Quantum of Solace at 10 | The Underrated Sequel to Casino Royale
‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ as a turn of phrase is often especially true of films. However there are times – and movies – where the opposite holds just as true; Quantum of Solace is one such example. One wonders if this film had been released now – given the huge increase in awareness of production woes and the taking of them into account in reviews etc. – would this film have been more favourably received. For production woes it most certainly had. And quite damaging, they most certainly were.
Taking place minutes after 007 franchise re-starter Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace begins with James Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) as they interrogate Mr White (Jesper Christensen), ultimately learning of the mysterious Quantum organisation; a globe-spanning, shadowy cabal with connections to the highest levels of government and people everywhere. Bond ends up on the trail of Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), an environmental philanthropist and one of Quantum’s key members. Discovering a plot to steal Bolivia’s water supply, install a dictator and sell the water back to the country for massive profits, Bond fights to thwart Greene and finally get answers regarding Vesper’s (Eva Green) involvement in the Quantum-linked events of the prior film.
Rushed into production to capitalise on Casino Royale’s staggering success and goodwill toward the franchise, the film almost immediately hit trouble with the now near-legendary writers’ strike which knee-capped any number of films and TV shows at the time. But this was Bond, and they had a release date to meet. Only Daniel Craig and director Marc Forster were allowed to work on the script under the strike rules and so, working from an unfinished draft of the script and with only a vague notion of what it would become (allegedly the film wasn’t initially planned to be the direct sequel it ultimately became), they soldiered on, wrote new lines on the day and managed to get a finished film out of it.
Unsurprisingly this scripting issue is the main culprit for almost all the film’s woes. The final film, while follow-able, requires more filling in of the blanks on the audiences’ part than this kind of film should. It’s poorly explained, its relevance to the Vesper plot it’s supposed to be a sequel to is unclear at best and near arbitrary at worst. The villain’s plan was considered low stakes by most people and naïve by those who realized the real IMF had already done this exact thing to the same country years earlier in our reality. Then there’s the editing, which in an attempt to emulate the Bourne films, was a headache inducing combo of shaky-cam and disorientating quick-cuts where whole plots points could be missed and in all likelihood probably gave someone severe motion sickness during the chase sequences (of which there are five).
So if the story is lacking and unclear and the editing renders the film frustrating on the eyes, what exactly is there to like about the film? The simple answer is; everything else. For my money, this film is the hastily assembled blueprint for what a modern iteration of Bond could – and indeed should – have become.
First of all, the overall art direction and production design are gorgeous. There’s something approaching a reverse retro-futurism at work. When not in real locations, the sets et al have the look of Ken Adam’s iconic work on the franchise pushed through a sleeker, subtler modern lens – most obviously in the desert hotel where the climax unfolds; you could as easily picture Connery or Moore fighting their way through it as Craig. Ditto the costumes which while elegant and modern have more a classical, timeless vibe than the painfully current – and now painfully dated – fashion stylings of say the Brosnan era.
Even on the tech side, things have aged oddly well in the decade since. Of course no one saw smartphones coming so his phone and camera of choice look a tad hilarious now. Yet the smart-tables/walls of MI6 were cleverly over-designed with a blocky, almost kitschy, retro-aesthetic which even in this year of our lord 2K18 still looks more modern and pleasing than if they’d merely tried to adopt what would have been sleek by 2008 standards. This film also marks the return of the Walther PPK, abandoning the attempted firearms update of the Brosnan films to the less elegant P99. Once more pushing this film’s visuals into the franchise’s past but through a modern viewpoint.
And of course there’s the score. David Arnold’s last work on the franchise – so far at any rate – and by far his most unique. While Arnold’s John Barry-isms are still clearly present in tracks like ‘Night at the Opera’, there’s an overall much more interesting soundscape on display. His minimal use of the franchise’s key theme and melody is immediately noticeable compared to his previous work on the series, while the way he uses it when it is present is often twisted or only hinted toward such as in ‘Time to Get Out’. Freed from such needs to constantly inject the Bond Theme into cues, Arnold instead provides some of the most intense and often chaotic action scoring of the series; ‘Target Terminated’, ‘Pursuit at Port au Prince’ and ‘Perla de las Dunas’ are all stronger, meatier action scene cues than anything in subsequent films.
In conjunction with all these elements, there’s an undeniable pretentiousness at play in the film; be it in cutting back and forth between the foot chase and the Palio horse race or Bond’s violent escape through the theatre cross-cut with the (visually stunning) production of Tosca designed just for the sequence. That’s before even mentioning the director’s intentional structuring of the action around the four elements (flaming hotel, boat chase, plane chase, quarry). It is an ‘arty’ Bond film to be sure and arguably the most visually striking of the Craig era and one of the most distinct of any of them. Yet it’s also extremely funny, which may come as a surprise to those who remember the discussion of this film as being the nadir of Bond in terms of grim’n’gritty dourness. Much like its rather biting self-commentary though, the humour was evidently too subtle.
For all the script’s problems, being witty was never one of them. The problem was that audiences were used to Bond films delivering loud, obvious punchlines/one-liners with overt “pause for laughter” moments following them. Quantum of Solace meanwhile opted for an utterly deadpan delivery for its often sardonic and dark comedy. M realising Bond just killed another potential lead after he hangs up, her exasperation at Quantum’s seeming omnipotence or Bond’s chat-up line of “I can’t find the stationary”; the quips here are underplayed and specifically well-suited to Craig’s confident but terse delivery style. Certainly more so than the slapstick of the two following sequels he’s been subjected to.
As for that aforementioned self-commentary, it comes and goes rather unceremoniously in a scene where M is called in to explain to one of the PM’s underlings Bond’s internationally embarrassing actions (“What’s today’s excuse, that Bond is legally blind?”). As she tries to reason that the evidence is solid that the philanthropist they’re investigating is up to no good, he essentially responds to her with a “so what”. It’s a quietly bleak little exchange where she’s told that if they pursued every so-called villain they came across, Britain would have no one left to trade with and that money and oil are more concerning than morality. The film set up the notion that the modern world doesn’t need a Bond anymore because our own governments have openly moved past the institutional/national morality he’s supposed the arbiter of.
How interesting this thread could have been if developed further in sequels. But alas, the critical knives ensured everything interesting and experimental about this film was smoothed out for the enjoyable but utterly safe in comparison Skyfall. Between this self-awareness of the political/ethical inertness of its own premise, the more grounded and believable version of a Spectre-like organisation in Quantum and its understated, deadpan humour; they very nearly accidentally created the perfect Bond for the modern era. On the surface it would have been business as usual for the more casual film-goer but with a winking, knowing cynicism baked into its core for those that, while enjoying these films, do question their worldview of British exceptionalism and authority. Sadly the franchise has comfortably retreated back to its safety blanket of flag waving and cringey broad comedy.
There’s no denying that, especially on a first viewing, the film as released could be an often chaotic and disorientating experience. Yet, like more than a lot of Bond films, there’s plenty to see and appreciate on a rewatch. Even just to properly soak in what is some of the best visual and aural work of any of the films, this entry is worthy of reappraisal. This franchise has a habit of disregarding entries which don’t toe the party line immediately only for them to float to the top in subsequent decades when merit is being reassessed. And like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before it, if there is any justice in the film criticism world, Quantum of Solace’s turn will come.