If Casino Royale was two steps forward for the James Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace is one step back. While it tries desperately to reach the same level of quality that its predecessor did two years ago, it falls short in a number of respects.
But first, the good. Quantum of Solace may have problems, but Daniel Craig is certainly not one of them. He proves once again that he is perfect in the role of 007, even if screenwriters Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis don’t give him nearly enough to say. (In fact, I’m quite confident that he has the least lines of any of the main characters in the film.) Even in silence, Craig’s ferocity hints at an emotional turmoil more painful than Bond can admit, even to himself. Try as he might, he simply can’t escape the events of Casino Royale and how deeply they have affected him. The only way he can express himself is through violence, whether it comes coldly and decisively or in the form of unthinking, bone-breaking brutality.
The entire cast does a good job, actually, especially Judi Dench as M, in what is surely her most prominent role in a Bond film to date. Ukrainian model/actress Olga Kurylenko is surprisingly convincing as Camille, Bond’s main ally in Quantum of Solace. I call her an “ally” rather than a “Bond girl” because, unlike virtually every woman in every other James Bond movie, she is not an object of desire for Bond. In fact, through the lens of vengeance, Bond comes to see her as something of an equal. Her quest for revenge (against the man who murdered her family) mirrors Bond’s, and makes her character all the more effective as a physical manifestation of Bond’s unspoken rage.
However, such simple, primal emotions tend to make a story’s inconsistencies that much more noticeable, and this is undoubtedly the case with Quantum of Solace. A scene in which Bond seduces a fellow MI6 agent comes off as especially disruptive to the movie’s serious tone, as well as the general arc of Bond’s brooding pathos throughout the film. The point, I think, is to show Bond’s willingness to use his charm not merely to gain personal pleasure (as he would have in the Sean Connery and Roger Moore eras), but as a means to a greater end. This idea is hinted at in an exchange between Bond and M, but ultimately it goes nowhere. Unfortunately, the entire subplot culminates in a heavy-handed (even downright stupid) “homage” to the classic Bond movie Goldfinger, eliminating any inclination I might have had to take the scene in question seriously.
Plot hiccups like this one are almost irrelevant in the face of Quantum of Solace’s larger issues, though. Whereas Casino Royale was a truly engaging experience, the cinematic seams are visible in Quantum of Solace – the movie reminds us, again and again, that what we are seeing is indeed only a movie. One of the main problems is that director Marc Forster clearly does not get action. Every single action scene – whether it’s a rooftop chase, a car chase, a boat chase, or an airplane chase (are you noticing a pattern?) – is composed of enough quick cuts and changes in camera angle to almost completely eliminate any sense of continuity between shots.
Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of second unit director Dan Bradley, who worked on the second and third Bourne films, and who brings a similar style to the action sequences in Quantum of Solace. However, most of the responsibility lies with Forster, who doesn’t seem to have the sense to just let the movie’s action be. Twice in Quantum of Solace he intercuts heavy action sequences with completely unrelated (and uninteresting) events: a horse race and an opera. The effect is disorienting and uncomfortable, and only serves to confuse the audience in the end. Even the movie’s more traditional action sequences suffer from poor editing and a general lack of fluidity. Halfway through the movie’s big boat chase, I literally had no idea who was chasing who or in what direction anyone was going.
Above all, the movie’s biggest problem is that in many ways it represents a return to convention for the series. While Casino Royale broke new ground in terms of changing our perceptions of what a Bond movie could be, Quantum of Solace settles for far less and seems content to do so. I’ve already mentioned the movie’s absurd reference to Goldfinger, as well as Bond’s ill-fitting (albeit brief) return to his pre-Casino womanizing ways. But more generally, Quantum of Solace promotes action over plot and style over substance in a way that reminds me all too much of the direction the franchise was headed before Casino Royale came along.
Overall, Quantum of Solace works best as a companion piece to Casino Royale – but, to be honest, Casino Royale works much better as a standalone film. It doesn’t need Quantum, and neither do we. But as it is with so many things that we don’t necessarily need, it’s hard to say no to James Bond – especially this James Bond. Daniel Craig’s performance alone will justify the price of admission for most, and viewers can for the most part expect a fun, if not entirely comprehensible, experience. My only hope is that next time around, we’ll be in for a much smoother ride.
Rating: *** (out of ****)