Courtesy of MGM
Courtesy of MGM
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Skyfall is an awesome James Bond movie until it gets tired of all that, goes a little crazy and turns into a not-so-awesome Home Alone movie.

There you are, watching a solid Bond until suddenly the Home Alone phase kicks in and there you are with a booby trap-laden house that adorable little Kevin, uh, I mean tough, gritty James Bond, uses to knock off a sneaky gang of terrorists one by one. Well, sometimes four by four.

Nothing against Home Alone and its wacky slapstick antics, but you'd think a superagent with 50 years of experience would be able to think of a better plan than running off to booby trap a mansion. Then again, maybe all that experience is exactly why Bond does what he ends up doing. After half a century you start to run out of ideas and just start repeating things you saw in Macaulay Culkin movies.

It's eyebrow-raising to see an Oscar-winning director like Sam Mendes take on a Bond flick. His presence can mean one of two things: That the American Beauty/Road to Perdition filmmaker is adding resonance, style and depth to a franchise known for its bombastic silliness, or that he's hard up and slumming for a paycheck. With Skyfall, both turn out to be true.

What the movie does well, it does very well. Start with the villain, a hackerterrorist (if that wasn't a word before, it deserves to be now, thanks to this movie) played by Javier Bardem, back in the full-throttle creeptastic zone he entered in No Country for Old Men.

His name is Silva, and he's the definition of beast mode. He can easily escape an underground plastic cell that looks like the one Magneto was trapped in at the end of the first X-Men movie. He can gross people out by pulling out dentures and revealing hillbilly teeth. He can tie James Bond to a chair and share his evil plans while totally getting to second base with him. Vampish Bond girls are a well-known phenomenon, but for a minute there, Silva is the first Bond guy.

There's more. Silva is so good with computers that he can push a button and make anything, anywhere explode. Sure, his plans for world domination may be lacking in creativity — he grabs a hold of the proverbial file that lists the identity of every embedded secret agent around the world — but he carries out  his cliche antics with a flourish that recalls Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

Craig is nearly as intense, continuing to do his Jason Bourne-style Bond thing, dispensing the usual tricky Bond gadgets for the old-fashioned technique of shooting guys in the face. Craig's Bond seemingly learned how to fight from Call of Duty and has little need for disguises, compulsive womanizing, awful sex puns or jetpacks. Lucky for him, his Steve McQueen cool makes up for his lack of self-aware sass.

Mendes and his screenwriting crew try to flesh out the characters, tying Bond, Silva and M (Judi Dench) together with a dark past. The effort is far deeper than the usual Bond villain motivation, but seems a little forced and stiff, requiring characters to swap exposition-revealing monologues to fill us all in on who's got a grudge against who and why.

I could have done without the way the movie tries to issue a Batman-like origin for Bond that explains his drive and dedication. The character works better as a mysterious cipher you can't quite peg rather than a scared little boy who has built a hardened shell in which to hide.

Although the writing may be off, the action is superb. The movie is best when it shuts up and blows stuff up, sending Bond off on a wild spree of collapsing subway tunnels, blistering shootouts and lungs-burning chases.   The first hour and change is nearly all action, and it's impossible to wipe the grin off your face. The movie could have ended at the halfway point, failed to wrap up most of its plot threads and just said "Hey, that's all for now. Come back for the sequel," and would have left me with nothing to complain about.

But this is a Bond movie that wants to be more, and by reaching too far, it ends up missing greatness and pulling down Home Alone. It's enough to make you clasp you hands to your face while that grin turn into a look of shock, much like that of little Kevin when he tries to shave.

Starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw and Naomi Harris. Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, based on Ian Fleming's characters. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rated PG-13. 143 minutes.

 

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