2008’s Quantum Of Solace is the black sheep of Daniel Craig’s largely well-received era, but never mind “what went wrong” – isn’t it overdue a reassessment?.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for Quantum Of Solace and major spoilers for Casino Royale.
“I’m not dwelling on the past. I don’t think you should either.”
As of 2022, Quantum Of Solace is the last James Bond film be produced within the franchise’s usual two-year cycle of development and release. Though it’s a testament to the well-oiled (well-watered?) Eon Productions machine that this still comes close to proving the quick turnarounds are sustainable in the Daniel Craig era, it’s probably not a coincidence that they’ve yet to try it again.
It’s the shortest Bond film of the lot, but more unusually, it’s a direct sequel to Casino Royale and is best watched back-to-back with that film. When last we met, our hero was violently extracting a mutual contact of Vesper and Le Chiffre, Mr White (Jesper Christensen), from his estate in Lake Como. During the subsequent interrogation, White alludes to a far-reaching and apparently invisible crime syndicate called Quantum.
Bond buries his grief and focuses on the job at hand, even as his allies, including M (Judi Dench), believe he is a liability who is “driven by inconsolable rage”. Nevertheless, he follows the trail to a Quantum conspiracy in South America and also helps Bolivian agent Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) with her own vendetta against conniving philanthropist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and deposed dictator General Medrano (Joaquín Cosío).
Having enjoyed a successful collaboration with Sony Pictures on Casino Royale, Eon producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson found their producing partner that was eager for a follow-up, as soon as May 2008. Sony chairperson Amy Pascal observed: ‘What we found is that you can strip away a lot of the bells and whistles, but it still feels uniquely like a Bond film.’
What we get with Quantum Of Solace is a Bond film that attempts to take that even further, pressing Craig’s 007 in that different direction to his predecessors. Equally, it’s a film that has an unusually high number of returning cast members, including Dench, Christensen, Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, and Giancarlo Giannini’s Mathis. And in other regards, it might go too far in its un-Bond-like tendencies.
However, the two-year turnaround didn’t derail things so much as the timing of that window. The late, great Roger Michell was attached to direct Bond 22 before Bond 21 even came out, but he later departed, prompting the projected release date to be delayed from May to November 2008.
Furthermore, production coincided with the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and the script, by returning Casino Royale writers Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, wasn’t quite where everyone wanted it to be when production began.
Simon’s gone into all of this and the rest of the making-of story in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below:
There are always umpteen retrospective articles about “what went wrong” every time there’s been a new instalment since, but far fewer that argue the film’s case. All things considered, perhaps the biggest flaw of its experimental approach is that in retrospect, it’s arguably the last sighting of a traditional James Bond movie to date.
A door left open
More than 14 years on, it doesn’t take a Philomena Cunk to stare into space and ask, “but what is a Quantum Of Solace”, so let’s start there. Using the second Ian Fleming title on the bounce, Bond 22 is named after an atypical 1959 short story which finds the Governor of Nassau gossiping with Bond at a dinner party; specifically, about how a fellow diner was cruelly abandoned after her affair with a civil servant.
The Governor broadly defines a quantum of solace as the amount of comfort you can take from a relationship. “Quantum” explicitly makes this a tiny amount at best. It’s usable as a title, but the film offers no equivalent explanation – in fact, it’s the only Bond film to date where the title appears in neither the dialogue nor the title song.
On top of that, the presumptuous reverse-engineered pun of calling the off-SPECTRE crime syndicate Quantum as well is what we in the biz call “a real Film Quiz Friday choice”. It’s an unnecessary bit of obfuscation in a script that’s already comparatively light on the clarity that would have come with further drafts and a less aggressive editing style.
Esoteric as it may be, the meaning of the title goes towards the themes of a film that was always designed as “Casino Royale Part Two”, and the format of the source material also informs the tone. This is a big blockbuster-budgeted movie more in the style of a 007 short story, where Bond shows up somewhere, meets people and helps them out, maybe learning something along the way. Think more like Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me than the film version.
This is both a logical next step and a further de-escalation of Casino Royale's more grounded stakes. Growing out of the unanswered questions from the previous film’s objective of remaking James Bond for the present day, this proceeds by giving the enemies he fights the same treatment.
But with a budget north of $200m, there does need to be some semblance of a bigger scheme to drive the action, but that threat also grows from Le Chiffre’s villainy in the previous film. It was Haggis and director Marc Forster who introduced the idea of governments unwittingly collaborating with the villains to help them shore up natural resources, inspired by the Bechtel scandal of 2000, which saw an American company attempt to privatise water utilities in Bolivia.
With Amalric basing his performance on Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy, Dominic Greene and Quantum represent the more acceptable face of disaster capitalism, as far as the governments they deal with are concerned. The film also sharpens its cynical edge on intelligence failures during the war in Iraq, depicting a scramble to secure what the West believes is an oil find – both the UK Foreign Secretary (Tim Piggott-Smith) and CIA section chief Greg Beam (a never-more-punchable David Harbour) remark that they don’t get to deal with nice people when it comes to resourcing.
In hindsight, it was a huge advantage that they didn’t have Blofeld and SPECTRE to play with at the time, which would have been a crash mat for the kind of experimentation they’re trying here – but we’ll get to what happened when that rights issue was fixed. Instead, Quantum Of Solace is almost unique in the series in centring what might be a throwaway bit of global bastardry in one of the older films – you can just imagine some faceless bald fella stroking a cat and asking Number 12 how the destabilisation of Bolivia is going.
Just as Casino Royale goes back to the beginning of Bond’s 00 days, so this imagines a start-up SPECTRE stoking geopolitical conditions in order to seize power. If our heroes ever have to go to the lengths of raiding Quantum’s hollowed-out volcano base and massacring its workforce to wrap the action up, it’s a long way off yet.
Of course, one of the side effects of portraying the banality of evil is that the villain seems a bit banal, but it gives Bond room to be more of a nuisance. This one has a lot in common with Licence To Kill, from a loose-cannon 007 who agitates allies and antagonists alike, to the more general vibe of also being a revenge movie with a desert-set climax.
No, it’s not as good as Licence To Kill, but it’s still a handy Timothy Dalton-era throwback that also mixes in the global intrigue of The Living Daylights. When Quantum Of Solace eventually gets the same reappraisal Dalton’s second film got, it will sit more comfortably around the level of For Your Eyes Only, which also happens to feature a “legitimate businessman” villain and a sub-plot where Bond teams up with a woman who’s avenging her dead family.
Because of the film’s poor rep, Camille never seems to place highly in lists of the best Bond women, but she’s an outlier in that she’s not being portrayed as an equal to Bond so much as an opposite. In Medrano, she has a tangible target, while Bond is fending off the tentacles of an as-yet-unclear organisation. She’s driven by revenge, while he’s stubbornly ignoring that impulse.
His support could be read as vicarious, but it presents a cautionary tale too. In the context of a revenge movie, (hers, not his) the quantum of solace is how little comfort retribution will bring. The cold comfort that vengeance offers Camille guides Bond’s actions when he finally comes face-to-face with the other man Vesper died for.
On the other hand, Agent Fields the field agent (Gemma Arterton) is seduced and killed off in typically short order, but even in this disappointing cliché, there’s a subversive angle. MI6 is entirely taken in by the spectacle of Fields’ naked body covered in oil like the gold-painted Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger. This gruesome tableau has seemingly been staged entirely for the benefit of governments who think this is how real villains act, not like their philanthropic chums. Notably, the newer Bond knows better than to fall for the misdirection, which proves a handy meta-statement about the series’ need to rise above its tropes and fan service.
(To be clear, making this homage more of a plot point doesn’t make it any less formulaic. Arterton has understandably said that she wouldn’t play that character if she was offered it now, and even wrote a funny short story about how her character would act in a normal situation for the 2018 anthology Feminists Don’t Wear Pink And Other Lies.)
As for Bond, what M chalks up to “inconsolable rage” is actually more behaviour in line with the blank slate Fleming creates on a page – from his name down, he’s an unremarkable character doing remarkable things.
Craig’s big success in the role is in essaying that as a façade for a newfound inner life and he continues that here, in what is arguably the last time that the character gets to express that actively, rather than reactively.
He’s not entirely passive in the following sequels, but counter to this, they’re all stories in which Bond is massively important to the villains for one preposterous reason or another, and vice versa, whereas here he’s just a man on a mission.
Is it an atypical Bond film? Next to the first 20, yes, it’s a more downbeat and downplayed affair. But like Casino Royale, it’s a Bond film that looks for grounding in something like the real world. And compared to the hoops that later Craig films jump through to tie everything together, Quantum Of Solace looks like a perfectly natural follow-up.
And no, the title’s not very good, but as Fleming-inspired titles go, it still beats the crap out of Octopussy.
Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
The idea of opposites goes throughout a film that conflates water with oil as this does and while it’s not necessarily a bad mix overall, some bits run smoother than others.
For instance, although Tony Scott and Jonathan Mostow were on Sony’s list of suggested directors, Broccoli and Wilson lean towards directors who don’t normally make action movies. And so, they chose Marc Forster off the back of Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, and The Kite Runner. While that evidently paid off on the story side of things before the strike kicked in, the harried post-production schedule caused problems.
Quantum Of Solace most often gets criticised for its overload of Bourne-isms compared to the clean, matter-of-fact action in the previous film. With only six weeks to edit the film in post-production, Forster’s regular editor Matt Chesse was joined by Bourne Supremacy editor Richard Pearson, which may go to explain the perceived clash of styles.
Meanwhile, Forster played for and got a shorter runtime than Casino Royale, but it’s the frantic pacing that leads to occasional skips over the finer points in the plot. With an average shot length of 1.83 seconds, (compared to 4.2 for the previous film) it’s often disorienting and overwhelming.
Matching the discordant tone is the much-maligned theme song, performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Sony’s record arm facilitated this duet as a late replacement for Amy Winehouse (who was going through personal problems at the time) and Duffy (whose “Rain On Your Parade” was considered but ultimately rejected).
First unveiled as an instrumental on a Coke Zero tie-in ad ahead of the official single release, “Another Way To Die” has suitably paranoid lyrics written by White, adding a stream-of-consciousness spy jam to the symphonic-rock riffs. Ahead of the mixed response to the full song, Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish had different ideas about a title song, but that might be a feature for another time.
There’s an interesting reading of the film that this is an intentional effect to mirror Bond’s post-traumatic stress, carrying on with his uncoordinated early actions and mistakes in Casino Royale. Accordingly, the editing is most measured in the climax, which intercuts Camille battling Medrano with Bond, thinking clearly again, battering the almost comically outmatched Greene and goofball henchman Elvis (Anatole Taubman – watch out for the bit when an explosion blows his clothes off before killing him).
That’s one example of the kind of stuff you can get from rewatching the film with fresh eyes, but there’s no question that it’s a bit muddled up in the execution. The good bits are good enough that the less good bits stand out more starkly, and frankly, it goes by so quickly, it gets better on multiple viewings just for being able to take more of it in.
As one of the only two people allowed to work on the incomplete and already-shooting script, Daniel Craig found all of this most punishing, calling the production ‘a bit of a shit-show’ in a 2021 interview with The Empire Film Podcast.
He explained: ‘I would sort of yearn the person I was when I did Casino. Too much knowledge sometimes is not a good thing. I was sort of in the dark about a lot of things, about how things worked, the mechanics of it.
‘Then I started to understand them, the weight of it sort of bore down […] I kind of think that made me probably lock up.’
With a shaggy script and a disorienting edit, Quantum Of Solace leaves you rummaging around for its meaning rather than articulating its surprisingly complex geopolitical plot properly. The title does it no favours, but the film is not some incomprehensible misfire.
We’ve noticed from the comments throughout these features that a lot of consensus is based on memories of films that people haven’t actually watched for a while – Tomorrow Never Dies is a bit better than you remember, You Only Live Twice is much, much worse, but this one is unavoidably changed by what followed, and so it’s definitely worth another look post-No Time To Die.
Heck, give it a minute and its financial-crash context might become timely again too. But maybe the idea of governments standing by and allowing corporations to make basic utilities unaffordable isn’t what you’re after in your escapist spy movies at the moment.
Raking in $589.6m at the worldwide box office, this direct sequel became the second biggest hit of the series to date. It did fall short of the previous film’s record-breaking total, perhaps due to the less enthusiastic critical response, but what followed only looks like an overreaction to that.
Three movies on, others have observed that Amalric made a very ironic comment while promoting the film: “A villain today doesn’t have any scars any more, or a white cat, or a metal jaw.”
He was entirely correct at the time, but little did he realise that those three traits would pop up in the next three villains, in the opposite order. James Bond would return, but the series would stick it in reverse and put its foot down to meet him.
Quantum Of Solace is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 9th September.
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