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.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

2015 #98
Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English & Hawaiian | U* / PG

Lilo and StitchFrom the heart of Disney’s most recent poor period, Lilo & Stitch is possibly the only film that comes out of that era with any affection. Certainly, it spawned several sequels and a relatively-long-running TV series. By the standards of the films that surround it, it’s a good’un; in the grand scope of all Disney films, however, I didn’t care for it that much.

The story begins in deep space, where a self-proclaimed evil scientist has created a six-armed little monster, who we will later come to call Stitch. The scientist is sentenced to imprisonment, the monster to some kind of exile, but it escapes and makes for Earth. There we meet Lilo (Daveigh Chase), a rambunctious little girl who’s shunned by her peers and is cared for by her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere), after their parents died. After a Secret Service-y child protection officer (Ving Rhames) gives Nani just three days to prove she’s capable of caring for Lilo, she decides getting a dog would help. Unfortunately, the ‘dog’ Lilo picks is actually Stitch. Mayhem ensues, life lessons about family are learnt, everything ends happily.

Lilo and NaniThe story is something and nothing. Despite strong and relatively mature thematic notes, it doesn’t quite break free of the family-movie trappings to achieve the kind of insight or age-group transcendence that, say, Pixar movies routinely manage. For kids, though, especially ones who are feeling like misunderstood outsiders, there might be a lot to take from it. The zany antics of the heroes might also work for them in a way they didn’t for me — the ‘craziness’ comes across as a series of vignettes to bide time until the climax, and I didn’t find it massively engaging either. This is also the stage at which Disney had decided musicals were a Bad Idea, so there’s only a couple of non-diegetic songs to keep things ticking over, and… well, your mileage may vary.

On the bright side, the animation is nicely done. Well, the characters are nothing to particularly write home about — they have all of Disney’s usual slickness without being particularly remarkable. Aside from the fact that it makes all Hawaiian women look exactly the same, anyway; and bonus points for giving Nani a more realistic body-type, rather than the impossibly-stick-thin way women are often rendered in animation. The real star, however, are the backgrounds, which were watercolour-painted for the first time since Dumbo, over 60 years earlier. In some respects it’s a minor, literally background touch Lilo and... Elvisthat might be missed by many a viewer, but it gives a subtly different feel. It’s a little more classical, which sits nicely against the very modern zany-aliens storyline.

Lilo & Stitch is a long way from the worst of Disney’s ’00s output; indeed, in places it’s even quite good, and I can see why a lot of kids would get something out of it. Not one that’s especially worth bothering with as an adult, though.

3 out of 5

* The version rated U has a re-animated bit showing Lilo hiding behind a pizza box instead of inside a dryer. The one I watched on Amazon Prime includes the dryer bit, but as that’s never been classified by the BBFC I guess this is technically unrated (or a 12, which is supposedly what the original would’ve received). ^

The Tournament (2009)

2014 #46
Scott Mann | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

The TournamentThe Tournament is the kind of film where its relative quality is entirely dependent on what you want from a movie. Is it original? Not terribly. Is it clever? Not really. Is it action-packed and kinda fun? Yessir. If you just want to shift your brain into neutral and watch people punch, kick, shoot, stab, chase, and generally fight each other in a slickly-produced fashion, with a solid enough plot that (depending how brain-neutral you’ve gone) might offer an occasional twist… well, you’ve come to the right place.

The plot sees a bunch of the world’s greatest assassins lured to compete in a once-every-seven-years competition to find who’s the best — which, naturally, involves trying to kill each other. Meanwhile, a bunch of shady rich folk gamble on the outcome alongside the tournament’s organiser (Liam Cunningham). Particular interest is added because the last tournament’s winner (Ving Rhames) has been lured back for vengeance against whoever murdered his wife, while another canny competitor manages to shift his tracking device into an unsuspecting vicar (Robert Carlyle). Hilarity ensues! Oh, no, wait — carnage. Carnage ensues.

Also, it’s set in Middlesborough. No, really. You don’t expect a big explosive action movie to be set in Middlesborough, do you? Yet it somehow works. Or, rather, it doesn’t matter. Makes a change from somewhere obvious, at least, and the plain urbanity lends itself well to a few set pieces. It was shot in both the UK and Bulgaria, which probably explains why much of the city stuff looks British, but some (including a couple of churches) has a distinctly foreign feel.

explosive chase involving a double-decker busThe action is the draw, of course, and fortunately the film delivers in spades. The best stuff involves Sebastien Foucan, who you may remember as Bond’s bomb-maker target in Casino Royale’s post-titles sequence; or the 2012 season of Dancing on Ice, if you’re more sequin-inclined. He’s one of the founders of Parkour, and brings all those skills to bear in a duel with a car, amongst other sequences. If you like a well-choreographed bit of action filmmaking then The Tournament’s worth it for that bit alone. The climax, an explosive chase involving a double-decker bus and a motorway, is another highlight.

The Tournament sets out to provide action thrills, and those it delivers better than some more well-known examples of the genre. If it isn’t all that intelligent or original then that barely matters — it could be dumber and more derivative; again, there are worse instances among better-known movies. My score errs on the generous, then, but some overlooked films need the encouragement.

4 out of 5

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

2007 #114
Martin Scorsese | 116 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Bringing Out the DeadIt’s hard to know what to make of this, because by the end it all seems a little pointless. The storyline, which follows Nicolas Cage’s paramedic across three nights in New York, is a mixture of short episodic medical incidents with longer threads that continue throughout. These connect and fall apart, feeling as episodic as the rest, and most of them don’t really lead anywhere.

Perhaps the best description is that it’s a collection of subplots in search of proper story. There are some decent scenes and good shots, but the film doesn’t seem to have anything to say, and it doesn’t end so much as simply fade to black when it runs out of things to do.

3 out of 5