Casino Royale came in 15th on my Top 15 of 2006. Having time to marinate on it, I may rate it higher – it’s one of my favorite action movies of this decade. And it’s without a doubt the best James Bond film (although I say this as a non-fan of the franchise). A bold stroke by the producers at Eon, Casino Royale reinvented Bond for a new age and did it with style and thrills and with the help of the second best Bond in history. And the film ended on such a wonderful note, with Bond showing up on the doorstep of Mr. White, eager for answers and vengeance.
The expectations that Quantum of Solace have been saddled with are almost unfair. But I had a lot of hope. Paul Greengrass was able to top The Bourne Supremacy with The Bourne Ultimatum, and that’s the series from which this new Bond was most heavily cribbing. Besides, Daniel Craig was back, and I felt that he was maybe 70% of what worked in Casino Royale.
The good news: Daniel Craig continues to impress mightily as the evolving James Bond. The bad news: Quantum of Solace often feels scriptless, meandering and like a run of the mill action movie rather than the next bold step in a resurrected franchise. The entire film is a tangent from the finale of Casino Royale, and just as poor, weary Bond must keep criss-crossing the Atlantic to hunt down the nefarious villains behind the super secret shadow organization Quantum, so must the film keep criss-crossing its own plot to just keep momentum going.
It helps to view Quantum of Solace not as its own film but as an extended epilogue to Casino Royale (despite the fact that only the first fifteen minutes and the final scene really have anything to do with Vesper Lynd), or perhaps as a film version of a novel filling in the ‘secret adventure’ that James Bond has between Casino Royale and whatever movie is next. There’s a certain lightness to the proceedings, perhaps due to the fact that the film never takes much time to develop any plot points or new characters. Looking back at the film it all boils down to this sentence: there’s a group called Quantum, made up of extraordinarily rich and powerful people, and they’re so secret and behind the scenes that MI6 and the CIA have never even heard of them. If that intrigues you, maybe the third new Bond film will have more, since this is all that Quantum of Solace gives us, and it blows that load about ten minutes into the film.
Screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade also blow a plot that would have made an excellent film all its own – Bond goes semi-rogue in Quantum of Solace, and has to evade CIA shocktroops and MI6 spies. This is a minor plotline here, and you feel bad that it’s just tossed in to pad the running time of the movie. That padding is needed because Bond finds his man, the enigmatic environmentalist Mr. Greene (seriously, Haggis?), incredibly early in the movie and the general vagueness of Greene’s evil scheme is such that Bond needs something else to do while waiting to get to the climax. Of course Bond going rogue has been done before, in License to Kill, and Quantum of Solace feels like a movie that would have fit in the Timothy Dalton era. Even Greene’s henchmen look like drug toughs from the 80s.
While the script can’t hold a candle to Casino Royale, the action does up the ante without going too far overboard, although it comes close. Mark Forster (and his second unit director Dan Bradley) is surprisingly adept with the action; I thought for sure that coming from the world of tedious prestige pictures Forster would err on the side of emotional bombast, but he really keeps the film moving despite having no plot momentum on his side. He stages chases on foot, on bike, in cars, on boat and in the air, and with the exception of the boat scene (which is truly wretched in execution and editing), Forster finds exciting ways to bring these standard action sequences to life. There are some opportunities that feel missed – a foot chase that begins in an Italian town having a horse race completely avoids the horses and quickly heads to the rooftops – but more often than not Forster pulls it through – the aforementioned rooftop chase, while Bourne-y, is a blast and ends in a real nail-biter of a fight where Bond and his opponent are dangling by ropes.
Forster also brings a huge amount of style to the film. Quantum of Solace looks gorgeous, and while it never gets arty, the movie isn’t afraid of adding a flourish or two to the action to make it unique. I find that I can’t stand Forster’s other films, as they’re all glossy middle of the road pieces of crap, but he seems to have an incredible flair for the language of the action film. Quantum of Solace often plays out like a silent movie thanks to a script that feels more like an outline, but Forster is gifted with simple visual storytelling and with allowing the action to take the place of the character development I so enjoyed in Casino Royale.
If there’s a mistake that Forster makes it’s in casting. Gemma Arterton is the secondary Bond girl behind newly minted action heroine Olga Kurylenko, but it’s Arterton that has all the sizzle with Craig and whose scenes bring the movie briefly to another level. Kurylenko, saddled with a ‘shocking’ back story that’s grossly obvious from her second scene, is beautiful but doesn’t spark with the camera the way Arterton does. There’s also something about Arterton – and her character – that feels like a throwback to the old Bond, but in the best possible way. The series is going to have to start integrating what we fondly remember from the past with what we expect from a modern movie, and Arterton’s character is the example of doing that perfectly. Which isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with Kurylenko, it’s just that Arterton blows her away.
I can’t decide whether or not Mathieu Amalric was cast properly or not. Hatching evil schemes as Mr. Greene, Amalric reminded me of Roman Polanski the whole film for reasons I can’t quite nail down; he and Craig have a chemistry that works nicely but is never allowed to go anywhere. While Bond is on to Mr. Greene from quite early on, and vice versa, the two adverseries don’t have a lot of scenes together until a wholly unbelievable fist fight at the end (staged inside what appears to be a hotel built entirely of thermite). Again, the script lets everybody down and Amalric just doesn’t have a lot to his character, but the actor does manage to wring something from the role. That said, Greene stands entirely in the shadow of Le Chiffre and his bleeding eyeball.
And then there’s Daniel Craig. If Craig was 70% of what made Casino Royale work, he’s 85% or 90% of what makes Quantum of Solace work. While the script has Bond a changed man at the end of the movie, having learned some valuable lessons, it doesn’t actually fill in those gaps. Bond’s continued evolution in this movie is communicated entirely through Craig’s sheer force of will and acting talent – at the risk of sounding in awe of an actor with a chiseled body and the most piercing blue eyes imaginable, Craig brings more to this role than what he’s given to work with. Even when the script edges dangerously towards camp – like when it’s making a joke of Bond’s obviously impractical lifestyle as a ‘secret’ agent – Craig reigns it in perfectly. Given another script on par with Casino Royale and giving it his all like he does here, Craig may yet find himself overtaking Sean Connery as the fan-favorite Bond.
There is a lot to enjoy in Quantum of Solace, especially as a big budget action spectacle in a year that hasn’t quite delivered on that genre. Those who complained about the long card game in the middle of Casino Royale will have nothing to worry about in this film, which barely takes a breather to set up the next set piece. But the biggest villain Bond has to face this time out is his script, which is working against him every step of the way, making victims of character and plot (this is a film that substitutes constant changes of scenery for a story). In fact I’m still foggy on how the movie makes the leap from Mr. White to Greene, and I’ve seen those scenes twice now. Quantum of Solace feels like a stepping stone, one that puts this 21st century version of SPECTRE into play. Only future films will tell us if there’s a Blofeld behind the scenes or if Bond is forever doomed to chase the tendrils of this evil octopus. Here’s hoping they get to the meat next time.