Argo (2012)

In previous reviews I’ve talked about how true stories are sometimes more intriguing and exciting than those dreamt up by a writer supping malibu by his pool in Malibu. The Imposter, for instance, was a riveting film that was made all the more enjoyable because you knew it was true. Although Argo is very much dramatised, with genuine actors unlike The Imposter, it still sits in the same vein. And it also comes with Ben Affleck both in front of and behind the camera – a guy who’s seeming like he can do no wrong any more. Add to that it’s a spy story, at a time when James Bond is dominating the box office, and you’ve got to wonder if Affleck can romance the crowds against the bang and bravado of Skyfall… So… can he?

Affleck vs Craig: One Spy To Rule Them All.

Firstly, if you’ve read my review of James Bond’s latest, Skyfall, you’ll be aware that I thought it was OK, but overall was very underwhelming. Especially against the backdrop of all the hype and fanfare it’s receiving. Argo is a different customer entirely. It doesn’t feature a slick British agent cavorting around the world, nor does it feature a “super-villain” in the same pantomime way as Bond. What it does offer is perhaps the best spy-related film of the year.

Argo, which is based on a true story, follows the attempts to rescue a set of US embassy workers that are trapped inside of a revolutionary Iran, where the Great Satan (aka USA) is vilified and hated by all. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) of the CIA concocts a way to evacuate them: by getting them to pose as a Canadian film crew that are doing reconnaissance for a sci-fi film known as Argo. Whilst in the US, Mendez puts together a team of  Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) to set all the wheels in motion for this film that will never be made. Whilst liberties have been taken (such as Lester Siegel being fictitious), the plot follows the actual events of the 1979-1981 crisis.

Affleck & Cranston: Two of a fantastic cast.

I’m tempted now to throw down a list of all the brilliant actors in this film, such as Bryan Cranston and Zeljko Ivanek, but I’ll have to resist. Needless to say you’ll be seeing faces you will and won’t recognise. Some with a keener eye for cinema may spot actors from this year’s Killing Them Softly (Scoot McNairy) and 1998’s The Faculty (Clea DuVall), all donning very late 1970’s attire and hair. There are no weak links in this acting chain.

If you don’t know where I’m going with this, then let me explain: the characters and acting are fantastic. Ben Affleck yet again shows us that he’s a truly talented guy, both in front and behind the camera. It seemed for a while that his old buddy Matt Damon may have truly ridden away into the sunset in terms of great roles and great performances, but boy… Affleck is good. Really good. Kudos also has to go to the screenplay writers here too. The movie has tension in spades, but also has some guffaw-inducing humour – normally coming from either John Goodman or Alan Arkin. Both are on top form and their comic “old school Hollywood” personalities really shine through on that script. Also providing a not-safe-for-children’s-eyes catchphrase that you’ll no doubt utter as you leave the screening.

“Argof’yourself!”

Although I can’t talk much about the plot, as it’d spoil everything, I can say that I found the film riveting. I didn’t ever find myself bored or distracted. I was fully absorbed for the full 120 minute runtime. Also, with the events occurring a few years before me even being born, I can’t quite comment on the accuracy of events. I could go and read all the documents that were declassified by Bill Clinton back in the 1990’s, but I think I’d prefer to have “this” version of events as my canon. I’m sure that the film has been bent and adapted to make it more appealing to cinema-goers, but I’d genuinely believe this is “based on a true story”… and not in the same way that Paranormal Activity is “based on a true story”. That and it’s actually really good.

Skyfall may be what all the press and your friends are talking about right now. They may all be heaping praise on the film too. But Bond’s been beaten hands down by Ben Affleck‘s Argo. There’s no hamfisted plot twists, no weak characterisation and no product placement. What Argo delivers is a captivating true story with some of the best performances we’ve seen in this end of 2012. It also features far funnier lines than anything in Bond’s recent repertoire too.

If this is spy season at the cinema (after the summer’s superhero season, and mid-October’s animated-horror season), then there can only be one film you’ll need to see, and it’s not the one featuring a guy who likes his Martini “shaken, not stirred”. Once again, the truth is way more exciting than fiction.

Phage Factor:

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Skyfall (2012)

The UK has several proud traditions. We have given the world fish and chips as a Friday night dinner treat. We’ve birthed such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Russell Brand. And we pretty much introduced civilisation and culture to most of the known world via our Empire. OK, maybe not all of those are “proud traditions”, but there are several things you’d associate with the United Kingdom. One of our other contributions to the world is one of the best loved spies: one that’s been gracing our screens for 50 years. He may have changed his appearance several times and has been through the good times and bad times, but we’ve always had James Bond to rely on. But with Skyfall, has the time come for the most famous British spy to retire, or should he carry on fighting for Her Majesty?

I don’t think I need to give any clarification of who James Bond (Daniel Craig) is, or what he does. He’s one of the most referenced cultural icons of the 20th and 21st Century. Our latest foray into his world sees Bond pit against Javier Bardem‘s Silva – a guy with a bit of a vendetta against M (Judi Dench) – the head of MI6. What follows is a global romp that sees Bond take in such exotic locations as Shanghai and, erm, Scotland, in an attempt to rid the world of yet another villainous ne’er-do-well.

So far, so good. With Bond you know what you’re going to get right? Bond is inevitably going to have to face off against a “bad guy”. Bond movies are pretty much like a comic book movie – you know what you’re going to get. However, even holding that in mind, I can’t say I was as enamoured with Skyfall as the mass media make out you should be. The UK media has rabidly covered Skyfall calling it “the best Bond ever” and hailing it as a masterpiece. I can’t say I agree. I unduly allowed my expectations to be raised as a result of all this press, but I wish I hadn’t.

So why? Where’s the problem? For me it breaks down to two salient points: poor pacing and characters. In terms of the pacing, I found the first third of the film incredibly slow to develop. Sure, you get the archetypal opening frenzy of action to suck you in, as every action movie worth its chops has. But then it slows and chugs along as we await the introduction of Javier Bardem. Now, this brings in point number two. Bardem‘s opening scene was fabulous and his monologue was delivered incredibly well – I thought “OK, here we go – NOW we’re onto something!”… but this broke down due to flaws in this character’s actions.

For all intents and purposes, Bardem‘s Silva is a technological marvel. One that can manipulate systems at a whim and collapse governments with his abilities. Does this remind you of a villain from elsewhere? How about Timothy Olyphant‘s villain in Die Hard 4? And his flaws are the same as Bardem‘s – namely, this guy is a technologically-bent villain. Therefore why bring yourself into the field of play with a John McClane or James Bond – someone with a very special set of skills in close quarters? You cannot compete. I understand Bardem‘s “personal vendetta”, but regardless, there are better ways of dealing with situations and some of his choices are very farcical for such a “sophisticated” villain.

Linked to this is the fact that the writers seem to have been heavily inspired by the work of Christopher Nolan in the past few years. Silva ultimately comes off as a cross between Oliphant‘s technical wizard and Heath Ledger‘s unhinged Joker, but falls short of the latter. He is nowhere near as threatening a madman as Ledger‘s Joker, nor are his plans as intelligent. Whilst I’m on a character-driven analysis, I’ve got to say a huge “huh?” at the “Bond girl” of the piece: Severin (Bérénice Marlohe). She’s not a driven, independent woman. She’s a slave and someone who’s been brutalised sexually in the past. It sounds like she’s had a horrible life. So you’ve really got to question what the hell Bond is doing getting “intimate” with her when you hold her background in mind. Sure James, she’s a stunning lady, but do you really think that’s what she wants?!

And finally I come to Daniel Craig‘s Bond. I can’t fault him as an actor. His Bond is most definitely “his”, but I still think Casino Royale was the better of Craig‘s entries in the role so far. The criticisms of his other entries, namely his more gritty approach, are as true here as ever. Bond fans looking for a return to the quippy Bond of yesteryear will still be disappointed, although there is a good deal of humour in the film which provides some lovely moments. I don’t personally hold these issues with Craig‘s Bond, as each actor has brought his own take on the role and Craig definitely rejuvenated the franchise after Pierce Brosnan‘s less than impressive final entries. So although I’m not going to extol the virtues of this film, as some others may, I can say that this is yet another strong entry from Daniel Craig in a perfectly serviceable Bond film. Avid Bond fans will love it, but the more casual viewer may have one or two issues…

Skyfall definitely makes up for the misstep that was Quantum of Solace, but failed to captivate me in the way that Casino Royale did. So in my humble opinion, this isn’t the “best Bond ever”, but then again, I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of the Bond franchise. I think my biggest obsession came with Nintendo’s Goldeneye video game in the late 1990’s, where I spent countless hours chasing after Sean Bean‘s 006 through Russia and getting constantly annoyed by Boris declaring “I am invincible!” at every opportunity with his brick-esque head right up in my face.

Ultimately, Bond continues to be one of those characters we can be most proud of, and the latest instalment in the franchise is by no means the worst and is definitely in the top quarter of the 23. All the acting is solid and the plot is fair enough. It’s just a shame that the writing was sub-standard and let the film down. It’s akin to having fish and chips with no mushy peas. Sure, we like the fish and chips, but you cannot miss out the mushy peas.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star