Mission Impossible Fallout: the best one yet?

We were first introduced to super spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in the first Mission Impossible in 1996 (directed by Brian de Palma), and it represented a bit of a departure for Cruise. His last film credited film before that was Interview with the Vampire (1994) and, with maybe the exception of Top Gun, he’d not really done action before.

Not that the first Mission was big on action, it was more a spy thriller with an action feel. And it’s fair to say the franchise has grown and morphed over the years. It switched gears, opting for full blown action for the second film and hasn’t looked back.

Now a juggernaut blockbuster, a huge part of the franchise’s success has been down to Cruise driving it, such is his star power.

For the sixth instalment, Fallout, Christopher McQuarrie returned as director (the first to do so), and went about giving it a different look and feel to his last film, Rogue Nation. The main premise here being the ‘fallout’ from all Ethan’s prior missions. So, in terms of setup (not that it matters much), we learn that Ethan’s team have lost three nuclear weapons which, obviously, they’d like back before a terrorist group called ‘the apostles’ decide to unleash them – as is the way with bad guys.

Blaming Ethan for losing the nukes is CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Basset), who decides to pair him up with Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to ensure the job gets properly. Ethan’s a scalpel and Walker is a blunt hammer. They immediately butt heads, but both grudgingly accepting that they have the same goal.

Cut to a trial by fire for Walker, who has to immediately proceed with a halo jump out of a plane over Paris for his first mission with Hunt, infiltrating a fancy party to make contact with a lead that should get them closer to the nukes. And whether it’s intensely visceral brawls in bathrooms, foot or motorbike or car chases, Cruise is at the heart of it all.

Now, we know he does all his own stunts, and a major part of the appeal of watching these films is wondering what crazy stuff he’ll do next. To the point where you find yourself exclaiming, ‘Oh my God, that’s Tom Cruise, he’s running across the top of Blackfriars bridge in London! He’s really doing it!’ This happens multiple times – often within a single scene.

The clever thing the filmmakers have managed to pull off is finding new and inventive ways in which to get from one action set piece to the next. And new ways in which to put Tom Cruise is perilous situations. You can almost imagine the headlines, ‘Tom Cruise died filming the latest Mission Impossible.’ Whilst it would be sad news indeed, it wouldn’t be hugely shocking. Probably with people saying, ‘Well, it’s the way he would have wanted to go.’

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Mission films are now a finely tuned machine. The action is tangible, visceral and exciting, and if CGI is used, it’s hard to pinpoint where or when. Indeed, McQuarrie manages to get a number of the action set pieces to feel like Christopher Nolan put them together, which is high praise indeed.

Then there’s the storytelling.
Yes, these films are action blockbusters, but they also feel like they deliver on character in a dynamic way. Never did I suffer from action fatigue, or feel that any character moments were being shoehorned into the story between the car chases and explosions, it all felt organic and well put together.

To the point where I’m comfortable saying that this is the best Mission yet.
Mr Cruise, I look forward to seeing what you’ll do for the next one, should you choose to accept it.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

Zap! Crash! Whack! That’s how the old Batman TV show went. And, in 2016, you could say nothing much has changed. At least near the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those not in the know, this film is a continuation of DC Comics’ universe – in terms of picking up the story following events in Man of Steel in 2013 – where Superman (Henry Cavill) tore Metropolis to pieces fighting General Zod (Michael Shannon). Buildings collapsed and people died, including many of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) employees; giving him as good a reason as any to hate Superman, seeing him as an alien who operates without limits or accountability and is capable of wiping out the human race.

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On the flipside, Superman/Clark Kent sees Batman as a dangerous vigilante, as bad and morally corruptible as the criminals he puts away. Add to this a young Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) stirring up trouble, giving us as many twitches and mad tics as he can muster, and you’ve got an interesting recipe for a compelling plot.

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And plot, in a way, is a daunting place to start, because writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio are essentially attempting to tell two and a half, or perhaps three and a half stories in one go. We have: Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, and Wonderwoman (Gal Gadot), the latter who pops up briefly here and there pursuing her own mysterious motives.

They do, however, do a reasonable job of weaving it all together, but it’s a lot of jumping around and I bet the filmmakers were ruthless in the edit room.

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But that’s all I’ll say plot wise, as it’s best you go see it and see what you think. For me, a slightly simpler story would have nice. That said, if you’ve seen any of the trailers there won’t be too many surprises as most of Wonderwoman’s best bits are there, as are Lex Luthor’s – and you can pretty easily work out where the whole thing will end up.

Complicated plot but simple story. (Not sure I’m making sense but I’m sticking with it. Bit like the film, wahey!)

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What I will say is that the first two thirds are the most interesting. There’s a lot of stuff about whether Superman is a false God or not, and about Batman wanting him to face the consequences of his actions. And with montages of TV talk shows discussing Superman’s place in the world weaved throughout early on, it feels like sections have been lifted straight from Alan Moore’s Watchmen a la Dr Manhattan. Which is no bad thing, if done in a fresh way.

Director Zack Synder also manages to nail the tone fairly well. Gritty and dark, but not completely Christopher Nolan. And some of his stylised shots of Superman hovering over buildings or being touched by many hands in a crowd are really quite sublime. As is his (and Affleck’s) take on Batman. Affleck keeps him stoic and resolute for the most part but conflicted (as all good antiheroes should be), which balances nicely with a quirky, technology-savvy Alfred (something we’ve not seen), played superbly by Jeremy Irons (who knew he had such a touch for comedy).

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The bits where I feel this film falters is more to do with DC’s attempt to follow the Marvel blueprint, particularly with a smashy smashy bad guy final third. I felt it was all going quite well up to that point, but it’s then as if the filmmakers couldn’t resist splurging their budget on some fancy effects to please 14-year old boys. But then, some would argue that director Zack Synder is a bit of a teenage boy at heart anyway, so no big surprise.

Similarly, whilst Synder got the tone more or less right, I think Hans Zimmer let him down a bit on the score, which just felt too overblown and portentous. It all got a bit too much as it went on, droning and banging away with lashings of doom and gloom. But we’ve all seen 300, so what did I expect? Perhaps I just prefer the light-hearted Marvel banter. (Now there’s a thing.)

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And another point upon which to focus on the Marvel versus DC front… it’s quite amusing to watch the way they set up their forthcoming Justice League movie, leaving subtlety very much on the cutting room floor. We get a small shot of Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and a brief scene between Bruce Wayne and Wonderwoman (despite the fact we don’t even learn her name during the film) and it all feels a little bit tacked-on-at-the-end-before-we-forget. I’d have liked to see a lot more delicate threads and strands of a larger world weaved throughout – unless it was there and so subtle I missed it?

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So whilst this may sound like a big rant, it’s really not at all. It’s quite a good film for the most part and there’s a lot to like. But – here’s the rub – there are still many things that happen which we’ve seen time and again in the last decade of superhero flicks. C’mon DC, be bold, be brave. Change up the format, don’t just copy Marvel.

After all, taking a risk and a leap of faith is what superheroes do.

(Ps I’m still very keen to see Suicide Squad as it may bring something fresh. At the very least an unhinged Margot Robbie should be worth the price of admission alone.)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. review: new franchise?

Guy Ritchie is like… so hot right now. At least, it seems so, after his career had hit a little blip right before the Sherlock Holmes films put him back on the map.

Then for his next trick he thought he’d turn his hand to the spy genre, specifically resurrecting a nostalgically adored ’60s TV show, The Man from UNCLE. Remembered fondly by those of a certain age, utterly unknown to those younger than that.

But no matter. Whether you’re young or old(er) most of us can get on board with a sexy cast dressed in gorgeous clothing, their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks as they swan around the globe foiling evil plots. Can’t we?

And if we’re talking tone (which we are now), this film sits somewhere between Austin Powers and Bond, the Roger Moore years, which is no bad thing. Or if you’re seeking a more modern reference, it would make a nice triple-bill with Spy with Melissa McCarthy and Kingsman, with Colin Firth; as you’ve never seen him before.

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Concerning story: we have handsome American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) trying to rescue pretty girl Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Germany, as he needs her help to get close to her nuclear scientist father who’s been kidnapped by an evil, Paris Hilton-esque woman wearing far too much jewellery. They’re aided by a handsome yet prickly Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), told by his superiors he’ll have to team up with the annoyingly smug American to complete his mission.

Ultimately this film isn’t really about plot. It’s about the laddiest of all laddy things, banter! And Cavill and Hammer do this pretty well, bouncing off each other and working effectively – if chaotically – as a team, despite their grudging reluctance. However, most of this film does feel like an intro to a franchise – as the studio would no doubt love it to be.

Do we have the spy version of Lethal Weapon on our hands? Too early to call. I wouldn’t be averse to a second film. It nipped along at a decent pace, looked great and had a killer soundtrack (as you’d expect from Ritchie), so giving these characters another mission wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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But on the downside, as far as quibbles go, I have two.

First, it’s 2015, and in this day and age Ritchie must surely have been able to give a lady of Alicia Vikander’s talents more to work with. She starts off ok then descends (slight spoiler) in the final third into classic, uninspired territory of the female needing to be rescued by the male leads. It’s tiresome and it would have been nice to mix this up. She had a frisson of chemistry with Armie Hammer’s character, so why couldn’t he have been the one needing to be rescued by her?

Secondly, despite me saying the story is incidental, the characters (and actors) still need something credible to sink their teeth into and give the audience a reason to care. For me, the story started well but lacked a bit of punch as it progressed. I found my attention wavering somewhat in the middle. (This never happend with Lock, Stock and Snatch – Mr Ritchie, take note.)

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In general though, it’s a fun ride. An easy, popcorn fest of a movie. Standout for me was probably Armie Hammer’s performance, although Hugh Grant does turn up at the end and almost steal it.

So go see it.

Turn your brain off and your smile on and soak it in.

Man of Steel: he strong, fights Zod, wins!

henry-cavill-man-of-steelDon’t think my title is giving anything away is it? We all know Superman is ultimately going to win. Hardly much of a franchise reboot if he dies at the end. In this instance, my title is referring to the latter third of the film, where it all goes a bit Hulk a la Avengers, smashing up city skyscrapers – but more on that later.

To backtrack a sec, Man of Steel is – what I’m classing as – a reboot of a much-loved character. Perhaps to shake the memory of the utterly bland 2006 entry, Superman Returns. Anyone remember that one? Brandon Routh donned the cape (average depiction of the character) and faced off against Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor (doing the best he could in the circumstances). Kate Bosworth, whilst very pretty, I could take or leave as Lois Lane. Less said about James Marsden’s drippy character the better.

superman-returns-wallpapers_16583_1024x768So why did the last one fail?

Bryan Singer was a strong and safe pair of hands. He’d got The Usual Suspects and X-Men and X2 on his CV. The cast seemed solid enough, the effects were passable. Maybe that was the problem? Each component part of the previous instalment failed to deliver the wow-factor. Add them all up and you end up with a below-par showing.

Mostly it harks back to script. Without a good script you’re finished before you even start. Tone is quite important too. I mean, look at Brandon Routh’s Superman in his sky blue lycra and red pants, it looks so dated.

Fast-forward to 2013

And the dream team of Zack Snyder (directing), Christopher Nolan (producing) and David Goyer (writing); between them they should deliver a rock-solid script right? After all, these guys – in their careers to date – have given us 300 and Watchmen (Snyder); Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises (Nolan and Goyer).

zodHappily – and somewhat expectantly – they do deliver, this outing worlds away from Singer’s efforts. Literally, worlds away – the opening sequence begins on Krypton.

Epic in scope and ethereal in places (as you’d expect and hope when depicting an alien species) the sequence is an exhilarating start to the film, although at times seeming to borrow from Avatar and the 2009 Star Trek (the destruction of Vulcan bears striking resemblance to the tragic and fiery demise of Krypton).

The reason for the Krypton opening sequence and much of the film’s first half – and why I think this is a reboot – is Goyer and Nolan are playing to their strengths (as they did with Batman) and doing an origin story. Perhaps fair, given the franchise had somewhat lost its way – or perhaps never found it since the original in 1978?

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Going Nolan-esque

Either way, what we’ve got here is a much darker, more sombre tone. Ultimately, it’s gone all Nolan-esque, with a buffed and bearded Clark roaming the globe trying to find his place in the world, helping strangers along the way.

Remind you of a certain Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins? This style and tone continues throughout. Take Michael Shannon’s General Zod and his chilling message to the people of Earth – reminiscent of the Joker’s video message to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight anyone?

Despite these obvious parallels I am of course, nitpicking. This film is massively epic, indeed, it’s epically massive. The final third goes very Matrix Revolution/Avengers with Kal-El/Clark and Zod going at each other in what can only be described as an unparalleled destruction of every skyscraper in Metropolis.

psmoviescostnerSomething that no doubt most of the audience would have been waiting for yet, for all its action set-pieces, the film tended to hit home more effectively in the quieter, more poignant moments. Scenes with Clark’s foster parents (wonderfully played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner) were particularly touching at times.

So all in all, Snyder did a fine job, perhaps his best work to date. Yet Nolan and Goyer’s influence was clear to see and, whilst their contributions undoubtedly helped reboot the franchise, they may have taken it too dark in tone. That said, watch out for a scene in the closing moments that suggest a sequel could be lighter and more playful.

Oh…and Henry Cavill is easily the best Superman to date. Live long and prosper. Sorry, wrong rebooted franchise! As you were.