At this point, Tom Cruise has appeared in so many sci-fi movies in his career, it’s starting to feel as if he really is from the future. An impending time where honorable, hard-fighting men get spunky haircuts and spend the vast majority of their time in extreme close-up, grappling with futuristic gizmos and laser blasters and driving expensive looking multiwheeled vehicles.
He doesn’t care about laws or justice, he just cares about what’s right. Or something.
Dir. Brad Bird
In director Brad Bird’s version of the IMF — the ultra-secret, covert division of the government that run a non-ending series of near-unimaginable capers — things go horribly wrong time and again. And it’s not just the human element: unplanned for acts of nature intervene at inopportune moments, meticulously planned operations get gummed up by unforeseen technicalities and gadgets go haywire at the worst possible times. As a near direct result of all these foibles, this blockbuster sequel to a once-proud franchise is without a doubt the best action flick of the season, if not the year.
Bird, whose biggest previous efforts were with Pixar making the redoubtable Ratatouille and The Incredibles, brings a much-needed element of inventiveness and humor to the previously ice-cold world of Ethan Hunt and co., while still commanding over a full-fledged action showcase. The sharp screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec finds Hunt (Tom Cruise) hot on the trail of a brilliant Swedish madman (Michael Nyqvist) intent on starting a nuclear war to cleanse the earth of all the horrible people on its surface. Without the support of his organization, which is forcibly “ghosted” after a catastrophic operation in Russia, Hunt and a small team of agents, including strong arm operative Jane (Paula Patton), computer expert Benji (Simon Pegg) and former field agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner), have to go it alone.
Cruise, who produced the film along with J.J. Abrams among others, takes the film by the throat. It moves at a blistering pace, jumping from country to country and ever-more complicated operation after operation, but rather than just blending into a blurring mess of CGI-enhanced stunts and explosions (see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows for that dubious experience), each mission gets its full due, stacking the deck so far against the small team that you can’t help but thrill to their narrow victories.
Bird understands the only way in which an action film can truly be stirring is to put its protagonists into such a deep hole the audience can’t see the way out for themselves. As such, the extravagant middle of the film, which finds the team leading an extremely difficult operation in Dubai amidst a roaring sandstorm, stands out as the tactical high point — one the ending, as rousing as it may be, can’t hope to match — with obstacle after obstacle thrown in the way of a successful completion. We are to understand that an enormous part of Hunt’s success is his formidable will, his refusal to accept the failure of a given plan, despite absolutely everything going wrong all around him. Naturally, there are some significant plot holes and gaps in logic (a fully-armed nuclear warhead is launched at the U.S. and our government does nothing in retaliation?), but, frankly, you’ll be having too much fun to care much about such trivialities. By not allowing his heroes to hide behind a trove of high-tech gadgetry to get them out of trouble, Bird has allowed the flawed surviving members of the IMF to flourish on their own guts and guile, which is exactly as it should be.
Dir. James Mangold
The two-star vehicle is alive and well this summer. Or, at least alive. This oh-so-precious spy thriller/romantic comedy comes to us from James Mangold, who started out making small, indie feature character studies (Heavy) and has now seen fit to bring us a film in which we are asked to believe Cameron Diaz is an expert muscle car mechanic.
To be fair, asking Ms. Diaz — she of the bumptious bottom and jackal-like smile — to portray someone with any career other than actress or, stretching things a bit, model, is asking for trouble. What she is is a MOVIE STAR, and along side fellow MOVIE STAR Tom Cruise, who plays a potentially renegade government agent who seems to be adept at everything from shooting twin uzis to flying an unmanned 727 to spear fishing grouper, we are asked to accept their impossibly ludicrous credentials.
Certainly, the film’s standard issue rom-com spy caper plot (spy meets girl, spy loses girl due to her betrayal, spy regains girl after she fully acknowledges the terrible mistake she made) does nothing to further tax your sensibilities. This is a big summer movie of set pieces (gun battles in planes, gun battles in shipping docks, gun battles on the rooftops of Salzburg, etc.) all downplayed by the matter-of-fact dialogue between the characters as things heat up (“The pilots are dead,” Cruise’s spy helpfully tells Diaz’ helpless car mechanic, as they begin to plummet to a certain doom. “Actually, I shot the first pilot and then he accidentally shot the second pilot. It’s just one of those things.”). I suspect the effect is meant to be charming, as opposed to terribly affected and draining, but that’s not entirely clear. This is a film, after all, that continually uses the device of drugging Diaz’ character at seemingly climactic points, and then only showing flashes of action before restoring her to a comfortable bed (and fresh clothes) in whatever exotic location her spy has seen fit to drag them to.
It’s also a film that trades heavily on its itinerary to provide color and exoticism to help make up for the lack of much of a script. Thus, we are treated to locales as diverse as Boston, Port Antonio, Pasadena, the aforementioned Salzburg, and Sevilla, Spain. The latter is only really made significant because the main villain, for there are several, is a Spaniard (Jordi Mollá). You know this because he sports a villainous countenance, a Spanish half-beard and what appears to be a leather Members Only jacket. I guess then, if we are to swallow all that piffle, it would only stand to reason that by the end of the film, Cameron Diaz is hefting double Uzis, performing driving stunts that would make Mario Andretti anxious and completing sophisticated espionage gambles with deft aplomb. We get what we deserve.
Dir. Bryan Singer
Mere minutes into Bryan Singer’s new film, you sense trouble, and it’s coming straight out of Tom Cruise’s mouth. For those who don’t know, the film has gone through innumerable delays — including having to re-shoot damaged film stock and negotiating with the German government to allow them to shoot on Berlin’s Bendler Block, where many crucial scenes were set — alongside many, many different release dates, generally signs that the filmmakers and the studio are at loggerheads. And then, in the first ten minutes of Singer’s swift and sharp story of the last, failed assassination attempt on Der Führer’s life just before the close of the war, you can’t get away from Cruise’s accent. His American accent, which, alongside such high-level British thespians as Kenneth Branagh, Terrance Stamp and Tom Wilkinson, who speak with their normal clipped English, makes for a major distraction.
In fact, the only “German” who speaks with any kind of German accent is Hitler (David Bamber) himself. Fortunately, it’s something you can eventually get past, as the story, involving an intricate plot against Hitler, takes hold. Cruise plays real-life German hero Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who plans his overthrow of the Nazis not because he’s power-hungry, but because he sees Hitler’s vision of his beloved Germany and finds it completely immoral, as do an assortment of his fellow comrades, including Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Branagh) and Ludwig Beck (Stamp).
Singer, who has clearly taken pains to cut his film down to the bone, has emerged from the editing suite with a fast-paced and graceful effort, not so keen on its own portentousness as to allow the plot plot to get overly bogged down with side stories and character studies. The difficult shoot might have pained the director greatly, but, unlike his vastly disappointing and far too long Superman Returns, this film never loses its sense of purpose.