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Entries in Skyfall [2012] (1)

Sunday
Nov182012

Skyfall (2012)

Repetition is Not Enough

I have a strict "No Walking Out" policy with movies, which the universe has put to the test many times over the years. I think it grew tired of my stubbornness last weekend.

I saw Skyfall on Sunday. At the halfway mark, the entire auditorium went black, save for the footlights and green "Exit" signs down front. After sitting in darkness for nearly ten minutes, it looked as though everyone would have to have to settle for passes to a different screening. In those moments, I seriously doubted I'd make the effort--opting instead to either wait for Netflix or skip the rest of the film altogether. It saddened me that A) this technically violated my long-standing code, and B) I had zero interest in finishing the new James Bond adventure.

Unfortunately, my record still stands; Skyfall resumed right where it left off, compelling me to stay put and finish it. The fact that I've spent a full week putting a review together is a testament to my profound disappointment in this limp, creatively bankrupt insult to the franchise.

In 2006, Casino Royale came out of nowhere, giving fans of the 007 series a grown-up, brutish take on a character who, especially in recent installments, had become a cartoon character. With Daniel Craig stepping into the role of Britain's most famous spy, and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis plotting a grim, globe-trotting game whose psychological stakes were as thrilling as its action set pieces, it was clear that Martin Campbell couldn't rely on the camp and gadgetry with which he'd made Goldeneye. It was a thrilling reboot that made the iconic character cool again in the vast realms beyond nostalgia and geekdom.

Then came Quantum of Solace, a movie that screamed "Writers' Strike Placeholder" from minute one. Some refer to this entry as the "'Bourne' Bond", but The Bourne Identity and its sequels never (okay, mostly never) sacrificed good storytelling for hyperkinetic action. I can't even remember what happened in QoS; something about oil, revenge, and squandering every ounce of good will built up by the previous movie.

This brings us to Skyfall, which is better than Quantum of Solace only in that it rips off stronger material and does so very well. In this case, we're talking about Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. I was able to overlook the "homages" for the first third of the movie. But ten minutes after Javier Bardem's introduction as the bleach-blonde, bi-sexual bad-guy, I realized that director Sam Mendes and his writing team (including John Logan, subbing for Haggis) had simply stolen the best elements of The Dark Knight--and, to a lesser extent, the other new Bat flicks--and melded them with the plot structures of Casino Royale and Home Alone.

To prove my point, please indulge me in this spoilerific pop-quiz. We'll get back to the "review" part of the review in just a minute. Promise.

001. In which movie does James Bond drive a construction vehicle while fighting a low-level thug during the opening chase?

a. Skyfall

b. Casino Royale

c. All of the Above

002. In which movie does the psychotic super-villain dress up as a beat cop to pull off a daylight assassination, which ultimately fails?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. All of the Above

003. In which movie does the psychotic super-villain allow himself to be captured by the authorities in order to infiltrate their headquarters and creep everyone out with his eerie, disfigured smile?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. All of the Above

004. At the end of which film is a supporting character given greater franchise significance when their full name is revealed during casual conversation?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight Rises

c. All of the Above

005. Which film levels its hero's swanky, high-tech base of operations, forcing them to set up shop in a Steve Jobs-inspired underground lair?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. Batman Begins

d. b. and c.

e. a. and d.

006. In which film does the hero's tech-savvy sidekick reluctantly aid in tracking down the villain using big-screen virtual maps of the entire city?

a. Skyfall

b. The Dark Knight

c. All of the Above

007. Which film shows off its cutting-edge special effects by staging a "unique" subway train crash?

a. Skyfall

b. Batman Begins

c. Die Hard with a Vengeance

d. Knowing

e. Final Destination 3

f. All of the Above

The answers to all of these cute questions are obvious, but they aren't nitpicks. Unless your memory is so faulty as to have forgotten major plot points and action sequences from some of the highest-grossing, most popular movies of the last two decades, there's no excuse for gobbling up this retread. It's as if Mendes wanted to prove to MGM that he could direct big action scenes after building a career on gripping, personal dramas like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road--so he threw fresh digital paint on a bunch of familiar moments to create the world's most expensive demo reel. Unfortunately, after giving him the job, the studio executives forgot to ask for an actual movie and released this instead.

Wow, I just realized that there's barely a word in this review about Skyfall's plot. Here goes:

An ex-MI6 agent named Alec Trevelyan (Bardem) is abandoned by the agency at the end of a perilous mission. He resurfaces years later with a harsh vendetta against his former employer, and steals the CIA's "Non-Official Cover" (NOC) list. James Bond must stop him from publishing the identities of the world's undercover agents, while also protecting his boss, M (Judi Dench).

They draw Trevelyan's elite hit squad to Bond's childhood home--an estate in the middle of rural Scotland called...wait for it..."Skyfall". There, they reunite with Alfred (Albert Finney), the wise, old butler of Bond's deceased parents--who were killed while walking home from the theatre decades earlier. Using household objects, Bond, Alfred, M, a troubled teen named Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), and a sarcastic eight-year-old named Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) rig explosives and elaborate traps to foil Trevelyan and his army of thugs--the nastiest of which are played by Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, and Robert Englund.

I'm messing with you, of course. But take that synopsis into the theatre, and I guarantee Skyfall will play on a mental split screen with the dozen or so other films it rips off.

In fairness, I enjoyed the movie's first third, and was able to forgive some of the obvious references. But at a certain point, the lack of originality--and the promise that new ideas weren't coming--became too great to ignore. Craig is, once again, great as Bond, and he's given three really sharp counterparts this time out: Naomie Harris as Eve, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, a bureaucrat with more guts than meets the eye. It's a shame that none of these great actors get to play with rich material; they're stuck in a run-of-the-mill revenge story that was absolutely not worth the four-year wait.

And I have zero interest in what follows this movie. The last five minutes of Skyfall are a return to franchise form, with Mendes and company aligning the stars for a more "classic" Bond adventure next time out; which, I suppose, means more quips, more gadgets, and more "fun". I admire the setup, but going back to the days of Brosnan or (hate to say it) Connery is not in any way appealing to me.

Casino Royale proved that a Bond film can be exciting, smart, and even funny without resorting to winks or outright silliness. Quantum of Solace and Skyfall suffer from an alarming lack of scale and stakes. Having Bond face a rogue 00 agent is a scary idea, and a terrific setup for an action film. But we're asked to settle for a third-rate stalker-type villain who exhibits absolutely none of the brains or brutality that we've seen bred in the good-guy version of the archetypical British spy. For all the Dark Knight shenanigans in this movie, the filmmakers failed to appropriate the one thing that movie did so well: give the audience an antagonist who steals the spotlight from the hero, while making them tremble in fear and rock-star admiration.

Skyfall is a letdown, but at least it will help me maintain my "No Walking Out" policy when dealing with future Bond films: I can't abandon something if I don't start it in the first place.