When 2006’s Casino Royale ends, British secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in agony over the betrayal and suicide of his lover, Vesper. When Quantum of Solace begins, he is still consumed by past events, but his duty to country continues, leading him to an international group of criminals named Quantum, which he finds to have infiltrated the exclusive circle of agents run by his boss, M (Judi Dench). Now Bond is so determined to root out the head of Quantum, he can’t even kill straight.
But kill he does. Chases take place upon land and the sea, as well as in the sky, and are designed to optimize the potential for destruction, but the catastrophe is up close and amplified by choppy editing. Hand-to-hand combat is sometimes splashy, but always void of fun. Even at its most stylized, the movie’s violence isn’t done for the sake of violence, but with the goal of doing visceral harm to its characters, even the ones who only appear in order to increase the body count. Bond is tough, and you’re going to watch him inflict damage. The relentlessness of the assaults might be exhausting if their length and scale weren’t masterfully kept in check, and the concise and methodical nature of the final battle is especially pleasing. The same precision is applied to scene construction in general, as well as dialogue.
Bond is told, “There’s something terribly efficient about you.” The line is a joke, and, like the most of the jokes in the film, it’s a dark one, since the preceding scenes have presented the most callously driven Bond yet. It’s something of a departure from the Bond of the big screen, even for a character with a long history of going to extraordinary lengths to thwart the outrageous plans of villains, but less of a stretch from the character of Ian Fleming’s novels.
Fleming’s Bond has always borne some resemblance to the agent of the movies: rather handsome, clever, pompous, resourceful, a skilled fighter, and fond of women. But Fleming’s Bond also had a facial scar, a nasty temper, and a special fondness for women with blemishes of their own, like the burn scar on the back of Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of Solace. (Not that she’s lacking the attributes that Fleming suggested kept the various Bond girls from being conventionally attractive—namely, their breasts were too large, their rears too firm, and their mouths too big in all the right places.)
At the end of Fleming’s Casino Royale, Bond reports Vesper’s suicide to his superiors by referring to her in the past tense. The final line is Bond’s, “Yes, was. The bitch is dead.” It’s not Fleming’s Bond but this particularly harsh side of Fleming’s Bond that appears in the theatrical Quantum of Solace, and its appeal is an achievement accomplished by what the movie doesn’t do as much as by what it does.
When he isn’t forced to grimace due to physical injury, Craig maintains a poker face, and his voice follows suit. Whatever pickle Bond may have found himself in previously, the small pleasures that Fleming’s Bond always took time to relish are here consumed for less pleasurable purposes: fine food (just booze, to get drunk), furniture (to spend Her Majesty’s money), and flirtation (briefly, to lay a false scent). Even jokes are deprived of a beat, a half-smile, delivered in something more severe than deadpan. There’s rarely time allotted, or desire, to laugh.
Bond’s one come-on to low-level agent Fields (Gemma Arterton), though successful, is none too charmingly delivered, although the one time Craig’s face seems relaxed, maybe almost playful, is during the post-coital kiss placed on her back. Meanwhile, after Bond unwittingly saves Camille from being murdered, they warm toward each other over a shared lust for revenge. Bond’s sweet talk consists of comments like, “Your training will tell you that when the adrenaline kicks in you should compensate, but part of you isn’t going to believe the training, because this kill is personal.”
As in romance, all of Bond’s moments of human contact are effectively quashed. His reunion with Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) is a terse exchange of information, his casual seduction of Fields results in her death, and he also finds the murder of Renee Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) on his hands after recruiting him for help.
While Quantum of Solace is superficially concerned with the why of Bond’s austerity, it’s generally satisfied to display the grimness itself. While people die around him, Vesper is, indeed, a specter, hinted at occasionally and referred to hardly at all. When M finally does accuse Bond of acting out in response to her death, he’s dismissive. He’s never lured into confession, or even conversation. Whatever Bond is thinking, we’re not burdened by an explicit statement of it. Keeping the issue at bay, and instead showcasing the brutal effects of Bond’s pain, gives Quantum of Solace its real heft.