Thursday, 27 August 2015

License revoked?: A look back at Quantum of Solace

Before Quantum of Solace came out, I was so excited. Casino Royale had been a breath of fresh air after the last few Bond movies, and remains one of my favourite action movies. Like a lot of people, I left its sequel feeling let down. While I did not hate the movie, it just felt underwhelming -- it had a bunch of good ideas but lacked a fully fleshed-out story. What was most disappointing is that you could feel there was a good movie in there trying to get out. While Skyfall has restored 007's mojo critically and in terms of box office, it still bugs me that Craig's second movie ended up the way it did. I would have preferred the dud to come at the end of his tenure.

Since it came out, I've re-watched QoS a few times. Every time I hear somebody say something positive about QoS, I take another look to see if my opinion has improved. Overall, my feelings remain the same. The direction is too berserk, the script too threadbare and the tone too dour. However, upon re-viewing, while I cannot say I enjoy the movie as a whole, there are lots of things to like about QoS, and a few that I reckon should have been carried over into future films.

Since I'm so split on this movie, I'm going to break this review into two sections, starting with:

The bad stuff

The Action scenes 
This is my major beef with the movie. One, there is way too much shaky cam. It just does not suit a Bond movie to me. And two, it does it badly. Combined with a frenetic editing style, the action sequences in QoS lack the impact of its predecessor. Casino Royale is often lumped in with the post-Bourne action glut, however there is very little shaky camera work in the film - it manages to convey a sense of immediacy and visceral impact while also maintaining a clear sense of geography. QoS goes the full hog, and its action sequences come off as either confusing or dull. While it seems like a creative decision, there are moments where it feels like lazy filmmaking. The opening car chase, the boat chase and the airplane chase especially are extremely conventional and lack real stakes. By contrast, the action sequences in Casino Royale were distinctive, and tied to the story and the character's motivations. There were stakes in those scenes, which are not as present in QoS. When you break them down, the choice to go with shaky cam appears to be an attempt to make the action sequences seem more exciting, rather than making sure the scenes were inherently exciting.

Director Marc Forster has said that he set out to make the shortest Bond film ever, and wanted to make the movie move as quickly as possible. This cart-before-the-horse approach is ultimately detrimental to the film, since he often makes numerous, unnecessary cuts during sequences which do not need them. Apart from ruining the action, this approach results in confusing continuity, fumbled exposition and a lack of tension.

The Script 
This is at the root of the movie's faults. Before its release, there were rumours of production problems, mostly centred around the lack of a finished script. Quantum of Solace was one of the biggest casualties of the 2007-08 writer's strike, with screenwriter Paul Haggis delivering a draft hours before the strike began. Numerous hands, including Daniel Craig and director Marc Foster, worked on the script during production but ultimately the movie suffers.

Making the movie a direct sequel to Casino Royale works against the movie dramatically, since the villains of QoS only work if you have seen their dirty work in the previous movie. Since so much of the movie's set-up is provided in the previous film, the main villain Dominic Greene is introduced without a distinctive sense of what kind of threat he is. While he is suitably odious in the part, Matthieu Amalric does not get a signature moment to make his case as a threat that needs to be expunged. Casino Royale's villain Le Chiffre is similarly callous, but we get to see what he gets up to -- gambling with money that is not his to make more money off the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Greene's plan -- to take over Bolivia's water supply -- is suitably evil, but it feels too abstract. There are no real stakes here.

The good stuff

The villains
As a stand-in for perennial foes SPECTRE, Quantum are good antagonists, even if their chief muscle is not that distinctive.

And even though he does not get much to do, Mathieu Amalric is actually really good as Greene. He does not have any of the scars or other cosmetic trappings of previous Bond baddies. Instead, he gets to play a more subtle, unsettling nemesis. In his few good moments (having a witness shot, or trying to kill his mistress in the middle of a party), Greene comes across as a childlike psychopath with poor impulse control and little regard for human life. This is especially clear at the climax where he finally gets to unleash his Id and goes after Bond with an axe. He makes up for a lack of combat skills with a suitcase full of batshit crazy, and it's great.

As secondary villain General Medrano, Joaquin Cosio is equally unpleasant. As Kim Newman points out, he's probably the closest thing to a Fleming-style villain the series has had in a long time. Ultimately, the problem with Medrano and Greene is lack of screen time, rather than quality of (potential) knavery.

Specific scenes
While I have major problems with the film, there are specific sequences which manage to emerge as strong, despite the editing and camerawork. The opera sequence may be the film's best set piece. It also contains the best moment for recurring nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). While his compatriots scurry for the exits (allowing Bond to identify them), Mr. White just removes his earwig and sits back to enjoy the show. Boss. I also enjoy this sequence at the hotel, which has a certain dark wit that the rest of the movie could have used more of. Taking the place of the usual conflagration Bond's opponents endure,  Greene's death is a nasty shift in gear that feels akin to Moore kicking Locque's car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only or Dalton's 'compliments of Sharky' gambit from Licence to Kill.  It defines just desserts.

If there is one scene which really shows how much the movie suffers from the lack of a strong script, it is the ending. A nice, quiet contrast to the explosive finale, Bond's confrontation with the Quantum agent who turned Vesper should pack a sense of satisfaction and resolution that is just not there. It's a great scene neutered by lack of build-up.

The humour  
This is one of the chief casualties of Forster's editing. While it is not as packed with gags as other Bond films, there are subtle visual jokes and dark barbs which are easy to miss. While the sequence where Bond changes hotels is an obvious highlight, it is actually a setup for a punchline that Forster completely short-changes and which I never picked up: in their review, the hosts of the James Bonding podcast pointed out that the shitty hotel Bond turns down is the same hotel that Felix Leiter and the other CIA agents are forced to stay in. It's a great joke that is completely lost. 

Set design
One of the hallmarks of classic Bond is the production design by Ken Adam. Through the 60s and 70s, he provided a series of iconic, over-the-top sets which helped define the series. However after Adam was replaced by Peter Lamont in the 80s, one of the things which the series has missed is great set design. In contrast to Adam, Lamont's style was far more realistic and location-based. While his work was always good, I always felt it lacked a certain flair. 

Quantum of Solace marks a return to the over-the-top production design of yore. Lamont's successor Dennis Gassner brings just the right touch of retro-futurism to the proceedings. The MI6 offices, Bond's Bolivian hotel room and the Perla des las Lunas interiors are all great, and pop in a way that Bond sets have not in ages. It gets lost with the editing, but, for me, the sets for Quantum may be the best in the series since Ken Adam's work on The Spy Who Loved Me

Title sequence
Alicia Keys and Jack White's song 'Another Way to Die' is one of the worst songs I've ever heard, period. What makes it even more disappointing is that the title sequence itself is one of the best in the series. Created by MK12, it is a weird, psychedelic mixture of sand, girls and Craig's baby blues. Magic. 


It's a shame that the editing is so loathsome, because it obscures how good Roberto Schaefer's photography is, and the great enter-titles by MK12 which introduce each location. It's a small touch, but I wished they kept it for Skyfall.

And thus concludes the 5-6 minutes you wasted reading my ramblings. Catch you next time.

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