Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Roundup: Spy-Fi

I introduced the concept behind QT’s movie marathon in my previous roundup of films from it, but to quickly recap, these are all movies with a connection to Tarantino’s latest flick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

While many of Tarantino’s selections speak to the setting of OUaTiH (in terms of depicting its time and place on screen, or the social landscape of its era), others have a bearing on it in quite a different way. These are movies his characters might’ve seen, or might’ve appeared in, or (in the case of Sharon Tate) did actually star in. Three of those also fall under the banner of espionage fiction. Two hail from the James Bond-inspired spy-fi craze of the ’60s, while one is a ’50s war movie about a secret mission. (Yeah, that last one is stretching the definition — it’s not really a spy movie at all — but it doesn’t pair up with anything else in Tarantino’s selection, so here it is.)

In today’s roundup:

  • Hammerhead (1968)
  • The Wrecking Crew (1968)
  • Battle of the Coral Sea (1958)


    Hammerhead
    (1968)

    2019 #112
    David Miller | 95 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English

    Hammerhead

    The success of the James Bond movies led to a whole raft of imitators throughout the rest of the ’60s, a spy-fi craze that kickstarted other long-running franchises like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.CL.E. Of course, as well as the memorable and enduring successes, there were piles of cheaply-made, entirely-forgettable knockoffs. Hammerhead is one of the latter. Like Bond, it’s based on a series of espionage novels, these ones by James Mayo (pen name of English novelist Stephen Coulter) and starring the character Charles Hood. Coulter had been friends with Ian Fleming, and apparently (according to Quentin Tarantino) his Hood novels were popular with secret agent fans because they were written in a similar style to Fleming. Hood didn’t have the staying power of Bond, though, the series running to just five novels which (as far as I can tell) haven’t been in print for decades. On film, he fared even less well: this is the only Charles Hood movie.

    The film’s biggest problem is its desire to be a Bond movie, but without the money or panache to carry it off. As Hood, Vince Edwards has none of the easy charm of Sean Connery, instead seeming like a stick-in-the-mud who’d rather be anywhere else (preferably back in the ’50s, I suspect). And the film itself so wants to be like Bond that there’s even a pop song named after the titular villain… though rather than playing over the opening credits, it pops up two or three times mid-film, incongruously played dietetically. As a Letterboxd reviewer put it, “apparently in the late ’60s if you were a pornography-obsessed master criminal you could also be the subject of a pop song.”

    Oh yes, that’s right: the villain collects porn. Not just any old rags, though, but Art — paintings and sculptures by renowned masters, that kind of thing, just ones that feature boobies. Something about that does feel ever so ’60s. The film itself is as pervy as its villain’s obsession. Well, okay, maybe not that pervy, but there are certainly gratuitous shots of women in their underwear, etc. Perhaps the most egregious is the closeup of female co-lead Judy Geeson’s bouncing behind as she rides on the back of a motorbike up some steps, complete with boinging sound effect. That’s about as explicit as it gets, though: it may be firmly set in the Swinging Sixties, with up-to-the-minute fashions and scenes set at experimental art happenings, but it’s stuck in the past enough to not feature any actual sex or nudity, just plenty of cleavage, gyrating dance moves, and the odd bit of innuendo (don’t expect any Bond-quality puns, mind — it’s not that clever).

    Trying to swing

    I haven’t mentioned the plot, but it’s a frequently nonsensical bit of nonsense involving a report so top-secret its author has to have a highly public cover story for what he’s supposed to be doing while he actually sneaking off to present to international delegates who’ve arrived in the country unannounced. If anyone ever said what this report was actually about, or why the conference had to be kept a secret (or how something like 23 different countries, and their associated delegates and security staff and so on, all managed to keep it hush-hush), I missed it. The villain wants to intercept the report — not steal it, not stop the conference, just learn what’s in it — which requires an elaborate plan with an impressionist and various decoys. Why not just honeytrap one of those 23 delegated? I guess that’d be too easy. What’s the villain’s motivation for wanting the report? No idea — he’s defined by being a reclusive pornography connoisseur, not by whatever he does to make money to afford his expensive porn habit.

    Well, it’s all part of the film wanting to be like Bond, but not seeming to really understanding what makes the Bond films tick. On the bright side, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, which means it’s kooky fun in places (there’s a nice bit of farce in a hearse, for example). Not without entertainment value, then, but only hardened ’60s spy-fi fans need apply.

    2 out of 5

    The Wrecking Crew
    (1968)

    2019 #115
    Phil Karlson | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Wrecking Crew

    Unlike Hammerhead, I’m not sure anyone should apply to watch The Wrecking Crew, the last in a series of four movies starring the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. The character was a mite more successful than Charles Hood, then, but on screen and in his original literary form: the book series ultimately ran to 27 novels, the last published in 1993, with a 28th written but left unpublished after Hamilton’s death in 2006. The film series would’ve continued too — I guess not for that long, but for at least one more film. Reports vary on why a fifth instalment never happened, but one highly plausible version ties it to the murder of Sharon Tate. Tate co-stars in The Wrecking Crew and is quite the best thing about it. Martin loved working with her, and the plan was for her to return as Helm’s sidekick in the next film. But then what happened happened, and the followup was abandoned. (The alternate version is that poor reviews and poor box office for The Wrecking Crew just led the studio to scrap the series.) There are several tragedies about the murder of Sharon Tate, but I don’t think depriving us of more Matt Helm movies is one of them.

    As for the lead character, Helm is a secret agent cum fashion photographer — and that’s not the only thing here that’ll remind you of Austin Powers. The Bond movies are often cited as the sole inspiration for Powers, but it was really drawn from across the ’60s spy-fi spectrum, and it’s clear Matt Helm was part of the mix. Unfortunately, The Wrecking Crew plays like a low-rent Austin Powers movie with any humour value sucked out. In his discussion around the film, Tarantino recalls seeing it in the cinema on its original release, and how audiences found it hilarious at the time. That wasn’t a quality I observed, personally. It’s clearly all tongue-in-cheek, but it rarely achieves levels of genuine amusement.

    Enter Sharon Tate

    More tangible is the sensation that the film thinks it’s super cool and hip, but really isn’t. That might just be because of its lead. Dean Martin feels a bit like Roger Moore in his later Bond films: still behaving like he’s a young playboy while looking far too old for it. But even Moore, with his ageless class, felt more ‘with it’ than this. It really shows that the “effortless cool” of Bond does require some effort. The past-its-date feel is underscore (literally) by frequent random snippets of old-fashioned-sounding songs — presumably Dean Martin numbers, placed awkwardly to convey some of the hero’s thoughts (sample lyric: “If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleeping with your uncle Fred”). So much for the Swinging Sixties… and this was nearly 1970, too!

    There’s no respite in the actual storyline, which is at least broadly followable (the villain has stolen $1 billion in gold, because who doesn’t want to be rich?), but then drowns itself in a flood of little logic problems and implausibilities, shortcomings of research or insight into foreign cultures, casual racism, lazy casting (why does someone called Count Massimo Contini sound like an English public schoolboy, other than because he’s the bad guy?), and no consideration for where surveillance cameras might actually be placed. You despair of constructively criticising the film for its mistakes — it’s beyond help.

    The Wrecking Crew is another movie no doubt inspired by the desire to emulate the success of James Bond, but this is the kind of mediocre imitation that gives you a new appreciation for even the worst Bond movies. Hammerhead clearly struggled to compete due to the constraints of a tight budget, which it at least made up for somewhat with a vein of authentic Swinging Sixties antics. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, seems to have all the money it could need (it was produced by a major studio and had star names attached, remember), but nothing like enough charm or skill. It can’t even find benefit in fight choreography by the great Bruce Lee, with stunt performers incapable of convincing combat.

    2 out of 5

    Battle of the Coral Sea
    (1958)

    2019 #116
    Paul Wendkos | 83 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG

    Battle of the Coral Sea

    May, 1942, the South Pacific: a US submarine on a top-secret reconnaissance mission is captured by the Japanese fleet. Its crew are taken to remote island interrogation camp, where they just have to keep silent for a couple of days until what they know will no longer be of use to the enemy.

    Yes, far from the combat movie the title implies, this middle-of-the-road World War 2 movie is one part submarine adventure (the first act) to two parts POW thriller (the rest). The latter also includes an action-packed escape for the climax, which is almost a moderately exciting action sequence, but is marred by a litany of minor daft decisions. For example: the escapees start by killing a couple of guards, but only pick up one of their guns; then they use that gun to mow down more guards, but still don’t bother to grab any more weapons. When some of them get killed a minute or two later, you can’t help but feel it was their own damn fault.

    It picks up some points for making the camp’s commander a reasonable man — a human being, rather than an alien, vicious, evil torturer, which is the stereotype of Japanese WW2 prison camps. That said, considering how infamously brutal said camps were/could be, the niceness of the prisoners’ treatment makes the film feel somewhat neutered. It’s not like the captured seamen get to laze around all day — they’re put to work — but you feel like these guys aren’t really suffering, not compared to what others went through. It contributes to the feeling of the film being a something-or-nothing tale; just another story of the war, rather than an exceptionally compelling narrative.

    Under the Coral Sea

    Apparently the eponymous battle was rather important, though: a voice over informs us that “it was the greatest naval engagement in history”… before adding that “the victory laid the groundwork for the even greater sea victory at Midway.” So it was the greatest… except the next one was greater? Who wrote this screenplay, Donald Trump? We do actually get to see the battle, eventually, when it turns up as an epilogue, conveyed via a speedy stock-footage-filled montage. I wonder how much of that was fed into the trailer…

    Battle of the Coral Sea is the kind of film I would’ve completely overlooked if Quentin Tarantino hadn’t included it in his Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon (it represents the kind of thing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Rick Dalton would’ve appeared in early in his career, as one of the seamen with a couple of lines), and I don’t feel I’d’ve really missed anything. It’s not a poor film — anyone with a fondness for ’50s-style war movies will find something to enjoy in it — but it’s not a noteworthy one either.

    3 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in cinemas now.

  • The Mission: Obviously Possible Monthly Update for July 2018

    Dun dun dun-dun-dundun, dun-dun-dundun, dun-dun-dundun, dun-dun… duh-duh-duuun… duh-duh-duuun… duh-duh-duuun… duhdun!

    It just makes you want to go jump out of a plane or something, doesn’t it? Sadly, I think I’d be less Tom Cruise, more James Corden.


    #146 Batman Ninja (2018)
    #147 Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
    #148 Blade of the Immortal (2017), aka Mugen no jûnin
    #149 Red Sparrow (2018)
    #150 True Romance (1993)
    #151 RoboCop (2014)
    #152 Rocky IV (1985)
    #152a Rocky VI (1986), aka Rock’y
    #153 What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
    #154 Cash on Demand (1961)
    #155 Despicable Me 2 3D (2013)
    #156 Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018), aka Gojira: Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi
    #157 Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965), aka Zatôichi sakate-giri
    #158 Free Enterprise (1998)
    #158a Friends, Romans and Leo (1917)
    #158b Little Red Riding Hood (1917)
    #158c Quaint Provincetown (1917)
    #158d Microscopic Pond Life (1915)
    #159 Kidnapped (1917)
    #160 Iron Monkey (1993), aka Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau
    #161 Superman III (1983)
    #162 The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)
    #163 The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
    #164 Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
    #165 Full Metal Jacket (1987)
    #166 Wind River (2017)
    #167 The LEGO Ninjago Movie 3D (2017)
    #168 Body of Lies (2008)
    #169 I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969), aka Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino
    #170 The Garden of Words (2013), aka Koto no ha no niwa
    #171 The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), aka El secreto de sus ojos
    #172 Paul (Extended Edition) (2011)
    #173 The Way of the Gun (2000)
    Muppet Treasure Island

    Free Enterprise

    The Navigator

    Mission: Impossible - Fallout

    Full Metal Jacket

    .


    Firstly, as usual, stats and numbers…

    • With 28 new feature films watched, July kept up 2018’s run of supersize months — in fact, it’s not only the third best month of the year, but also the fourth best of all time.
    • It’s my 50th consecutive month with 10+ films. It’s also my 6th consecutive month with 20+ films, extending that record-breaking run. It leaves just November and December as the only months that have never reached 20+ films.
    • It’s by far my highest July ever, the previous best being last year’s 17, and is so far beyond the monthly average of 8.1 that it’s dragged it up almost two whole films to 9.9.
    • Continuing with averages, it also surpasses the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 19.1, now exactly 20) and the average for 2018 to date (previously 24.2, now 24.7).
    • On the 17th I reached the landmark of being 100 films ahead of target. That’s the first time I’ve been 100 ahead since the end of 2015, when I was there for all of three days (29th-31st December) — and that was the only other time I’ve been 100 ahead. As it stands, I end the month a whopping 115 films ahead of where I ‘should’ be by this point.
    • Less auspiciously, this month my backlog of unreviewed films also surpassed 100 titles for the first time. Eesh.
    • Back to brighter news: as I continue to keep track of dates on which I’ve never seen a film (see the last bullet point in Viewing Notes here for background on that), this month I watched films on both the 16th and 19th to reduce the remaining list by a third. Still to come this year: September 2nd and December 22nd.

    Now for something actually about the films themselves…

    • This month’s Blindspot film: plugging a gap in my viewing of both Quentin Tarantino’s and Tony Scott’s filmographies, the Tarantino-written Scott-directed True Romance, which plays exactly like a movie written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film: plugging a gap in my viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, as I tend to do about once a year, Full Metal Jacket, which was one of my favourite Kubricks.
    • Somewhat relatedly: Argentinian Oscar-winning thriller The Secret in Their Eyes was a strong contender for one of those must-watch lists this year, but didn’t make it for reasons I forget. I sort of figured it’d be on a list next year. Not anymore, obviously.
    • Finally, earlier this week I posted my Train to Busan review semi-randomly (it was the last review left from 2017 and I wanted those done), only to later discover its UK TV premiere is this Friday. The “likes to make reviews tie into things” part of my brain was not impressed.



    The 38th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Tom Cruise learnt to fly a helicopter, performed 106 skydives, and broke his ankle just to entertain us. And by golly, it worked. Some favourites are not a choice — this just is Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    There were a few mediocre options to choose between here, though. While there were definite flaws in certain unnecessary remakes and sequels among this month’s viewing (have a scan through the list above and I’m sure you can pick out the films I mean), the closest any film came to the cardinal sin of boring me was Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle.

    Most Played Soundtrack of the Month
    As much as I love the Mission: Impossible music (and, having now listened to the soundtrack in full, Lorne Balfe’s score for Fallout is better than I gave it credit for in my review), the soundtrack I’ve most often had on loop this month is Muppet Treasure Island, which has an array of superbly piratical songs (including a scene-stealing turn from Tim Curry), as well as a proto-Pirates of the Caribbean score from Hans Zimmer.

    Most Impressive Spy of the Month
    Oh sure, Ethan Hunt can do all those amazing physical feats, but can he be a pasty white guy wandering around Iraq looking for terrorists and somehow not stand out like a sore thumb to the locals, hm? No, that’s apparently Leo’s special skill as Roger Ferris in Body of Lies.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    I reviewed two new releases this month: direct-to-Netflix anime sequel Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle, and highly anticipated cinematic blockbuster Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Guess which review got the most hits. Yes, as you’ve probably correctly predicted from the way I’m making this point, it was Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle. Well, I can tell you exactly why that happened: my most-viewed posts are always ones that get a lot of referrals from IMDb, and, despite submitting my Fallout review as soon as I published it on Thursday morning, for some reason they didn’t add it until Monday afternoon, after the pre-release and opening weekend interest had passed. It ended up coming third, behind a very different spy movie, Red Sparrow.


    After a concerted effort, this month I finally finished publishing reviews of my 2017 viewing. Now I’ve just got all those 2018 ones to catch up…


    This month I am mainly rewatching Films That Precede Sequels That Are In Cinemas Now.

    Well, I say “mainly” — from a UK perspective, technically it only applies to two of these…

    #25 Galaxy Quest (1999)
    #26 Never Say Never Again (1983)
    #27 The Incredibles (2004)
    #28 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
    #29 Ant-Man 3D (2015)

    I’ve been meaning to watch Never Say Never Again, er, again for yonks — I last saw it as a kid and, really, didn’t remember it very well. I happened to catch it starting one night on ITV4 HD and thought, well, why not now? Turns out, it’s not all that bad. I mean, it’s not great, but it was a passably entertaining off-brand Bond film. There are probably some Roger Moore films I’d rank below it — if it counted for such rankings, which it doesn’t. I’ll give it the “Guide To” treatment at some point.

    I bought (and last watched) the special edition DVD of The Incredibles when it first came out in 2005, but I’ve never upgraded it because Disney have given it short shrift over here: first an extras-starved Blu-ray, now no UHD release even scheduled. It was long overdue that I revisit the film (as I said, it’s been 13 years), especially with the sequel coming out (in July here, hence why I wasn’t wittering about this last month), but I didn’t want to watch it in SD. I ended up stumbling across a UHD copy by… “other means”. So, yeah: screw you, Disney — I can’t say I feel too guilty about freely acquiring a film I’ve already bought and they’ve not bothered to treat right on this side of the pond since DVD.

    Anyway, it’s a truly exceptional film — I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to rewatch it, and I wish I had more often. It’s certainly in my top four Pixar movies, alongside the Toy Story trilogy. Plus, I definitely made the right call skipping SD: it looks fantastic in higher definition; almost too good, the crispness showing up the age of the CG animation. Whether there’s an appreciable difference between its HD and UHD versions, I couldn’t say. Based on the comparisons at Caps-a-holic, there’s a slight difference in colour and sometimes in very, very fine detail, but the regular Blu-ray seems to hold its own.

    Finally, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. It’s clearly the best of the first five Missions. Obviously, you’re allowed to have a different opinion. But you’d be incorrect. It’s basically a perfect spy/action movie, and anyone who tries to say otherwise is just wrong.


    I suppose summer, with all its picnics and barbecues and whatnot, is the most appropriate time to release a movie about an ant and a wasp…

    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 cinematographer 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 precluded 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.

    Mission: Impossible (1996)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Mission: Impossible

    Expect the Impossible

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

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

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

    Director
    Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Snake Eyes)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Verdict

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

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

    Red Sparrow (2018)

    2018 #149
    Francis Lawrence | 140 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Red Sparrow

    Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian ballerina whose career-ending injury leads her down a path to becoming a “sparrow” — a highly-trained undercover operative for the Russian secret service. Used and abused throughout her training, when she’s sent after a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in order to find a mole within Russian intelligence, a series of double- and triple-crosses leave everyone in doubt about whose side she’s really on… including, er, us viewers.

    Red Sparrow is set today. I think. It’s easy to forget. I had to check on a couple of occasions, including one final double-check before writing this review. The thing is, the politics of it all is very Cold War. Of course, given the current state of geopolitics, a neo-Cold War between Russian and the West is probably at its most believable since the ’80s, it’s just that this film’s handling of it doesn’t feel timely and modern, but like a Cold War story that someone decided should be set today. Partly that’s because a lot of the technology and tradecraft feels like it comes from a previous era too. I mean, one major sequence revolves around floppy disks. Floppy disks! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a floppy disk. Either that bit is based on something real-world (like, there’s a reason why someone stealing secrets would still be using floppies) — and, if it is, the film doesn’t bother to lay out why — or it’s the single most unrealistic thing in a movie that’s about a former ballerina being trained to be a Russian spy skilled in psychological influence and sexual manipulation in just three months — i.e. this is a pretty unrealistic movie all round.

    Lady spy in red

    Even if we ignore the inconsistencies of its temporal setting, it struggles with what else it has going for it. In its attempts to provide a twisty-turny plot, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. As it flips and flops around about which side Dominika is supposed to be on really, clearly intending for us to feel wrong-footed every half-hour or so, the gears of how it’s setting up an inevitable final “reveal” begin to show through. Either that or I’m a genius for working it out ahead of time, whichever. One great well-disguised twist is better than endless back-and-forthing, but none of the filmmakers here seem to realise that, or don’t have the confidence to rely solely on that final reveal. Another side effect of this is it becomes hard to root for any particular character. Maybe this is the legacy of it being a US production: it can’t quite bring itself to ask us to fully invest in Dominika, a Russian spy, even as it tries to keep her the heroine. Plus the supposed twists wouldn’t work if we were actually let in on what she was plotting.

    And away from the plot, the whole movie is sort of… seedy, but without owning it. It wants to be about sex and to somehow be honest about that, while also trying not to titillate in any way. It wants to be realistically violent, while merely being nasty in just one or two scenes. Conversely, it also wants to be a grown-up, labyrinthine Le Carré-esque thriller, but it’s so busy trying to repeatedly fool you that it forgets to properly engage you. It certainly doesn’t succeed in being plausible, with the elaborate plan Dominika supposedly concocted relying rather too much on crossed-fingers-type logic — or, I’m sure the filmmakers would say, her unparalleled ability to read people.

    Sexy spy shenanigans

    I’d rather it had picked a side: either go all out schlock — more violence, more tits — or go full intelligent thriller — rein in the seediness, rein in the superhuman foresight. As it is, Red Sparrow is not trashy enough to be titillating, certainly not clever enough to challenge Le Carré as the go-to example of intelligent spy thrills, and not stylish enough to get away with it either. It kind of sits in an awkward middle ground between all those things. I didn’t actually dislike it, but it didn’t thrill me either.

    3 out of 5

    Red Sparrow is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD Blu-ray in the UK today.

    Atomic Blonde (2017)

    2017 #166
    David Leitch | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English, German, Russian & Swedish | 15 / R

    Atomic Blonde

    The uncredited co-director of John Wick takes sole charge for this action thriller set at the tail-end of the Cold War, which sees Charlize Theron’s British spy dispatched to Berlin to find “The List”, a document naming all the active intelligence agents in the city, which has fallen into the hands of the KGB.

    It’s based on The Coldest City, a graphic novel that came out during my relatively brief flirtation with being a proper comic book reader a few years ago. Back then it caught my eye (though I never got round to buying it) because I got the impression it was a Le Carré-style thriller, so I was very surprised to eventually learn it was the basis for this film, the trailers for which promised a hyper-stylised actioner from the director of combat-focused John Wick. Watching the film, however, it’s easier to see how I might not’ve been wrong about the novel after all — take out the elaborate fight scenes and shoot it more like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy than The Guest, and this could indeed be a Le Carré-esque Cold War thriller.

    Lots of style, little substance

    Or maybe that should be “Le Carré wannabe”. The filmmakers were probably right to shift the focus in that way, because the plotting here isn’t up to that standard, particularly in a bevy of last-minute twists that bog down the final ten minutes, especially with their burst of misplaced patriotism (though I won’t say for which country lest it spoil something). Le Carré’s plots feel almost like the definition of substance being more important style (I’ve never actually read one of his books so certainly don’t mean that to be an insult), whereas Atomic Blonde is good ol’ style over substance. The best stuff here lies not in the intricacies of its spy-vs-spy storyline, but in the starkly coloured visuals, the cool ‘80s soundtrack, and (as you’d expect from the stuntman-turned-director behind 50% of John Wick) the expertly realised fight scenes.

    Chief among these is an incredible single-take action sequence that goes from a sniper-beset protest march, into a building, up in the elevator, back down the stairwell — all in a series of bruising hand-to-hand fights — and then, for good measure, continues back outside and into a car chase shootout. Obviously the single take aspect must be as faked as Birdman (according to IMDb, it actually includes almost 40 different shots, many stitched together with the aid of CGI — I’d wager mostly during the car chase, which feels less smooth than the rest), but it’s still impressively crafted. The choreography of it all — both the fight moves and the camerawork — really is something else.

    Fight!

    Despite the flashiness of that one long section, what’s really effective about all the fight scenes is the level of groundedness. I’m sure they’re not what a real fight is like — they’re still choreographed brawls between trained combatants — but Theron doesn’t take down an army singlehanded, she fights a couple of guys, it’s hard work, and she ends up battered, bruised, and exhausted.

    Sadly, between the confused plot and the irritating ending, Atomic Blonde ultimately rubbed me up the wrong way. Still, it’s worth watching for the style and the impressive action scenes. If only they’d managed to combine those with a better story, then this would’ve been something really special.

    3 out of 5

    Atomic Blonde is available on Sky Cinema from today.
    David Leitch’s new film,
    Deadpool 2, is in cinemas everywhere now.

    GoldenEye (1995)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #40

    You know the name.
    You know the number.

    Country: UK & USA
    Language: English, Russian & Spanish
    Runtime: 130 minutes
    BBFC: 12 (cut, 1995) | 15 (uncut, 2006)
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 16th November 1995 (Canada)
    US Release: 17th November 1995
    UK Release: 24th November 1995
    First Seen: VHS, 1996

    Stars
    Pierce Brosnan (Mrs. Doubtfire, Mamma Mia)
    Sean Bean (Patriot Games, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
    Izabella Scorupco (Reign of Fire, Exorcist: The Beginning)
    Famke Janssen (X-Men, Taken)
    Judi Dench (A Room with a View, Notes on a Scandal)

    Director
    Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale)

    Screenwriters
    Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardner, Exodus: Gods and Kings)
    Bruce Feirstein (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough)

    Story by
    Michael France (Cliffhanger, The Punisher)

    Based on
    James Bond, a character created by Ian Fleming.

    The Story
    When Russian crime syndicate Janus steal the activation codes for a new satellite weapons system called “Goldeneye”, there’s only one man who can stop them using it for nefarious ends: Jack Bauer. Only kidding — it’s Jason Bourne. No, ‘course not — it’s Bond, James Bond.

    Our Hero
    Pierce Brosnan is Bond, James Bond, for the first time. After the almost-franchise-killing seriousness of Timothy Dalton, Brosnan nails Bond for the nostalgic ’90s: a dash of Sean Connery’s grit, a dash of Roger Moore’s raised-eyebrow humour, a whole lot of suaveness. For a while, the old “Connery or Moore?” question became “Connery, Moore or Brosnan?”

    Our Villain
    The mysterious Janus, who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be former MI6 agent and Bond’s chum Alec Trevelyan, out for revenge against the British Empire for betraying his family after World War 2, and against Bond for setting the bombs’ timers for three minutes instead of six.

    Best Supporting Character
    It was a bold choice to cast a woman as M back in 1995, even though she was inspired by the real director of MI6 at the time. Fortunately they cast the inestimable Dame Judi Dench, who naturally made the role her own — so much so that she survived the otherwise series-wide reboot in 2006, and having a male in the part now feels kinda odd.

    Memorable Quote
    “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War” — M
    (If a single line saved the Bond series, it’s this. In one fell swoop Dame Judi proves that a female M will work, and that this is a franchise aware of the need to drag itself into the present day.)

    Memorable Scene
    The villains are driving off with the kidnapped love interest. There’s no Aston Martin in sight. Does Bond take another car? Of course not — he takes a bloody tank.

    Write the Theme Tune…
    Bono and The Edge of U2, hired after…

    Sing the Theme Tune…
    Tina Turner. According to Wikipedia, “the producers did not collaborate with Bono or The Edge,” hence why (unlike previous Bonds) there’s nothing in the main score that references the title theme. That would rather become the Bond M.O. as the ’90s went on.

    Truly Special Effect
    The bungee jump off the damn — because it’s not a special effect, it’s real. The Bond series’ legacy of incredible, groundbreaking stunts continues with considerable style.

    Letting the Side Down
    Éric Serra’s score. Hiring someone to write a very modern (for the early ’90s) score for the newly-relaunched Bond must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time… but it wasn’t. It hasn’t improved any with age, either. Tellingly, after the score was finished the producers had someone else re-score the film’s big action sequence, the St. Petersburg tank chase, with music that sounds far more classically Bondian. Bonus problem: if you had an N64 (like I did), chances are you played GoldenEye the game far more than you watched the film. It too used Serra’s score, meaning I can’t hear it without being transported back to an idyllic adolescence playing blocky video games.

    Making of
    Pierce Brosnan was originally cast as Bond in 1986, but was forced to pull out when his TV series, Remington Steele, was unexpectedly renewed (according to one telling, that was purely to prevent him playing Bond — they only made six more episodes). Previously, Timothy Dalton had almost been cast when Roger Moore became Bond, and Moore had almost been cast before Sean Connery. Don’t be too surprised if Henry “Superman” Cavill — who was almost cast before the producers settled on Daniel Craig — is taking his martinis shaken not stirred in a few years’ time.

    Previously on…
    16 previous Bond films (which are all technically in the same continuity). The last was six years earlier, and the least financially successful for 15 years in the US (did alright worldwide, though).

    Next time…
    Brosnan played Bond thrice more, to increasing box office (if not critical) acclaim. He was due to do a fifth, but then the producers won back the rights to Casino Royale and the rest is history.

    Awards
    2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Sound)
    2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure Film, Best Actor (Pierce Brosnan))
    2 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Sandwich in a Movie for the submarine sandwich with tomatoes and provolone. It lost to the ham and cheese sandwich in Smoke).

    What the Critics Said
    “James Bond, the British spy with a taste for the high life and a licen[c]e to kill, comes back in surprisingly hardy and supple form. Gadgets firing, quips racing, libido unfurling, surrounded by a top-notch supporting crew of actors, designers and demolition experts, the new Agent 007 (now played by Pierce Brosnan) delivers whatever Bond devotees could reasonably want, or what newcomers anticipate. […] So much familiarity may lead to contempt in some quarters. But Bond, like Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves, Tarzan, Frankenstein or Dracula, is one of those mythical British pop figures who seem ageless, infinitely adaptable. […] Perhaps the reason is that Bond — as his detractors have always noted — is an adolescent fantasy figure, a Peter Pan popped onto the stage of international espionage. Like Peter, he can’t — won’t — grow up. [He has] caught the world’s imagination because he played out its darker dreams with fairy-tale lightness.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

    Score: 78%

    What the Public Say
    “Rarely in the Bond franchise have directing, acting, cinematography, action, and music come together to create such a stylishly sublime experience. GoldenEye has undeniably earned its now-solidified status as a classic.” — Lukas, Lukas + Film

    Verdict

    After diminishing box office in the Dalton years, a long gap forced by legal battles, and the Cold War ending in the interim, bringing Bond back for the ’90s was perhaps a bit of a long shot. Fortunately, this fact didn’t escape the makers: there are numerous nods to Bond’s somewhat old-fashioned values (see also: memorable quote), and a whole heap of effort was expended on large-scale action sequences and stunts. Couple that with a solid storyline, several memorable villains, and a “greatest hits”-style leading performance from Brosnan, and you have a series that wasn’t just revived but was set to reach new heights (of box office, if nothing else).

    Frankly my dear, #41 doesn’t give… a damn.

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

    2016 #8
    Guy Ritchie | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English, Russian, German & Italian | 12 / PG-13

    Guy Ritchie is a self-confessed non-fan of the classic ’60s spy-fi series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., so he seems a somewhat odd choice to helm this long-gestating big-screen reboot of the franchise.

    Unsurprisingly, he gives it a bit of the Sherlock Holmeses (namely, a semi-comedic tone and appropriately swish, ’60s-ish direction), but loses some facets of the original (Russian agent Kuryakin is basically a completely different character). It’s entertaining nonetheless, if a little long.

    The biggest let down is that it all feels like a fun preamble to a better sequel that, after its box office failure, will never happen.

    4 out of 5

    Trivia time: in the 12 months ending January 1st 2016, seven films were released in the UK starring The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s female lead, Alicia Vikander. Seven. She deserved that Oscar for sheer employability if nothing else.

    Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

    aka MI-5

    2015 #139
    Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    The BBC’s long-running spy thriller series Spooks (aka MI-5 in the US) came to a close a few years ago, and instantly sparked rumours of a big-screen continuation. Unlike most such rumours, that one actually came to fruition: this result hit UK cinemas in the summer, and is now making its way across the pond — under that Mission: Impossible-esque title, of course.

    The TV series is probably best remembered for the way it regularly killed off its leading characters in shocking fashion, thanks to the most infamous of them all: the “deep fat fryer incident” from the second-ever episode. It was about a lot more than that, though. Beginning in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, a series about the security service defending the country from terrorism couldn’t avoid being ultra-relevant, and it ran for a decade during which such issues never ceased to be pertinent (and haven’t since). That other famous British spy institution, James Bond, was at the tail-end of the Brosnan era when Spooks began, and the lower-key TV series was — like Tinker Tailor and others before it — pitched as a “real world” version of what the security services got up to. Storylines were “ripped from the headlines”, often with eerie prescience: after one early episode, the series’ lack of end credits led some viewers to believe the real BBC News bulletin that followed was still part of the drama.

    Early seasons focused at least as much on things like the mundanity of spycraft, or how one went about having a personal life while also being a sometimes-undercover agent, as they did on the exciting action of counterespionage — as evoked in the memorable tagline “MI5 not 9 to 5”, of course. As the years rolled on, things got increasingly outlandish and grandiose, just as almost every spy series that starts out “grounded” is wont to do. In season three, an entire episode was spent on the moral dilemma of whether it was acceptable to assassinate someone; a couple of years later, assassinations would just be a halfway-through-an-episode plot development. The one constant through all this was section chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), the M figure to a rotating roster of “James Bond”s, including Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen and Rupert “Whitechapel” Penry-Jones, as well as other actors who didn’t go on to lead Jack the Ripper-derived crime series, like Richard “The Hobbit” Armitage.

    Now, a couple of years since the TV series wrapped up its ten-year run, Spooks has attempted to make the leap to the big screen. Although they’ve roped in the fella who directed the first-ever episodes, the screenwriters are the final two seasons’ showrunners, so the movie follows on from where the series ended up rather than re-establishing itself in where it all began. What does that mean in practice? Sub-Bourne action in a film that often appears more like a well-budgeted TV movie than a proper feature film.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins with Harry running an op that goes wrong, during which terrorist Adam Qasim (Elyes Gabel) is sprung from custody just before being handed over to the CIA. Cue international incident. Naturally the blame is pinned on Harry, who consequently throws himself off a bridge. Except no one buys that, so they drag in Will Holloway (Kit Harington), a disenchanted one-time protégé of Harry’s (i.e. the series’ latest “younger man who can do the running around”). He knows nothing about it (obviously), but they want him to track Harry down nonetheless. Turns out Harry suspects there’s a mole in MI5 (because it’s a spy thriller — there’s always a mole) and it might be one of the very people who brought Will in (who include David Harewood, Tim McInnerny, and Jennifer Ehle). Harry and Will must work together to, a) find the mole, and b) stop whatever atrocity Qasim has planned next.

    In case it isn’t clear, you don’t need to have seen the TV series to follow the plot, which is standalone in every aspect that seriously matters (there are certainly nods to the show, especially to its final season, and one fan-pleasing cameo. More would’ve been nicer.) However, a familiarity might help manage your expectations: The Greater Good feels like a wider-screen, (slightly-)bigger-budgeted version of the show, for good or ill. “Good” because, well, it should really, otherwise why call it Spooks? “Ill” because anyone expecting an action-packed thriller to rival Bond, Bourne, or Mission: Impossible will come away disappointed.

    The trailers attempt to promise some of that kind of action, but they’re a bit of a cheat: what adrenaline the film has is mostly released in tiny bursts, scattered throughout. That strategy is fine if you’ve got the money to make each little burst a solid sequence, but when the entirety of some sequences is “jumping through a window” or “climbing a wall to get into a flat”, well… Sure, it looks good in the trailer — it promises lots of action in different places at different times — but that’s also a promise the movie can’t fulfil. The Greater Good certainly isn’t just a low-rent action movie — it’s driven by its plot — but if they’d saved up the filmmaking time, effort, and expense afforded to those single-dose action moments and poured it all into one sequence (in addition to the two or three fully-realised action sequences that the film does have), it might’ve paid dividends.

    So what of that plot? As mentioned, the exciting contemporaneousness of Spooks’ storylines went increasingly AWOL as the series wore on, trading real-world issues for ludicrous government conspiracies or revived Cold War rivalries. Unsurprisingly, given the writers involved, the movie continues in that latter tradition. That’s a shame, because Spooks’ ability to engage with real-world issues in a thriller context was one of its best elements. It’s not as if we’re lacking in spy-related storyline-fodder in the real world — something Edward Snowden-y or about radicalised nationals would’ve been a good starting point. (Based on his accent, I guess Qasim is supposed to be an American who was converted, but that facet of his character isn’t explored.) At least they try to sub in some thematic relevance, raising questions related to doing what’s right versus doing what’s expected. Sadly that dichotomy isn’t explored as fully as it could have been either, but it’s definitely a constant and repeated factor.

    You might not believe it from this picky review but, fundamentally, I did enjoy the Spooks movie. It largely retains the feel of the TV series (albeit without the moderately-memorable theme music — honestly, it’s like someone forgot to compose anything for the title credits. What were they thinking?!), and if they manage to produce a sequel then I’ll be sure to see it; but in this outing I can’t help spotting ways I thought it could’ve been even better. Consequently, as a film in its own right it comes across as a Bourne wannabe. On the bright side, it’s still better than The Bourne Legacy.

    3 out of 5

    Spooks: The Greater Good MI-5 is available in the US through DirecTV from today, and in theaters and on demand from December 4th.

    Scanners (1981)

    2015 #93
    David Cronenberg | 103 mins | TV | 16:9 | Canada / English | 18 / R

    If you’re versed in sci-fi/fantasy cinema, you’ve heard of Scanners even if you haven’t seen it: it’s the one with the (in)famous exploding head. That moment is distinctly less shocking for those of us coming to the film as a new viewer at this point: gore perpetuates genre cinema nowadays, so it’s less striking,* and the scene it’s in is quite obvious, so you know it’s coming. Fortunately, Scanners is so much more than one famous moment.

    Social outcast Cameron (Steven Lack) can hear other people’s thoughts. When he’s apprehended by weapons firm ConSec, he discovers from scientist Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) that he is far from alone. ConSec have been attempting to control these so-called scanners and weaponise them; one, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has other ideas, and is waging a counter war. Ruth wants to enlist Cameron to stop Revok. So begins what I suppose you might call a sci-fi espionage thriller, as Cameron finds his way into the underground scanner community and Revok’s spies in ConSec learn of their plans…

    Scanners seems to have a mixed level of appreciation within writer-director David Cronenberg’s CV — even going no further than Wikipedia, you can find review quotes that swing between calling it “an especially important masterwork” and a movie that “might have been a Grand Guignol treat [but is marred by] essential foolishness”. Whether it’s a masterwork or not I wouldn’t care to say, but as a rough-round-the-edges genre thriller, I found it mightily entertaining.

    As our hero, Lack isn’t much cop. If you were being kind you could write his oddness off as a product of Cameron’s reclusive lifestyle, but I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice. There are worse performances in the history of genre cinema though, and it’s not like his emotional journey or something is the core of the film. As if to make up for it, McGoohan is of course excellent, acting everyone else off the screen, while Ironside makes for an excellent villain, naturally. Some say that the final psychic battle, between Lack and Ironside, is underwhelming, but I thought it was excellently realised, a tense and effective struggle. Such brilliant effects and sequences are scattered throughout the film.

    I do like a good genre movie, and Scanners manages to mash together a couple of my favourites — primarily, science fiction and espionage/undercover mystery-thrillers — in a way that, unless I’m forgetting something, we’ve seen surprisingly rarely. It’s not quite “a Bond film with telekinetics”, but if it were, that’s perhaps the only way I’d’ve found it more enjoyable.

    4 out of 5

    Scanners is on the Horror Channel tonight at 9pm, and again tomorrow night at 2:15am.

    * Though, in isolation, bad enough that I changed my mind about using it as the header image for this review. ^