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.

It placed 1st on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

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Star Trek Beyond (2016)

2016 #183
Justin Lin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Star Trek Beyond

The cover of Star Trek Beyond’s Blu-ray proudly proclaims that it’s “the best reviewed action movie of the year”. I don’t think that’s true (Civil War, anyone?), but it does indicate the mindset producing these films nowadays: they’re not the serious-minded sci-fi the Trek franchise was once known for, but action-orientated summer blockbusters.

As that, Beyond is pretty entertaining. An overall lighter tone than the heavy-handed Into Darkness, plus competently executed action sequences and fewer incredulity-inducing contrivances, make for a fun adventure.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t succumb to the modern franchise proclivity for forcing third movies to be trilogy-formers. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising though: it was confirmed before Beyond’s release that a fourth (aka fourteenth) movie is in development, so obviously this shouldn’t feel like the end of the road for this crew. The upside of this is that Beyond can get on with its story, unworried about being Epic.

Explosive

The downside is it creates a “just another adventure” feel to the plot — a bread-and-butter situation for Star Trek’s original TV format, but underwhelming in an expensive blockbuster movie franchise. Consequently Beyond feels inessential. That’s an odd sensation in a franchise nowadays, where the usual MO sees every movie feed into a bigger multi-film narrative. But with Into Darkness being deliberately ignored here (thanks to its unpopularity with hardcore Trekkies) and Beyond functioning as “just another adventure”, Trek is almost a franchise-out-of-time, where individual instalments can be entirely enjoyed in isolation.

Not that I think that’s a bad thing. Beyond may lack a certain epicness, but it’s entertaining enough for what it is.

4 out of 5

Star Trek Beyond is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full 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 makes 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 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.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

2014 #134
Steven Spielberg | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | PG / PG

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn1981: Steven Spielberg reads a French review of his movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. His high-school-level French serves him well enough, although there’s repeated use of one word he doesn’t know: Tintin.

25 years later: Spielberg has been struggling to make a film version of Hergé’s character for quarter of a century. While developing a live-action version that would feature actors under heavy prosthetics so as to resemble their comic book counterparts, he realises Tintin’s famous dog, Snowy, will need to be computer generated. He reaches out to Peter Jackson and Weta, fresh off their ground-breaking work on The Lord of the Rings. Their test footage is so successful, it gives Spielberg another idea…

2011: after 30 years, Spielberg finally brings the boy reporter to the big screen as a motion-captured animation. Reviews and public reception are mixed, particularly in the US, but they’re all daft because The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is bloody brilliant.

Combining events from three of Hergé’s original albums, the story sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchase a model ship that is highly desired by the mysterious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). A riddle hidden inside the model sets the ever-inquisitive reporter on a quest to find out what nefarious deeds Sakharine is planning, along the way bumping into drunkard Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who holds the key to the entire mystery. Cue a globetrotting adventure that, yes, is very much in the Indiana Jones mould.

Tintin and HaddockApparently some Tintin purists weren’t so keen on the actual adaptation — elements of The Crab with the Golden Claws have been mixed in to a plot primarily taken from The Secret of the Unicorn, the sequel/second half of which, Red Rackham’s Treasure, is reportedly used sparingly. Plus, in the original tale Sakharine is a minor character who wasn’t responsible for much, apparently. As someone who’s only read one of those three volumes, and even then not since I was young, such things didn’t trouble me. What superstar screenwriters Steven “Doctor Who” Moffat, Edgar “Cornetto trilogy” Wright and Joe “Attack the Block” Cornish have captured is the spirit of Tintin: an engrossing mystery-adventure, laced with gentle satire and smidgens of slapstick comedy, but with real stakes and peril too.

A talented cast are up to the task. Bell adopts a posh-ish accent for the titular hero, and while some of the accusations of blandness aren’t wholly misplaced, he’s plucky and determined enough to make for an appealing lead. The king of mo-cap, Serkis, is able support as Haddock, while Craig makes for a very effective villain — I hope his post-Bond career, whenever that arrives, sees him playing villainous roles more often. Interestingly, it was his mannerisms that have survived the animation process the most. I mean it in an entirely non-critical way when I say every other character could have any actor behind the mo-cap baubles, but Sakharine’s face and body move with all the recognisable movements and expressions of his actor.

Of course he can't talk, he's a dogThe slapstick is mainly hoisted by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the physically-identical Thomson and Thompson — a true advantage of animation, that. I imagine some find their parts tiresome because of their inherently comic role, but they’re likeable versions of the characters. Even more joyous is Snowy, though. Well, I would like him, wouldn’t I? His internal monologue, such a memorable part of Hergé’s books, is omitted (as it is from every film version to date, I believe), but he’s full of character nonetheless. Some of the best sequences involve Snowy running in to save the day. I don’t think they quite got the animation model right (the one glimpsed in test footage included in behind-the-scenes featurettes looks better, for my money), but his characterisation overcomes that.

Bit of an aside, but I think there’s something notable about almost everyone mentioned so far: Moffat, Wright, Cornish, Bell, Serkis, Craig, Pegg, Frost… All British. I know that’s because we’re awesome ‘n’ all, but I think it’s also indicative of Tintin’s status in the English-speaking world — which more or less boils down to “unknown in America”, but also “pretty darn popular in Britain”. At least Spielberg, the man who wanted to cast an American as Harry Potter, seems to know this (further evidence: they’ve hired another British screenwriter for the sequel). For whatever reason, Tintin has never clicked in America, while the books remain very popular over here. It therefore feels like there’s a better chance for the films’ fidelity by using Brits (who have the correct tone and style almost ingrained) than by using people coming to the stories entirely for the first time, and perhaps bringing a more generic blockbuster sensibility. On the other hand, this might just be a horribly xenophobic way of interpreting a coincidental appearance by so many Brits in key roles — after all, Tintin’s Belgian, so it’s not like using Brits is “true to source”.

Action directionOf course, one very important person is neither British nor Belgian: Spielberg. The screenplay’s balance between peril and comedy is spotlessly enhanced by his peerless direction. In a world stuffed to the gills with lesser blockbusters that palely imitate the groundwork Spielberg and co laid in the ’70s and ’80s, work like this should remind people why he’s still the master of the form. The film is shot with an eye for realism (so much so that some viewers have been convinced it was filmed on real locations with real actors, with some CG augmentation for the cartoonish faces, of course), which helps lend a sense of plausibility and also genuine jeopardy. It’s easy to get carried away when working in CG animation, but often the most impressive works are ones that behave as if they’ve been shot largely within the limitations of real-world filmmaking technology.

That said, Spielberg isn’t afraid to make use of the freedom afforded by working in a computer-generated realm when appropriate: there are some spectacular individual shots, the most obvious being a single-take chase sequence down a hillside through a town. Even better are some of the transitions, which would be literally impossible to realise in live-action — without resorting to effects work, anyway. They’re hard to accurately describe, especially without ruining them, in part because each instance is different; but they do all look incredible, and, again, serve the story rather than being flashy for the sake of it.

It always went ok on Flight Simulator...The tone on the whole is resolutely PG — actually, like many an action-adventure blockbuster used to be before everything went slightly darker and PG-13. So, for example, Tintin wields a gun on occasion, but never at another human being. The focus is on the story, which happens to lead to some adrenaline-pumping sequences, rather than a lightweight excuse to link together a bunch of punch-ups and chases. Ironically (though, for anyone who knows what they’re talking about, entirely expectedly) this makes the action all the more exciting. It also mean there’s a lighter touch than many current blockbusters offer; a greater presence for humour, including among the action. I guess that’s not fashionable these days, when everyone’s become so po-faced about their big-budget entertainment. However, with the likes of Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy proving immensely popular, perhaps the tide is turning, and maybe the still-on-the-cards Jackson-helmed sequel will find itself better received because of that.

I genuinely don’t understand the muted reaction to this first Tintin, though. It perhaps shows where blockbusters have gone awry in the last decade or two, and perhaps the incidental disdain animation is viewed with among some — I wonder: if the same movie had been produced in live-action, would some of those critics have been better disposed to it? I don’t think it would have actually been a better film, and perhaps it would even have been slightly worse (some of the visual impact would be lost), Herge's Adventures of Tintin!but some viewers would have seen it (even subconsciously) as more of a “real movie”.

As I said at the start, those people are Wrong. The Adventures of Tintin is a fantastic adventure movie, and should prove to anyone who doubted Spielberg after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that, when it comes to globetrotting action-adventures, he’s still the man to beat.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is on BBC One today at 4:25pm.

It placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

The World’s End (2013)

2014 #36
Edgar Wright | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 15 / R

The World's EndShaun of the Dead is the favourite of critics and fanboys, and Hot Fuzz seems to have attained widespread popularity, but The World’s End may be the most mature and, in its own way, subtly subversive of the ‘Three Flavours Cornetto’ trilogy. Does that make it the best? Well…

The story sees man-child Simon Pegg gathering his old gang of Sixth Form friends — all now grown-up with proper jobs and lives — to attempt their hometown’s twelve-stop pub crawl, which they failed as teens. Despite lingering tensions within the group, all starts well enough — until they begin to notice there’s something oddly familiar about their old town… almost as if it hasn’t changed at all for a couple of decades… Cue sci-fi hi-jinks with special effects and action galore, mixed with some deft character-derived humour — the Cornetto trilogy’s usual M.O., in other words.

That’s not a criticism. This is a thematic trilogy, and as such you expect certain elements to be there. No one wants a beat-for-beat rehash, because what’s the point, but there are certain stylistic and tonal elements you want to be present. The World’s End largely achieves that, though not enough for some — those after nought but genre spoofery and non-stop humour may be disappointed.

This is a more mature work than its two predecessors. While they were clever genre mash-up/pastiches, this goes lighter on that crowd-pleasing bumf. There are still generous segments of that in the film, but the genre being manipulated is less clearly defined thanBottoms up “zombie movie” or “Hollywood action movie”, and occasionally co-writers Pegg and Wright have substituted character development and thematic points for send-up. It may not play to the genre-loving fan-audience that the trio’s previous work has accumulated (demonstrably so, based on many a viewer review), but it does make for a more grown-up film.

I noted that the film is definitely a part of the Cornetto trilogy, but there’s an element of growing up and moving on about it. Shaun of the Dead was made when Pegg and Wright were in their early 30s, but now they’re in their early 40s — a very different time, with different personal concerns. Some people may wish to remain young forever (as per Pegg’s character in the film), but others mature, and it seems Pegg and Wright have more grown-up aims in mind with their filmmaking. In that sense The World’s End may be transitional, from the genre-focussed spoofery of their ‘youth’ to a more considered, perhaps even realistic (at least as far as character and theme are concerned), style of storytelling. Of course, it’s quite meta that the film they’ve made to grow up and move on from the Cornetto trilogy is all about growing up and moving on.

It’s a shame some viewers can’t get on board with this more mature approach. While the consensus appears to be “very good, but definitely the weakest of the trilogy”, there are (normally sane) people who seem to genuinely despise it (what was that I was saying about immaturity again…), and at least a couple who cite it as their favourite of the lot. It’s been a long time since I last watched Shaun or Fuzz so I’m not going to offer my definitive opinion on their relative merits, but I can see that this could be my favourite.

Frost PeggIt will definitely reward multiple viewings: it’s littered with signs, omens and portents (in fairness, a good few can be grasped on an attentive first go). There’s a featurette on the BD (but not the DVD) which helps point out any major ones you may’ve missed; though I have to say, even at seven minutes long, and even with it pointing out some that felt too obvious to be worth mentioning, I swear it left some stuff out. That could be a deliberate decision of course, to leave some things for people to just spot.

Clearly too mature for some viewers (and I don’t mean in the sense of swearing and violence), Wright and Pegg’s trilogy-capper is a thoughtful character movie about growing up and moving on… paired with the usual Cornetto trilogy genre-riffing hi-jinks. The result may just be the trilogy’s pinnacle.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.