Quantum of Solace - The Final Preview
The purpose of this preview is to examine exactly what’s in store for cinema-goers and devoted Bond fans alike in the imminent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. While I do not examine the plot per se in this preview – that will be saved for my Quantum of Solace – The Review, obviously – I cannot claim there won’t be the odd spoiler. You have been warned. At times, I refer you, faithful reader, to previous articles I have written because I’ve dissected and explored certain content there that would make no sense to completely re-examine here. Hell, this preview has become a lengthy enough beast as it is.
Why is Quantum of Solace such a big deal?
Craig took the world by surprise in his superb debut as Bond in Casino Royale. With the Bond franchise reinvigorated after years, perhaps decades, in the doldrums, the game had suddenly changed. Bond wasn’t cheesy anymore. Gone were the days when 007 could be seen surfing a tsunami or walking on water and his invisible car, go figure, had thankfully permanently disappeared.
With such a sparkling performance last time out, expectations have been raised to a whole new dimension. And, with life being what it is, the following maxim holds invariably true: while rising to glory is tough, staying there is even tougher.
What the production team had, then, was a problem. Whatever form the follow-up film to Casino Royale would take, it had a very hard act to follow; for once, it seemed, the world’s reaction to a Bond film was almost invariably positive as praise for Casino Royale rained in from all quarters. Also, coupled with higher expectations and a new, suddenly alert and hungry audience, there were to be enough changes in respect of key aspects of production between QoS and Casino Royale to give rise to justified concern, a fact I made no bones of pointing out in my Quantum of Solace – Book to Film Preview.
Chief among these, of course, were directorship of the movie and the quantity of original material available. Casino Royale was blessed with having seasoned Bond-director, Martin Campbell on board. Quantum of Solace, on the other hand, is directed by Marc Forster, a director with a slightly more chequered history. Additionally, it has to be said that some of his previous work has been of a rather esoteric nature - with Finding Neverland being a case in point – but that does not necessarily make him unsuited for the role. This new style, back-to-the-future Bond, with the focus on deep and reflective characterisation rather than straightforward gunplay and chase scenes perhaps calls for a new, esoteric approach to directorship.
As I stated in my comprehensive Quantum of Solace Book Review, the story to which the new film owes its name is essentially a short story which hardly involves Bond at all; the majority of the content takes the form a story told to Bond at a dinner party.
Nevertheless, I feel the name, if nothing else, is an inspired choice for the movie and perfect for the direction in which the production team want to take the plot. As I prophesised in my preview:
James Bond’s journey to hell and back hasn’t, of course, come without a cost; he’s left with insidious ill-effects and terrible emotional baggage. As a character, he's a complex paradox: on the one hand he's a train-wreck of emotions, with his emotional circuitry largely burnt out. On the other he's gained his first battle-scars and started down the invariably hazardous but often short life as a double 0. Vesper's death was a crucial lesson in surviving life in his profession; it has tempered him, but the process is still incomplete. And like a piece of semi-hardened steel, he’s now surprisingly brittle and wont to snap. Having his capabilities for conventional and sensitive human emotions ground out of him like a cigarette-end on pavement is a painful yet crucial stage of his career. Trust no one, believe nothing and fight for survival at all costs are his new maxims. Now James Bond will take his first steps as a seasoned, well-honed killer.
For one, I'm eager to see that harder, crueller Bond emerge; the natural and logical progression from the one we saw in Casino Royale. One who's more guarded, untrusting, and suspicious, who carries with him the baggage of a bitter and heartbroken man.
From the opinions I’ve read of those who have been lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new film, QoS certainly seems to tick the boxes in this department; the emotional turmoil that Bond’s enduring is apparent throughout and explored in some depth. Or in the words of the Wired Blog: “Quantum of Solace, is an aggressive, tight, grim and moody thriller that leads directly into the next film in the decades-old series. [Reviews from UK sources] praise the film and the performance of Daniel Craig as 007 for exploring the lead character's depth and motivation in a manner not seen in a previous Bond flick.
On the flip side – and as was largely expected – most reviewers seem to favour Casino Royale over the new film, albeit by a narrow margin. Perhaps that was always inevitable. Be that as it may, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the true quality of the new film or the worthiness of its place in the franchise. A bad Craig film would surely nonetheless go some way in repairing the damage the series suffered in previous years. And let us not forget, here, Casino Royale raised the bar, perhaps to unparalleled heights – a fact that must be continually borne in mind when trying to fairly examine QoS.
I’ve long questioned Judi Dench’s suitability for the role as M. What was perhaps a fresh and novel approach to the character back in the mid 1990s by casting her in the 4 Brosnon movies, now even the most die-hard Dench fans can’t deny that any such novelty has long worn off. Quite frankly, I feel her continuation in the role in the last film was a mistake and there seems to be no end to that mistake in sight. Any scene involving Dench really pains me as her fit to the role of M is not a natural one. Her performance feels too scripted, tight and inhuman; it just doesn’t gel somehow and the films have suffered for just that reason. Early reviews of Dench’s latest performance praise her for her ‘deadpan’ demeanour. M has always been the most phlegmatic of characters, allowing himself to show only the occasional fragment of human emotion to others. Earlier on-screen M’s have been equally indifferent and for Dench to be singled out in this regard is bizarrely misguided.
I did concede in an earlier preview, however, that Dench’s performance in Casino Royale was her least offensive outing. I also made mention of the fact that the plot of QoS was to accommodate a greater role for M, the sense of which I questioned:
When she last took on a significant role as the character - in Brosnan’s 3rd film, The World is Not Enough – it was a an unmitigated disaster. M should be sat in his office in London with the weight of the world on his shoulders playing a complex game of chess in which the pieces are his agents in the field. He (or she) should not, suffice to say, be gallivanting around the world playing at Cowboys and Indians.
It’s important not to forget that there’s an impossible balancing act going on with Bond. There are irreconcilable differences between what the cinema-going public have come to expect from Bond and what the character was actually like in the books. Casino Royale represented the first time that the two ‘Bonds’ truly converged. For true die-hard Bond fans, the gritty and evil nuances that came through so strongly in the books is what it’s all about. Others – and they’re in the majority - are more interested in light-hearted viewing from a character who plays Bond as a charming jet-setting superstar who can do no wrong and can shoot his way out of any situation, surviving a plethora or death-defying explosions en route. Put another way, that Bond is a mere superficial shell of the character that we’re treated to in the Fleming novels. Naturally, finding a way of bridging the two is no easy task. Casino Royale worked so well for many reasons, but I highlighted a few in my 2006 review:
[Craig] portrayed a Bond full of cold-hearted, ruthless substance, not cheesy, clichéd double-entendres. He delivered the couple of classic one-liners with rough charisma, not manufactured phony ‘charm’ that was Brosnan’s specialty. Gadgetry was kept to a minimum and classic Bond clichés were kicked firmly into touch.
Further, Bond had finally been scripted to be much more like the evil, cold-hearted bastard as found in the books. At long last, Bond was finally portrayed on screen as a real man - not a Hollywood fabrication.
My point, I suppose, is that in the face of such a challenge of irreconcilabilities, Casino Royale did a damn good job. One of the concerns I was left with having watched the official Quantum of Solace trailer, was that the film might resort to using the formula of its weaker predecessors. That formula, for the most part, depended heavily on incorporating a high level of cheesy, hi-tech gadgetry, superficial female characters and why-the-hell-not action sequences. Given that virtually the entire plot has been written specifically for the film and it has little or no basis on an actual Fleming storyline, my concerns over this issue were particularly profound. While I’m reserving judgement until the film premieres, I’ve long recognised that the best case scenario here is that Quantum of Solace mirrors the elements contained within Casino Royale, with the back-to-basics formula permeating throughout.
A break with convention – really, this time?
The general vibes coming from the production team over the last year in respect of what we can expect from the new Bond girl have been clear: she would be a breath of fresh air, having a character like no other we’ve seen before. I know what you’re thinking, though: the production team wheel out such sentiments for nearly every Bond movie and the end results are all invariably disappointing. Well, like you, I’m equally sceptical of their claims. This is hardly the first time that a Bond girl has been tipped as one who can hold her own. Perhaps, ironically, it was Vesper Lynd who has hitherto got the closest to laying claim to that feat. When you stop to examine some of the initially more obvious candidates here, you’ll see they all fall disappointingly flat. Halle Berry, who at the time was slated as being the closest match to Bond of all time, still needed Bond to come to the rescue in a completely conventional way on at least two occasions. And Berry ‘doing’ a poorly executed CGI backwards leap off a cliff does little to detract from that fact. That film was crushingly disappointing.
For what it’s worth, Vesper Lynd, ably played by the gorgeous Eva Green in Casino Royale was an inspired choice and one that worked perfectly. It’s performances like those that help to banish the painful memories of actresses – and I use that term loosely – like Denise Richards who more or less slaughtered the role. The character Green was playing, however, was a very specific one. She was a troubled and flawed character, the examination of which was a key part of both the book and the film (see my comparison). In short, the Bond girl affected Bond in ways we’ve never before seen in the screen incarnation of Bond.
So is this Bond girl going to be really different and are the production team’s claims justified? I hope so. My understanding of the new character, Camille, played by the sultry Olga Kurylenko, is that she is partially used as a proxy through whom some of Bond’s inner turmoil is examined. My take on her character is that she’ll prove a quirky Bond girl. She won’t be sombre and deeply troubled per se, although there might be minor elements of that in her character. Neither will she be light and dippy, akin to the more conventional Bond girl mould. What Camille will be, I believe, is exciting, slightly eccentric and dangerous. She will also be unpredictable, difficult to fathom and, in a classic role-reversal, will come to Bond’s aid in new, unusual ways. Done correctly, I believe, this new-style relationship with Bond will represent a refreshing change and should be welcomed by all.
This change of approach with Bond girls is a good thing for many reasons. Firstly, Bond girls in their traditional mould have been done every which way imaginable – for want of a better phrase. Even the most conservative Bond movie lover must be tired of the same old elements in a Bond girl's character and equally tired with the conventional film conclusions in which Bond almost invariably gets his girl and saves the world without fail. Casino Royale was one of those welcome breaks with convention; QoS should be another. Secondly, it is this aspect of the film that can remain true to the original source material. As I’ve mentioned before, it was essentially a tale told to Bond about the law of the quantum of solace that was the main point of the book. That law examined the interaction between human beings, love affairs, human cruelty, bitter emotions and revenge. Or, as I put it in my book review:
Quantum of Solace stands as a scrutiny of human behaviour, a tale that cuts right to the bone, examining inescapable truths through an uncomfortable aphorism. To some, it might present a grave, and uninviting tale. The Law of the Quantum of Solace is, after all, not concerned with the construction of something positive through love and marriage but rather the way a couple can tear apart each other through the same unity.
Thirdly, let’s remember, Bond is an emotional wreck. The tragedy of what happened to Vesper is weighing on him heavily and Bond desperately needs a means of understanding what has happened to help him come to terms with that tragedy. It is that, in part, which is driving him so tirelessly in his quest to find the truth in Quantum of Solace.
Two for the price of one
In keeping with many other Bond films, with Quantum of Solace you get two for the price of one in the Bond-girl-department, with Gemma Arterton taking an interesting albeit rather limited role as Agent Fields. I’ve no problem with having more than one Bond girl in a movie; in fact, it often proves a successful formula. What I do have more of a problem with is one rather specific element of the film involving Arterton. Fields meets her demise in a rather nostalgic way, in a tip-of-the-hat moment to the Goldfinger film. Just as Jill Masterston in Goldfinder was found dead covered in gold paint on Bond’s bed - having succumbed to the fictitious complaint of ‘skin asphyxiation’ - Fields is left in a similar manner having been drowned in crude oil. While I’m reserving final judgement until I see this scene in context, I’m nonetheless uncertain of this approach. Perhaps giving viewers that ‘a-ha’ moment as they recognise the nostalgic element deliberately woven in, will work; my first reaction, though, was that such a move would be seen as more of a clumsy cliché. While I’m sure many people would relish the opportunity of seeing Gemma Arterton naked and covered with oil, there is surely another equally alluring way for her to meet her maker on-screen without resorting to a cheesy ‘blast-from–the-past’ moment. We’re comfortably into new territory here, so there is surely no need to bring back elements from the past. But who knows? It might work. Maybe.
There’s no doubt that the new Quantum of Solace title song is contentious. Musically, it’s a long way removed from the style previous Bond songs have adopted and naturally, Another Way to Die performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys will not be to everyone’s tastes.
My opinion has changed somewhat, from when I first heard it. On the first listening there is certainly a shock-factor and the scary feeling that we’ve passed into new, uncertain territory. Others, presumably even more aghast, strike back with the oft-mentioned phrase: it doesn’t sound like a Bond song. In short, it’s different from any Bond song you’ve heard before. But that is certainly no reason to criticise it, particularly as we’re well into this ‘new era Bond’ to which I keep referring.
Lyrically, it’s perhaps a touch on the weak side, although, compared against some of the howlers we’ve suffered with over the years, Another Way to Die is highly acceptable.
What’s clear from some very forthright views expressed by certain individuals on the net, some believe it is truly awful. Much of that, I feel, is a knee-jerk reaction. In response to that criticism, I would say it’s truly different and I maintain that that is no bad thing. Since I first heard it several weeks ago, the song has grown on me. But I would go a good way further than that: while some of the lyrics could have been stronger, I feel, the song shows streaks of brilliance and is a perfect fit with the film.
The song itself has a rather unpredictable rhythm, with a generally moody and heavy feeling throughout. There are also more frenzied parts to the song with undertones of desperation and a lack of control. So too is there a rather vengeful and rebellious feeling from some of the heavy, disjointed tones that mirrors perfectly much of what Bond is going through.
When trying to judge the song, it’s important to remember that the previous Bond song, Chris Cornell’s, You Know my Name, was, just like the movie, exceptionally well received and has proved a hard act to follow. Equally important to bear in mind is the fact this film is diverging into new territory for the on-screen incarnation. If the production team have had the guts and foresight to try something different in this new-era, Bond surely the song calls for a similar approach?
Many observers have made much of the fact that there is little natural harmony at times between White and Keys. I would argue that their perhaps unlikely alliance is intentional and that the discordant sounds somehow working is a metaphor for much of what is going on in the film. Not least, that metaphor represents much of what is going on with Bond and Camille, two characters with serious emotional baggage that have been thrown together and are somehow working well in a strange discordant harmony.
In respect of the meaning of the title, Another Way to Die, there are quite obviously intended connotations of the inner turmoil and torment Bond is facing after the death of Vesper. Dodging bullets may be in his job description but he perhaps closed his eyes to the danger of being emotionally killed by getting too close to someone. Perhaps he needed to have much of his emotional circuitry burnt out just to do be able to do his job and that fate had sealed the importance Vesper would play in his life at birth. Another way to die, indeed.
There is another slant on this, too. Having earned his double-o status at the beginning of the previous movie, Bond has transcended into the realms of a seasoned killer by this stage in his career. To do that job and live with the consequences, he must adopt an increasing indifference to killing. Assassinations simply merge into one another and the value of human life drops below any significance in his mind. On top of Vesper’s recent death, Bond must know there will be significant blood spilt as he sets out on his quest for revenge. As the process which Bond has been through has dehumanised the act of killing, the song’s title plays on the idea of that repetition and meaninglessness: another kill for him is just ‘another way to die’ for his enemies.
To the doubters out there, I’d say that the song definitely grows on you, however much you might hate it first time out. While it’s well outside of the normal Bond song territory, I’d argue that it’s a perfect fit for this one. Another point is that we’ve yet to hear it in the context of the opening credits sequence so final judgement should surely be reserved until then. My advice is simple: just give it a chance. Perhaps, contrary to your initial feelings, you’ll find it works... strangely well.
On balance, I truly believe we’re in for a cracking new Bond film. Even if it doesn’t surpass the much revered Casino Royale, that’s no reason to slate the film or consider it a failure. The most important thing for me is that the series doesn’t slip back into its old ways and that it remains faithful the new-style, back-to-basics approach which remains the overwhelming reason why Casino Royale was such an unqualified success. Conversely, going back to a pre-Craig style movie would result simply in the world sadly realising that Casino Royale was a one-hit-wonder and that it’s all downhill again from here.
So while the film represents another break with tradition, I hope that theme is followed through from beginning to end with a refreshing conclusion that doesn’t involve Bond getting his girl and saving the day, for them only to wonder off into the proverbial sunset hand-in-hand. Also, action scenes just like gadgets should be relevant, thoughtfully used and be fairly few in number. This is the new Bond, remember: less is more.
Finally, considering just how well entrenched many of the Bond norms were, the production team should be praised for going out on a limb with the direction the new movie has taken. Exactly quite how well it works remains to be seen. I, like you, cannot wait to find out.