TALLULAH – Searching for Stability

Talullah is sort of an adventure film. In it Ellen Page plays Talullah, a nomad living out of her van who kidnaps a baby from a neglectful rich mother named Carolyn, played by Tammy Blanchard. Carolyn’s a drunk; she doesn’t change the baby’s diapers and lets it roam around on the balcony of her high-rise apartment with abandon. After running off with the toddler while Carolyn sleeps off a drunken night, Talullah connects with her old boyfriend’s mother (played by Allison Janney) who lets her and the baby stay, having convinced her it’s her own granddaughter.

It’s a story of picking up the pieces. Janney’s Margo is estranged from her husband, who cheated on her and left with a man three years before. Carolyn is struggling to love the child who in her eyes tore her marriage apart. And Talullah herself is trying to reconcile an aimless life with a reckless attempt at stability.

She thinks she’s doing the right thing. And the film does a good job of taking you along for that ride. She’s stolen a baby but brings it into an empathetic and compassionate household. You can’t help but suspect it’d be better off.

Of course, Margo is reluctant at first, obviously. But Talullah is wily, and while it may not have been her original plan to use a baby as a bargaining chip for a place to stay, it becomes a useful in. As it turns out, someone to care for is exactly what Margo’s needed for a long time. Her husband’s departure eventually prompted her son to strike on his own with Talullah, and it’s been two years since she’s had love of any kind in her life.

Margo’s leap of faith is a dangerous one, even if she doesn’t know it. She’s never met Talullah before, but because of her connection to her son, entertains the fantasy of playing house to fill that void. It’s a grave situation Talullah’s created. It’s a false bubble of safety while elsewhere in Manhattan a worried mother and the police track a kidnapped child. Margo pushes logic out the window and it’s only from the mouth of her estranged husband does reason emerge. Margo is damaged, and in her own way if she can seem together in front of him, the hurt he put her through will sting a little less.

The film concludes competently enough, though at points dips into silly on-the-run clichés. Talullah’s boyfriend reappears in New York and attempts to let her make a getaway, inventing a cockamamie story that might get her off the hook. And that felt a bit contrived. He could’ve never shown up again and that would have been fine. And there’s an awkward standoff with the police. Talullah claims Caraloyn doesn’t even want her baby, and the detective looks to her as if they would just let the kidnapper go if she said no.

And while the law eventually catches up to Talullah and she’s taken away in handcuffs, the film seems to want to shine a hopeful light on the rest of her life. Just before she’s carted away, Margo vows to “do whatever she can to bring her home.” Basically saying, “I’m rich and I’ll take care of it.” When in reality, a runaway girl made her an unwitting accomplice to kidnapping, not to mention the untold amounts of money she’s been stealing from her for 2 years.

Sure, the point is that Talullah got Margo to recognize the things about herself that need fixing by doing something that partially makes amends for her selfish past. But against the backdrop of real, serious crime, I would’ve expected an ending involving more punishment.

Vin Diesel’s Killing It. So Why Isn’t He An A-Lister?

Closing in on a cool billion dollars after less than two weeks, The Fate of the Furious sits at the top of the box office, adding to a bewildering string of successes from the Vin Diesel Action Brain Trust™.

Remember Riddick? Turns out it opened to a #1 weekend. How about xXx: Return of Xander Cage? Surely nobody saw that piece of hot threequel garbage. Wrong. So far it’s the seventh highest-grossing film of 2017. (The Fate of the Furious is #2.)

Not to be outdone by anyone but himself apparently, Diesel’s starring in a third mega franchise installment opening this weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, sure to be a box office slam dunk itself.

What’s more, Vin Diesel isn’t just an actor in his films. He’s the main creative voice and a major financial and producing partner in the Fast and Furious, xXx, and The Chronicles of Riddick franchises. He picks the directors. He casts. He typically has a lot of influence on the story. His movies bring in billions. The Fast and the Furious films together have grossed over $4.8 billion and there’s at least two more coming by the end of 2021. What’s more, it’s clear Universal Pictures is happy with their man; they’re rewarding him with a fourth Riddick film, which is currently in development.

Financially, Vin Diesel is safely one of the most bankable and recognizable figures in Hollywood and abroad. Don’t mistake it. The man is at the top of the entertainment industry. And if you look at his resume he’s done drama, comedy, notable voice-over work. But…you wouldn’t necessarily call him a distinguished actor. How come?

Firstly, there’s the fair perception that he just makes trashy films, even the ones critics intellectually compartmentalize because they’re made with a wink and a nod, i.e. Fast and Furious 5-8. His preferred genre lives very comfortably in the shit pile. An experimental franchise-starter like The Last Witch Hunter –the protagonist of which Diesel based on his longtime Dungeons and Dragons character- isn’t sitting on the shelf next to the likes of “quality” action films like Iron Man or Skyfall.

Secondly, Vin Diesel is just not a leading man like say, Robert Downey Jr., Daniel Craig, or Chris Pratt. I don’t believe audiences are filling theaters specifically to see Diesel in each Fast and Furious installment. I’ve always felt the charm is more in them being an ensemble. Besides, these days it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who’s practically running away with the show. The Rock, who’s made a small habit of stepping into franchises late and turning them around, has proven so popular in The Fast and the Furious that’s he’s likely getting a spin-off film with co-star Jason Statham.

So despite the record business Diesel fetches and high-profile films he stars in, he’s still a rung beneath his contemporaries. There’s a prestige ceiling he seems unable (or more like content not) to reach for.

Which is interesting because other actors with low-brow action franchises like Kate Beckinsale (Underworld) or Liam Neeson (Taken) enjoy a level of “legitimacy” separate from their tent pole vehicles. So what gives?

You might say, he just doesn’t have the chops. It’s certainly easy to dismiss his gurgling, bruiser action performances as the best he can do because they’re all you see of him. He just doesn’t do any other movies. Unlike other actors might do, he doesn’t alternate his crowd-pleasers with quiet indie films or Oscar-bait. He doesn’t really step out of his corner. But he’s not a hack. Go watch 2006’s Find Me Guilty, a based-on-true-events courtroom procedural and tell me he can’t embody a compelling character. He does a good job.

Vin Diesel - Vin Diesel

I think Vin Diesel has had massive success and owned the path his life has taken, but isn’t in the place he expected to be at the start of his career.

When he was just starting out Diesel made a couple of very earnest, very straight independent dramas: Multi-Facial and Strays. They were his first films, impressing Stephen Spielberg enough to cast him in Saving Private Ryan. In the transparently autobiographical Multi-Facial especially, Diesel’s character sees himself as a proper dramatic actor in the shadow of Al Pacino and others. And he gives himself sympathetic scenes to show off. He’s actually pretty good and the film is full of pathos. I think this is (or was) the real Vin Diesel, the dramatic actor. Even the first Fast and the Furious, while an actioner, was handled with more sincere dramatic weight than the series’ current melodrama. I suspect he may have ended up a type of actor he didn’t originally intend to be.

Let’s differentiate though. There are two Vin Diesels: Vin Diesel in front of the camera and Vin Diesel the producer. As an actor I imagine he originally identified with his early work. But he’s also a capable businessman and quietly a major nerd, which informs his producing. He taught Dame Judi Dench how to play D&D on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick. The only reason that franchise continues is because Diesel himself is the biggest fantasy fan in Hollywood and makes it happen. His first independent films he didn’t just act in; he wrote, directed, scored, and financed them. I think there’s an auteur somewhere deep down inside.

I know, laugh. Of course he’s not reinventing the wheel. But instead of art film he’s doing it with pop action. Again, make no mistake: Vin Diesel has major financial and creative control of three blockbuster franchises, chief among which is one of the most globally successful film series ever. He has a lot of clout.

So why isn’t he higher on the “list?” I think it’s the completeness with which he’s moved into his role as action brand-maker in the last decade. I’d put him in a similar category as Sylvester Stallone in terms of career trajectory: begin artistically, continue crowd-pleasingly. Long ago, Stallone wrote and starred in Rocky, so he’s got the talent. But for the rest of his career he never really seemed interested in re-proving that he could be “actorly.” And in fairness, why should he? He’s Sylvester Stallone, he’s done just fine. The same with Vin Diesel. He’s carved out such a huge and multi-faceted piece of the pie that he’s made his own reputation and legacy, regardless of if his career doesn’t feel like an on-going improvement.

You always hear actors talking about improving and reaching with every role, growing as an artist and performer. You take on challenges to deepen your repertoire as a professional. Is Dominic Toretto a particularly difficult character for Vin Diesel to play? Probably not. But you can bet he took Saving Private Ryan seriously.

He’s likely a fine actor and I imagine he looks forward to ending The Fast and the Furious so he can do something else, maybe something he can really sink his teeth into.

Avenger’s: Age of Ultron: Muddled, Bloated

Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, like… a lot of people

This is the kind of movie you learn to tolerate because it will live in popular culture for basically ever. (*cough* Star Trek Into Darkness *cough*) See it again on Netflix, Sunday afternoon TNT, whatever. It exists, goddammit, and you might as well forgive it’s shortcomings because your mom doesn’t care about plot and your little brother thinks Captain America looks cool smashing robots.

But this movie stunk. It should have been called the WEEKEND of Ultron for all the impact it will ultimately have on the series’ continuity. Instead of matching its predecessor’s level of quality, it traded storytelling for flash. It starts at 100 mph and finishes in the exact same place. It was completely and utterly without real consequence.

But let’s dive in. From the get-go this film was all wrong. Instead of catching up with our heroes in different places -in varying levels of danger- the gang’s already together. They’re fighting to retrieve Loki’s magic wand thing (I can’t remember why it was missing in the first place. It doesn’t matter.) But it basically amounts to nothing plot-wise. (And Loki’s not in it…spoilers.) After that, there’s a party where secondary characters get one-liners to pay off their final battle contributions. After that, Tony Stark invents Ultron. After that, Hawkeye gets most of the movie. After that, a European(?) city that I’m pretty sure has a made-up name gets Superman Return-ed into the sky. After that…fuck, who knows. Just get ready for a string of deux ex machinas to end the movie. There’s also a guy called The Vision who’s important…

It’s a mess. It’s too dense. There’s a lot going on and I hate to admit it doesn’t really amount to much. In contrast, the first Avengers film had purpose. It was a celebration of the success of this novel idea of a shared film universe. It was fun and joyful and was made with obvious craft. There was tension and release, build-up and pay-off. It was exciting and supremely satisfying.

I got none of that from Age of Ultron. Sure, it was fun-ish. There was still plenty of spectacle and excitement. Some Joss Whedon moments sprinkled in, too. But oddly, this film lacked the Joss Whedon DNA that I kind of expected. Age of Ultron didn’t feel as much of a quality product as the first Avengers. Juggling so many elements, the plot felt overburdened. The core of what made the first so good -the core of what any well-written story needs- wasn’t here.

So what’s the core? Or what was supposed to be the core?

Tony Stark is getting tired. He’d done good, but he’s beginning to realize that he can’t do it forever. He wants to leave a legacy behind. That legacy is Ultron, Earth’s last defense against the unknown forces of the universe. Of course, his invention goes rouge, and it’s up to the Avengers to deal with the threat. Tony Stark must come to terms with his own limitations as an inventor while reconciling his need to retire and his responsibility to be a hero.

That’s a compelling setup. But here’s the thing: They didn’t really do that. Instead, Ultron turns into Robert California, multiplies himself a thousand times, and then the Avengers headshot their way to victory against disposable robot hordes.

I’m hesitant to rewrite the entire movie, but here’s how Age of Ultron should have happened:

The Avengers are not together. Everyone is off on adventures while Tony Stark is at home in his lab. He’s building Ultron. He’s neglecting his girlfriend, Pepper. He’s not sleeping; he’s staying up all night with music blasting. He’s obsessed with this new project, the one that’ll change it all. The one that’ll give him that tiny bit of respite he’s been needing all these years. This is the big one, the last one.

No action, at least at first. The real drama is in this relationship: a mad scientist and his creation. (They sold the Pinocchio motif pretty hard in the trailers. That’s kinda what I’m getting at.) Develop a dynamic between the two. Ultron starts out like a child, an information sponge but capable of rapid learning. Have Ultron stumble, have Tony teach him things, impart a bit of his own personality into his new creation. Demonstrate a father-son relationship.

Eventually, have Ultron start thinking on his own, making decisions, ones that Tony doesn’t necessarily agree with. Create a rift between the characters, fundamental differences in thinking. Ultron becomes more calculating. Maybe he starts to see Tony’s tolerance for excess and inexactness and starts making assumptions about the rest of humanity. “The world needs order. The world needs rules…” Ultron might assume. Maybe he witnesses Tony and Steve Rodgers arguing and decides that the world needs better protectors than squabbling misfit heroes.

Now you’ve got a strong foundation on which to hang the rest of your movie. Ultron’s insurrection feels more personal, like a rebellion. His motivations are more organic than just: “kill all humans.” Plus, you set up more compelling questions for the Avengers themselves to answer, too. Now they have to deal with a force that they had nothing to with and one that was created by one of their own behind their backs. You’ll have jealousy, confusion, resentment. Bruce Banner will have the obvious reservations: science run amok, and so forth. Captain America will see Tony as reckless and a wedge driving the team apart, setting up their inevitable falling out. Thor will warn Tony that meddling in galactic affairs may bring danger none of them can even imagine…

Joss, my man. Did you just shoot the first draft, or what? Didn’t want anyone to proofread it, huh? He should have axed half the other characters, too: Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver. At least give The Vision something more to do than nothing.

Seriously, what a wasted opportunity. THE VISION. The second try. Tony fucked it up the first time with Ultron. Ultron’s gotten too strong to contain. He could’ve been driven not just by principles but by hatred and misunderstanding. The perfect opportunity to put all your remaining eggs in one basket and go for broke. Force Tony to do the unthinkable and go back to the drawing board and get it right this time. That would have been dramatic. That would have been awesome and terrifying.

All of that did kinda happen. But it was neutered by a weak story and even weaker character development. And why does Thor all of a sudden “have a vision”? Hasn’t Paul Bettany been playing Iron Man’s suit for the last like, five films? According to the logic of the films The Vision is entirely Tony Stark’s creation. What does Thor have to do with JARVIS at all? It’s comic book fan service shit and it totally detracted from the film.

Anyway. There are problems. The movie is too “on” all the time. It’s too dense and structured really thinly. There’s no tension and release, no emotional highs and lows. You can’t have a satisfying conclusion without first building tension. The Hulkbuster fight should have been the centerpiece of the entire movie. Instead it felt flat and frenetically samey like every other action scene, like someone yelling in a crowd. And they literally destroyed a building. Oops! Sorry. No consequences. Let’s all congratulate the Avengers for “actually saving people” at the end despite engaging in domestic terrorism elsewhere… That’s why the opening scene sucked. It signaled an emphasis on stringing together little moments for the audience instead of crafting a compelling story. “Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep…”

I’m not in a hurry to see it again. At least not until it’s on TV or something. Kinda getting superhero-fatigued, if I’m honest. But then what to I know about anything? Marvel’s just printed another billion dollars to put in the kitty. Hook, line, sinker.

When’s Civil War, again?

The American: Cold, Calculated

George Clooney, Violante Placido

The American is a quiet drama about a gunsmith who sells his services to spies and covert operatives. It stars George Clooney as a basically nameless man at the end of a long career, at a loss for what he cares for most.

This is not an action movie. Clooney is not youthfully overpowering and vengeful like Jason Bourne. He has a quiet calculation and cool that clearly comes from decades of experience. He talks muzzle velocity and magazine capacity like others talk about the weather. He doesn’t question his associate’s request to fire rounds just over her shoulder from long range because it’s most likely not an unusual request.

This is about the fictionalized unseen side of espionage, then. That man that handed James Bond a manila envelope just before he got in a taxi and sped away? That man was in India too, staying in a nondescript room, avoiding locals and biding his time until he was needed for his mission. What’s his day-to-day? Does he frequent coffee shops or whore houses? How does he like his tea? It’s an interesting take on the genre that doesn’t get much exposure.

Clooney’s gunsmith is an empty man. At this point in his life, though long and colorful, he has nothing to care about, nothing of value he’s brought from place to place. So he’s grasping for some modicum of want and companionship.

He eventually develops feelings for a tragically stuck prostitute named Clara. Playing the whore with a heart of gold, that she would spark some type of passion in his life fits. The gunsmith doesn’t need a woman to love full-time. The hole in his heart searches for any out-of-the-ordinary kindness, which is why why he grows fond for a woman who is merely honest and forward with him. He mingles with the town’s priest against the warning of his employer for the same reason. The lone wolf nearing the end of his life begins to realize that he’s lonely.

The American is a beautifully shot study about how even inconsequential men need some semblance of meaning in their life. Clooney’s cold-blooded craftsman needed to know that his panicked, grizzly death would amount to something more than a newspaper footnote. If he could flicker hope in the heart of his and another’s soul then his meaningless life wouldn’t have been for naught.

Watchmen: Who’s Watching?

Jackie Earl Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a Watchman fan. The graphic novel was put in my hands a couple of years ago and I enjoyed it very much. The book resonates with people, and is deservedly the ultimate example of graphic novel as legitimate literature. But that’s as far as I go with the Watchmen.

I say that because a large part of the backlash the film received upon release stemmed from differences in the adaptation. Of course, “the book is always better, blah, blah, blah.” There will always be those people. And when they’re comic book nerds, it’s an uphill battle with a tornado at the top. Just look at Ben Affleck. The Middle East is exploding and everyone’s mad about Batman. Anyway, I’d like to think I’m about as neutral a party as one can get with regards to reviewing the film. I’m initiated, but not fanatic. So let’s go.

If you haven’t seen it, Watchman is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. It centers around a group of former “masked heroes” in an alternate 1985. The Cold War rages on; the world waits with baited breath as the nuclear clock counts the minutes to midnight. It’s complicated, visually spectacular and populated with conflicted heroes dealing with irrelevancy, old age, abandonment, and weakness in the face of global destruction.

One the perennial criticisms of the comic is that it was considered almost “unfilmable.” Admittedly, the book is non-linear, covering two generations of heroes, and peppered with various interludes (and a comic-within-a-comic) that would probably break any sort of thematic momentum in a movie. But director Zack Snyder wisely condenses the Watchmen’s early adventures and history into the opening credits. It’s important to show that these people have been molded by and live in this world. In the case of Dr. Manhattan of course, the world has bent to his influence. But it’s not an origin story, thankfully. More than the book, which is written as much more of an epic, the film feels appropriately like the coda to these people’s lives. They lived; their parents and mentors lived. They were done with this sort of thing. The film captures that reluctance well, particularly in the relationship with Nite Owl and Rorschach.

Rorschach is front and center here, a ruthlessly principled vigilante hellbent on discovering who’s been murdering costumed heroes. Played by Jackie Earl Haley, he’s the best part of the film and is pitch perfect as the sociopath antihero. Rorschach has lived on the street for years, cultivating a sharp misanthropy and bitterness toward his former crime-fighting partners, whom he believes have abandoned him by giving up their capes. He shows up from time to time to steal food and act ornery. After Nite Owl and Silk Spectre rekindle an old flame and get a taste for the violent fun they used to enjoy, they spring Rorschach from prison and bring him back to Nite Owl’s lair. The two men’s subsequent butting of heads is my favorite scene because both men eventually come to understand each other and form a friendship. Nite Owl realizes the loneliness that Rorschach must have been bottling up and Rorschach accepts that despite his moral resolution, it’s necessary to forgive in order to repair relationships. It’s a good moment.

Now, this wouldn’t be a Watchmen review without some discussion of the ending. If you haven’t seen it, there will be SPOILERS to follow. You’ve been warned.

In the comic, the world comes together to fight the universal threat of alien invasion as a way to end the escalating global conflict. A giant alien squid is dropped into the middle of New York and rampages through the city. Ozymandias, pulling the strings, aims to end the Cold War by forcing the superpowers to put aside their differences and battle the alien menace. The reasoning being that an extraterrestrial threat is apolitical and therefore humanity’s obligation. It’s always struck me as a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s clever, but to my knowledge the squid idea was never strongly foreshadowed in the rest of the book. The film’s approach was much simpler and more in line with the universe. The world of course feared Dr. Manhattan, the god-like being able to affect matter and time at his will. The Cold War stuck around largely because of the world’s trepidation of his being used as a weapon of American hegemony. It makes more sense then to illustrate Dr. Manhattan as the lightning rod he is and rally the world against him than it does to distract by introducing an outside threat. The film makes very clear that his continued presence is the reason for the crescendoing global panic. It keeps the story simpler and more self-contained, which works to it’s advantage.

It is interesting though, why Zack Snyder would choose to do it. Otherwise, the film is a carbon copy of the book. As I understand it, he used much of the comic’s panels to frame his shots. It certainly mirrors the lovely color palette and art direction. Again, Rorschach looks lifted from the page. So with such singular dedication to detail and tonal preservation, it seems odd to jettison the ending. It nevertheless works better.

So watch the Watchmen. It’s fun, entertaining, and probably the best it’s going to be. Which is to say that it’s very good, all things considered. As a lesson in boiling down a book to fit a movie that works, it should be taught in film school.

Skyfall: Review

Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem

While it hasn’t benefited from decades of rose-colored glasses and nostalgia like others, Goldfinger and From Russia with Love, for example, Skyfall nevertheless is by far the best James Bond film. The most competently made, the most reverential in tone, it is a high-quality film and the most compelling installment of the canon to date.

Directed by Sam Mendes, Skyfall is exciting, fun, and reverent. It treats its source material with a respectful eye, nodding to such staples as Bond’s car of choice, his iconic weapon, and his women. It excels in deftly blending nostalgic homage with modern sensibility. Here, Bond is broken, beaten, and lost. And that’s where it went wrong for some people.

But I disagree. In fact it needed to happen. When Casino Royale opened in 2006, it was a revelation. Fast, high-octane; Daniel Craig was dynamic and believable as a rough-around-the-edges, post-911 version of the Cold-War horse. His Bond wasn’t suave. He wore his wounds openly and spoke without flourish. He projected a muscular, powerful presence; his hair was not quaffed but short and utilitarian. He was calculating, lethal, and his reckless resolve resulted in mounting collateral damage. It was fresh and incredible.

Compare that to Bond’s previous outing, Die Another Day. In it, 007 literally base jump-surfs down a frozen waterfall and drives an invisible car into a fortress made of ice, later microwaved from space. It was silly, and audiences today simply don’t buy such fantastic, illogical set-pieces anymore. Plus the decade’s old continuity of the franchise was becoming something of a punchline. Bond’s getting older, yet is being played by successively younger actors.

Casino Royale was a necessary restart. Daniel Craig’s Bond is not going to make a quick escape on a jet pack or slide a boat over a wedding. He’ll parkour all over a construction site and dodge sabotaged subway trains spilling through caverns like liquid, but his adventures are rooted in some semblance of logical reality.

But the new continuity came dangerously close to jumping the shark with Casino Royale‘s sequel, Quantum of Solace. It was bad. Of course, the film comes with an asterisk, being a victim of the Writer’s Strike. But it was weak in a number of ways in spite of that. (I like to think of it as a coda of sorts to Casino Royale, not a complete movie. It helps.) For starters, it was edited together at a bewilderingly rapid clip. The quick cuts confused my sense of geography within the scene. They were also incongruous; without explanation Bond is suddenly jumping his motorcycle onto a field of small boats. A chase sequence is for no reason inter cut with a race.

The direction was illogical, as well. Bond waits outside a locked gate, clearly far enough away to be out of earshot. The audience is treated to a boring, lengthy bit of expository dialogue, to which Bond then responds to as if he had heard the whole thing. It isn’t even original. It borrowed its personal redemption ending from The Bourne Ultimatum, a superior film.

So here’s where Skyfall‘s stylistic choices begin to make sense. The story needed a reboot, ironically enough. The rote action movie that was Quantum of Solace came from a creator who didn’t get it, didn’t get the magic of what made Daniel Craig’s Bond so much fun. In order to get back to that realistic setup, Skyfall‘s filmmakers understood that it required deconstructing the character and building him back up within the construct of the real world.

Skyfall is about the end of the classic spy era, or at least the romantic expression of it. It’s fitting that Daniel Craig is growing weary of the role. He’s looking older, more used up. The physicality of the job is becoming more of a challenge. That’s exactly how Bond should be feeling. He’s slowly being outmoded by technology and enemies that operate hidden in plain site, not abstractly from elaborate lairs. Today’s villains aren’t plotting world domination, they’re after money and inciting regional conflicts. Bond’s skills as a shoot-first arbiter and high-society butterfly are no longer useful to an infinitely more complex and grey world. It’s no longer strategically sound to storm into a heavily guarded fortress. He’s learning that falling back to familiar ground to make a stand can be more effective. Even Agent Q’s job doesn’t exist anymore. Covert operations don’t really need a plucky old man tinkering with fantastic do-dads in a basement. They need brilliant twenty-somethings, programmers, no-nonsense.

It’s the execution of the past-meets-present premise that elevates this film above all the others. The tone more closely matches the stakes the character faces everyday.

The classic James Bond is a protagonist steeped in Cold War-era mythology, West vs. East, capitalism vs. communism. However we live in a radically different world today where simplistic good vs. evil themes don’t resonate with audiences like they once did. Villains today are often victims themselves; heroes are flawed and irrational. Bond as the man’s man about town, a caricature, doesn’t jive with the realistic setting. He, like other protagonists, must deal with struggles and shortcomings that inform his actions and philosophies.

It breaks down like this: Daniel Craig’s Bond is a man who’s trained his entire life to become a highly skilled specialist only to be beaten by the changing times. As Skyfall progresses, the plot ratchets down the action intentionally. The biggest action scene is the opener whereas the finale is low-key and personal. He’s his action-hero self before he gets shot, reckless and unfaltering. But by the end of the film, Bond’s had to readjust his expectations of success and deal with the inevitability of his inadequacy. He’s reluctantly come to the realization that brute force and blunt thuggery are the tools of a younger man, a man he no longer is.

I’d like to see the sequel take this into consideration, Bond’s age handicapping his acrobatic abilities to the point of doing damage, of blowback. A protagonist who previously relied on physical strength and power to achieve his ends, now having to cope with that lost ability, would make for a compelling Bond film. A film like From Russia with Love, for example, low key to a fault and linear in story.

What I most like about Skyfall is its maturity. It’s the best Bond film because it features all the classic 007 elements, but seats them firmly in the present and makes that conflict central to the story. Bond is dealing with obsolescence and age while MI6 itself is proving incompetent in the face of universal accountability and instant technology. It’s story is grounded in human emotion; it’s action is logical and in service of the story. And it’s finally gotten the Bond Girl right. And it’s not Moneypenny or Severine. It’s M. Intelligent and well-written, M in Skyfall is at last a worthy companion to the modern James Bond. She’s cold but trusting. She’s encouraging, authoritative, a mentor, and a surrogate mother all at once. She’s a female character with complex motivations, wants, and wit to match the male protagonist’s. You know, how woman actually are.

It’s about time, too. Maybe audiences don’t buy straight-laced heroes like Superman any more, but we definitely don’t abide subservient damsels in distress anymore. And that’s progress.