Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie


He’s at it again and this time things are different… in that a couple of things are actually the same this time around. After jumping through a roster of prominent directors who each boast their own distinctive style – Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird – Fallout is the first of the Mission: Impossible films to have a director return. Following his highly enjoyable Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie has stepped in once again to offer what is more or less a direct sequel, another break in precedent for the series. The story deals with the fallout (see what I did there?) from the events of the previous film, the female lead and the villain both return and the story-arc that was established for Cruise’s character is developed a little further. It isn’t hard to understand why Paramount signed McQuarrie up for another film and it’s not just because serialised franchises are the new thing in Hollywood right now. McQuarrie gets it. He gets what it is that people like about these movies, he gets Cruise’s appeal as a movie star and he knows how to make a decent action movie. Here he goes above and beyond and outdoes what he accomplished with Rogue Nation.

The remains of the Syndicate from the last film have reformed into the Apostles, a terrorist organisation hell-bent on creating chaos. That’s pretty much all you need to know about them. One of McQuarrie’s strengths is that he knows how to make a plot interesting without dwelling on the details. A movie like this needs a plot to keep things moving but it’s never the reason why anybody buys a ticket. We’re all here to see Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in his latest adventure where he must stop the Apostles in their quest to assemble and set off three nuclear bombs. They already have the plutonium they need after Ethan loses it in an operation where he was forced to choose between completing the mission and saving his team. His boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) tasks him with recovering the plutonium by intercepting a weapons deal in Paris. He’s not going alone though. As well as his usual sidekicks Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) orders him to take the imposing and ruthless August Walker (Henry Cavill and the moustache that destroyed a franchise) along. This latest mission leads Ethan into a crisis of apocalyptic proportions made all the more complicated by the return of former foe Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and double agent/love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).

The movie hits the ground running and it never stops. It’s not just that there’s so much action happening but also that there are so many different styles of action to enjoy. There’s a stormy skydiving scene, a bare-knuckled fight that Jason Bourne would call brutal, a sprinting scene to remind us what great shape Tom Cruise is still in at 56 and more. What McQuarrie brings is this extraordinary fluidity in movement that allows us to keep up with the action without losing track of it, a rarity in the modern Hollywood blockbuster that favours shaky-cam and rapid editing even when it blinds us to the act. The skydiving scene where Hunt and Walker are free-falling their way through a thunder storm was shot in a single take (or made to look like it was), allowing us to appreciate their peril in real time, and with enough distance that each figure is constantly in sight. Then there’s the climatic helicopter chase scene where the intense pursuit is intercut with two other nail-biting events and which may well be the most ambitious, insane and masterfully executed sequence in any of the films.

In his nearly forty-year career, Cruise has displayed remarkable longevity as he has continued to play action heroes with the commitment and stamina of a man half his age. With Fallout though, McQuarrie is interested in exploring how the series and its central character has evolved since it first started in 1996 and so it opts for Cruise to start showing his age a bit with some of the wear and tear that comes from living a life as Ethan Hunt. Thus he gets paired up with Cavill who towers over Cruise (which is admittedly not that difficult a task for a 6 ft. 1 actor standing opposite a 5 ft. 8 actor) and who looks like a younger, fitter, tougher counterpart of Hunt. While Walker goes after his targets with a machine-like determination and deals blows with bone-crushing impact, Hunt is stumbling more than he used to and his punches don’t land with the same level of force. Hunt will still win the day of course because that’s what he does and he’s been doing it for a long time (I was reminded at one point of that Indiana Jones quote, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage”), but the strain is starting to show and it raises the question of how much longer Ethan Hunt and keep being Ethan Hunt.

And that leads us to the other big question the film is interested in exploring of why Hunt does what he does. Early on in Fallout he makes the choice to save Luther and Benji from danger and has to abandon his objective to do so. It is argued that Hunt is too protective of those he cares about and that he doesn’t have it in him to make the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary for the greater good. Walker, an agent who works free of empathy and affection, is brought in to perform the role that Hunt is unable to fulfil, to let the few die so that the many may be saved. The contrast is a fascinating one as the film explores their differing methods and ideologies in an attempt to work out which is the better way. Near the end we’re given an insight into Hunt and his past which explains exactly how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good and it’s more profound than you might expect from this kind of movie.

When I say “this kind of movie” I of course refer to the Hollywood blockbuster, which doesn’t have the esteem it used to possess. With the endless sequels, reboots and other franchising dominating the box office these days, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the whole thing and to see the entire Hollywood industry as nothing more than as a mechanical profit-focused machine that has ceased to produce art and even entertainment in favour of commercial, demographically-targeted products. Even the movies themselves are getting pretty cynical these days (including the good ones like Logan, The Last Jedi, and Avengers: Infinity War). That’s why it’s important to remember that films like Mission: Impossible – Fallout are still being made by filmmakers like McQuarrie who care about what they do and about creating something special for the audience. This movie is an antidote to cynicism; it offers the kind of escapism that we crave from the movies and that leaves you feeling elated and ready to conquer the world. I’m all for introspective movies that ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and the world around us, but sometimes you want to forget about all that and just leave your body for a couple of hours to enjoy something exciting and fun. Fallout does not only offer that, but it also does it incredibly well.

★★★★★

Advertisements

Justice League

Cast: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon


The DCEU does not have the best track record. Between the four movies that have been released so far they have all suffered from some combination of messy storytelling, overreliance on darkness as a substitute for drama, conflated self-importance, unfocused and clashing tones, lack of humanity, and fundamentally misguided acting choices made by a couple of certain castmembers in villainous roles. Even the inspiring, colourful, focused, refreshingly superb Wonder Woman wasn’t able to avoid all of these trappings as a couple of them seeped their way into the third act. Thus we come to Justice League, the movie it’s all been building up to. It’s been a long and turbulent journey getting here and through all the highs and lows, after all the disorder, disappointment and division, Warner Bros. has beaten the odds and created a superhero team up movie that turned out miraculously okay.

As the world mourns the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) learns that a global threat is imminent and executes his plan to form a team of extraordinary people. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) joins his cause after receiving a warning from her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) about an attack on Themyscria by the ancient villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). While Wayne sets off in search of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), an aquatic being from Atlantis, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a young man with superhuman speed, Diana tracks down Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), whose body is more machine than man. They learn that Steppenwolf is searching for the three Mother Boxes, prehistoric devices of immense energy hidden all over the world. As Batman attempts to bring what will become the Justice League together however, he finds that he isn’t able to inspire them in the way that only Superman could have done and fears that they will not be able to save the world unless he can find a way to unite them.

‘Okay’ is not the word I want to use to describe a Justice League movie but, after the example set by the prior DC movies, I’ll take okay where I can get it. There are issues with the story as there have been with every other instalment (to varying degrees), but there are also two saving graces: the characters and the tone. The film does struggle to find the right balance between focusing on those characters we’ve already met, namely Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman (it’s not a spoiler to say that Superman returns (Henry Cavill’s name is on the poster) it’s only a spoiler to say how and when), and focusing on those we’re meeting for the first time, namely Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. It works though because the characters are all likeable and enjoyable to watch. Affleck continues to shine as a Batman whose cold-heartedness in Batman vs. Superman has been tempered, humbled even, by his awe over Superman’s sacrifice and his guilt for the role he played. Gadot is also once again stellar as Diana as she provides the league with its moral centre and a bit of a motherly presence as the combative and often childish acts of the guys often forces her to be the level-headed one (but thankfully not in a way that does a disservice to the character).

Meanwhile the new guys on the block do their best with what they’re given. The Flash is essentially there to provide comic relief through one-liners, bewildered reactions, and just general eccentricity. It’s hit and miss, but when it hits it really does hit. Aquaman has a couple of cool moments and brings enough appeal and attitude to the role that when he butts heads with Batman it doesn’t feel like conflict for its own sake, it feels authentic. The triumph of Miller and Momoa is making their respective characters interesting and entertaining enough that I actually want to see them carry their own movies. The downside is that Cyborg is mostly sidelined to make room for these characters despite being key to the film’s climax. As for Superman, Cavill is finally allowed to use his charm and charisma to play the Man of Steel the way he was meant to be played. I still think the decision to kill off Superman was a fundamentally stupid one, but Cavill’s performance was so good that I now find myself excited about the character’s future.

With the divisive reception of the previous non-Wonder-Woman DC films, the DCEU has put itself through a lot of self-correcting and, while I can’t say that Justice League was a fantastic movie, it did feel like a definite step in the right direction. A major part of this self-correction has been with the tone and with Justice League, Warner Bros. is ever closer to capturing that tone where it can be serious and funny without coming across as pretentious or childish. There are some scenes that hold real emotional weight, as when Batman shares his private fears and anxieties with Wonder Woman or when Superman is briefly reunited with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Then there are some genuinely funny moments as we witness the banter and conflicts that ensue between this unlikely collection of unlikely characters (Aquaman’s accidental use of the lasso of truth is a highlight). More than that, there were even a couple of moments that I found truly awesome and exciting (my favourite is one that I cannot go into because of spoilers but basically it involves Superman turning his eyes in slow-motion).

Justice League is not the gamechanger that The Avengers was and is by no means a great film. The villain is as bland and forgettable as the MCU’s were at its most unremarkable, the movie relies on clichés and routine dialogue to get things moving, and the third act is about what you would expect. There are also a bunch of big ideas and themes, something that the DCEU has always been much more interested in pursuing than Marvel, that don’t quite get the development they need. The idea of Superman’s death leading the world to a place of despair where the people feel like all hope is lost and where the darker side of humanity is able to roam free without the presence of this benevolent, god-like symbol of truth, liberty and justice to keep it in check is one I would’ve liked to see more of. Still, I’m glad that I saw this film. Even though Wonder Woman is far and away the stronger film, it was so divorced from the other DCEU movies that it could pretty much be regarded as a standalone. This movie had to build something on top of the mess that the other films had left and that, along with a tempestuous production that saw Whedon take over directorial duties when a personal tragedy forced Snyder to drop out, was no easy task. Justice League is a studio movie through and through, where each and every detail has been calculated according to charts and demographics, but a part of me feels like Warner Bros needed to make this movie as a way of decisively bringing this chapter of the DCEU to an end and allowing themselves to start a new one on a new, blank page. Now, much like the people of Earth at the end of this film, I finally feel hopeful about the franchise’s future going forward.

★★★

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer


I desperately wanted to love this film. I’ve been a fan of Batman and Superman since childhood and couldn’t wait to finally see them together. I went into this movie with great anticipation and when I finally saw the two go head to head against one another, it was an epic spectacle that was astonishing to behold. But it was done for the wrong reasons. Amazing as it was to finally see the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel in the same movie and engaging each other in battle, some of the choices that were made in terms of story and character defy sense and reason. I don’t know if the fault belongs to Snyder for masterminding the whole thing or with the studio for their interference, but the result is a visually stunning yet fundamentally misguided mess of a movie.

In the aftermath of Metropolis’ destruction in Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) has become a controversial figure in the world. Half of the public view him as a saviour while the other half sees him as a monster. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who witnessed Superman’s destructive abilities first-hand, believes Superman to be a threat to the planet and seeks to stop him as Batman. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is also threatened by Superman and hatches a plan to assure his demise using the discoveries he has made from studying Zod’s corpse and his Kryptonian ship. A congressional hearing led by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) meanwhile is held to determine whether Superman is indeed a threat to humanity and invites him to appear before the world to speak. Thus Superman must confront the responsibility he holds for his power and actions and must decide what kind of man and what kind of hero he wants to be.

When it was announced that the sequel to Man of Steel would introduce Batman into the DC universe by pitting him against Superman, I think that the excitement that arose was more than a reaction to the iconic status of the two characters. I think the reason that so many people were excited for this fight is because there is actually a valid ideological conflict to be had. Superman stands up for liberty and justice and believes in the power of hope to save people. Batman in contrast fights crime through fear and favours methods that are altogether more ruthless and brutal. Fans of the comics, the animated shows or of the previous movies featuring these heroes can understand and relate to both of their creeds which is why a clash between the two would allow for a complex and engaging dispute of epic proportions. Either the makers of Dawn of Justice did not understand this or the heart of this conflict simply got lost in the middle of all the many overlapping and convoluted stories that were crammed into this movie.

Maybe the bloated state of this movie is a reaction to the enormous success and widespread adoration of the Marvel franchise, as if DC thinks it needs to catch up as quickly as possible by doing in one movie what Marvel did in five. Even though the conflict between Batman and Superman had more than enough material to make a compelling, action-packed movie, Dawn of Justice also decided to include an inquiry into Superman’s actions, a mystery for Batman to solve, the appearance of Wonder Woman, a diabolical plot by Lex Luthor resulting in the creation of a villain the trailer saw fit to reveal, some set-up for the future Justice League movie, a number of dream sequences and an iconic storyline from the comics that occurs during the climax. While some of these stories do work, the simple reality is that the film as a whole suffers from a severe absence of focus and direction. The movie tries to juggle so many different elements that it never finds the time to adequately explore any of its characters’ motivations or the deeper meaning of its themes. Although we do get our Batman vs. Superman fight, and it is breathtaking, the investment just isn’t there.

Anyone who has seen 300 or Watchmen knows that Zack Snyder is a superb visual director. The action in Dawn of Justice is some of the best to ever involve these characters. Snyder however is not Joss Whedon and in this film he doesn’t seem to understand what it is audiences actually want from a Batman and Superman movie. He displays little understanding of the characters themselves or of how to use the story to serve them. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the virtue of establishing and developing this universe over successive chapters rather than trying to do it all in one go. Most infuriating of all was the ending where he saw fit to include an iconic event from the comics that was wholly and entirely unearned by the film’s story. As much as I admire his talents as a visual artist, I still cannot believe how profoundly misjudged some of his choices were.

I feel torn about criticising the movie in this way because there are genuinely amazing things in it. Batman himself is stupendous from the look to the action to Affleck’s performance. The inclusion of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman worked well and now has me very much excited for her solo movie next year. The visuals and action scenes were masterful with only some of the highlights being the vision of an apocalyptic future, the actual fight between Batman and Superman and also what is perhaps the single greatest Batman action scene ever put onto film. Even the climatic battle that has no business even being in this movie was impressive to watch, especially in the way it employed Wonder Woman. No other movie this year has managed to inspire such an ambivalent reaction out of me. Although I’m giving this movie three stars, I must stress that I do not think Dawn of Justice is in any way an average film. There are parts of this film that I utterly adore and there are parts that I bitterly hate. Even though I am disappointed that Dawn of Justice was not the movie I wanted it to be, I must admit that I was drawn in by the spectacle and that, all things considered, I am glad I saw it. I just hope that Snyder learns from the backlash when the time comes for The Justice League.

★★★