The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part III

David Arnold’s score gives way to reverberating guitar riffs as Quantum of Solace shifts its locale from Siena to rainy London. Director Marc Forster worked closely with Arnold on Quantum of Solace, providing Arnold with samples of sounds and musical styles that he wanted Arnold to embed into the film’s score. The result of their collaboration is, far and away, Arnold’s strongest work on the Bond films. Arnold’s affection for senseless bombast is in evidence now and again during the film’s setpieces, but, for the most part, this is a texturally varied score that applies its effects with precision.

Bond and M’s meeting in Mitchell’s apartment unfolds with Quantum of Solace‘s typical impatience with any exchanges that could be considered expository, but there are some nice touches here as M expresses her horror and exasperation in being caught up in a conspiracy about which she knows practically nothing. Throughout the Craig era, governments and their institutions consistently prove to be too myopic to identify the true threats, allowing the villains (who are, Skyfall‘s Silva aside, sinister venture capitalists out to manipulate world events to their own gain) to move about in plain sight and infiltrate the corridors of power. The throwaway joke here about M not knowing her traitorous bodyguard all that well–she notes that she gifted Mitchell an ashtray, and Bond deadpans his reply: “I don’t think he smoked”–is a clever way of reinforcing M’s own tendency towards this short-sightedness.

MI6 headquarters has moved locations since Casino Royale and is now housed in Frobisher Crescent. No reason is ever given for this transition, and we might reconcile the films together by speculating that the Vauxhall Cross offices from Casino Royale were being remodeled (after all, they look a bit different when Skyfall rolls around). Really, though, this is simply inconsistency extending from a general indifference toward aesthetic continuity. Dennis Gassner’s design for the MI6 offices is sleek and highly technological, all sterile glass and steel, dispensing with any hint of traditional British elegance and placing MI6 on the cutting edge of technological innovation.

Quantum of Solace employs technology much better than any of the other Craig films, abandoning a sense of verisimilitude for advanced computer systems with complex interfaces that may be somewhat nonsensical but have a beauty in their design (they were conceived by MK12, the same group that designed the film’s title sequence). The touchscreen table used in the briefing scene here nicely embeds a great deal of visual information into an otherwise fairly dry exchange.

Tanner’s strange non-sequitur that occurs just before they enter the briefing room (“Not in the mood”) might suggest that some connective tissue was cut out of the scene. If so, it’s not hard to believe. Quantum of Solace‘s production was notoriously frantic, and anecdotes shared by those present during parts of Quantum of Solace‘s scattershot shoot have indicated that a substantial amount of footage was left on the cutting room floor. Still, once you’ve seen the film enough times to keep up with the information being presented in this briefing scene, the scene depicts a clever–if sensationalized–riff on actual investigative techniques, allowing MI6 to trace money back to another Quantum agent.

The trail leads to Port-au-Prince, and here are the broad strokes of what unfolds in this, the film’s most preposterously overcomplicated section: Bond kills a Quantum assassin and takes over his identity, and then stumbles into a meeting with Camille, who turns out to have been the original assassin’s target, having been lured into a trap after trying to investigate the actions of Dominic Greene, with whom she’s been having a relationship, and who wanted her dead after he discovered her betrayal. After Bond and Camille’s meeting turns sour, Bond discovers that the assassin he killed had a partner, takes him out, and then pulls some smartphone gymnastics to get a line on Dominic Greene after following Camille to him. The film furthermore introduces us to secondary villain General Medrano, a focal point in Greene’s plans to start a coup in Bolivia in order to get rights to some seemingly empty land in the desert, and who also was responsible for the death of Camille’s entire family. Some of this connects in this whirlwind of exposition, much of it doesn’t. Structural clarity is not this film’s gift.

It all begins well enough, though; Bond’s fight with Slate in the Hotel Desalines might very well be the film’s highlight. The frantic editing actually works here, maintaining enough clarity to maintain tension. In fact, it’s better composed than any of the hand-to-hand combat in the Greengrass Bourne films to which it owes a significant stylistic debt. The sound design accentuates the frantic choreography, ensuring that every inelegant blow registers with wince-inducing force.

Bond impatiently waiting for Slate to pass on greatly exceeds any of Casino Royale‘s numerous attempts to demonstrate just how dehumanizing Bond’s duties can be. There isn’t another death scene in the entire Bond series that has the same existential sting. Quantum of Solace sadly does not showcase Craig’s performance with the same attentiveness that Casino Royale did (whatever else you could say about Campbell’s direction on the film, he knew when to hold on Craig’s face), but this is one moment where the film indulges Craig’s gift for internalized acting.

The ensuing conversation with the hotel desk clerk is not particularly notable, but it does serve as a nice showcase for how odd Quantum of Solace‘s impatient editing can be. This simple exchange leaps from shot to shot with no discernible purpose.

I’m very fond of Olga Kurylenko’s Camille, even though she is, on occasion, ill-served by the film. Camille has a narrative and psychology that exists outside of Bond’s own storyline, which can’t quite be said of Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynd. Starting with Camille’s impatient “Get in” and Bond’s somewhat befuddled response, Bond and Camille have a very blunt, direct relationship. This first meeting is far too disorienting for its own good–the plotting is just too intricate here to let the characters become the focal point of the scene–but there’s still something appealing about having their first meeting end with Camille attempting to put a bullet in Bond’s head.

When Camille pulls some fast car maneuvers to obstruct her pursuer’s path, a truck ends up spilling its load of coffins all over the street, a casual, implementation of the death imagery that has naturally recurred throughout the franchise. When Bond meets up with the same henchman a few moments later, he flips the henchman’s bike, a moment executed with great visual flair. Alas, Bond’s verbal comeback (“You were supposed to shoot her!” / “Well, I missed!”) isn’t exactly a model of wit, though this script will have far clunkier attempts at humor.

Throughout Quantum of Solace, M continually scolds Bond for killing potential sources of information, picking up on her “big picture” rant from Casino Royale, but it’s unclear whether or not we’re actually meant to agree with her. Yes, the film will hint that Bond has become something of a loose canon, but it also exonerates his actions by putting him in situations where it’s either his life or his opponent’s.

Dominic Greene and Camille meeting by the docks ranks among the worst-written scenes in any Bond movie. At the very least, it’s the most bizarrely elliptical; reading the scene in transcript form is even more baffling than watching it play out on-screen.

Unlike Mr. White (there’s a weird, unremarked upon feature of the Quantum organization having many members with color-based surnames: White, Greene, Slate), Greene never seems particularly threatening–he’s always shielding himself behind the organization he represents–though he clearly has a sadist’s temperament and loves to pontificate. Amalric plays him as a man always caught up in his own mental calculations, as though he’s sizing everyone up around him to see where he stands. (One nice little touch is that when Camille first bursts in to confront him, Greene has been goofing off, toying with paper and stamps like a child.)

Greene’s primary henchman, Elvis, seemingly functions as little more than an odd running gag. Every moment that showcases him has been designed to emphasize just how ineffectual he is, climaxing with his cartoonish demise during the film’s climactic battle. I’m not certain any of these moments properly land–they always feel like strangely edited non-sequiturs–but it’s very consistent, starting with his ineffectual scolding of the guard.

General Medrano arrives on the scene, and he has a level of menace Greene and Elvis don’t. That said, he’s also much less interesting than the Quantum cabal, a more flatly literal kind of villain distinguished only by his predatory instincts. He’s one of the more repulsive characters in the franchise, but all he has to define him is his own appetite for abuse, which the film pushes to exploitative extremes.

Quantum of Solace has a much stronger political consciousness than the other Craig Bond pictures, and it’s in evidence as Medrano and Greene discuss the economics of these struggling South American countries. Quantum of Solace depicts the inhabitants of these countries as the victims of predatory political and economic powers, and we’ll come to find that Bond’s own government will prove to be complicit in Quantum’s planned destabilization of Bolivia. Throughout the film, Forster takes a break from story-driven sequences to simply showcase the victims of these sinister machinations; one of these stretches occurs immediately after the boat chase, as Bond drives to the airport. These people are anonymous, part of the background, but simply showing the squalor of their lives is something of a radical moment for a Bond picture.

Little good can be said about the boat chase. Many Bond action sequences have been lackluster, but no others are this staggeringly ineffectual. The suspenseful build-up to the chase itself works pretty well (and features a very fine motorcycle stunt, to boot), but once Bond grabs Camille off of Medrano’s boat, the chase achieves the strange distinction of being utterly lethargic and overly frantic at the same time as boats roar around a space with little sense of geography. The inscrutably edited climactic beat, involving the use of anchor to destabilize the last remaining boat pursuing Bond and Camille, squanders what otherwise might be a decent concluding stunt.

After rescuing Camille, who inadvertently confirm Bond’s suspicion during the boat chase that Greene is the next link in the chain, Bond callously abandons the now-unconscious Camille with an attempt at a throwaway Connery-esque one-liner (“She’s seasick”). As always, Craig’s Bond cares more passionately about the thrill of the hunt than he does anything else.

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part I

Quantum of Solace derives its peculiar title from Ian Fleming’s short story of the same name. In the Fleming story (which bears no relationship to the film), it refers to the minimal amount of comfort two people need to find in one another to preserve a healthy romantic relationship. In this film, it speaks to what Bond needs to find in the wake of Vesper’s death, while also (nonsensically) alluding to the name of the villainous organization that drove her to suicide. The title was chosen very late into production; screenwriter Paul Haggis’ proposed title was Sleep of the Dead.

As noted earlier, Casino Royale was always envisioned as being the first part of a two-film arc, and while the sequel was subject to many frantic rewrites that shifted the emphasis of the sequel, the majority of Quantum‘s components can be traced back to that original story outline. Quantum of Solace was always intended to pick up shortly after Casino Royale ended off, allowing the audience to see the aftermath of Bond’s confrontation with Mr. White.

Casino Royale ends with a blast of triumphant iconography, and Quantum of Solace immediately seeks to undermine that sense of Bondian bombast. Casino Royale ended with David Arnold’s robustly orchestrated version of the Bond theme, but Quantum of Solace opens instead with ominous underscore. The studio logos lead into the full-shot introduction, a beautiful vista of an Italian lakeside mountain (the iconic gunbarrel opening, which was given an origin story of sorts in Casino Royale, is withheld for the end credits both in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, returning to its traditional place at the beginning of the film with Spectre). The warmth that suffused Casino Royale‘s images of Italy has been drained away.

Quantum of Solace will be, in many ways, more aesthetically refined than Casino Royale was–the cinematography, the score, the production design, and costume design are generally stronger here than in Casino Royale–but the aesthetic here is fairly stark and chilly. The luxury and exoticism of the Bond series will be present, but will be pointedly juxtaposed with third-world squalor, and even when it does appear, it will rarely seem especially inviting.

As the camera sails across the water to the Italian shore, edits give us glimpses of Bond’s eye, the hood of the Aston Martin, the spin of the wheel, guns being readied. It’s a bit of atmospheric calm before the hysterical impatience of the car chase overwhelms us, and it’s one of the film’s more elegant flourishes. The car chase that follows, alas, is somewhat obnoxious, taking the frantic, dizzying editing popularized by the Greengrass Bourne films to absurd heights (both editor Rick Pearson and second unit director Dan Bradley worked on the Bourne movies before joining the Quantum team).

Bond had flirted with quick-cut editing in the 1960s, as Peter Hunt worked as an editor to develop an impressionistic action-editing style that reached its apex when he graduated to director on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Hunt’s approach to action still paid close attention to what was in the frame at any given time (indeed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its sumptuous use of widescreen shot composition). Quantum of Solace is much sloppier. The car chase has little sense of geography, and feels pasted together from shots that have no real business occurring in sequence (there’s even a preposterous cut to a shot that is, essentially, of nothing; we get the glimpse of a back-fifth of a car as it leaves the frame).

After the clean, carefully dramatized action of Casino Royale, this is something of a crushing disappointment. This frenetic onslaught of image and sound robs these action scenes of any opportunity for suspense; there’s little-to-no attention paid to geography, and it remains quite difficult to register exactly what choices are being made when and by which characters. In this regard, the car chase will not be the worst sequence in the film, but it’s still significantly more exhausting than exciting, and unfortunately squanders some very fine stuntwork.

Eagle-eyed viewers will note that Craig is actually not wearing the same clothes he was wearing at the end of Casino Royale. Taking over from Lindy Hemming, costume designer Louise Frogley decided to shift designers (the suits in Quantum of Solace, which, incidentally, are the most attractive and best-tailored suits of the Craig era, were provided by Tom Ford, whereas Casino Royale‘s suits were provided by Brioni), and instead of replicating the Brioni three-piece suit outright, she shifts to a two-piece suit with a similar color and pinstripe pattern.

Bond escapes and wheels his battered Aston Martin into Siena, Italy, and the film gives us the first appearance of one of the film’s recurring motifs: the title card for each locale lists the city’s name in a unique font, often using the architecture of the location to frame the text. It’s a clever idea, if not always well-implemented (the text is occasionally too stylized to read easily). Part of me wishes that the subsequent Craig films had made it a recurring feature of the era. The end of the pre-title sequence sequence will offer another stylistic flourish: a freeze-frame of Bond’s smug look as he tells Mr. White to get out of the boot of his car.

These touches are rooted in a fundamental dissonance that runs throughout Quantum of Solace, wants to cling to some semblance of playfulness in its approach to the material even as it gets particularly nasty and severe. The title cards are not, by themselves, too incongruous, but there are uglier displays of this dissonance. When Quantum of Solace‘s climax juxtaposes a buffoonish, impotent henchman getting his pants blown off by an explosion with an attempted rape, Quantum of Solace manages the dubious distinction of achieving a level of distastefulness that no prior Bond film had ever managed to achieve.

The title song for Quantum of Solace was originally going to be provided by Amy Winehouse, though she was unable to complete the track, and Jack White and Alica Keys were brought in to provide the Bond series’ first duet. The resulting tune, “Another Way to Die,” may not be the worst example of songwriting ever attached to a Bond film (“Another Way to Die” is oddly structured and lacks a good hook, but the camped-up lyrics, which hearken back to the Bond songs of the early 70s, are amusing enough), but, as performed, it’s nearly unlistenable. If White or Keys had sung the song in isolation, the track might have been passable, but whenever they sing together, the result is unpleasant. The underlying cause of this unpleasantness might be the poorly-implemented raw analog production more than the vocals themselves.

Composer David Arnold did not have a role in composing the theme, but after Quantum of Solace was concluded, he collaborated with lyricist Don Black, Bond veteran, to work thematic material from his score into a song for Shirley Bassey, “No Good About Goodbye.” “No Good About Goodbye” may just be a so-so pastiche, but it’s much better than “Another Way to Die,” if only because it’s performed by the great Shirley Bassey.

At Marc Forster’s request, MK12 designed the title sequence of Quantum of Solace, interrupting Daniel Kleinman’s run as the title designer since 1995’s GoldenEye (MK12 also designed the location title cards and the intricate computer interfaces used by characters throughout the film). The sequence, which features a shadowy Bond traversing an empty desert while haunted by shadowy women, lacks verve and imagination, though it offers at least one spectacular image: Bond, tumbling through space, falls through a zoetrope of female silhouettes, which circle around him like Saturn’s rings.

The title sequence’s final image is of Bond firing a bullet into a sand dune and scattering sand everywhere, which may or may not serve as an effective metaphor for Quantum of Solace‘s general imprecision and dubious trajectory.