The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part II

Quantum of Solace‘s title sequence opens on the Palio di Siena. The Palio, a quick and brutal horse race with roots all the way back in the sixteenth century, takes place twice a year (once in July and once in August). The footage of the Palio used in Quantum of Solace was captured months before the rest of shooting began, when the film was still in the midst of development. Matching footage was shot roughly half a year later.

The Palio’s utilization as a setting for a big Bond setpiece is a welcome nod to the travelogue elements of the original Bond novels and films. While the brisk pacing leaves little room to enjoy the ambiance of the race, touches such as this nevertheless grants Quantum of Solace a sense of place that escapes the other Craig Bond films.

Bond drops Mr. White into a chair. MI6 staff subsequently stabilize Mr. White’s condition while preparing him for interrogation. Moments later, M will threaten Mr. White with torture, indicating that the room’s equipment is meant for that purpose. M never gets an opportunity to deliver on her threat.

As we saw in Casino Royale, Dench’s M seems to enjoy travelling around the world to deal personally with critical situations. This character trait almost certainly has more to do with the filmmakers wanting to put M and Bond in the same room than any narrative justification. Certainly, such travel seems risky for such an important government official. M will nearly die during the course of her time with Mr. White. (Early versions of the story for Quantum of Solace actually included M’s death partway through the film, a narrative element was removed and then later used in Skyfall.) Given Mr. White’s importance as an asset, though, it’s not especially difficult to imagine why M would choose to personally attend his interrogation.

When Bond and M meet, they launch into a flurry of exposition that bridges the events of Casino Royale and establishes the trajectory of Quantum of Solace. Quantum of Solace makes no real attempt to explain the events of Casino Royale, casually referencing its characters with the expectation that the audience is already fully aware of the details.

M notes that the CIA will be unhappy with MI6 now that MI6 is pursuing the investigation without their involvement. Bond is unconcerned. Bond reminds her that his deal with them was only for the now-deceased Le Chiffre: “If they wanted his soul, they should have made a deal with a priest.” Bond once again draws a comparison between himself and the priesthood.

M notes that Bond looks “like hell” and asks when he last slept. Quantum of Solace will play up the notion that Bond has been having trouble sleeping since Vesper’s death, and this dialogue is the first gesture toward that idea. Still, it’s an odd remark. Bond looked like he was in good shape at the end of Casino Royale, and it seems more likely that his haggard appearance at this moment has less to do with how well he’s sleeping and more to do with the fact that he was just minutes ago engaged in an intense car pursuit.

During the course of this briefing, M provides us with our first glimpse of Vesper’s boyfriend. Here and elsewhere throughout the film, Forster and his editors seem to work to move past exposition as quickly as possible, which, coupled with the film’s hazy sense of narrative progression, tends to make the film a little murky. As important as Vesper’s boyfriend will be for Bond’s arc in this film, he won’t be mentioned again until a good while later. Still, the narrative confusion is intentional, at least to some degree; Quantum of Solace will routinely suggest that Bond, reeling from grief, isn’t sure what he’s pursuing or why.

As always, Bond and M’s relationship hinges on issues of trust, and M voices her doubts that Bond will be able to separate his duties from his personal feelings. “It’d be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved” is extraordinarily awkward phrasing, though this is hardly the first or last time that M’s dialogue is overripe and overstated. Her doubts prove to be well-founded, given the way Bond deceives her in this scene.

Jesper Christiansen’s Mr. White remains one of the highlights of Quantum of Solace. It’s a shame that the film does not give him a greater role, given that Mr. White is certainly a much more compelling villain than Quantum‘s “proper” villain, Dominic Greene. (It’s worth nothing that the original cut of Quantum of Solace did grant Mr. White a brief final scene just before the end credits.)

Christiansen has a lot of fun lacing White’s dialogue with arrogance and venom. Mr. White needles Bond about Vesper, telling him that his organization intended to blackmail him in the same way that they had blackmailed Vesper: “I think you would have done anything for her.” Given that the film will go on to hint that this is standard operating procedure for the Quantum organization, Mr. White’s suggestion is actually fairly plausible.

After telling M that his organization has people everywhere, Mr. White illustrates his point by directing Mitchell, M’s bodyguard, to spring into action. The ensuing scuffle is some of the most inept filmmaking in the Bond series; thanks to the editing and shot construction, the chain of events is almost entirely obfuscated. Thanks to the muddled editing, it actually appears that M has been shot, but what we’re meant to be seeing is that she’s actually been thrown out of danger. After the scuffle–during which Mr. White takes a bullet–Bond pauses to make sure M departs the room safely, but the shot is so unclear that it’s hard to tell that the person leaving the room is M and not Mitchell.

Bond pursues Mitchell down into the tunnels of Siena, a chase that is intercut with the horse race taking place above them. Forster seems fond of this sort of intercutting (the Tosca sequence in the film will similarly juxtapose Bond’s action against events occurring nearby).

The Siena chase, which moves from the underground to the rooftops and then back down again, offers some of the same propulsive physicality that distinguished Casino Royale‘s Madagascar chase, and the stuntwork is really quite good. Such a shame, though, that it rarely receives the attention or space it deserves. The editing has been done in such a percussive style that most all of the connective tissue has been removed, with characters teleporting from position to position over the course of an edit (an especially clear example occurs when Bond leaps on to the bus and then somehow gets back onto the rooftop in a flurry of a few brief shots that don’t seem to follow one another).

The Siena chase does have one feature that distinguishes from other Bond setpieces: a genuine interest in its collateral damage. While racing through the crowd, Mitchell fires at Bond, but misses him and hits an innocent bystander instead. The film does not forget this innocent victim, but actually interrupts the progression of the chase to cut back to her body and the confusion of the crowd around her. No other Bond film pays such attention to the ways in which the violence of Bond’s world intrudes on the life of everyday people.

This attention does sit somewhat awkwardly with the Moore-era gag where Mitchell disturbs an old lady attempting to transport groceries up to her apartment, who subsequently mourns the loss of her tomatoes. Such is Quantum of Solace schizophrenia: it wants to push the hard edge of Casino Royale even further, all the while contorting to still evoke classic Bond escapism.

The Siena chase climaxes with a sequence that takes Craig’s Bond’s indestructability to a new extreme. Bond and Mitchell tumble down from a belfry, crashing through a glass window into gallery in the midst of renovation. They tussle in mid-air, dangling from ropes and scaffolding, slamming into each other and their hazardous surroundings. Alas, even though the editing is more intelligible here than it is elsewhere throughout the Siena sequence, the editing still fails to render the action with sufficient clarity and showmanship.

At least the sequence ends well. Bond hangs precariously from a rope, trying to reach the Walther PPK that lies just out of reach, as Mitchell recovers his weapon and takes aim. Bond gets his weapon in the nick of time and swings himself around, firing a single, fatal shot. The film lingers on Craig’s cold gaze just long enough.

Bond heads back to the interrogation room, passing by the destruction and chaos left in the wake of his pursuit of Mitchell. A sense of futility seeps in. After all that violence, Bond has achieved nothing at all. Mr. White has vanished, leaving nothing but an overturned chair and a pool of blood.

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