[Ed. Note: This is the first part of a series that will run every two weeks in this slot and examine each of the James Bond films individually. Many, many thanks to Lawrence for agreeing to take this on, but after reading his defense of “Quantum” I had to ask — JN]
Certain movies take a second viewing to really appreciate their depth. Such is the case with Quantum of Solace, the under appreciated second film to star Daniel Craig as James Bond. I initially had a lukewarm reaction to the movie. I wasn’t crazy about the story or the surprisingly short length (99 minutes, compared to 120 or more for most Bond adventures), I felt the editing was choppy, and the climax predictable. Critics felt that, as the second in a trilogy, is was merely marking time, and I felt the same. Ugh, and that title!
I watched it again on Blu-Ray and I’m pleased to say that the film has a lot more to it than meets the eye. Some may argue that if a film doesn’t have the intended impact on its first go-round that it hasn’t succeeded, period. I disagree. Every time a viewer watches a movie, the circumstances differ while the film remains a constant. Therefore, the viewing experience will differ. The degree of change depend upon which variables are altered. In my case, it was mostly the transition from movie theatre to home theatre.
I think what both I and critics missed on a first viewing, is that Quantum is a revenge film. Audiences simply aren’t used to this theme in a Bond film, save License To Kill, an under-appreciated offering with Timothy Dalton’s Bond from 1989 that also starred Big Hollywood’s own Robert Davi. However, Quantum is most definitely a Bond film, one that simultaneously deepens our understanding of the character in both an immediate and historical context.
The big difference between Quantum and Casino Royale, and their predecessors is a focus on character more than plot. The central relationship concerns the issue of trust between Bond and M, who must wrangle the talented but explosively unpredictable agent.
Viewers of Casino Royale will recall that Bond fell in love with Vesper Lynd, who was forced to betray Bond to save her boyfriend. She was being blackmailed by the mysterious entity we still only know as QUANTUM, but which is likely to be revealed as a modern-day version of SPECTRE. Vesper kills herself at the end of the movie, and while Bond is shaken, we don’t see how deeply this set of events has wounded him until Quantum of Solace. Remember that Quantum picks up immediately following the end of Casino Royale, so we have not seen Bond process Vesper’s death.
In the scene where Bond delivers Mr. White to M in Siena, there is a brief exchange that sets up Bond’s motivation and actions for the entire film, and presses the trust issue (begins at 2:10):
M: “I need to know that I can trust you.”
Bond: “You don’t?”
M: “You’d have to be a pretty cold bastard not to want revenge for the death of someone he loved.”
Bond: “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m not going to go chasing him. He’s not important. And neither was she.”
Watch Craig’s delivery. He is angry at the professional affront, but the subtext is that Vesper was important to him, but there’s no way he’ll admit it.
From then on, every step of the way, Bond kills everyone that might offer a lead, just as he did in Royale. After being told by the Prime Minister to pull Bond in because he’s “running wild”, M confronts the agent (begins 5:22):
Bond: “I’m disappointed.”
M: “You are?”
Bond: “How much oil did the Americans promise you?”
M: “This isn’t about oil.”
Bond: “That’s good. Because there isn’t any.”
M: “It’s about trust. You said you weren’t motivated by revenge”
Bond: “I’m motivated by my duty.”
M: “I think you’re so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don’t care who you hurt When you can’t tell your friends from your enemies, it’s time to get out.”
And, indeed, Bond learns he has mistakenly killed a member of Special Branch at the gala. This scene is capped with his discovery of Fields’ body (in an homage to Goldfinger) – an innocent sent to round up Bond, who he routinely and oh-so-casually seduced simply to keep her out of his way.
The death of Fields and the Special Branch agent are the primary motivators that alter Bond’s quest for revenge. Add in the death of Mathis, and Camille’s confession that her revenge killing of the General did not bring her solace, and Bond has learned his lesson. This revelation translates into action. Bond does not kill Vesper’s duplicitous boyfriend when he finds him, instead turning him over to M.I.6. He admits to M that she was right, and then leaves Vesper’s necklace in the snow. He has found his quantum of solace.
There is also considerable depth afforded to Camille’s character, a direct assault on the expectations we have of a traditional Bond girl. She expresses the emotions which both she and Bond carry, but which Bond represses. There is also some solid emotional heft associated with Bond’s discovery of Mathis’ execution.
Emotional moments are not hallmarks of Bond films. I suspect detractors were caught off-guard and rejected it because it didn’t conform to their expectations.
Action and Editing
The action scenes and editing are unsettling on a first viewing, particularly the first two sequences. Dan Bradley was hired as the second unit director, who also did second unit on the last two Bourne films. These films began the trend of shooting and editing action scenes in extremely clipped form, making it impossible to discern the scene’s geography. The stylistic intent was to immerse the audience in what the experience would truly feel like. While an admirable experiment, this approach has always frustrated me. Part of the enjoyment of a great action sequence is to marvel at its very execution. Recall the car chases in Frankenheimer’s Ronin. These are, I believe, the best car chases put on film, with crystal clear geography, extraordinary choreography and no CGI:
The opening chase sequence in Quantum is thrilling, but there are significant geography problems for portions of it. I will say, however, that the entrance into the scene is unique and compelling. As the music builds, the film cuts between Bond and the villains, visually deconstructing what we are about to see in full – eyes, a ream of bullets, tires turning, shadows and light flickering across each shot — before the editor slams us into the action amidst roaring engines and gunfire:
The second action sequence – Bond chasing M’s bodyguard Mitchell – initially suffers from the same clipped editing and confusing geography. However, in a throwback to earlier Hollywood style, the scene is cleverly crosscut with a running of Palio di Siena, a biannual horserace, providing an aesthetically pleasing visual correlative to the footchase. The two scenes then literally collide, as they should, as both men emerge from a manhole in the crowd and the chase continues outdoors. From this point onward, the sequence’s geography stabilizes.
The subsequent pursuit across the rooftops is daring, thrilling, and more importantly, shows the cold determination of Bond. He takes a physical beating in this scene, which climaxes inside a building under construction. Then there is a clever foreshadowing and visual correlative as the men race up a flight of stairs, knocking aside an old woman, causing her to loose her grip on a rope pulley – sending a basket of cherries crashing to the ground. Moments later, the two men themselves are on a rope pulley, swinging back and forth, crashing into the sides and ceilings of the construction site. Viewers are also treated to Bond’s (and the writer’s) intelligence just before – as he chases Mitchell to the top of a bell tower. Bond yanks the bell rope, sounding the chimes loudly so as to cover his entrance into the tower. This kind of subtle character moment is easily lost on the inattentive viewer
However, a second viewing of the film allows one to follow the geography of these scenes more closely, and I felt a greater appreciation for their execution and choreography. Take notice also of David Arnold’s score. Although it cuts back significantly on the James Bond Theme, the composition is just perfect for the action – underlining the tension without being on the nose, tossing in the appropriate riffs at particularly daring moments, and relying heavily on horns as Bond movies are wont to do.
Interestingly, the remaining set pieces provide much greater geographical clarity. I’m mystified as to why this is the case, but the film is immensely aided by it, particularly during the dogfight sequence.
Comparisons Are Inevitable
Viewers will inevitably compare Quantum to previous Bond films. I find comparisons problematic because the films have been around for 40 years, the series has shifted among six lead actors, and across significant changes in cinematic aesthetics.
For viewers longing for the traditional Bond trappings involving Q, gadgets, cackling villains utilizing sci-fi technology, and eccentric nemeses like Jaws, let me suggest that they have become anachronistic. Bond films were always one step ahead of the latest cinematic innovations – whether they be stunts or special effects. Now, however, every film seems intent on pushing the envelope. How can Bond compete with Avatar? To survive, the Bond series had to reinvent itself just as Star Trek did.
Rather than go bigger – how much bigger can you get than a car driving through a melting ice mansion? — the logical choice was to strip Bond down to its essence. The innovations had to be in character, not in special effects or stunts. This makes perfect sense, given that Bond had previously been more about characterization than character. Short of seeing Bond’s vulnerability in his doomed love affair with Diana RIgg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, or with Sophie Marceau in The World Is Not Enough (a direct homage to the former), he is presented more as icon than human.
Given the shift in action (and horror) film aesthetics towards presenting material more realistically, and that the reboot’s intent is to examine how Bond developed into the more iconic character we know and love, the new milieu is entirely appropriate. We would naturally expect him to be rough around the edges and undisciplined. That approach alone calls for a removal of the expected Bondian elements.
Those critics who claim that Bond is barely Bond in Quantum, but instead a more generic action hero, miss this point entirely. Their expectations sabotage their enjoyment of the film on its own terms – terms that are perfectly logical and innovative.
I hope viewers and critics will give Quantum of Solace a second look. It is not a perfect film, but it is a darn fine one that is more deserving of praise than has been presently heaped upon it.