The DOs and DON’Ts of Action Flicks: A Tale of Skyfall and Jack Reacher

 

jack-reacher

JACK REACHER

Tom Cruise: “I didn’t say an auto parts store.  I said the auto parts store.  Which auto parts store comes to mind right away?”

Cut to Jack Reacher walking into a large warehouse shop called. . .  *I kid you not*  DEFAULT AUTO PARTS STORE.

Enter “Jack Reacher,” the default action movie.  Only, this one is so lackluster and wooden that it will probably not be the movie you fall back on for a fun, action-packed viewing.

The book must have been a great read.  How else would it’s adaptation attract Tom Cruise AND Robert Duvall?  After all, Jim Grant has written over a dozen successful Jack Reacher books under the alias of Lee Child, and Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote and directed this movie, also wrote “The Usual Suspects” and the Tom Cruise vehicle “Valkyrie.”  The difference here is that while McQuarrie graduated high school with Bryan Singer, they clearly have different skills, and Lee Child’s books are the kind of over-the-top normal guy/superman detective stories that modern films generally figure out ways to flesh out the character with genuine emotions and maybe a weakness or two.

In the books, Jack Reacher has the uncanny ability to know what time it is without ever looking at a clock.  He has a perfect physique without ever working out.  He has a fascination with mathematics and physics and uses both in his fighting techniques, of which he knows many.  He is the only non-Marine to ever win the Marine Corps 1000 Yard Invitational rifle competition.  He lacks remorse.  He doesn’t talk much.  He says “That’s for damn sure” an awful lot.  And he’s great at having sex with lots of sexy ladies.

Not that he doesn’t have a few weaknesses peppered in here and there.  Jack Reacher doesn’t feel he has much skill in fighting a man with a knife, and he doesn’t do well in crowds.

Maybe the film should have tried harder at finding the character traits that would work in a film like this.  The quiet man who is slightly agoraphobic, perhaps.  The film touches on the drifter aspect and even tries to use it as a motivation for why local law enforcement has difficulty trusting his findings, but they have gone to such pains to prove to the audience that Jack Reacher is THE MAN, that it feels strained.  McQuarrie could have gone a long way had they spent some time with “First Blood.”

The movie is an extraordinary example of a by-the-numbers approach to action movies.  At the moment it is supposed to, the bad guy does something terribly evil to prove how awful he is.  It rains on cue for the final battle.  And Jack Reacher makes his entrance exactly on cue.  I mean exactly.  That’s the movie’s biggest intentional laugh.  If only they were in on the joke more, this movie could have been a romp.

Maybe forget Rambo.  Perhaps McQuarrie should have spent some time with “Shoot ‘Em Up.”

There are a few good scenes in the movie.  The opening scene, with the sniper’s P.O.V. is very first person shooter.  When the villain is proving his vileness, as I mentioned above, it culminates in a rather twisted concept for thumb biting.  And some of the pithy dialogue is fun, but it comes on the same wooden stilts that made the rest of the movie laugh-at-you rather than with.

OVERALL: 4/10

SKYFALL

When they heard James Bond was going to drink a Heineken in a product placement moment, the purists were in a frenzy.  And why not?  One of his catchphrases tells us exactly what he likes to drink, and it’s clearly not a bottle lager.  It’s so NOT double-oh seven!  But even though the film buff inside of me was able to take in the moment with the cynical knowledge that the lingering shot was just long enough to make the investment worth while financially, it works.  The filmmakers defended their decision to go with the ad by saying that even Bond can sometimes be the guy that just wants to have a beer, and when we get to that moment, we see that they’re right.

And that’s exactly why this movie is the polar opposite of “Jack Reacher.”  There is emotional complexity where the purists may believe they want detachment, and depth is the precise spice you need for a nourishing recipe.  A truly great action casserole has textures and layers and nuggets and morsels that will satisfy you long after dinner.

Roger Moore told Entertainment Tonight that “Skyfall” was “the best Bond film ever made.”  The journalist followed up by reminding Moore that he had publicly stated he did not watch Bond movies.  Moore replied, “I say I don’t, but I’ve seen all of them.”

I haven’t seen every 007.  I mean, we’re celebrating fifty years of Bond, and there are twenty-three films!  (Twenty six if you count the three unofficial ones, including the David Niven/Peter Sellers one and Sean Connery’s legendary return.)  I have seen most of them, and thanks to HaphazardStuff.com, I am equipped with a fairly educated position on the history of the films.  I’d have to agree with Roger Moore.  This is the best Bond.

The biggest reason that this movie is so transcendent is that it is at once about the James Bond that we all know and love, and it is also about the James Bond that we’ve barely met.  Daniel Craig has begun to perfectly fit more snugly into the tailored tux of the MI6 agent, and he has stepped out from under the long shadow cast by his predecessors.  Yes, even Connery.  This is a James Bond that can go a few weeks with facial hair and still be double-oh seven in his very heart and soul, and it’s great fun to see him go there.

During a psyche evaluation, we are teased with the mystery of Skyfall.  We learn later that the results of the test speak of substance abuse and an unresolved childhood trauma.  This is a chase scene that is heading in a new direction, and when we get to our destination, we will know exactly why Bond is such an enduring character.

Sam Mendes, who sharpened his tools with Shakespeare and won his Oscar with “American Beauty,” helms this espionage thriller with great care to properly balance the drama with the joy.  One of the great surprises in this entry is that it is at once fresh and new and at the same time, it makes an argument for “the old ways,” delighting with nostalgia for all that came before it.  This Bond is the old dog as well as the new, and he is just as comfortable with an exploding pen or an Aston Martin as he is with a Land Rover Defender and a handful of bullets.

Are you starting to see the complexity I’m talking about?

In following with the movie’s tone, Javier Bardem fits right into the Bond villain rogue gallery while bringing us – and James – into new, experimental ground.  The Oscar winner brings the giggling, key-stroking, Julian Assange-inspired menace with mommy and daddy issues to life with appalling clarity.    With range and emotion, Berenice Marlohe shows us all why you can’t just plug a Denise Richards or a Grace Jones into a Bond girl anymore.  Judy Dench is marvelous as M, showing the stiff British upper lip in the biggest crisis of her career.  Albert Finney is always excellent.  Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, and Naomie Harris are well-cast and welcomed additions to the franchise.

In the past, I’ve watched Bond bounce from shark tank to space station to Christopher Walken defended satellite.  I’ve seen him kill and bed for his majesty’s secret service.  I’ve seen him race across ice caps and rooftops and aqueducts.  And I’ve been a passive witness to all of it.  With “Skyfall,” I felt like I was a part of it all for the first time.   This film had me tightly in it’s grip from Adele’s score to the closing credits.

OVERALL: 9/10

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8 comments

  1. I liked ‘Skyfall’ up until it turned into ‘Home Alone.’ The purpose of going to Skyfall was to keep M alive and-spoiler alert!-he didn’t. The kid from ‘Home Alone’ was better at this game than James Bond?!? (The argument that going to Skyfall was to draw out Silva only goes so far as his main goal throughout the whole film was . . . to kill M. Well, he accomplished that very well no thanks to Bond) Although, I’m for killing Judy Dench (even though I like her a lot) if that means we get Ralph Fiennes-he’s great in this. You want to see a James Bond movie with some pathos (I think ‘Casino Royale was the best at that), check out ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.’ It’s a really silly movie in the ways Bond films can be, but its ending is just devastating. Shame about ‘Jack Reacher.’ I root for Christopher McQuarrie after ‘The Usual Suspects.’ I’m still hoping for him to come close to that again some day.

      1. Only M’s call didn’t really get Bond killed. Bond’s call did get M killed. Ergo, M is a great spy, Bond is a terrible soy, lol. It’s no wonder Bond’s parents abandoned him when he was a child!

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