Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Quantum of Solace

I blogged a short review of 'Casino Royale' on The Agitation of the Mind a couple years ago. Not one of my more in-depth pieces. I didn't tread any new critical ground in focusing on how Martin Campbell achieved his second re-boot of the franchise following Pierce Brosnan's first (and best) outing, 'Goldeneye'. I trod even more foot-worn critical ground in praising the stripping away of cliches (no gadgets, absolute minimum of smart-arse one-liners) and Daniel Craig's performance as getting back to the Bond of the novels, a Bond who acts rashly and makes mistakes. I concluded:

'Casino Royale' put the series right back on track in fine style, the ending pointing towards the next film ... which has been saddled not only with an unwieldy title ('Quantum of Solace') but Marc Forster as director.

Oh bollocks.

When I wrote that, I had yet to see a Marc Forster film that was anything more than average. In particular, I'd found 'Monster's Ball' and 'Finding Neverland' hugely overrated and deeply flawed in their execution. The signs were not good. Hence that "oh bollocks". (For the record, I have still yet to see a Marc Forster film that is anything more than average.)

'Quantum of Solace' hit the cinemas on a tsunami of hype and I did what I generally tend to do when a film has been hyped beyond all reasonable expectations: I stayed away. Reviews were mixed. And not in a some-people-loved-it-some-people-hated-it way. They were mixed in a some-people-hated-it-some-people-were-totally-indifferent way. The general consensus was that it lost the ground 'Casino Royale' had gained.

I picked up the DVD for a song a month ago, but even then I felt no compunction to watch it immediately. The Christmas and New Year holidays came and went. It remained unwatched. Then I came across an article on the net last week speculating whether Sam Mendes was on board to direct the next Bond film or just as a consultant and I groaned inwardly. Don't get me wrong: 'American Beauty' - belter; 'Road to Perdition' - handsomely mounted; 'Jarhead' - moments of brilliance. But nothing in the filmography that says "hey, you know what, that Sam Mendes bloke has got Bond movie director written all over him". I shook my head and thought, Great, first Marc Forster and now Sam Mendes ... and then I realised that I hadn't yet given Forster the benefit of the doubt.

On 'Quantum of Solace' went.

Full disclosure: this review is based on one viewing and I will freely own up that I made the mistake of not double-billing it with 'Casino Royale'. 'Quantum of Solace' is the only Bond film thus far which functions as a direct linear sequel, quite literally kicking off minutes after the iconic final scene of 'Casino Royale'. And herein lies the key to my problems with the film. 'Casino Royale' was directed by a man who understood what makes the Bond movies popular; a man who knew which elements still worked and which had ceased to appeal. Thus in 'Casino Royale', no Q (let's face it, for all that the last Brosnan outing set up John Cleese as Q Version 2.0, no-one could replace Desmond Llewellyn) or Moneypenny (the character was rejuvenated in 'Goldeneye', her almost-relationship with Bond taking on a spikier undertone, only to regress to embarrassing lovelorn simpering by the time 'Die Another Day' limped onto the screen); no gadgets; a blunt and gritty pre-credits sequence (in black and white, to boot!); and the obligatory vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) ordered not as a matter of course but as a delaying tactic while Bond assesses his opponents in a baccarat game. However, Campbell still delivered the cars, the girls and the action scenes, but brought all of them up to date: the current Aston Martin looks cooler than even the DB5 that weakened the knees of petrol-heads everywhere in 'Goldfinger'; Eva Green walked away with the honours of Best Bond Girl Since Honor Blackman, her characterisation of Vesper Lynd being just that - a characterisation - and not mere set decoration (moreover, the script gave Bond and Vesper a genuine romantic connection rather than the default womanising of so many other 007 outings); and the action scenes were all that we expected of the franchise, but ramped up by the inclusion of an exhilarating free-running sequence.

But above all, 'Casino Royale' succeeded through a bold stroke of legerdemain on the part of all concerned: it wiped the board of the twenty movies that had preceded it and played out as an origin story. Bond's predilection for the Aston Martins, the genesis of the vodka martini (shaken, not stirred), the reason behind his cold and ruthlessly emotionless facade - all are contained in 'Casino Royale'. A bold move, one that paid off spectacularly. Box office tills rang the world over, the naysayers were silenced (remember the anti-Craig sentiment that was all over the net before the 'Casino Royale' had even finished filming?) and Bond was back.

Then came 'Quantum of Solace'. Forster, by his own admission when he accepted directing duties, was not a fan of the franchise. From the off, he had very definite ideas about making a considerably different Bond movie. This in itself might not have been a necessarily bad thing. But, as mentioned earlier, 'Quantum of Solace' is a direct linear sequel. As a stand-alone film, it fails. Every element - Bond's desire for revenge, the elusive Mr White (Jesper Christensen), the vast and web-like series of interconnection and collusion and conspiracy financed by Le Chiffre's culling of funds via high-stakes gaming - inextricably leads back to 'Casino Royale'. In fact, calling 'Quantum of Solace' a sequel is perhaps an understatement: it's a continuation of 'Casino Royale', maybe even a feature-length coda. Therefore it would make sense that the tone and style of the piece be in keeping with 'Casino Royale'. (It would, in my humble opinion, have made a whole frickin' lot of sense to have got Martin Campbell back in the director's chair and not fucked with a winning formula.)

Before I get into a discussion of what Forster does differently, and which of his decisions do and don't work (in the interests of fairness, I have to say that there are some interesting things going on in 'Quantum of Solace'), it's worth pausing to look at the film's development. If you're one of large majority who consider 'Quantum of Solace' flawed, this might go some way towards explaining why:

It's mid-2006 and 'Casino Royale' is in post-production. The powers that be an EON Productions decide the follow-up will be a sequel, thus building on the Bond-Vesper relationship, the theme of betrayal and leaving the path open for the next production to be a hard-as-nails revenge thriller. The story is based on an original idea by producer Michael G. Wilson and shifts the focus of the villain/nemesis from terrorist funds (the plot dynamic of 'Casino Royale') to environmentalism and water supplies. Roger Michell was approached to direct but with no script available refused to commit. The 'Casino Royale' screenplay was by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with a bit of polishing courtesy of Paul Haggis). Purvis and Wade were re-engaged to work up Wilson's concept. With 'Casino Royale' proving a commercial and critical success, the heat was on to get its still-untitled successor into production. The impending writers' strike further redacted the production schedule. Purvis and Wade essentially wrote the first draft under the gun. Forster came on board as director, citing that he'd been impressed enough by 'Casino Royale' to agree. Nonetheless, he felt that film was overlong and wanted 'Quantum of Solace' - the title now having publically been confirmed - to be shorter, tighter and faster. Forster, Wilson and Haggis heavily reworked Purvis and Wade's script. Anyone sensing a too many cooks/spoiled broth ratio here? It gets worse: during filming, Forster engaged Joshua Zetumer (a writer of spec scripts who, at this point, had yet to see any of his work put into production) to undertake rewrites on a day-to-day basis depending on however Forster and the actors' ideas on any given scene may have changed. (A casualty of this approach was that Felix Leiter [Jeffrey Wright] had his timely and intriguing subplot reduced, a damned shame given that Wright's performance in 'Casino Royale' revivified Leiter in much the same way as Craig made the character of Bond his own.)

Alfred Hitchcock once said that to make a good film you need three things: a great script, a great script and a great script. Forster and co. fucked around with the script way too much. Guess what the result was? Award yourself ten points if you reverse-engineering your answer from Uncle Alfred's dictum.

So: let's get down to 'Quantum of Solace' (the title, incidentally, is from a short story in Fleming's 'For Your Eyes Only' collection, one of only a handful of titles not yet co-opted for films - the others being 'Risico', 'The Property of a Lady' and 'Agent 007 in New York').

Things that work in 'Quantum of Solace':

  • The opening car chase - there were those who carped that the editing renders the sequence difficult to follow, but - really - where's the difficulty in man-in-Aston-Martin is being chased/men-in-other-cars are doing the chasing? Cutting it together as jarringly and viscerally as he did is, for me, one of Forster's better decisions.
  • M (Judi Dench) in a more prominent role. Forster has said that Bond and M's relationship is possibly the most interesting, M being the only woman in his life with whom there isn't a sexual element. (Besides, anything that gives us more of the magnificent Dame Judi is to be celebrated.)
    Leiter's morally compromised presence, his superior facilitating a shady agreement between the CIA and a tin-pot dictator, resulting in Leiter being faced with a decision that is potentially antithetical to his relationship with Bond.
  • The idea of villain Dominic Greene (Matthieu Almeric) being just as much a puppet as Le Chiffre in 'Casino Royale', the real powerbrokers of the sinister Quantum organisation still shadowily out of reach.
  • A Bond girl - Camille (Olga Kurylenko) - as driven and determined as Bond himself, who fulfills a role beyond set dressing or romantic interest.

Things that don't work in 'Quantum of Solace':
  • Bond as little more than a British-accented Jason Bourne. He's presented as a brutally efficient, coldy unhesitating killing machine, with none of the suaveness or ironic detachment that defines the character.
  • At least two hand-to-hand fight scenes that have Bond and his antagonist similarly clad, shaky compositions and blink-and-you'll-miss-it editing not helping in identifying exactly who is beating up on who at any given moment.
  • The perfunctory introduction and borderline insultingly writing out of Agent Fields, the eminently likeable Gemma Arterton denied any real opportunity to develop what could have been a highly memorably character.
  • The entire narrative is centred around Bond's pursuit of revenge, but his showdowns with Greene and, in the moribund coda, the man who betrayed Vesper are singularly lacking in catharsis or finality.
  • "I've answered your questions about Quantum," an at-Bond's-mercy Greene blubbers near the end. What questions? Did a scene get cut? Are EON merely playing coy until they've worked out the plot points of the next movie? Fuck's sake, give us something!
  • Forster's curious decision, given how down and dirty he's tried to make this installment, to render each location title card in drastically different, almost comic, lettering so that the film is riddled with establishing shots that come across as parodic.
For all his re-envisioning of Bond, Forster ultimately strives to emulate Campbell - ie. striking a balance between what Bond fans expect and jettisoning what has become passe. But whereas Campbell creates alchemy, in Forster's hands the results are disparity and awkwardness. In Camille, Forster gives us the first Bond girl not to get between the sheets with the ol' stud muffin himself (a brilliant and laudable decision) and yet he channels Bond-as-sex-magnet cliche in 007's perfunctory bedding of Agent Fields, a scene so redundant and out of context that it's blatantly a concession.

Likewise, Forster's morose determination to make 'Quantum of Solace' as un-Bond-like as possible (no suave or debonair moments, no gadgets, no banter, even Bond's steadfast ally Leiter depicted as politically and morally compromised) seems at odds with his explicit referencing of 'Goldfinger' and 'Casino Royale' in scenes that could be considered homages if they weren't such shot-for-shot steals.

At best, Forster tries too hard. The first half hour of 'Quantum of Solace' comprises a checklist of action series - some edited pulsatingly, some confusingly - after which a very convoluted and disjointed narrative is introduced and the pace slows badly. The shortest of the Bond movies at 102 minutes, it seems longer. The finale, ironically, is rushed.

Maybe I'll warm to 'Quantum of Solace' a little more on a second viewing. Maybe watching it straight after 'Casino Royale' will help in corralling the peregrinations of its narrative. Or maybe it'll just throw the directorial approaches of Campbell and Forster into even harsher relief. Whatever; the fact remains that it proved one of the most theatrically successful 007 movies. So it's a given - as borne out by the current slew of Sam Mendes speculation - that James Bond will return. This time around, though, I have no expectations.


Evil Dead Junkie said...

I just rewatched Casino Royale last week and was happy about how awesome it still is. I got to thinking maybe I should rent Quantum Of Solace. Then I came back to my senses.

I truly hated that film. Its like you said, while Casino was able to still feel like a Bond movie, Quantum just isn't.

And was I the only one distracted by the fact that the villain was basically Roman Polanksi. It was just so blatant I'm surprised he didn't sue.

The only scene that I thought really was cool was The Quantum meeting in the opera house, with Bond Turning the tables on them. It was a great working class "Fuck You!" scene. The only problem being that it was the type of great scene you like so much you actually get pissed off its not in a better movie.

Still I think I like Mendes a bit better then you do (I think the poor man was just born in the wrong era. Then again he does sleep with Kate Winslet so he might disagree). And the rumors of Michael Sheen as the bad guy in the next film are pretty cool. Al in all I hope this is just a minor misstep in the Craig career.

Knarf Black XIV said...


A much smarter course of action, having dragged the franchise reluctantly out of its cartoony excesses, would have been to let the old tropes trickle slowly back in.

I assumed Casino was going to be a re-grounding of the franchise; a sober first act to give weight to whatever the franchise was building towards. (I guess I assumed it would be a trilogy, too.)

Instead Quantum just kept retreating from the formula until it was indistinguishable from any old Serious Action Movie X.

Erich Kuersten said...

For me the problem was trying to whittle down a good two + hour movie into a bad 90 minute one. (it probably made more money because it had more showings). Second is the by now dreadfully cliched cross cutting. Do we HAVE to watch a goddamned bullfight or chariot race or whatever the fuck as we watch four different fights simultaneously in micro-second flash edits? To me that's not fun or even artsy, just desperate. It's editor and director masking egoic insecurity with boredom, speeding things up until it's all just a blur... and they even have to toss a potential rape victim in at the climax, for no real reason beyond jacking it all up up up up to no purpose.

God help us, Sam Mendes would go in the other direction, slowing it all down to beeeeautifully lit molasses.

Neil Fulwood said...

Evil Dead Junkie - good call on the villain as Roman Polanski; almost a shame they didn't take it further. A scene of Mathieu Amalric berating Bond for being nosy then taking a knife to said olfactory organ would have been priceless.

Knarf Black XIV - Yeah, that's the way I thought they were going to take it, as well: strip everything back to basics with 'Casino Royale', then maybe one or two gadgets in the next movie, reintroduce Moneypenny or Q and gradually test waters as to how much of the old formula is still viable. But instead of that, Forster takes the already sober aesthetic of 'Royale' and renders it utterly joyless. 'Quantum of Solace' could easily have been a Jason Bourne film. There was nothing of Bond in it.

Erich - the editing basically disguises (or tries to disguise) Forster's lack of facility with action scenes. The inclusion of the horse race is meaningless. The attempted rape is just plain nasty. I didn't get round to talking about this aspect of the film in my review (it had already got way too long), but the rape scene adds a bitter taste of harshly realistic misogyny to a franchise already infamous for objectifying women; it also loses much the ground that had been gained with the portrayal of Olga Kurylenko's proactive and determinedly vengeful heroine.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

I have to say I think Mendes a good choice. For one thing he unlike Forrester HAS shown a flair for action, the shoot out in Dylan Baker's hotel suite in Road To Peridition is a tense well directed set piece.

And if these other two have been trying to incorporate Bourne into their work, I feel as though Mendes can bring in some Graham Greene into the mix.

J.D. said...

I quite enjoyed QUANTUM OF SOLACE for some of the reasons that you didn't. I like that the film is a lean, no frills revenge story under the guise of a Bond film. I also think that if you've seen CASINO ROYALE you become invested in Bond’s personal quest for vengeance. And yet the film also fulfills the usual expectations of a Bond film: beautiful women, death-defying stunts, exotic locales, and world-dominating villains. Personally, I found QUANTUM OF SOLACE to be refreshing break in the franchise's formula. I like it because it is not a stand-alone adventure but instead wraps up the narrative loose end left hanging at the end of CASINO ROYALE. This gives the film a truly satisfying conclusion as Bond is finally able to put a painful part of his past to rest and move on to the next mission and, of course, the next film.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Quantum of Solace was such a let down. It didnt have many of the things I love about a Bond movie.

Aside from the cool car chase in the beginning and the plane sequence, the film was rather unspectacular. And this considering that the plane sequence we had already seen in Golden Eye.

But action is not all that makes a good Bond film, and this films storyline was delivered in such a boring manner, that I just couldnt really care at all.

Even the ending was blah. Didnt like it at all.

Neil Fulwood said...

Evil Dead Junkie - good call on the hotel room shoot-out in 'Road to Perdition' (and Mendes has a previous association with Craig from that film), but I share Erich's concern that whereas Forster was just too frenetic in his handling of the action scenes, Mendes might go too far in the opposite direction.

JD - wow! kudos to you for an eloquent defense of a film that the rest of us seem to be taking pinada-like whacks at. At some point I will make the effort of watching 'Quantum of Solace' on a double-bill with 'Casino Royale' and see if the continuity improves my viewing experience.

Francisco - I agree with you about the ending. If the film had ended with the showdown between Bond and Greene as desert base went up in flames, fair dues. But then there's that dull scene where Bond turns Greene loose in the desert, and then the extended coda in Russia where Bond confront's the man who betrayed Vesper but desists from killing him. I'm not urging the filmmakers to turn Bond into a killing machine or anything, but the way 'Quantum of Solace' ended, there was no catharsis.