Thursday 13 November 2008

Schrödinger’s Villain

Quantum of Solace (2008), directed by Marc Foster

Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), despite its box office success, was criticised by some (1) for its degradation of the Bond character. Casino Royale, they argued, reflected today’s confused, wishy washy and agonised subjectivity: gone was the confident, womanising, swaggering, technologically masterful secret agent. In limped a tortured, self-doubting, twitchy and fragile 007. Similar things have been said about Quantum of Solace. William Leith writing in the Guardian summed it up in an article headlined: ‘I used to admire James Bond – now I pity him’.

The stronger criticisms seem ignorant of the fact the new Bond is far closer to the character in Ian Fleming’s original novels. The new movies are trying to trace his emergence, beginning with Fleming’s earliest work. It’s in Casino Royale, after all, that Bond becomes 007 after achieving the required number of kills. Nonetheless, that this appeals now is telling. Quantum picks up exactly where Casino left off, not merely plot-wise – leaving a distraught, embittered Bond still hunting the killer of his lady friend from the earlier film – but also in terms of the absence of the traditional trappings of Bond movies: no Q, no high-tech gadgets, and Mary Whitehouse levels of sex.

But if Casino reflected the diminished subject in the form of Bond, then what Quantum reflects is contemporary society’s utter confusion about who the ‘bad guys’ are. It reminds me of Gordon Brown’s national ‘register of risks’, the UK’s amorphously flabby national security strategy, which encompasses everything from terrorism to bird flu to child trafficking. In Quantum, the ‘baddie’ is Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a businessman at the head of a shadowy corporate network who manages to somehow encompass everything considered ‘wicked’ today, in the most incoherent fashion imaginable.

We first encounter Greene in Haiti. As he strolls along the harbour, he recalls how his organisation was used to overthrow the Haitian president (Jean-Bertrand Aristide) because he antagonised international firms making T-shirts using sweated labour for trying to raise the minimum wage from 39c to $1 an hour. Greene meets a Bolivian general and hatches a plot to overthrow the Bolivian government and install him in his place, in exchange for a patch of apparently worthless land. His network is buying up pipelines, so the assumption is that he has found oil. The CIA twig what’s happening and get on board, buying the line that America’s distraction in Iraq means they need help to stem the ‘Marxist’ tide in Latin America. It later turns out that Greene wants the land to control Bolivia’s water supply, and later forces the Bolivian general to grant him monopoly control. Worst of all, Greene is posing as – wait for it – an environmentalist campaigner going around buying up rainforest to protect it from development, only to then secretly bring in the loggers.

None of this is in the slightest bit coherent. Perhaps constantly changing our understanding of what Greene does is meant to express the mysterious nature of his ‘Quantum’ network. Actually, it simply looks like a complete rag-bag of contemporary anti-globalisation conspiracy theories stuck together with the art of a two-year-old. Corporate power, sweatshops, oil, US intelligence, coups, counter-revolution, water, environmental degradation, blah, blah, blah. That one person could embody all these things is, naturally, incredible, and Greene is probably the most shallow, unconvincing and unfrightening Bond villain of all time.

This is because there is no underlying coherence to the story, which reflects the broader loss of any sense of what Britain now stands for and against. In the Cold War the enemy was perfectly obvious: the Soviet Union. The line between good and bad was, for better or worse, drawn clearly. Bond could arrogantly scythe his way through various Russian plots and see off nutcases with their own Dr Strangelove-esque ambitions. Whereas now, the enemy is everywhere and nowhere; to pin it down to a single individual is simply impossible.

But perhaps the least convincing line of the film is delivered by M (Judi Dench). As MI6 begins to twig what’s happening and Bond causes an international incident by leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, the foreign minister tries to rein in the intelligence services, telling M there was insufficient information to risk alienating the Americans. In response, M begs to be allowed to gather more intelligence so that the minister can pursue a ‘policy based on the evidence’. The foreign minister replies that oil is too important. This is so crude it’s laughable, an obvious invocation of yet another popular prejudice: Iraq was invaded for oil and the intelligence simply abused. The idea MI6 is somehow whiter than white (unlike the CIA) is ridiculous, as is the suggestion of its director pleading for adherence to New Labour’s obsession with evidence-based policy. British intelligence officials have only recently been accused of involvement in torture and extraordinary rendition. Indeed, Quantum opens (after the obligatory car chase) with M and Bond getting ready to torture one of Greene’s cronies. Presumably we are supposed to have forgotten that by this point in the film, but if anything, it really reveals the perceived moral vacuum on both sides.

Of course, Bond films were never meant to be serious. They are quite silly. They are not documentaries and do not aspire to tell us something about the world, unlike ‘worthy’ projects like Syriana (2005). Unwittingly, though, Quantum of Solace tells us quite a lot about the current state of political and moral disarray in contemporary Britain, giving us not only a diminished Bond but a confused and confusing enemy. If we could only set aside the demands of the international box office that prevent Bond writers being utterly parochial, then the next Bond villain could well be Mr Maddiekiller, a social worker who secretly runs a vast international child-abducting paedophile ring and uses the profits to encourage youth gun-ownership and junk food consumption.

(1) Neither Shaken nor Stirred, Emily Hill, sp!ked,  24 November 2006


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