Rocky IV (1985)

2018 #152
Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Russian | PG / PG

Rocky IV

Rocky goes a bit Rambo for an instalment that abandons the series’ early gritty social realism roots in favour of an anti-Soviet propaganda cartoon tone. And, in fact, it was released the same year as First Blood Part II, which actually marked Rambo’s shift from being about a vet with PTSD to an “America, fuck yeah!” action series. What was up with Stallone in ’85?

Anyway, back to Rocky. This time, his opponent in the ring is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a poster boy for Soviet superiority and their advanced training methods. With Drago’s team harping about his brilliance, Rocky’s friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) elects to come out of retirement to fight him and prove America’s supremacy. But the fight goes sideways, setting up a grudge match between Drago and Rocky.

Interpreting a sports movie as really being about the conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union might normally be considered subtextual analysis, but that’s not the case here — it couldn’t be more blatant. Sometimes this is as hilariously preposterous as you’d expect (Rocky’s victory speech is greeted by a standing ovation from the Soviet politburo!), but other bits actually work quite well. Take the sequence before the Creed-Drago fight: on one hand it’s a ludicrously OTT musical number; on the other, that’s the point, as shown by Drago’s confusion at the flashy spectacle going on around him, intercut with his wife’s exasperated sighs. It’s the mentality of the USA vs. the USSR encapsulated in a glitzy floorshow vs. a heavy frown.

USSR in the back

This isn’t the only bit of music in Rocky IV, though. Oh no. Far from it. Halfway through, the film basically stops dead for the sake of a music video montage of scenes from all four movies. It’s meant to signify a moment of introspection for Rocky, but it goes on for the length of an entire song. And that’s certainly not the only montage. Oh no. Far from it. At one point there’s a training montage… followed by another training montage. It’s like a spoof of itself.

And I haven’t even mentioned the robot that Paulie receives as a gift, which seems to have an AI. No, seriously. Later, he gives it a woman’s voice and refers to it as “his girl” while it delivers him beer and plays its favourite song. No, seriously.

Some people were trying a bit harder than writer-director Stallone, though. There’s a good supporting turn from Brigitte Nielsen, giving off Lady Macbeth vibes as Drago’s wife — she’s like his voice, doing all the talking in America while he just glowers around as a silent hulk of muscle. Carl Weathers is also given some good material as a Creed who’s miserable when out of the limelight, jumping at the chance to revive his fame — he revels in the renewed attention, even if it might mean his death.

Rocky IV is not a good film, but between the so-ridiculous-it’s-fun bulk and the genuinely good flashes, it’s certainly entertaining.

3 out of 5


And now, a special bonus review…

Rocky VI
(1986)

aka Rock’y

2018 #152a
Aki Kaurismäki | 8 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Finland / English & Finnish

Rocky VI

An early work from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (one of those world cinema names I recognise but couldn’t tell you a single film by), Rocky VI is not, in fact, the sixth entry in the Rocky franchise, but a short parody of the fourth one (the Roman numerals in the title being an inversion of the real film’s IV, obv.). Kaurismäki described the short as “my revenge on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole.” Don’t hold back, Aki, tell us what you really think!

The film is basically all a music montage — so that’s quite accurate, then. In it, weedy little American Rock’y fights burly bushy-browed Russian fatso Igor. Rock’y spends several rounds getting absolutely pummelled, eventually falling over dead without Igor having to throw a punch. And that’s the end.

It’s too slight to be especially funny, with nothing to say other than “hey, wasn’t Rocky IV just pro-American propaganda?”, which I think we all knew. Really, Rocky IV is a better parody of Rocky IV than Rocky VI is.

2 out of 5

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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

2018 #38
Edward Zwick | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

It’d take a braver man than me to name a sequel Never Go Back; doubly so a sequel to a film that garnered an at-best mixed reception; triply so a sequel to an adaptation whose star was vocally and unrelentingly regarded as being terribly miscast by the book’s own fans. But Jack Reacher star — and, more importantly, producer — Tom Cruise is the kind of man who jumps out of planes all day every day for weeks on end merely to capture one relatively minor sequence in a film, so I think we can safely say he’s a much braver man than me.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is a former military police officer turned drifter — why he quit and why he hasn’t settled down like a normal person is probably explained somewhere, but I can’t remember. Naturally, as he drifts around the US he keeps finding himself involved in escapades — there wouldn’t be stories worth telling otherwise, would there? In this one, one of Reacher’s friends, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), is arrested for espionage. Reacher is certain she’s being framed, and his investigations lead to him being set up too. As the pair go on the run to uncover a conspiracy and clear their names, there’s the added complication of having to protect teenager Samantha Dutton (Danika Yarosh), who may be Reacher’s daughter.

What plays out is a solid plot, smattered with decent action sequences. Frankly, it’s nothing incredible, and you’d have reason to expect more distinctive work from a director of the calibre of Edward Zwick (helmer of well-regarded films like Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond), but it’s still a good action-thriller.

Cruise in for a bruisin'

In the title role, Cruise is good. It’s different to his usual routine — the familiar grinning charm is dialled way down, in order to facilitate Reacher’s trademark stoicism — but he’s got a charismatic enough presence that he remains an engaging lead even without it. Smulders and Yarosh also acquit themselves well. Together, the trio make for a neat de facto family. Once they’ve been brought together, the way they move through the narrative as a unit gives the film a different vibe from the “lone hero” thing you’d expect. Unfortunately, the bad guys are as bland as anything. It lacks even one really good villain, which is an especially noticeable problem after the first film had Werner bleedin’ Herzog to chew up the scenery.

The title Never Go Back became a truism for some observers, because the film was not a success, either with critics (38% on Rotten Tomatoes) or at the box office (just $58.7 million in the US, though it drummed up a solid $162 million worldwide). Part of that is Reacher fans’ enduring dislike for Cruise’s casting. When they were bemoaning it before the first film’s release, I thought it was probably a storm in a teacup; that they’d get used to him over time. I mean, their sole objection seemed to be that he was too short, and how important was that, really? Incredibly important, apparently, because six years and two films later they still really, really hate him in the role. (Personally, I think him being a bit of a short-arse suits the characterisation better. Reacher seems to be a guy who gets underestimated; you don’t underestimate someone who walks in with the bulk of, say, Arnie. But then I’ve never read the books, so I may be wrong about this somehow.)

A woman's place is in the kitchen

Fans are one thing, but what put wider audiences off? Maybe it was just the poor reviews. Producer Christopher McQuarrie (who directed the first one, but was too busy on Mission: Impossible to return for the sequel) thinks one problem was they adapted the wrong book. I believe I saw him talk about this on Twitter, which means his comments can’t be referenced (because his tweets self-destruct), but if I remember correctly he didn’t say it was a bad novel, just that it didn’t work when placed as the second in the series. He speculated that more films were needed to establish Reacher’s character and world before they told this particular story. I tend to agree. For one thing, the film has to resort to an early montage to show Reacher and Turner’s friendship growing, which could’ve been more naturally handled by spreading it over a film or two. I think the possibility of Reacher having a kid would also carry greater weight if we were more familiar with the character from multiple adventures.

Well, it’s all academic now, given the film series is most likely over: just this week, creator Lee Child announced he intends to take the rights to TV, primarily to cast a more faithful actor after those continuing complaints about Cruise. It’ll be interesting to see if it really does make a difference having a taller actor in the role. Somehow, I suspect not. Child also said he’s aiming for the mooted series to adapt one book per 10-12 episode season. Considering he’s written 22 books already, I wonder if he believes they’ll ever get through them all…

“Sorry son, you just don't measure up.”

Hopefully whatever they do works, because I’ve enjoyed these Reacher films so far. Never Go Back may not be all it could be, but it’s not so poor as to merit abandoning the film series entirely — it’s above average rather than exceptional (my score errs on the harsh side, in part to differentiate it from the superior first movie). It’d be a shame to see the films tossed aside for something lesser.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. It’s also available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Hunt for Red October

The hunt is on.

Country: USA
Language: English & Russian
Runtime: 135 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 2nd March 1990 (USA)
UK Release: 20th April 1990
Budget: $30 million
Worldwide Gross: $200.5 million

Stars
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice, The Shadow)
Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff, The Bourne Ultimatum)
Sam Neill (Omen III: The Final Conflict, Jurassic Park)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, The Lion King)

Director
John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Thomas Crown Affair)

Screenwriters
Larry Ferguson (Highlander, Alien³)
Donald Stewart (Missing, Patriot Games)

Based on
The Hunt for Red October, a novel by Tom Clancy, the first to star Jack Ryan.


The Story
After the USSR launches a new type of submarine with an almost undetectable engine, its veteran captain, Marko Ramius, ignores his orders and heads for the US. As the Russians hunt for him and the Americans try to intercept him, one question is on both sides’ minds: is Ramius intending to defect or start a war?

Our Hero
CIA analyst Jack Ryan is something of an expert on Ramius, and the main voice insisting the Russian intends to defect. With just days to prove his theory, the normally desk-bound Ryan must venture out into the field — the “field” in this case being the stormy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Our Villain
Submarine captain Marko Ramius, a hero in the USSR who trained most of their fleet, has been entrusted with their latest top-secret vessel, the Red October… but what is he intending to do with it? If Ryan’s right, he’s not such a villain after all.

Best Supporting Character
Commander Bart Mancuso is the captain of the US submarine USS Dallas, the first to encounter the Red October and, thanks to its genius sonar technician, the only one able to track it. Scott Glenn’s performance was based on a real sub captain the cast spent time with, Thomas B. Fargo, whose friendly but authoritative manner and relationship with his crew inspired Glenn.

Memorable Quote
“‘Ryan, some things in here don’t react well to bullets.’ Yeah, like me. I don’t react well to bullets.” — Jack Ryan

Memorable Scene
As the Red October navigates an underwater pass only traversable thanks to detailed maps and precise timings, the silent engine fails, forcing them to engage the regular motors — which attracts the attention of the Soviets hunting them. With a torpedo on their trail, Ramius takes the precarious navigation into his own hands…

Technical Wizardry
With much of the action taking place in the cramped confines of various submarines (the Red October, the USS Dallas, and another Soviet sub, the V.K. Konovalov), cinematographer Jan de Bont realised they would need a way for viewers to quickly determine which submarine they were on, especially when cutting between action on multiple vessels. He decide to subtly vary the colour of the lighting on each sub — blue for Red October, red for the Dallas, and green for the Konovalov — so that they would be distinguishable without belabouring the point. It works: while watching the film, it’s never confusing which sub we’re supposed to be on.

Truly Special Effect
Apparently director John McTiernan wanted to realise the underwater action with CGI, until ILM pointed out it was nowhere near that advanced yet. Instead, most of the underwater shots are models — and not shot underwater, but in a smoke-filled warehouse. They look fantastic, with small CG additions (like plankton or the wake of propellers) helping to sell the visuals. On the downside, some of the pre-digital compositing is now really showing its age — Alec Baldwin’s hair is see-through in the final shot!

Next time…
With the film a huge success, naturally more Jack Ryan adaptations followed. Technically the first two, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, are sequels to Red October, but with Alec Baldwin busy the lead role was recast with Harrison Ford, so it feels more like the series starts over. For no apparent reason a fourth film in the series didn’t materialise, and so the series genuinely started over a decade later, with Ben Affleck playing a younger Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. That wasn’t a success, leading them to try again another decade later, with Chris Pine playing an even fresher Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. That wasn’t a success either, which has led them down the path of adapting the character for television, with John Krasinski playing another young Ryan in Amazon’s Jack Ryan.

Awards
1 Oscar (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing)
3 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Sean Connery), Production Design, Sound)

Verdict

Everything ages: Tom Clancy’s debut novel was credited with helping start the techno-thriller genre in the ’80s, which I guess made this film adaptation cutting-edge when it followed shortly afterwards. Now, it’s the best part of 30 years old and, even if it’s not exactly looking dated, it certainly doesn’t look current — they don’t make big-budget spy thrillers like this anymore. But maybe they should, because Red October’s qualities stand the test of time: its story is driven by well-drawn, interesting characters (the committed everyman hero; the moral enemy submarine commander; and so on) and an overall sense of suspense (who will find the sub first? And how soon? And what will they do then?), rather than elaborate stunts or computer-generated effects. I like the latter too, but there’s room for variety in the cinematic landscape. Well, at least we’ll always have minor classics like this to watch again and again.

The latest screen iteration of Tom Clancy’s hero can be seen in the TV series Jack Ryan, available to stream on Amazon Prime from today.

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

aka Zatôichi sakate-giri

2018 #157
Kazuo Mori | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man

The eleventh film in the Zatoichi series is perhaps the first one that could legitimately be described as bad. It’s not outright terrible, but the plot doesn’t hold together very well, and there are only a couple of redeeming scenes.

The first of these is at the very start, when the film opens on the striking image of Ichi receiving lashes as punishment for an initially-unspecified crime. They seem almost a minor inconvenience to our hero, however, who is more concerned with questions he has for his punisher about this cellmate of the previous night. It turns out he was the eponymous “doomed man”: a fellow who’s been incarcerated on a murder charge, but claims he’s innocent, and urges Ichi to track down the gang bosses who can vouch for him. Uncharacteristically, Ichi resolves not to help, but fate has other plans…

That reliance on fate to marshal Ichi around led me to dub this Zatoichi and the Coincidental Coincidences of Coincidence. He’s constantly stumbling back onto the film’s plot even when he tries to avoid it, or bumping into the people he needs to find, or bumping into people who happen to be connected to other people he happens to know. It’s easily the most poorly-constructed story of the series so far. That’s not limited to its dependence on coincidence, either: half the stuff it sets up doesn’t even pay off or come together in a reasonable fashion. Although the initial “wrong man” setup is enticing, rather than do anything interesting or different with that, it just turns out to be the series’ usual: some bosses have betrayed the chap as part of a scheme to control the area. And to rub salt in the wound, we learn about this in a scene where one conspirator explains what they’ve already done to his co-conspirator. Oh dear.

Shenanigans

It’s a very slight story — not even enough to sustain the brief sub-80-minute running time, it would seem, as we’re ‘treated’ to an array of unrelated shenanigans. The primary one is a young man who starts following Ichi around, then later impersonates the famed blind masseur for financial gain — and, supposedly, for comic effect. He’s played by Kanbi Fujiyama, who (according to Chris D. in his notes accompanying Criterion’s release) “was a noted funnyman in mid-to-late-sixties Japan, appearing in sidekick roles in many of Toei studios’ ninkyo (chivalrous) yakuza films.” Reading other reviews, a lot of people seem to find his schtick hilarious, but I thought he was the most irritating comic relief character the series has yet foisted upon us — and he’s basically the co-lead of this instalment, so we get to see far too much of him. He eventually turns out to have a connection to the main plot too, which is emblematic of the whole movie: the connection is a complete coincidence, dumped on us via random exposition late in the game, and then not paid off in any way. It’s entirely pointless. At one point he disappears from the film entirely. Due to how it was handled, I began to wonder if we were meant to infer he’d died off screen. But then he turns up again in the epilogue, as it merely to confirm that wasn’t the case.

That stands in opposition to the film’s main plot — you know, the titular one about the “doomed man” — which is resolved offscreen while Ichi’s already going on his merry way. It’s just one aspect that feels rushed (despite the short running time and ‘comedy’ distractions), or as if scenes were deleted. This is particularly noticeable as it pertains to the female interest, Oyone (Eiko Taki). Ichi rescues her thanks to a little trick she pulls, but then she seems ungratefully indifferent to him… until she’s suddenly hanging around near the end, hoping (as the women in these films always do) that he won’t run off while her back’s turned. Which is exactly what he does, of course.

Zatoichi with the doomed man

You may remember I said there were some good bits. One is the pre-titles, which I already partly discussed. They’re effective thanks to some strong photography from Hiroshi Imai and the way they flip around with our expectations to create mystery (even if the reason Ichi’s receiving those lashings is completely irrelevant to the rest of the film). The other is the finale. As usual, the movie climaxes with Ichi having to take on an army of goons single-handed, but this one adds some spice with a seaside location, strewn with fishing nets (which get brought into the action) and covered with an early morning sea mist. It’s also beautifully shot, and there’s nicely choreographed combat. It’s easily the highlight of the film.

Other reviewers are not so harsh on The Doomed Man, going so far as to call it a “fine entry” in the series, or “thoughtful [and] hilarious”. And yet, those reviews can’t seem to help spotting the flaws in spite of themselves. Walter Biggins’ review at Quiet Bubble is a series of questions about why the film is so poor, with the last query being the most baffling of all: “why, despite all this opacity all my questions, did I end up liking this movie so much?” I’ve no idea, mate. Several other reviews make comments along the lines of, “Ichi behaves uncharacteristically here, but there must be a good reason for that” — or it’s just crappy, inconsistent writing. At least Letterboxd users agree with me: it’s ranked 24th out of the main series’ 25 films (the only one lower is the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large — which, incidentally, is by the same director).

“Here's the end of the plot — go give it to someone and get this over with!”

For me, The Doomed Man is by a clear margin the weakest Zatoichi film so far. As nowadays I very much look forward to my regular appointments with Ichi, being so underwhelmed left me feeling disappointed: it wasn’t worth the wait since the last film, nor was it really enough to tide me over until the next one. For those reasons I considered giving it a lowly two stars, but that felt a bit harsh: it certainly isn’t without merit (the climactic fight is a stunner), and it’s always nice to spend time in Ichi’s company, even if he is being inconsistently written. Nonetheless, it only earns that third star by the skin of its teeth. This is a “for completists only” instalment.

3 out of 5

Killing Gunther (2017)

2018 #83
Taran Killam | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English, German & Spanish | 15 / R

Killing Gunther

Do you ever have that feeling where you want to watch a film but you don’t want it to be anything too demanding or important? I do. I’ve watched (and subsequently reviewed) plenty of films with that underlying motivation. Killing Gunther is the latest that absolutely fits that bill. I had paid it absolutely no heed whatsoever until I happened to see a trailer that looked moderately amusing. Bolstered by a Rotten Tomatoes pullquote that described it as “a very affectionate take on the [hitman action] genre, so it’s much easier to overlook its shortcomings if that happens to be a genre that you’re a fan of,” I decided it was worth a punt.

Framed as a mockumentary, it’s the story of a hitman (Taran Killam) who sets out to kill the world’s greatest hitman, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and assembles a team of oddball fellow hitman to do so. Unfortunately for them, Gunther is so damn good that he’s always several steps ahead.

As a comedy, I thought it was funny. Not always super original or absolutely hilarious, but ticking enough. As an action movie, some of the single-take assassination scenes are done quite well. It was clearly produced on a low budget, so the action sequences don’t really fulfil on an adrenaline-junkie level, but they work decently in context.

Gunther vs... that other guy

For Arnie fans, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t actually turn up until over an hour into the movie. Put another way, he’s not in 72% of the film. Really, it’s just an extended cameo. It would’ve been a neat surprise if his appearance was a secret, but the whole marketing campaign is based around him (which makes sense, but still).

If you hate mockumentaries, or indie comedies with more ambition than budget, or are coming just to see plenty of Arnie, then Killing Gunther is one to skip. If the concept and style appeals, however, it’s a decent 90 minutes for a lazy evening.

3 out of 5

Train to Busan (2016)

aka Busanhaeng

2017 #140
Yeon Sang-ho | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Train to Busan

Zombie movies have really risen to prominence this decade, for whatever reason (the success of The Walking Dead is an obvious culprit, though it would seem to have begun slightly before that, with Zombieland coming out in 2009, for example). You’d think that would result in the subgenre feeling played out, and there are certainly plenty of lesser efforts churned out, but films like the exceptional Train to Busan show there’s still quality to be found.

The film centres on Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund manager living in Seoul with his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an). Seok-woo’s work-focused attitude has left his relationship with his daughter strained and distant, so he acquiesces when she requests to visit her mother in Busan. As they board the train — alongside other passengers that represent a cross-section of society, natch — a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Initially safe in their carriage, the passengers must hope they can make it to safety.

The family that fights zombies together...

As you might expect, the mismatched group of passengers fall prey as much to their own infighting and prejudices as they do to the zombie hordes, and the situation works wonders for the father-daughter relationship of the lead characters. Despite that apparent predictability, co-writer/director Sang-ho Yeon and his cast earn our sympathies and create an attachment to these characters, such that we’re along for the journey with them. Whether or not you guess the letter of the plot is beside the point if you feel it along with the characters — when you’re on edge to see if they can make it, upset by their failures, and cheered by their victories. This also contributes to some effective suspense sequences, and the film is also peppered with intense, pulse-racing action scenes that have been impressively mounted. World War Z may’ve seemed to corner the market for “zombie movie as action epic”, but there are sequences here that give it a run for its money.

Train to Busan shunts aside any tiredness you may feel about zombie flicks to demonstrate that, however overdone a genre may seem, there’s almost always room for fresh voices and creativity to produce remarkable work.

5 out of 5

Train to Busan placed 14th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

And that completes the reviews of my 2017 viewing (at last!)

The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)

2018 #167
Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher & Bob Logan | 101 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Denmark / English | U / PG

The LEGO Ninjago Movie

After the somewhat surprising success of The LEGO Movie, both critically (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) and commercially ($469.2 million worldwide), Warner Bros and LEGO realised they were on to a good thing and so did what any movie studio does in such circumstances: plowed ahead not only with a sequel (out next February), but also spin-offs. The first one, The LEGO Batman Movie, continued the trend (90% Tomatometer; $312 million gross); the next one — this one — …didn’t. With a rotten 55% on the Tomatometer and a worldwide box office take of just $123.1 million (less than either previous film’s domestic gross alone), what went wrong? Did they flood the market with LEGO movies too quickly? Was Ninjago just not as attractive or familiar a brand as Batman or LEGO generally? Or is it just not a very good movie? Well, I’ll come to that.

The film sets its scene in Ninjago City, which is constantly terrorised by villain Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his armies. Fortunately for the good folk of Ninjago, they have a team of mech-driving colour-coded super-ninjas to protect them. In real life, those ninjas are just high school kids, and not particular popular ones — especially Lloyd (Dave Franco), aka the Green Ninja, who everyone knows is Garmadon’s son. When Lloyd’s daddy issues lead him to slip up, the ninjas have to save the city — and, in the process, Lloyd and Garmadon have to sort out their differences.

The Garmadons

The LEGO Ninjago Movie is quite clear that the focus of its story is the relationship between Lloyd and Garmadon, but it’s perhaps a little too focused on that. There are a bunch of other characters thrown into the mix — Lloyd’s five teammates; their master, Wu (Jackie Chan); Lloyd’s mother (Olivia Munn) — but the film doesn’t afford the screen time to do any of them justice. In fact, the film probably would’ve been a lot better if it had cut back on the number of beats in the Lloyd/Garmadon story and devoted a bit more time to giving everyone a little subplot. If it kept busy doing that it might’ve picked up the pace a bit as well, because although Ninjago is more or less the same length as the two previous LEGO movies, it feels much longer.

Partly this is because it just doesn’t feel as inspired as the other movies — it lacks the spark of ingenuity that ignited their characters, humour, and stories. At times it feels entirely half-hearted. For example, Lloyd’s big mistake makes his teammates all hate him, but they immediately go on a journey with him anyway; Master Wu says the length of that journey will give them time to come back round to Lloyd, but the film never bothers to suggest that’s happening — as soon as they need to all get along again, they do. Clearly this was meant to have some emotional effect on Lloyd (even the handful of people who used to like him don’t anymore), but that’s never really given the emphasis to be felt either — so what was the point of them falling out with him in the first place?

Even in LEGO, Jackie Chan kicks ass

That said, it does muster suitable amusement in places, though not as regularly as the other two films. And if you’re a fan of Eastern genre movies — kung fu, giant monsters/mechs, samurai, etc — the whole shape and style of the film is a broad reference to that kind of cinema, which is fun for those in the know. Unfortunately, it comes up somewhat short in the action stakes — the mech sequences seem to be inspired by the Michael Bay school of throw tonnes of visual information at the screen and whizz through it at lightning speed, making some of it hard to distinguish, even with the separation benefits of 3D.

Despite all these negatives, I didn’t actively dislike The LEGO Ninjago Movie. It’s good in places, most of it ticking along at a level of passable entertainment — but it ticks along for too long, it’s not funny enough, and it can’t bring it all together in the way the other two films did. It suffers most of all from those comparisons, because it’s simply not a patch on the other two LEGO movies.

3 out of 5

The LEGO Ninjago Movie is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

2018 #164
Christopher McQuarrie | 147 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English & French | 12A / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

You can keep your Infinity Wars and your Incredibles 2sthis is the movie I’m most hyped for in 2018. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since it was announced we’d be getting another impossible mission from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who knocked it out of the park with the superb Rogue Nation. Anticipation only intensified with the fantastic trailers (that first one, scored to a Lalo Schifrined-up version of Imagine Dragons’ Friction, is a work of art in itself), and reached fever pitch with the influx of super-positive reviews in the past couple of weeks. Living up to the hype began to seem like an impossible mission all of its own.

Well, if there’s one thing Ethan Hunt and his IMF teammates can pull off, it’s… a rubber mask. But if there’s another, it’s the impossible — and how!

Two years after the events of Rogue Nation, Hunt (Tom Cruise, obv.) and his regular sidekicks Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are after three stolen plutonium cores that could be used to make nuclear bombs. They must stop them falling into the hands of The Apostles, a radical group seeking to execute the manifesto of John Lark, a shadowy figure the intelligence services have been unable to identify, who seeks to bring about a seismic change in the world order. When the IMF’s attempt to acquire the plutonium goes sideways, Hunt is assigned a CIA minder, August Walker (Henry Cavill), with orders to let nothing get in his way of finding The Apostles — including Hunt.

From there, we’re heading into proper spoiler territory (I already rewrote that last paragraph to avoid giving away an early twist. You’re welcome, readers). However, as the trailers have already revealed, the storyline brings back into action the last film’s antagonist, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), as well as Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the MI6 agent whose allegiances were constantly under question in Rogue Nation. She was ultimately confirmed to be on the side of good, but was supposed to be leaving the game. Why is she back? And whose side is she on now?

Faust-Ethan pact (that's a pun, FYI)

The plot that mixes all of this together gets… complicated. In some respects there’s a clear throughline from one action set piece to the next, but in others it can leave you reeling as it rockets from twist to reveal to counter-twist to counter-reveal. Mostly I think you have to go with the flow and accept whatever’s happening in the moment — if you start to think about the bigger picture (how people knew what when, and how they planned for this, that, and the other), it’ll make your head spin. Naturally, I was trying to do the latter, and got completely lost at one point in the middle when there’s an assault of back-and-forth twists about who has the upper hand. Again, if you just accept it and go with it, it’s fine, but try and unpick the logic of the whole thing in the moment and, well, you’ll be so busy thinking that you’ll probably miss another twist. Personally, I have a lot of faith in McQuarrie as a screenwriter, and I have no doubt the whole thing does make sense (or enough of it, at any rate), but he’s too busy racing along to let the film stop and allow you to confirm it for yourself.

Fiddly plots are nothing new to the Mission franchise, of course: the very first one was (and often still is) criticised for having a story that’s more impossible to follow than a typical IMF mission is to execute. What is new to Fallout’s story is that it’s a sequel. Obviously, there are four other Mission: Impossible sequels, but they’re all standalone movies really. With the return of Lane and Faust, plus some of the baggage they had with them, a lot of Fallout spins out of Rogue Nation — it’s unquestionably a direct sequel. And, once again without wanting to get spoilery (though, again, this is partially given away in the trailers), it also picks up on hanging threads from movies even further back in the series. In this respect it’s a great film for certified Mission fans: there are a number of payoffs and answers to questions that are only still thought about by such devotees; but it’s also done in such a way that it never obstructs the fun for casual viewers. That goes for the whole sequel thing: although the storyline is grounded in the events of Rogue Nation, Fallout gives you enough info that you could watch it as a standalone.

Long walk off a short aeroplane

Talking of Rogue Nation, about 24 hours before seeing Fallout I listened to Empire’s legendary three-hour Rogue Nation spoiler podcast, in which McQuarrie talks a lot about the writing process of a Mission movie, and what he learned about that during Rogue Nation. With his observations fresh in my mind, it shed an interesting light on Fallout — how and why it was doing certain things, as well as about when it chose to do them. Perhaps that’s why I was able to spot some of the reveals and stuff, because I knew the (self-imposed) rules McQuarrie was playing by. But there are some fascinating contrasts, too. For one not-really-spoilery example (because I’m going to talk about literally the first scene of the movie now), in the podcast he talks about how Mission films have to begin with a burst of action — no plot, no story, just straight into an action scene. It’s partly about giving the audience an instant thrill, but it’s more about letting them settle into watching the movie before you throw important information at them. But Fallout does literally the opposite: the first scene sees Hunt receive one of the series’ famous briefings (delivered, as always, in a completely different manner to how we’ve seen it done before), and that, as it’s precisely designed to do, delivers a massive infodump of plot. Now, how much of it you need to take in I’m not sure — various bits are explained again later as they become pertinent — but it certainly implies you should be paying attention. I’m in no way criticising this (I really liked everything in the pre-titles), it’s just an interesting contrast to how McQuarrie said things ‘needed’ to be done last time.

Another thing from the podcast: one rule they set themselves on Rogue Nation, which ended up being a massive thorn in their side, was that there had to be constant escalating tension, meaning the film had to end with the biggest action sequence of all. This was a self-imposed rule, but they struggled with it for ages before they finally realised it just wasn’t what the story demanded, which was when they alighted on the ending that saw Hunt outsmart Lane rather than engage in a massive action scene with him. Clearly McQuarrie came into Fallout more prepared, however, because while there are big stunts and action scenes throughout the film, the finale is the largest, most complicated, most dynamic, and most impressive sequence of the lot.

Watch that ankle...

And so we’ve come to the real point of the movie; the thing the trailers and posters and behind-the-scenes videos have all sold it on: the action sequences. Simply, they’re incredible. Cruise’s dedication to giving the audience something new and exciting and awe-inspiring to watch is second to none. He spent literally years preparing for this film, learning to fly a helicopter and perform HALO skydives. That’s him flying the helicopter. That’s him jumping out of a plane. That’s him doing all sorts of other stuff too, like riding against traffic on a speeding motorbike, or jumping across rooftops, or falling off the side of a mountain. The only effects work here is for the odd spot of safety-rig removal or, I presume, one or two moments that would be impossible to achieve safely in real life. And this dedication has paid off: it’s so much more thrilling when you know this has all been performed for real than it is to watch some pixels or someone on a green screen. Those kinds of effects have their place in other movies, and can provide a thrill within the context of the story, but they nonetheless lack the tangibility that doing it for real provides, and the knowledge it’s a genuine feat you’re watching adds a whole extra thrill of its own.

In filmmaking terms, McQuarrie does all he can to match Cruise’s drive to entertain us with his daring — not by being daring himself, but by showing off Cruise’s efforts in the best way possible. McQuarrie favours going without score for the action scenes, letting the sounds of revving engines, squealing brakes, thumping punches, and all kinds of crunching and smashing and thudding, be the only music you need. The tension and excitement comes purely from the physical feats on display, plus the camerawork and editing that showcase them. It works like a charm. I’ve seen music-less action sequences in the past where you feel the absence on the soundtrack; like something more is required. Early on in Fallout, I noticed the absence of music during these scenes only because I was aware McQuarrie favoured it that way, and because of how much it wasn’t needed. But by the end of the film, I was too hooked to care — I honestly can’t tell you if Fallout’s big finale sequence has music or not, because it grabs the attention so thoroughly that I’d just stopped being aware.

Arms fully loaded

Of course, other parts of the movie do have a score, provided by Lorne Balfe. Thanks to where it’s been applied, much of it is atmospheric rather than the pulse-racing theatrics you expect of an action movie score, though he makes nice use of Lalo Schifrin’s original themes — both the main one and The Plan — to provide grace notes where required. Plus there’s the big title sequence to really show off that iconic main number — and, like Rogue Nation, we’re treated to it twice. At my screening the houselights came up and people started walking out during the second one, which kind of bugged me — it’s not just names scrolling, it’s part of the movie, McQuarrie using it as a kind of final hurrah to send you away with (just as he did in Rogue Nation — he’s repeating the ‘trick’ because it works so damn well). Personally I prefer Joe Kraemer’s rendition of the title theme from last time, but Balfe’s is a worthy alternative.

Also new to the franchise is cinematography Rob Hardy, who’s delivered some gorgeous photography here. Not in a showy way, but there’s a richness to some shots, plus consistently great choices of angles and camera moves. The entire thing is about forward momentum — from set piece to set piece to set piece — and that’s conveyed by the way the camera moves, too. Even, for example, when cars drive up to buildings: rather than just observe it, the camera’s behind them, low to the ground, speeding along. Rarely has some people arriving at a near-empty airfield to get on a plane felt so exciting. I believe the film was shot mostly on 35mm, and those who care about such things will surely notice the benefit in many sequences. The big exception is the couple of sequences that use an IMAX ratio if you attend such a screening, which were shot in digital 8K (the need for small, light cameras precluding the use of genuine IMAX ones). Long gone are the days when mixing film and digital would make the difference obvious, however, and the switch between formats is entirely unnoticeable.

IMF class of 2018

If there’s one disappointment, it’s that the trailers gave too much away. Technically there’s a shedload of plot stuff they didn’t reveal, but honestly, the plot’s not where the real entertainment value lies. For one thing, seasoned viewers will see most or all of the twists coming. Maybe they could’ve kept some returning characters a surprise, but they’re all in the trailer too. No, this film is all about the incredible action, and story context only adds so much to that. What it does add, at least, is tension: the “oh my God, Tom Cruise is doing what?” factor may’ve been burned up by the trailers, but the edge-of-your-seat suspense about whether Ethan Hunt can achieve his goals is still there. And while the mind-boggling-ness of a first impression may be gone, the stunts are still genuinely spectacular — so much so that you can watch them again and again and still be thrilled, which means they do survive being in the trailers. Of course, if you were lucky (or sensible) enough to avoid those advertisements… boy, are you in for a treat!

Even if you didn’t, I still think it’s a treat — they went and put all the best bits in the trailer and yet it’s still bloody spectacular. I think Rogue Nation may’ve had a better story, but nothing beats Fallout for adrenaline and spectacle. Well, every Mission movie is different in its own way, has its own strengths, and it’s clear what Fallout’s are. Personal preference will therefore dictate where you rank it next to the other movies, but what I’ll say is this: in a series where the level of consistency is so high that my personal favourite is usually whichever one I happen to be watching at the time, Fallout easily stands toe to toe with the rest.

5 out of 5

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is in UK cinemas now, and in the US from this evening.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Mission: Impossible III

The Mission Begins

Also Known As: M:i:III

Country: USA, Germany, China & Italy
Language: English
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 3rd May 2006 (11 countries)
UK Release: 4th May 2006
US Release: 5th May 2006
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $397.85 million

Stars
Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men, Edge of Tomorrow)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, The Master)
Ving Rhames (Con Air, Piranha 3D)
Michelle Monaghan (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Source Code)
Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Watchmen)
Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, John Wick: Chapter 2)

Director
J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Screenwriters
J.J. Abrams (Armageddon, Super 8)
Alex Kurtzman (The Island, Transformers)
Roberto Orci (The Legend of Zorro, Star Trek)

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


The Story
Ethan Hunt and his IMF team must track down ruthless arms dealer Owen Davian before he can get his hands on the Rabbit’s Foot, a potentially catastrophic weapon.

Our Heroes
Ethan Hunt has semi-retired to a life of (to-be-)wedded bliss and training new recruits, until his protégé, Lindsey Farris, goes missing on an undercover op and Ethan is persuaded back into active duty to rescue her. For that he’ll need a team, including his regular partner, hacker Luther Stickell, plus pilot Declan Gormley, and Zhen Lei, whose particular skillset I’m not sure is clarified beyond being kick-ass and looking good in a dress. Back at IMF HQ, there’s also a helping hand from funny British tech whizz Benji Dunn.

Our Villain
Owen Davian is not a man to be messed with — and when Hunt and his team do, Davian is hellbent on revenge. As portrayed by the peerless Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s the most genuinely threatening villain of the entire series.

Best Supporting Character
The head of the IMF, Theodore Brassel, is a superb turn from Laurence Fishburne — commanding and imposing, but also drily hilarious. It’s a shame they never had him back. Alec Baldwin has taken over basically the same role in Rogue Nation and Fallout, and he’s good, but Fishburne was really good too.

Memorable Quote
“It’s unacceptable that chocolate makes you fat, but I’ve eaten my share and guess what?” — Brassel

Memorable Scene
The IMF team’s unofficial mission to capture Davian from a party in Vatican City, which involves stopping traffic in central Rome, overleaping security walls, blowing up sports cars, and, most fundamentally, switching out Davian for Hunt — wearing one of the series’ trademark masks, natch.

Memorable Music
Nothing against Michael Giacchino’s original score, but there’s no besting Lalo Schifrin’s fantastic main theme.

Truly Special Effect
The movie actually has loads of model work and CGI, as the special features attest, but the vast majority of it is totally invisible — as is the single greatest effects moment. It comes when Hunt puts on a mask of Davian: as he slips the mask over his head, the camera tracks around behind Luther, briefly hiding Hunt from our view — we assume it’s for the sake of an invisible cut to switch Cruise for Hoffman, but no: as the camera emerges out the other side, it’s still Cruise + latex. Only then, as Luther attaches the mask properly, is there a completely unnoticeable transition to the real Hoffman. Not only is it a superb bit of work, but it helps sell the idea that these masks are plausible — we’ve just seen him put one on, so they must be!

Previously on…
Starting out as a ’60s TV series created in the wake of James Bond’s success, Mission: Impossible’s own popularity saw it run for seven seasons into the ’70s, before being revived in the ’80s for two more seasons, and then relaunched as a Tom Cruise film franchise in the ’90s. As this one has “III” in the title, you can probably deduce that it was preceded by two others.

Next time…
Ditching the numbering, the M:I films have continued with Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation, and this week’s new release, Fallout. Already a huge critical success (scoring 97% on Rotten Tomatoes), there’s no reason to think we won’t be seeing more in the future.

Awards
1 Empire Award (Scene of the Year (the bridge attack))
1 Empire Award nomination (Best Thriller)
5 Saturn Award nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Tom Cruise), Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Director, Special Effects)
3 Teen Choice Awards nominations (Action Adventure, Actor: Drama/Action Adventure (Tom Cruise), Actress: Drama/Action Adventure (Keri Russell))
1 World Stunt Awards nomination (Best High Work)

Verdict

This is where the Mission: Impossible series as we know it today begins, both stylistically (although the series never adopts a house style, the pure individuality of Brian De Palma or John Woo won’t be seen again) and narratively (while most of the plot points from 1 and 2 are never referenced again (bar an Easter egg or two), there’s stuff introduced here that’s still a major part of the series in Fallout). That said, it’s still very much a standalone movie (the series has never become reliant on continuity, though it looks like Fallout may change that somewhat).

And what of it as a film in itself, then? Well, kind of ironically, it has more action than the John Woo movie — there’s set piece after set piece after set piece. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, because they’re almost all phenomenal examples of suspense or action filmmaking. Though, it must be said, a mite too much of it is enabled by green screen, lacking the done-for-real extravagance of the films that follow. And there are a couple of exceptions to that “phenomenal” assessment: the Shanghai skyscraper heist, which feels like they knew the film was going on too long and so what should be a huge section is rushed, with the middle chopped out; and the climax, which has its moments but is rather underpowered, just a runaround in some houses.

That said, the finale does keep the focus on Hunt and his new wife, which is only fitting. This is the series’ most emotional and human film — all the stuff with Ethan and his home life/relationship is absolutely central to the movie; and the villain chooses specifically to mess with both Ethan’s protégé and his missus, making this the most “this time it’s personal” of the Missions. It isn’t even that concerned about its own big threat, making the Rabbit’s Foot the most MacGuffin-y MacGuffin ever. It’s never explained what it is — in fact, that’s even made into a bit of a joke in the penultimate scene. But we get the stakes because they have Benji give a theory about what it could be, so we know its potential. It’s neatly managed so that we believe this thing matters, but we remain focused on the characters instead of “what happens if they use the Rabbit’s Foot?” (Well, some of us do: according to Christopher McQuarrie, the lack of explanation didn’t go down well with test audiences, since when Cruise has taken it to heart that audiences like things to be explained.)

All in all, whenever I watch M:i:III I end up loving it more than I think I will — it’s an incredibly proficient, entertaining action-thriller. That I’d still rank it near the bottom of the franchise says more about the quality of the other instalments than it does the film itself.

The new Mission: Impossible, Fallout, is released in the UK today and in the US on Friday.

The Great Wall (2016)

2017 #158
Zhang Yimou | 103 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA, China, Hong Kong, Australia & Canada / English, Mandarin & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

The Great Wall

This movie was on a hiding to nothing from the moment people got wind of the fact it was a China-set action movie starring white American Matt Damon. Increased representation is all well and good, but you still need a big-name star in order to get funding for your movie if it’s a $150 million production aimed at a global audience, and the stars who can sell movies that big around the world are almost exclusively white. It’ll be a positive thing when that changes, but it’s the way it is right now. Should we write off entire movies just because they have to think about budget more than political correctness?

There are pros and cons within the film itself. Damon plays a mercenary who stumbles upon China’s national secret: that the Great Wall was built to keep out monstrous beasts, and when they attack it has to be defended. An outsider character works as a good way into this story, though of course there are “white saviour” issues with it being someone who looks like Matt Damon. If you want to object to the movie entirely for those reasons, that’s your prerogative. There were other criticisms of it as a piece of entertainment, but I hold even less stock in those, because I thought it was highly entertaining.

The best bit is the first 25 minutes. This opening salvo is phenomenal: a huge, well-made battle sequence with tonnes of cool moments. It’s so epic, it feels like the climax. That leaves you wondering where the film possibly has left to go for the next hour-and-change — can it possibly have something up its sleeve to top that? Unsurprisingly, it heads away from huge battles and into skirmish territory. Fortunately, inventive ideas keep these sequences from feeling like lesser fodder than the epic opening act. In the end, it never does top the opener, but hey-ho.

Colourful diversity

As for the plot, well, it is what it is. There are some obvious holes and contrivances (most obviously: why do they hold back some weapons and tactics to only use in later battles?), but nothing I found too bothering for the type of entertainment the film seeks to provide. Character work is also about what you’d expect from an action-adventure blockbuster, though Damon and Pedro Pascal have a buddy relationship that’s a lot of fun. Despite the presence in key roles of Damon, Pascal, and Willem Dafoe, most of the cast are actually Asian, with the standout being Jing Tian as a strong female co-lead.

As you might expect from the director of Hero, the film is a visual feast. There’s vibrant design work, emphasised by cinematography from DPs Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding that makes things like the colour-coded soldiers really pop. And the 3D is spectacular. Although it’s a post-conversion, the film definitely seems to have been shot with it in mind. The massive scale of the wall allows for both deep scenery shots and extreme height, especially when we follow the class of warriors who dive off the wall to fight while abseiling down it. Then there are the arrows, throwing axes, leaping monsters, exploding monsters… Of course the rest of the film has visual depth too — facial details in close-ups, the scale of a large banquet hall, and so on — but the action scenes are a riot.

That’s why I enjoyed The Great Wall, despite its daft plot. The action is a lot of fun, and the whole thing looks spectacular in 3D. From an action-adventure blockbuster, that’ll do me nicely.

4 out of 5