Celebrating Masochism: The Latest James Bond Blockbuster Is Little More Than the Usual Exercise in Designer Violence, While an Astounding Portrait of the 1980s IRA Hunger Strikers Takes Film into Visceral Territory. by the NS Film Critic, Ryan Gilbey
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
Film distribution often operates on the principle of counter-programming: if a blockbuster about, say, a nattily dressed secret service agent is scheduled to open in a certain week, it makes good business sense to release an art film concerning the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands on the same day, as any audience overlap will surely be negligible. That's the theory, anyway.
The peculiar thing about watching Quantum of Solace, the 22nd James Bond film, while Hunger is still fresh (or rather, pungent) in the memory is that this strategy begins to look less robust. The films, both British-made but from opposite ends of the budgetary scale, have more in common than nationality. I'm not saying that you couldn't tell them apart: Quantum of Solace is so saturated with product placement, it's a miracle that the shot of Bond going glassy-eyed after his seventh consecutive Martini isn't followed by a plug for the Priory. (Promotional opportunities are understandably scarcer in Hunger. Even the IRA hasn't got anything to plug these days.) But, should you get your kicks watching limber male bodies being smashed, bashed, brutalised and pummelled in forensic close-up against a backdrop of implicit criticism of the British government, you could plump for either picture and still come up trumps.
The Bond films used to hinge on gadgets and hardware--the poison-squirting fountain pen, or the wristwatch that can fire poisoned darts, pick up Radio 4 and retune automatically to a soothing sonata whenever James Naughtie begins another circuitous question. In the current, sombre incarnation of the series, there is no call for such frivolity now that Daniel Craig himself resembles some kind of blunt instrument, a cosh or a club. Wherever Bond goes, glaziers report a sharp increase in business: he hardly ever meets a man he doesn't throw through a set of French windows. (Broken glass rains down throughout the picture like an autumn shower.) Weirdly, he is at his least threatening when he is holding a gun--his body is all the hardware he needs. In fact, you might say that both Quantum of Solace and Hunger are about isolated, single-minded warriors using their bodies as weapons to gain leverage, eroticised by a camera that dotes on every injury.
Quantum of Solace follows Bond's quest to avenge the death of Vesper Lynd, his ex-lover who was murdered at the end of Casino Royale. This brings him into contact with Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who is hunting the man who killed her family. Bond and Camille are too preoccupied with vengeance to trade bodily fluids; where once he might have given her a night to remember, now he just gives her pointers on assassination ("You have one shot. Take a deep breath. Make it count"). Camille in turn is tangled up with Mr Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a reptilian sadist whose environmental concerns hide exploitative business practices. Hats off here to whichever one of the three screenwriters (Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) came up with the idea of showing how a green front is this millennium's must-have disguise for any toxic conglomerate.
Like its immediate predecessor, Quantum of Solace exorcises some of the conservative ghosts of the franchise. Making the hero cruel and tormented is one part of that process, as is the trick of subverting images from old Bond films, including a pointed update of the nastiest scene from Goldfinger. Another is presenting female characters who are at no point called upon to brandish a strawberry daiquiri in a bikini: Gemma Arterton is nicely crisp, playing a mackintoshed MI6 agent as a minx straight out of Joe Orton, while Judi Dench, as the wire-haired M, is so regally disdainful that she makes Gore Vidal look like Christopher Biggins.
Despite the emphasis on realism, the action set pieces haven't been noticeably downgraded under the director, Marc Forster, who runs a tight ship--so tight, in fact, that he seems to have removed every second shot in the editing, turning the fight scenes into abstract blurs of movement in which the identity of the combatants is anybody's guess. …