REVIEW: Quantum of Solace (2008)

quantum_posterFollowing the death of his girlfriend Vesper, MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes on a mission of revenge. He soon uncovers a shadow organisation known as Quantum, a representative of which – the French environmental campaigner Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) – is undertaking a mission in Bolivia that could upset the balance of power across South America.

Most filmgoers liked 2006’s Casino Royale an awful lot. It was an aggressive and emotionally nuanced reboot for the James Bond movie franchise, introducing a stunning new lead in Daniel Craig and giving the long-running secret agent a much needed injection of grit and vulnerability. Its sequel, Quantum of Solace, was released two years later and seemed to utterly fail with the same audience. People watched it of course, and it earned its producer and studio plenty of money, but since its release it has been met with responses ranging from disappointment and disinterest to outright hostility.

That response seems completely wrong-headed to me. While not as strong a film as Casino Royale (and no other Bond film is either), Quantum of Solace is a well-paced and beautifully assembled action film boasting a strong cast and some brilliantly staged chase and fight sequences. Most fascinating of all, for the first time James Bond gets a proper narrative sequel. It follows on immediately from the events of Casino Royale and winds up doing a lot of that film’s character development work for it. While Casino Royale may have demonstrated to audiences where Bond came from, it is Quantum of Solace that demonstrates how James Bond the new recruit finally becomes the James Bond of the decades-long franchise.

It is the actual story of Quantum of Solace that lets it down. After the more grounded storyline of Casino Royale, Bond winds up investigating an outlandish scheme to fool foreign governments and intelligence services, buy up all of Bolivia’s natural water supplies, and then sell them back to the country’s government at an enormous profit. It is a bizarre clash of the outlandishly unbelievable and the coolly banal. Concentrate on that story and the film disappoints. Treat it as the background detail it clearly intended to be, and the rest of the film sings.

The film’s various set pieces are excellent, particularly Bond’s infiltration of a Quantum meet-up in audience of a large-scale opera performance. An opening car chase is also hugely impressive, taking inspiration from Paul Greengrass’ frenetic style in the Bourne sequels to give the film a high-energy introduction. A subsequent foot chase through Sienna is superb and makes great use of the local architecture and culture. Only the film’s climax really struggles, largely because its setting – and set-up for an explosive finale – stretch credulity a little too far.

Daniel Craig follows on from his work from Casino Royale in an outstanding fashion, as does Judi Dench – continuing to develop her more cantankerous and manipulate second version of the spymaster M. Among the guest cast, Mathieu Amalric is a nicely unpleasant villain – one thing the Craig Bond films has excelled at is casting its antagonists well. Jeffrey Wright returns as CIA agent Felix Leiter – a performance and character so good it eludes me why EON Productions have not spun him off into his own Jack Ryan-style franchise.

The film’s two female leads are both excellent, and contrast against one another well. Olga Kurylenko plays Camille, a former Bolivian spy on a revenge mission of her own. Like Craig, she plays her character with a balance of strength and vulnerability and acts as a thematic mirror against which Bond’s own revenge attempt is measured. Gemma Arterton presents a strong contrast to Kurylenko as British agent Fields, whose fresh-faced optimism gets her into deep trouble. If you have not seen Quantum of Solace, you should skip ahead to the next paragraph to avoid a moderate spoiler. Field’s fate, sadly, sees her ‘fridged’ – that is, killed off purely to provoke an emotional reaction within the male lead. It is a shame to have the character sidelined in such a casual way – and via a knowing reference to classic Bond film Goldfinger to boot. Fields – and Arterton – deserves better.

The action, acting, and character work of Quantum of Solace is excellent. The plot less so, but given the film was made during a writer’s strike – Craig and director Marc Forster improvised much of the dialogue on set – most of that is forgivable. By the film’s final scene it is clear that Bond has buried his feelings for Vesper – in itself a cold tragedy – and with nothing left but his work for MI6, the famous James Bond 007 finally emerges. This is not simply an underrated film, but a critically important one too for Daniel Craig’s version of the character.

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