Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Twenty-Four: Quantum of Solace (2008)

The Writers’ Strike of 2007-8 appeared to have a dramatic effect on films released right through 2009.  Bigger than usual lapses in logic, plot lines that don’t develop fully, and dialogue that could have done with some extra development can be seen through films including Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (audiences worldwide shocked to learn the Transformers films actually had scripts), and Daniel Craig’s second Bond entry, Quantum of Solace.

With autumn Bond films usually going into production early in the Winter prior to release, the effect of a strike that went into effect in November of 2007 (lasting until the following February) was always going to be dramatic.  With production starting around the turn of the year, the project had received a first draft from long-time writing team Neal Purvis and Robert Wade the previous spring.  With Paul Haggis being brought on board to rewrite this draft, he managed to finish at least version around two hours before the strike went into effect.  After this time no member of the Writers Guild of America would be able to work further on the script.  With Monster’s Ball director Marc Forster not joining until the summer, the direction of the film was still in flux as filming approached.  The relatively late appointment of the director was due, largely, to Roger Michell, who had directed Daniel Craig previously in the excellent Enduring Love, pulling away from the project, due entirely to the under-developed state of the script.

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Forster himself was an eyebrow-raising appointment, with nothing in his canon that suggested Bond.  He was not a fan of the series, joining only after a viewing of Casino Royale.  Noting the long running time of the previous film, he expressed a desire that his entry would be a tight, lean affair.  The title Quantum of Solace (meaning, effectively, a measure of comfort – and referencing Bond’s mental state, and what he would now be looking for, after the loss of Vesper Lynd) was decided by producer Michael G. Wilson in January 2008, a few days before the press conference to launch filming.  Though taken from the Fleming short story, this would be an original story taking events on from the end of Casino Royale.

Quantum of Solace takes up a few minutes after Casino Royale.  Bond (Daniel Craig) is driving from Lake Como, where he accosted Mr White (Jesper Chistensen), to Siena.  After evading pursuers, he arrives at a safe house, where it becomes clear White is stored in the boot of Bond’s Aston Martin DBS.  Delivering White to M (Judi Dench), MI6 look to interrogate the captive.  Before this can happen, M’s bodyguard, Mitchell (Glenn Foster) is revealed as a double agent, and attacks M.  White escapes, while Bond gives chase, killing Mitchell.  Returning to London, MI6 search Mitchell’s home, learning he had a contact, Mr Slate (Neil Jackson) in Haiti.

On arrival in Haiti, Bond first kills Slate (after being attacked by him), then stands in for him, learning he was a hitman sent to kill Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) on the orders of her lover Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), an environmentalist and entrepreneur.  Following Camille to Greene, Bond learns Greene is helping exiled Bolivian General Medrano (Joaquín Cosío) to overthrow his Government.  We learn that Medrano killed Camille’s family, and that Greene is helping the General in return for a seemingly worthless piece of land.

Following Greene to an opera in Austria, Bond infiltrates a gathering of Quantum, the mysterious organisation represented by Mr White, and that had infiltrated the British Government through Mitchell (and Vesper).  Bond identifies a number of the Quantum leadership, taking photographic evidence.  In the melee that follows, a Special Branch bodyguard working undercover for Quantum is killed.  Assuming, incorrectly, that Bond has done this, M cancels Bond’s credit cards and passport, and sends Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) to bring him home.  Before she can arrive, Bond seeks out Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) in Italy to help him in Bolivia.  With Mathis later killed by Bolivian police, paid off by Greene, and Agent Fields killed, via drowning in oil, Bond is left to confront Greene with Montes.

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Learning Quantum is damming off Bolivia’s water supply in order to create a monopoly, Bond learns from Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) that Greene and Medrano are meeting in the Atacama Desert to finalise the agreement.  Heading there with Camille, they confront their adversaries, seeking both to stop a plan that will leave Quantum as sole supplier of Bolivia’s water, and to find out as much as possible about the secret organisation.  Having left Greene in the desert with only a can of oil to sustain him, Bond then heads to Russia, as he seeks out Vesper Lynd’s former lover, Yusef Kabira (Simon Kassianides), as he is about to snare another target, this time a Canadian agent, played by Stana Katic.  Sparing Yusef’s life, Bond drops Vesper’s necklace in the snow, and recommits himself to MI6.

On first viewing, theatrically Quantum of Solace was a deeply unpleasant experience.  The film utilised the same second-unit action crew that had worked on the recent Bourne trilogy.  Consequently, action sequences are edited to within an inch of their lives.  It has been estimated that average shot length in this film is a mere two seconds, when compared to over six seconds for Dr No, in 1962.  There are many scenes in the film that simply make no sense without having seen them several times.  For example, at the safe house in Siena, it takes several viewings to appreciate that M has not been shot, and that the bullet hits the stand next to her, housing the drip on which Mr White has been placed.  As Bond chases the assailant, it is not clear from shot-to-shot which of the two men is Bond, until he finally puts a bullet in his mark.

The pacing of the film is simply far too brisk.  Not only are individual scenes confusing, but we move from one scene to the next without ever lingering to let the film breathe.  Only when Bond is sat on a plane drinking himself to oblivion on the drink he named after Vesper, and when he comforts a dying Mathis, does the film pause to consider where Bond is emotionally – somewhat undermining the whole raison d’etre for taking up right after the crushing events of the previous film.  While Bond films have been moving in the direction of excessive running times, this film coming in at a mere 106 minutes was insufficient to deal with the themes it was looking to address.  This is more an editing issue, than a writing problem.

What is a writing problem, however, is the sense that the film is on occasion making things up as it goes along.  This is very likely to have been the case, in reality, as Daniel Craig admitted some time later that often he was having to come up with dialogue on the day.  Take the whole Agent Fields section of the film.  A heartbroken womaniser with a drink problem has gone rogue, so who do MI6 send to repatriate him?  A pretty young woman dressed, seemingly, only in an overcoat.  Bond’s seduction of her is predicated on some lazy interplay around not being able to find the stationery – something that would, surely, have been rewritten were professional writers available at this point of filming.  When she dies, and Bond is brought in, M takes him into custody, ready to be sent back home.  Yet, when Bond escapes, M orders not his re-taking, but for him to be followed, as “he is on to something”.  Not only does this make no sense if he was to be sent home moments before, but there is no indication, thereafter, that MI6 ever do bother following him.

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In conception, a more ‘real-world’ villain fits the developing tone of the Craig era.  In reality Dominic Greene lacks any menace.  Yet rather than balance this with a tough henchman, they pair him with Elvis (Anatole Taubman), a man harbouring the huge secret that he wears a toupee.  Again, these may have been ideas tweaked through the process, as it became clear it wasn’t working, but this was not a luxury afforded to the production.  On Bond’s side, allies are left unexplored, due both to the truncated running time and the under-development of the ideas the film was looking to present.  Jeffrey Wright is given almost nothing to do, with his sole scene with James raced through in order to get us to another incoherent action set-piece.  Camille has an interesting story to tell, but this is the wrong film – presented in far too brief a running time – to tell it.  With Bond’s mental state, this should have been his story alone.  The film doesn’t quite know what to do with her, or how to play her relationship with Bond, only days on from the death of his beloved Vesper.

There is a good film in here somewhere.  Bond continues to develop beyond the blunt instrument presented last time out, as the film’s events teach him that the answer is not always a bullet.  This lesson is learned by film’s end as he spares Vesper’s former boyfriend and betrayer.  Daniel Craig, at 40 years of age, is at his physical peak in the role.  He takes well to the action demands of the film, and displays an efficiency of movement – particularly at the opera scene – that is reminiscent of Connery at Shrublands in Thunderball – for Connery elbowing a fire alarm, read Craig quickly tearing off a door-handle.  That this scene is undermined, as are so many others, by a clinical, technology-heavy, almost-futuristic design that leaves the film completely un-anchored by so many of the visual touches that we’d expect from Bond is a great shame.  Thankfully, David Arnold’s final score to-date provides us with a strong aural link to series history.

The performance of Daniel Craig, along with the reduced effects of the frantic editing when viewing the film on the small screen, and knowing what to expect after many viewings, leaves Quantum of Solace now looking far better than it did in 2008.  Certainly, it continues the themes of its predecessor, and tries, at very least, to present Bond with an arc, even if that arc appeared to be complete when he announced himself to Mr White at the end of Casino Royale.  Far from the worst entry in the James Bond series, this is not even the worst of its decade: Die Another Day retaining that honour.

With that, the series would need to go into hibernation for four years, as MGM entered bankruptcy.  Turning to the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, Sam Mendes, EON would have to wait until the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year and the series’ own Golden Anniversary to release the next adventure.  Daniel Craig would return after the longest gap between entries to end with the same man playing the role.  With one great entry, and one so-so instalment, the reputation of the Craig era remained in the balance.  As in 1977, EON would enter a Jubilee year under significant pressure to deliver.  First though, they would celebrate the extraordinary achievement of 50 years of the cinematic series, by commissioning an official documentary, to be released ahead of the 23rd James Bond adventure.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Everything or Nothing (2012).

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