This is the 22nd essay in a 23-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in on an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.
Quantum of Solace, a Study in Mehssimism
by James David Patrick
“On Quantum, we were fucked.”
Any conversation about Quantum of Solace must return to the WGA strike. It’s not just that the strike left production with a script found lacking – it’s that there wasn’t a script so much as a bare-bones outline. The “script” for Quantum of Solace has become such a scapegoat in the supposed failure of the film that its ribald villainy overshadows the film’s actual villain, Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric). So what happened with that screenplay?
Let’s start with what we know.
1. At least four screenwriters had a hand in the Quantum cookie jar: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis, and Joshua Zetumer.
2. Production scrapped another outline developed by Paul Haggis when Foster signed on, causing a last-minute rush to develop a new screenplay. But I’ve also read that Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli nixed the Haggis concept. If that were the case one would assume the story wouldn’t have been abandoned and rewritten at the 11th hour.
3. Zetumer arrived on the set during production to do polishes immediately following the resolution of the Writer’s Guild strike but does not own a credit on the film.
4. Their experience on Quantum caused 5-time Bond scribes Purvis and Wade to state that the film would be their last Bond film, but Purvis and Wade haven’t to my knowledge discussed publicly what happened. Craig and Forster don’t acknowledge them in the process. If you read the interviews around the release of Quantum of Solace, you’d never know they were involved, if not for the credits. They talk only about Zetumer and Haggis.
5. In more recent interviews (during Skyfall pre-release press), Craig and Forster have said that they developed the final concept on set during filming based on a second narrative outlined by Haggis and turned over hours before the strike. This is a shift from their statements in 2008 that claimed the script was “fine,” prior to the start of filming of Quantum.
6. Nobody seems to agree publicly about how the Quantum of Solace shooting script came to be.
So there’s a script issue to consider. Those aforementioned Skyfall press interviews from Craig suggest he and Forster (similarly Purvis and Wade) have attempted to distance themselves from the final product. What actually went wrong with Quantum of Solace? Does it deserve to be an orphaned film, disowned by its stars and creators? Loathed by Bond fans?
The E! True Hollywood Story about the director and the film’s star “writing” the script during production (which backtracks on their prior comments that the script was workable at the beginning of production) partially denies the film failed at all. Alas, nobody gets a do-over because of bad luck and circumstance. Craig’s comments served to build up the then unreleased Skyfall – Yes, yes, Quantum was a failure, but imagine what we can do with real writers and three years of pre-production! On one hand we can consider it the inevitable truths of a troubled production. In 2008, they would absolutely deny dysfunction. They couldn’t come out to the press pre-release and call the script improvised gobshite, scribbled down on cocktail napkins by the star and director. One could now also read the comments as lip service for fans, many of which rallied against the film. We know you think Quantum stunk. But this new one’s not like that at all! We’re on your side! #Truth
All of this shuffling and production backtracking feeds our bias and directs expectation, making it difficult to see Quantum of Solace for what it really is.
Okay, So What Is It Then?
I remember disappointment upon exiting the theater. I’d monitored the rumor mill, understood the implications of the Writer’s Guild strike, but I also considered Casino Royale to be a Bond masterpiece. CR had once again galvanized Bond fans and renewed broader interest in the series. With Quantum of Solace picking up minutes after the conclusion of CR, I expected the continuation of that masterpiece. My expectations were not-appropriately-tempered to reflect logical concerns about sequels, rushed productions or the real-world implications of the writer’s strike.
It was all just meh. I couldn’t pinpoint the source of my immediate disappointment, however.
Meh just happens. We can’t plan to meh, nor can we anticipate it. Meh results from usurped expectations. If we enter into an experience with nothing shepherding our attentions, judgment comes unencumbered – an opinion free from bias. Do not wholly disparage expectation. Lesser expectation allows for unexpected pleasures as well. More often than not, however, expectation results in disappointment and clouded judgment. It results in meh.
Is it possible to remove that initial impression and expectation from subsequent viewings? Movies cannot be judged in a vacuum. Even the most scrupulous, levelheaded critic brings baggage and expectation into the theater. Though time and distance may erode that initial impression in half-lives, I do not believe it can ever be erased. When a movie exists as part of a series of films, the baggage gets even heavier. George Clooney’s character in Up In the Air could give a grossly hollow seminar about the weight of all that cinematic baggage called “How Much Liverwurst is In Your OMW* Fanny Pack?” Regarding the Bond films, it’s a wonder we can even drag that 10-ton satchel into the theater anymore. (*Shout out to Will McKinley who keeps me informed on the latest trends in the Old Movie Weirdo guild.)
Considering the weight of that baggage and the direct juxtaposition against one of the great Bond films, it comes as no surprise that most viewers tend to focus on what Quantum of Solace is not.
The Bourne-Again Problem
First, some easy observations. Quantum is not up to the standards set by Casino Royale. It is also a weak attempt to revive the concept of the villainous shadow organization a la SPECTRE (the groundwork promises greater things should EON choose to follow through, however). Despite Mathieu Amalric’s broader ability (see Munich), he was not given menace or scenery to chew – the result is a desk-jockey, pencil-pushing sleezeball, a French version of Licence to Kill’s Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke), the villain’s accountant, in a much meatier role. (Side note: JIMMY KNOWS MISTAKES!) Among all fan quibbles, however, this next one appears most regularly in conversations about the film: Bond lost his identity.
Released in 2002, The Bourne Identity (directed by Doug Liman) made Matt Damon an international action hero and popularized the shaky, jittery, rapid cutting style of filmmaking that spread like wildfire. Bourne capitalized on the prolonged absence of Bond between Die Another Day and Casino Royale. When Bond finally returned, shades of Bourne crept into MI-6 as well. Quantum of Solace borrowed further, evolving into what many have called “The Bond Identity.” Bond fans do not take kindly to James Bond riding the coattails of a franchise riding Bond’s coattails. It’s a bit of the dog chasing its own tail. It’s worth considering however that the Bourne franchise didn’t so much borrow from Bond as rally against its frivolous escapism.
Bourne’s second director, Paul Greengrass (not coincidentally a filmmaker who has dabbled in docudrama) emphasized the series’ naturalism and gritty realism. He minimized grand cinematographic gestures in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Gone were the Bond staples, sweeping aerial shots of exotic locales, sun-stained beaches, and prodigious landmarks (huge tracts of land perhaps); replaced with bustling everyday affairs, like London’s Waterloo subway station or cramped, winding city streets. Greengrass (and to a lesser extent Liman) painted with broad strokes of verisimilitude and claustrophobia, tension and paranoia. Bourne left no time for frivolous activities such as casual sexism, gambling, or cocktail sipping. He spent too much surviving to worry about composing witty puns or arguing the merits of various vintages of Bolly.
Jason Bourne’s weapons of choice? Skillfull fists (Bourne had received training in the martial arts of Jeet Kune Do, Krav Maga and Filipino Kali), ink pens, and rolled up magazines. As a fugitive, Bourne had to employ everything at his disposal to avoid execution by the organization that had created him. He boasted a distinct lack of gadget-laden payloads to employ with a wink and a hinged brow. Last we saw Bond he was tooling around in invisible cars and parasurfing on seas of CGI. A reaction to the excesses of Die Another Day was inevitable, only this time the recalibration came not from within the James Bond franchise, but from without. The initial three-film Bourne franchise (excepting the much weaker Bourne Legacy) influenced Hollywood action-cinema the way James Bond had done in the 1960’s.
One could make a compelling argument that rather than hindering, Jason Bourne paved the way for the resurrection of James Bond in Casino Royale. Though Bond would never go full-Bourne (don’t you dare touch our high-stakes Baccarat Texas Hold ‘Em, womanizing, glamorous globe hopping and three-martini lunches), the close-quarters combat and Greengrass realism (Greengrassalism?) brought James Bond back to his center, closer to the Bond as blunt instrument of Sean Connery than any other Bond since. The Bourne-style of combat almost fit Daniel Craig better than that Brioni dinner jacket in Casino Royale. Almost.
If Casino Royale borrowed with moderation, Quantum of Solace showcased the downside of gorging on Bourne. As an isolated technique the shaky cam and rapid cutting effectively portray disorientation, the goal to similarly affect the audience and convey a sense of what it feels like to be chased through a crowd or engage in a high-speed car chase. From a practical perspective, overuse of the shaky cam causes motion sickness in many, forcing some audience members to look away from the screen, breaking their connection with the film. Egregious overuse similarly breaks audience connection; no amount of Dramamine can clarify action or ground a scene maligned by too-close cinematography and rapid editing.
The term “jump cut” has been mentioned many times during my conversations about Quantum of Solace. This is not an accurate description of this style of editing. Rapid cutting between different images does not constitute a jump. A jump cut is a cut between two camera images the angles of which only slightly vary (less than 30 degrees by general rule) or a cut created by removing a middle portion of a continuously filmed shot. Jump cuts can also be used as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to denote the passage of time when 13-year-old Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) becomes Harrison Ford after the fedora is placed on his head. The identical camera-angle causes this technique to also be considered a jump cut. Jump cuts have gained a bad reputation, a result of overuse (without reason) or just incompetent filmmaking. A good jump cut amplifies the artifice of a film, calling attention to the deliberate decisions made when assembling the different elements. Done well, they can add irony, convey a stressful or scattered psychological state, or signify the passage of time.
Both techniques – rapid editing and extreme camera angles – call attention to cinema as artifice. The opening car chase of Quantum suffers somewhere in between nausea and disorientation. I defend the scene as a visceral experience – David Arnold’s score pulses with urgency, connecting the scattered images and action. In Bond’s universe of anti-auteurism, Forster’s use of frenetic editing amounts to avant-garde cinema. Pulling the audience out of a film through the use of jarring cinematic elements doesn’t altogether jive with the nature of escapist entertainment. I believe strongly that the two methodologies can cohabitate blissfully and often with stunning results, but Quantum experiences both extremes.
In recent memory, Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban effectively blended escapism with artifice in a popular film series. And in many ways the Bond series and Harry Potter have a lot in common when it comes to the negation of individual directorial style. Would you say John Glen’s Octopussy or Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Unlikely, unless you occasionally discuss Jerry Paris’ Police Academy 3: Back in Training, in which case all bets are off. Cuaron injected his own aesthetics into that third Harry Potter film, and as a result Azkaban surpassed its uniformly bland brethren as the most interesting entry in the series. Forster tried to do something similar in Quantum, albeit with distinctly mixed results.
Quantum’s opening sequences lacks clarity. True. Some have argued that Forster was merely directing out of his element, with an entirely new cinematic palette. The Bond production had hired the editor of The Bourne Supremacy, Richard Pearson, to help assemble the film, suggesting that producers had nudged the director in a certain stylistic direction. Despite Forster’s resume, I disagree that he proved himself incapable of helming a big-budget actioner. Forster’s stylized approach to Bond sporadically pays huge dividends throughout Quantum of Solace. There’s the modern, minimalist conception of the Ken Adams lair and subsequent assault; the bold framing of the film (Vis-à-vis the end-movie gun barrel); and the unique non-sexual relationship between Bond and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) based on shared revenge and nary even a shred of sexual tension, an oddity in the Bond universe.
In terms of the biggest payoff, however, I’m thinking specifically about the Bregenz opera sequence.
Bond stands above a brilliant blue eye at the center of the stage scanning the audience for nefarious persons talking on the intercepted radio channel. The performance is Tosca at the Bregenz Opera House in Austria. Legitimate spying, eavesdropping, listening – a rare occasion where 007 lives up to his billing as a “spy” and shows a moderate amount of tactical restraint.
“Bolivia must be top priority,” Dominic Green says.
Bond interrupts, hoping to flush the QUANTUM members out from the brush. “Can I offer an opinion,” he says. “I really think you people should find a better place to meet.”
One by one, the secret agents of QUANTUM stand, exposing themselves. As they do Bond snaps identification photos and transmits the information back to MI6. A guard approaches from beneath, forcing Bond from his location. Mr. White recognizes the ploy and remains seated. “Tosca’s not for everyone,” he quips to the woman in the seat next to him. A sly show of confidence and cruelty that shows he’s still one step ahead, even if his associates prove themselves unworthy. He’s comfortable sacrificing the others, remaining hidden in the crowd. The opera score plays in the background, gradually increasing in volume until it dominates the aural landscape.
Bond meets Greene in the hallway. Crosscutting juxtaposes Bond’s standoff with Greene with the Tosca action on stage. Bond evades a flurry of gunfire from Greene’s guards who then pursue him into a dining room. The editing again becomes more rapid, largely unintelligible beyond the isolated moment, fading back and forth between Bond and Tosca. Gunshots and shrieks of patrons diving beneath their tables shatter the opera’s haunting string arrangement. Bond now dodges bullets in the kitchen. Both sound and visual editing call attention to the fact that a director, editors, a cinematographer are all making calculated, specific decisions. We are not hearing a verisimilar range of sound effects nor are we experiencing action in real time. The scene lasts three and a half minutes but conveys a tremendous amount of mimetic narrative information about QUANTUM, Mr. White, Dominic Greene and Bond’s current state of mind (clear and calculating but irresponsibly brash). The crosscutting with the opera adds a third dimension to the scene, the thematic overlap between the film and the opera. To understand this, we must ask one more question.
The German publication Der Spiegel wrote: “This artistic intent is new in the Bond film series. Action before never meant anything other than action.” They go on to say, “Forster by contrast stylises the shoot-out as a fascinating ballet of death, and Bond is just one of the dancers.”
First, Barbara Broccoli and Marc Forster loved the opera house setting on the shore of Lake Constance. The incredible open-air structure presents an eminently modern backdrop for the meeting of QUANTUM, while offering something unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a Bond film – an action spectacle in a theatrical setting, specifically an opera house. One might be skeptical enough to suggest that Tosca was just the opera playing when the Bond production strolled through town. Perhaps. But that wouldn’t explain why the opera played such a vital role in the scene.
The particular scene in question concludes Tosca’s first act with the aria “Te Deum.” Scarpia, the head of police (and Tosca’s resident jerk store), plots to have Tosca followed and watched and Cavadarossi (a libertarian painter and Tosca’s lover) executed. The massive, free-floating blue eye perched over the stage represents the police-state atmosphere in the opera (and clearly carries a unique wealth of significance in the Craig Bond universe as well). In this scene, the pupil of the eye has opened and a police escort leads Cavadarossi away in chains, a political prisoner.
Forster doesn’t provide enough visual grounding for the casual viewer to make these connections. Being opera-illiterate myself, I had to do some research in order to connect the dots. That rare breed of cinemagoer – the one perched at the precipice of opera aficionado and Bond fan – will understand the context immediately. The rest of us are meant to bathe in the cacophony of silent imagery accompanied by the score from Puccini’s violent, passionate opera. Let us pursue the nature of the score a little further. After “Te Deum” the soundtrack jumps ahead to an instrumental section played immediately after Tosca stabs Scarpia to conclude the second act.
Here’s the murder of Scarpia featuring legendary opera diva Maria Callas, whose 1953 recording of the opera, I’m told, remains the Tosca benchmark.
Aha! Though this could be culled with little mental machination (I must admit I didn’t consider putting the pieces together), Quantum of Solace and Tosca share a central revenge motif. Tosca seeks revenge against Scarpia for incarcerating and torturing his lover. Imagine the opera aficionado, the oddball of his clique, who gets to lord this revelation over the heads of all his little friends who couldn’t tell an oratorio from a cantata.
Within this Bond film, Marc Forster created an elaborate play-within-a-play (one showcasing the rise and fall of a tyrant, an abuser of power) in which the music from the staged opera informs and deepens the action taking place on screen – a great payoff for those familiar enough with Tosca to recognize the jump forward (or those obsessive enough to research it). At face value the blue eye also superficially parallels the signature characteristic of this new Daniel Craig Bond – his striking blue eyes. I would go on to highlight how Forster uses blue as part of his limited color palette in Quantum of Solace as well – if Array Jackson hadn’t already done the heavy lifting for me in her My Favorite #Bond_age_ essay. I’ll merely defer to her exquisite discussion of color symbolism to further this point and allow myself to move on.
Lauding technical achievement only goes so far when arguing the merits of a Bond movie. One important trial must be passed in order to achieve acceptance into the upper echelon of Bond.
Is It Bond?
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.
Over the decades Roger Ebert had an erratic relationship with James Bond. And on this specific point of his I must both agree and disagree. I agree that “Bond is not an action hero,” but I must clarify further. I believe that James Bond is more than just an action hero. At what point in the 23 James Bond movies has anyone ever thought: “You know… this movie’s good, but it would be even better if James Bond did less of the exciting stuff.” James Bond is an action hero, but an action hero that is not defined by action. He is not John McClain or Jason Bourne. Bond is defined by the moments between the action, the martini sipping, baccarat playing, womanizing cad with a silver tongue and an occasional mean streak. Action provides an essential contrast to the refined character of exquisite opinion and polish. It’s folly to suggest that Quantum of Solace isn’t Bond because there’s too much action… too much running, chasing, driving, diving, flying, exploding, etc. Packed up to its dreamy blue eyeballs in action, Quantum in fact provides the perfect shell inside which to define the character. And that is where and why the film occasionally falters. The connective tissues fail to let Bond to be Bond.
That’s an important distinction that brings us back to the very beginning of this conversation. What makes up the connective tissue of an action film? Exposition, character, and dialogue among other essential elements. Writers don’t get paid to write action scenes. Action scenes are mapped out with minimal scripting. The pace must be brisk, the words minimal to convey immediacy. To oversimplify the point, writers get paid to write downtime. In Bond, downtime means seduction, consumption (booze and women), and witty banter. It means a feared, hyperbolic villain or at least a feared organization behind the villain. In Quantum, the seduction of Agent Fields feels lazy. The Goldfinger/Jill Masterson homage feels similarly forced into the proceedings. While on a plane with Mathis, Bond drowns his sorrow in martinis until visibly intoxicated and then asks for a sleeping pill. There’s no fanfare, no luxurious setting, no Beluga caviar (north of the Caspian) and no panache. The scene feels like Bond, but it also feels like alcoholism and irresponsible self-medication. Dumping Mathis in a dumpster doesn’t go over well, but there’s at least narrative logic involved. The greatest resistance in the film comes not from Dominic Greene or the elusive QUANTUM (cornering the market on the Bolivian water supply seems more mischievous than eeeeeeevil), but from Bond’s own shadow, his self-destructive psychological state. It’s as if Bond’s going through an awkward teenage phase, seeking solace in Cure records and poetry by Sylvia Plath. He’s become serious downer, but who are we to deny his “blue period”?
There’s another side to this argument that breathes extra-textual life into the film. As a sequel to Casino Royale the two films engage in an interesting debate about who Bond really is. He’s baptized into the ranks of the 00, but operates as a bit of a rogue from the outset – certainly not up to the patriotic standards of a man who’s parachute opens to reveal the Union Jack. He’s brooding and unpredictable, a loose cannon supported by M, against her better judgment. Why does M protect Bond? Putting this much stock in unpredictable rookie agents regularly couldn’t be good for job security (or mission success). She harbors him even as her government condemns him. This maternal relationship between Bond and M sets the stage for a huge payoff in Skyfall. Without Quantum does Skyfall pay equal dividends? I argue that it wouldn’t. The two-movie narrative arc of Casino Royale and Quantum provides that essential foundation for making Dench’s M a narrative and emotional lynchpin in Skyfall.
A Licence to Avenge?
This Daniel Craig Bond acts with reckless immediacy, a slave to his emotions and his need for revenge against those that killed Vesper. Outside of Licence to Kill, Bond has rarely entered into plots of vengeance (don’t even consider the beginning of Diamonds Are Forever in this conversation). It’s a very un-Bond state of mind. And perhaps that’s the source of the critical division over Quantum of Solace (and Licence to Kill for that matter). When Bond concludes his revenge and tracks down the man responsible for the intrigue against Vesper, Quantum ends, but James Bond, 007-proper begins.
M: Did you find what you were looking for?
M: Good. I assume you have no regrets.
Bond: I don’t. What about you?
M: Of course not. That would be unprofessional.
M: Bond, I need you back.
Bond: I never left.
Bond walks away, dropping Vesper’s necklace in the snow. The movie fades out on that final shot of the necklace and then the “opening” gun barrel sequence appears. Traditionalists cry fowl. Practically, of course, with Quantum picking up five minutes after the end of Casino Royale, a gun barrel intro would have interrupted the flow from one movie to another. Still, it could have been slapped in for the sake of tradition without missing a beat. I consider it a fascinating creative statement about the development of the James Bond character in the Craig era. Even though he became a 00-agent after his third kill in the opening of Casino Royale, Bond did not yet fully inhabit the tuxedo. It was only after dispatching the loose ends in the wake of Vesper’s death that he could assume the role fully and earn his opening gun barrel, a newly christened James Bond, now a little dead inside but finally fit for duty.
Quantum proves to be a maddening entry in the Bond canon. It serves as a testament to the growth of the franchise, newly re-committed to a classic take on the James Bond character in a modern cinematic world. It is also an example of how all of that connective 007 tissue can become detrimental when not effectively deployed in support of character and villainy. Though quibbles over specific elements in Quantum will forever rage – Agent Fields covered in oil, the stylized title cards and Bond’s Bourne-ness come to mind – the widespread hatred for the film baffles me. I go back to usurped expectation. Could expectation and disappointment still tarnish judgment six years after the film’s release?
Quantum of Solace is the “Bring out yer dead” movie in the Bond canon. The cart comes round with a bunch of universally disliked Bond corpses (Die Another Day, A View to a Kill, perhaps). The Naysayers carry out the wheezing, emaciated Quantum of Solace.
Naysayer: “Here’s one.”
QoS: “I’m not dead!”
Cart pusher: “He says he’s not dead.”
QoS: “I’m getting better!”
Naysayer: “No you’re not, you’ll be stone dead in a moment.”
Even though Quantum’s not dead (not by a long shot), it is enough to make most Bond fans shake their fist angrily at the sky. The missed opportunities. The intense action without a Bond backbone. Quantum of Solace is a film of intermittent ineptitude but also excellence, too-maligned by impression and expectation. Yet, there’s much to celebrate if we distance ourselves from that expectation. I consider myself a pillar of reason and logic. I’ve argued at great lengths that the movie just isn’t as bad as all that rampant negativity. Dare I say, in fact, that I enjoy Quantum of Solace more than Skyfall despite the lack of cinematic polish? Had QoS not arrived immediately after Casino Royale, I’d wager the naysayers would be less eager to toss it on the cart. You’re probably asking: “How might you, @007hertzrumble, remain so even-tempered despite the contradictory anti-QoS madness swirling around you?”
Well, I’ll tell you.
I eat the peppers.
(You didn’t honestly think you’d get out of here without talking about the peppers, did you?)
Previous James Bond #Bond_age_ Project Essays:
Dr. No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live and Let Die / The Man with the Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View to a Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill / GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace / Skyfall / Spectre