Our Word Is Our Bond returns with Jonathon Dabell examining Quantum Of Solace (2008), starring Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko and Mathieu Amalric.
Casino Royale (2006) had reinvented Bond for a post-Bourne audience. The tough urbanity of Sean Connery, the smug wit of Roger Moore, and the lightweight froth of Pierce Brosnan were gone. Craig’s Bond was a combination of Lazenby’s vulnerability, Dalton’s ruthlessness and Fleming’s damaged, disillusioned assassin. Dalton fans could rightly point to the fact that their man had already interpreted 007 as a troubled, moody, ‘loose cannon’-type agent. But in the late 80s, when Dalton’s brief tenure took place, his approach proved too far from formula to sit well with audiences. Thus, Dalton departed after a mere two pictures and the franchise went into its lengthiest period of limbo, six years to be precise. Craig’s return to the darker side of Bond came at the right time – audiences were ready for this style of Bondage by 2006, and, under the assured direction of Martin Campbell, Casino Royale was a critical and commercial hit.
Alas, Quantum Of Solace is a classic example of one step forwards, two steps back. With Bond back in vogue and audiences hungry for more, the series stumbles badly here with a movie which ranks among the worst of the lot. I feel particularly bad about bad-mouthing Quantum Of Solace, since it tries extremely hard to eschew stereotypes and goes out of its way to avoid generic clichés. There is no Bond girl as such (key female characters, yes, but little in the way of romantic or sexual connection); the theme tune is unusually radical for the series; the political backdrop is muddied, with no clear good vs evil (Bond himself is flawed and often makes questionable choices, while the bad guys are not just one-dimensional cardboard villains – some of them even have positive attributes). Mathieu Amalric reportedly wanted to play his villain as a grotesque, hunched character but was persuaded by director Marc Forster that a realistic baddie would simply be someone who blends into his surroundings unobtrusively.
Sadly, despite all its efforts to be fresh and different, gritty and ‘current’, Quantum Of Solace suffers from two enormous flaws which all-but destroy its good intentions. One is that the script is an utter mess, uninvolving beyond belief, with feebly introduced characters who do not engage the audience on any level. The second is that the film is edited with such sledgehammer zoom and fury that key scenes come across confused and confusing. Several action sequences go by where it is almost impossible to follow who is doing what to whom, or why.
The convoluted plot is unusual in the Bond universe in that it is a direct sequel to Casino Royale. Chances are if you come to this film without having seen the previous entry, you will probably not be able to keep pace with it. It would be akin to watching The Empire Strikes Back without seeing Star Wars first. Never before has a Bond film been so intrinsically linked to its predecessor.
Embittered and angry at the death of Vesper Lynd in the earlier movie, Bond (Craig) is on a vengeance quest which makes his boss M (Judi Dench) more than a little uneasy. After learning they up against a shadowy organisation about which he knows nothing, Bond follows a slim lead to Haiti where he meets Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), the lover of environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Camille has been marked for death by Greene, and Bond is intrigued to find out why.
It eventually transpires that Camille works for the Bolivian Secret Service (which Greene doesn’t know), and is out for revenge against the corrupt General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) who raped and killed her mother and sister when she was a child. Greene, who is a major player in the deadly Quantum organisation, is planning to corner the water market in Bolivia while helping Medrano to seize power in a coup. Once the general is in power, Greene’s organisation plans to blackmail him into buying their water for a vastly inflated price. If he refuses, he will be ousted or killed, and swiftly replaced. The CIA are aware of the dirty business taking place, but are willing to turn a blind eye for their own benefit, meaning that Bond’s renegade actions go against their plans and put him in direct opposition with them. With the bad guys out to kill him, the CIA determined to stop him, and the British government compromised and embarrassed by his lone-wolf crusade, Bond finds himself a man with no allies and nothing to rely on but his own instincts.
In fairness to the film, its opening twenty minutes are pretty good. The pre-titles sequence is not a stand-alone mini-adventure as we have grown accustomed to; instead, it is a rather short and frenetic chase sequence, undeniably exciting and energetic. The first few scenes in the film proper set up an intriguing and promising premise, as M and Bond slowly realise they are up against an invisible enemy which has penetrated unobserved to the very heart of their seemingly incorruptible infrastructure. A thrilling chase sequence across the rooftops and balconies of Siena brings down the curtain on the film’s promising opening stretch.
It’s all downhill after that, unfortunately. Characters come and go without proper introduction, Bond follows a trail of clues around the globe with inexplicable ease, and all the while the film ties itself into an unfathomable tangle. It’s refreshing to see Bond not chasing every piece of skirt in sight, and visiting some of the less glamorous corners of the world (Port-Au Prince in Haiti and La Paz in Bolivia make for uncommonly squalid locations), but the story moves too hastily for its own good, and suffers from frequently incomprehensible dialogue. Director Forster reportedly felt many earlier Bond films were too long and wanted to bring this one in with a tight and pacy running time. Ultimately all he achieves is here is an unshakable sense that crucial footage has been left on the cutting room floor. At 102 minutes, this is the shortest Bond film to date (apart from the TV movie Casino Royale from 1954), but an extra fifteen minutes of character development and plot exposition would probably have helped.
I’m all for the idea of Bond films going down a grittier, more intense route, with a flawed hero rather than an unflappable super-agent, but all these things are worth their salt if they’re handled well. Here they are merely cluttered and unfathomable, rendering this fresh and original approach flat. The end result is a film no better (in fact, arguably a good deal worse) than jokey, cheesy, unloved entries like Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker and A View To A Kill. Luckily, the rather splendid Skyfall was just around the corner, and with it the Bond series was back on track. Skyfall continues the gritty, politico-centric, ‘trust-nobody-in-this-dirty-world’ style established here, but does it so much better. Quantum Of Solace is a sorry mess, cynical and unengaging, all whiz and thump and no heart.
MoM Rating: 4/10