Mission: Impossible (1996)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Mission: Impossible

Expect the Impossible

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 22nd May 1996 (USA & Canada)
UK Release: 5th July 1996
Budget: $80 million
Worldwide Gross: $457.7 million

Stars
Tom Cruise (Top Gun, Minority Report)
Jon Voigt (Midnight Cowboy, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2)
Emmanuelle Béart (Manon des Sources, 8 Women)
Henry Czerny (Clear and Present Danger, The Ice Storm)
Jean Reno (Léon, Ronin)
Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead)

Director
Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Snake Eyes)

Screenwriters
David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man)
Robert Towne (Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise)

Story by
David Koepp (Death Becomes Her, Panic Room)
Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York)

Based on
Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.


The Story
When a covert mission goes sideways and the rest of his team are killed, agent Ethan Hunt is blamed for their murder. On the run from his CIA employers, he sets out to prove his innocence and bring the real culprit to justice.

Our Hero
Mission: Impossible may be meant to be a team exercise, but as most of them get killed we’re focused on surviving member Ethan Hunt, an exemplary agent who must figure out what happened and track down who’s responsible.

Our Villain
The CIA man, Kittridge, who thinks Hunt is responsible for killing his team and is determined to bring him in. Of course, Hunt’s innocent — so is Kittridge really behind it all?

Best Supporting Character
Needing a new team, Hunt recruits a couple of disgraced IMF agents. One is Luther Stickell, a stylish computer expert and hacker. Despite his initial doubts, he’ll become one of Ethan’s loyalest team mates.

Memorable Quote
Kittridge: “I can understand you’re very upset.”
Ethan Hunt: “Kittridge, you’ve never seen me very upset.”

Memorable Scene
Ethan and his team need to retrieve a computer file from the only place it exists: a highly secure room in the centre of CIA headquarters. Access is controlled by voice print identification, a six-digit access code, a retinal scan, and a double electronic key card — none of which they have. In the vault itself, security measures include sensors for pressure (anything on the floor sets if off), noise (anything above a whisper sets it off), and temperature (a rise of a single degree sets it off). All of which leaves Ethan with only one option: to lower himself in from the ceiling, staying calm and cool enough not to raise the temperature, while not making any noise — all while hoping the guy who works in the room doesn’t come back. The resulting heist scene is a fabulous bit of suspense moviemaking.

Memorable Music
Danny Elfman provides a good score for the main body of the film, but the shining star remains Lalo Schifrin’s main theme, as iconic a piece of spy-fi music as the James Bond one. The new version featured here wasn’t produced by Elfman, however, but by the less famous half of U2, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen. It was also released as a single and became a sizeable hit, reaching #7 in both the UK and US charts (where it received a gold certification) and even making it to #1 in some countries.

Technical Wizardry
The main title sequence is a modern do-over of elements from the TV series: a fast cut (even by today’s standards) montage of scenes from the film to come, plus a burning fuse, all scored by that updated version of the peerless theme music.

Making of
Jon Voigt, as pudgy “getting soft in his old age” Jim Phelps, was 57 years old when they made this film. For the new one, Tom Cruise learnt to fly a helicopter so he could do it all himself throughout a major stunt sequence, and actually performed hundreds of tricky HALO skydives for another major sequence, not to mention sundry other bits of running around and jumping off buildings — most of it while recovering from a serious leg injury. He is 55. How times change.

Previously on…
The original Mission: Impossible TV series was a popular and long-running part of the James Bond-provoked spy-fi craze of the ’60s. It was revived for two seasons in the ’80s. Although the film might look like a reboot, it kind of isn’t: there’s supporting material (such as the character bios on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases) that reconciles both TV series into the same continuity as the movie.

Next time…
Multiple never-less-than-entertaining sequels, starting with the standalone M:i-2, before becoming increasingly serialised through M:i:III, Ghost Protocol, and Rogue Nation. This summer’s sixth instalment, Fallout, promises to bring them all to some kind of head.

Awards
1 Saturn Award nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Kids’ Choice Award nominations (Favourite Movie Actor (Tom Cruise))
1 MTV Movie Award nomination (Action Sequence (for the train-helicopter chase) — it lost to Twister)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million — it lost to Twister, again)

Verdict

Watching Mission: Impossible now, it’s funny that people used to regard it as unfollowably complex. I’m not saying the plot is straightforward, but if you pay attention then it’s all there. Obviously it can’t be that there were no complicated movies made before 1996, but I guess because at the time it was a summer blockbuster (not enough CGI or superpowers for that nowadays, of course) people didn’t expect to have to think about the story. Arguably it displays the kind of intricacy and complexity we specifically praise in spy thrillers, meaning the film has actually aged very well indeed. Well, it’s always been popular (it was the third highest grossing film of ’96), so I guess it just took a while for its reputation to catch on.

The world premiere of the new Mission: Impossible, Fallout, is in Paris today. It hits UK cinemas on 25th July and US theaters on July 27th. It’s not actually released in France until August 1st.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008)

2017 #139
Eric Brevig | 93 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (as it’s actually titled on screen, a rarity for 3D movies) is a very loose (very, very loose) adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic fantasy novel — indeed, you could say it’s more of a sequel, as the characters’ adventure is inspired by the belief that Verne’s novel is actually an account of real events. It turns out they’re right, of course, because otherwise this would just be a movie about a man and his nephew trekking up a mountain to find nothing — which sounds like a film someone would make, but not an effects-driven summer blockbuster.

I remember Journey 3D (as the title card indecisively morphs into before finally moving on) going down quite poorly on its release a decade ago, but, looking up sources to cite for that now, I’m not wholly correct: it has 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great but is still considered ‘fresh’, and grossed a respectable $242 million (off a budget of just $60 million). Nonetheless, I expected little of it (I watched it mainly because it’s on my 50 Unseen from 2008, a notoriously under-completed list) but wound up pleasantly surprised… in some respects, anyway.

They're all right

The key to my enjoyment was watching it in 3D, in which it plays more like a theme park attraction than a movie: from the very beginning it has loads of those “sticking stuff out into the audience” hijinks that no one bothers with anymore (indeed, after watching a dozen other 3D movies on my TV, I don’t think I’ve seen anything poke out before). Gimmicky and in your face (literally) though it may be, the effect works, it’s uncomplicatedly fun, and it makes the movie better just because it’s trying. Relatedly, this was the first film released in 4DX, the South Korean-developed theatrical format which features “tilting seats to convey motion, wind, sprays of water and sharp air, probe lights to mimic lightning, fog, scents, and other theatrical special effects”. I imagine all that palaver suits the film really well — as I said, it’s more like a theme park attraction than a regular movie anyhow.

However, that’s just one of the reasons why I imagine it would be nearly unwatchable in 2D. All the stuff that’s kinda fun in 3D would seem pointless in 2D, and the at-the-camera things would be horrendously blatant (I mean, they are in 3D, of course, but at least their purpose is retained). And as for the rest of the movie, the direction feels very TV-ish; or, again, like a theme park attraction — it’s a bit basic, basically. Some moments push towards achieving wonder. I’m not sure they quite get there, but I’ve seen worse. (Director Eric Brevig is a visual effects guy by trade, with credits ranging from The Abyss and Total Recall up through Men in Black and The Day After Tomorrow to John Carter and The Maze Runner, and many more besides. His second film as director was the Yogi Bear movie (you know, the one with that poster), which is probably why he’s not directed anything since.)

Remember when Hollywood thought Brendan Fraser was Harrison Ford?

Let’s not just reserve our criticism for the direction, though: the dialogue is terrible too, including what may be the single worst (or best — it’s so bad it’s good) exchange in the entire history of movies:

Trevor: Max was right. He was right! [shouting] Max! Was! Right! Ha ha! [to Sean] Your dad was right. He was right.
Sean: Hannah, your dad was right too.
Trevor: They both believed in something that everyone told them was impossible. He was right! [echoing:] He was right!

But hey, at least it makes an effort to do that screenwriting thing of eventually paying off every single thing we learnt about earlier… except for a yo-yo, the thing with the most “this is setup for later” introduction. Maybe the scene where they needed to do some hunting got cut… There’s added incidental amusement watching it a decade on thanks to the surprisingly old-fashioned technology on display: computer monitors are still CRTs; cool kids’ mobiles are still flip phones; being able to Google while on a plane is a wonder… It’s like the film is self consciously showing off how much technology has changed in the last decade — which it isn’t, obviously, because it couldn’t’ve known. And hey, if you don’t laugh at it you’ll cry because it’ll make you feel old.

Really, Journey 3D is cheesy, tacky, and kinda terrible… but I also enjoyed myself. Yes, a big part of that was the 3D. I’d never claim it was a good film, and I don’t think that I’d even recommend it, but I wouldn’t write off watching it again someday.

2 out of 5

Yojimbo (1961)

aka Yôjinbô

2017 #126
Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Yojimbo

Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

Observing the conflict

Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

5 out of 5

Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo (1978)

    aka The Mystery of Mamo / Rupan Sansei / Rupan Sansei: Rupan tai Kurōn

    2018 #112
    Sôji Yoshikawa | 102 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

    Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo

    Best known to Western audiences thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s feature debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin the 3rd is more than just one film in the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s illustrious career — it’s a popular and long-running franchise in Japan, with almost innumerable iterations: starting life as a manga which has run on and off since 1967, it has so far been adapted into six TV series, seven animated films, 26 feature-length TV specials, two live-action movies, and sundry other bits and bobs. Despite all that, this is one of only three Lupin III productions that has been available in the UK since the DVD era (the others being the fourth TV series, titled The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Cagliostro, natch), though that increases by one today with the Blu-ray release of the latest complete TV series, Lupin the 3rd: Part IV.

    The Secret of Mamo (more commonly known in English as The Mystery of Mamo, or in Japan as Lupin vs. the Clone) was the first big-screen outing for Lupin III. It was produced while the second TV series was being broadcast, with the intention of making a film that was more similar to the original manga, something Japanese censorship standards prevented the TV series from being. So, the tone is kids’ comedic adventure, but there’s nudity, moderately graphic violence, and a scene of sexy torture. Well, it’s not that graphic really… though it depends on your position on these things, I guess. Anyway, I’m certainly surprised the Americans let it pass as a PG-13, just because of the nudity. She may be a cartoon, but it’s not subtle.

    Car chase!

    Anyhow, the plot sees master thief Lupin III, along with his regular sidekicks Jigen and Goemon, pilfering the Philosopher’s Stone (I guess Americans would need to call it the Sorcerers Stone) at the request of his on-off love interest Fujiko Mine, who actually wants it for the mysterious Mamo. His nefarious schemes draw Lupin and co into a web that sees them pursued not only by Mamo’s forces, but also the Americans, and Lupin’s regular nemesis, Interpol Inspector Zenigata.

    One of the major inspirations behind Lupin the 3rd’s creation was James Bond, and so, appropriately enough, this is a globetrotting adventure that takes in Transylvania, Egypt, France, Spain, the Caribbean, and Colombia. Similarly, it also showcases some great action scenes, particularly an extended car chase through Paris and then the mountains. Unlike Bond, there’s a definite cartoonishness to many of the antics, and the third act takes a turn into outright science-fiction that gets a bit crazy. It’s also not entirely similar to The Castle of Cagliostro, therefore, showing how much Miyazaki brought his own tone and style to that film.

    That said, I thought the lead characters’ relationships felt clearer from the start here than they did in Cagliostro, which very much felt like a sequel or spin-off where you were meant to know who everyone was (as I noted in my review). It could just be I’m a little more familiar with them all now, but perhaps the film was indeed made to be more newcomer-friendly — it was the first movie, after all; though it is spun off from a TV series… Well, it’s quite neatly done, nonetheless — this isn’t “Lupin III Begins” with them all meeting for the first time, nor is there a viewer-surrogate being introduced to them all, but it handles how and when each character arrives into the narrative in such a way that it’s kept fairly clear how they relate to one another. It’s subtly done, so, as I say, it could be serendipitous or my own improved awareness.

    The mysterious Mamo

    It’s also perhaps worthy of note that the film is available with four different English dubs. The 2013 US DVD from Discotek Media includes them all, so lucky you if you have that. Everywhere online will tell you that Manga UK’s 2008 DVD includes the dub Manga produced in 1996, which seems logical, but, being the inquisitive soul that I am, I read up on it myself, and I’m 99% certain it’s actually the 2003 Geneon dub. According to Wikipedia, the Geneon dub “took a liberal approach with translating the Japanese dialogue,” so I compared the dub to the subtitles included for the Japanese audio, and they were totally different. You can see why anime fans hate it when discs only include “dubtitles”. Maybe I should’ve watched it in its original language…

    Anyway, the film itself is a very fun adventure, with an entertaining anarchism as well as exciting action and mostly amusing humour. Ever since I watched Cagliostro I’ve been meaning to watch some more Lupin the 3rd because I always hoped I’d enjoy it, and so far I’m being proven right. At least I’ve got the two Blu-ray-released TV series to tuck into next, but I’d like to see more of the extensive back catalogue make it to the UK. I guess that probably depends on how the Part IV release sells…

    4 out of 5

    Lupin the 3rd: Part IV is released on Blu-ray in the UK today by All the Anime.

    Men in Black 3 (2012)

    2017 #167
    Barry Sonnenfeld | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Men in Black 3

    Maybe it’s something to do with my age, but when Men in Black II came out it felt like a bit of a belated sequel to the mega-hit Men in Black — it had been five years, after all, which is quite a long time for a comedy sequel. Well, Men in Black 3 was another ten years after that… As it turns out, MIB2 is a kind of typical first sequel: memorable-but-small characters get massively increased roles; things are referenced just for the sake of referencing them; jokes are repeated or amped up. MIB3 is more like the typical belated sequel: it stands somewhat divorced from the first two, with the minor stuff all gone, and some more significant changes necessitated by the passing of time.

    What hasn’t changed are the leads, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) — although the latter’s about to, because when an alien criminal he locked up in the ’60s escapes from prison and travels back in time, K is wiped from existence. As the only one who can remember K, it’s up to J to also travel back to the ’60s, rescue the younger K (Josh Brolin), and also save the Earth.

    MIB3’s biggest problem is that it’s not funny enough. The first two were sci-fi comedies with the emphasis on the comedy, whereas this is more of a light sci-fi adventure. In some respects it tries to substitute emotional weight for the lack of laughs, aiming for a pay-off that’s designed to put a cap on the whole trilogy. It kind of works, I suppose, but it also feels like a bit of an ill fit. It’s nice that the film’s trying something different, I suppose, but I’d rather the tone was closer to the other movies — more humour, tighter pacing. Director Barry Sonnenfeld used to have an obsession with making his movies shorter (I remember he once said he’d be the only director where a “director’s cut” would actually mean a truncated version of the movie). I don’t know if he’d given up on that notion by 2012, but trimming ten minutes out of this likely wouldn’t hurt.

    Someone forgot the dress code...

    The best bit is definitely Brolin as Young K, doing a bang-on impression of Tommy Lee Jones while also adding enough to make the part his own. As for the rest of the new cast members, Emma Thompson’s role is fine if you consider her appearance no more than a cameo, but Alice Eve is underused as her younger self. Jemaine Clement chews the scenery double-time as the villain, while the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg has a fun supporting role as a character who can see all possible futures.

    MIB3 is not as weak as the much-maligned first sequel (which I don’t hate as much as some, but it isn’t great), but it can’t equal the freshness of the original, either. Little surprise it didn’t lead to a full-blown revival of the franchise… though, as it still did well at the box office and the series’ popularity endures, it’s also no surprise we’ll be getting a spin-off-ish fourth movie next summer.

    3 out of 5

    Adventures of Zatoichi (1964)

    aka Zatôichi sekisho-yaburi

    2018 #108
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Adventures of Zatoichi

    Another Zatoichi film (the ninth now), another super-generic title. Only in English, mind: best I can work out, the Japanese title translates as something like Zatoichi Breaks Through the Barrier or (considering what happens in the final act) possibly Zatoichi Guard Station Break-In. Even if you can’t translate it in a way that sounds reasonable in English, why not go for something like Zatoichi’s New Year? (That’s when the film’s set, and is referenced many times.) Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound super exciting, but at least it’s more distinctive than Adventures of Zatoichi, which could be literally any of the films.

    Anyway, titling issues aside, the fourth and final Zatoichi film put out in 1964 (which I guess made the New Year thing even more appropriate on its original release) sees Ichi arrive in a village near Mount Myogi, where he intends to be for the first light of the new year. Lots of merchants have also gathered there for the festival, but the local yakuza are demanding an unreasonably high percentage of the takings as tax. Although this subplot facilitates some comic relief in the complaining of a pair of travelling performers, Ichi has other concerns on his mind: there are a couple of good-hearted young women who each need Ichi’s help defending them from the murderous stupidity of men. One, her brother has escaped prison and returned to town; the other, her father, a village elder, has gone missing and she’s looking for him. Both have something to do with the yakuza. In a slight twist on the usual formula, Ichi’s prodigious reputation means the gangsters are afraid of him (rather than assuming they can beat him), but he’s still got his work cut out getting to the bottom of a conspiracy between the gang’s boss and the local magistrate. That’s not to mention the intriguing connection Ichi finds with the village’s old drunkard…

    Z boys

    Everyone else seems to rate Adventures of Zatoichi somewhat poorly. It’s ranked 20th out of 25 by Letterboxd users, the lowest of the series so far, and below some of the post-series Zatoichi films. The Digital Bits go even further, placing it in their bottom three (they haven’t ranked the films, but I checked all their ratings and they only gave three Cs). Other reviews include comments like “a workmanlike but satisfying episode” (Paghat the Ratgirl), “the quality level dips a notch after the outstanding original eight” (D. Trull), and “one of the more ordinary run-of-the-mill Zatoichi films” (Jacob Olsen). Not outright condemnation then, but definite damning with faint praise.

    Conversely, I thought it was rather brilliant. It has a nice, clear, well-connected narrative (something I haven’t always found in previous instalments). There’s a great cast of supporting characters, lots of small roles who all make their mark. It creates almost an ensemble around Ichi, which is a nice change of pace — it really feels like it’s set in a bustling village, rather than a half-empty town where Ichi only encounters three or four people. Tonally the film displays an effective mix of humour, action, drama, and emotion, making for an all-round entertainment. It may not have a unique setup to mark it out like Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, or the flashy direction of Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, but it’s an above-average example of “standard” Zatoichi. It even boasts another top-drawer climax, with a well-shot and precisely-performed one-on-one duel in gently falling first snow, followed by Ichi taking out a small army to get at the men responsible. Again, it’s not as exceptionally striking visually as some of the recent big finales, but it’s superbly done nonetheless.

    Live by the sword, pretend to die by the sword

    Also, the film contains one of my favourite moments of the series so far, which is both amusing and encapsulates the character of our hero. In it, Ichi slashes his way through four assailants, then pauses… a moment later, three of them drop dead. Seeing this, the fourth just… lies down beside them. Despite being blind, Ichi can tell the chap’s still alive; but rather than finish him off, Ichi simply motions for him to leave. It’s both funny and shows Ichi’s compassion: he kills because he has to, when people attack, not for the sake of it, or even for a grudge. Similar to this is his badass summation of what just happened near the end: “I only came here to worship the first light of the new year. I expected a quiet journey, with no need to draw the blade in this cane. You brought this all on yourselves.”

    In fairness, the film is not without its problems. The early story about the merchants and the tax rate doesn’t really go anywhere. It establishes the magistrate and boss are bad folk, but then it disappears underneath the other storylines. Also, I didn’t get wholly invested in the conflict between Ichi and the gang’s yojimbo. These kinds of subplots always feel like a do-over of the first film to me, so maybe that’s why more time isn’t spent on it. It makes for a couple of impressive bursts of swordplay and one heart-to-heart chat, but no more than that.

    Adventures of Zatoichi may not be the very best movie this series has to offer, but in revelling in its formula, and doing so much of it so well, it’s one of the films I’ve enjoyed the most. In fact, this would probably be a really good one to introduce people to the series: it’s got most of the key elements, all done really well. It doesn’t deserve to be as overlooked as it seems to be.

    4 out of 5

    Vehicular Review Roundup

    Get in Vehicle 19 to go for a Drive with The Driver in today’s roundup, featuring:

  • The Driver (1978)
  • Drive (2011)
  • Vehicle 19 (2013)


    The Driver
    (1978)

    2017 #101
    Walter Hill | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / PG

    The Driver

    Walter Hill’s stripped-back neo-noir car chase thriller stars Ryan O’Neal as The Driver, a getaway man for hire and the best at what he does. Out to get him is Bruce Dern as The Detective, who’ll go to any lengths to catch him — including illegal ones. Almost cornered, the Driver enlists the help of The Player (Isabelle Adjani) to thwart the Detective.

    The film’s influence on the likes of Baby Driver and Drive is clear (Nicolas Winding Refn claims not to have seen it before making his film, but it must’ve been seen by someone somewhere down the line, whether that’s original novelist James Sallis or screenwriter Hossein Amini, because the DNA is right there). Both those later efforts burnished and perfected the formula in different ways, but the original has a gritty, low-rent charm of its own. The archetypal characters and straightforward noir plot are delightful almost because of their simplicity, while the few action scenes are handled with the panache, not of a slick blockbuster, but of a filmmaker who knows how to create something effective even within his limitations.

    The Driver maybe doesn’t transcend those to the level of being a classic, but, for fans of the genres it crosses, it’s deservingly a cult favourite.

    4 out of 5

    Drive
    (2011)

    2017 #106
    Nicolas Winding Refn | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Drive

    Iconoclastic Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had made noteworthy films before Drive, but it felt like this was where he really hit home. It stars Ryan Gosling as a mechanic and part-time movie stunt driver who also moonlights as a getaway man, but when he tries to help out his attractive neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her husband (Oscar Isaac) he gets embroiled in a crime with deadly consequences.

    It’s a noir storyline with a familiar shape, but as with many of the best examples of that not-quite-a-genre it’s the stylish filmmaking that elevates the material. Refn was influenced by the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone to take a very American genre and give it a European influence, and the result is a movie that’s as much about its mood and feel as it is the intricacies of plot or character. Despite the title and theme it’s not even a car chase movie, really, though the handful of well-created driving sequences do pack a greater punch thanks to their scarcity.

    5 out of 5

    Drive was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project.

    Vehicle 19
    (2013)

    2017 #151
    Mukunda Michael Dewil | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

    Vehicle 19

    One of the last films Paul Walker completed before his untimely death, Vehicle 19 sees the Fast & Furious star doing what he will always be remembered for: driving a car, sometimes fast. Here he’s Michael Woods, a recent parolee who arrives in Johannesburg intending to reunite with his partner. Unfortunately he picks up the wrong rental car and finds himself the subject of a manhunt, because in the car is evidence relating to a political conspiracy. Unfortunately for the bad guys who want said evidence, Michael is, like, an honourable chap — and also a criminal, so he totally knows how to drive a car like he’s escaping a crime. The main conceit is: the whole film’s shot from within the car.

    Yep, that’s why I watched it. I wish I hadn’t. Vehicle 19 is a deeply stupid movie. Like, Michael’s phone is all-important — it’s the only way he can contact other people; later, it contains vital evidence — but when he notices the battery is low he does nothing about it, despite having a charger in his bag, until the battery literally runs out mid-call. And that’s just one of innumerable nonsensical contrivances throughout the film.

    It lacks pace, and therefore lacks tension. Michael just pootles around the city from the very start. Apparently everywhere is reachable within 20 minutes, or Michael — who’s never been to this city before — thinks it is. Whenever he asks for directions, everywhere he’s going is either just a block away or down the road, third right. At one point the police say they just received a call to 911. From what I can tell, the emergency number in South Africa is not 911. And I could probably go on — the film is absolutely littered with things that just don’t quite hang together.

    Fast and/or furious

    It can’t satisfy as a dumb action flick either. I presume it was a low-budget production with ambitions beyond its scale in the chase scenes. Understandably, the trailer foregrounds these to help sell the movie. Unfortunately for the film, it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch: the clips in the trailer are near-as-dammit the entirety of the film’s action. These sequences are few, far between, short, and, even then, poorly staged. The problem isn’t that they’re all limited to only being seen from within the car (the opening sequence of The Driver does exactly that to marvellous effect, for example), it’s that they lack both adrenaline and plausibility. For example, at one point Michael manages to make the chasing car flip over, but I watched that bit three times to try to decipher it and I still have absolutely no idea how he’s supposed to have done it. Oh, and then the car explodes. And Michael and his passenger seem to react like “oh, that’s that then” and just drive on.

    They’ve got the right idea, though: if you’re thinking of watching Vehicle 19, no, just drive on. Or just put Drive on — it’s a totally different movie, but at least it’s a good one.

    1 out of 5

    Vehicle 19 featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

  • Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

    2018 #119
    Ron Howard | 135 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Solo: A Star Wars Story

    The fourth movie in the modern age of the Star Wars franchise hit headlines for all the wrong reasons last weekend, as its opening box office frame failed to live up to expectations by quite some margin. As I pointed out on Twitter, by most standards Solo had an excellent debut; but by Star Wars standards, yeah, it was well short. Why did this happen? Theories abound. Did the manbabies’ “Boycott Solo” campaign succeed? Doubtful. Do audiences have “franchise fatigue”, with Solo debuting just five months after The Last Jedi? Possibly, though it doesn’t hurt Marvel films. Were audiences worn out from big blockbusters, after Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 preceded this in quite a short space of time? Could be. Did the stories of behind-the-scenes strife reach mainstream awareness and put people off? Perhaps. Is it just that people simply aren’t interested in a standalone “Young Han Solo” movie?

    None of those sound like a definitive explanation. I guess it was a combination. And I’d like to say it’s a shame because Solo deserves to find a wide audience, but… well, maybe it’s already found the audience it deserves. It’s a decent space adventure flick, but I was sadly a bit underwhelmed by it. Frankly, I wish I liked it more than I did. Not just because I want to like every movie, but because I feel like this should’ve been a movie I really enjoyed — a fun sci-fi/heist/Western adventure kinda deal — but I didn’t love it. I thought it was mostly kinda fine.

    Space Western

    There’s not a thing in it I’d single out as poor: the actors are fine (in the trickiest role, Alden Ehrenreich makes for a decent Han Solo), the script is fine (I’d’ve liked more humour — what’s the betting that was toned done after Lord and Miller were fired?), the action scenes are fine (the train heist from the trailer is the best one, though even that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi), the design work is fine (as well as familiar Star Wars stuff, there’s some striking new characters and vehicles)… If there’s one thing I’d criticise it’s possibly the cinematography, because half the film seemed too damned dark, but that might’ve just been the projection (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had that complaint about this cinema). Other than that, it looked… fine.

    Thing is, “fine” only gets you so far. Solo never really makes you laugh, never really makes you excited, never really makes you feel anything — it just sort of toddles along fairly pleasantly. In fact, I’d also say it’s less than the sum of its parts, because some of those bits that are “just fine” are almost more than that. And maybe, if the whole film was working, those bits would play well. But… it’s just not quite there. The neatest thing about the entire film is how it solves the problem with the famous line from A New Hope about how the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” — parsec being a unit of distance, not (as the quote makes it sound) time. I mean, I’m not sure that justifies an entire movie…

    Lando, baby

    The thing that most annoys me about Solo’s mediumness, and its relatively poor box office, is that it’s left very, very open for a sequel. Without spoiling anything, we can more-or-less extrapolate how Han and Chewie get from here to a cantina in Mos Eisley, but there are other plot bits left dangling. It’s been fairly well reported that the cast are signed up for three films, and I guess Lucasfilm really meant that, rather than locking them in just in case. And the reason it annoys me is because I want to know what happens next, but with the stink of failure that now surrounds Solo (a drum the media have been only too keen to beat, for no reason other than clickbait) I’m not sure Disney will be too keen on taking that punt.

    On the bright side, the Star Wars franchise currently has an admirable predilection for tying its whole canon together. It happened in Rogue One, with Forest Whitaker’s character having originally appeared in The Clone Wars, and it happens here too, with a cameo that is gonna confuse anyone who’s only watched the films and not paid any heed to other media — I shall say no more, but I imagine casual fans were left scratching their heads. So, if we don’t get Solo 2, I guess certain people will pop up in some animated series or comic book or something. Which I probably won’t get round to watching or reading. Hey-ho.

    Falcon-flying fun

    Maybe the “it’s fun!” tweets and reviews I read before seeing Solo undermined it for me, because I was expecting it to be fun, fun, fun, but instead thought it was just fine, fine, fine. Maybe I’ll enjoy it more when I watch it again on Blu-ray. At least it’ll have the extra pizzazz of 3D for me then. Anyway, this rating feels harsh, but, considering my reservations, the next one up seems generous. It’s another three-and-a-half-star film, but, as ever, I only deal in absolutes here.

    3 out of 5

    Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas everywhere, for the time being.

    Deadpool 2 (2018)

    2018 #120
    David Leitch | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Deadpool 2

    The quickest way to review Deadpool 2 is simply to say it’s like the first one, but more — in a good way.

    A slightly longer (and possibly confusing unless you read it slowly) way to review it would be to say that I enjoyed it less than I enjoyed the first one the first time I saw it, but I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the first one the second time I saw it. To clarify: when I first watched Deadpool, I loved it, and gave it five stars (just about). When I rewatched it two years later in preparation for the sequel, I was less bowled over. I think a lot of its initial effectiveness was due to the freshness of its whole schtick, which has naturally gone away on a rewatch (not helped by the saturation of it in DP2’s marketing campaign). In particular, I was surprised how sparse I found the humour to be on that rewatch. Maybe that prepared me for this one: the gags aren’t literally non-stop — it sometimes pauses to attempt emotion or to convey plot — but when they do come they’re thick and fast, so much that I’m sure some will get missed (there are too many to remember specific examples, but there was stuff I thought was very funny that didn’t get much of a reaction in my screening. Or it could just be only me that liked those gags, of course.)

    So, although DP2 couldn’t equal the sheer newness of watching DP1 for the first time, it’s refined the formula in such a way that I do think it’s a more enjoyable film. Maybe “refined” isn’t always the right word — in some cases it’s just chucked in even more stuff — but I think other elements have been honed. For example, the first film’s plot was a no-great-shakes origin story on which to hang gags and action. The sequel’s plot is still only scrappily adhered to, with the point once again being to deliver humour, but it does have a stronger throughline overall. Partly that comes from the villain, Josh Brolin’s Cable, who has a clear goal that conflicts with what Deadpool’s up to. Partly it comes from some thematic stuff about fatherhood and family. I’m not saying DP2’s overburdened in this department — it’s still an action-comedy — but I couldn’t tell you what the first film was about, thematically, and this one it’s made very evident.

    That Deadpool, he'll say anything

    That said, sometimes it’s bit heavy-handed. I can see what they were going for by giving the film a heart and some emotion — it builds off the first film, for one thing, where Vanessa was such a motivator for Wade; and they’re trying to add depth and texture to the film — but… it doesn’t work when it’s given too much focus. Everything else in the film is a pisstake turned up to eleven, and the fourth-wall breaking means Deadpool can make a gag about cliches or crappy writing even as the film ploughs ahead and does it anyway. So why isn’t he making gags whenever the film pauses for an emotional heart-to-heart type scene? Why does that sappiness flow on (and on) untouched? Okay, maybe the character cares too much to be wisecracking at those moments… but do we? Does the soppiness fit with the foul-mouthed, gore-splattered irreverence that characterises the rest of the movie? I’m not sure it does.

    Other things they’ve oomphed up, but to appropriate effect, included references to the X-Men and the actions scenes. In the case of the former, I was surprised how many X-references there were in the first film, but DP2 has even more, including a superb one-shot cameo and a surprise appearance by a character who’s been in a ‘real’ X-Men film but here is done more faithfully. As to the latter, the first film had some fun action beats, but here you can feel the benefit of hiring John Wick/Atomic Blonde director (and former stunt coordinator) David Leitch — everything is slicker, quicker, and bigger. Again, it’s more, but in a good way. Humour aside, if you just wanted a straightforward action flick, I think it would satisfy on that level too.

    Cable, ready for action

    As for its level as a satire of superhero movies, some people have criticised the way it calls out genre tropes but then does them anyway, like Deadpool exclaiming “CGI fight!” right before there’s a CGI fight. But I think that’s almost the point. It’s not trying to deconstruct the genre, just poke fun at it with self-awareness while still being very much a part of it. Would it be cleverer if it went a step further and actually subverted stuff more often? Maybe. Probably. But there is humour in the self-awareness, even if it’s an easier kind for the filmmakers to fall back on — they don’t have to avoid cliches, so long as they humorously point out they’re indulging in them.

    Ironically, there are two or three occasions where Deadpool specifically makes a joke along the lines of “well that’s just lazy writing”, which were particularly amusing to me because (as I recall) they were at moments where the writing didn’t need to do more than it did. By which I mean, the writers could’ve been “not lazy” and dressed those moments up, but, functionally, they didn’t need to; so it’s not really lazy writing, just not needlessly tarted up writing… if that makes sense. It’s like movies with MacGuffins: usually they invest time explaining what the MacGuffin is and why it matters, but functionally it could be anything, all that matters is everyone wants it. Deadpool 2 doesn’t have a MacGuffin, but if it did it would be called “MacGuffin” and it would be explained simply as “a thing everyone wants” and Deadpool would say “well that’s just lazy writing”. (Flip side to all this: I can’t recall the exact circumstances of all the “lazy writing” jokes, so I’m prepared to accept they might not actually fit this theory.)

    X gon' give it to ya

    All of that said, Deadpool 2’s primary goal is plain, clear, and simple: it wants to entertain you by almost any means necessary, be that elaborate action sequences, almost non-stop gags, cultural references, deep-cut comic book Easter eggs, or even changing history (er, kinda). Mostly, it works — it wants to be fun and, if you’re on its wavelength, it is. Sometimes, more is more.

    4 out of 5

    Deadpool 2 is in cinemas everywhere, still.