It’s impossible to talk about Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace without first reflecting on how far the Bond franchise has come in recent years. When Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale debuted in 2006, it rebooted the franchise and heralded the age of a bold new Bond. The suave secret agent of previous years was replaced by a rough-and-tumble soldier, who relied more on fists, knives, and guns to get things done, rather than outlandish gadgets. The lifestyle of a double-O, which had seemed intensely appealing over the course of the last few decades, was suddenly transformed into one filled with self-sacrifice, self-reflection, and self-loathing. While the card game sequences might have been a bit hokey and some of the dialogue was a bit too Haggis-esque for my tastes (“I have no armor left. You’ve stripped it from me.”), make no mistake: Casino Royale was completely badass, filled with spectacular action set pieces and a brave portrayal of 007 by always-stellar Daniel Craig. Heck, Casino Royale was so good that it almost made us forget the filmic atrocity that was Die Another Day. Almost.
These are the expectations that Quantum of Solace steps into this weekend, even as it’s already well on its way to a critic-proof, record-breaking box office take. But does the movie live up to its promise?
Solace begins just hours after Royale’s ending, so if you haven’t seen Casino Royale ever (or even recently), I’d highly suggest you catch that film if you want some important plot details in this film to make sense. The opening high speed chase scene has Bond absconding with Mr. White in the trunk of his car while murderous henchmen follow close behind. After White is captured and questioned, it’s revealed that Quantum, White’s clandestine organization responsible for many of the events in Royale, has a reach so extensive that it has the ability to personally threaten even those in MI6. Quantum’s trail leads Bond to Haiti, where he comes into contact with Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), an environmentalist whose noble profession masks a sinister plot that Bond must try to uncover. Along the way, he meets Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), Greene’s ex and perhaps someone out for her own revenge too.
While I’m going to have some harsh words about Quantum, let’s be clear: This is far from the worst Bond film ever made. The franchise continues to be gritty and realistic, eschewing the more fantastical elements of Bonds past. Some sequences manage to be extremely intense, and the final few scenes, when Bond finally gets around to resolving some of the Vesper-related plot elements, are compelling. Walking into the theater, I had an unrelenting desire to love this film. Casino Royale showed us, decidedly, that Bond no longer needed to be staid and predictable. Perhaps more significantly, it appropriated the tropes of Bonds past (e.g. the turning shot down the barrel of the gun, the opening theme song, “Bond, James Bond,”) and re-invented them in clever ways while still paying homage to the film’s forebearers. I had already heard that this film would be jettisoning some of those elements (e.g. the line “Bond, James Bond,” amongst others), and would thus be trying to distance itself even further from the past. And while I was open to the possibility of even more change in the Bond franchise, the result is a mess that disgraces the solid character work done by Casino Royale.
What Forster has done is taken Bond and made him into a movie of the week. Every element of this movie feels cheaper than the last one, from the insufferable opening credits theme song all the way to the slapdash plot, complete with a boring villain who is given nothing interesting to do (and don’t even get me started on the distractingly tacky typography that accompanies every location change). While the action scenes have a handful of great moments, almost all of them are already viewable in the film’s trailer; everything else is shot in the style of a painfully attempted imitation of Paul Greengrass, vis-à-vis the Bourne series. But where Greengrass’s rapid editing and shaky-cam always seemed deliberate and added to his films’ kinetic energy, Quantum’s set pieces struggle for visual comprehensibility at virtually every turn.
Not all of it is Forster’s fault (nor that of his second-unit directors). The script here is just plain weak and the pacing is off, resulting in a jumbled narrative that ends up being much shorter than Royale, yet inexplicably feels longer, with a bloated, slow-moving second act. While very few developments in the overall Bond meta-narrative actually occur during Quantum, the movie constantly whisks us from one place to another, foisting upon us new and exotic locations (sometimes with action scenes), insisting that we care, when there’s no character development or compelling narrative force to make us give a damn. In the end, not much happens to move along the Quantum-related plot. All we’re left with is a bunch of explosions, gunshots, and hand-to-hand fights.
The standard dichotomy between Bond and the main bad guy is strangely muted. While Almaric’s Dominic Greene is a consummate sleazeball, he is almost completely unmemorable. I don’t expect a bald, scarred supervillain stroking his cat in every Bond film, but I do like it when the two seem like they are evenly matched, either in wits, physicality, or both. Here, Greene seems much more like the slimy assistant to a bigger, badder, Bond villain, rather than the main event. He is less memorable even than Tomorrow Never Dies’ main baddy, Elliott Carver (Remember? Elliott Carver? The media mogul who wanted to start World War III so he could get money from covering the news for it? Neither do I). Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) is far more effective as a menacing member of Quantum but the plot gives him virtually no screen time whatsoever.
Perhaps most infuriating is that the most compelling elements carried over from the first film are completely wasted. A reappearance by the mysterious Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) seems promising but their relationship is given two brief scenes of dialogue before it is resolved, ultimately rendering it a missed opportunity. Bond’s own character is another carousel of emotional baggage that the screenwriter’s chose not to make use of. In Royale, we saw Bond’s struggle with love and betrayal (“The bitch is dead” is perhaps one of the most tragic lines in Bond history). In this movie, Bond is meant to come to terms with what Vesper really meant to him, and while Craig pulls it off, there’s not enough material in the script to make it thoroughly convincing.
But it’s not all bad. On the whole, the performances are fantastic. Jesper Christensen continues to be supremely creepy as the enigmatic Mr. White. Jeffrey Wright infuses his Felix Leiter CIA character with a seriousness that this movie sorely needs. Gemma Atherton is radiant but is, unfortunately, a virtual non-character as Strawberry Fields, AKA Bond Girl #2. In a throwback to past Bond films, Fields seems to exist in this movie only to be seduced by Bond and for no other purpose; sadly, this was the most noticeable and distracting element that Forster chose to carry over from the Bond franchise. Similarly, Olga Kurylenko is beautiful but bland as Camille Montes, whose story is one-note and not nearly as interesting as Vesper’s was in the preceeding film.
And at the center of it all, there’s Craig, whose Bond continues to wow, not only with his rugged physicality, but with his ability to convey the extents of his tortured emotional existence. Craig has suffered major injuries while filming his two Bond films, not to mention the thrashing he received from certain corners of Bond fandom when he was first chosen for the role. Nonetheless, I would be happy to see him as this character again, hopefully in a film that has much more substance than this one.
Overall, this movie dashed my hopes that lightning could strike the Bond franchise twice in a row. There are brief, fleeting moments of greatness and excitement, but as a continuation of the reboot begun by Casino Royale, it is unquestionably a failure. Those looking for an exciting movie that deftly combines breathtaking action with emotional heft should look elsewhere. Or just stay home and watch Casino Royale again.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Discuss: What did you think of Quantum of Solace? Does it live up to the expectations set by Casino Royale? Does it live up to the Bond franchise? Is it a good action movie?
You can reach David Chen at davechensemailATgmail.com