Quantum of Solace Review
There’s a very curious moment about two-thirds of the way through Quantum of Solace, one which neatly sums up the film’s main problem. (If you haven’t seen QoS yet this constitutes a spoiler so be warned, although frankly if you don’t see it coming you’ve never seen a 007 film before and I would urge you not to begin your journey with this particular instalment.) Bond returns to his hotel room to find his contact and latest conquest Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) dead, killed by the sinister agents of Quantum who, obviously closet fan boys, have despatched her in an extremely similar way to Shirley Eaton’s famous demise in Goldfinger only using oil rather than gold to finish her off. The odd thing is not that it happens but more how director Marc Forster shoots the scene: he doesn't focus on the body at all, putting it on the edge of frame or blurred in the background, and only giving us the quickest glimpse of it as we fade into the next scene. Quite why he does it in such a visually awkward manner is unclear, but unconsciously it sends the message that he isn't especially interested in such spectacles, not realising that for many fans the spectacle is what Bond films are all about. Time and again, similar choices are made throughout the movie, constantly playing down traditional 007 elements in favour of a more serious and grounded spy thriller, with the result that we end up with a film caught between two slightly different stools and satisfying no one. After the success of Casino Royale it’s unsurprising that all those involved wanted to continue down its road of reinvention, but too often QoS goes too far, with the result that we end up with the impression of a Bond which wants to look away from the bed completely and only grudgingly gives it a glance because it feels like it has to – in short, this is a Bond which doesn’t want to be a Bond at all.
Although structured to be essentially Casino Royale: Part Two, complaints that if one doesn't watch CR first it's difficult to follow are exaggerated: as long as one doesn’t care about missing the odd reference, it’s still perfectly easy to comprehend that Bond is after revenge for the murder of his lover and leave it at that. His quest leads him to discover that the organisation responsible for her death is the SPECTRE-like Quantum, a worldwide outfit which has its fingers in a lot of pies and operatives who have infiltrated the highest levels of many government organisations - including, as M discovers to her cost when one shoots her, on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Their connections mean that many of their activities are unofficially endorsed by countries clueless to their real aims; when Bond begins pursuing Quantum bigwig Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and his plans to bring about a coup in Bolivia, the CIA itself tell him to back off, the US government believing that said coup will remove one of those troublesome South American dictators who are always causing trouble and net them a tidy profit in new trade agreements into the bargain. Unwilling to let go of the man who might be the key to Vesper’s fate, Bond goes rogue, teaming up with Bolivian secret agent Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who is similarly after revenge, in her case against General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), the man who raped and murdered her mother and sister when she was a little girl and who just happens to be the army general Quantum plan to install as Bolivia’s new puppet ruler. As the pair travel to the parched landscapes of the South American country, they discover Greene’s real motivation for sponsoring the coup: he plans to secure 60% of the sun-dried country’s water supplies and blackmail the new president into giving Quantum sole distribution rights. In these ecologically tense times, water is the new oil, and a man called Greene is determined to control it.
On the face of it, that synopsis makes QoS sound fairly typical. All the ingredients are there: an international terrorist organisation with a mad plan for domination, a female sidekick with a personal vendetta against the bad guys, a collection of exotic locations (in addition to Bolivia 007’s travels take to him to Italy, Haiti, Austria and Russia) and M watching from the sidelines and tutting at her agent’s unorthodox methods. But the treatment is half-hearted bordering on lazy at times, with, despite the many set pieces, a languorous pace and underdeveloped characters. Despite Kurylenko giving a committed, strong performance (with a better role she could have become one of the great Bond girls) her character is nothing more than a rehash of the likes of Domino, Anya or Melina from For Your Eyes Only, with nothing to distinguish her quest from vengeance from those earlier. Quantum itself is a nebulous organisation – despite one effective scene in which Bond infiltrates their covert meeting at an opera house, they are ill-defined, an all-purpose global conspiracy which can be fitted to whatever requirements the story needs. Despite their widespread tentacles, they certainly don't have the same air of menace as SPECTRE did, not least because any group that chooses to employ Dominic Greene as a frontman is more likely to inspire pity rather than terror. Amalric's character is without doubt one of the weakest villains Bond has ever faced, an anodyne figure with zero charisma who poses all the threat of a bowler hat with its steel rim removed. He’s the baddy the other baddies give a wedgie to and stick his head down the toilet, so monumentally ineffective that whenever he runs into Bond all he can do is freeze like a deer caught in the headlights and adopt an expression that suggests nothing more than a bad case of trapped wind. He can't even handle simple tasks like pushing girls off balconies, and chooses for a henchman a somewhat camp-looking individual who literally does nothing the entire film other than leer in a fey manner and fall down some stairs. For a story that was purported to be about Bond’s vigilante-like quest for personal revenge after the murder of his beloved, we needed a suitably egregious target, rather than one who inspires nothing more than apathy on the part of both the viewer and, it seems, Bond, who in the end doesn't even bother to kill him.
It's clear that Forster and writer Paul Haggis's hearts just aren't in the job. Instead, they are far more interested in lending the film some kind of commentary on the current geopolitical landscape, in which western governments knowingly make deals with shady associates, economic pragmatism trumps black and white morality every time and only Bond stands between Britain's fine name and total moral decay. The environmental angle is poorly developed and, as Eamonn accurately noted in his cinema review, feels exploitative, but the overriding portrait of the conflicting factors affecting the West is not unconvincing, even if at times one feels that the outrage on display is a little artificial. One of the things the Brosnan era struggled and finally failed to do was place Bond in a wider political context, which is one of the reasons his films, post Goldeneye, feel more shallow than those of the Sixties and Seventies. QoS's primary success is in once again establishing a global backdrop for Bond's adventures. It's no coincidence that while the principal characters, with the exception of Bond himself, aren't up to scratch, a couple of the background players, representing this backdrop, are invested with far more personality. The oleaginous Medrano, for example, would have made for a far more enjoyably nasty adversary than Greene; similarly, while poor old Felix Leiter is relegated to little more than a plot device, his smarmy CIA associate (who, for one joyous moment early on, sounds like he’s called Mr Bean) is a memorably sly character, one who will hopefully crop up again in a future episode.
The one point where this different focus really benefits the film is in the figure of Bond himself. Irrespective of his grief for Vesper, which aside from giving him motivation doesn’t actually get that much of an airing, the actor has found an interpretation very different from his predecessors yet which is still somehow quintessentially Bond. The cold-blooded assassin, last seen roughly in the mid-Sixties, is back, whether he’s twisting a knife into one unfortunate’s femoral artery and waiting for him to bleed out or knocking someone off the roof of an opera house the second he refuses to talk. This is an impatient secret agent, curtly cutting people off with a dismissive “No,” when what they are saying has no relevance, in the same way that he repeatedly chucks away weapons or other implements the moment their usefulness has ended. Continuing on the theme of CR, he has emotional believability – his redemption at the end of the film, in which he doesn’t kill the man who set Vesper up, is automatic, but earlier his relationship with Camille is well drawn, whether he’s apologising to her for stopping her killing the General or, in the film’s climax, comforting her as she quakes beneath the flames of the burning hotel. One suspects that the otherwise extremely lacklustre climax was created solely for this sequence, which makes it a bit of a shame that it is something of a retread of the shower scene in CR, but nevertheless it adds to our knowledge of this man, and as such is worth something. He’s also got a subtly differently sense of humour – there are no Connery or Moore-like quips (and he does have opportunities, such as when he hands the unconscious Camille over following the boat chase) but instead he has a far more wry outlook. “That wasn’t very nice,” he says after being shot at, while his reaction to Fields’s suggested hideout, and his subsequent rewriting of their cover story in a far more luxuriant hotel, is greatly amusing. In fairness we are now very far from Fleming’s Bond, but the character, and Craig's intelligent performance, makes him an intriguing, three-dimensional figure, arguably far more so than any of his five predecessors.
Indeed, the only aspect of Bond that I’m not so certain about is what is developing into an uncomfortably maternal relationship with M. Practically the first thing she does in the film is tell him he looks terrible and ask how long it’s been since he slept, and later on when Camille refers to her as his mother he says “She likes to think so.” Hmm. M has more screentime in this one than in the last couple, popping up in what feels like every other scene, and on a practical note it makes no sense having the head of MI6 flying around after her recalcitrant agent, even if she is feeling a bit mumsy towards him. But the relationship, while believable and well played between two actors who have a good chemistry, is inappropriate, exemplified by the moment when M allows Bond to escape from her own agents - a conflict of interest which would very soon get her fired. Way back in Goldeneye she very smartly informed Brosnan's 007 that she had no compunction about sending him to his death - suddenly, it's become significantly harder to believe that.
It's a slight misjudgement, one which betrays a certain lack of understanding of M's place in Bond's world, and it's by no means the only one. The biggest, though, is that QoS just isn't fun enough. While the basic story of Bond's evolution into the cold-hearted killer was never going to be a Moore-like flippant romp, it should have still have been possible to make the journey a little less serious. 007 usually live in a world of heightened reality, and at least one scene per film should have the audience exclaiming “That’s absurd – hooray!” while Barry’s theme triumphantly blares in the background. QoS doesn’t have that. Instead we get a series of mechanical action sequences, none of which are memorable – the boat chase pales before those in Live and Let Die and The World is Not Enough, the rooftop chase not unlike that in The Living Daylights, there’s a dogfight which, if you’ll forgive the pun, never takes off - which substitute toughness for style. The climax, as mentioned, is a big flop and over far too quickly, while the opening sequence, in which we are plunged straight into a car chase, fails to appreciate that Bond's presence alone does not make such a sequence exciting - without knowing what's at stake the thrills are removed, and all for the sake of a not-especially-funny punchline. While the fact that this is perhaps the first film in the franchise’s history in which our man doesn’t end up with his leading lady is forgivable in the circumstances, the perfunctory way in which Fields jumps into bed with him, with none of the usual flirty resistance (almost as though she’s been briefed by head office as to what is expected of her) once again demonstrates a lack of interest in Bond staples. The whole is a bit like a robot who has been programmed to act like a human, dispassionately going through the mechanics of the thing without ever really knowing why it is doing so.
When the title was first announced, there were rumblings that it was a bit rubbish and didn’t have that familiar ring about it. This isn’t true – it’s far more “authentic” than any of the Brosnan titles or Licence to Kill and the irony is that in the end the title is one of the most traditional things about the entire film. Disregarding Forster’s personal preferences for a moment, the major mistake made is that it fundamentally doesn’t seem to understand quite why Casino Royale was the success it was. It wasn’t that CR changed the formula – with its kinetic stunts (the free-running, the car tumble), exotic locations, casino games, idiosyncratic baddy and, in the form of the device which Bond brings himself back from the dead with, unlikely gadgets, it conformed to the Bond formula just as much as any other of the films, its success coming from the fact that it was able to find a new way to jig those elements and make them seem fresh once again. It reinvented, rather than changed. QoS, on the other hand, wants to go its own way, resulting in a film which is forever trying to pull away from everything that defines what the Bond franchise is, resulting in an unsatisfying mishmash. At the final reckoning, it never comes close to realising that, if you don't focus directly on the dead body drowned in oil on the bed, you're kind of missing the whole point.
Transfer and Sound
Shortly before diving into this disc I rewatched my SD copy of Casino Royale for the first time since its release a couple of years ago. I don’t remember noting it first time around but that transfer really wasn’t top notch, with some scenes suffering from compression artefacts making Daniel’s face twice as craggy as it should have been and a softness of image that belied its recent release date. Unsurprisingly, going straight from that to this BD transfer proved quite a contrast. The film is presented on a BD50 disc encoded in 1080p AVC in its correct 2.35:1 ratio and is, according to the BBFC site, uncut. The transfer manages to capture the often unique palate of the location shoot on Colón, managing to convey the subtle hues of the town’s buildings, both in the daytime and evening scenes, in a suitably pleasing manner. Black levels are nicely distinguished, although there is a faint impression that the sequence at the dock both immediately before and during the boat chase is slightly darker than it should have been, while in the same period a couple of shots of the water look more like digital noise than the mulling waves one would expect. There’s a very faint patina of grain over the Bolivian desert scenes while a faint shimmer in the sequence in M’s hi-tech office when Bond first asks who Greene is. Otherwise it’s a extremely pleasing, high quality transfer, one which ensures that Daniel Craig’s face has just the correct amount of cragginess.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio doesn’t have quite as much to do as some Bond titles – Dave Arnold’s score is far less orchestrally majestic than previous entries into the series, meaning that the music mainly serves as an undercurrent to the action rather than partner (that said, I did find the opera sequence less intense and resonant than one presumes it was intended to be, almost as though it was toned down somewhat for this transfer.) For the action sequence, there are a couple of sequences which stand out – the opening car chase makes full use of all five speakers, with bullets spitting all around and metal crunching which almost makes one jump. Given that the sounds of planes flying around don’t have much variety the dogfight is unexpectedly strong too, especially that shock bit at the start when they are initially attacked. Overall the track is fine, and if it’s not as memorable as some that’s more the fault of the film itself than this disc.
On first playing the disc there are three trailers to skip through, for Valkyrie, the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Australia. The Main Menu is distinctly underwhelming. Designed to look like a readout from M’s hi-tech desk, it presents a grey, outlined version of the world map, around which the various locations of the film are pinpointed and zoomed in on (represented only by a dot and their name) before we move onto the next one. Very boring! The four main options – Play, Scenes, Set Up and Special Features – all open submenus on the same page. This is fine aside for scene selection, which is poorly designed, consisting of a filmstrip of tiny images, each of which represents a chapter and which are in most cases totally unhelpful in determining exactly which point of the film they come from.
The Extras are equally lacklustre – like the first release of Casino Royale they are sparse and perfunctory. One longs for the day when a film company will not wait to release the definitive edition of a franchise film until just before the next part of the series is released into the cinema, with the most notable absence in this case being the lack of a commentary. Instead, the best we get is Bond on Location (24:45), a typical if rather dry (no pun intended) Making Of. We see the crew eulogise about each location, a little bit of the shoot, and the usual round of actors and producers talking about the stunts and onset difficulties. It’s perfectly fine, but not nearly as detailed or interesting as the Makings Of on the Ultimate Editions. Unfortunately, three out of the five shorter featurettes - Start of Shooting, On Location and Olga Kurylenko and the Boat Chase - then go over exactly the same topics again, complete with repeated soundbites from the longer version, which make them a next to worthless nine minutes on the disc. Indeed, of these shorter pieces, only The Music (2:37) is halfway decent, with regular Bond composer Dave Arnold talking for a frustratingly short amount of time about his score before we cut to watching Jack White and Alicia Keyes filming the music video, at which points one’s interest levels drop faster than a secret agent skiing off a mountain without a Union Jack parachute. The final featurette, Director Marc Forster (2:46) is a controversial piece, in which all involved opine that he was a terrible choice for a director who didn't understand what was required from the film and made a right mess of things. Or maybe I just dreamt that, I can't remember.
Despite being either too short or too uninformative, those five featurettes could have done with a Play All function, which the Crew Files (45:30) thankfully do have. These are those short films posted on the QoS website during production in which a whole assortment of people involved in the film – everyone from Executive Producer Callum McDougall to one of the DGs at the space observatory which doubled for the Bolivian hotel in the film’s climax – offer brief thoughts on their roles within the production. The notable absence, as elsewhere, is Paul Haggis, who together with Wilson and Forster rewrote almost completely Purvis and Wade's original script - it would have been nice to have heard from him, but there you go. That aside, these Files, while mostly running to less than two minutes, often give a more intimate flavour of the shoot than the sanitized Bond on Location, given that they were shot more on the hoof, and thus are worth watching.
Both the Theatrical Teaser Trailer (1:51) and the surprisingly different full Theatrical Trailer (2:23) are included. Finally for the masochists among you there’s the Another Way To Die (4:30) music video. Not even Jack White looks convinced by his rotten song, although the video is almost worth watching for the unintentionally comic moment half way through when it sounds like White is utterly failing to play the guitar and Alicia Keyes is going “Uh!” as though taunting his ineptitude.
The film itself and all extras are subtitled.
Ever since Roger Moore, every incumbent in the role of 007 has followed up a superb debut with a deeply disappointing follow-up (okay, Live and Let Die isn't a classic, but it is significantly better than the films on either side of it, and Moore gives arguably his best performance in the role.) Now Daniel Craig follows suit, in a film which is in danger of throwing out the Bond with the bathwater. It's only fitting then, that we get an equally lacklustre disc - there's some good stuff on it, but not nearly enough. I guess we'll just have to wait until The Hildebrand Rarity appears in cinemas in a couple of years' time to get the full picture.