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Fifty Years of 007! Josh Reviews Quantum of Solace (2008)

With Skyfall almost upon us, I’ve re-watched Daniel Craig’s two previous James Bond installments: 2006’s Casino Royale (click here for my review), and now Quantum of Solace. (You can click here to read my original review of the film from when it was released back in 2008.  You can also click here to read my friend Josh Lawrence’s advance review of Quantum of Solace, which I referred to several times in my own original review.)

The film: Quantum of Solace remains a somewhat perplexing film to me.  On the one hand, there’s a lot that is great about the film.  On the other hand, it’s a clear disappointment as a follow-up to the terrific Casino Royale. I’ve now seen the film several times, and in my mind it comes down to the following schism. Quantum of Solace is great in that, like Casino Royale did, it treats Bond seriously, crafting a tale that — while filled with high adventure — feels gritty and “real.”  Most importantly, there is a serious and compelling emotional arc for the character of Bond, as he wrestles with dealing with the emotional fallout of Vesper’s betrayal and death from the end of Casino Royale. That emotional story-line was absent from pretty much every single previous Bond film (let’s not kid ourselves, you know I’m right), and that basically the whole purpose of the film Quantum of Solace is to explore the consequences of the previous film’s ending continues to delight me at every turn.

The problem is that, on the other hand, the action-adventure/spy story (basically, all of the events that occupy Bond while he is dealing with these heavy emotional issues) is extremely thin, and falls back on one hoary, weak Bond-movie cliche after another.  After the breath-of-fresh-air that was Casino Royale, it’s a disappointing relapse.

The good: First of all, Quantum of Solace looks dynamite.  It’s a gorgeously filmed movie, filled with exotic locations from around the globe that were beautifully photographed by the cinematography team.  (And I LOVE the playful, differently-styled text graphics on-screen for each different location in the film!  It’s a really nice touch.)

After the rather-talky Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace really ups the action.  The film is packed with action, particularly in the first half, with one inventive set-piece after the next.  There’s the car chase that opens the movie; Bond’s foot-chase of the MI6 traitor in and around the streets and rooftops of Sienna, Italy that culminates in their fight tangled amongst construction scaffolding; the boat chase after Bond rescues Camille (Olga Kurylenko) from General Medrano’s men; the shoot-out at the opera where Quantum’s leaders are meeting; the plane fight over the desert of Bolivia, and of course the big climax at the end in the exploding hotel.  The fights are very stylized, which is a little off-putting at times (some of them are shot in such close-up that they’re a bit hard to follow — the opening car chase is the most egregious example of this, as is the afore-mentioned construction-scaffolding fight), but I like that the fights each have a unique flavor and visual style, and I like that the filmmakers created a really rip-roaring action story for Bond.

Daniel Craig is again spectacular as Bond, James Bond, and if anything I feel that he ups his game in his sophomore outing.  It helps, of course, that as I wrote above, Bond is given a really meaty emotional story-line in the film.  One might expect Bond to be an overflowing cauldron of rage, seeking vengeance for the events at the end of Casino Royale, but when the film opens we see that Bond has pushed his emotions down, down, down, bottling everything up.  Emotional distance would of course be an important characteristic of a double-oh agent, but it’s clear that there is a danger that Bond has gone too far in this direction, turning himself into a totally unfeeling killing machine.  That’s a terrific set-up for the film, and the idea that Bond’s origin is not yet complete — that he need to find some sort of emotional center before he can really become the super-heroic super-agent that we know he will be — is a great central arc for the story.  (By the way, in terms of Bond’s quest to destroy his enemies, I love that the film is very vague as to whether Bond hates Vesper and wants to track down anyone she worked with, OR if instead it’s that he pities Vesper and wants to find anyone who had a hand in corrupting her and ultimately leading to her destruction.  Probably Bond is feeling some of both of those points of view, and I think Daniel Craig does a great job at selling Bond’s emotional conflict in this regard.)

The bad: Well first of all, the evil faux-environmentalist Dominic Greene is a weak, half-baked villain.  It’s not actor Mathieu Amalric’s fault, I think he’s perfectly fine in the film.  But the character is hardly in the movie, and when he does appear, he’s just not remotely menacing.  This little prick is really going to give Bond any trouble?  No way.  The movie doesn’t do anything to sell Greene as a real bad-guy.  Right from when we first meet him, he fails to kill his girlfriend Camille and then he fails to get rid of Camille by giving her General Medrano (because Bond easily rescues her).  Theoretically he’s the face of a sinister organization (the abysmally-named Quantum) with “people everywhere,” but after the dramatic betrayal of M by her MI6 bodyguard at the start of the film, we don’t really see any of Quantum’s supposed power.  We just see Greene and his dopey, bowl-haircutted bodyguard/assistant.

Then there’s Camille, the classic and oh-so-familiar Bond girl archetype whose parents were killed by the bad guy and now is out for revenge.  HOW many times have we seen this before in previous Bond films?  Only about a billion times.  What an over-used, boring plot device, and what a devastatingly dull choice.  This is the female counterpart to Bond we get, coming after the wonderfully complex Vesper?  Ugh.  And she’s so stupid — not once but TWICE, after almost being killed by Greene’s agents, Camille just walks right back up to him, as if daring him to try to kill him again.  Which, of course, he then tries to do.  Just what is her plan when she strolls back onto his pier at the beginning of the movie, or when she appears at his Greene Planet shindig??  If you guessed “be a plot device so she can get rescued by Bond,” then you win.

Agent (Strawberry) Fields is even more of a disappointment.  Again, I don’t fault the actress.  Gemma Arterton plays her scenes terrifically well, and by golly she is gorgeous.  But Fields is one of the most pathetic Bond girls in the whole series.  The movie almost makes a joke over the fact that Bond doesn’t even have to seduce her.  He just walks into his room and mutters one stupid little line, and the next thing you know she’s naked in bed with him, post-coital.  Give the girl a LITTLE self-respect, huh?

And holy cow how stupid is Bond in letting her get killed?  Do you think, maybe, after finding Mathis’ body in the trunk, that Bond should be a little worried about her?  Maybe give her a call or something, before heading off into the desert with Camille?

As for Mathis, here again I have the same I love this/but this disappoints me split that I have for so much of the rest of the film.  It’s great seeing Mathis again.  I love the idea of there being continuity between the Bond films, and of certain characters recurring.  And Giancarlo Giannini is so great that it’s terrific to see him again.  I love the scenes between Mathis and Bond (they’re a great buddy-team), particularly the somber scene on the plane in which Bond is getting himself drunk on Vesper martinis, his self-defense mechanism against feeling any emotional pain.  I love that Mathis immediately has a complete understanding of Bond and of his emotional state, and I love the gentle way in which he tries to nudge Bond towards something a little less self-destructive.  But oy, I’m disappointed by the way the movie knocks Mathis off the board.  It reminds me of The World is Not Enough, when I was delighted to see Robbie Coltrane reprising the character of the Russian Valentin Zukovsky, but was then bummed to see him get killed off.  It felt like a cheap and easy ploy to get the audience emotionally involved in the story then, and I feel the same way here in Quantum of Solace. But, again, on the other hand, Daniel Craig and Mr. Giannini are both so spectacular during Mathis’ death scene, that it’s hard for me to get too upset.  So you see that I am of two minds here…

After watching Casino Royale, my imagination was alight with the idea that the Bond films would be introducing S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to a new generation.  Sadly, they gave the new global criminal/terrorist organization a new, even dumber name (Quantum, ugh — WHY would they call themselves that??), but, OK, I guess I can live with that, it’s still essentially S.P.E.C.T.R.E., right?  Except that we don’t get to learn ANYTHING new about Quantum in this film (not even a tease of the head bad-guy, like those glimpses which were doled out in the early Connery Bond films), and, as I wrote above, except for the (admittedly cool) opera conference scene, Quantum hardly figures into the story.  Yes, we’re told that Greene is an agent of Quantum, we never really see the power or influence of this evil organization.  After all the post-Casino Royale anticipation, it’s a let-down.

The Opening/The Music: I love the movie’s pre-credits car-chase in all of its extreme-close-up glory, and I love the main title song, “Another Way to Die” by the White Stripes.  I’m not nearly as taken by the opening title sequence itself, though.  The imagery of Daniel Craig wandering through a sandy desert is boring, and a far cry from the visual eye-candy I look for in these sequences.  Bonus points, however, for utilizing the sliding circles (a staple of the usual opening gun-barrel shot, and something which dates all the way back to Dr. No) in the text credits that appear on screen during this sequence!

Classic Bond-isms: I get a big laugh at the moment when Bond balks at staying at the cheap motel Fields has set up for them, insisting instead that they shell out on lavish, palatial digs.  (Who is paying for that, exactly?)  Bond’s total disdain for even the idea of any sort of cover-story is a classic Bond moment.

“Where’s Pussy?” (The Women): I already discussed Camille and Strawberry Fields above.  Both are portrayed by beautiful actresses, but both characters are a disappointment.

“I told the stewardess liquor for three” (The Supporting Players): I already analyzed Mathis’ appearance above.  It’s fun to see Felix again, and Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal remains compelling.  I wrote in my original review that I didn’t understand how, since this film takes place moments after the end of Casino Royale, Felix is already deeply involved in an entirely different case down in Bolivia, and that still doesn’t make much sense to me.  Still, it’s fun seeing him bounce off against his jerkish CIA agent partner (played by David Harbour, who has recently popped up on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom).

Judi Dench is still terrific as M, continuing to make a compelling case for herself as Bernard Lee’s total equal.  She has some wonderful banter with Bond.  She’s able, time after time, to immediately get right to the core of his character.  (“I think you’re so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don’t care who you hurt.”)  I also love the moment, late in the film — not long after M has tried to forcibly bring Bond in from the field — when she changes her mind and decides to support him.  “He’s my agent… and I trust him,” she says simply, and that’s their whole relationship right there.  It’s a great line, perfectly delivered.

I suppose General Medrano is another villain of the film, but he’s a total non-entity.  He’s in the movie for 30 seconds (the scene on the pier with Dominic and Camille) and then pops up again at the end in a rapey mood.  There’s nothing of interest to me about this character, and the movie seems as bored with him as I was.

Best Exchange: M: “Bond, you killed a man in Brigenz!”  Bond: “I did my best not to.”  M: “You shot him at point blank and threw him off a roof!”

My favorite moment: When Bond knocks the motorcycle right out from under an assassin by swiping one of the wheels.  It’s a bad-ass take-down.

Continuity Nods: Quantum of Solace is the first direct sequel to a previous film that we’ve ever seen in the Bond series.  The whole movie is basically an extended epilogue to Casino Royale. I love that about the film, and hope that this tight continuity continues with future installments.  There are a few nods back to prior Bond films, most notably Agent Fields’ Goldfinger-esque death (though that method of execution makes even less sense in this movie).

Why Not Just Shoot Him? No overly-elaborate deathtraps for Bond, thanks heavens, though why Greene’s men didn’t just shoot Fields the way they shot Mathis is beyond me.  Guess those hit-men felt like getting creative.

Womanizer Alert: I can’t really blame Bond for how easily Fields falls into bed with him, can I?

Alcoholic Alert: Bond’s late-night, mid-air Vesper martini binge.  Yikes.

I love the playful creativity of the film holding the Bond-through-a-gunbarrel shot until the very END of the film.  Nice!

James Bond will return (ANY MINUTE NOW) in Skyfall, and I will be there!

Previous Bond Reviews: Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball(1965), Casino Royale (2006).

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