Arrival (2016)

2016 #179
Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

This review sort of contains spoilers.

Arrival

An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

We're only human after all

Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

Majestic

Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

5 out of 5

Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

It placed 6th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

* Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

2015 #184
Christopher McQuarrie | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English, Swedish & German | 12 / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Rogue NationIt’s an overcrowded year for spies on the big screen (as previously discussed), so I imagine Paramount were very glad they were able to make the last-minute decision to pull this fifth Mission: Impossible movie forward from its original post-Spectre release date to a summer debut, before audiences perhaps felt the genre was played out. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: for my money, Rogue Nation is the best James Bond movie released in 2015.

Beginning a year or two on from the last Mission, we find IMF’s star agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) investigating the Syndicate, a shadowy terrorist organisation that may not even exist. Hunt finds proof when he’s kidnapped by the Syndicate, escaping with the help of one of their operatives, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Unfortunately, this is the moment when Washington politicking by CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) sees the IMF shut down. So, naturally, Hunt goes on the run, determined to find and eliminate the Syndicate.

Rogue Nation has a nicely straightforward yet nuanced espionage-y plot, though its hard to accurately summarise its inciting incidents without giving too much away. Suffice to say, it’s not long before Hunt is reuniting with former IMF teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Luther (Ving Rhames), as well as forming an off-and-on alliance with double (or triple?) agent Faust. They’re aligned against the Syndicate, led by the excellently named Solomon Lane. He’s played by Sean Harris, on fine form as a very still, very quiet, very bespectacled villain. Even though you know the heroes are going to win, it becomes hard to see how they’re going to manage it, so powerful and threatening is Lane.

Crazy stuntsObviously this uncertainty is also thanks to the story constructed by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. Some automatically dismiss the plots of the Mission films, saying they’re just an excuse to link some death-defying stunts performed by Mr Cruise. Although there may be an element of truth to that, I don’t think this is a bad storyline by any means. As I said, it’s fairly straightforward (there’s no mole in IMF! Hurrah!), but the intricacies keep it engrossing and keep you guessing. And anyway, the action sequences it ties together are first-rate. You’ve pretty much seen the opening plane stunt in the trailer — heck, you’ve seen it on the poster — but it’s still a thrilling opener. Then there’s the opera sequence, a massive logistical challenge for the filmmakers that they’ve crafted to perfection, making one of the most effective and memorable spy sequences for a long time; arguably, ever. There’s a rich pedigree of such scenes set in theatrical spaces, be they by Hitchcock or even in otherwise-poorly-regarded Bond films, but Rogue Nation’s sits proudly alongside them.

Unsatiated by creating two iconic scenes, McQuarrie and co set about offering even more: there’s an underwater sequence where Hunt has to hold his breath for fully three minutes while diving, replacing an underwater computer chip, and escaping; there’s a crazy car-vs.-bike chase through the backstreets of Casablanca; that’s followed by an equally manic bike chase along the motorways and windy cliff roads of Morocco… If the climax — a runaround through the foggy streets of London — feels a little underwhelming by comparison, it’s through no fault of its own. In my Ghost Protocol review I discussed the Mission films’ consistently lower-key finales, and Rogue Nation is no exception, although I’d contend the sequence works well enough that it’s still one of the franchise’s most effective climaxes.

Team improbableAs alluded to above, this is probably the most globetrotting Mission film yet: it starts in Belarus, before taking in Washington D.C., Cuba, Paris, Vienna, Casablanca, and London. It’s things like this that lead me to describe it as a James Bond film. There’s also the balance of a serious plot line with plenty of humour, the use of outlandish just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, and the fact that the series can’t retain a female cast member for more than one film (though that last one isn’t a positive). For all the effort Spectre made to bring classical Bond elements back into the fold, Rogue Nation arguably feels more like a classically-styled Bond movie. It’s not a faultless like-for-like comparison — one of Rogue Nation’s best points as a Mission movie is that the whole team are necessary to complete the mission, a defining factor of the TV series that many felt went awry in the movies, with their focus on Cruise — but the almost-indefinable sensation of this experience is Bondian. It’s not stealing that style, though: considering Ghost Protocol had it too, and Craig-era Bond has abandoned it for a ‘classier’ action-thriller mode, it’s something the M:I series has come to own.

Indeed, of late the Mission films have come to feel more like a series than they did previously. It’s now quite well known that every Mission film has a different director, a conscious choice on the part of star/producer Tom Cruise to give each film a unique flavour. To be honest, I’m not sure how well that’s worked. M:I-2 drips with John Woo’s personal style (to the distaste of many, as it turned out), and I suppose the first film is pretty Brian De Palma-y, but since M:i:III things have got distinctly less distinctive. That was helmed by J.J. Abrams, whose only stylistic point is “lens flare”; and it was his first feature, so he didn’t even have that yet. The fourth film was by Pixar’s Brad Bird, making his live-action debut. This fifth isn’t McQuarrie’s first film, at least, but it is only his third, and the first was 15 years ago and I’m pretty sure no one remembers it. Now, none of these chaps did a bad job — far from it, as Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are among the series’ best instalments, perhaps even the two very best — but I think you’d be hard pushed to tell the last three films came from different creative brains.

InterrogationSo on the one hand the recent news that McQ (as current regular collaborator Cruise calls him) is returning to write and direct the sixth Mission is a shame, because it breaks a twenty-year rule; but on the other, I’m not sure it matters. Plus, by taking on the dual role of sole writer and director, you could argue McQ’s Missions are the most auteur-y of the lot, even in spite of the lack of a terribly unique visual style. Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that I was a little disappointed when it was announced there wouldn’t be a sixth director for the sixth film, because I always thought that was a neat idea; but as the idea hasn’t actually had much effect, who better to ask back than the man who wrote and directed arguably the best Mission: Impossible film of them all?

Perhaps that’s because (according to Abrams in one of the special features) McQuarrie wanted this to be a sort of “greatest hits” for the M:I franchise. He’s done that pretty subtly — you don’t feel like you’re watching a string of ripoffs from the first four — but he has done it, with sequences and locations that recall the previous films, and some nice hidden Easter eggs for the hardcore, too. Technical attributes are equally up to scratch, with some lovely lensing by Robert Elswit. He shot most of it on 35mm film and it pays off, with an indefinable classy quality. The score is by Joe Kraemer, who I’d not heard of before, probably because the main thing he’s done is score both of McQ’s previous films. No matter, because his work here is top-notch, and certainly the most memorable Mission score I can, er, remember. Wisely, he’s taken the iconic main theme as his starting point, also used Lalo Schifrin’s other beloved M:I piece, The Plot, and mixed recognisable motifs and elements from these throughout his own compositions. It works marvellously, and helps contribute to not one but two of the best title sequences the Mission films have yet had. Yes, two, in one film. It feels kinda greedy, but I enjoyed it — when you’ve got a theme that good, why not highlight it twice?

Obligatory photo of Rebecca Ferguson in that dress with those legsThe cast are liable to get lost among all the grandiose goings-on in a film like this, so its a testament to the skilled team that’s been assembled over the past few movies that they absolutely do not. Cruise is Cruise — surely by now you know whether you like him or not. I always feel like I should dislike him, especially given his crazy real-life religious views, but on screen I find him very entertaining. Rogue Nation is no different. Hunt is on the back foot for a lot of the film, and Cruise is at his best when he’s playing someone who’s almost the underdog. He’s also a more talented comic actor than he’s normally given credit for, and that glimpses through here too. Most of the time comedic duty is handled by Pegg, of course, who provides a good foil as Hunt’s sidekick for much of the film. More surprising, perhaps, is the amount of humour Jeremy Renner brings. It’s much less obvious, dryer and more sarcastic, so the contrasting tone is fun. He’s paired with Ving Rhames for a long stretch, who returns wholesale after sitting out Ghost Protocol but for a cameo. The pairing may come up just short of feeling inspired, but nonetheless make for an entertaining change. Elsewhere, Baldwin offers a neat, not-too-clichéd turn as the CIA ‘villain’, while Tom Hollander pops in for a funny cameo-level turn as the British Prime Minister.

But the real star of the film is Rebecca Ferguson, marking the second male-led action franchise this year where the movie has been stolen from the male hero by the female ‘support’. (The other, of course, is the much-discussed Furiosa in Fury Road.) Ilsa Faust is a fantastic character, whose allegiances are regularly questioned — every time you think you have her pinned down, something changes. She’s an immensely capable agent, but Ferguson also finds her vulnerable side when needed. She’s no damsel in distress — far from it — but she’s not just a cold man-but-with-boobs action heroine either. (Incidentally, it would’ve been very easy to illustrate this review with half a dozen pictures of Ferguson being awesome. But I resisted. Though I should’ve made room for this.) As an action movie leading man, and a producer who can shape the film how he wants, it’s to Cruise’s credit that he allows everyone else to share so much screen time — and to save him on more than one occasion too — and especially so when one of those characters is pretty much stealing the limelight out from under him.

Mission acceptedAs the fifth film in a franchise that has always carried a slight “pretender to the throne” air, Rogue Nation should feel played out and tired. Instead it seems fresh and invigorated, with a spot-on tone, likeable and fun characters, a real sense of jeopardy and menace (missing in so many modern action films), and some of 2015’s very best action scenes — and in the year of Fury Road, that’s really saying something. McQuarrie has already spoken about learning lessons from this so he can make the next one even better. I find that hard to imagine, but that’s his mission, and I choose to accept it.

5 out of 5

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

2015 #15
Brad Bird | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UAE & Czech Republic / English | 12 / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Ghost ProtocolWith Bond going “real world” and gadget-free in the Daniel Craig era, and the Bourne series having blazed a trail of “we shot it all handheld and shaky and grainy so it must be real” veracity, it seems the task of providing audiences with a contemporary version of the spy action, just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, and larger-than-life spectacle that the Bond movies specialised in during the ’60s and ’70s, has fallen upon the Mission: Impossible franchise. For my money, it’s taken the baton with aplomb.

This fourth instalment finds Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) having to enact the titular protocol when IMF are blamed for a terrorist attack and disbanded. What that means is going it alone with a small team of loyal compatriots — newcomers Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who harbours a secret, and Jane (Paula Patton), who’s cowed by a failure in her previous mission, as well as returnee Benji (Simon Pegg), upgraded from office-bound tech-head in the last film to field agent tech-head here. They have to find the chap who did do the bad thing, and stop him from doing something even worse. Naturally that means trotting around the globe, engaging in adrenaline-pumping action sequences, and, the franchise’s speciality, performing vertigo-inducing stunts. For real, because, you know, Tom Cruise is crazy.

Naturally, the latter is the film’s most memorable asset — there’s a reason the Burj Khalifa sequence, where Cruise scales the outside of the world’s tallest building using only some magic gripping gloves, was all over the trailers and the only image on most of the posters (apart from the one I’ve used…) There are several great action sequences, but that — and the chase through a sandstorm that follows soon after — are the best. SandstormySomewhat unfortunately for pacing, they come halfway through. The climax is a mano-a-mano fight in an automated car park. It’s good, but feels underwhelming by comparison, with Michael “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Nyqvist’s middle-aged businessman villain never feeling like a credible physical threat to Cruise’s action hero. (Someone like the other Mikael Blomkvist, on the other hand, would’ve worked.)

This is a bit of a recurring theme with the Mission: Impossible films now, though. M:I-2 had numerous big sequences but ended with a knife fight on a beach, while the third one climaxed with a run around some houses. They worked in their own way — 2, in particular, because the rivalry between Hunt and the villain is so thoroughly built up throughout the film that their final face-off matters — but here the villain is underdeveloped, the threat he poses pitched as a broad “end of the world” type thing for most of the film rather than something specifically tied to one man, so the one-on-one showdown doesn’t feel earned.

Elsewhere, the film works in a nice subversion of another of the series’ stock-in-trades — namely the insanely good masks, which were so vital to the plots of the last two films. Possibly realising their effectiveness couldn’t be topped, or just fancying a change, here a situation is engineered where they must go without. It also means Cruise and co stay on screen as their characters, rather than having another actor embody them for what turns out to be tense, key sequence. Bonus.

GadgetsThere’s a host of other gadgets to be going on with, though. It may be a side effect of having the writer-director of The Incredibles at the helm, but the stuff they’ve dreamt up here is pretty cool. Okay, the plausibility is dubious… but not everything has to be super-real, does it? Can’t we have some actiony spy fun? I think we can; and it can be done without needing to apply the excuse of “well, the film’s basically a comedy, isn’t it?” that other (enjoyable, in their own way) films of the past decade-ish have used. The tone is clear right from the pre-titles, which feature one of the film’s best gadgets (no spoilers!), so I think it sets out its stall early enough. You’re not going to think you’re watching a moderately strait-laced movie only for an invisible car to turn up halfway through, put it that way. If you’re not on-board after the opener… well, there are plenty of Bourne and Bourne-a-like films to go back to.

Another aspect that may have been brought by the Pixar alum is a nice vein of humour. Most of it comes courtesy of Pegg, unsurprisingly, though Cruise’s ability to be light and amusing is one of his lesser-praised, but very able, qualities. It doesn’t undermine the action (as it does in some of the Moore Bonds, for instance) but adds welcome tonal variety.

Not all of Brad Bird’s decisions are to my liking, though. Reportedly, 25 minutes of Ghost Protocol were shot on IMAX. That’s about 19% of the film. On Blu-ray, the amount of the film afforded a Dark Knight-style shifting-aspect-ratio IMAX treatment is a whopping 0%. This was on the orders of the director, but it’s a shame. No, IMAX footage on a TV is not the same as watching it in an IMAX theatre, but releases like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire have proven it can still have a strong impact. I bet the Burj bits in particular looked stunning, and it’s a shame we’re not allowed to enjoy them in a form closer to how they were shot. What are you up to? Just hanging outStill, that’s a fault of the home entertainment release, not the film itself. In all other respects, Bird’s work is first-rate. I like that the series consciously changes director with each new film to provide new ideas and voices, but if they were going to break the pattern then Bird would’ve been a good guy to allow back (certainly a superior pick than the third film’s J.J. Abrams, anyway, who was originally slated to tackle this sequel too).

I’ve always been a fan of the Mission: Impossible series — indeed, the oft-derided second one is among my long list of favourite films — but Ghost Protocol I particularly enjoyed. After a third entry that sometimes bordered on becoming formulaic or rote (saved primarily by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain), this feels like a breath of fresh air. I was even tempted to go for a full 5 stars, but there are some bits that push the cheesiness too far (mainly the final poorly-green-screened scene), and the villain is underdeveloped. Ultimately these are minor complaints; fleeting niggles in a spy actioner of the highest calibre.

4 out of 5

The fifth impossible mission, subtitled Rogue Nation, is in cinemas tomorrow.

Ghost Protocol placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

American Hustle (2013)

2014 #93
David O. Russell | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
10 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design.


American Hustle“Don’t put metal in the science oven!”

If you’ve seen that bit, you’ve seen the most successful thing American Hustle has to offer. Possibly a victim of hype, it’s an over-long disappointment.

The plot sees a pair of con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) forced by an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to help take down some corrupt politicians (primarily represented by Jeremy Renner) and possibly the mob (led by a ‘surprise’ cameo). Occasionally throwing a spanner in the works — or some foil in the microwave — is the conman’s histrionic wife (Jennifer Lawrence).

As the uncommon four acting nominations attest, it’s all about the performances. Christian Bale got fat, Bradley Cooper wears funny hair, Amy Adams has frequently distracting cleavage, Jennifer Lawrence says something amusing about a microwave, and there’s the surprise cameo that everyone discussed and gave the game away. Jeremy Renner is also in it.

The con is on, the bras are offI never connected with the characters, so consequently never felt their predicaments, either romantic or professional. A halting chronologically-challenged start gives way to a middle that ultimately drags, before a “gotcha!” ending whose straightforwardness means it lacks the memorable punch of the best con movies.

Killer soundtrack, though.

3 out of 5

American Hustle debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

2013 #55
Tony Gilroy | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Bourne LegacyAs Jason Bourne flits around London and New York making trouble for what’s left of Treadstone, a group of shady men go about safeguarding their own secretive activities. When Bourne exposes Treadstone, a series of convoluted join-the-dots links means it could bring them down too, so they set about destroying their risky initiatives, including killing a bunch of medically-enhanced operatives. What they didn’t count on was one surviving…

That basic setup covers roughly the first 30-40 minutes of The Bourne Legacy. Normally I’d hate to describe so much of a film, but it’s not my fault that co-writer, director and Bourne series veteran Tony Gilroy takes that long to get his story up and running. And it’s another 20 minutes before the real meat-and-potatoes of the tale begins.

And it feels it, too. About 52 minutes in I paused it and went to the kitchen. Not for any particular reason; I just needed a break. There, I saw a slug crawling into my dog’s water bowl, drinking the water or something, I don’t know. I’d never seen that before. I ended up watching that slug slowly edge around the bowl for 15 minutes or more rather than go back to the film. It’s that engrossing.

Gilroy has written or co-written every Bourne film to date, so you’d think he knows his way around the franchise — and he does, but perhaps too well. Each Bourne sequel has basically relied on the same formula: “the conspiracy was bigger than you thought, and now the next level up want Bourne dead”. That was fine in Supremacy — indeed, it took characters left dangling from Identity and wrapped up their roles. Cross by name, cross by natureFor my money, Ultimatum felt like it re-hashed this storyline, bringing in new characters to force a new level of backstory and hierarchy. (Clearly most viewers didn’t mind, as it’s widely regarded as the best Bourne film.)

And Legacy recycles this idea for a third time. Now, Treadstone and Blackbriar are just two of many such programmes run by the CIA and/or some shadowy higher organisation I’m not sure is real. On the bright side, they’re not after Bourne, but new escapee Aaron Cross. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference.

If such a repetitious story wasn’t bad enough, Gilroy spends a ludicrous amount of time setting it up. The beginning of Legacy overlaps with the end of Ultimatum, showing us in dully intricate detail what the numerous new CIA characters were doing during that time. And intercut with that we have our new hero wandering by himself across Alaska. For half an hour. This isn’t an art film meditation on isolation, it’s an action thriller — get a bloody move on!

What did Gilroy lose between Ultimatum and this? Well, co-creators. He co-wrote Identity and Ultimatum, and had two different directors across the first three films. Here he’s responsible for the story, co-writing (with his younger brother), and directing. He undoubtedly has some degree of talent, but maybe the other voices were essential to honing it. The other thing a fresh perspective could bring is fresh ideas. If Gilroy has rehashed the same basic plot three times now, surely they need someone with a new story to offer?

Ah, Rachel WeiszPerhaps also, after four films, he’s too close. Clearly that has advantages for remembering the intricacies of the timeline and continuity, especially with the trilogy’s increasingly complex web of conspiracies and conspirators; but maybe Gilroy has become too deeply embroiled in that. After all, he thinks it’s OK to spend the first half hour of the film connecting up the dots between the previous story and his new plot — who really wants that? That’s for geeky fans to do later.

And yet, for all that, the timeline doesn’t quite make sense. If we assume Identity is set in 2002, because that’s when it was released, then Supremacy is two years later, in 2004. Ultimatum is six weeks after that, so late 2004 or early 2005, and Legacy is immediately after that (as I said, the start overlaps). So, it’s set seven years ago? But a character finds a moderately key plot point on YouTube as if it’s the most natural thing in the world… but the very first YouTube video wasn’t uploaded until April 2005. I guess the films operate on a sliding timeline now, much like long-running superhero comics or the Bond films. That or The Bourne Identity is really a sci-fi film set in the Future Year of 2009. Considering the ‘science’ brought to bear in Legacy, perhaps that is the idea.

This is also the first Bourne film that leaves its storyline truly open. The other sequels had threads to pick up on, obviously, but if the series had stopped after either Identity or Supremacy, you’d have still had a complete tale (or Ultimatum, of course). It’s ironic, because this is also the first time I’ve been left with no desire to see a follow-up. The ending reminded me a bit of Saw IV, actually. For those who don’t know their Saw films, that takes place concurrently to Saw III, following different characters and a different storyline. Requisite Bourne movie car chase, with a bikeAt the end, the two films come together, adding a few seconds more story to what we saw at the end of IV, and ready to move on with unified purpose (well, sort of) in Saw V. Legacy feels like it concludes the same way: we’ve been introduced to new bad guys and a new hero, and the events that ended Ultimatum have been given a few seconds more development with a new twist; so now all is ready to rejoin where we left Bourne himself and continue afresh. Except Matt Damon seems to have ruled out that idea already. And, like I said, do we really want more of these characters and their increasingly ludicrous levels of conspiracy?

Legacy isn’t all bad. When it finally moves up to second gear (after a whole hour) there’s the occasional good action sequence. The requisite Bourne car chase is replaced by a bike chase, but I’d happily argue it’s at least the equal of any of the series’ other road chases — the only part of the film that can stand up to its predecessors, because the other fights and foot chases don’t have the same edge. Indeed, a rooftop/alleyway chase in Manila is just a rehash of Ultimatum’s Tangier sequence, but not as exciting. And through all that, the story remains resolutely uninvolving.

And don’t get me started on the cast. Jeremy Renner is fine as an action man but doesn’t deliver any other significant likeable qualities here (and I don’t think that’s his fault). Rachel Weisz is normally brilliant, but here is reduced to a snivelling plot piece. They’ve made her character a Clever Scientist, which is presumably supposed to make her a Strong Female Character too, but that’s not how it’s played at all. Edward Norton Starring Edward Norton staringis wasted staring at monitors; Albert Finney is literally wasted, his one meaningful moment relegated to the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes section; Zeljko Ivanek gets a pivotal character but is underdeveloped and so his talents are wasted; and some actors from previous Bourne movies appear to be credited merely for use of their photos, until they turn up for ten-second cameos near the end that you’d rather weren’t there because it means someone is planning on a Bourne 5.

After the muted reception Legacy got on release I was expecting it to be mediocre — or perhaps, if I was lucky, underrated — but I thought it was mostly just boring, worse than I’d heard, and not even close to any of the previous Bourne films. They’re exceptional examples of the action-thriller, of course, but this isn’t even good as a routine genre entry, because it’s quite spectacularly dull. I do believe they could have continued this series without the character of Jason Bourne — there’s potential in some of the ideas here. But this version just doesn’t work, as a compelling film or worthy successor.

2 out of 5

The Bourne Legacy is on Sky Movies Premiere at 4pm and 8pm every day for the next week.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2013, which can be read in full here.