Light Bondage: “Quantum of Solace”

Bond, James Bond. For fifty years that has been the cinematic calling card of one of films most enduring heroes. Sure, Bond was born in books, but it was through film that he became a household name and one of the movies’ most enduring legends. He is a character so archetypal that he is bigger than the half dozen men who have played him across nearly two dozen films, and that kind of longevity is both unheard of and a little bit magical.

Light Bondage is my attempt to rewatch the series and try to recapture some of what made these movies worthwhile. I might not always succeed (I’m looking at you, Roger Moore!) but in this biweekly series of articles we’re going to take a ride through the time capsule of the last half century with the world’s most famous spy/action star.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Trying to do a follow up to Casino Royale is admittedly a tall order. It’s the Bond movie that is probably going to define Bond from now on, an instant classic on the order of the early Bonds, probably surpassing even GoldenEye (which admittedly rides in my age group on the tails of its tie-in game). But Casino Royale was a movie built to be the first part of an ongoing story, so someone had to do something with it.

Unfortunately, Quantum of Solace never really manages to make anything special out of the building blocks it’s been given. This movie’s recent enough that I assume most people don’t need a full plot rundown, but I can hit on the basics: Bond is still tracking down the people who turned and then killed Vesper in Casino Royale, and his trail leads him to philanthropist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who works for a mysterious global crime organization known as Quantum. Quantum is financing a coup in Bolivia, in exchange for some land where they conveniently dammed up 60% of Bolivia’s fresh water resources, which it plans to then lease back to the new Bolivian government. Bond, meanwhile, is going to stop them, leaving an alarming number of bodies and questions about his motivations in his wake.

The problem is that the entirety of the character development rests on Vesper’s death in Casino Royale. I mentioned Vesper’s fridging in the last article, and that’s even more accurate here, where it’s obvious that the tragedy of him losing a love in another movie is the only real plot element that the entirety of Bond’s characterization is hinged upon. It’s lazy writing, keeping him grim and vengeful the entire movie, without any contextual reason presented in the movie itself. In fact, the whole movie ends up playing that way, more like two hour coda to Casino Royale than a fully fledged movie in its own right.

Technology has suddenly come a long way.

It’s a tricky thing, I’ll admit. You don’t want the kind of easy dismissal of tragic events that made Diamonds are Forever so frustrating. But at the same time, a movie needs to stand on its own, and outside of the baggage it inherited Solace doesn’t really have much of an arc for Bond on its own. Bond movies usually aren’t particularly connected, but this one leaps sequel to go to straight serialization. It’s interesting thinking, but it just doesn’t work.

Part of the problem is an overreliance the movie has on a lot of action. I imagine someone in a board meeting sat down and was like “Well, we got that emotional bullshit out of the way, so let’s make Bond really violence, that’ll be awesome!” But it isn’t. Too many of the action scenes are composed of dodgy CG work, and Solace suffers from the too-close, too-sloppy handheld camera work that has sunk many a modern action film. Being Jason Bourne isn’t easy, and you shouldn’t try unless you know you can make it work. Taking Bond there feels aimless, like they didn’t trust the reliance on the things that make the series work (and were proven to work just the last film).

Much of the movie takes place in a desert, shot attractively but kind of boring.

That said, the movie isn’t without its good points. The story puts Bond out in the field a lot, and the body count (through necessity and Craig’s version of Bond’s general ruthlessness) means that people start to question exactly just how stable this Bond is. That means a lot of M (Judi Dench again) and a well-deserved deepening of the complex relationship between M and Bond. They’re great actors who have a surprising amount of chemistry with each other, and it’s great to see her role expanded. Also, early indications show that that’s probably going to be a big part of Skyfall, too, so color me very excited.

Also, in a move that still kind of baffles me, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, reprising his role from Casino Royale) has in many ways more of an arc than Bond. The CIA (and Leiter’s officious, annoying boss, played by David Harbour as a cross between sleazy Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Matt Damon in The Informant!)are currently making a deal with Greene to stay out of the way of a Bolivian coup, cutting a deal for the oil they assume Greene’s after. Leiter, unlike Bond, ends up having to work around his government’s insistence that they try to stop Bond’s meddling, while still doing the right thing. It’s far more nuance than Bond gets, and Felix is in many ways a much more interesting character, as you get the sense he has a lot more trouble with his job than super-successful Bond does. I’m going to be honest, I’d rather this movie be about Felix than I would Bond, and I’d love to see a Felix-centric movie someday, with Bond stuck as the supporting cast.

It doesn’t help that the finale of the movie is basically just a fire.

I suppose it says everything I need to say that I care more about the supporting roles than I do the main story, though, doesn’t it? Alas, that’s just how it goes for this movie. I’m hoping it’s a fluke. We’ll just have to see.

The Theme Song/Opening Title:
Jack White and Alicia Keys? I’ll admit it’s kind of a weird duo to make a theme song, but I think it works in its own bizarre sort of way. It feels really bombastic, full of the sort of aggressive swagger a lot of the Bond themes have been missing for a long time. I don’t think it’s the best song ever to grace this section, but I think it suits the movie.

Unfortunately, the opening titles aren’t nearly as good, a minimalist CG sand and bullet motif that never really builds to anything particularly exciting. It just feels plain, especially compared to the elaborate, stunning opening of Casino Royale. I don’t necessarily need a repeat of that, but having some character would be recommended.

Most Ridiculous Gadget:
Again, this is a decidedly gadget light movie. Extra special mention goes to the amazing computer displays in the movie, though, which go from a Surface-like table to touch screen windows that can turn opaque, with information freely moving from one to the other with just a flick of the hand. It’s all near future world of tomorrow type stuff, but man I hope it’s real, because it looks cool as hell.

I miss Q. Supposedly he’s going to be in Skyfall, so I have hope that we’ll get a gadget or two again.

Bond Girl Award for Most Thankless Role:
Camille Montes, played by Olga Kurylenko, is probably the person who deserves this one. She shows up fairly early on in the movie as someone connected with Greene, but it readily becomes apparent to us (if not to Bond) that she’s hanging around terrorists to get at the Bolivian general who killed her parents. She’s a solid contrast to Bond, someone who is willing to admit that she’s driven by revenge but who hasn’t had the defining experience of having killed anyone yet.

Unlike most of the Bond girl relationships, this one ends up in the realm of partners and even student/mentor at times, with Bond coaching her through how to calmly and efficiently go about the kill she’s been working up towards. It’s not uncaring, with Bond offering in the climax of the movie to kill her instead of have her suffer being trapped in a burning building, but it’s also the rare Bond relationship that doesn’t end with him bedding her. At the end, they both achieve their goals, and they go their separate ways. It’s not nearly as nuanced as Bond’s relationship with Vesper, but it’s also surprisingly mature for the series.

Of course, that might be because midway through Bond hooks up with an MI6 agent named, of all things, Strawberry Fields, who quickly gets murdered by Greene, but let’s not split hairs, shall we?

Best Bondickery:
This movie is actually pretty rife with Bondickery, because he spends the entirety of the movie being a total murdering psychopath. In fact, his tendency to kill first and never bother with questions forms a backbone of the side plot of M’s distrust of him. So I could pick a lot of fairly unnecessary killings here.

Bond, still holding a torch from last movie, spends most of this movie pining over his girlfriend. Why didn’t he give this much of a shit about his actual wife?

Instead I’ll go with maybe the meanest kill Bond’s ever done. Once the main bad guy is finished, wounded and hobbling out into the desert, Bond strands him in the middle of nowhere. Left to wander and die of exposure or of being found by the people he failed, Bond leaves him only a canister of motor oil, wondering aloud whether or not he’ll resort to drinking the oil before he dies from someone else’s hand. Unlike most of Bond’s kills, this one isn’t even particularly proficient. He got the guy, and chose instead of killing him outright or turning him in to let him die a slow death of his own making. If that isn’t psychopathic, I don’t know what is.

JAMES BOND will return in SKYFALL

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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3 Responses to Light Bondage: “Quantum of Solace”

  1. justin says:

    Did you ever consider bonds sadistic end for green was special punishment for what the bastard did to agent Fields?
    the throw in of the oil was the hint, its not psychopanthry its justice

  2. leia says:

    Interesting take on the movie, but having slogged through the entire lot of EON films, I have to admit that I didn’t take particular offense to this one. I think that its greatest failing as a film is it’s over-reliance on Casino Royale; I definitely agree with your comment on serialization. However, I found the characterization to be consistent with both Casino Royale and (now released) Skyfall; Craig’s Bond is a much colder incarnation of the character, more along the lines of Dalton or even the Flemming novels.

    I didn’t particularly mind Bond leaving Green in the middle of the desert. While I can’t argue that it shows a certain degree of ironic dickery, it ties in directly with everything that Greene has done to everyone else throughout the film – the man’s been working to basically control the water supply of an impoverished country, and the motor oil is a direct reference to the truly horrific way in which FIelds was killed. I don’t see it being much darker than Dalton setting a gasoline-soaked evildoer on fire with the lighter given to him by the Leiters (who had been murdered and half-fed to a shark, respectively by either that man specifically or his organization… I can’t remember).

    There were a few things in this one that I did like in particular.

    For one, I really liked that Bond didn’t sleep with Camille. As a female Bond fan, I personally dislike a lot of the dubious consent issues of the the classic Bond, both in Bond’s more overt pressuring girls into bed and the more subversive ploy of taking a girl to bed because she was emotionally vulnerable at the time. I liked the acknowledgement that a girl who’d made her first kill (one that she had spent her entire adult life working toward) wasn’t interested in bedding Bond… and that further, Bond could recognize that now wasn’t the time or place. In general, I liked Camille herself as a capable Bond Girl.

    Like you, I was pleased to see Leiter’s return and promotion. I really like Jeffrey Wright’s incarnation of the character in general, and I was really happy to see him having some moral backbone despite that his agency and his country were getting into some dodgy stuff. He’s badass. I thought that some of the political topics touched on were slightly uncomfortable, but I was happy that both the Brits and the Americans had guys who were on the “right” side.

    I was really surprised by how upset I was over Mathis’ death… and how upset Bond was as well. I liked seeing that Bond could show tenderness and empathy for a male character (rather than just being comforting to crying women), and I thought it was really interesting to see him holding his friend the way he had held Vesper’s dead body (and later, M’s). Through this, I think Bond was reminded of his own capacity for loss, in addition to his own capacity to feel emotion even after losing the woman he loved.

    While I found the continuation of the Vesper storyline a bit tedious, I don’t think it can be boiled down to being purely “it made Bond mopey and psychopathic.” There were nuanced aspects of Bond’s development over the course of the film as he moved through grief and forgiveness (both for himself and Vesper)…. culminating in his sparing the life of Vesper’s evil ex for the greater good of MI6 taking him into custody. Additionally, Bond’s loss allowed for some interesting relationship development with M (whom I just love). The continuation of the trust issue from the first film is maintained and resolved, and really put to rest later in Skyfall.

    I know it’s not a popular Bond film, but I just don’t see it standing among the worst of the Bond films.

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