50 Years of James Bond
“Quantum of Solace” came out the same year as Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” and at the time, I was certain that “Quantum” was the better movie. Now I’m not so sure. “The Dark Knight” stands alone, while what’s exciting about “Quantum” are all the things it does differently from the 21 installments that had come before. Today, I’m not so convinced this Marc Forster-directed chapter works on its own terms, and viewing it again, I’m once again impressed by its style, yet less satisfied with its storytelling.
“Quantum of Solace” serves as that rare franchise sequel that continues the character and story established in the first, rather than simply generating another stand-alone installment in an infinitely repeating series. This was revolutionary territory for Bond, considering that he had previously lost a wife at the end of one film (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) and carried on like nothing had happened. Something similar happened in “Casino Royale” with the drowning of Vesper Lynd, only instead of forgetting about it, “Quantum of Solace” picks up where the previous film left off — with Bond seeking revenge for Vesper’s death.
At 106 minutes, “Quantum of Solace” is the shortest 007 adventure, which makes sense when you consider that the film’s first act is essentially the last act of “Casino Royale” — which also explains why that film feels like such a radical departure from the proven formula, since its villain, Le Chiffre, is shot dead two-thirds of the way through and the remainder of the film is spent establishing where things might go in subsequent Daniel Craig films.
“Quantum of Solace” is also noteworthy for all the things it doesn’t do. Carrying forward the stripped-down elegance of “Casino Royale,” the film functions without Moneypenny or Q. The self-aware asides are kept to a minimum, to the extent that audiences must scour the end credits to discover that Bond’s comely redheaded assistant bears the Ian Fleming-worthy moniker of “Strawberry Fields” (she declines to give her full name in the film). When Fields’ naked body is discovered dipped in oil, the sight obviously references Jill Masterson’s fate in “Goldfinger” while serving as a clever red herring to the film’s actual plot.
It doesn’t take much to fool a contemporary audience into believing that a criminal organization like Quantum — a sort of 21st-century substitute for Bond’s old Cold War-era adversary, SPECTRE — might be interested in oil. But their scheme is not so simple, and I appreciate the fact that the screenwriters were being slightly more forward-thinking with the film’s stakes: Once Quantum’s scheme is finally revealed, we learn that it is water, not oil, that these shadow-puppeteers are angling to control. In another 50 years, I suspect the state of that resource will make our current fossil fuel concerns look trivial by comparison, and the fact that MI6 takes so long to come around to realizing it demonstrates the emerging theme of the series: That perhaps Bond and the rest of his organization has been rendered somewhat prehistoric by the sophistication of their adversaries (a theme echoed by M’s testimony in “Skyfall”).
As the face of Quantum, Mathieu Amalric projects just the right disconcertingly smug attitude. He may not be as iconic a villain as those who have come before, but then, he doesn’t have to be, since the film establishes that he represents just one of a vast and well-connected network of like-minded power players — which is not only scarier but also more realistic than the idea of a single, independently wealthy malefactor bent on world domination. He looks as if he’s seven moves ahead of Bond in a massive game of chess, one in which our hero is still struggling just to get a full view of the board. (It’s not until he and Olga Kurylenko are standing in the dried out riverbed that Bond finally comes to realize the stakes — surprisingly late in the game, given the formula.)
Still, despite all I admire about “Quantum of Solace,” there’s no denying that my initial enthusiasm led me to look past its considerable weaknesses. It’s exciting to be in the hands of a director with a strong vision, and the film looks breathtaking in its desaturated bronze and blue tones. But Forster insists on experimenting with a strange editing style that masks an almost crippling incompetence in directing action, effectively cross-cutting between the opera and the intrigue in the “Tosca” sequence, for instance, but rendering almost indecipherable the initial chase with Mitchell, which culminates in a confusing set piece involving platforms and pulleys and other moving parts.
Over the years, rumors have raged that the Broccolis were courting A-list directors to try their hand at the franchise. Names like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino were thrown around (as much as I admire both, I’m glad neither had the chance to put his stamp on Bond). During Brosnan’s run, known directors actually had a shot, breaking away from the familiar stable on whom the producers had always relied. In “Quantum of Solace,” the audience is constantly aware of Forster’s presence, and it’s a somewhat distracting factor in the mix, as this series is most effective when we’re experiencing the suspense through Bond’s eyes, rather than the meta-filter of elegant good taste.
I understand why this film disappointed so many, and looking back just four years later, I see that many of its flourishes feel like stunts to class things up, but ultimately serve to get in the way. “The Dark Knight” doesn’t have that problem (though it has a whole host of others not worth getting into here). But one can’t understate how thrilling it is to finally experience a 007 film in which the psychology of the hero continues from the past episode, where Bond is allowed to grow and respond to past experience. And that’s precisely the factor that makes “Skyfall” so strong: Bond remains (relatively) young and modern, and yet he has half a century of scar tissue to inform every decision he makes.