4 posts categorized "Spy Thriller"

July 25, 2018

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT

Mission_impossible__falloutMI6 fulfills everything the Mission: Impossible franchise has to offer if not much more. Tom Cruise’s frequent directorial collaborator and “Fallout” co-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” and “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation”) orchestrates the film’s overblown action with meticulous attention to detail, perhaps a little too much.

The car chase sequences, while impressive, don’t come near the unpredictable nature of the one William Friedkin filmed for “To Live and Die in L.A.” Still, there is plenty of splashy gravity defying spectacle to wash over you as you watch a movie that was clearly made with an IMAX screen in mind. The stunts are gut wrenching, and the helicopter stunts are out of this world.

You need every inch of that 80’ by 100’ IMAX screen to experience what the filmmakers have in mind, which is to blow yours. Another trip through the editing process would have helped tighten the pace but no one is coming out of this film not feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth.

Fallout

The politics of the MacGuffin-laden plot are sufficiently bland so that no audience member feels left out or put upon regardless of their political leanings. Even anarchists should feel right at home with this film’s cartoonish narrative design since the villain here is a Ted Kaczynski knock off. Bad guy number one has a crew of “Apostles” helping him destroy world order. Don’t worry, there’s only one bloody scene in the whole movie, and the rest of the violence is strictly of the cartoon variety. Our height-challenged action man Ethan Hunt (Cruise) still receives his mission assignments in the same old-school method of a self-destructing reel-to-reel tape.

MI6

Considering the franchise landscape at hand, what surprises most are the casting choices that fail. Alec Baldwin’s IMF character Alan Hunley (Ethan’s boss) seems like he walked onto the wrong set on the day he needed to shoot the handful of scenes he’s in. However, Baldwin does deliver one primo piece of acting while performing one of dramaturgy’s most traditional tropes. No plot spoiler here; you’ll know it when you see it. Angela Bassett also falls flat, regardless of her ageless beauty, as CIA director Erica Sloan. Bassett’s tempo and tone don’t match with the movie as a whole.

Mission-impossible-fallout

What does work in the character department is the reliable chemistry between Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Tom Cruise. Here is an onscreen friendship that feels like an old pair of slip-on house shoes. Michelle Monaghan is as perfect as it gets for onscreen romance. No shortage of mask disguises provides a series of nods to the original “Mission: Impossible” television show, while providing the movie with some nifty plot twists that register with an added amount of humor. And yes the super-action men's room fistfight is a hoot.

“Mission: Impossible” is the closest thing Hollywood has to a James Bond franchise it’s got going, and going it is. Tom Cruise will soon be too old to play the part of a stunt-happy super spy. Get it while you can on the biggest IMAX screen you can find.  

Not rated. 147 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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November 08, 2015

SPECTRE

Spectre-Poster

With his name prominently displayed as one of “Spectre’s” producers, Daniel Craig puts more than just his skin in the game of perpetuating cinema’s best-loved franchise. Craig’s explosive interpretation of 007 is the high watermark of the modern James Bond era, whose other incarnations include Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan. Don’t believe the publicity hype about Daniel Craig leaving the franchise. He’s in it for one if not two more James Bond features.

Craig’s steely pale blue eyes express and much as they conceal. His Bond is an inscrutable product of tightly wound instinct. He’s part animal. Where Craig’s last Bond outing (“Skyfall”) went operatically melodramatic, “Spectre” races into the throat of modern global villainy, namely a British version of the NSA. Who doesn’t want to see those surveillance-greedy hogs get their comeuppance? Bond’s unusual childhood also provides character clues related to this film’s criminal mastermind Franz Oberhauser (reliably played for kicks by Christoph Waltz). More gleeful than vicious, Waltz savors every smarmy word that Franz speaks to the spy he wants to torture to death (for personal and professional reasons), in the presence of his white Persian cat that Bond calls “pussy.” Bond’s girlfriend of the moment is also a witness to proceedings involving a power drill with a skinny but long bit. 

For the series’ 24th installment, “Spectre’s” four screenwriters create a brilliant tapestry of lavish style, sly humor, requisite flashy international locations, and eye-popping action sequences to check every innumerable box of the franchise’s simple-but-complex formula. At a well-used 148-minute running time, “Spectre” lives up to its promise. 

Bond

The car chases could be better, but I’m quibbling. Sam Smith commits a far greater sin with one of the series worst theme songs in movie history. “Writing’s on the Wall” is so unlistenable it’s sickening. Why the filmmakers didn’t go with an appropriate band like Ladytron (check out Destroy Everything You Touch) is beyond logic. Note to Bond’s producers, hire Ladytron for the next one, okay? 

“Spectre’s” obligatory opening action sequence occurs in Mexico City where Bond is on an assassination mission during Mexico City’s annual Day of the Dead parade. Death’s celebration creates a chaotic if visually stunning palate of skeleton-costumed crowds of thousands. Italian mafia kingpin Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) is Bond’s elusive target. Your palms will be sweating by the time Bond boards a helicopter in pursuit of his human prey. Returning franchise director Sam Mendes milks every visually arresting spectacle for all its potential to stun his audience. The doorless helicopter hovers low over an enormous crowd of revelers in the town’s massive Zocalo Square. The chopper spins and flips above, tossing Bond and Sciarra around the cabin like rag dolls. This astonishing sequence alone is worth the film’s price of admission. Your heart will race. 

Lea Sedoux

Bond’s latest M (toughly played by Ralph Fiennes) is none too pleased about his spy’s problematic actions in Mexico that brought down an entire building. An injected tracking device insures that even MI5’s creepy overtaking superior “C” Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) can track him wherever he goes. C is a pure manifestation of the kind of boy-scout sociopath you might imagine wiling away their hours at the NSA by listening to civilians having phone sex, or looking at their nude photos. You can guess how Bond translates the “C.” 007 taps back-channel favors from his pals Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) Q (Ben Whishaw) to enable a journey of discovery stained with blood and vodka. Frequent wardrobe changes come gratis.

Witty references to Bond’s past make for fun inside jokes for loyal audiences. The romance that steams between Bond and French beauty Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann barely allows a glimpse of the spy’s ostensibly soft side. It also gives Seydoux room to spread her wings. The pairing is oddly perfect. “Spectre” is an incredibly entertaining and fun movie. Isn’t that what James Bond movies are all about? 

Spectre

Rated PG-13. 148 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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July 21, 2014

A MOST WANTED MAN

Skin Game
Post-9/11 & Pre-Snowden Spy Thriller Speaks German

Most Wanted ManAnton Corbjin’s unconventional post-9/11 spy thriller (based on a 2008 John le Carré novel) remains an engaging experience despite numerous aspects that weigh it down. Notably, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last performances — here as a German spook — arrives with the bittersweet realization that the late actor was no longer in full command of his acting skills when the film was made.

Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, the acting head of an elite government-controlled anti-terror spy unit based in Hamburg. Given his previous performances, Hoffman’s waning German accent and distracted delivery is at times painful to witness. Still, this naturally gifted actor keeps it together enough to support the slow-simmering storyline around him.

The film’s lack of a clear protagonist, much less a viable antagonist, proves to be its biggest stumbling block. The screenwriter (Andrew Bovel) didn’t effectively adapt le Carré’s book to\ proper script form. Nonetheless, Anton Corbjin’s experience as a still photographer — his black-and-white photos of rock stars were featured prominently in New Musical Express for years — contributes greatly to sustaining suspense. Corbijn’s appropriately formal compositions and fluid camerawork evoke a calculated coldness germane to the nature of espionage to keep the audience hooked up until the film’s climatic revelation. 

The modern day narrative begins with the arrival in Hamburg of an undocumented Chechen immigrant. With a scruffy beard and hooded head, the 26-year-old Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) appears from the outside to be a made-to-order Islamist terrorist. Add to Issa’s menacing appearance the fact that he spent the last dozen or so years imprisoned and tortured in Russian and Turkish prisons, and you have the perfect recipe for a radicalized personality ready to snap.

Ironically, it’s Issa Karpov’s possible access to his deceased father’s fortune that facilitates his greatest threat to the Western world. Issa’s old man was a hired assassin in thick with the head of one of Germany’s most powerful private banks. Issa has a letter from his father, and a banking “instrument,” that promises to provide him with tens of millions of Euros if the bank will honor his claim. Issa wants to give the money to Muslim “charities” — code for “terrorist” organizations.

After securing lodging with a Turkish family, Issa receives much-needed assistance from Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a naïve attorney for a human rights organization. Annabel is out of her depth, and soon becomes co-opted by Günther Bachmann’s time-sensitive operation to cooperate with surveilling the “most wanted” man — a man she genuinely wants to protect. 

Most Wanted“A Most Wanted Man” is a dense think piece about the scale, scope, and ethically dubious practices of the American government’s intelligence operations abroad — specifically in Germany.

Written before Edward Snowden’s ongoing disclosures of NSA documents and inspired by the pre-9/11 "Hamburg Cell," the film is hamstrung by being too far behind the times. Martha Sullivan (Robyn Wright) is a high-ranking CIA spy adept at playing all the angles to get what she wants regardless of what bridges she burns. Wright’s ruthless character seems to have much in common with the two US spies recently expelled from Germany for just such practices. Germany may well be asking itself, who needs enemies with these kinds of allies around?

Rated R. 121 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 20, 2014

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT

James Bond’s Placeholder
Chris Pine Does the Heavy Lifting

Jack-ryanFor a decidedly no-frills spy thriller, Kenneth Branagh directs a respectable rendering of Tom Clancy’s shop-worn Jack Ryan superspy character. Still, Branagh is no action-film director, and it shows. Chase scenes cut away too quickly for the audience to savor the dogfights on display — as when Jack (Chris Pine) rides a motorcycle at a 120-degree angle against a concrete lane divider in hot pursuit of a bomb-packing terrorist. What should be a heart-in-your-mouth moment gets lost in a throwaway quick-cut. Equally to blame for its systematic failings are the film’s screenwriters. Adam Cozad and David Koepp get in over their heads in attempting to construct a narrative based on Tom Clancy's characters, rather than on a specific novel by the deceased right-wing author. Every plot point has a mechanical feel to it. Narrative gears grind. Even when the action heats up, it doesn’t always carry over into the scenes that follow.

As the title suggests, the story tells the onset of Jack Ryan’s career as a covert CIA operative. A drawn-out yet busy first act introduces Jack as a mathematical whiz kid who also happens to be a fit physical specimen. Chris Pine proves to be a casting coup. He’s a powerhouse actor along the lines of George Clooney. As with his impressive work in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise, he carries a grounded sense of gravitas. Pine puts a fresh face on the Jack Ryan mantle formerly worn by Alec Baldwin (“The Hunt for Red October”), Harrison Ford (“Patriot Games”), and Ben Affleck (“The Sum of All Fears”). He’s better than all of those portrayals combined. Pine’s Jack Ryan has the intellectual persuasiveness to balance the boyish twinkle in his eye. There’s a hint of easygoing humor that resonates against the nuance-free politicized material on hand.

Ryan falls romantically for his physical-therapy doctor Cathy (Keira Knightley) after a helicopter crash in Afghanistan leaves him barely able to walk. Knightly and Pine don’t share the strongest onscreen chemistry but the pairing is serviceable enough. As Ryan’s secrecy about his day job tests Cathy’s trust, his immersion as a point-of-the-spear spy deepens. Jack’s patriarchal CIA mentor Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) assigns him a trip to Moscow to head off a Russian plot to crumple the US economy led by banking mastermind Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). A first-kill sequence inside Jack’s Moscow hotel suite steals liberally from “Casino Royal” — the James Bond picture that established Daniel Craig as the new face of 007. Still, it makes the point that Jack is equipped to handle surprises.   

Branagh’s acting duty as Russian baddie Viktor Cherevin allows the classically trained actor to melt scenery with a thick accent that withers those of weak constitutions. Jack Ryan is immune. Branagh’s tightly wound performance is a cool reminder of what actors mean when they talk about creating a character. Viktor is so diabolically evil you can’t help falling for Branagh’s slow-burn intensity. One scene in particular — in which he tortures a female hostage with a fluorescent light bulb in the back of a moving van — is delightfully reptilian.

Branagh, the director, shrewdly veils Viktor’s evil persona in a shroud of mystery. Another layer of intrigue arrives in the form of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s uncredited role as a ruthless Russian mob boss. Between them Branagh and Baryshnikov create a credibly malevolent climate of simmering violence.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is little more than a filmic placeholder until the next as-yet-untitled James Bond picture arrives in October of 2015. It may be a pale substitute, but “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” nevertheless gets the job done.

Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

 



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