If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That’s an old proverb, I gather, though from where it comes I’m not sure; I first heard it uttered by a professor in college. It’s stuck with me ever since, and I’m employing here because it seems appropriate. I do not understand the critical dislike of Quantum of Solace, and the more passionate people get in striking it down, the more puzzled I become. Critically, it didn’t actually fare all that badly—certainly not at the box office, and its Rotten Tomatoes average is a respectable 64%—but from what one hears, it’s almost as if the filmmakers committed some mortal sin in releasing it. I liked Quantum of Solace when I saw it in cinemas, and just days ago, when I watched it back-to-back with Casino Royale on Blu-Ray before seeing Skyfall, I liked it even more. Too many people, I would contend, are carrying hammers. This is in no way a bad film.
The mainstream reviews paint a fuzzy picture of why Quantum copped a backlash. There are conflicting accounts, for instance, about the seemingly endless action set pieces that make up most of the movie. Critic James Berardinelli, along with Slate’s Dana Stevens, contended that director Marc Forster, better known for more thoughtful works like The Kite Runner, wasn’t cut out for action films, and that he relied too heavily on the shaky-cam technique popularized by the Bourne franchise; but conversely, the Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle praised Forster for not relying on shaky-cam. Roger Ebert took a holistic approach, asserting that Quantum of Solace was not a real Bond film to begin with—it had no cartoony, eccentric villain, and it didn’t have a real Bond girl (in as much as, in Ebert’s words, “Camille”—played by Olga Kurylenko—is not a bizarre enough a name for a Bond girl).
(Incidentally, the ‘not a Bond film’ tack is an interesting one for Ebert to take. He praised Skyfall, giving it his highest commendation, yet it, at least to my mind, continues down much the same track as Quantum of Solace, and is perhaps even less a Bond flick than Quantum. Skyfall is the darkest Bond yet—it is largely humorless, it contains no gadgets, and it doesn’t have a ‘real’ Bond girl either, for the character Sévérine is only onscreen for a few scenes. It’s no more a Bond film than Quantum, and if ‘Bond-ness’ can actually be quantified, it would probably be the least Bond-like film in the franchise.)
Most will be aware of what Quantum’s core problem is: it heavily references Casino Royale’s plot and characters, yet it makes no effort to remind the viewer what went on in that picture. Given that Quantum requires the viewer to have an intricate knowledge of its predecessor, anybody that doesn’t remember Casino Royale’s finer details or that never saw Casino Royale will have a miserable time. The criticism that Quantum of Solace is unwilling to help the viewer navigate its story is certainly valid, but it is not as if the film dies by this mistake. Consider its structure: it begins, quite literally, seconds after Casino Royale ends (see this YouTube clip which merges the end of Casino Royale and the beginning of Quantum together). It does not even open with the traditional gun barrel shot, because that would break the flow between the two movies. It’s a mistake to treat Quantum of Solace as its own film. It’s really just ‘Casino Royale: Part Two,’ and watched in tandem like that, the narrative problem disappears completely. That doesn’t mean it’s right to leave new viewers out in a lurch—a few title cards or a few extra lines of dialogue could have solved this problem easily—but we have home video and we have streaming video, and Casino Royale is at our fingertips at all times. We cannot pretend as if the decision to not recap it was a major folly.
Quantum of Solace missteps in one other way: it is oversaturated with action. It seems that Bond can’t make a move without some goon turning on him, and the film would certainly have been better served with three fewer action scenes and ten more minutes of exposition. Despite that, the action is as good as it’s ever been. I disagree with the charge that Forster directs action poorly. The claim that he abuses the shaky-cam technique is perhaps a little inaccurate; rather, he directs with flair, forgoing more traditional shots that, in some cases, would serve him better. Forster rarely shakes the camera about. Instead, he cuts between shots quickly, so one gets the sense that the camera is moving about awkwardly when he in fact is simply cobbling together an exaggerated montage. It’s an interesting approach, and though it’s hardly perfect, I certainly wouldn’t call it a failure. His technique is better suited to more open environments, but it doesn’t work as well in confined spaces. This is most evident in the opening car chase. The rest of the film is much more run-of-the-mill, but in this opening salvo, Forster produces a frenetic (if somewhat confusing) car duel with plenty of close-ups of Craig and below-the-wheel angles that, at least in this case, fail to convey what’s going on. Pay close attention, though, and you’ll see that he’s not actually moving the camera: he’s just intercutting very, very quickly.
Again, it’s important to emphasize that the rest of the action is comparatively slow paced, so this scene is something of an aberration—I’m including it because it handily demonstrates his unique approach. The myriad other action scenes are capably handled. And while the quick cutting may not be to everyone’s taste—it certainly isn’t to mine—we can say that Forster accomplishes what he was trying to achieve: he consistently provides tense, entertaining set pieces. Happily, it all comes together in the end, for the film’s concluding fight scene in the glass hotel is one of the better action sequences in the Bond franchise. With the place burning down, explosions all around, and glass shattering everywhere, Forster’s eye for unusual angles pays off. He films an exquisite-looking battle that has plenty of stunning moments. The cinematography and fight choreography in this scene is some of the best you’ll see in the action genre as a whole.
Quantum of Solace also succeeds in its characterization of Bond, who appears just as lifelike here as he was in Casino Royale. Bond is now a tragic figure, a man chasing what little humanity he has left in him. Vesper Lynd was that humanity, I suppose, and that is why he clung to her. When he lost her, he lost all hope of reclaiming himself. Quantum of Solace illustrates just how callous he has become. Though the action may come across as gratuitous, I suspect there’s something else there, some subtext to it all. In Quantum, Bond goes looking for a fight. The fighting ultimately comes to an end once the body count is high enough, and once the man has simmered down. But revenge is empty, and the trail of bodies behind him only reinforces just how meaningless the whole endeavor was. And we see just how vacant Bond has now become in Skyfall. This isn’t exactly heady stuff, but it’s a radical about-face for the franchise. The James Bond flicks previous dwelled behind an incredibly superficial, overly comical, at times vapid veneer. Now, these films are proudly designated for a mature audience. Whatever thoughtful subject matter there is here is well-handled. It’s interesting, and it makes Bond more relevant than he’s ever been. And, crucially, it’s Quantum of Solace that really establishes this new Bond. Skyfall follows the path it set. (Mild spoilers for Skyfall follow here.)
I thought Skyfall was terrific, though more could have been done with the Bond character than simply filling in the blanks in his origin story. (Skyfall encroaches into Batman Begins territory at times.) For instance, it’s hinted at that Bond is addicted to alcohol and painkillers, but that subplot is ditched almost as soon as it is raised. There’s plenty of avenues for exploration there (recall Season Three of 24, where Bauer is addicted to heroin), and one hopes they’ll return to this in the future, perhaps in the next film (we’ll find out in two or three years, I suspect). What direction they go in will largely be dictated by Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, part one and part two of the same story. Quantum of Solace upped the action ante adeptly, and Skyfall carried on in tone, though with a much more measured approach. Quantum of Solace is the weakest of the three films, but it is still a fine film, and as far as I’m concerned, in the context of the Bond franchise, Craig’s three films—including Quantum—easily slot into the top five, with two Connery pictures filling out the other two spots. Quantum of Solace is not a nail, and we shouldn’t be looking to hammer it in. Instead, consider that it should be merged with Casino Royale—and if you, like I, think Casino Royale is the best Bond film, then Quantum of Solace is right there with it.