Quantum is a spastic, indecipherable, unholy,
and altogether unwatchable mess.
- Robert Wilonsky in The Village Voice (November 2008)
Quantum of Solace
Film: 2008 (#22)
Book: 1960 (#8)
At the end of the previous film, Bond had confronted the mysterious Mr. White. Here he brings him in for interrogation, only to find that M's bodyguard Mitchell is a traitor, who helps White escape. Bond begins to track Quantum, the criminal organization White belongs to, by following the money trail of Mitchell's payoffs.
Along the way, he crosses paths with Camille Montes and her lover, industrialist Dominic Greene, who runs a clean-energy business that is a front for shadier operations. Greene is a member of Quantum. Montes is using Greene to get close to General Medrano, a Bolivian who is involved in a deal with Greene. Medrano murdered her family and she wants revenge. Greene, who has grown suspicious of Montes, gives her to Medrano; Bond rescues her.
Meanwhile, M is getting alarmed at Bond's continued tendency to murder everyone in the chain as he follows it. When he intervenes in a big Quantum meeting in Austria, he kills what turns out to have been an undercover MI6 agent. M revokes Bond's credit cards and passport when he refuses to be recalled.
At the same time, CIA South American chief Gregg Beam has struck a covert deal with Greene to not interfere in the Medrano deal: Greene will assist Medrano in a coup if Medrano gives him some apparently worthless desert land. Medrano assumes Greene thinks there's oil under the land. Beam assumes this as well, and wants to guarantee the US access to that oil. Beam is unhappy with Bond's interference in the plan and puts out a kill order on him.
With no other help available, Bond turns to Rene Mathis, whom he hung out to dry mistakenly in the previous film. Mathis grudgingly helps and they go to La Paz, where Bond is met by MI6 functionary Fields, who has instructions to bring him in. He does not comply, recruiting her to his ends instead. Bond saves Montes from Greene's wrath at a party (with Fields' help). Mathis is killed and Bond framed for it; he and Montes escape the police and fly to investigate the land Greene is so concerned with. Their plane is shot down, but they discover that Greene's actual scheme is to dam up underground water sources, creating a fresh-water monopoly in Bolivia.
When Bond returns to La Paz, M is waiting at the hotel with armed agents. She shows him that Fields has been killed by Quantum, her lungs full of oil, and reprimands him for getting her killed. She orders him arrested, but he escapes.
Felix Leiter, who is working for Beam and not happy about it, tells Bond where Greene is meeting Medrano, then warns him of the approaching CIA kill squad. At Greene's eco-hotel in the desert, Greene reveals his true plan to Medrano, now in power, forcing him to sign an extortionate water contract. Bond and Montes enter the hotel; Montes kills Medrano, Bond captures Greene, the hotel is mostly destroyed. After interrogation, Bond leaves Greene in the middle of the desert with nothing but a can of motor oil. Bond and Montes part company.
Bond appears in Russia, where he confronts the man who was Vesper Lynd's lover and blackmailer, who is in the middle of trying the same scheme on a Canadian agent. Bond turns the blackmailer over to M, who has tracked Bond down and has come to tell him he's needed back in MI6. Bond replies that he never left.
Book vs. Film
I mention the book (the story collection "For Your Eyes Only") not because it has anything to do with the film, but because this is the last Fleming material we have to account for, and this is the place to do it.
The short story "Quantum of Solace" is an oddity for Fleming. He admitted it was his tribute to Somerset Maugham; I haven't read enough Maugham to know if Fleming came anywhere close to the same style, but whether he did or not, it's not a style that works for Bond.
Bond is in the Bahamas during a brief downtime after a mission there, and as a social/diplomatic obligation, has attended a dinner at Government House - himself, the Governor, and a married couple that Bond makes no secret of having found very dull. The couple has left, and Bond is trying to get through the obligatory post-dinner-chat-over-drinks with the Governor. The Governor tells him a story of a former civil servant named Philip Masters and the woman he married, an air hostess named Rhoda Llewellyn.
The couple met on a flight, and they went to live in Bermuda after they married. Rhoda had an affair which she did not bother to conceal, and Masters had a nervous breakdown as a result. He was given an assignment to Washington as a break from Bermuda while he recovered. When he returned, first he divided their home in half and had absolutely nothing to do with his wife while in the house - although they continued to keep up appearances in public. After a while, he gave up even that pretense and returned to the UK, leaving Rhoda in debt and stranded.
The Governor notes that only a few months earlier, Masters would never have been capable of behavior like that. There is (the Governor says) a "quantum of solace" that exists between two people, and when it drops to zero, humane behavior is no longer possible, because there is no compassion. The Governor goes on to say that Masters never really recovered, whereas Rhoda eventually married a rich Canadian and seemed relatively happy; she and her husband had been the other dinner guests that night that Bond found dull.
I think he's pretty good. Others think he's not Bond. See general remarks below.
One of the most interesting things to ever happen in a Bond film took place in this one, and if critics noticed at all, they noticed it negatively: Bond does not go to bed with his leading woman.
She is very clearly not interested, and he doesn't push the matter. This doesn't mean they dislike each other; they get along well, work well together once they trust each other. He even offers her a certain amount of emotional support, in his gruff way; he knows that actually killing Medrano is going to be harder and more intense than she thinks it will be. He gets her out of Medrano's burning room after the kill, where she would be content to just sit there with her nightmares and die, and she shows later that she appreciates it. They are paired as survivors, people who have been through a lot and are not necessarily better for it, and it gives them a rapport, despite neither of them being what you'd call a great communicator. But theirs is a chaste relationship, save for one kiss at the end.
Frankly, I find it novel and wonderful, and I find it baffling that people actually were annoyed that they didn't sleep together. But then, as you'll see, I find people's reactions to this film baffling in general.
Bond does go to bed with Fields, and it's a cute scene. Gemma Arterton does a lot with a part that's barely there. She's an innocent, not-so-secretly enjoying the world Bond has pulled her into, and portrayed as such. When she is killed, it doesn't read as a punishment for having sex; it's a punishment to Bond for having gotten her involved way over her head. It's a somewhat problematic decision (surely there's a better way to make Bond suffer for his own poor judgement rather than fridging yet another young woman), but I don't mind that it stings; it's supposed to.
Director Marc Forster was reportedly surprised to have been offered the job. He was no fan of Bond, although he said he had changed his mind somewhat after seeing the Casino Royale reboot, which he felt brought Bond down to earth. This may explain why he extended that trend even further here. Forster is also directly responsible for keeping the film short and fast (at 106 minutes, the shortest Bond film ever); he felt the previous one was too long (in my opinion, he was right).
The script (by Purvis/Wade, with a polish from Paul Haggis), is based on an idea from Michael Wilson, which is reportedly where the environmentalism themes come from. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli also determined early on that this film would follow directly from the action of the previous one, which is why some people believe that this film and the previous one are really parts one and two of the same story. I suppose it's harmless to think so.
Haggis said he completed his version of the script "about two hours before the strike began." That would be the Writer's Guild of America strike which lasted three months. The inability to get professional rewrites affected the beginning of the shoot - Craig admitted to some emergency improvisation along with Forster on the set.
Here we bid goodbye to production designer Peter Lamont, who had worked on every Bond from Goldfinger onward except Tomorrow Never Dies (because he was doing Titanic). He'd decided it was time to retire. His replacement here is Dennis Gassner, who was the person largely responsible for the visual design of The Truman Show and who did numerous stints with the Coen brothers.
David Arnold continued to inexplicably get the music gig, and for the second time, the Bond theme in any of its variations is mostly absent, although there are some musical salutes during the titles song (which is pretty good if you like Jack White, which I do). The titles were done by the design and film group MK12, as well as the themed location cards throughout the film, which I love. Wilson noted that the gunbarrel shot was moved to the end of the film "as a surprise," and also as a punctuation mark to this story arc.
I chose the quote at the top of this page because I disagree with it. Thoroughly.
There are a whole lot of people who don't like this movie. Personally, I think it's the best of the three Craig Bonds to date. Sure, all opinion is subjective, but I'm sticking to my guns here on who's wrong, and it's not me.
What's interesting is the form the negative reviews usually take. Roger Ebert, for example, begins his review with this plaintive shout (emphasis his):
Please understand: James Bond is not an action hero! He is too good for that. He is an attitude. Violence for him is an annoyance. He exists for the foreplay and the cigarette. He rarely encounters a truly evil villain. More often a comic opera buffoon with hired goons in matching jump suits.
Note that comment about the villain - so apparently the implication is because Greene is genuinely evil, but in a much more realistic, plausible-in-the-real-world way, that's a debit? Matthieu Amalric gets docked points because he looks and acts like a normal person?
Ebert, to give you an idea of the theme here, criticizes the heroine's name for not being ridiculous enough.
We fondly remember the immortal names of Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp and Plenty O'Toole, who I have always suspected was a drag queen. In this film, who do we get? Are you ready for this? Camille. That's it. Camille. Not even Camille Squeal. Or Cammy Miami. Or Miss O'Toole's friend Cam Shaft.
Ebert was a great writer and a funny one, but there were times in his later years I suspected him of jumping the rails, and this is one of them. So apparently, having spent decades being a cartoon, it is vital that Bond stay a cartoon, and that realistic characters with realistic names and motivations have no place in Bond films? Apparently the mundane evils - you know, the faceless kind in suits with briefcases we fight every single day, mostly ineffectually - have no place in the Bond universe?
I say bullshit.
This is a more effective film for being plausible and rooted in the nasty, sweaty bits of the real world. This is a more effective film for pointing out that agencies do dark things in the name of expediency ("The world is running out of oil, M," the senior minister explains patiently with a sigh, the implication being that this trumps any sort of ethical idealism.)
But I will note this, in the critics' favor - something I just realized this very day, in 2014, sitting down to write this page:
In this film, Bond goes way off the reservation; he is on a private vendetta, a violent and destructive one, and he's so blinded by it that he doesn't care about collateral damage. The villain is not some diabolical mastermind, just a more corrupt version of the usual businessman. Bond's main accomplice in it is a hardened woman who sees where his tunnel vision is leading him, but won't oppose it for reasons of her own. He is cast out and then pursued by his own intelligence agency, for whom he has become a liability, and by another intelligence agency for whom he's rocking the boat far too much.
Does that sound familiar? It might. It's essentially a description of Licence To Kill. (I really, truly, didn't realize the similarities until today.)
As you will recall, I don't dislike that latter film, but I have to handle it in its own special category, because I don't consider it a Bond film; I think of it as an American action film which just happens to have a protagonist named James Bond. So I can't cast stones at critics who cry "This is not a Bond film!" at Quantum of Solace. I have to admit they have a point, or I'd be shooting my own foot off about the earlier film.
But it's important to note that I have never claimed to dislike Licence to Kill, so I think that, even if you personally decide Quantum of Solace isn't a Bond film, it's going too far to call it a bad film.
Again, subjectivity notwithstanding, but of the Bond films I've rewatched bits of to make notes for these pages, this is the first one in a long while where I put it into the player and was strongly tempted to sit and watch the entire thing. From that really audacious opening car chase onward, it has me hooked; there are no slow moments, there is no fat, there is no hour-plus of people sitting around a poker table bogging down the middle of the film, there are no Skyfall superfluous-endings-in-the-dark. It moves, and it keeps moving until it pauses for breath at the very end.
Another important difference between this and Licence to Kill (besides the obvious fact that I'd rather watch Craig do horrible things than watch Dalton do anything), is that Bond learns in this one, where he didn't in the earlier one. Dalton's Bond did not get the hint, and it was always unbelievable that he would be met at the end of the film with an invitation back into the fold. I'm not saying Craig's Bond repents, exactly, but I do note that it's very significant that he does not kill the blackmailer at the end. Even M comments on it. And his reinstatement is much more plausible, given his conduct, than Dalton's was in that story. As Craig says, he never left.
Unfortunately, Skyfall will partly trash all of the character development in this two-film arc, undo all this work - but that's a discussion for the next page.
The plot summary at the beginning of this page is long because I rankle at all the accusations that this film's plot is incomprehensible. It is not, and I've tried to explain it to make it clear that it is not. I tend to assume that the sort of people who can't follow the plot are the sort of people who need everything spelled out for them in giant letters of fire.
That said, I'll temper it: I'm now realizing just how much this film plays on the previous one. If you saw this and you knew nothing, or remembered nothing, of the preceding one, I can see where it might be hard to catch up.
As I noted on the previous page, it's not made clear in Casino Royale that the blackmailer who compromised Vesper had any links to Quantum. Here Mr. White makes it explicit, but it's still dissatisfying to me. Perhaps I need to go rewatch the end of the previous film to see what's said there.
Speaking of which, on the previous page, I had originally written "The final big fight on the scaffolding, with the panes of glass, is unflinchingly nasty and brilliantly choreographed." I was actually thinking of the fight in Siena in this film - which is all that. I don't really remember the sinking-house fight at the end of Casino Royale at all. This is because I pretty much stopped storing the film once they sat down at the card table for an hour.
Fields' first name is Strawberry. Her first name is never used in dialogue; it appears only in the credits. If you find a reviewer who explicitly mentions her first name in their review, you will know you have found someone who has the same hangup as Ebert and wants to mention it so they can secretly delight in it while they appear to eyeroll.
The floating stage in Bregenz, Austria is real, and those are scenes from their actual staging of "Tosca" in 2007-2008. If you think they're bizarre, you have a point, but you can't blame the filmmakers for it. Actually, that's the first time I've ever seen a production design which made me want to see "Tosca" again under any circumstances!
That is also really the Atacama Desert in exterior shots at the end of the film. No rainfall has been recorded in the Atacama in human memory. It is sometimes used in films as a substitute for the surface of the moon. Why someone would build a hotel there is left as a matter for speculation.
The horse race near the beginning is the Palio de Siena. Scenes of this race (without any of the cast) were the first shot, well before principal photography, because of the timing of the race in mid-August.
The rooftop shots in Siena were actually filmed on the rooftops when the producers realized it would be cheaper than building a Pinewood set for it, even allowing for the preliminary work they had to do (removing antique roofing tiles, shoring up roofs, etc). When one reads the production notes, it seems there was a certain emphasis on discreet economy; for example, Forster remarked that the only times Wilson and Broccoli vetoed him were two "very expensive ideas." (One of those may have been a planned sequence at Machu Picchu; another may have been a sequence in the Swiss Alps. Both never made it past the story stage.) However, any economies they may have tried for didn't seem to have done much good; with a production budget of $225 million, this is the most expensive Bond film made. So far.
This film is only the second time the same actor has played Felix Leiter twice, and the only time those appearances were consecutive. So far.
After a local mayor made a fuss about the film crew, and his main gripe turned out to be that they were filming in a town in Chile and calling it Bolivia in the film, Michael Wilson publicly expressed surprise that the two countries could still dislike each other a century after the War of the Pacific. Wilson needs to leave the UK more often and get a clue. There are people in Europe still nursing grudges against one another that date from the 1100s. (I'm not saying that's a good thing, you understand, just that it shouldn't have been surprising.)
If you're impressed with how well Jesper Christensen (Mr. White) manages to radiate evil in these two films despite having almost no lines, you owe it to yourself to find and watch The Debt, an intense and nasty film, but a good one. Incidentally, the status with Mr. White is the same as with Leiter: only the second time the same actor has played the same Bond villain twice, and the first to do so consecutively. (Invisible Voice Of Blofeld is deemed to not qualify.)
Amy Winehouse was originally approached to do the title song, but was not capable of doing so at the time. It's entertaining to read various sites about this film and how they euphemize around her incapacity. I won't tell you how I'd write it. People already think I'm mean.
Speaking of impolitic things, Mathieu Amalric claimed at one point to have based his performance largely on Nicholas Sarkozy, with a smattering of Tony Blair ... and was later forced to back away from that statement a bit.
Directors Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro both show up in this film, one as a cameo, the latter doing uncredited voice work; they are friends of Forster's. Michael Wilson makes his usual cameo; I'll let you spot him. Oona Chaplin is in here either as a hotel receptionist or a woman saved by Montes near the end of the film, depending on who you ask. If she's the receptionist in Greene's hotel, it could well be both at once. I haven't rechecked.
Rumor has it that a scene was deleted from the end of the film where Bond confronts Mr. White; it was reportedly removed because it would have led Skyfall to continue the same storyline and they wanted to reserve the option not to do that. They apparently chose not to ... or did they? We'll discuss that on the next page.
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