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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2008)

22. Quantum of Solace

James Bond was back. “Casino Royale” was a critical and commercial success, the character successfully reinvented for a new generation, with a new style. As has typically been the case in the past, the success of a Bond debut meant a sequel quickly went into production. Taking its hideously awkward title from an obscure Ian Fleming short story, production was hampered by a writers’ strike and a quickly approaching release date. “Quantum of Solace” still cleaned up at the box office but didn’t make quite as much money as its predecessor. Moreover, the reviews were far more mixed compared to the rapturous reception of “Casino Royale.” Fans were even more vicious, some hyperbolically ranking “Quantum of Solace” as the worst Bond adventure yet. It’s not that bad but is it good?

James Bond is still mourning the betrayal and death of Vesper Lynd. Bond being Bond, he mourns by kicking ass. He tracks down Mr. White, Lynd’s mysterious contact, taking him back to MI-6. This reveals a shadowy, villainous covert organization called Quantum. Bond, full of rage and disobeying M’s orders, takes the fight to Quantum. Teaming up with a Bolivian woman with her own plans of revenge, 007 attempts to interrupt a Quantum plot to take tyrannical control of the water supply in South America.

The stylish, beautiful opening credits sequence was just one of many things I loved about “Casino Royale.” True to the film in general, “Quantum of Solace’s” opening is not as good as the previous film’s. A stylized version of Bond wanders through a desert, shooting his gun all over the place. He falls through the sand, haunted by images of beautiful, nude women. It’s sort of neat to have the naked dancers back. The titles are eye-catching and well-done. They’re just aren’t as cool as “Casino Royale’s.” As for the theme song, despite some valid attempts to do so, there was no way anyone could incorporate the film’s hilariously verbose title into a catchy song. Many Bond themes were R&B ballads. “Casino Royale” featured a hard rock number, a refreshing change of pace. “Quantum of Solace’s” opening, “Another Way to Die,” awkwardly fuses the two approaches. Jack White and Alicia Keyes duet on the song, White’s jangling guitars meshing with Keyes’ piano and soulful singing. The melody is decent but not especially smooth. The lyrics, at first, appear to be devoted to how much of a badass Bond is but eventually tie into the film’s themes of trust and betrayal. If this was a solo effort from White or Keyes, it probably would have been better. The two approaches feel a bit like water and oil.

“Quantum of Solace” is notable for being the first direct sequel in the series’ long history. “Casino Royale” ended with Bond capturing Mr. White. This film opens with Mr. White in Bond’s trunk, his car speeding away from the bad guys, literally minutes later. The main story, meanwhile, answers some of the questions the last film left unanswered. Who was Le Chiffre’s bosses? What is their master plan? How deep does this conspiracy go? “Quantum of Solace” follows up on some of these mysteries. When most Bond films are so episodic, it’s refreshing to have a film that directly follows one of the films. Considering this is a new Bond with a new approach, it’s a clever idea.

Speaking of that new approach… Last time, Daniel Craig’s James Bond was a cold-blooded killer learning how cold-blooded he had to be in this business. He was direct and focused but young and still learning. In "Quantum of Solace,” Bond goes bananas! At some point, it became a rule that every Bond actor needed a movie where the spy goes rogue, disobeying his superiors to get shit done. “Quantum of Solace” is that film for Craig. M criticizes Bond frequently for his tendency to kill people. She gets so pissed at him that she takes away his spy privileged, revoking his credit card and his travel visas. Because Judi Dench’s M is so maternal towards Bond, something this film references repeatedly, this comes off mostly like a stern mother disappointed in her willful child. As usually happens, MI-6 comes around to Bond once they realize that he gets results, damn it! However, it is interesting to see Bond at odds with his own organization and on his own.

Many people wonder what the hell that title means. Ian Fleming’s short story is one of those examples of an author wanting to tell a story outside his star franchise but unable to move pass it because of its success. So “The Quantum of Solace,” the story, was about James Bond hearing a sad story about relationships ending at a dinner party. You see, the quantum of solace refers to still having attachment to the balance of care in a relationship, defining the point where one person no longer cares about the other. The film, which is otherwise unrelated to Fleming’s text, takes this theme of lost, regret, and resolution. Bond is motivated completely by the pain he feels from Vesper Lynd’s death and betrayal. He is looking to pass his own quantum of solace, to resolve the hurt he feels. Throughout the film, he comes to terms with what Vesper did and, by helping someone else reach their revenge, finds an odd balance of his own. “Casino Royale” asked what does it take to turn a human into a heartless killing machine. “Quantum of Solace” asks about how such a decision can weigh on someone’s soul. It’s heady for a shoot-em-up, bang-bang movie.

For years, there continued to be legal issues with Kevin McClory and his estate. Because of this, the characters of Blofeld and his evil organization SPECTRE remained off-limits to the official Eon series. No longer content to have Bond fight a series of isolated mad men and criminals, the new series found a solution around this. Make up a new evil organization! Named Quantum, probably as another justification to go with that oblique title, they are the Illuminati of the Bond universe. With their fingers in everything, they are slowly plotting to totally take over the world’s resources. Their influence is such that M’s bodyguard of years is a Quantum agent. Their covertness is such that MI-6 is only now finding out about them. Quantum’s reach contributes to the film’s themes of Bond not knowing who to trust. It might not be SPECTRE but it still makes me happy to see James Bond fighting an evil terrorist organization.

Something I don’t like about "Quantum of Solace" is what exactly that evil organization is up to. Guess what? It’s another villainous scheme to control utility reverses! The film’s bad guy at first appears to be buying large swathes of Bolivian desert in hopes of striking oil. However, we soon discover that Quantum’s plan is to control the water supply of the country. This feeds into recent events in Bolivia as well as concerns that water will be the in-demand commodity of the future. At least the bad guys aren’t planning to blow something up, to give them monopoly. Instead, their plot involves simply buying up land, bribing governments, and reinstating dictatorships willing to support their plans. This does not make for the most compelling villainous plot.

Another weakness in “Quantum of Solace” is that bad guy. Last time, Mad Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre was a surprising human villain, full of nervous desperation. Craig’s second film was obviously looking to replicate this. Mathieu Amalric plays Dominic Greene. Greene’s runs a utility company called Greene Planet, that gives to charity and pretends to be “green” in order to mask his villainous endgame. Greene, however, is physically unintimidating. Amalric’s performance is weaselly and nasal. His most evil action is an attempts to push the Bond girl over the cliff, a pretty pathetic action. His army of henchmen do all the work. When faced with Bond, he grabs an axe, fidgets around, stabs himself in the foot, and stumbles off a platform. The interpretation of Le Chiffre as a nervous wreck was a fresh approach. “Quantum of Solace” goes too far in the same direction, creating a bad guy that is weak-willed and pathetic.

The film makes up for a lot with its main Bond girl. In his quest to avenge Vesper’s death, Bond makes the acquaintance of another woman. Camille Montes’ parents were brutalized and murdered by a vicious dictator before her home was burned down. She still carries the scars on her back. She now seeks her own revenge on the general, getting close to Greene to get close to him. Olga Kurylenko, though obviously not Hispanic, is great in the part. She exposes Camille’s wounded heart but will to fulfill her goal. Moreover, Kurylenko brings a great physically to the part. She’s as believable an action hero as Craig, getting into serious fights throughout the last act. Kurylenko is gorgeous too. There’s a secondary Bond girl, the cheekily named Strawberry Fields played by the lovely Gemma Arterton. Fields has some nice moments, such as tripping an random goon. She attempts to resists Bond’s charms but its no use. Though its fun to see Bond make another notch in his bed post, I wish Fields contribute more to the story before her death, as Arterton is charming.

Marc Foster’s direction was heavily criticized for being overly reliant on “shaky-cam,” that widely loathed cliché of modern action cinema. However, this was overstated. The action scenes are nowhere near as choppy as reported. The editing is fast. However, the action is never incoherent and the camera never jitters senselessly. As an action film, the movie seems pre-occupied with chase scenes. There’s a tense opening car chase, with Bond weaving through traffic, nearing crashing his car repeatedly, tossing enemy drivers off a cliff. Bond chases M’s dirty henchman over the rooftop of Italy. They run through the sewers, slide down roof tiles, and crash through windows. The conclusion, with the two men tangled in the ropes of a scaffolding, is an exciting, novel action scene. There’s a boat chase, which ends with the vehicle flipping through the air. There’s even a plane chase, Bond shifting through the air to avoid the other plane’s bullets. That scene is not the clearest constructed of the film but builds decently. However, the conclusion, of Craig and Kurylenko free-falling through a sinkhole, features some less-then-convincing CGI and green screen.

Compared to the 144-minute run time, “Quantum of Solace” runs at a brisk 106, making it the shortest of the Bond series. So before you know it, Bond and his female sidekick are infiltrating the enemy’s lair. The story is so condensed that Felix Leiter’s role is reduced to two scenes. And Bond doesn’t get captured and/or tortured, for the first time in the series’ history! The attack on the base has Bond dropping down on a roof, shooting through windows, and setting off a massive explosion. While the fight between Bond and Geene is a bit of a bummer; he doesn’t even kill the guy; the fight between Camille and the corrupt general is great. It helps that you’re so invested in her character. It’s an exciting sequence, with lots of action. Truthfully, because of its short run time and straight-ahead plot, “Quantum of Solace” is action-packed, with few slow scenes.

The film’s conclusion is emotional, Bond finally avenging Vesper’s death. With that, Bond’s origin story is finally complete. “Quantum of Solace” attempts some noble ideas, is successful as an action film, and has a strong Bond Girl. The story could have been better constructed and the main villain is disappointing. However, “Quantum of Solace’s” negative reputation is overstated. Mostly, I think the film was so badly received because its predecessor was so good. In comparison to the best James Bond movie ever, a solid mid-tier film like “Quantum of Solace” plays much worst. Taken on its own, it holds up decently and continues to show the strengths of Daniel Craig. [Grade: B]


[X] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[X] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux

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