Damaged Goods–My QUANTUM OF SOLACE Review from 2008

Damaged Goods–My QUANTUM OF SOLACE Review from 2008

I once waxed rhapsodic about QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the 2008 James Bond sequel to CASINO ROYALE, that I went on for about 4k words. In retrospect, my enthusiasm was based, frankly, more on the premise of the film than on the actual product on the screen, but I really like what they were trying to do. I liked what Drew McWeeny wrote at the time in his persona of Moriarty for Ain’t It Cool News (a review which over a decade later is now utterly devoid of paragraph breaks but is still worth reading) and then added on to that for my own review. I like the idea of the film, the things they were trying to do, but I admit the actual finished product was undone by the writer’s strike and their need to push on anyway. They should have waited. Taken together with CASINO ROYALE, this might have been an epic one-two punch, but what they were trying to do never gelled for most people, and I understand why. But I still prefer QoS, warts and all, to any of the films that came afterward. They were all better shot but not any better scripted, and they don’t make any more sense to me than this one.

For me, Daniel Craig’s Bond tenure started with a bang and then quickly became ridiculous. So by the time I finally see this final film in the Daniel Craig era, I’ll be mildly interested, but I’m ready to see someone else reinvent this character and hopefully build on the electric promise of CR.

At any rate, here’s the review I wrote in 2008 immediately after seeing QoS in the theater while listening to the trailer on a loop. There’s an idea here that worked in my head, perhaps, better than what actually appeared on the screen.

I was wowed by Casino Royale (2006), a story that gave us a bonus fourth act to finish fleshing out the genesis of a new secret agent who was refreshingly old school. My dad had the Ian Fleming novels on his bookshelf, and this Bond reminded me very much of the Bond I grew up with my imagination. This Bond wasn’t afflicted by quip-itis, didn’t have the gadgets written in just for the finale, or the preposterous encyclopedic memory. Instead, he was good at precisely one thing, getting his hands dirty in the service of his country.

However, as I read the reviews for Quantum of Solace (2008), the second film in the rebooted James Bond franchise, it quickly became clear to me that people by and large didn’t know what to do with this film. After all, it had a weird title and action sequences by the people that did the Bourne movies, so it must be dreck, right?

In fact, I can confirm that this new Bond film film is not better than Casino Royale, but it’s not trying to be Casino Royale II, and taken on its own merits, I found I liked Quantum of Solace far better than I expected, and nearly as well in many ways. For starters, they are different films which are two halves of one longer storyline. And for another, having now seen both pieces of this larger story, I find I want to see it again. Tomorrow, perhaps. That’s how I know when something has really affected me, is rattling around inside my head and provoking reactions, unsuspecting thoughts, realizations, internal dialogue.

Well, despite the trailers and the advertising and the word-of-mouth and the expectations—this is a James bond film, after all—I am delighted to reveal that Quantum of Solace is not at all about what you probably think it’s about, or what others may tell you it is about. After all, after watching the trailers and putting together what I knew from Casino Royale  I certainly thought I knew what to expect from this film going in. 

But wonder of wonders, I was wrong. Furthermore, every review save one has missed the point as well.

There is a lot of talk about revenge as the motivating factor in this film, but it’s inaccurate. I’d heard it was one long action sequence. Also wrong. There’s some real character development here, and even some gritty situational humor.

(In fact, I noticed a number of parallels between these first two rebooted James Bond films and the two latest Batman films, but I’ll comment on that in an addendum after this review. They’re interesting to me, but not entirely germane to the point at hand.)

No, this is very much a film about unfinished business, about psychological closure. But it doesn’t stop there. This film is also about something more, something deeper, and that’s the great surprise.  I’ll get back to that in a bit, as well.

This film is about a number of really interesting things hiding behind all the frenetic camera work and Jason Bourne action sequences. It is interesting enough that in this day and age, a film has the audacity to posit a highly trained, highly intelligent, highly capable, highly reasoning person choosing to embrace something as throwback as ‘duty.’  Furthermore, throwaway action films aren’t meant to be the vehicle for any kind of deep thinking, but there is a genuine spiritual principle at work in Quantum of Solace, and if James Bond of all people can find and employ it, anybody can. 

But before I talk about what worked, let’s be clear about what didn’t work. There is a trend in modern action pictures to frame things in such a way that there are clearly things going on, but they aren’t clearly shot. We see it everywhere from Batman to Bourne to Bond.

Furthermore, I think so many are ambivalent about this film because they are that they are looking at the apparent plot and observing that it doesn’t go according to the usual plan. 

But as it happens, I believe that’s by design. 

The more I thought about it, the more I realized something quite humorous; there is a gigantic McGuffin in this film, and it is THE ENTIRE APPARENT PLOT. The real work in this story occurs in the first and last ten minutes of the film. Nearly everything that happens in-between is there to keep you from seeing what’s right in front of your eyes—that this frenetic, shallow action movie is actually about something of vital importance straight out of scripture. But more on that at the end of the review.

Here is my reasoning. People see what appear to be familiar elements, and assume they are on familiar ground:

  • Aston Martin? Check.
  • M as unflappable holder of Bond’s leash? Check.
  • Entirely beddable main-squeeze? Check.
  • Breezy, emotionally empty coitus? Check.
  • Sinister shadow organization? Check.
  • Megalomaniacal villain? Check.

But I’m going to give the writers some credit here for undoing everything they appeared to set up, and Marc Forster some credit for letting them.  That continues what they started with the character of Mathis from Casino Royale, my favorite secondary character from that film. 

Of the list of familiar elements, only the venerable exotic sports car was left alone, perhaps because you can gently mock the former Bond franchise, but no one in their right mind would diminish an Aston Martin. 

Let’s look at how the writers undermined expectations point-by-point.

  • M has an expanded role in this film, and I really liked it. As played by Dame Judi Dench, she came across as more ruthless and yet more human than ever.

    In Casino Royale, M knew Bond very well, correctly identifying him as ‘a blunt instrument.’  However, she saw some promise in him, and gave him some leash to work out his growth.

    But M’s superiority is suddenly upended after Bond’s transformation at the end of Casino Royale, and when he no longer needs the leash he severs it and she is left to decide what that means. Has Bond gone off the reservation, or once he became what M was creating him to be, was he simply fulfilling the purpose for which she had created him? It is not hard to see a little of Dr. Frankenstein in her, and Frankenstein’s monster in James Bond. When he throws off his physical and societal shackles, will he be benign or a menace to the society he was meant to help?

    M is a quick study in this film as evidenced by her shrewd and correct summation of a phone call with her American counterparts in the CIA. But even M is left grasping at straws in this film, and it is a delicious thing to watch. Her relationship with Bond has changed without her permission, and it is up to her to decide what she will do with that.
  • The beddable main squeeze is Camille, a capable, if fragile femme fatale who can nearly take care of herself. The first time she and Bond are thrown together, she tries to shoot Bond when it is apparent that he was supposed to try to kill her. But the script takes a turn when they join forces without joining forces (if you know what I mean) and Bond is cautioned to be careful when around her. “Careful with this one, Mr. Bond. She won’t go to bed with you unless you give her something she really wants.” And then, perversely, as the film goes along, that’s precisely what Bond does do—he gives her something she really wants. However, the writers pop this balloon when he doesn’t go to bed with her.  This Bond is not a slave to his loins, and he continues to do the unexpected, with one glaring exception.
  • That brings us to the actual empty coitus. Yes, he takes pleasure with the company of a woman, but it is a fleeting thing, a meaningless thing, a way to kill a couple of hours. This sequence is so perfunctory that one suspects it was included merely as a nod to tradition, and when her story arc ends, it is, itself, a red herring, or perhaps a black one.
  • When Bond interrogates Mr. White at the beginning of the picture, he knows he has to get more information about them to find what really happened with Vesper. The shadow organization White works for, QUANTUM, is a means to an end for Bond, so he sets about uncovering the truth about the organization, but it is almost an afterthought, a means to an end. The scene at the opera house in Venice is worth the price of admission by itself, and Bond’s gambit there must shake the organization as thoroughly as they have shaken M. It is a neat tit-for-tat, exposing their arrogance and showing them just how formidable a fully enabled super spy can be. One delight is still the slimy and sinister Mr. White. I’ve always enjoyed scenes where the apparent captive is really in control, and his scene is over too fast. We have not seen the last of Mr. White.
  • The megalomaniacal villain, Dominic Greene, is, well, French.  I really dug Greene – he’s capable, smart, and pleasingly different. He’s corporate greed and Illuminati-like power and faux environmental consciousness all rolled into one; equal parts Gordon Gecko, Roman Polanski, and Al Gore. But he’s not the usual posturing fop, and his run-ins with Bond were so fun that I found myself looking forward to more interaction between the two. For one, Bond immediately dismissed Greene, and whenever they met, Bond had a habit of cutting the metaphorical legs out from under Greene when everyone else around him were bowing and fawning and scraping. Bond immediately saw through Greene and found him wanting. Bond merely used Greene to get closer to his own private agenda, and Greene sensed that this was one man utterly unimpressed with all his power, connections, and wealth.

Does all this talk of setting and countering expectation mean the great McGuffin isn’t fun or worthwhile? Not at all. There is some great stuff here.  The scene at the opera house is masterful. Bond’s decision to re-enter the hotel in Bolivia was pure bravura confidence in his abilities. My heart was in my throat as Bond knowingly walked into a trap, and despite being outnumbered and outgunned, he was completely in control of that situation with effortless economy. I was amazed and highly entertained. 

His relationship with Camille was very interesting. She struck me as a female version of himself, very wounded, very driven, very capable. Perhaps that is why he didn’t try to bed her, because he saw something in her he respected, something wounded that he would not wound further, and would, in fact, help to heal as much as he could.

Which brings us to Bond himself. He’s grown since Casino Royale. In fact, he transformed between the death of Vesper and the now-famous final statement of who he was.  The dialogue between M and Bond serve as the film’s heart. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and she suddenly has no clue. She thinks she understands what has happened to him, and she thinks she knows what he has to do to transform his heart the way he has transformed his mind, but you can tell in their dialogue that she no longer has the upper hand with Bond the way she did in Casino Royale.

M: “I thought I could trust you. You said you weren’t motivated by revenge.”

Bond: “I’m motivated by my duty.” 

M: “I think you’re so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don’t care who you hurt. When you can’t tell your friends from your enemies, it’s time to go.”

Bond: “You don’t have to worry about me.”

She should have listened to him. Later:

M: “It would be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved.”

Bond: “I don’t think the dead care about vengeance.”

That brings up something else. In Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’sBond does something early on that shows us that the Bond / M relationship in this franchise is substantively different than it was in the earlier incarnations. In an early scene it becomes apparent that he’s broken into M’s private rooms. This reveals a number of interesting things. For one, he sees M more as an advisor than a boss, more equal than superior, and while he clearly cares for her, he expects her to take care of herself, and assumes she expects the same of him. That expectation shapes this film in large measure. 

The second is that this Bond may be the least sentimental figure in cinema since Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Bond simply doesn’t have the time or bandwidth for sentimentality or social nicety. That also features into this film in a big way when someone Bond was close to, Mathis, is coldly dispatched and his death is pinned on Bond. His apparent lack of concern for Mathis’ corpse disturbed Camille and my own movie audience, but this is consistent with this Bond. He is not so much inhuman as so completely pragmatic that he gives social conventions no more attention than they require in order for him to do his job.

Furthermore, this Bond now knows his role in the service so thoroughly that when he and M have an apparent falling out and he is increasingly stripped of the perks and tools of MI6, M is understandably concerned that she may be losing Bond (a creature with a license to kill).

In Casino Royale, that Bond was still a rookie, gifted in some things, and clumsy in others. He seemed perpetually behind the curve. It was like watching a Heisman award-winning college quarterback getting hammered once he ascends to the professional league. All of a sudden he’s no longer the brightest, or the toughest, or the best, and he has to give everything he has just to barely stay in the game.

All that changed at the end of Casino Royale. When Bond stood over Mr. White with his rifle and delivered his signature line, it was his coming out party.  

In Quantum of Solace, the climax to this two-picture story arc comes late in the film when M said “Bond, I need you to come back.” He turned to her with supreme confidence and maybe a glint of humor and delivered a new line that is as classic and stirring for me. I won’t spoil it for you here, but you’ll know it when you hear it.

Bond’s confidence in this new film is honed and displayed in stark contrast to his younger, more naïve self. This Bond knows exactly what he’s doing, and why, and his confidence is sometimes staggering. It would be arrogant if he wasn’t, in fact, just that good.

Physically, this Bond is suddenly at the top of his game. Something has clicked, and if you want to mentally imagine a shell loaded into the chamber of a gun, I won’t stop you. There is a mechanical, metallic certainty to Bond now, and it is ferocious.

If you’ve ever had a credit card transaction not go through for whatever reason, you’ll sympathize with one dilemma that Bond faces. But where the Casino Royale Bond might have displayed pain or doubt, this Bond is fast on the uptake. He nods and starts to leave, but has the awareness to return to the counter and leave a message for the phone call that he predicts will be forthcoming before disappearing into the night.  That was a delicious scene. This Bond is fast, he’s formidable, and he’s not going to be stopped that easily, even by his own people.

In fact, this Bond was endlessly mysterious, and was forever doing things I didn’t expect. Watch who he kills, and who he doesn’t, who he sleeps with, and who he doesn’t, which orders he follows, and which he doesn’t. It is all for a purpose, and it all works. 

Bond shares very little screen time with Felix Leiter, but when he does, it is delicious. These are two canny patriots operating way out on the frontier of modern civilization. Each is on their own recognizance, each doesn’t fully trust the other, but each sees something there that they recognize in the other. They don’t need to spend an entire picture together to establish their mutual respect. In fact, they need less than 30 seconds. It is enough. 

In Casino Royale, Bond was surprised by love, and then further surprised by betrayal. This Bond isn’t surprised by anything, and I found that interesting. He wasn’t surprised when a man he shot disappeared into thin air, he wasn’t surprised when the clues he was following to achieve personal closure revealed a vast organization that MI6 and the CIA didn’t even know about, and he wasn’t surprised when his own people sought to restrict his movements and bring him in on false pretenses. It’s like once your heart has been burned, nothing much surprises you anymore, and nothing can burn you like that again.

What is interesting here is that despite all the obvious foils, everybody has plans for Bond, up to including this super secret organization that nobody knew about, and Bond couldn’t care less. Bond is after for something very specific, and he won’t stop until he gets it, and he won’t let anyone, not even M, not even Duty, keep him from it. 

At one point Camille says “I wish I could set you free, but your prison is in there.” This film is about Bond’s redemption, but his release is not hers to grant. At some level, I think as the film progresses, Bond finally understands the truth; he is his own jailer, and the one most responsible for his enslavement is himself. 

And that’s where people get it wrong, when they think Bond is doing this out of revenge. He’s not. As I said up front, this is a film about more than just closure. Moriarty from Ain’t It Cool News put his finger on it and observed that Bond is working out something more meaningful than just unfinished business: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/39096:

He’s ready now to finally be the James Bond we are used to. He needs to know that something he trusted was, in fact, real, and until he knows it, he won’t stop killing and wounding and beating his way through as many people as he has to. Watching him piece together his penance, watching him work through it… that’s the movie. And that’s what makes this such a radical departure from any other Bond film before.

As I read that quote, a gong went off in my head. Penance? Bond’s closure is not merely psychological. And that corresponds with something he is told early on, that Bond needs to forgive himself. Sin and remorse, forgiveness and redemption–-these are big concepts straight out of scripture. What are they doing in a Bond film?

Saving it. (Forgive the pun.)

There is so much action and blood and sound and fury in this film, and the McGuffin is so huge, that Bond’s character arc is almost subtle. At the beginning of the film, Bond thinks Vesper betrayed him. By the middle of the film, he’s begun to doubt that, and by the end of the film, his driving motivation isn’t just the truth, it is his need for penance, a reparation of wrong, an act performed voluntarily to show sorrow for wrongdoing. It is the thing that restores just a hint of humanity to Bond, doggedly digging out the truth about his one great love. And uncovering that truth, at the end, is what frees Bond.

After leaving the theater this afternoon, as I thought about all this, I realized that in a sense, we are all damaged goods.  The message of this film seems to be that none of us have to remain that way.  And that’s some heady stuff for a mere ‘vengeance action flick.’


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