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Quantum of Solace

dir: Marc Forster
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Casino Royale was one of the more surprising films for me last year, surprising in that I was expecting the same old shit in a new and shiny bucket. It proved to be better than my lowest expectations, and rekindled my interest in the Bond character, something which dwindled to nothing through most of the 90s.

Riding on that wave of successfulness, all Quantum of Solace had to do was not suck too much, and everyone would be mostly happy. Was that too much to ask?

Craig plays the character with the same level of intensity he brought to his first trip in Bondland, but the story is significantly different. I can dimly remember reading an Ian Fleming short story sharing the name of this film, but I doubt this flick follows the story closely if at all.

All I remember about the short story is that it only features Bond tangentially, and is more about two characters with a bad, bad marriage rather than anything to do with shooting people or beating the crap out of disposable henchmen.

But, see, we live in a different era these days. When Roger Moore played the guy, it was enough to be a suave motherfucker, have some occasional fisticuffs, and always bed the lasses within easy reach of a bottle of Dom Perignon. Despite being as gay as anything.

Now Bond has to compete with super-efficient super-spy Jason Bourne and cameras that will not stay still. You can’t strap them down, you can’t stop them from twitching like an epileptic with the DTs, and you can’t convince them to cut down on the caffeine.

It’s not Daniel Craig’s fault. It’s not like he’s the cinematographer or the editor.

In an odd twist after the re-booting of the franchise, this latest film is both a return to a more Bond-like formula, and a divergence at the same time. It’s not a self-contained film, in that it seems to be more a continuation of the last film rather than another instalment. The events pick up directly from the end of Casino Royale. It also points to an overarching storyline, or even, gods forbid, some kind of character arc for the main character.

So if you never watched that flick, you’re shit out of luck in terms of understanding the plot of this one.

Two of the more important points that carry over are that Bond is still smarting over the betrayal and death of the woman he ‘loved’ from the previous film, the unlikely named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and that he never really got the people responsible. To that end he has violently kidnapped someone whom he believes was orchestrating events the first time around, a sickly-looking Mr White (Jesper Christensen) who mocks Bond and his boss M (Dame Judi Dench), taunting them with their ignorance of their own vulnerability, and pointing to a larger, more nefarious organisation than they could possibly imagine.

This would immediately make long time Bond fans think that the screenwriters are bringing back an evil organisation like SMERSH (which existed, being part of the Soviet cavalcade of fun) or SPECTRE. An international league of supervillains conspiring to destroy, I dunno, puppies and rainbows and stuff.

What they eventually go for, teasing it out for the entire film’s length, is something more subtle and depressing. More subtle because it’s not depicted as anything as mad as a bunch of megalomaniacs who want to destroy the world for the fun of it. More depressing because it’s functionally believable and more than likely already happening.

This time around, Bond’s animated Gallic nemesis, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, last seen in the excellent The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is a public face of this nefarious organisation, who is organising coups in South America and signing deals to get ownership of seemingly useless tracts of desert whilst running an ecologically friendly multinational that serves the world’s green needs.

Isn’t that always the way: the billionaires talking about the environment are always the ones trying to destroy it?

Into the mix is thrown a strange Russian / Bolivian apparent hooker with burn scars on her back and a burning desire to hook up with a vicious Bolivian general who Greene is conspiring to put on Bolivia’s throne. She is a quite striking, consumptive but overly-tanned looking supermodel (Olga Kurylenko) who finally, for a Bond girl, whose general purpose is solely to be a fucktoy for Bond and then die, gets to shine in a brutal knockdown, drag out affair with the General.

She was much hotter, and much more naked, with a tattoo on her face in that recent dire but enjoyable Hitman movie.

There’s little point delving further into the plot because it’s overly complicated (in terms of how A gets to B gets to Z) and fruitless, in that the real story is about getting revenge. Most flicks are about how pointless and empty seeking revenge is, and how destructive it is to the person seeking it, no matter how righteous their justification might be.

But this is Bond. Bond is a top level, licensed to kill agent for MI-6, which is like the British equivalent of the CIA. He is at the beck and call of government and corporate interests. The nefarious organisation which is trying to control the world’s resources, is smart and powerful enough to get the CIA, MI-6 and even the British PM onside. So the only way that our hero Bond, who kills almost everything in his path in his “horribly efficient” way, as one character puts it, can operate without constraint is by seeking revenge with a passion, and going all rogue, as they say.

For multiple reasons unclear to me, events are made to look bad for Bond, putting him on the outs with M, which he never bothers to clear up. When she says to him stuff like “It appears you shot so and so and threw him off the roof of the opera house” he simply says nothing, despite the fact that he clearly did no such thing. When the British Powers That Be decide that Bond needs to be reined in because he’s killing people willy-nilly, with the CIA having agreed to kill him as well at Greene's behest, MI-6 send one attractive girl to chaperone him back to headquarters. The heavily armed squad of special forces guys come along two days later, many moments too late.

Well, actually, she’s only there for him to have sex with and for the bad guys to kill in an oily homage to Goldfinger. Having Bond seduce an entire squad of SAS goons would have stretched the series’s believability just that little bit too far. Although I’m sure he’s up to it.

Look, ultimately, the plot is pretty dumb. Bond is pretty flat. There’s little humour (which is a good thing only in terms of the absence of embarrassing sexual innuendo) or respite in the running time, and the relationship between Bond and M and Bond and the rest of MI-6 makes little if any sense. That’s not the same thing as saying that I didn’t like it. I just had problems with it. But the character is still strong, even if he’s tending too much towards the Bourne archetype. Craig’s just too good in the role, even when they handicap him.

The action sequences especially are painful. The film starts with a car chase that looked more like flashes of microsecond footage projected onto an epileptic flip book. A foot chase through the towers and belfries of Siena in pursuit of a traitorous agent who took a shot at M is pointlessly intercut with a horse race. Bond’s fights with henchmen at the opera is aggressively intercut with scenes from Tosca, making both look incomprehensible and unpleasant. The intercutting / nanoediting serves no dramatic or thematic purpose: it just means they didn’t think the scenes themselves looked ‘exciting’ enough on their own. Or, they couldn’t be bothered choreographing the scenes properly. Or they did choreograph and film them properly, but decided no contemporary audience wants to see that shit. Flash and movement is what they want, lest they fall asleep, the stupid Pavlovian dogs that they are.

I think it’s less a problem of how it was filmed rather than how it was edited together. Yes, every older person complains that movies are cut too quick these days to be comprehensible, not like in the good old days where every scene lasted an ice age and you had to court and marry a scene before it would give up the goods, but it’s an affront to the eyes. It is as if they want the action scenes to be more impressionistic than actually look like action scenes. I guess it serves its purpose of getting the audience to feel on edge and over-caffeinated.

The plot culminates in the kind of fiery explosiveness not only common to most Bond films but to almost every action movie worth its salt in cinematic history. It’s as ludicrous here, though they laughably set up the strange location’s vulnerability by having characters refer to the eco-friendly hydrogen-cell powered hotel as being unstable. Bloody environmentalists.

It does lead to a pretty strong character moment between Bond and Vengeful Russo-Bolivian Burnt Model girl, though, a really strong moment for the film to almost end on.

Sure, Bond may speak in a clipped manner more suited to someone the morning after you’ve had an uncomfortable one night stand, and sure much of the plot and dialogue doesn’t make sense, but I do still feel on some level that there is progress to be made with this character and with Daniel Craig’s rendering of him. They started off strong by making him a functionally sociopathic cold-eyed efficient killer of men, and they softened him by letting him fall in love. Then they made him all cold-eyed and murderous again, on the path to forgiveness and acceptance of what happened to his lady love.

In the next film, how unlikely is it that he’ll be back to his murderous, womanising ways?

Use of technology was somewhat restrained, in that my fear that it would become a ludicrous gadget fest were unfounded. There were a few gadget moments, but they were mostly for show, and didn’t involve hinging the entire plot upon them.

I liked a lot of the ideas in the film, and the manner in which the secret meeting between the secret evil society of supervillains was conducted (in secret but in the open at the opera). Also, Bond’s method of getting a reaction out of the hidden assembly was inspired and brought a big ole smile to my face.

The evil organisation itself, which I believe is called Quantum, is that kind of blend of real world greed and action movie megalomania, where highly destructive events are caused not for the sake of it or for ideological reasons, but to make more money and to control resources and governments (through contracts, no less!) Sure it’s practical, and believable, but the Bond films as a franchise have always been more dependant on supergenius megalomaniacs who decide they know what’s best for the world and who have no problem destroying the world for what they see as its own good. I’m not sure which is the better path.

At the very least, Quantum and its evil minions will doubtless figure in the next films, along with Daniel Craig and Judi Dench. Here’s hoping they retain more of the elements which make Bond distinctive, and discard more of the ones that now make Bond generic.

And for the love of all things evil, go easy on the goddamn editing next time. I’ll watch the next instalment with avid attention, but if it keeps going in the direction I suspect, this show’s going to get awful pointless awful quick. Again.

6 times that jumping through a window onto a balcony is the new shooting with two guns action staple out of 10

“When someone says they have people everywhere, you expect it to be hyperbole. Lots of people say that. Florists use that expression. It doesn't mean that they have people in the bloody room.” – Quantum of Solace