Quantum of Solace is a terrific James Bond film. It’s also the least like “a James Bond film” — no “Bond, James Bond”, no “vodka martini: shaken, not stirred”, not even a casino scene — and one of the most like an Ian Fleming novel, both for better and for worse.
For worse: like the novels, it’s sketchily plotted, erratically paced, and the villain’s grand plan never feels like much of a threat.
But for better, and also like the novels: it’s short, punchy, and violent. Bond is a lone operative, uncertain of the bigger picture, improvising as he goes along. He likes good clothes, smart hotels and straight-talking women; and he’s self-loathing, angry and drinks too much. The film’s dialogue also, at best, captures the crisp simplicity of Fleming: Bond in this film talks like Fleming’s Bond, and the humour comes from his character, not the cheesy one-liners of old.
Quantum of Solace also has more location filming than any previous Bond, and it shows. The film has Fleming’s journalistic eye for detail: the locations feel authentic (though many double for somewhere else) and the extras have been carefully cast. In the old days, if you wanted Moscow you’d put up a Cyrillic sign in Borehamwood; here every place Bond visits adds its own distinctive tenor to the story.
Quantum is essentially an emotional journey for 007 as he hunts down those responsible for his dead love Vesper’s betrayal and death. Along the way, however, he discovers the sinister Quantum organisation, a secret society of global power brokers who manipulate governments, undermine leaders and no doubt go on holiday with Oleg Deripaska. They also enjoy the opera, using the spectacular lakeside theatre in Bregenz as a cover for their annual convention in one of the best staged sequences in the film.
The second unit director of Quantum of Solace was Dan Bradley, the stunt maestro of the Bourne series, and it shows: this is more action movie than suspense film. One element I missed from Casino Royale is its sense that Bond is not immortal, and that when he’s hurt he bleeds. Here, while often damaged, he feels unstoppable, raw wounds healing at the click of the editor’s mouse. But what we lose in physical vulnerability we gain in emotional power. This is an angry, damaged, vengeful Bond — if a licence to kill were a loyalty card he’d be hitting the top tier by the second reel — who is still trying to figure out who he can trust, and where his loyalties lie. The film plays like an action variant on Eyes Wide Shut: a series of encounters with M, Rene Mathis, Felix Leiter, Mr White, Agent Fields, Dominic Greene (a splendidly slimy Mathieu Almaric) and Camille, each of which tests Bond’s moral and emotional judgement, until the bleak but tender coda, in which at last we feel that he has found some peace — and a renewed sense of purpose.
And I guess that’s what I love about this film. It’s not perfect — the villain’s plot is rather fumbled, and some of the action is clunkily staged — but it’s a proper movie, with interesting characters, some wonderful images, and space, despite its brevity, for its emotional moments to breathe. And at last we have a Bond we can believe in, both as a man and as a hero. If there’s one thing I would ask for in the next installment it’s the one thing Fleming never failed on: a truly worthy adversary for Bond. Deliver that, and with Daniel Craig’s commitment to the character the next Bond movie could be the best so far.