Seizure-inducing editing aside, if you’ve ever wondered why Quantum of Solace is the most chronically forgettable Bond movie of the Craig franchise, it’s because its villain is more or less just a slightly sinister bloke out for money. Mathieu Amalric – who managed to deliver a remarkably stirring performance one year earlier in The Diving Bell and The Butterfly – delivers a lackluster turn as Dominic Greene, the leading member of the Quantum organisation who poses as a businessman fundraising for environmental sciences. In actuality, he wants to take over the majority of the water supply in Bolivia to turn a profit. This dastardly privatisation is less exciting in execution than it sounds on paper, and Amalric is only dealt a very limited amount of screen-time and very few of the witty lines that we’ve come to expect from our Bond villains. Certainly, we could reduce the role of most Bond villains down to being sinister men out for money, but at least other villains in the franchise have a sense of the necessary melodrama required to make the films compelling. Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva had half of his face missing, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre got to cry blood, for crying out loud. The most exciting thing that Amalric’s Greene gets to do is conduct business at the opera, and his only identifiably villainous trait is being French.
No longer is Bond so much about the camp martini-swilling and luxurious cars – the focal point of the Craig era is the realatively gritty blockbuster action and violence. However, since the titular character can obviously never die, and since Bond is the straight-man in most of his interactions, his films need a foil of insanity to keep things interesting. A compelling villain is the most crucial part of a Bond film, especially so in the Craig franchise. As dreamy as he may be, Craig’s Bond is pretty boring, but his iteration of plot-protected Bond works well when the antithetical bad guy is overwhelmed by emotion. The poker game in Casino Royale, with Bond and Le Chiffre together, are some of the most exciting scenes of the film; the way that Mikkelsen portrays the frustration of a mathematical genius being beaten in his own orchestrated poker game by some MI6 brute is beautiful, especially so for its melodramatic culmination.
The interactions between Bond and Greene in Quantum of Solace are not nearly as exciting. They don’t meet properly until the third act, when they engage in a pretty dispirited fight and part ways in the desert. The relationship between Bond and Javier Bardem’s Silva in Skyfall, in contrast, is highly emotive. Silva, in his plot to take down MI6 and murder M, has everything to gain. Like the prideful Le Chiffre, he has a high personal investment in his dastardly plot – unlike Greene, an already rich bloke just out for more money. It shows in Silva’s demeanour – obviously he is already deranged from the trauma he suffered as an agent, but as he finally corners M at the Bond family estate, his barely composed façade crumbles even further. In a scene that would make any psychoanalyst salivate, Silva slips between murderous rage and child-like concern for the injured M when he finds her in the chapel. He begs her, anguished, to pull the trigger for the both of them as he pushes his head next to hers – and then Bond comes in and saves the day. Of course he does, because he’s James Bond and we always knew that this would happen.
Certainly, the implicit knowledge of this plot armour isn’t enough to render the Bond films boring, but the idea of the ‘straight-man as main character’ represents a serious threat to audience interest. Craig has made a good effort to give Bond a healthy dash of realism, but there’s only a limited amount of failure that he can succumb to – nobody wants to watch a spy drama about an inept spy. Bond films desperately need their deranged villains to inject some instability into the mix.
No surprise, then, that the most exciting and climactic scenes in both franchise history and the Craig films are those where Bond and the villain are finally in the same room together. In Casino Royale, this is first broached in the poker tournament, and finally in the infamous scene where Le Chiffre has Bond tied, naked, to a chair. Le Chiffre’s act of repeatedly belting Bond in the groin with a dense piece of rope reveals a lot about Bond that could only be seen through the scenes of interaction with his villain. Bond’s stubborn sense of pride and pigheadedness is exposed in the way that he refuses to admit to the pain of his torture, instead shouting for Le Chiffre to go harder. This stubborn smugness is not as comic a character trait when Bond is being reprimanded by M, nor so when it verges into near-neurotic territory, Bond holding onto it even on the brink of grave physical injury.
This brand of thinly veined homoeroticism appears again in Skyfall, where Bond finds himself strapped to a chair once more, and subjected to the terrifying flirtations of Silva. The archetypal Bond villain then is meant to be Bond’s opposite – the slightly camp, highly unpredictable foil to the calm and clinical agent. Sometimes this succeeds, and Bond gets under the villain’s skin, as in Le Chiffre’s bleeding eyes, but sometimes it creates an odd sexual energy between the two. The seminal Bond trope that paved the way for future satire – of villains revealing their plot to Bond in a private moment- is laden with intimate implications. The desire to gloat to their victim reveals the nature of said villain’s obsession with Bond, creating an odd emotional tie that speaks to the yin-yang nature of the relationship.
Quantum of Solace’s downfall, then, is that Bond and Greene barely have any screen-time together and therefore never have a chance to reveal that relationship. Greene isn’t driven by the same motivators of pride, revenge or sadism like other villains, and so his inevitable defeat by Bond isn’t compelling, because everything that occurs in between is also without substance. Villains need Bond in the way that say, the Joker needs Batman – a straight-man to appreciate their crazy plans, a foil to validate them and bolster their pride by springing to action. When this dependency is there, the unavoidable doom is all the more pleasing.
The best Bond villains are invested to a point that goes beyond monetary greed – their identity as villains are inextricably tied to Bond, and everything that he represents as the status quo. For Bond, these villians simply serve as a mission to be completed. For the megalomaniac villain, their evil plots are the crowning jewel in a lifetime of criminality, and how these plots pan out has implications for their pride, identity and personal notions of masculinity and power. Bond villains, then, have so much more riding on these plots than the secret agent who foils them, making them more dangerous and unpredictable. In spite of an audience’s implicit knowledge that they can never truly succeed, the most compelling Bond villains – Le Chiffre and Silva among them – are those whose dastardly aim is, for themselves as well, a life or death situation.