Modicum of Spoilers:
As an aging Bond fan, one grows accustomed to disappointment. Most of us form attachments to the series as young’uns, and with each passing film, we come to recognize that the likelihood of recapturing the undistilled joy of those first Bondian experiences is increasingly remote. Whether its embodiment takes the form of the novels of Ian Fleming, the gleeful sadism of Sean Connery, the unflappability of Roger Moore’s eyebrows, the dour efficiency of Timothy Dalton, or the “Look Ma! I’m Bond!” serviceability of Pierce Brosnan, there’s no denying that, for James Bond, time and repetition are the enemies of narrative freshness.
So imagine our surprise when Casino Royale opened in 2006. It was easily the best entry in the series since – at least – 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it also had the distinct advantage of a credible leading man: Daniel Craig delivered Connery’s brawn and Dalton’s control, but he also made room for a slightly more complex emotional interior. In other words, he was allowed to get upset and crack jokes about ball-scratching.
The film was a huge success, yes, but it was also very, very good. Two years later, Craig returned for what was termed “a direct sequel” – an oddity in the franchise, insisted wags – which would confront the fallout of the previous adventure.
But Quantum of Solace, as it was called (named after an unrelated Fleming short story) was not nearly so well regarded. Easygoing as Bond fans often have to be, this adventure managed to strike a sour note. Some complained about a lack of story. Others felt the action scenes incomprehensible. Still others found the villain uninteresting and the villainous plot pedestrian, straining for real-world topicality and achieving only blandness; corporate control of water isn’t exactly diamond-studded satellites destroying NATO bases.
However, I suspect time will be kind to Quantum of Solace. While it’s true that the film does not have much of a plot, it mitigates this by largely skirting even the pretense of a plot. Casino Royale was a five-course meal, and Quantum director Marc Forster, knowing the audience would still feel full two years later, had the good sense to go his own way; his movie is as lean as its predecessor is packed, curt rather than expansive.
Daniel Craig remains terrific, still a rough diamond, still mostly withholding emotional responses, but with greater “professionalism” as a hired killer. “You don’t have to worry about me,” he tells M (Judi Dench), reassuring her that he’s not interested in pursuing vendettas in the wake of a personal tragedy.
The odd thing is that he seems to be telling the truth; we’re so used to an action hero being engaged in headlong quests for revenge that Craig’s stoic remove is completely counterintuitive. Honestly, I think I had to see it three or four times before it sunk in that Quantum of Solace is not a movie about vengeance at all, but about closure. The final scene does an admirable job of resolving the issue of Vesper Lynd’s betrayal – more a resigned sigh than a cathartic sob – and there’s an understated humor behind the idea of Bond being repeatedly upbraided for letting his feelings get in the way when he is, legitimately, just trying to do his job. (Missed tagline opportunity: This time it’s professional.)
The action scenes, much derided, are almost impressionistic; they achieve a kind of visual bruiser poetry that’s bolder than anything found in most franchise blockbusters. They don’t all work, exactly (the boat business is completely baffling) but the pre-credits car chase and the opera house shootout are rather wonderful, and if the former strains the viewer’s understanding of physical geography – always important in action set pieces – the speed of the editing might be seen as a natural evolution for a series that was considered bold forty-five years earlier for something called “cutting on action”; the latter employs Tosca so expertly that questions of “who’s who” and “where’s where” become almost superfluous. It’s as close to art house action as the franchise has ever allowed itself to get, and it’s a kinetic marvel.
David Arnold’s tenure as Bond composer came to an end here, and he also deserves credit for his work. He began with 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, which brassily screeched the Bond theme at every opportunity, but this is a comparatively subtle accompaniment. His action cues can still be bombastic and unmemorable, but the quieter moments – such as Bond’s arrival in London or his downing six martinis at a midflight bar – are very effective.
Similarly charming is the way the film moves, both within scenes and from place to place. When Bond manages to convince Mathis (a returning Giancarlo Giannini) to go with him to Bolivia, the film employs a quick series of jump cuts – Mathis looking to his wife, his wife looking back, Bond draining a wine glass. It’s a more intelligent example of foreshadowing than is common for the series, and is useful in illustrating that Quantum of Solace doesn’t waste time – also a welcome change – so kudos to editors Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson.
Unfortunately, the subsequent Skyfall and (especially) Spectre march backwards into the realm of bloated spectacle, running well over two hours apiece, mining backstories for nonsensical connections and clinging to the dour model of twenty-first century superhero filmmaking with both fists.
Bond films are often at their best when they operate independent of the cultural mores of their own time and place. Once upon a time, by sheer swagger and style, this made them seem like rogue outliers. Then they became an institution, as reliable as the tides, and large-scale reinvention became more problematic for purely economic reasons. But this most recent phase, in which James Bond moodily confronts the ghosts of his family estate, or is tortured by his long-lost stepbrother (!), is discouraging because it shows the series taking wholesale inspiration from readily identifiable contemporary sources. Here’s hoping Daniels Boyle and Craig can ground the series once again in the forthcoming entry, sure to be Craig’s last; he’s a Bond for the ages, and he deserves better scripts. (Interestingly, Craig himself is rather down on Quantum, citing the writers’ strike, and disparaging his own attempts to complete the half-finished script with Forster.)
The reason I would happily watch Quantum of Solace yet again, and greatly prefer it to its successors, is because it jiggers the Bond formula just enough to constitute a stylistic shift, yet the core components remain intact. Like every other Bond film of the last twenty years, its second half is something of a letdown, perfunctorily serving up mass destruction in the form of exploding fortresses and “final boss” fights, but it’s not a complete head-spinning failure like the final hour of Die Another Day. Some have pointed out that the film’s action sequences are trying rather hard to emulate another cinematic “J.B.” who was also beating international miscreants to a pulp around that same time, and that’s fair enough; the choice of Pearson as an editor would hardly be a coincidence (there are, in fact, rumors he was brought in by the producers to punch up the action scenes in the style of The Bourne Supremacy). But there’s more than a little of Bond’s DNA in Jason Bourne, so I’m happy to call that issue a draw.
TL;DR – Quantum of Solace rates somewhere towards the back of the top ten Bond films. It’s got a visceral sort of panache, and offers a nice epilogue to the events in all-time-great Casino Royale.