Those who prefer their film franchises with rock-solid continuity are best steering clear of James Bond. It is impossible to square the various circles that arise each time a new movie is released, even with the occasional tip of the hat to Bond’s past that might be included. Roger Moore’s seemed to be if you consider the opening of For Your Eyes Only, but is Timothy Dalton’s James Bond meant to be the same man who married and then lost Tracy di Vicenzo? How are we to believe that Blofeld could not recognize Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when they just met in You Only Live Twice – and what happened to his scar? Is Felix Leiter a short old guy with a dorky hat or is he Christian Shephard from Lost or McGarrett from Hawaii 5-0? Is Judi Dench’s M the same person who managed Pierce Brosnan’s veteran James Bond for four adventures and then promoted Daniel Craig’s James Bond to 00-status? The mind wants to see logical connections, and will grasp at the flimsiest rationale to justify them. But James Bond never cooperates. It’s best – to preserve one’s sanity – to approach each movie as its own, individual entity. Of course that doesn’t work when considering Quantum of Solace, the first direct Bond sequel. Taking its title but nothing else from the Ian Fleming short story about James Bond attending a boring dinner party, it picks up literally five minutes after Casino Royale ended and sees Bond criss-crossing the world in pursuit of the shadowy terrorist organization that robbed him of his love Vesper Lynd.
Delivering the wounded Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) to an MI6 safe house in Italy, Bond and M are shocked when M’s personal bodyguard turns out to be in league with White and allows the mysterious bagman to escape. A clue among the bodyguard’s possessions leads an angry but determined Bond to Haiti, where he encounters Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), a Bolivian secret service agent in pursuit of the exiled General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), the former dictator of Bolivia who was responsible for the murder of her father and rape of her mother and sister. Medrano is being aided in an imminent coup d’etat in his former nation by environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), whose organization is arranging Medrano’s return to power in exchange for a supposedly worthless tract of Bolivian desert. Eager for this coup to go forward are the CIA’s South American station chief Gregg Beam (David Harbour) and his deputy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, reprising the role), in exchange for a share of the oil bounty rumoured to exist beneath the desert. Following Greene to Austria, Bond snoops on a meeting Greene attends at a lavish lakeside production of Tosca – whose other participants are global power players and members of the secret organization to which Mr. White belongs, including a senior advisor to the British Prime Minister. When Bond blows their cover and is blamed for the death of the advisor’s security man, M cuts off all 007’s financial support and forces him to seek the aid of former ally René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini). The two journey to Bolivia, where it turns out that talk of oil is smoke and mirrors to fool the superpowers into looking the other way: Greene is after Bolivia’s water supply, which he intends to sell back to Medrano for twice the current price after installing him as President of Bolivia. However, Greene’s people are deeply entrenched – Mathis and fellow agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton) are murdered, Bond is held responsible and the CIA is closing in. Tipped off by the ever-reliable Leiter, and with little but Camille’s help and the lingering trust of M, Bond pursues Greene to an explosive showdown in the middle of the desert, where he must stop the coup, allow Camille to have her vengeance, and find out just who is masterminding this secret terrorist organization, called Quantum. A coda in Russia sees Bond confronting Vesper’s former boyfriend, also a Quantum operative, who is being used as a honey trap to seduce highly placed female agents into giving up valuable classified information. Bond finishes his adventure alone once again, leaving Vesper’s necklace behind in the snow before the famous gunbarrel roars across the screen to close this second chapter of James Bond 2.0.
Deleted scenes on a DVD are a fascinating glimpse into the filmmaking process, but it’s readily apparent why they were lopped out of the movie – they weren’t necessary to advance the story. In much the same way, Quantum of Solace feels like the deleted scenes of Casino Royale. Bond himself has taken a step backwards from where he found himself at the end of the first movie, as Vesper had proven, even in death – by giving up Mr. White – that her love for Bond was genuine, as was her remorse for betraying him. But here Bond seems to have forgotten all of that; it’s as though the last twenty minutes of Casino didn’t happen, and he is still furious with her and unable to forgive. And quite frankly, James Bond is not really a pleasant person in this movie. He is cold, distant and often silent, a blunt, charmless instrument. I suppose these traits are appropriate given Bond’s presumed state of mind, but the movie doesn’t take the time to address them. Director Marc Forster has said he wanted the movie to be tight and fast, and true enough, Quantum is lean and mean at 107 minutes versus Casino’s 145, but part of the joy of watching a Bond movie is taking the time to appreciate the locations, the characters and the atmosphere. Quantum of Solace feels a bit like the film projector is running too fast, it’s in such a hurry to get to the end. Part of the issue as well was that the movie laboured under the Writers’ Guild strike of 2008, and scenes were being rewritten minutes before being shot, with Daniel Craig confessing that with the writers on the picket line, the task was left largely to him and Forster. Even though Paul Haggis receives official writing credit (along with the apparently tenured Neal Purvis and Robert Wade again) what dialogue there is feels clunky and disjointed and has none of the zip and panache that accompanied the exchanges of Casino Royale. Characters contradict each other, forget things they’ve just learned and offer witticisms that make no sense. (There is really only one good line in the movie, and it’s in Spanish – when Bond explains how “teachers on sabbatical” can supposedly afford to stay at La Paz’s most palatial hotel.)
Without a solid script this time, Forster has to focus on what he can do with the action and the visuals. Despite an unfortunate borrowing of technique from the Bourne movies and their damnable shaky cameras, for the most part the action scenes are well-executed, if routine and lacking somewhat in innovation. Forster uses an interesting approach in that each of the movie’s four major action beats are based on a classical element of nature – the opening foot chase (earth), the Haiti boat pursuit (water), the battle in the skies above Bolivia (air) and the final explosive showdown (fire). But Forster’s best work is to be found in the Tosca sequence, with villains hiding in plain sight as the brutal imagery of Puccini’s famous drama plays itself out in front of them, and the striking chase and gunfire exchange that follows with no sound but that of operatic voices singing their lament. Here, Quantum of Solace nears the realm of exceptional cinema, even if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the promise.
The actors try their best despite the underwritten material, but the only real standout this time is Judi Dench, as the motherly M who both frets over and grows frustrated with her prodigal “son.” The angle of a villain character pretending to care about the environment to hide the destructive nature of his true ambition is worth much more exploration than it receives here – while he is an excellent actor, Amalric doesn’t have much opportunity to develop his sinister power broker, and the only moment in which Greene reveals anything about his background is interrupted. The filmmakers also missed their chance, given the South American setting, to feature the first Latina Bond girl, casting Ukrainian-born Olga Kurylenko with a spray tan and wobbly accent as Camille instead (and explaining it with a throwaway line about her Bolivian father having a “beautiful Russian wife… a dancer.”) The characters of Bond and Camille seem to be in two different movies – indeed, they have two different missions – and their physical interaction is limited to one little kiss after the quest has ended and they are about to part company forever. Camille herself has little personality; the more exuberant of the standard two Bond girls is Arterton as Fields, who unfortunately isn’t on screen very long. Nor is Italian film legend Giannini, returning as Mathis only long enough to be killed off by Greene’s thugs (in a glaring continuity error that smacks of deleted scenes, Mathis turns up battered and bruised in the trunk of Bond’s car only about two minutes after we see him alive and well at Greene’s party – that was one quick beating!) The remainder of the cast is unmemorable – particularly pointless is Anatole Taubman as Greene’s henchman Elvis, who has a silly bowl cut hairdo, follows Greene around in silent awkwardness while trying to look menacing and gets blown up before he even gets the chance to fight Bond.
What is most frustrating about Quantum of Solace is that one can see the seeds of a better movie scattered throughout, and a few alternate creative choices might have made for a more robust experience. Had the story not been tied so irrevocably to Casino Royale, had the pace slowed and given the characters more time to flesh themselves out, and most importantly, had Bond himself had a different journey instead of the too-familiar path of vengeance, it’s very possible that Quantum could have met or even exceeded the expectations left in its parent movie’s wake. As it stands, Quantum of Solace is like how many viewed the last half hour of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, keeping an old story going on and on long after the audience has arrived at a satisfactory emotional conclusion, and diminishing the impact of Casino Royale. Even at the end, Mr. White is still missing and there are lingering questions of how far Quantum’s reach stretches inside the British government, suggesting that there is still more to tell, long after our interest has waned. I’m encouraged that Skyfall is its own stand-alone story, with this movie’s ghosts put to rest for the time being.
Speaking of which – John Lennon says life is what happens when you’re making other plans, and as much as I was looking forward to seeing Skyfall tonight, because of other personal commitments it won’t be happening. So you’ll have to wait till the beginning of the week for my take on it. Sorry about that, folks, but I figure if you’ve been with me up until now, you don’t mind waiting a few more days. In the meantime, thanks for coming with me on this retrospective, which hopefully has been as fun to read as it was to write, and if you are heading out to Skyfall tonight, I hope I’ve helped get you a little in the mood. Stay shaken, not stirred.