Remember when, as a child, you’d suddenly see things from a new perspective? I must have been about nine, or perhaps eight, when it struck me that there were people in the world who had not heard of James Bond. That thought held me in a tighter grip than the notion that some people had no access to drinking water, or the Bible…but no James Bond? What kind of alien existence would that be?
The Bond juggernaut has driven through our culture so many times that the track is littered with the flattened roadkill of lesser spy thrillers. And it continues to be a huge event. The film’s opening carried its own slot on the BBC News. I guess there are fewer and fewer guys and gals out there who have not heard of James Bond.
So, Quantum of Solace. What a title. It’s drawn from a 1960 short story in which Bond has to listen to a boring story related by a (male) dinner companion. The recent film, however, jettisons that plot and replaces it with a story that revolves around environmentalism dreamed up by one of the producers, Michael G. Wilson. The coincidence of the plot and the title is quite strained. As the title was decided upon only a few days before being announced, you might be correct in thinking that the connection is almost entirely superficial. Yes, the villains belong to an organisation called ‘quantum’ (mentioned just once, in a sexy French accent, at the close of the film). Why not SPECTRE? One suspects the legal wrangles around the rights to Fleming’s Thunderball (cf. Connery’s Never Say Never Again) might have something to do with it.
As you’ll see from this article, I hated Casino Royale. It was a poor imitation of the Bourne Identity franchise; certainly shot with some flair, but it needed to step even further away from the classic Bond tropes towards the Bourne universe to be successful as a film (artistically successful, I mean). Every time I think of Casino Royale the half decent scenes (Bond introducing himself with the iconic ‘Bond, James Bond’ to the Quantum operative; the rope-about-the-nuts torture set-piece) pale in comparison to the horrendously ill-judged defibrillator scene.
Quantum of Solace is a huge improvement over Casino Royale. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the director, Marc Foster, has a sharp understanding of what directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass were doing in the Bourne franchise. There is a sense of cinema verité to the visual style that makes Bond’s experiences much more visceral; it’s difficult not to feel vicarious pain at all the bumps and scrapes. This is heightened somewhat by the choice of the second unit director, Dan Bradley, who served as second unit director for the second and third films in the Bourne franchise. (A second unit will often shot establishing shots, cutaways, and chase sequences. As an example of how important the second unit can be, take another look at the ‘ark chase’ scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark — shot entirely by the second unit.)
Second, there are fewer gadgets. I’ve got nothing against gadgets per se, but they should never be used in lieu of the character’s wits. A gadget should never be a ‘get out of jail’ card. A more appropriate use of a gadget is the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. I’ve heard Russell T. Davies say that the sonic screwdriver is there for one reason only: While monsters, fear, giant spaceships and other things should stand between the Doctor and goals, he should never be stopped by something as mundane as a locked door.
Third, the villain isn’t disfigured. Seriously. I hate the idea that a facial disfigurement (a la Blofeld) means that a person is evil. Grow up. Bond, of course, was described by Fleming as carrying a prominent facial scar.
Fourth, and most importantly, the story here is stronger. I’ve heard several respected critics say that the film is too complex to follow, but this I can only say, ‘Pay more attention’. The reply to this is, ‘I don’t care enough to pay attention,’ and this is an interesting response. Interesting because very few stories in Western literature (particularly the Hollywood paradigm) centre on a protagonist who does not change much. Bond does change a little (in terms of his relationship to Vesper Lynd, which is neatly symbolised at the end of the film), but the characters who learn the most in this film are Bond’s Russian/Bolivian companion and his boss, M, both of whom come to deep realisations in the film. This flies in the face of convention somewhat, because Hollywood films tend to equate the protagonist with the character who learns the most. In The Quantum of Solace, this is not Bond (if you’re in any doubt, remember his last line; it is as much a statement as ‘I never changed’). If the viewpoint character is not the one who learns the most, then the film can become less engaging due to a perceived lack of development. I, personally, didn’t find this to be the case in this film, but I can understand if some were left cold by the narrative.
Fifth, Daniel Craig’s excellent performance. He rivals Connery for Bond. His stoicism is so complete that when he moves an eyebrow the effect is like another Bond actor chewing on the dashboard of his Aston Martin.
So endeth my thoughts on the Quantum of Solace. Far superior to Casino Royale; learning the lessons of the Bourne franchise; taking us away from the somewhat incestuous, trope-ridden Bond films of the 1990s. There is life in the old spy yet.