Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Quantum of Solace   Marc Forster, 2008, UK

Quantum of Solace opens dazzlingly; a sweeping helicopter shot zooms us in to a dynamic, kinetic car chase through a tunnel, along an Italian hill road and into a marble quarry with some savage incidents along the way and a brutal, sudden ending whose neat, unexpected twist ties directly into the ending of Casino Royale and places the events of the new film mere hours later. The sequence is tricky to follow at times thanks to too-tight framing and too-rapid cutting, both of which waste some opportunities for scene-setting and fail to mitigate the confusion inherent in having the villains’ cars the same colour as Bond’s, but it does maintain a strong grip on the heartbeat.

Alas, after a superb, stylish, retro-70s title sequence – by Kansas firm MK12 rather than usual Brit designer Daniel Kleinman – it rapidly becomes clear that the problems of this opening sequence are symptomatic of a wider confusion that afflicts the film throughout, and which soon begin to irritate.

Thus another satisfyingly unexpected plot revelation sadly leads to an over-extended foot chase and fight in Siena and some crucial exposition rendered inaudible by appalling sound mixing. A briefing sequence with Minority Report-style manipulation of data only confuses matters, as it is so visually overripe that one’s attention is constantly shifting from unclear dialogue to fussy imagery with little chance to extract meaning from either.

Further scenes in Haiti introduce characters whose accents, it has to be said, hardly help the continuing sound problem and whose actions and purpose Marc Forster’s direction could have made much clearer. Indeed, it is at this point that Quantum of Solace’s plot becomes hopelessly muddled, throwing in coups, environmentalism, criminal syndicates, international political machinations, opaque motivations and mineral prospecting whilst quickly abandoning the earlier promise.

More importantly, and bizarrely, Bond’s search for the truth about Mr White’s organisation and Vesper’s enforced betrayal, so clearly set up in the previous film, becomes lost in a welter of unnecessary distraction and abandoned threads. As an example, White is captured, questioned and shot apparently to death, disappearing, only to reappear alive and well later, yet is then never seen again.

There is no true sense of progression toward a goal and no clear sense of where various villains, including the main character, actually fit. Yet another plot strand, that of Bond being suspended and made the subject of a ‘kill or capture’ order from M, never feels remotely real and is another wasted opportunity. How fresh would it have been, for instance, to have Bond hunted by fellow 00 agents?

As if all this was not enough, having the revenge thread of Olga Kurylenko’s character, Camille, mirror that of Bond is useful in allowing a Greek chorus commentary on the morality of killing and vengeance – her line ‘tell me how it feels’ echoes the teasing traitor in Casino Royale’s pre-credits sequence – but ultimately becomes too distracting. And the idea is blown in the end when both achieve their aims simultaneously.

As becomes painfully obvious, after the extraordinarily grounded nature of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace appears to have slipped back to the absurdly ridiculous, unconvincing action philosophy that reached its nadir in Die Another Day’s ice surfing. An aerial chase verges on the farcical, whilst other action scenes share the problems of the earlier sequences, employing the kind of nanosecond shot-length cutting beloved of Michael Bay and others. This approach destroys any hope of establishing, let alone maintaining, what Predator and Die Hard director John McTiernan calls ‘the geography of a scene’, a needed chance for the viewer to be confident in knowing who is where and, critically, why during an action sequence. The section intercutting an opera house shoot-out with a performance of Tosca is almost impossible to follow and Forster – a newcomer to action, and thus surely a strange choice for a script which includes lots of it – seems uncertain as to whether he is producing an arthouse film, a travelogue or a pop video. Veteran Bond directors once knew how to deal with this – see Lewis Gilbert’s masterful evocations of both place and action in The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice – but Forster does not.

Oddly, actual geography, traditionally a plus in a Bond film, seems off-kilter too, with the action and characters leaping around the globe for no clear reason and, in Bond’s case, with no apparent finances or even passport. A desert setting for the main finale serves no real purpose and when the story moves to Russia for a late scene just to show it can, one is tempted to cry ‘no more, please’.

The violence, especially as meted out by Bond, also concerned. Appearing acceptable initially in the context of the plot, it soon acquired a taint of sadism and sheer nastiness in its relentlessness and offhandedness which was absent from Casino Royale. British viewers be warned – the 12A cinema certificate is very borderline.

Sadly, there is virtually none of the character exploration and development that was so central to Casino Royale and none of the classy dialogue that gave its cast a chance to shine. Whilst some of this can be excused by the nature of Bond’s obsession, even his frequent but pointless clashes with M take us nowhere. The film is actually 30 minutes shorter than Casino Royale, yet frequently feels painfully over-extended and, simultaneously, underwritten.

Equally strangely, new characters and the actors playing them seem ill-at-ease. The much-plugged Gemma Arterton, for example, supposedly a placid backroom girl, greets Bond in a flasher’s mac and boots and is soon applying herself to the tasks in hand with gusto, yet the transition is as jarring and unconvincing as her little-girl voice. The contrast with Rosamund Pike’s handling of a similar role in the otherwise dire Die Another Day is striking. And after the stripped-down Casino Royale, do we really need to go back to the exploding-villain's-headquarters climaxes of old?

Watching at the cinema, my friend and I had the same reaction as the final credits faded – silence, and a bemused look. Quantum of Solace is a hugely incoherent, fragmented disappointment. It can only be regarded as a massive misjudgement by Eon and a concern for the future of the franchise after the brilliance of Casino Royale.

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Teaser trailer, promising much, and US book jacket

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