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Underrated 007: QUANTUM OF SOLACE

The release of James Bond 24 a/k/a SPECTRE is imminent.

The previous entry Skyfall came out three years ago, timed to the fiftieth anniversary of the 007 movies, and its series-best billion-dollar global box office gross will be hard to top. In an effort to temper expectations somewhat, and to catch up on dangling plot strings reportedly tied up in the new movie, let’s take a look at one of the more underrated 007 adventures: Daniel Craig’s second stint as 007, 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
 

With the exception of Sean Connery’s From Russia With Love, the “second missions” of every Bond actor all share a few things in common: the films were all troubled or rushed productions, and all have all been met with decidedly tepid response.

Roger Moore had The Man with the Golden Gun, which was made on the quick but is not as revered as Live and Let Die. Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill was not as successful as The Living Daylights and was hobbled by both the 1988 Writers’ Guild strike and a cut-rate promotional campaign (the studio was going bankrupt, again). Pierce Brosnan’s Tomorrow Never Dies is efficient, but after 007’s explosive comeback in GoldenEye, Pierce’s second outing is rather generic and feels like the Bond Machine on auto-pilot.

Likewise, Daniel Craig’s sophomore effort Quantum of Solace (QOS) couldn’t possibly have lived up to the standard set by his debut in Casino Royale. 

Let’s get that out of the way up front: Casino Royale is a tough act to follow, and the makers of QOS waged a thankless and uphill battle to live up to impossible expectations.

We hadn’t had a Bond movie as good as Casino Royale since the height of the Roger Moore era. Not surprisingly, fans and critics were rather harsh to QOS because it’s a lot scrappier. It’s also the shortest Bond movie ever and zooms and careens along so fast and furiously it’s over before you know it. Given that some of the more bloated 007 affairs tend to overstay their welcome, QOS’s unexpected brevity is a good thing.

Picking up literally moments after the final scene of Casino Royale, QOS establishes a series-first as the first true Bond sequel—all previous 007 movies have been stand-alone missions, even though they sometimes share a villain or obliquely reference events from a previous movie.

Alas, the Writers’ Guild strike of 2008 did this movie no favors, and its under-developed plot makes QOS feel more like an epilogue to Casino Royale rather than a full-fledged sequel.

Still, all the ingredients of a classic 007 escapade are here: far-flung and exotic locations; lush production values; high-tech gadgetry; bone-crunching action and ballsy stunt work; practical special effects; wit and humor; a stylish wardrobe; bombshell Bond babes; and a slithery villain with a dastardly plan and a fey henchman who could pass for Quentin Tarantino’s creepier brother.

Still no Moneypenny or Q, but we’ll meet those iconic characters next time.

Continuing the character arc of Young Bond, our damaged hero goes on a personal mission of revenge to find the sinister and secret organization responsible for Vesper’s death at the end of Casino Royale and who subsequently stage an attempt on M’s life during Act I of QOS.

At this early stage of Bond’s trajectory, it’s important to note that 007 doesn’t bed the main Bond girl Camille (he’s still reeling from Vesper’s death, after all—though not so much that he resists a dalliance with perky agent Strawberry Fields in Bolivia). Likewise, 007 uses his license to kill on numerous occasions here, but Bond is not responsible for the main villain’s demise in either Casino Royale or QOS (it’s crucial that somebody else kills the chief villain in both films, offering Bond two somewhat hollow victories — and, no doubt, diminishing the crowd-pleasing aspect of seeing James Bond vanquish the bad guys; also, Bond never settles the score with the slippery “Mister White”).

Finally, in Skyfall, 007 will personally dispatch the chief villain with a quip, and it’s a pivotal moment that’s taken three films for James Bond the character and Daniel Craig the actor to earn. However, and quite tragically, Bond fails in his mission to protect M, lending Skyfall an emotional and oedipal gravitas that SPECTRE reportedly expands upon.

We’ll catch up with the elusive “Mister White” in Bond 24, and possibly learn that the shadowy organization “Quantum” was but a mere branch of what will henceforth be known as “S.P.E.C.T.R.E.”—for the uninitiated, that’s the “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.”

The most common gripe Bond fans have about QOS is that too much of the action camerawork is embellished with a jackhammer shake—a visual flourish Paul Greengrass used successfully in the second Jason Bourne movie in order to suggest immediacy and to convey our knackered hero’s increasingly frantic mindset. The close-up “shaky cam” technique is a disorienting cinematographic style that is best used in small doses but director Marc Forster relies on too much of it here—at least four key action sequences are rendered incomprehensible because we rarely see an establishing shot long enough to catch our breath and reorient ourselves to the ever-shifting landscape. Much as I cherish the experience of viewing a film in a gigantic theater, QOS is the rare action epic that actually works better on a smaller screen.

On the plus side, when the camera does stop jittering, the movie is gorgeously shot and boasts some wonderful imagery. The fancy-font title cards throughout the film are a nice touch. The title song is a washout, but the atmospheric instrumental score represents composer David Arnold’s finest hour.

Finally, Daniel Craig is noticeably more confident and charismatic as 007 in his second assignment, he looks and dresses more “Bondian” than in his first outing, and he has a terrific trilateral rapport with Judi Dench’s “M” and Rory Kinnear’s “Tanner” (this three-way relationship will pay off handsomely in the subsequent Skyfall).

It bodes well that most of the key production team responsible for Skyfall are all back for SPECTRE—especially director Sam Mendes, who swore off Bond after Skyfall but was enticed to return for a second assignment (“ka-ching!”).

Having promised he’s absolutely done with 007 this time, the producers will be hard-pressed to find a replacement director with artistic vision as well as box office appeal to take over the reins. The names Christopher Nolan and Matthew Vaughn have been bandied about—both exciting prospects, considering how Bondian Inception and Kingsman: The Secret Service are—but the ace-in-the-hole for Bond 25 is, was, and ever will be Daniel Craig.

His recent drunken quote about preferring to slit his wrists rather than make another Bond notwithstanding, he’s contracted for at least one more 007 movie.

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