Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Imission_impossible_rogue_nation_postern the last decade or so arguably the greatest action/spy/thriller franchises have been Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Mission Impossible. To their credit, each series has crafted several passable films fortified by a few real stalwarts of the spy thriller genre. Although many of these series thrive on gadgetry, set pieces, and a cynical tone more at home in the modern millennium, one thing that set some of the better films apart were interesting female characters.

James Bond is an icon. Jason Bourne is a modern icon. Tom Cruise as an action hero is an icon on his own merit. But we expect that to a certain degree. What the cinematic world has not had for as long are phenomenal female action heroes and the parameters seem far more complicated than simply being adequate at kicking butt. For instance, Casino Royale boasted Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) arguably the greatest of the Bond Girls because she was far from simple eye candy — a throwaway sidekick — she actually was witty and interesting and tragic. All those things.

It’s also no surprise that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie teamed up with Tom Cruise yet again to follow up the surprising success of Edge of Tomorrow which showcased another strong female lead in Emily Blunt.

Thus,  in some ways, it makes sense that Rebecca Ferguson steals the show in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. But it’s not any less surprising. There are numerous other major names. Obviously, Cruise first and foremost then Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, and Ving Rhames. But they’re all playing the parts that we’ve seen before. Computer geniuses. CIA Operatives. Rogue agents. Program Directors. There’s a shadowy villain played by Sean Harris and yet another organization with vague but nevertheless ominous intentions called “The Syndicate.” You get the picture.

But for the simple fact that female action stars are often few and far between on the big screen, Rebecca Ferguson is a true scene stealer. And she starts off quickly by subverting our expectations as an audience. She’s very pretty indeed but her role is not necessarily about her looks which is terribly refreshing. She’s smart, clever, enigmatic, and she seemingly has the most complicated trajectory in the entire film. As an audience, we don’t know where her loyalties lie although we have our suspicions. But more powerfully, she does not quite know herself. Best of all there are no overtly provocative scenes crammed into the story line with the sole objective to sell tickets.

Tom Cruise proves he can still carry a great action movie yet again and that’s because he’s playing it smart — surrounding himself with great talent — and benefiting from his supporting cast. Rogue Nation is not groundbreaking by any means but it’s wonderfully diverting with all the impossible missions, double crosses, and intrigue that we could want. What it sets out to do it does quite well and keeps us entertained in the process.

As a caveat, the fact that our main heroine is named Ilsa and because the film found its way to Casablanca amid its jet-setting, it made me eager for a little bit of Bogart & Bergman. Also, I wouldn’t mind catching a few reruns of Peter Graves. But that’s not to take away from this film. Enjoy it unabashedly. It really is a great deal of fun.

3.5/5 Stars

Hot Fuzz (2007)

220px-HotFuzzUKposterWhen we go to see the latest action movie are we consciously thinking about what we are ingesting, what the motives of the characters are, or even the film’s title? More often than not the answer is no, because we want to be entertained, like Romans attending gladiator battles. We want thrills above content, without considering what we are being fed. In the line of these types of films are Lethal Weapon, Point Break, and now Britain’s addition Hot Fuzz.

It’s the story of probably, the most industrious, skilled, highly-trained policeman you could imagine. His name is Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) and he’s a butt-kicking, paperwork-completing sergeant, who is making the rest of the force look bad. He has the potential to be a great action hero. Enter in Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy, and they agree to reassign him to the sleepy of village of Sanford, and all his dreams are kaput. Ambition will lead him nowhere in such a town, and it feels more like Mayberry than the locale for a great action flick.

But being as diligent as he is, Angel makes strides even before he starts his first day. Among one of his arrests at the local pub is fellow police officer Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who also happens to be the son of the police inspector. It’s rather a strange introduction, but of course, the two of them are partners. Nick simply tries to tolerate all those around him, but it proves difficult, and he’s a little taken aback by the geniality of the locals. They all seem to know his name.

However, when a string of grisly murders takes place successively around town, Angel has what he wants, something to investigate. Again, everyone around him says it’s all been a line of unpleasant accidents. They aren’t willing to face the reality that their sleepy little town might have a murderer on the loose.

As you might expect Angel and Buttermann actually begin to build some rapport despite how different they are. However, Hot Fuzz also has a major twist that frames this entire story in a different light. And although the film does exhibit its share of violence, it also has a wickedly funny streak running through it. At times that means laugh-out-loud antics, courtesy of Nick Frost, or maybe uneasy giggles when someone bites the dust in an outrageous manner.

Edgar Wright’s film is also noticeable for its rapid editing, involving quick cuts, flying transitions, and slicing and dicing. It keeps the story at breakneck speed and yet there is a great pathos built around its characters. We actually begin to care for Nick and Danny, which is often not the case in superficial action flicks. But that’s just it. Hot Fuzz is a satirical homage to all the cop/buddy movies out there and it has its share of action, and yet there’s more to it. In other words, action films are not just skin deep. Hot Fuzz proves that resoundingly. It’s a throwaway title maybe, but not a throwaway film.

4/5 Stars

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

220px-Shaun-of-the-deadImagine that, it took me until after I finished the film to realize that its title was an obvious homage to Dawn of the Dead. And why not, because this comedy-zombie film celebrates the genre and George Romero’s lineage, while also carving out its own little niche. Really, this first installment from Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright is brilliantly clever in its own right.

What I’ve come to recognize from their partnership is that they are all for the gags, the gore, and excitement, but they also have a handle on emotional impact. The worlds they build through script and character are certainly fun and engaging. I’m not even a big fan of zombie films, but this is probably one of my favorites and that’s because it’s more than just a superficial apocalyptic romp. Heaven forbid I actually care for these characters, but I do. Even Nick Frost, who is oftentimes a real idiot, but even he still finds ways to endear himself.

Simon Pegg goes through your typical hero’s journey, it’s just that it involves a lot of zombies. He begins as a washed-up assistant manager in a dead end job, with a romantic relationship that he’s really messing up. His girlfriend isn’t too happy with him as of late, and after 17 years he’s still at odds with his step-father (Bill Nighy). Meanwhile, his best friend Ed (Nick Frost) is making a nuisance of himself, playing video games and doing little else. It’s a real humdrum life that Shaun’s partaking of. You can see it in his demeanor, even his posture. If you didn’t know any better you’d think he’s a zombie or something. It’s true that Pegg and Wright have fun with a few gags like this, and even when the zombies take over the streets, Shaun hardly seems to notice. He’s so far gone in his own personal funk.

But in his case, a zombie apocalypse is just what he needs to kick-start his life again. He gains new meaning, asserts himself, and acknowledges how much he cares about those around him. He also gets to bash rows of zombies with a cricket bat and blow them up with a Winchester rifle for good measure, while saving his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), so that’s a major bonus.

Edgar Wright’s style is very dynamic and in your face, but within all the hubbub there are real moments of sincerity that elevate Shaun of the Dead not just above a lot of other zombie movies, but a lot of movies in general. Forget simply a zombie flick. This is a romance, a buddy film, and a redemption story all wrapped up into one. Simon Pegg proves himself as a leading man, who we would willingly follow during an apocalypse, especially given the other choices at hand.

4/5 Stars