I really should have seen this the first time. (Spoilers for Quantum of Solace below.)
Having watched Quantum of Solace for the second time today, it seems so obvious to me. Hindsight, of course. The first big action sequence–Bond’s chase after traitorous MI6 agent Mitchell–is intercut against shots of a horse race. I noticed this the first time I watched the movie, and was amused by it: juxtaposing the exciting chase against an obviously artificial game expressly set up for the entertainment of the masses (and repeatedly showing us those masses as well as the actual racers). One way to read it is a contrast, life-and-death against a game, but of course it’s the opposite: it’s a reminder that we, too, are watching something constructed purely for our entertainment. Right from the start, Quantum of Solace seems to be saying: remember that this is a movie meant for your entertainment.
Yet . . . it wasn’t that entertaining. The first time I walked out of the movie theater, I felt not entertained, not excited, not even cathartically drained by a relentlessly pointless quest for vengeance (what I expected of the movie), just . . . dull. Emotionless. I didn’t feel anything. It bothered me, obviously, and I couldn’t figure it out: the action sequences are great, as expected, Craig remains wonderful, the other actors more than hold up their part, the directing works . . .
I think the first time, I felt nothing because I spent much of the film waiting and looking for something that wasn’t there. This is a film about vengeance, and so I expected what we expect of vengeance, what M herself says Bond is acting out: inconsolable rage. I expected not the ruthlessly calm Bond but one clearly boiling just under the surface, taking the violence far past what was prudent or efficient. And M does chastise Bond repeatedly on taking things too far, for killing every lead he comes across, but every kill is cold and clean. Emotionless. Dull. Bond isn’t enraged; at times, he almost seems bored himself–acutely aware that all of this is irrelevant to what he really wants, an awareness I was expecting to be the resolution of the film, not its starting point.
I don’t want to get into a discussion of cultural biases, but I can’t help but think some of this lies in the difference between archetypal British and American heroes. American heroes–I always look to Indiana Jones and John McClane, icons of American popular culture–get dirty and get angry. They’re not the best at what they do, they get hurt, and most of the time they survive only through sheer stubbornness. Cleanliness and efficiency tend to be the traits of American villains (often played by British actors–nothing says ruthless composure to an American like a British accent).
I said I don’t want this to be about cultural differences, and I honestly don’t know enough about British culture to identify an iconic British hero besides James Bond (The Doctor, maybe?) who demonstrates such a clear opposition to this. But Bond clearly does. It struck me on the second watching that the opening car chase is too clean–even as Bond’s car is covered in dirt and has a door torn off. But it’s not the physical grit that gives this impression; it’s Bond consistent composure. Unlike an American hero, Bond never loses it. Bond never allows anything to (visibly) disturb him, throw him off his balance. It’s why he’s James Bond, and I shouldn’t have expected anything less.
But Quantum of Solace is still a movie about vengeance. I just missed the manner. The second time through, I was struck by the action sequence near the midpoint of the film, crosscut with the climax of the Tosca opera. Once again artificial entertainment is juxtaposed against the film’s real action–even more obvious than the first sequence, given that this artificial entertainment involves a false execution, yet I didn’t see it until my second viewing. Once again, the film says: remember, this is for your entertainment. Yet the moment immediately following this action sequence contradicts this directly: Bond, atop a rooftop, surprises a guard chasing him and holds him over the edge. The guard tries to disarm Bond, and Bond simply lets go. The guard plummets anticlimatically to the ground–it’s not even far enough to kill him, let alone give the audience the satisfying visual and audio cue we’ve learned to expect and love when a body drops from a building.
I’m reminded, as I often am, of the moment from Gladiator that I consider to be one of the best and most concise statements on action blockbusters ever: Russel Crowe’s Maximus, having just cleanly and efficiently dispatched his opponents, looks up at the stunned crowd and shouts, “Are you not entertained?!” Maximus’ owner and mentor Proximo later explains to him: no, they aren’t. The crowd doesn’t want to see the best of the best easily kill everything before him without breaking a sweat; they want excitement, and complications, and challenge.
Audiences haven’t changed, of course. And Bond has the same problem. Initially I couldn’t figure out what the point of this was, other than to mock the many who would come to see Quantum of Solace for exciting action and nothing more. But ultimately I think it’s not about entertainment at all. It’s not even about the audience. It’s about Bond himself, and the show he is performing.
The action sequences are an artifice for our entertainment, to be certain, but they’re also artifices for Bond. Not for his entertainment, but for his fulfillment. As a jockey finds purpose in racing horses and an actor finds purpose in playing a ridiculously over-the-top death scene, a 00 agent finds purpose in protecting Queen and country. Bond was chosen to be a 00 agent (as Vesper identifies in Casino Royale) because as a maladjusted orphan he has no other ties, he has no other loyalties, he can be depended on to dedicate himself fully to this purpose and to truly believe in it.
The climax of Quantom of Solace involves another set of intercut action sequences, but neither one is diegetically artificial: Bond fights with Dominic Greene, the film’s central villain, while Camille (Olga Kurylenko) gets her revenge on the corrupt General Madrano for torturing and killing her family. But I think the two earlier sequences are intercut precisely so that in this finale we do look for one to be artificial–and since we’ve already been told and shown how real Camille’s hatred for Madrano is, the conclusion is obvious: Bond’s fight is the artificial one. What point does it have, besides to entertain us? Greene, though frenzied by an obvious fear of death, is a business executive and no real match for Bond. The central question of the fight ends up not being, will Bond survive? but will Bond kill Greene?
Bond lets him go. While he later recaptures him and gets information from him about Quantum (which will undoubtedly be a driving force in the inevitable third film), when he does Bond must believe that he is letting Greene go for good–his next act, after all, is to find Camille and prepare for both of their deaths to the fire blazing around them. It is the moment, I think, when Bond finally faces that everything he has been doing up to this point, everything in his quest to stop Greene, has not been about defending Queen and country, or about getting revenge for Quantum trying to kill M (as he oddly suggests to Camille), or even about getting revenge to Vesper. It’s been about going through the motions. Doing what he’s been trained to do, because it’s easier than moving forward. It’s easier than facing the futility of defending a country that lies down with terrorists and orders you arrested when you try to actually defend it. It’s easier than facing that Vesper took any sense of fulfillment he can have to her grave and he will never get it back.
At that moment, Bond is ready to die. What else is there to do? But when the opportunity for survival presents itself, he reacts instinctively and takes it. Outside, he spots Greene stumbling into the desert and leaves Camille behind to go after him. One moment, Bond is ready to die; but the next, he decides that if he can live, he will, and if he can’t be fulfilled, he’ll do what he can, what he knows how to do, what he knows is helping some even if it’s not him. He goes back to doing his duty to Queen and country. But this time, it’s not an artifice, or at least not as much–it is an artifice, in the sense that Bond doesn’t really care; but it’s not an artifice in that, unlike when Bond kills every lead he comes across, Bond is actually helping. He doesn’t kill Vesper’s “Algerian boyfried” but turns him over to MI6. He’s actually doing what’s best for his country, as he abandons one artifice–the necklace and the picture that pretend this is about vengeance–for a much more frightening, almost nihilistic truth: what Bond cared about is gone permanently, and so he doesn’t care about anything. He’ll do what he’s asked, do what he’s been trained to do, but not because of loyalty or duty, but because there is nothing else he can do.