Quantum of Solace Remains a Mess, But It Understands What Makes Bond Tick
Forget forced references and interminable lore dumps. All Bond needs is gin and a gun.
Casino Royale launched Bond’s Daniel Craig era with such force and vision that it made Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day look like a movie for espionage-loving cavemen. Ludicrous gadgets and hideous CGI were replaced with grounded spycraft and practical stunts, and the result was a tight thriller that ripped into the beating heart of Ian Fleming’s clever little thug.
For optimists, it was a roaring return to form. It was an enjoyable affair for pessimists too, but it was also a reminder that the franchise once again risked tumbling from the pinnacle it had conquered, just like it had so many times before.
Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale’s 2008 follow-up, is generally seen as having borne the pessimists out. The overwrought title was mocked from the moment it was announced, with The Guardian suggesting it reeked of a desperation to maintain a tenuous connection to Fleming’s stories, and a parody theme song commenting on Bond’s “great big man tits” proving more memorable than the generic trailer that eventually surfaced.
Reviewers weren’t much kinder to the actual movie, with suffered from production delays and the fallout of the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike. Accounts vary but, according to Craig, the strike left director Marc Forster with the “bare bones” of a script, forcing Forster and 007 himself to write scenes. Once the strike resolved, Joshua Zetumer was brought in to rework chunks of the film while it was being filmed, as its juicy Thanksgiving release window was considered untouchable.
Such obstacles are hardly unheard of, but they didn’t help Quantum of Solace make a good first impression. Neither did Forster’s inexperience with action. Credits like Monster’s Ball and The Kite Runner made for a solid resume, but he wasn’t Eon Production’s first choice, and Forster himself was surprised to be approached. The opening chase scene, which makes so many rapid cuts that it becomes incoherent, is an encapsulation of all the uncertainty involved.
A middling reception and a more beloved follow-up in Skyfall seemed to seal Quantum’s fate as a letdown, with complaints of “spurious grit” and “incomprehensible” writing in The Sunday Times proving typical. But that’s unfair to a movie best seen back to back with Casino Royale, not with two years of expectations weighing it down. It’s not so much a sequel as a coda, a lengthy exploration of Bond’s attempt to deal with the betrayal and death of Vesper Lynd, albeit by shooting a lot of people.
Once Quantum gets its legs under it, it becomes as taut and punchy as any good Bond flick. Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene isn’t entering the pantheon of villains, but his scheme to install a dictator in Bolivia in exchange for access to their precious water reserves accomplished Forster’s goal of making a more political Bond. It’s ballsy, at least by Hollywood blockbuster standards, to create a Bond villain who isn’t empowered by hulking henchmen and superweapons, but the fact that the CIA is supporting his attempt to overthrow a democratic government. When Bond’s boss’ boss joins the coup train, it’s a reminder that “villain” is a label governments often apply based on circumstances rather than morals.
It’s a brutally unsentimental film all-around. Bond and co-star Olga Kurylenko are motivated more by revenge than any particular desire to do the right thing, and after Bond coaxes Giancarlo Giannini’s Mathis out of retirement for an obviously doomed final job, Mathis bites it and Bond tenderly holds his dying colleague before dumping his corpse in a dumpster to be forgotten. It’s not John le Carré — Bond still quips, fights, and romances his way around the world — but after Casino Royale insisted on giving us a darker era of Bond, Quantum of Solace was the only movie in Craig’s quintet to be honest about what the darkness looks like.
Quantum also continues what Casino Royale started by digging deeper into what makes Bond tick. Seeing Bond race boats, shoot guns, and seduce Gemma Arterton is the main appeal here, but by the end Bond has moved on from the past and is ready to become the focused killer we see in the rest of Craig’s run. You can argue that Skyfall and No Time to Die are better films, but they’re not as compelling without the character growth established here.
That’s a lot to cram into one movie, and you can feel the script strain to contain it all as we bounce around Haiti, England, Italy, and Bolivia. But Quantum is also, compared to the lugubrious Spectre and overlong No Time to Die, refreshingly self-contained. Bond is presented with a mystery, unravels it, and then blows it up in just over 100 minutes, and no one stops to explain how his actions secretly tie into his childhood travails and the elaborate schemes of silly supervillain cabals. The action becomes cleaner and more coherent as we progress, and for all that some critics reviled its humorlessness, it even sneaks in a couple of deadpan jokes far superior to a dozen double entendres.
None of this keeps Quantum of Solace from being inferior to Casino Royale, but it does make it far better than its “the one they farted out before Skyfall” reputation suggests. It’s a movie about Bond growing up, and you can see the franchise go through its own growing pains. Quantum of Solace is the awkward teenager of Craig’s Bond films, and is often halting and uncertain of itself. But its searing politics can’t be ignored, even if its ostensibly more adult sequels really try to.
Quantum of Solace is streaming on HBO Max.