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You Only Live Twenty-Thrice: “Quantum of Solace”

by on November 2, 2012
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“You Only Live Twenty-Thrice” is Nick Rogers’ look back at the James Bond films.

Each Friday until the release of the 23rd official Bond film, “Skyfall,” Nick will revisit its 22 official predecessors from start to finish, with a bonus post for the unofficial films in which James Bond also appears.

“Quantum of Solace” is over by the time most 007 movies begin the third act. So, in the snub-nosed spirit of its 98-minute (sans credits) runtime, a terse assessment.

Not bad, just not quite Bond.

Taken as a novella-sized attempt to tie up the loose ends of “Casino Royale,” “Quantum” is certainly efficient. (At an official 106 minutes, it’s the shortest Bond ever.) But its go-go-go approach, though reasonably entertaining, can be suffocating. “Quantum” sorely lacks the scope and grandeur that remain alluring hallmarks in even the worst 007 films — despite filming on location at more points around the globe than any of its ancestors. “Royale” certainly offered plenty of macroscopic wows amid a microscopic examination of the soul of the man at its center.

Here, Daniel Craig continues to smolder his way through Bond’s incendiary, internal conflict of duty and emotion — torn between a personal vendetta to avenge Vesper Lynd’s death at any cost or operating under MI6’s aegis to expose the organization that ended her life.

Not for nothing does Bond ultimately arrive at a sort of “half monk, half hitman” realization he chided M (Judi Dench) for requesting of him in “Royale”: The dead don’t care about vengeance. Truly, almost all of the best moments in “Quantum” hearken directly back to “Royale,” whether through characters or circumstance. And if Craig and director Marc Forster are to be believed, that was almost accidental.

Saying “Quantum” began filming without a script isn’t entirely accurate. Mainly, it began filming without a script on which everyone agreed and at the worst possible time.

Like “Royale,” it’s credited to Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (the duo’s fourth consecutive 007) and Paul Haggis (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Crash”). But instead of shaping the last act as before, Haggis rewrote Purvis and Wade’s draft from scratch. He allegedly turned in his draft two hours before the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike — which would’ve been fine had Forster not wanted to scrap a Swiss Alps climax and remove the idea that Vesper had left behind a child.

Legally unable to use a writer for on-set rewrites, Forster and Craig more or less took charge of the story. (“And a writer I am not,” Craig told Time Out in 2011.) Once the strike ended, Forster enlisted screenwriter Joshua Zetumer to formally rewrite scenes based on actors’ input.

With a surfeit of on-the-fly changes, it doesn’t take much to add two and two to get $225 million, the biggest Bond budget ever. At least the creative team for “Skyfall” took something from this. Granted, they had time as MGM sorted out its latest round of financial woes. But Craig, Purvis, Wade, writer John Logan and “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes holed up for months to concoct a story of which they say they’re proud.

On top of that, Forster was given only five weeks to edit “Quantum” (instead of his customary 14) and enlisted a second editor, Richard Pearson. And with all due respect to Pearson, his presence is a partial reason for “Quantum’s” identity crisis.

Pearson co-edited “The Bourne Supremacy,” which teemed with sit-up-straight action sequences. What some dismissed as shaky instead felt like a tactile expression of the turbulence of Jason Bourne. Because the film was pitched at that level, this approach never felt disorienting or distracting. In “Quantum,” that same aesthetic is aped to diminishing returns.

A spastic opening car chase swaps Bourne’s supernaturally durable Volkswagen for Bond’s reliable Aston Martin. A brief fistfight in a Haitian hotel plays like a miniature version of “The Bourne Ultimatum’s” cramped, Moroccan death match. The camera angle of Bond jumping a dirt bike onto a boat is suspiciously similar to Bourne’s balcony jump. And Bond’s scaffolding grapple with a traitor has been snipped into submission.

Now, Pearson is not a lone culprit. “Quantum” also shares with the latter “Bourne” films Dan Bradley, the second-unit director whose style dictates most of the action. And to be fair, Bond has often ridden a tide of cinematic culture that swelled around him — the blaxploitation of “Live and Let Die,” the du-jour sci-fi of “Moonraker,” even the early-aughts CGI excess of “Die Another Day.”

But by cribbing such intensely personal visual language from another character, “Quantum” is initially inarticulate at expressing its own time-tested, distinct point of view. Only in its second half does it truly start to feel like its own entity.

“Quantum” begins a matter of miles away from the Italian villa where we last left 007. Where “Royale” delayed the iconic gun barrel sequence until the end of the pre-credits, “Quantum” transplants it altogether to the very end. Instead, the film opens on a tracking shot over the water, intercut with tight shots of Bond’s Aston Martin accelerating on a windy mountain road.

It’s an artistic introductory departure meant to disorient us and establish Bond as an irresistible force meeting the immovable object we’ll come to know as Quantum. Instead, it often looks like a Buick commercial cut together at a clip akin to the stray frames you’d catch as you DVR past it. At least the longest-lingering shot is a beauty — an Alfa Romeo slingshot over a cliff.

The title theme then joins “Quantum’s” litany of Bond records and firsts: It’s the only one that’s a duet. And with its John Barry-esque fuzzed-out guitar, ominous groove and subtly arranged allusions — the staccato snare strikes six times, as if Bond were emptying a full clip — “Another Way to Die” is a fantastic theme.

Until the moment Jack White and Alicia Keys begin singing. Neither White nor Keys sounds bad alone. But once joined in unholy union, they’re like two cats in a sack mewling a plea to not be drowned. At no point do they seem to approximate the same key. And White’s lyrics are equally tone-deaf, like a Mad Libs parody of a James Bond theme:

“I know the player with the slick trigger finger for Her Majesty”
“Another one with the golden tone voice and then your fantasy”
“Another bill from a killer turned a thrill into a tragedy”
“Another dirty-money, heaven-sent honey turning on a dime”

And then, this WTF head-scratcher:

“Another tricky little gun giving solace to the one that will never see the sun shine”

The worst theme since “The Man with the Golden Gun,” this will have you lunging toward the gong long before Keys repeatedly wails the word “Bang!”

In MI6’s custody in Italy, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) — the man whom Bond hobbled at the end of “Royale” — seems set to spill the beans to Bond and M about Quantum. They’re a modern-day SPECTRE using terrorism to tip the scales of global stability with people “everywhere,” even that very room.

All-too-quickly Bourne again, Bond chases a duplicitous MI6 agent over rooftops and onto balconies. It’s all strangely cross-cut with horseracing footage that, rather tellingly, Forster said he didn’t know exactly how to incorporate into the final cut. If the idea is that Bond is a thoroughbred, well, you can at least track a horse’s path around the track. The mere act of blinking leaves you unable to follow this action sequence — in which a girder eventually starts slamming back and forth in no discernible way. It’s like a Thunderdome battle edited by someone without thumbs.

MI6 sends Bond to Haiti, where someone’s using the money left behind by Le Chiffre, late of “Royale.” And although this fistfight, again, liberally borrows from Bourne, it’s a hint at the thuggishly intriguing questions we have about Craig’s Bond.

What’s really driving him? Perhaps Bond is merely on loan to MI6, slaughtering his way to the truth about Vesper — vindicating only his own ability to misjudge, not avenging an earlier attempt on M’s life or upholding nationalistic duty. Again, M asserting Vesper’s innocence in “Royale” could have been a ploy. Bond seems to be annoyed not that the man is bleeding out but that it might stain his shoes.

Assuming the guise of this now-dead hitman, Bond meets Bolivian-born Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko, a Franco-Russian model who nails a Spanish accent). It seems Camille was this hitman’s target, ordered dead by her lover, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”).

Correctly, Greene suspects Camille slept with him to get close to Medrano — an exiled Bolivian general whose coup Greene is funding in exchange for a large tract of presumably oil-rich land. But it was for revenge, not sex, as Medrano murdered Camille’s family when she was a little girl.

As for Greene, he uses a cover of charity and altruism as a rope-a-dope for environmental terrorism on Quantum’s behalf. He’s an oily little Peter Lorre kind of fella with a quasi-hunch, fascist-dictator bangs and wide, worrisome eyes that betray his alleged menace. You can practically feel the wet rush of sweat to his armpits in moments of stress. Plus, he’s not a physically imposing foe, squealing girlishly during a climactic scuffle with Bond.

Just as Greene is about to turn Camille over, and out, to Medrano, Bond intervenes. And here, for the first time, “Quantum” hesitantly starts to find 007 rhythms. Forster bemoaned the confinement of this boat chase to a harbor, but it finally finds addresses the close-quarters brutality of Craig’s Bond without hijacking someone else’s style. It’s a rough, rugged assault, with junk boats juking every which way.

Bond then stalks Greene in Austria at a performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” — an opera whose own apocalyptic conclusion of death and betrayal is just a shade darker than “Royale’s” finale. It showcases classic Bond extravagance and wit, even if Forster overdoes cross-cutting to the point of an arty mid-’90s video on “120 Minutes.”

“Quantum” works best in compounding suspense through behavior. Bond hesitates little in tossing someone to his death in Austria. And for killing this man —bodyguard to a British Prime Minister advisor who’s secretly a Quantum agent — Bond is again disavowed by MI6. But the film also clouds the motives of those we met in “Royale,” possibly reversing roles of Bond’s ally and betrayer.

Sitting in silence beside his smug section chief, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) is party to collusion with Greene. The CIA thinks he’ll hand over the oil reserves in exchange for their covert assistance in returning Medrano to power.

Of course, Greene won’t live up to his end of the bargain. In reality, his land has no oil. Fresh water flows freely underneath it. Bankrolled by Quantum, Greene is damming it to monopolize distribution and extort Medrano for grossly high utilities.

Rewrites apparently cut back Leiter’s role in “Quantum.” It’s a shame, as Wright quietly mulls the quandary of lying down with dogs over a natural resource. (“I need to know you’re on the team, Felix,” he’s told. “I need to know you value your career.”) And even late in the movie, we’re not sure if he’s Bond’s American brother from another mother or simply dangling a deadly carrot.

Then there’s the return of Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), last seen hauled off to the hoosegow under suspicion he betrayed Bond and Vesper to Le Chiffre. Cut off from MI6, Bond turns to a now-exonerated Mathis for help getting to Bolivia. (Mathis has been given a nice villa as a my-bad gift from Her Majesty.)

“When you get older, the villains and the heroes get all mixed up,” Mathis wisely notes before an affecting scene on an airplane — one of few brief moments when Bond openly addresses the aftereffects of Vesper’s death.

Bond briefly, sensually cuts loose with Fields (Gemma Arterton) — a lithe British consulate attaché in La Paz. But after Bond confronts Greene face to face at a party, both Fields and Mathis are on borrowed time.

Pulled over by Bolivian police working for Greene, Bond finds Mathis’s battered body in the boot of his car, and Mathis takes a fatal bullet in an ensuing gunfight. In a brotherly way, Bond and Mathis’s exchange recalls his wordless shower moment with Vesper, in that it’s a moment that will forever resonate within him. But although we now know Bond will move on once he has the truth about Vesper, it may not be with MI6. The scene also soberly upholds Mathis’s wisdom in “Royale”: “Just because one is dead doesn’t mean one still can’t be useful.”

Framed for Mathis’s murder, Bond flees with Camille to the Atacama Desert — surveying Greene’s land in a vintage plane. A surprise fighter-jet assault spurs easily the best big-Bond moment in all of “Quantum”: an aggressive dogfight that reaches insane heights before Bond and Camille’s daring freefall skydive into a sinkhole.

It’s here they rather conveniently discover Greene’s secret dam and Camille reveals her past. Although a nice moment for Kurylenko — as the only lead Bond girl with whom 007 doesn’t have sex — it strains to verbalize revenge maxims when these two actors do so well internalizing their duress.

As for Fields, she’s drowned in crude oil and dumped in Bond’s hotel room, where he and Camille return after walking out of the desert. Fields’ death is an overt homage to Jill Masterson’s gold-painted “skin suffocation” death in “Goldfinger” — a knowing implication that oil has surpassed gold as valuable currency. But it also strengthens a flesh-and-blood connection between 007 and M.

Waiting in the hotel room to arrest Bond, M rages, “Look at how well your charm works. You’re so blinded by inconsolable rage you don’t care who you hurt.” Bond escapes his captors but doubles back and praises Fields’ bravery to M, thereby earning her loyalty. And while, again, 007 may simply be buying time with M to find answers and nothing more, it reveals an interesting side of her connection to him. It’s that of mother to son, easy to scold but quick to instinctively trust that to which she has (metaphorically) given birth.

The action comes to a head at a classic Bond location — a fuel cell-powered hotel in the middle of the desert, where Greene is about to yank the rug from under Medrano. Yet another Ken Adam throwback, it’s a gleaming oasis in an ocean of sand. It’s also a stronghold you’d think Greene would have more vigorously defended, as Bond and Camille sneak up on it rather easily.

“Quantum” makes up for a dearth of explosive fireballs in its finish. But even that’s upstaged by the way in which 007 — cool, calm and collected — grills Greene and issues a death sentence without actually killing him.

And it’s nothing compared to a mother-and-child reunion between Bond and M that closes out this chapter and, it would seem, propel the plot of “Skyfall.” “Quantum” may only give Craig brief moments to ponder if, or how, 007 can reconcile his rage. But he nails them all, and the film wisely ends on a bittersweet note about Vesper over an original gotcha ending in which Bond again gets the drop on Mr. White.

Bond need not continually go after Quantum. Why conjure another SPECTRE or Blofeld? It’s enough that 007 carry with him the tragic teachings from Vesper’s death and the diplomatically maternal protection of M.

Often to the detriment of what makes Bond Bond, “Quantum” doesn’t slow down for much. But when it does, it does so for the right reasons.

Next week: A look at the two “unofficial” Bond films — “Casino Royale” (1967) and “Never Say Never Again,” as well as rankings for the official films, Bond’s women and his accompanying themes.

BULLET POINTS

Daniel Craig called “Casino Royale” a “walk in the park” next to the physicality of “Quantum of Solace.” During filming, he cut his face and required minor plastic surgery. He also sliced off part of a fingertip.

Because Craig disliked the idea of fans in his face, the freefall was filmed in a vertical wind tunnel that could simulate a 170 mph drop. Craig and Olga Kurylenko were filmed for 30 seconds at a time and given wind-resistant contact lenses that allowed them to open their eyes in the shot.

The voices of filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, friends of director Marc Forster, are heard in “Solace,” and Cuarón can be briefly seen as a helicopter pilot.

One final spin on the carousel of alternate Bond themes. Paul McCartney and Leona Lewis were mulled over, and the late Amy Winehouse recorded a demo. But one recorded-but-rejected theme — far preferable to the chosen number — belongs to Swedish chanteuse Eva Almér. Stuffed with stinging staccato triplets, velveteen orchestration and a contemporary punch, “Forever’s” lyrics derive from Bond’s confession of love to Vesper in “Casino Royale.” And while opinions vary whether “No Good About Goodbye” — sung by none other than Shirley Bassey — was scrapped and salvaged after the fact by composer David Arnold, it, like “Forever,” more resonantly evokes Bond’s internalized rage over romantic suffering.

An Internet rumor suggested Al Pacino would appear at the end of the film — a la Ernst Stavro Blofeld — as the head of the Quantum organization.

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