Questing for a Quota of Quality
2008 // UK - USA // Marc Forster // December 3, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Quantum of Solace is not the sequel that the refreshing, gripping Casino Royale deserved. Director Marc Forster has created a routine whoosh-boom contraption that reflects the bruised dazzle of CR, but unfortunately doesn't generate much glint of its own. As a action film generically and a Bond film specifically, it's serviceable. There are elaborate action sequences, a couple of beautiful women, a little bleeding-edge gadgetry, and a global conspiracy. However, Forster is merely spattering the Bond signifiers onto the screen without much grace or consideration for the quality of the components. The script—mangled by a committee of writers—is just wretched, so it's a blessing that Daniel Craig carries on the pitch-perfect, smoldering portrayal he delivered in Casino Royale. His Bond is just as watchable in Quantum, despite the ludicrous lines he and his fellow performers are saddled with. It's revealing that while the action in this twenty-second Bond film is mindless and colorless, Craig's almost rebellious need for both evocative nuance and ferocity seduces us once again.
Eschewing the standalone character of the venerable franchise's prior chapters, Quantum refers directly to the events of Casino Royale, literally picking up exactly where the previous film left off. Bond produces the nefarious Mr. White from the boot of his Aston Martin for interrogation by MI6. By means of an admittedly shocking reversal, White reveals that the secret group behind Casino Royale's Le Chiffre is far more powerful and widespread than British intelligence suspects. Bond, still simmering with concealed rage over the death of Vesper Lynd, follows a trail of clues to Haiti, Austria, Bolivia, Italy and other locales of globe-spanning intrigue. Eventually, it is revealed that White's master, an organization called Quantum, is organizing a military coup in order to secure the privatization of Bolivia's water supply. It's not an implausible scheme, as it turns out, but the matter is handled with clumsy simplicity and more than a little nauseating condescension. (Forster even treats us to the sight of poor rural Bolivians staring vacantly at a dry spigot with empty water jugs in hand. Ugh.)
The specifics of the awkwardly conveyed story don't really matter. The central pleasure of Quantum of Solace is Craig's determination to carry the character he sculpted in Casino Royale through the proceedings with as much dignity as possible. What makes Craig such a satisfying avatar for 007—easily Connery's equal, although their approaches to the character are worlds apart—is his facility for striking a mesmerizing balance between Bond's volatility and almost serene focus under pressure. The writers don't permit our secret agent much personal evolution in Quantum, but that's because the film explores Bond via a doubling. Our protagonist finds his twin in Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a Bond Girl only in the sense that she is the female lead in a Bond film. In a neat twist on the usual formula, Bond and Camille subsume their mutual attraction—brushing up against it but nothing more—in the service of vengeance. Like 007, Camille is consumed with a need for retribution on behalf of a slain loved one. She emerges as little more than a tanned, leggy sounding board for Bond's own ruminations on revenge, and in this respect she's a thin character with a shamefully simple arc. Still, she offers a refreshing change of pace from Bond's usual sexual conquests, and while Kurylenko can't match Craig's battered, molten qualities, she conveys an acuity and spurred energy that the underwritten part doesn't deserve.
Thankfully, many of the series' assets have returned from the previous outing: Judi Dench is back as M, Giancarlo Giannini as rogue agent Rene Mathis, and Jeffrey Wright as the franchise's CIA punching bag, Felix Leiter. Unfortunately, the film's tremendous disappointment is the wasted Mathieu Amalric as villainous Quantum billionaire Dominic Greene. Amalric's performance is a mess, an odd blend of sweaty desperation and clownish goggling for a role that demands a rumpled, slightly diabolic Gallic quality. Amalric is an evocative and witty performer, and to force him into such a glumly crude sketch of a villain defies all reason. There's no satisfaction to seeing Bond take Greene down by Quantum's end, because the man's operatic villainy derives solely from what we're told about his monstrous plots. There's no connection between this wormy, two-faced fool and the criminal mastermind he's supposed to be.
Craig's performance aside, Quantum is in most respects an enjoyable action film, with little to recommend it above most other competent fare. For the first half of the film we get a succession of chases, by auto, by speedboat, and on foot over rooftops. Then the film offers up an aerial dogfight and a guns-blazing confrontation at a desert resort constructed (apparently) entirely out of explosive hydrogen fuel cells. None of these sequences are connected to the film's story or themes; Bond enters and exits them like amusement park rides. Much as in Casino Royale, it's the slower thriller sequences that truly engage, such as Bond engaging in skulduggery around a succession of squalid and glamorous hotel rooms. The standout set piece involves a clandestine Quantum convocation that occurs in plain sight during a performance of Puccini's Tosca. The villains conduct their business via tiny headsets during the opera; in a cunning move, Bond provokes them into standing up at once, permitting MI6 to pinpoint them.
Quantum boasts some flourishes that enrich its otherwise straightforward endeavor, particularly a memorable design blending grubby realism and cool modernism, and some eye-catching titles for the establishing shots. Even Forster, whose approach is overall distressingly plodding and atonal, discovers a sharper sensibility now and then. Witness Bond's frantic flight from the opera, cross-cut in a flurry with the performance's crescendo, or a fiery echo of a particular despairing, drenched embrace from Casino Royale. Ultimately, however, it's Craig, not Forster, that salvages Quantum from its wince-worthy dialog and explosion-laced staleness. In maintaining his icy hold on the genre's most fascinating portrayal in a generation, he coaxes us to return for the next film in the reboot's introductory trilogy.