Jacob Farley has a case to make for the unheralded greatness of Quantum of Solace, the second Craig Bond outing and one of the entire series’ most emotionally resonant chapters.

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In my review for the previous film in the Danial Craig iteration of the James Bond film series, I expressed my opinion that, while Casino Royale is probably the best movie in the franchise, it wasn’t quite my favorite. Well get ready for a scorching hot take, because this is it! Buckle up, friends, I’m about to wildly overpraise 2008’s Quantum of Solace!

When I first saw Quantum of Solace I was a bit puzzled by it, as I think many were. Returning to it over the years, though, I’ve grown to genuinely love it as a truly unique entry in the venerable Bond series. These days, the movie maintains a reputation as something of a misfire, which is understandable in some ways. While it does contain many of the sturdy staples of the franchise — exotic locales, stylish cars, beautiful people, exciting action sequences — it’s also leavened by a real continuity of character and emotion for Bond, presented in a very non-typical way for a Bond movie. It’s certainly the most, uh, European of the series in many ways, the action often intercuts with scenes of horse races or opera performance, or the sound from one scene bleeding into another, all organized under the vision of director Marc Forster and lushly shot by his long-time cinematographer Roberto Schaefer. However, the action is given a bone-crunching heft, courtesy of second unit director Dan Bradley who, not coincidentally, also shot second unit for the last three Bourne films amongst other things.

Forster was always a bit of an odd choice for a Bond movie, previously having directed such films as Monster’s Ball and Stranger Than Fiction, but I think that unusual background works to the movie’s benefit. His interest in the emotional lives of characters is the backbone of Quantum of Solace. The production of the movie was strongly affected by the writer’s strike of 2007, with only a first draft having been turned in. By guild rule, however, actors and directors were allowed to collaborate on-set to work out story beats, so Craig and Forster wound up exploring the idea of a Bond who is still processing and responding to the deep emotional trauma he went through in Casino Royale following his betrayal by and the subsequent death of Vesper Lynd, the woman he loved.

In Quantum of Solace, as a result, we find a Bond who has completely shut himself off from his emotions. He’s virtually unstoppable in the movie, an unfeeling machine that points itself towards a target, winds itself up, and just goes. One of the unusual choices for the series made by the movie is that it is a very direct sequel to the previous movie. By and large, James Bond movies stand on their own — they may occasionally nod back to previous entries (recurring villain Blofeld and once-in-a-blue-moon mentions of Bond’s first wife Tracy are typically the extent of it), but you don’t need to have seen Dr. No to understand what’s happening in Moonraker. Haha just kidding, nobody understands what’s happening in Moonraker.

The plot itself is relatively grounded and believable as far as evil plots in James Bond movies go — a secret multinational conglomerate wants to illegally enact regime change in Bolivia so that it can secure access to Boliva’s water resources, regardless of the fact that this will cause a massive drought in the country and kill thousands. This isn’t depicted as the only thing the organization is working on, just the one Bond happens to stumble across. He identifies and goes after one of their public faces, a man named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) the CEO of an environmental concern named, ugh, Greene Planet. Greene seems bad at naming things in general — his evil organization’s name is “Quantum,” which is a little bit too cute of a nod toward the title in my opinion. The title, by the way, does come from a short story by Ian Fleming but it bears no resemblance to the movie. The short story is mostly just about James sitting around listening to a guy tell a story about a real bad marriage, and it definitely wouldn’t have made a better movie than this one.

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One thing that I particularly like about this movie is that it frequently highlights Bond’s fearlessness. Not just in the sense that he gets into gunfights and such, but also his overall boldness in seizing any opportunity that comes his way. He stumbles across Greene’s plan after tracking down (read: getting into a knife fight with and killing) a possible MI6 mole for Quantum mostly by taking the guy’s jacket and being willing to smile and nod at everyone who assumes he’s someone else. He walks backstage at an opera like he owns the place and steals someone’s tuxedo without anyone even blinking an eye. (Hilariously, we’ll see that the guy whose tux he stole is just as fit and muscular as Daniel Craig.) The very second the possibility of escape from the burning hotel becomes apparent at the end of the movie, Bond takes it. He’d be a great improv scene partner, always saying “yes” like that, and it’s somehow extremely gratifying to watch Craig’s confident strut as he moves like a shark throughout the world.

Bond’s counterpart in Quantum of Solace is a woman named Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), who is in pursuit of an associate of Greene’s named General Medrano (Joaquín Cosío). Medrano personally destroyed her family when she was young and now he’s Greene’s next top candidate for president of Bolivia. Bond gets himself involved in the plot by rescuing her from Medrano’s boat, inadvertently interrupting her just before she shoots him. When he works this out later, he ruefully apologizes, knowing from personal experience just how tricky it can be to get that kind of meeting set up.

Camille is a fun character to play off Bond in this one, essentially being a mirror image of him — both trained spies and agents, both driven, both dealing with crippling emotional issues. Unusually for the series, they do not sleep together. Towards the end of the film they kiss briefly, but it seems more to be an acknowledgement that they both just went through something awful and it would be nice to feel something good for a moment more than any kind of real sexual desire or tension. Also unusually for the franchise, she is not relegated to fighting a lady villain while Bond deals with the boys — Medrano is big tough bruiser and she gets in a real brawl with him at the end. It’s very satisfying when she finally gets the upper hand.

Greene is an interesting choice as a villain. Essentially Elon Musk as a James Bond villain, the actor’s bug-eyed performance often put me in mind of a deranged Matthew Broderick. He’s fun, but not really an all-timer Bond villain, which isn’t really his fault. The most fun villains in Bond history are colorful weirdos who could almost be Batman villains — guys with metal teeth who bite through steel cable, or women with torso-crushing thighs, or Christopher Walken. I think Greene is appropriate to the level of villainy Bond is fighting in this one. He gets one of the nastiest deaths in the series too, being stranded in the desert and forced to drink motor oil before being shot in the head.

Since the film is such a direct sequel, several characters make a return appearance. Judi Dench’s M returns, of course, deepening her steely-but-maternal back and forth with Bond in what will become the best ongoing relationship in the series. Jeffery Wright returns as Felix Leiter, one of the few actors to play the character multiple times. He’s so good that I wish they’d bring him back, and sadly he doesn’t get a lot to do in this one. He mostly sneers at the CIA getting in bed with Greene’s organization and leaks info to Bond. He spends most of his screen time with David Harbour as Gregg Beam, the crooked CIA section chief in South America. (Fun character beat — when M calls the CIA to see if they have any interest in Greene, she immediately recognizes Beam’s name as the head of the CIA in South America and correctly deduces this means they’re lying about Greene being of no interest to them.)

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Most significantly, however, is the return of Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis. Mathis helped Bond during the poker game in Casino Royale and was ultimately fingered as a traitor, tased, and dragged off at the very end of the movie by MI6. Here we learn that this was simply a lie set up by Quantum, and Mathis was what he seemed to be — a good man, growing tired of living in the shadows. Mathis and Bond’s relationship is the true heart of the film. Bond turns to Mathis when he has nowhere else to go and, despite some understandable bitterness about being imprisoned and tortured until his name was cleared, Mathis wants to help him. Not just help him on his mission, but help him get over the death of Vesper as well. Bond’s reaction to Vesper’s betrayal was to completely shut down emotionally, to insist to himself that he never felt anything, actually, and everything is just fine. Mathis urges Bond to forgive not just Vesper, but Bond himself. To forgive himself for being fooled, and to forgive himself for being in love. In the most emotional scene of the movie, he begs this of Bond as he lies dying in the street, cradled in Bond’s arms. It’s one of the best scenes in the entire series, and one of the very very few moments we see an emotionally vulnerable Bond. When Bond places Mathis’ body in a nearby dumpster afterwards, Camille asks if this is how he treats his friends, not quite understanding how significant it is for Bond to stop, to take that moment and be there for his friend in Mathis’ last moments. They had every incentive to drop everything and run, being surrounded by dead cops as they were, but Bond finally realized there was some spark of a soul left in him that he couldn’t ignore anymore.

It’s this tiny drop of humanity that makes Bond bearable as a character. For all his womanizing, his murders, his misogyny both historical and current, he’s a man who ultimately wants to do the right thing. He wants to help people. Indeed, Quantum of Solace is practically Bond-as-superhero. Quantum as an organization winds up having the backing of even Bond’s own government in its mission — Britain doesn’t particularly care about regime change purposefully inciting a drought in Bolivia, it turns out, especially if they might get some oil out of the deal. Despite that and in the face of all odds, Bond refuses to quit — he’ll be damned if some rich jerk is going to get away with killing people and causing a drought for profit when Bond could have done something to stop it.

There, to me, the core appeal of the character shines through. He’s tough, he’s dangerous, perhaps he’s not a very good man. But he’s not a bad one.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • Greene’s henchman is amazing. He’s got all the weirdo factor that Greene himself lacks, with his weird little bowl cut and lanky clumsiness. He’s never a physical threat — he gets blown up at the end before ever fighting Bond, but he’s just so goofy that I love him. His name’s supposed to be Elvis, though I don’t think it’s ever mentioned in the movie, and the haircut was his actor Anatole Taubman’s idea. Good job, Anatole, you made the most of a funny little part.
  • The hotel in which the climax occurs is completely wild. It somehow runs on, I guess, big hydrogen canisters placed under thin walls all over the building. This goes exactly as well for the hotel as it did for the Hindenburg.
  • Don’t think that James is celibate in the movie, though — this is still James Bond after all, and sex is a genuine psychological weakness for the man. Enemies should exploit it more. Anyway, Gemma Arterton appears briefly as an agent named Fields, with whom Bond has a brief fling and who winds up being drowned in an oil drum for her trouble. In the credits, we learn that her first name was “Strawberry,” which just may edge out “Christmas Jones” from 1999’s The World is Not Enough as the worst Bond Girl name. [Editor: He means “tied for best,” along with “Dink” from Goldfinger.]
  • The idea of a shadowy organization pulling the strings from the background is a theme that runs throughout the Craig-era Bond films, but I think it works best here. It’s just enough to be mysterious and a bit scary at its reach, but not so all-powerful to verge into silliness as it will in Skyfall and especially Spectre.
  • The best scene in the movie, for my money, is the opera scene. It’s Bond doing some honest-to-god spy work, stealing an earpiece and eavesdropping on the secret board meeting Quantum is holding in the audience of a performance of He interrupts them over the comm, causing several to panic and leave, giving Bond the opportunity to take pictures of their faces and send them back to MI6, putting Quantum on their radar for the first time. My favorite part is Jesper Christensen, returning from the previous film as Mr. White, an agent of Quantum. Rather than panicking, he simply removes his earpiece and enjoys the performance, knowing Bond will never pick him out of the crowd. “Well, Tosca’s not for everyone,” he remarks to his seatmate as Bond races through the audience after the fleeing Quantum members.
  • Every time the movie changes locales, we see a little title card with the name of the place in a unique font. It’s a nice little touch and, once again, one of the touches unusual to the series which makes me enjoy it so much.

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