Quantum of Solace
Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade
Directed by Marc Forster
On the Mousterpiece Cinema podcast, Josh and I frequently joke about our “Island Films” by which we don’t mean the films that we would hypothetically take to a desert island, but the films that we are alone on an island in liking or disliking. Sometimes, we are only alone on the island briefly. When we did our podcast on John Carter, Josh and I felt a bit alone in the wilderness liking the film, but when it was released on Blu-ray and people actually started watching Andrew Stanton’s film, our island got crowded rather quickly. Crowds are not a problem on Quantum of Solace island.
It’s not like people haven’t seen the film. Based on my calculations for my James Bond By the Numbers article, Quantum of Solace is the 10th most attended Bond film of all time if you use box office results adjusted for inflation. When I saw it in the theatre back in 2008, I was delighted by the film… and startled when it seemed like I was one of the few people who actually liked it. Simon’s take is fairly close to the party-line: the script (sabotaged by the Writer’s Strike) is to blame, along with the director Marc Forster who “shows little adeptness for action sequences, preferring the rapid-fire editing of the Bourne series to the fluid gymnastics of Casino Royale.”
I was actually a little worried when I sat down to re-watch Quantum of Solace 5 years after I originally saw it in the theatre. Was I just in a good mood the first time that I saw it? Was I fooled? I needn’t have been concerned. If anything, I like Marc Forster’s film better now than I did 5 years ago.
Partly this is because the film takes many of its cues from my favourite James Bond film, Roger Moore’s For Your Eyes Only. Like that film, Quantum of Solace is a meditation on revenge. Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is hunting the murderer of her family killed in front of her just like Melina (Carole Bouquet) Havelock’s family. The details are slightly different, Melina watched her family gunned down by the Cuban assassin Hector Gonzales as an adult, while Camille was a child when she watched General Medrano (Joaquín Cosio) shoot her father, rape and kill her mother and sister and then set her family home on fire while she was still inside. Both Bonds try to give their Elektra’s helpful advice, Moore’s Bond trying to dissuade Melina from taking revenge, telling her, “Before setting off on revenge, you first dig two graves,” while Craig’s Bond, on his own search for vengeance, settles for more practical advice, telling Camille, “Take a deep breath, you only got one shot, make it count.” The irony for both Bonds is that they give advice that they themselves ignore.
(The other sub-textual connection is the fact that For Your Eyes Only shows James Bond visiting Tracy’s grave, but in Ian Fleming’s 007 books, it is Vesper Lynd’s grave that James visits every year and it is her death – the death of his first love – than scars him. The “shaken not stirred” martini, introduced in the novel Casino Royale, is a “Vesper Martini”; in the novel Diamonds Are Forever, James sings the song “La Vie en Rose” because it reminds him of Vesper; and in the novel Goldfinger as a drugged Bond believes that he is dying along with Tilly Masterson, he wonders how he will introduce Tilly to Vesper when they meet in the after-life.)
While lacking For Your Eyes Only‘s thematic reasons to saddle Bond with antiquated equipment, Quantum of Solace echoes that film by putting Craig at the controls of an outdated speed boat against modern Kodiaks and a Douglas DC-3 – older than the Bond film series – against a fighter jet and a helicopter gun-ship. In the most direct swipe from For Your Eyes Only, after Bond escapes from his own agency in the hotel, Camille picks him up in a beat-up Volkswagen Bug – just as Melina drove Bond in her beat-up Citroen 2CV.
Quantum of Solace echoes two other Bond films, arguably the series most successful (Goldfinger) and least successful (License to Kill). Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) is an obvious reference to Auric Goldfinger, killing Fields (Gemma Arterton) by painting her with oil like Oddjob painting Jill Masterson with gold paint. Greene’s plan is very similar to Goldfinger’s: corner the market on a commodity (for Greene water, for Goldfinger, gold) and profit from the monopoly. The danger of making that direct comparison – to arguably the best Bond film ever – is paling in comparison. Amalric’s Greene is actually a good match for Gert Fröbe’s Auric Goldfinger, bringing a deranged serial killer quality to his performance, with all his OCD tics, “There is nothing that makes me more uncomfortable than friends talking behind my back. Feels like… ants under my skin.” or “Is he one of ours?” “No.” “Then he shouldn’t be looking at me.” When Greene realizes that Bond has foiled his plans and explodes with rage while the hotel burns around him, that eruption feels earned as the mask of Greene’s control finally slips.
Where the comparison to Goldfinger really hurts Quantum of Solace is replacing Oddjob as chief henchman with the sad sack Elvis (Anatole Taubman) who is duped by Bond into carrying around a Universal Export business card with a tracking device in it, tripped by Fields down the stairs at the party – allowing Bond and Camille to escape, and still wearing an undignified neck brace during the final shoot-out.
Like in License to Kill, Bond is on a mission of vengeance the entire film, leading to MI6 disavowing his actions and pulling their support. This may be the key to people’s dislike of this film – just as they disliked the earlier Dalton film, the least attended and least profitable of the entire series. It’s not a film about 007, the secret agent with a license to kill the enemies of the British government and people. It’s a story about James Bond, the man, dispensing his own personal vengeance, killing for his private reasons. Worse from the audience’s point of view, this is not the efficiently ruthless secret agent of Casino Royale, this is a surprisingly sloppy Bond, leading M (Judi Dench natch) to tell him, “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 go.”
And this is why, perversely, I love this film, the only Bond film in the entire series to act as a direct sequel, building on the events of Casino Royale. For the first time, we see James forced to deal with the death of a loved one. (For Your Eyes Only deals with it obliquely by starting the film at Tracy Bond’s grave, but the shocking conclusion of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was essentially ignored by the series after George Lazenby’s replacement by Sean Connery for Diamonds Are Forever. Yes, as John Orquiola has pointed out, Connery’s Bond does track down and kill what turns out to be one of Blofeld’s doubles in the opening scene of Diamonds Are Forever, but while murdering “Blofeld” in the mud-bath Connery has all the passion of a bored waiter reciting the day’s specials in a one star restaurant.) M’s suspicious comment about Bond’s motives at the beginning of Quantum of Solace could stand as a meta-commentary about the way the series dealt with Tracy’s death, “It’d be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved.”
The key to Daniel Craig’s Bond comes early in Casino Royale during the parkour chase. Mollaka stays ahead of Bond by taking ridiculous risks and by amazing feats of agility. James keeps up with Mollaka by outthinking him, by using his imagination to create physical shortcuts. While Bond does kill Mollaka, he only does so as a last resort, preferring to capture the bomber for interrogation, but settling for the bomber’s cell-phone to lead him to Mollaka’s boss. That whole sequence gives us Craig’s Bond as a complete package: relentless in pursuit of Britain’s enemies, with a bloodhound’s instinct for their trail, capable of incredible physical feats – backed by a creative imagination and spatial awareness that allows him to outthink his enemies by seeing angles that they don’t, and a coldblooded killer, capable of restraint – defined by who he doesn’t kill.
The complaints about Forster’s use of the Bourne series trademark shaky-cam, especially in the opening car chase, ignores the fact that the film plunges us into Bond’s emotional context. Consider the way that the film starts by intercutting between a long steady shot of the highway and the bouncy shot inside Bond’s car chase. The normally cool and collected Bond who outthinks his opponents is now an emotional wreck, feeling rather than thinking. He is also in constant motion, never stopping to take a breath as he later tells Camille to. Finally, Bond kills as his first option rather than his last resort, leading to M sarcastically requesting, “If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be deeply appreciated.”
Bond’s emotional journey in Quantum of Solace begins with a fight set in the heaviest classical element: Earth – matching the weight on his heart. As the film progresses, Bond marches up the elements, fighting in Water, then Air, and finally Fire, gradually lifting the burden from his heart and gaining emotional control. And as Bond gains emotional control, the film mirrors his regained control: the camera work gets steadier and the editing becomes less frenetic.
Still emotionally distraught during the water fight, Bond engages in the Haiti speedboat chase needlessly to rescue Camille. Needlessly, because the only useful information that Bond gets from Camille is Dominic Greene’s name, something that he could have found in any number of ways starting with the logos on Greene’s warehouse. When Bond rescues Camille, he is rescuing her not for who she is as a person, but as a symbol of the dead Vesper Lynd. Once the rescue is done, Camille is useless to Bond – demonstrated by his casual decision to dump her unconscious body into the arms of a staff member at the hotel where he docks after their escape.
During the air fight, Bond reveals that Camille, like Vesper, is a spy – an agent for the Bolivian secret service, like Bond acting on a personal mission of vengeance that happens to also be in the best interests of her country. It is at this point that Camille becomes a person to Bond rather than a symbol, and when Camille tells Bond what she was up to and why, he sheepishly apologizes for spoiling her revenge on General Medrano.
One way of tracking Bond’s progress in the film is the way that he deals with Guy Haines’ bodyguard at the Brigenz opera house and the way that he later deals with Dominic Greene in an almost identical situation during the “fire” fight. The bodyguard is dangling over a height and Craig brushes him off like Roger Moore did the Cairo assassin in The Spy Who Loved Me (although it is Elvis who actually shoots and kills the bodyguard when he lands on Greene’s car.) In the explosive climax of the film, Greene is dangling over an inferno and Bond decides to haul Greene up and let him go, freeing James to rescue Camille from certain death. Unlike the water rescue, Bond’s rescue is of Camille as a person rather than a symbol, a rejection of revenge in favor of cherishing life. It is only after letting Greene go that Bond is finally able to take his own advice, to take a deep breath and to accept his own words, “I don’t think the dead care about vengeance.”
(Of course Bond’s mercy has its limits. After rescuing Camille from the inferno, Bond recaptures Greene and interrogates him to learn where to find Yusuf, Vesper’s former lover and betrayer. Bond then leaves Greene in the middle of the desert with no water and only a bottle of motor oil as liquid. But Bond doesn’t kill Greene. Compared to Mitchell and Slate that’s progress.)
Most Bond films end with James bedding the Bond Girl, but James never sleeps with Camille. He rescues her and saves her life twice. He makes it possible for her to get her vengeance from General Medrano and afterwards gives her a mission beyond vengeance, but he doesn’t sleep with her. The film ends instead with Bond rescuing Corinne (Stana Katic) from Yusuf’s honeypot. Key to that scene is that Bond asks Corinne what her name is, not making the mistake that he originally did with Camille of seeing her as a symbol for Vesper rather than her own person. Like Vesper and Camille, Corinne is a secret agent, working for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. His return to emotional balance complete, Bond is able once again to show restraint and turn Yusuf over to M for interrogation. And he is able to leave Vesper behind, dropping her necklace into the Russian snow.
– Michael Ryan
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 30, 2012.
This article is part of our 007 marathon. You can find all the entries by clicking here.