Saturday, October 20, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Quantum of Solace

‘Casino Royale’ maintained fidelity to its source novel in many ways, not least in presenting Bond’s card table duel with underworld accountant Le Chiffre as his first mission following his promotion to Double-O status. I wonder if, for even the briefest moment, the producers considered reapproaching the other novels, this time in sequence, and reconfiguring them for a contemporary audience. Just as ‘Casino Royale’ replicated the mechanics and setting of Fleming’s novel but with a framing narrative centered around terrorism and high-level financial chicanery, did anyone consider the possibility of ‘Live and Let Die’ with Mr Big revealed as the man behind Le Chiffre (there isn’t a single Bond novel where “SMERSH” can’t easily be recast as “shadowy terrorist organization”) and Solitaire’s gift of prognostication an enigmatic and possibly genuine preternatural talent rather than the silly plot device of the Roger Moore film; or ‘Moonraker’ as a properly earth-bound adaptation but focusing on drones and stealth technology rather than Drax’s phallocentric rocket; ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ without the oil rig and concentrating on the greed/death/emptiness of riches subtext of the novel and with Tiffany Case as a proper romantic heroine despite her personal agenda – a sort of Vesper Lynd but without the coercion; or ‘From Russia With Love’ brought up to date with the Russian Mafia and prostitution rings; ‘Dr No’ as an acidly satirical comment on environmentalism (something the film under consideration today tries to achieve) with the guano mine retained but its claw-handed villain striving for a source of clean energy only with a dirty use in mind; or ‘Goldfinger’ played out against the worsening global financial crisis; ‘Thunderball’ updated in any way you see fit – as long as there are weapons of mass destruction, the basic plot remains timely; ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ with the events of the last half of the novel compressed into a punchily effective pre- and immediately post-credits bit of action, the hoods at the motel setting Bond on the trail of a more high-ranking villain; a less lachrymose adaptation of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ with subliminal messaging as a tool of media control instead of the daft hypnosis/sabotaged crops malarkey of both the novel and the Lazenby film; and perhaps collapsing ‘You Only Live Twice’ (retaining Dr Shatterhand’s grotesque and disturbing garden of death) and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (retaining the brainwashing, M’s dichotomy and the redemptive suicide mission) into a single taut, angry and challenging narrative?

I’m guessing nobody did, but fuck me it would have been one hell of a direction to go with the newly revivified franchise!

This is what the producers did instead: in mid-2006, with ‘Casino Royale’ in post-production, the powers that be an EON Productions decided the follow-up would be a linear sequel, thus building on the Bond-Vesper relationship and channeling the theme of betrayal into a hard-as-nails revenge thriller. The story was based on an original idea by producer Michael G. Wilson and shifted 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. ‘Casino Royale’ scripters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Paul Haggis did some work on the denouement) 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 although he wasn’t a Bond fan 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, although having bugger all to do with the eponymous Fleming short story - 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.

The result of all this malarkey is that ‘Quantum of Solace’ is a complete mishmash. It weighs in with some intriguing concepts and possibly the most overt political imperative of any Bond movie. It flirts with exploring the Bond/M relationship in greater detail, but never quite finds a dynamic. It gives us the first Bond girl – Camille (Olga Kurylenko) whose relationship with 007 isn’t defined sexually – but arbitrarily throws Bond into bed with fellow spook Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) only to kill her off in a manner that explicitly homages Shirley Eaton’s demise in ‘Goldfinger’, thus reminding us how casually disposable the franchise’s attitude to women is. It gives us a sequence of dusty, dirty, grubby and determinedly unromantic locations, as if Forster wanted to declare with every frame a commitment to moving away from the fantasy and lifestyle porn of the previous films, but renders each location title card in drastically different, almost comedic, lettering so that the film is riddled with establishing shots that look like something out of a spoof film.

But the worst problem with ‘Quantum of Solace’ is its action scenes. This is a James Bond film, y’all, so action scenes are kind of important. Forster makes the monumentally awful decision to steer it into Jason Bourne territory, but whereas the Paul Greengrass contributions to that franchise are shot through with pounding, hyper-kinetic action scenes, ‘Quantum of Solace’ just looks like it’s been edited by a speed-freak who’s been washing down amphetamines with quadruple espressos. Either that or the editing is a 102-minute exercise in trying to disguise Forster’s lack of facility in staging action. Whatever salvageable grace notes ‘Quantum of Solace’ might offer in other respects, it nosedives towards Shitsville every time it delivers an action scene.

It also makes the fundamental mistake of throwing the majority of its actions scenes at the viewer in the first half before struggling to marshal a mélange of disparate elements into something approach a plot as the hour-mark approaches. After which the pace slows to the point of tedium. 102 minutes – the shortest Bond movie – and yet its last 40 minutes are truly interminable. Approaching ‘Quantum of Solace’ for this review – it was only the second time I’ve watched the film – I wondered if it would improve (a) on a second viewing, and (b) shortly after watching ‘Casino Royale’ (my rationale: appraise the two films as a unified whole and see if the narrative peregrinations of the latter get ironed out). But I’m left with no change of opinion from when I originally reviewed it over two years ago. And exactly the same thing happened while I was watching it: round about the halfway mark, boredom set in and I simply didn’t give a crap what happened.

Martin Campbell, directing ‘Casino Royale’, was savvy enough to know which elements of the franchise still worked and which needed pruning back or doing away with entirely. Forster simply shitcans everything that makes a Bond movie a Bond movie. Somebody should have given him the Bourne reboot instead and enticed Campbell to continue the story he’d so brilliantly envisage in ‘Casino Royale’.

Only one thing emerges as solid gold in ‘Quantum of Solace’: Daniel Craig’s total commitment to his personification of Bond and his innate ability to take the character seriously. I ended my original review with the observation that “it’s a given … that James Bond will return. This time around, though, I have no expectations.” Since then, and with each of the various trailers and publicity stills I’ve seen, I have developed expectations. Said expectations have evolved from tentative anticipation to borderline pant-wetting excitement. ‘Skyfall’ doesn’t have to do much more than be edited properly and have a coherent script to emerge as infinitely better than its predecessor. But, please EON, please please please, after a four year wait and with only a finite amount of times the now 44-year old Craig can reprise the role, please let ‘Skyfall’ be awesome.


Matthew Kitsell said...

Hi Neil,

Another fascinating write-up containing information regarding the production that I wasn't aware of. Thanks for filling me in!

Yes, there's no question that CR is a far superior piece of work to QoS in virtually every respect. However, having seen QoS a few times now, I've found that for me it actually improves on repeated viewings - there's basically a decent story there buried underneath all the tiresomely edited action sequences which becomes easier to unravel with greater familiarity with the material. That said, a great many people hate the film and I can certainly understand why - it's a messy, totally flawed piece of work, but I find that its many imperfections actually make it one of the more interesting Bonds to revisit, and these days I find myself rather liking it (I have a similar relationship with Hitchcock's somewhat unfairly maligned Topaz). My only complaint with CR was the final action sequence in the sinking building - I felt something quieter and more subtle (like the way the novel ended) would have rounded out the film on a far more satisfying note.

You're not alone in imagining the Fleming novels being remade in the correct order, it would be wonderful to see them all redone properly. It seems appalling in retrospect that pulpy but nonetheless quite exciting novels such as Live And Let Die and Moonraker were casually tossed out at the time - one can hardly argue that their cinematic equivalents improved upon their source material. The Diamonds Are Forever novel I nonetheless found a little aimless and it would probably need a lot added to it if it were to be adapted faithfully but effectively.

Now that the Bondathon's seemingly coming to an end, many thanks for all the reviews, they've been hugely enjoyable and informative. It's fascinating to see on which films we have agreed and on which we haven't (OHMSS is my personal favourite, so I was surprised to see it getting a bit of lukewarm reception on here - and I've always had a rather a soft spot for Moonraker!) - on the whole though I think you've been pretty spot on with your reviews and there's not a lot here that I would really disagree with.

Thanks again,


Tim said...

I promised myself that I wouldn't read any of these until I'd reviewed the film in question myself, and I'm holding to that, but I sort of... cheated... on the opening paragraph, and you have brought tears to my eyes, sir. Genuine damn tears of sorrow that your idea of how to save the franchise was so much better than anything the actual producers have ever done in 50 years.

Anyway, I look forward to reading this one in full in a couple of weeks.

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