Europa Report (2013)

2015 #158
Sebastián Cordero | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Astronauts head to a Saturnian moon to examine its water in this scientifically-accurate drama.

The voluminous “special thanks” to space-related organisations shows how seriously the filmmakers took that accuracy, and it pays off in the exploration of some neat ideas. A faux-documentary style lends verisimilitude, as well as an effective “unreliable narrator”-style twist.

However, story construction is frustrating, jumping around in time merely to create mysteries out of thin air, a technique so forced it becomes irritating. It also fails to disguise that Sharlto Copley’s entire storyline is just padding.

Still, worth a look for fans of realistic near-future sci-fi.

3 out of 5

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

John Wick (2014)

2015 #89
Chad Stahelski (& David Leitch)* | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

Keanu Reeves is John Wick, a nice guy whose wife sadly died. Now he lives alone with a puppy. Then he accidentally annoys a thug (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) at a gas station, so he and his mates break into Wick’s house to teach him a lesson. The thug is the son of a big-time gangster (the Millennium trilogy’s Michael Nyqvist), so he does that kind of thing. They kill the puppy, but leave Wick alive. However, turns out Wick used to be an awesome assassin, renowned throughout the underworld — to everyone except this kid, it seems — and so he quite rightly sets out to execute their dog-murdering asses, consequences be damned.

John Wick is an action movie. I know you know that, but what I mean is, that’s kind of all it is. There’s no transcendent deeper meaning here; no attempt to explore the real life of a hired killer. If anything, this is an ultra-heightened universe, where the criminal underworld has an entire society and set of rules unto itself, including a raft of familiar faces in cameo-sized roles. It feels like it’s adapted from a comic book — they usually put that level of extra detail in more than films do — but it isn’t. There’s a rich world hinted at here; one that teases at more, but also supports the film. That is to say, there’s fan-driven talk of sequels and spin-offs set in this ‘universe’, but in and of itself it functions within the film, rather than simply being setup for more. It’s a better way to potentially start a “shared universe” franchise than the forceful way other studios are going about it with DC heroes / King Arthur / Robin Hood / et al, anyway.

A decade and a half on from The Matrix, Reeves (and presumably an army of stuntmen) remains as capable an action hero as ever. Co-directors Stahelski and Leitch have an extensive background in that field (they first worked with Reeves on The Matrix and its sequels) and so they know what they’re doing when it comes to the shoot-outs, fist-fights and car duels. Unfortunately for John Wick I watched it soon after The Guest, whose singular style ultimately made more of an impression on me, but there’s no denying the virtuoso fight work on display here. This is a film for action movie fans to revel in — it has little to offer anyone else.

That said, this isn’t a straight-up Statham-style blockhead fight-fest. That unique, unusual world it sets itself up in sees to that. It has an almost mystical, fairytale quality to it. There’s no sci-fi or fantasy element, but it does feel like Wick descends into an alternate world, one hidden alongside our own. Tonally, at times it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (or the TV series it comes from, as I’ve never read the book). I suppose it’s because this criminal underworld has its own special rules, its own special locales, and an occasionally mannered way of talking and behaving. As I said, there’s no fantasy element, but it has a left-of-centre alternate-reality feel.

Combine that with the exciting, innovative, technically faultless action sequences and you have a distinctive, memorable movie. It seems to have gone down a storm with action movie fans, anyhow, and so those hoped-for sequels and/or spin-offs are most definitely in development. It’ll be interesting to see if it does what-I-call “a Bourne”, spiralling from a well-liked almost-sleeper-hit first film into an everyone-knows-it major franchise, or, well, not.

4 out of 5

John Wick is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.


* Leitch is uncredited as a director due to those DGA rules that meant Robert Rodriguez had to resign his membership to give Frank Miller his due on Sin City; that meant the Coen Brothers used to just be credited as “Joel Coen”. It’s pretty clear (especially if you watch the special features) that Stahelski and Leitch worked as a team, so for once I’ve ignored my rule of only crediting the credited director. ^

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 a 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.