Review: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

Mission Impossible 5

At what point does the title “Mission: Impossible” become obsolete in a film franchise that is 19 years old?

The series follows the exploits of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force, in case you were wondering) and their top agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). This time around Hunt is tracking any information on a mysterious criminal organization known as “the Syndicate.” After being kidnapped by the group early in the film, Hunt is rescued by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an untrustworthy ally. Just after this, the IMF is dissolved by the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). With nowhere to turn for help and a mission to complete, Hunt goes rogue in order to bring the leader of the Syndicate to justice.

As always with these films, Hunt is eventually joined by a team of operatives from the previous films. In the case of “Rogue Nation,” this includes Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner).

Though the series began as a more serious spy franchise with Brian De Palma’s 1996 film, it’s focused more on being action/thriller since John Woo made M:I 2. With this new installment, the story takes one step closer to the original’s tone. Less slow-motion action scenes, more backstabbing and complex characters.

Two of the film’s newest characters, Ilsa and Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), are mostly to thank for this more leveled action:espionage ratio. Ilsa has the fighting skills of Ronda Rousey but her character proves as difficult to read as most femme fatales from a Bond movie. Lane is the leader of the Syndicate who is always several steps ahead of Ethan and his team. His introduction near the beginning of the film is cleverly written and sets up an interesting showdown for the film’s climax. While Harris is very good at portraying creepy intellectuals, I would have preferred an actor with a little more gravitas for such a big role in the franchise.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has worked very well with Tom Cruise lately in “Jack Reacher” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” but for every good film he’s made there’s a “Jack the Giant Slayer” or “The Tourist.” Of course “Rogue Nation” isn’t a bad film and it’s far from the worst in the franchise, yet it feels like it doesn’t live up to its potential. Beyond the opening sequence of Cruise hanging outside of a plane, there isn’t too much in the way of major excitement the rest of the film.

The saddest part of “Rogue Nation” was noticing just how old everyone is getting. Cruise looks 10 years older than he did in “Jack Reacher” and, at 56, Ving Rhames doesn’t look capable of doing much beyond typing on a keyboard.

With a more stylish director and perhaps a casting change or two, “Mission:Impossible – Rogue Nation” could have been one of the biggest films of the summer. However, settling for a solid spy movie with pretty good action sequences is nothing to frown upon. If nothing else, the film continues the franchise’s legacy of quality entertainment and further solidifies Cruise’s stardom.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Terminator Genisys”

Terminator Genisys

“I’ll be…”

Rebooted? Replaced by Sam Worthington? Washed up after another Expendables sequel?

I always forget how that line ends. Oh well.

In a year full of sequels, reboots, and other recycled scripts, “Terminator Genisys” picks up 31 years after Arnold Schwarzeneggar first played the cyborg hunting Sarah Connor. Missing from the series since 2003’s “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” many fans were hoping Arnie’s inclusion would signal a return for the once-revered franchise. Not so fast.

With its cat-and-mouse structure somewhat played out, “Genisys” doubles down on its time travel origins to alter the original story we know and love from the ’84 original. This isn’t a reboot so much as the beginning of a new trilogy (which we may not even get to see if the box office numbers don’t improve).

Jai Courtney and Emilia Clarke debut as the new Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor with Jason Clarke taking over as John Connor. It’s rare that a film miscasts every core character, but these three are all wrong for their parts. I’m sure it looked good on paper, and they all give as good a performance as they can with the source material, but none of the three seem to match up with their respective characters in the previous films. It’s too bad, because Schwarzeneggar is clearly happy to be there, even if it’s mainly just for the same humor from the previous films.

Suspension of disbelief is important for any filmgoer watching a movie about time-traveling cyborgs, but the further the Terminator series develops, the harder it is to answer questions about its timeline. This film cranks those problems up to 11 and even introduces new ones. If you think about it for more than a minute, your head might explode.

Fortunately the Terminator films have been pretty good at distracting the audience from these problems with cool action sequences. While the new film’s CGI action usually doesn’t hold up well compared to the better balance of practical effects from T1 and T2, it does contain a few scenes that are pretty entertaining. One section of the film takes place in T1’s 1984 timeline and has a few great callbacks to the original. It also features a fight between Schwarzeneggar and a digital version of his ’84 self that is probably the film’s best special effects.

It would be easy to label “Terminator Genisys” as a soulless cash grab, but the franchise should be commended for at least trying to do something new. Making the film PG-13 is a pretty critical error, but this is still a better film than “Terminator Salvation” which was doomed as soon as McG was put it in the director’s chair.

“Terminator Genisys” is a generic action movie in one of Hollywood’s most iconic franchises. Much like “Jurassic World”, one’s enjoyment may be dependent on how often the film is compared to the original. However, let’s all hope the next sequel (if it happens) shoots for a higher goal than rainy day entertainment.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Mad Max Fury Road

Thirty-six years after Mel Gibson first donned a policeman’s uniform in the original “Mad Max,” the titular hero returns, this time played by Tom Hardy.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” picks up with Max once again wandering the desert trying to steer clear from packs of marauders and psychopaths. After unsuccessfully fleeing the followers of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mel Gibson film), Max finds himself prisoner in a cult-like society where Joe controls the water supply and demands the worship of his people.

At the same time, Imperator Furiousa (Charlize Theron) is trying to smuggle Immortan Joe’s captive brides out of the territory and return to her homeland: a “green place” that promises a better life than the barren desert where they currently reside. Through a series of events, Max teams up with Furiosa and the brides (future band name?) and aids in their attempt to flee Immortan Joe, who has an army of suicidal followers in pursuit of them.

Writer/director George Miller returns to the material that first gave him a career, but this project has actually been in the works since around the time “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” wrapped up in 1985. Much of Fury Road’s main storyline has allegedly stayed intact over the years, but a series of rewrites, casting changes, and other production drama has kept the project on a shelf for a long time.

Miller’s input is vital to the film because he has a vision like very few people in Hollywood have today. Just watch the trailer and try to think of another filmmaker doing anything remotely similar these days. As a director and world builder, Miller is nearly irreplaceable.

After the first 20 minutes or so set up the film, the rest is an adrenaline-filled car chase for nearly its entire length. That may sound exhausting, but the script breaks up the action just enough to let you breathe. Though there isn’t much in the way of traditional character development, the performances by Theron and Hardy provide enough backstory simply by their small mannerisms.

Around the time the film was released, there were several articles floating around discussing how this was a feminist film (negative connotation) and how Mad Max wasn’t even the hero, etc. This is the furthest thing from the truth. While the film does feature strong female characters and most of the men aside from Max and Nux (Nicholas Hoult) are evil, there’s no secret agenda at play. If the worst thing about “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that both males and females get good roles and fun action sequences, that’s actually high praise.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is the best action film since “John Wick” and makes the CGI sequences of films like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Fast and Furious 7” look like child’s play. Practical effects with the right execution will beat computers 9 times out of 10 and this film is a perfect example. Though its simple story and characters may leave some viewers wanting a little more, “Fury Road” delivers in every way that it should and is easily one of the year’s best films so far.

Grade: A

Happy viewing.

Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Avengers 2

In the summer of 2008, Marvel began a journey with “Iron Man” that culminated in 2012’s first team-up with the star-studded Avengers. Since then we’ve added more solo outings for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as the mostly irrelevant (but downright entertaining) “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Now that we’ve come back around to another outing with the Avengers, the question is: Can the sequel live up to its predecessor’s expectations? The short answer is “no,” but that’s not such a bad thing.

“Age of Ultron” picks up with the full team rushing to defeat Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a leader of Hydra, who possesses Loki’s scepter from the previous film. Though the villain is foiled rather easily, his work lives on in superhuman twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers that the scepter holds the key to artificial intelligence, he decides to create Ultron (James Spader), an AI system that can theoretically police the world through an army of robots. If you’ve seen any science fiction movie ever you probably know where this is headed.

In the first Avengers film Joss Whedon spent a large portion of its running time bringing the team together as a unit. Like an NBA franchise that brings in several megastars on one team, there has to be time for ego to give way to camaraderie. With that issue mostly settled, the new film gives the audience a look at a more mature squad of heroes. More choreographed team maneuvers cannot hide, however, the divisions that will be coming soon in Captain America 3 when civil war strikes.

There is no mistaking that “Age of Ultron” tries to make up for the flaws of its predecessor as well as a recent DC film. The former is that the film spends a lot of time developing and shining a spotlight on Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Under mind control for most of the first film, here the archer gets to make more quips and interacts frequently with Pietro aka Quicksilver. As for that DC film, one of the main gripes Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” received was that it didn’t firmly establish Superman’s concern for civilians and their safety. Fast forward to “Age of Ultron” and we are spending half of the finale watching Avengers put people on lifeboats to avoid Ultron’s deadly plan. It doesn’t detract from the action enough to be a major complaint, but no one really bought a ticket to watch the Red Cross go to work either.

While the film delivers more than enough explosions and laughs to warrant the ticket price, the sequel does have a “been there, done that” feel to it. Perhaps I’m the only one, but 11 Marvel films is a lot. Part of the reason why “The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were able to breathe life into the Marvel universe is because they felt different and each had its own personality. “Age of Ultron”, on the other hand, feels more like a generic superhero movie. Very fun and entertaining, but generic nonetheless.

Originally the film was set to be roughly a half hour longer, but Whedon and Co. were forced to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. This leaves the film with a bit of an uneven pace as well as a few small questions in the plot. It also makes Thor a substantially less interesting character by reportedly cutting out most of his subplot setting up 2017’s Thor 3.

But enough with the negative, let’s talk some positives.

  • Though I think the character could have been handled better, James Spader was perfect casting for Ultron. Voice acting isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be and he nailed it.
  • “Age of Ultron” was finally able to make the team feel like something more than Tony Stark and friends. For good reason, Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise until now, but here he is a member of a team rather than the most important guy in the room.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is an imperfect, but entertaining action film that sometimes suffers from being too generic and following a long line of other Marvel films.

Grade: B

Since the internet is all about lists these days, I would probably rank “Age of Ultron” 4th out of all of the Marvel films to date, just between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Iron Man”. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Taken 3”

Taken 3

As is often the case in Hollywood, less is usually more.

After spending some time as an air marshal in “Non Stop” and a PI in “A Walk Among the Tombstones”, Liam Neeson returns to the franchise that breathed new life into his acting career.

The first “Taken” film was an instant classic about a father trying to find his daughter after she’s abducted in Paris. The regrettable sequel dealt with similar themes as Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his family are once again endangered by the family of the first film’s villains. This time around Mills is on the run in the US after he is framed for the murder of his ex-wife (Famke Janssen).

What made the first “Taken” film such a hit was that it was a revenge film where a father is essentially tearing apart Paris to find his daughter and make her captors pay. A man with “a particular set of skills” is going after drug smugglers/human traffickers with a righteous cause the audience can all support? What’s not to like? Of course the second film tried to make the same formula but it was all watered down with a silly script and a terrible director. So how did they try to improve this third outing? By getting the same writers to write an even sillier script and bringing back that same director.

French director Olivier Megaton, whose best film is probably “Transporter 3”, returns to deliver choppy action sequences that are edited too quickly and too zoomed in to really enjoy. It’s understandable that measures have to be taken to make Neeson look like more of a killer at his age, but little effort went into making any of the sequences more than mildly entertaining.

The newest addition to the cast for this latest outing is Forest Whitaker, who plays the inspector trying to hunt Mills down. His role here is very similar to the one he played in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand”, a cop who mostly barks orders or talks on the phone with the characters who are actually advancing the plot. Dougray Scott also joins the cast to replace Xander Berkeley as Lenore’s current husband, Stuart.

While the film is pretty easy to pick apart, the main thing that keeps it from working is that Mills is no longer running across Europe like a one-man wrecking crew, killing or torturing everyone in his way. Since he is dealing with the LAPD in this film, almost every fight scene is just him throwing those magic knockout punches on two dudes then calmly walking away. For those of you who like stats, Mills kills 5 guys in this film. That’s less than 1/6 the number of people he took out in the first film. There are also zero tough guy lines in this film. Half the fun of the first film was hearing Liam Neeson deliver this speech (I just got chills listening to it for the millionth time). Nothing like that here.

For fear of sounding like a broken record, let me just sum up that this film is nowhere near as good as the first film and really doesn’t even match up to the sequel. Let’s hope that Bryan Mills either stays retired or at least gets a new director for his next outing.

Grade: C-

Happy viewing.

Review: “John Wick”

John Wick

Sometimes a simple story is all you need for a great action movie.

Flying into the weekend box office heavily under the radar, “John Wick” is about a retired assassin (Keanu Reeves) who comes back to his violent lifestyle after a mob boss’ son (Alfie Allen) steals the last bit of his humanity.

After an illness claims the life of his wife, John Wick tries to reclaim his place in the world, but it turns out that things may not be that easy. When unfortunate circumstances bring an old business associate (Michael Nyqvist) back into John’s life, he is forced to pick up his guns once more to exact revenge.

Long gone from his days as a Hollywood star, Reeves is looking for a bit of a comeback. Fortunately it appears that “John Wick” could be his first money-making film since 2008’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” It turns out that finding his way back to a hit only required hooking up with his former stunt double.

Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have been in the film stuntman business since the early 90’s. Stahelski was even Reeves’ stunt double in films like “Point Break” and “The Matrix.” So what happens when you put two stunt coordinators behind the camera? You get some of the best action sequences in recent memory. Working with Reeves a plethora of stuntmen, they construct some bone-crunching fight scenes that actually obey real world laws. Each time Wick takes on some bad guys in a shootout, he actually reloads his weapons at the appropriate time and it often takes more than one bullet to confirm a kill. While things like that may not mean much for some people, it’s nearly a groundbreaking achievement for the action genre.

Despite some great fight sequences, the film is still written by Derek Kolstad. If you don’t know who that is, his only other film credits are 2 straight-to-DVD action movies starring Dolph Lundgren. As you can expect, a lot of the dialogue is mediocre and there are a few spots in the story that could have been handled much better. That being said, the stylish direction, well-choreographed fights, and the film’s star mostly make up for the script’s shortcomings.

Though most revenge tales are played with a heavy dose of gritty realism, “John Wick” is more of an oddball film that plays up awkward silences and character clichés. The light humor the film carries with it almost relegates the story to some kind of graphic novel. As such, the film stands out as something more unique than your average tale of revenge.

If for nothing else, “John Wick” plays for excellent Friday night entertainment. With a better script it might have been one of the year’s best films. People keep asking if Keanu Reeves is back. Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.

Grade: B

Happy viewing.

Review: “The November Man”

The November Man

It’s been 12 years since Pierce Brosnan last donned his James Bond tuxedo, but the 61-year-old still has a few spy tricks up his sleeve.

In “The November Man,” Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a retired government agent who gets called back in when a former love interest is in trouble. When the mission inevitably goes south, Devereaux finds himself hunted by the US government and the young operative (Luke Bracey) he trained years earlier.

The story, an adaptation of the Bill Granger book, “There Are No Spies,” is fairly by the numbers as far as international spy films go. There are easy comparisons to films like “The Bourne Identity” and “Taken” and though the story has a few twists and turns along the way, they aren’t too surprising. If you’ve seen one spy movie, you are familiar with what kind of clichés these films tend to contain.

One thing that makes the film a little more interesting is that Brosnan’s Devereaux isn’t really a hero or anti-hero by general definition. Closer to the former, the character does a few things in the film that are cold-blooded for anyone you are supposed to be rooting for. At one point he even slices a woman’s leg in order to evade capture.

Despite a few stereotypical aspects to the film, it does move along at an entertaining pace, never wandering into mindless action or utter boredom. Most of the action is pretty average as there are few tough fight scenes. Matt Damon and Daniel Craig may have recently influenced the genre with their signature fight choreography but Brosnan is still roughly the same age as fellow Irishman Liam Neeson.

One actress who has been a bit of a wild card for the last few years is Ukrainian Olga Kurylenko. She has been in two video game adaptations (“Max Payne” and “Hitman”), Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” a James Bond film (“Quantum of Solace”), and last year’s “Oblivion.” Although it’s rarely, if ever, her fault, she often appears in films that are massive letdowns. On top of that, she almost always plays a woman who has been a victim of rape and/or addicted to drugs. Talk about unfortunate typecasting. She gives another decent performance here as a witness that Brosnan must protect from the CIA and a Russian assassin.

Aside from these two, most of the characters are bland or a little too hammy. Devereaux’s former trainee, Mason (Bracey), is a severely underwritten character. We never get much of a backstory on him, his character motivations change on a whim, and his dialogue is merely passable. There’s also a just-here-for-the-paycheck performance by Will Patton and Bill Smitrovich chews up the scenery as Brosnan’s former boss.

“The November Man” isn’t a film that you would include in any “Best of” lists but it’s an entertaining spy adventure for the post-summer theatergoers. A little more development of the characters, more memorable action sequences and some better writing would have made the film a vast improvement.

Grade: C+

Happy viewing.