Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Movie Review: Skyfall

In the pantheon of James Bond movies, this will not go down as the best, or the second best, or the third best.  It is, however, a considerable improvement on Quantom of Solace.  If you haven't seen the movie yet, beware--SPOILERS AHEAD.  Let's break it down.

The beginning is promising.  James Bond and an unnamed female partner (she'll be more important later) are chasing some dude through the streets and over the rooftops of Istanbul.  He has a hard drive around his neck with a very important list that M is on fire to get back.  Dirtbikes, trains, and bulldozers all make an appearance in the opening sequence.  It has a retro feel because of the train--when was the last time you saw a good on-top-of-a-train chase sequence?  It's not quite as breathtaking as the parcour sequence that opened Casino Royale, but Casino Royale is in a class of its own in more ways that one.  

After the opening sequence, this movie gets a little muddy...and stays muddy for about 40 minutes.  Bond "dies," comes back, and has to get re-cleared for duty so he can help M recover the list he almost had his hands on in the train sequence.  The list contains names of all the British agents embedded in terrorist cells around the world, so it's pretty darn important to get it back.  Whoever took it taunts M with some Rick-rolled-style computer screen graphics that tell her to "think on her sins" and let her know that her tormentor is a skilled hacker with the design skill of a 13-year-old.

This where some of the movie's problems start to appear.  The movie becomes more about M, her questioning by higher authorities, and the already-addressed-in-the-Bond-franchise theme of spies being obsolete in the computer age.  I'm pretty sure they beat this horse to death in Die Another Day.  Of course, Bond is invested in the job because British pride is at stake, but it feels cold.  It's not the same as his emotional stake in the previous two movies.

There's a new guy in command above M (named Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes), and a new Q, who looks vaguely like a British guy I used to date.  They spend way too much time on the Q character.  Two minutes would have sufficed, but he gets closer to 10 or 15.  The movie gets bogged down in bureaucracy here, and the watcher's attention lags.

Things perk up a bit when Bond gets sent to Shanghai to catch the guy who has the list of British agents.  Sam Mendes makes Shanghai look futuristic and cool, and whoever did the cinematography here deserves an award of some sort.  This part of the movie looks gorgeous.  In Shanghai, Bond fails to recover the list and kills the guy who had it before getting any useful information out of him, but we learn one thing:  the fight scenes in this movie are way too short, and yes, there is actually going to be a Bond girl in this movie.  (This movie is a little short on the sexual innudendo and/or tension that make Bond movies famous.)

Now we jump to Macao for no real reason other than to present a new set-piece, complete with man-eating lizard things that look like overgrown Komodo dragons.  Some dude who looks like my cousin's husband gets chomped up in a ridiculously cheesy fight scene.  The bright spot of the Macao bit is when Bond meets Severine (pronounced "Sevrine"), played by Berenice Marlohe. She has nails I would kill for, but they applied her makeup with a trowel in the casino scene.  I think the makeup weighs more than she does.  In any case, she does a fantastic job of playing the I-can't-leave-the-bad-guy-because-he'll-kill-me bit.  I started to think the movie would get more interesting here, and it did...for a whopping 10 minutes.

Severine takes Bond to her master, the arch villain played by Javier Bardem.  Of course, when you think Javier Bardem, you think of the bowl-cut creepy guy he played in No Country for Old Men. They're basically trying to recapture that creepiness here, except it doesn't work.  It feels like a copy.  The blond hair is ridiculous, and all I could think about was how superior the character in No Country was.  So, basically, they moviemakers wasted Javier Bardem's genius.

There's an interesting William Tell bit on Bardem's island, but it also means (SPOILER ALERT) Severine makes an absurdly quick exit.  This disappointed me.  She was eye candy, and provided a counterpoint to the M storyline, which is pretty dry.  I was hoping they'd do more with her character, but it was pretty much just a transition point to Javier Bardem's character.

And this is where the next hour of the movie just falls apart. It becomes a mess of letting Bardem show off his faux creepiness, trying to make the biggest mess in the London Underground they can, and not having any of it really enthrall the audience.  It's a mess.  Just trust me on this.

Suffice to say, there's a total confusion about what this movie is really about.  Is it about old vs. new?  Is it about M?  Is it about the cost of leadership when your toy soldiers are real soldiers?  Is it about what happens to the soldiers we leave behind?  Who knows.  The writers and director think it's about all these things.  It's confusing, it sprawls all over the place, and none of the messages really hit home because they're so half-assed.

Fortunately, there's good news--the last half hour or so veers back into classic Bond territory.  Yes, the Aston Martin reappears, complete with grill guns.  We find out what "Skyfall" means (no, it's not a nuclear program or brainwashing program or any spy program at all).  We see where James Bond grew up, and find out his parents' names.  We find out a hell of a lot more about him than nearly any of the previous movies have given us, except maybe On Her Majesty's Secret Service, where he begins the movie as a married man.    

There is a big fight at the end, lots of stuff blows up, and one of the major characters dies.  James Bond cries.  But there's an oddly anti-climactic feeling to it, almost as if you expected more from Bardem's character, who seems content to let his army of goons do everything for him.  The hands-on villains are so much more fun to watch.  Anyone can send a dozen gun-toting soldiers into a house and tell them to blow everything up.  That's boring.

When the movie ends, it's basically right back at the beginning:  thanks to a restructuring of MI6 personnel, you now have things set up the way they were for Sean Connery or Roger Moore.  You have M, you have Moneypenney, and you have good old James Bond, ready to risk life and limb for England.  It feels like a re-boot.

Overall, there are some plot holes you could drive a truck through, and the story's characterization leaves a lot to be desired.  Bardem's character is pretty much a wasted opportunity.  They want you to believe he's as good a secret agent as James Bond (and approximately his age and experience level, meaning old school type who the higher-ups believe is a dinosaur).  They also want you to believe Bardem is the world's best hacker/programmer.  I find it hard to believe that these two coincide.  Either you spend all your time becoming the world's best spy or you spend all your time hacking and joining Anonymous.  I don't buy both. Plus, the stupid "think on you sins" message that popped up over and over in the first half of the movie never reappeared.  Bardem never said those words to M, which seems like something a psychopath might want to do.  Bond also didn't have much of a connection with Bardem's character, which seemed like another missed opportunity.  They obviously knew each other, but not well and not with the kind of brotherhood-gone-wrong ethos that made Sean Bean's character in Goldeneye more interesting and more moving.

I was also disappointed at the small role the girls had to play in this one.  As weird as it sounds, M was almost the main Bond girl in this movie.  I love Judi Dench, but the character of M just isn't interesting enough to hold up this movie.  Give me Severine any day, or bring Eva Green back from the dead.

As for Sam Mendes as a director, I think he did a decent job with what he was given.  The scenes are shot well, the locations are beautiful.  The fight scenes are all way too short, though, which might have been a script flaw rather than a directing flaw.  I'm not sure who to blame for that one.  The whole thing just doesn't hang together, but short of a rewrite, I'm not sure it's anything a director could have fixed.  I'm pretty sure the screenwriters alone are to blame for the mishmash of themes and lack of a clear through-line.         

Bond is Bond.  I love him, I love Daniel Craig as Bond, and I just wish Casino Royale hadn't been so damn good because it's now next to impossible to live up to that standard.