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December 26, 2012

Skyfall Review: Dreadfall


The beginning of this movie is probably the best beginning of a Bond movie in the whole canon. For example, there's a motorcycle chase that winds up on the rooftops of buildings that is actually very cool. It's not CGI, it's guys actually driving motorcycles on rooftops (or, I should say, flat surfaces on the top of peaked roofs that look suspiciously like a stunt team placed them there), so you can't shout That's impossible! Guys are actually doing it, so it's not quite impossible.

The best sequence is probably when Bond first comes to Shanghai. It's one of the bests exploitations of a city I've seen in a movie. Bond movies are partly disguised travelogues, you know. Well, Bond books are that; the movies are a little bit that. The photography in Shanghai is just outstanding, and really what movie-making is all about. I did not know that Shanghai was this developed and modern looking, and I didn't know it had some kind of multilevel highway system with strange blue lights illuminating the cars on lower levels.

I can't say "I felt like I was really there!" or anything, but I did get a sense of a place I'd never been before.

And then the plot starts happening, which is a Bad Thing. The movie becomes pretty unimaginative as it strains to find a way to put Bond on Javier Bardum's trail. He sees a girl, realizes instantly she works for Bardum, and then turns her to his side in a brief bit of conversation which recalls the film The Man With the Golden Gun's Maud Adams. (Like Adams' character, the girl here is sexual prisoner of the elite covert operative and welcomes Bond's offer to kill him for her.) Then we have a random fight which involves, at some point, a Poisonous Creature of Some Type. (Here, Komodo dragons. One gets the sense from this -- and this is true of many Bond movies -- that these are plot bits that have been floating around as discarded story ideas from the time of You Only Live Twice.)

You know that Disguised Travelogue aspect I've mentioned about the Bond stories? Sometimes the writers/directors contrive reasons for a Hot New Setting, and people just go there because The Director Told Them To. The location doesn't seem to arise naturally, organically, because of events that are actually happening, but simply because The Director Wanted To Get This Place Into The Movie.

Well, apparently the Director was on the Internet a couple of years ago when Battleship Island started going around people's sidebars, and he shoehorned it into the movie. It's a good setting, but it's pretty random that the villain wants to meet Bond there, and they give the island an absurd backstory, something about the villain wanting to prove to the Chinese he was a Really Bad Guy and so creating some kind of poisonous gas release to drive everyone out.

As I knew something about Battleship Island -- well, not much, really, but I did know that Javier Bardum hadn't destroyed it in a bout of chemical gas terrorism in the past couple years -- it just took me out of the movie. I mean, just looking at the ruins you can see they're more than four or five years old.

If you're going to shoehorn it, why not just have the Villain say, "I wanted to meet you here, Bond, because you're as much of a ruined derelict as the city?" Just let the villain offer an off-hand reason as to why he's shoehorning it in. Don't claim a fairly famous ruin is Something the Villain Made So He Could Have His Secret Base. I mean, why not just go to Paris and claim Bardem created the Eiffel Tour on a bar bet?

Soon after, the Villain (mild spoiler in this sentence, and I call it mild because it's pretty obvious) permits himself to be captured in order to execute an baroquely complicated Scheme which seems to be much more easily accomplished without the whole Allowing-Yourself-To-Be-Captured part. And he reveals that he has a grotesque facial deformation involving the mouth, due to an old injury, which injury has deranged him and made him Chaotic Evil.

In other words, at this point the film becomes James Bond vs. Gay Joker.

The villain definitely is extremely Joker-like. But what works in a more fantastical universe doesn't work here, partly because the Daniel Craig Bond films are less (a little less, but still) fantastical than the Batman films, and also because We Just Saw This Movie Three Years Ago And It Was Better Before.

Before I get at the end-bits, which is where the film falls apart entirely, let me savage the dialogue. There is a tradition in Bond films of Witty Repartee. Or, I think, Ostensibly Witty Repartee. Now, the other Bond films were kind of corn-bag so that sort of thing flies.

"Witty" quips which aren't witty do not fly in the more Jason-Bourne-like New Bond Universe. In many cases these quips don't even make sense -- I could see in a couple of occasions where the dialogue that would have set up the quip was cut out of the film, but they adored the quip so much they kept it in-- even though the line no longer follows from the last one.

Finally, the end. The end of this movie would have almost saved it being, as you might have heard, a Straw Dogs type ending. Not a huge spectacle, but just a couple of people in an abandoned English (well, Scottish) country-house defending themselves with shotgun, hunting rifle, and improvised traps.

I loved those bits. The traps were great.

The problem is that none of the ending makes sense. Let me just explain a tiny bit of the plot (which is signaled in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, so it's no spoiler): Javier Bardem has a grudge against M and wants to kill her. It's what the whole movie is about. There's a MacGuffin involving (for the fifth time) a stolen NOC list (a list of the West's deep-cover agents), and everyone wants that back, but that was stolen in the first place to service Bardem's Revenge Plot.

Past the middle of the movie, this list -- which was sold as crucially important to the West -- is never mentioned again, despite not being recovered. I'll get back to that in a minute.

Now, to save M, Bond takes her to this abandoned country manor. Okay, no problem. The problem is that the British Secret Service knows he's taking her there, as does the whole of England's Army, Territorial Army, and police forces.

And yet Javier Bardem shows up anyway to attack the house. Which is in Scotland-- not exactly foreign territory to the UK (yet). And he shows up to attack it thinking that there won't be a bazillion police and troops waiting there to arrest him.

That's fine; I can accept the idea that Bond tricked Bardem.

The problem is, Bond didn't trick Badem. Despite Bardem being the World's Most Dangerous Criminal Outside of a Batman Movie, no one from England's police, intelligence services, or army intercedes to stop or kill Bardem.

Even though they all knew Bond's plan. Even though you would think they would understand "Now here's where we move in and kill these guys, finally."

The ending just doesn't make sense, and the movie just went off the rails for me here. Don't get me wrong, I think the idea of a very small-scale home defense would make a great, uncharacteristic (and therefore new-ish) ending for a Bond movie.

The problem is, as the plot in this movie is written, it doesn't make sense. It makes great dramatic sense, for the movie, that only Bond and M and a caretaker would be on the property to ward off all those heavily armed bad guys.

But it makes no sense in the reality of the situation, according to the movie's reality. It simply makes no sense that MI-6 (and the entire territorial army) just says "Eh, we'll let Bond handle this. For the dramatic possibilities of the situation."

Here's what I think happened: I think in the original script, and maybe the movie as originally shot, Bardem proposes an odious deal to the British government: Let me have M., and I'll return the NOC list that was first stolen by Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. I think in the original story or originally-shot footage, the British government -- or at least some of the Bad Actors in it, who are in fact present in the film -- agreed to this odious deal.

This would explain why the NOC list was no longer mentioned in the movie (Bardem turned it over) and also why only Bond was available to defend M (because the rest of the government had been ordered to stand down in order to let Bardem have his prize).

But then they cut that stuff out (poor audience reaction? felt like no one pays attention to the plot anyway, so who cares?) and just re-shot some dialogue to cover the edit.

But then they left the basic situation in place -- Bond, absolutely alone, in defending the standing head of the British Secret Service, getting no help from a single cop on the beat in all of England, and the NOC list entirely forgotten as a plot device. Resulting in a movie that actually makes no sense, as it stands.

The actual ending, the epilogue, is a mixed bag. There is One Thing that will make Old Time Bond fans happy, and other thing that will make them howl in Fanboy Rage.

Overall: A terrific first half hour, and a great small-scale shootout at the end with lots of brutal boobytraps, but a plot which is greatly derivative of previous Bond movies -- and Batman movies -- often contrived, and which is ultimately absolutely senseless.

Where's the Payoff? Oh, one more thing. They do the whole Dark Knight Rises plotline by featuring a battered Bond who's lost a couple of steps in his game trying to get back into form. The film notes, explicitly, he failed his fitness test in virtually every way that matters -- gun accuracy, fitness, all of it.

So, you're thinking: Bond will struggle through most of the movie, then maybe somehow he'll dig down deep at the end and accomplish something important.

What actually happens is that Bond pretty much just starts shooting people with his characteristic near-perfect accuracy with a pistol immediately after missing 1 (one) single solitary shot. The film sets up this dramatic arc, then just decides "No one wants to see Bond miss" and just have him be An Ultimate Badass, as usual.

He missed one shot. Not exactly the travails of Hercules.

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posted by Ace at 07:05 PM

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