In what feels like Casino Royal, Part 2, James Bond tracks down the people responsible for the death of double agent Vesper Lynd, the sultry/creepy chick 007 fell for during the high stakes Baccarat game. Naturally, Bond isn’t allowed to follow through with his agenda until he’s dealt with the latest threat: a secret group of selfish spies who profit from exploiting the riches of any nation.
Caring little for any moral boundaries, the group will willingly topple regimes to gain access to resources they can harvest for hard cash, so it’s an ersatz green organization that Bond infiltrates, and ultimately puts a stop to their plans for controlling a huge underground aquifer of fresh water in Bolivia.
As with most Bond films, a logical plot isn’t the most important aspect - but it doesn’t hurt. When George Lazenby took over 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), he fell in love with vivacious Diana Rigg, and we felt compassion when she’s killed in her wedding dress. And when Roger Moore fell in love with a Russian spy determined to kill him for the death of her lover, that too turned the usually spoofy Bond under Moore’s tenure into a more believable character in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
That’s one of the reasons Casino Royale (2006) was so good; with Daniel Craig, Bond was less of a superhero and more of a brutally tough spy with some obvious internal scars he keeps tightly locked away. He’s also built like a tank, and we’re willing to accept his physical victories in combat (plus it also helps that Bond develops bruises and scars instead of a token cheek scratch or forehead nick during the course of the film).
Quantum of Solace was written prior to the 2007-2008 writers’ strike, so it’s an undercooked screenplay that has scenes where more could and should’ve been wrought from Bond’s revenge, his guilt, and the events leading him to Bolivia, where the film pretty much stays put.
More importantly, it’s hard to tell whether the film was designed to be a ‘Part 2,’ or whether it was a concept doodled by two of the franchises worst writers, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade (Die Another Day, The World is Not Enough), with elements of a revenge plot lanced into an early draft by Paul Haggis. The two writers also co-wrote Casino Royale with Haggis, but the dramatic wholeness of that film is markedly different from Purvis and Wade’s prior 007 films, so one has to presume the jump in quality stems from Haggis, even though the writing duo wrote one of Peter Medak’s best films, Let Him Have It (1991). That, or the producers kept forcing idiotic concepts to the writers until Casino Royale begged a return to quality storytelling.
The franchise owners have always looked for the right talent to helm the 007 films, and Martin Campbell remains one of the best directors to have made his mark in the series; Goldeneye (1995) is stupendously dumb, but Campbell’s knack for action and suspense gave the film a dynamic momentum when the scenes were more or less kinetic caricatures of the Moore films.
More importantly, Campbell knows pacing, so there’s a solid balance between action and drama in Casino Royale. That film’s solid script gave the actors and Campbell a lot of material to draw from, and the fact Quantum is a follow up to Casino Royale meant Campbell should’ve been its rightful director.
In his place, the Bond owners nabbed Marc Forster, a director with an eclectic C.V. but someone who can handle actors; some might argue it was all Halle Berry’s doing, but an action director probably would’ve had a bit of struggling with Monster’s Ball (2001).
For his own Bond film, Forster brought in his regular editor, Matt Chesse and regular cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, and when there are dramatic scenes – a cocktail fund raiser in Bolivia, for example – the performances, dialogue, and pacing are solid. In fact, the last 50 mins. is pretty much standard Bond fare, including an outlandish chase in a hotel, lying absurdly in the middle of the Bolivian desert.
It’s disheartening, then, to recognize the film’s first 40 mins. contains the worst cut action scenes in the series, and that blame has to belong in large part to co-editor Richard Pearson, who seems to have been brought in by the producers to spice up the action sequences.
Pearson also edited The Bourne Supremacy (2004), a film that had messy pacing and incoherent action scenes, and his style is to maintain a hard and fast momentum regardless of whether there are opportunities to create mini-thrill sequences in a broadly conceived chase.
The best example of his bungling is the film’s opening teaser – standard fare in all but the first Bond films. During the Moore years, they became mini-samples of the tongue-in-cheek and grander thrills in the rest of the film, and each editor recognized that while the teasers provide an adrenaline rush, every action scene has to have its own tempo; it’s fine to go bonkers on the cutting, but there has to be some peaks and valleys.
Pearson’s style is visual chaos with no breaks, and he applies the same carelessness to dialogue scenes; that’s why Quantum bears a striking resemblance to Bourne Supremacy – both films were ostensibly about avenging the death of a love one, but their pacing bulldozers through dialogue exchanges that need to be slowed down at times.
When Peter Hyams applied the same fast editing to all dialogue scenes in End of Days (1999), it’s because Hyams wanted to get to the visual chase; he’s an impatient director who makes films for the chase, and never the characters or plot. In that film one could argue the fast cutting was also designed to hide Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bad acting; fast cuts minimized our exposure and kept our focus away from his strained performance.
Now, it’s possible Quantum’s first half was weak, and Pearson spiced up the pacing to get us fast to the film’s meatier second half, but if one analyzes the construction of an early chase sequence where Bond interrupts a parade, leaps over rooftops, and swings around shaky scaffolding, editorially it’s a bloody mess. Even when Peter Hunt was cutting the Bond films (and later directing them), he knew when to pull back or shape his action scenes to create variable doses of visual and aural kinetics.
There’s also a brief scene between Bond and M that precedes the aforementioned chase. Bond is shown a kind of scrapbook that shows pictures of Vesper with the man responsible for her death. Pearson edits the visual glances and hand gestures between the two characters like a chase sequence, and it’s easy to miss recognizing Vesper’s face in the pictures because the cuts are too fast. Bond also steals a picture from the file, but its done so fast we’re not really sure what he’s nabbed when M looks away.
Another problem with Quantum is the music score, which doesn’t really draw from the title song, “Another Way to Die,” by Jack White and Alicia Keyes. Much of David Arnold’s score consists of transition cues, and the action cues seem to rely more on Monty Norman’s 007 theme rather than variations of the title song, leading one to ponder if the generic score was written prior to the song’s composition.
Quantum isn’t a bad Bond film – the full and semi-stinkers remain Die Another Day (2002), The World is Not Enough (1999), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), License to Kill (1989) and Moonraker (1979), in that order – but it feels like a hastily contrived follow-up, perhaps because of the strike.
The underlying theme of revenge and Bond’s hearty boozing are faintly visible (and give some perceptible depth), but the first half is a crunched mess that leaves audiences few moments to absorb characters or plot developments in what's the shortest Bond film on record, , and the editing mangles so much fine location photographer for two-second cutaways.
One sequence in a beautiful, modern opera house should’ve been elegantly unravelled as Bond worms his way into the scaffolding and relays digital pictures to M before contacting the nefarious bidders in a high stakes game of global resource theft. Instead, it flitters fast without giving audiences any sense of international exotica – a hallmark of the globe-trotting Bond films since Dr. No (1962).
Columbia’s DVD transfer is clean and crisp with a robust sound mix, and there are extras packed into Disc 2 of the Special Edition set, but most fans might find the extras tiresome, since the participants bubble with excitement over their involvement with a qualified half-dud.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan