bradley, of Bourne fame, to handle the stunt work, and then proceeded to follow the Paul Greengrass route of making everything handheld; Quantum is brimming with shaky cam. Alas, Greengrass is one of the few purveyors of such an approach who actually knows what he is doing, and Forster seems to think a whole lot of cutting is a worthwhile replacement for any sense of geography during action sequences.


His set pieces make you long for the stately indifference of Michael Apted, which is saying something (Roger Michell had been approached, having worked with Craig before, and one can guess that the results would have been not dissimilar to Apted’s effort, with evident joins between first and second units). The picture opens on a car chase, a very grubby one (there’s a lot of grime in this movie), as Bond ferries Mr White to be interrogated. But, for a car chase to be edge-of-seat, you need to be able to see what is going on, and what our hero is trying to achieve. Instead, all is confusion. 


Not long after, Bond pursues Mitchell, M’s Quantum-planted bodyguard, through buildings and over rooftops. The location is great, the stunt work is often stunning, but there’s no intensity or excitement to the sequence. Bizarrely, Forster sets up a horse race the chase will intrude upon so far in advance that it all-but becomes a visual non sequitur.


Suggestive of pseudishness at the expense of technical or dramatic aptitude, Forster elected that the action sequences should be based around earth, water, air and fire. If only such fancy bollocks had resulted in anything instructive. There’s a bit where Bond rams into a boat, and another bit in a plane that ends with some CGI freefalling (I thought they intended to put an end to overtly CGI-d action sequences; it didn’t last long). Then there’s blowing up the (strikingly designed) hotel at the end, a numbing series of explosions laced with rudimentary intercutting between protagonists facing down their respective foes.


James Bond: Can I offer a suggestion? I really think you people should find a better place to meet.

That’s not to say everything here is a washout. The surveillance scene at the performance of Tosca, as Bond announces his presence to the attending members of Quantum, is quite neat. Unfortunately, straight after, Forster, with his usual scrappy visuals, squanders the opportunity for a striking action sequence set to operatic strains. It should come as no shock that Stuart Baird didn’t handle the editing; it was Forster regular Matt Chesse and – perhaps surprisingly, but I guess you need the raw material to work with in the first place – Greengrass guy Rick Pearson.


Notably, Quantum is the shortest Bond movie (its nearest contenders are all ‘60s efforts). This was intentional on Forster’s part, who rightly felt Casino Royale was too long (quite unnecessarily, three of Craig’s entries have been the longest three in the franchise), but even at close to 40 minutes shorter than its predecessor, Quantum frequently feels like a chore.


All that said about the execution, the script is also complete botch. The idea of basing the villain’s plan around water came from Michael G Wilson, presumably keen to show he also had some creative thoughts after Babs came up with the main driver for The World is Not Enough. Wade and Purvis provided their customary draft, rewritten by Paul Haggis and then further rewritten by Haggis, Wilson and Forster, the former competing this latest draft just before the writer’s strike struck. Not that what they had looks halfway decent even in terms of bare bones, but this left Craig and Forster stuck peforming rewrites during filming (Craig has said it was never meant to be as much of a sequel as it turned out). Post-strike, Forster hired Joshua Zetumer to rework scenes he was still unhappy with, evidently to little avail.


As for the title, I don’t actually mind it (“The something of Boris - what can it mean?” as wags Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish sang), but expanding it into a double meaning (it isn’t only the emotional state Bond is seeking post-Vesper’s death, it’s also the name of a nefarious group none of the secret services anywhere have hitherto heard of) is too much; “No honestly, the title is relevant”.


I noted of Casino that I didn’t really buy into Craig’s Bond’s besottedness with Vesper, and Quantum does nothing to sell that point. I was similarly unconvinced by Dalton’s revenge mission in response to Felix Leiter’s shark-infested leg in Licence to Kill. The one that would have made sense never happened, as Lazenby opted not to track down Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever and the idea ended up as a bit of a fiddle in For Your Eyes Only. We are told that Bond here is filled with “inconsolable rage”, but aside from bags around the eyes I’m not quite getting that sense from him.


This is Bond going through the motions, meaning the nominal “purpose” behind his behaviour feels even less effective than it would in a humdrum context. That rousing final scene of Casino Royale is telegraphed into a movie stocked with a resolutely dull Bond girl whose agenda packs none of the power it might (conceivably) have had on paper. Olga Kurylenko is Camille, a Bolivian agent out to revenge herself (more revenge!) on Joaquin Cosio’s General Medrano, who murdered her father and did horrible things to her mother and sister – can’t Bond say rape? – before strangling them. When her final confrontation comes it is, like the rest of the climax, plain tiresome.


There are a few notable brushes with humour, which help the jagged little pill go down; Bond’s response when Camille threatens him with a gun and he exits her car (“That wasn’t very nice”), and his remarked upon habit of killing, Bourne-style, anyone he’s suppose to capture and sweat for information. But the narrative, after the clear lines in Casino, has reverted to sketchy business where Bond goes to the next location for something-something reasons you’re encouraged not to care about. When you aren’t invested in why he’s doing something, it’s best to make sure what he’s doing is actually engaging.


Along the way, 007 gets poor old returning Mathis (Giancarlo Gianinini) killed, apparently by purposefully using him as a human shield (difficult to claim it was just an accident), so Craig at least has his own era’s Robbie Coltrane in dumping a sympathetic character in the most unsympathetic of manners. He then throws him in a dumpster, because “He wouldn’t care”; the moment Bond spends holding the expiring Mathis might have gone some way to make up for this, if the old boy wasn’t forced to spend his dying moments administering advice to Bond regarding his quest (“Forgive her. Forgive yourself”).  


It’s the gathering of the characters Campbell chose around the edges of Quantum that provide most of its meagre bright spots. The main thrust is pretty inert, and unfortunately Craig is mostly unable to carry the burden unsupported. He becomes just another rugged action hero. So, aside from Matthis, the return of Mr White is very welcome, particularly his superior laugh, though tied up (“You really don’t know anything about us. Truth is, you don’t even know we exist”). And the immediate reveal of Mitchell (Glenn Foster) as a bad seed is about as surprising as the picture gets; a shame it’s so early on.


This is also the first appearance of Rory Kinnear as straight-edger Bill Tanner, previously essayed by Michael Kitchen, while Tim Piggott-Smith gets a solid scene as the Secretary of State, speculating over the latest explanation for 007’s behaviour (“What’s today’s excuse? That Bond is legally blind?”)


James Bond: We are teachers on sabbatical. And we have just won the lottery.

I have a feeling Gemma Arterton’s Strawberry Fields wasn’t best received by those keen on a gritty Craig Bond, but her performance is a breath of fresh air in otherwise arid terrain. She’s far more engaging in a couple of scenes than Kurylenko is the entire movie, and her posh totty performance is good fun (“Oh gosh, I’m so sorry” she scatterbrains after intentionally tripping up a goon in hot pursuit of Bond). Again, like Matthias, her fate is down to the producers failing to recognise a good thing when they see it, and covering her in oil, rather than gold, is a cheap gag no matter how fancily dressed up (Forster would have us see it as a signifier of oil taking precedence over gold in globa importance).


Jeffrey Wright’s return as Felix Leiter is also very welcome, and it’s a shame his effortlessly cool incarnation has sat out the rest of the Craig era. Wright rightly acts like he’s the main character in his scenes, be it sitting quietly in flight while his loud-mouthed colleague Beam (David Harbour, moustachioed and effortlessly sleazy) does all the talking to contact/villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric), or meeting Bond at a bar and informing him he has 30 seconds to make himself scarce before back-up arrives.


M: Bond, I need you back.
James Bond: I never left.

Alas, Grand Dame Judi Dench has been manoeuvred ever closer to the heart of matters Bond, popping up on location for scant reason and required to double back on herself in motivation; one moment M’s having 007 arrested, the next, on the meagrest of pretexts, Bond has her blessing to bring the villain to book. Somehow the arc thrown up at the beginning (“I need to know I can trust you”), although it scarcely deserves to be labelled as such, is complete. The irony is, as irritating as the preponderance of M has become, in this picture pretty much every scene Bond isn’t in is more interesting than ones he is.


So Bond is pretty much just doing the standard no-frills thing of following the bad guy around and rescuing the girl (twice, despite her supposedly being an agent herself, and then having her turn to putty once she has disposed of the general). Greene occupies a similar villainous hierarchy to Le Chiffre in the Quantum/ Spectre organisation, but Almaric has none of the Mikkelsen’s creepy malignancy.


He’s also poorly written, allowing Camille to hang around despite having ordered her murder at the outset, suspecting her motives and witnessing her flagrantly undermining his business transactions. When it comes to the climax, and he sets on Bond with an iron bar, it’s the least convincing face-off in the entire series. The one strong takeaway (and it isn’t as if Almaric isn’t a fine actor, but we never once believe Greene has any real mettle or even determined psychosis) is the final scene in the desert, where Bond leaves him with a can of engine oil (“I bet you make it 20 miles before you consider drinking that”).


M: What the hell is this organisation, Bond?

What to make of Greene masquerading as an environmentalist? Really, it’s no different to a Bond villain pretending to be an altruist, and this was admittedly Forster’s point, referencing the shallow posturing of Shell and others who invoke the environment while destroying it, although Greene Planet is as unrefined as the double-edged title. 


The terrain etched out here does at least point the way to the multi-tentacled Illuminati conceit of Spectre, what with its figures placed at significant positions in governments, including “one of the PM’s closest advisors”. There are also repeated asides concerning the wilful amorality of Western governments, which would be more pointed if the picture as a whole was remotely astute. Beam mocks Leiter’s concerns over Greene (“Yeah, you’re right. We should just deal with nice people”), later echoed by the Secretary of State (“Say Greene is a villain. If we refused to do business with villains, we’d have almost no one to trade with”).


As for the general who wants his country back, it’s as if the makers are aware of exactly how interesting this plot thread is and put as little effort into it and Camille as possible, unless it directly involves Greene (threatening the general that, if he doesn’t sign over exclusive rights as Bolivia’s utility supplier of water, he will “wake up with your balls in your mouth, and your willing replacement standing over you”).


Likewise, when we reach the coda, with a wintry clime suggestive of Wesley Snipes at the end of Blade, Vesper’s apprehended Quantum boyfriend is entirely lacking as the target of Bond’s rage. It’s supposed to be a victory that 007 didn’t kill him (notable this, as Mendes sees Bond not killing Blofeld in Spectre as something ground-breaking), but by this point we long since don’t care about the bloody Vesper plot. Just get over her already.


Of course, Bond is working out on a limb for much of the proceedings, par for the course for his Bond, who cannot ally himself too closely to an inherently corrupt establishment. Casino did a far better job in this regard, showing Bond as an instrument of destruction while simultaneously pointing the finger at him. Unfortunately, it seems beyond later filmmakers to make points about the system without identifying with their protagonist, to the point of warping his purpose and motivation.


Along with so much that straight-up flounders, the titles from Forster regulars MK12 are determinedly unmemorable, featuring Craig and some flipping sand dunes. Also forgettable is the title song from Jack White and Alicia Keys, despite an arresting (but typically White) guitar riff. You’d be hard-pressed to recall David Arnold’s (final?) score for the 22nd entry in the series either.


Quantum of Solace filmed in Italy, Panama, Chile, and Austria, but rather than popping, the locations whizz by in a blur of over-cranked editing. It hit the $200m mark in budget, quite a feat for a picture that feels so resolutely unspectacular. Yet it inevitably made a hefty wedge of cash, although crucially not as much as its predecessor. The picture has since been generally recognised as a creative failure, victim of the two steps back thing that seems to get in the way of Bond playing a strong hand for consistent stretches. Despite its slender running time, Quantum of Solace as guilty as a Bond can be; of being a bore, something Forster’s excitable camerawork and editing only exacerbate.




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