Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

MI_–_Fallout.jpgTom Cruise is the closest thing we have to a modern marvel on the current cinema landscape. Despite being over 50 years old, it seems like he continues to redefine what it means to be an action hero in the 21st century. A lot of his brilliance stems from taking a page out of the playbook from generations gone by.

He is by no means Buster Keaton but he channels that same fearless energy that makes the movies feel like an arena of adrenaline-filled possibility. The important distinction is the very fact his films do not shy away from CGI and yet they find this perfect medium between real and practical stunts, paired with the limitless canvas current technology allows for.

Despite the obvious implications, it’s hard not to think of the double meaning of Fallout as Cruise finds himself skydiving, fighting, chasing, leaping, and bounding his way through his mission. He hangs suspended from an escaping helicopter in one perilous stunt that looks deserving of our trepidation.

There’s the noted seismic jump that literally leads to him breaking his leg because his convincing flailing momentum took him right into the side of a building — clinging to its edge — instead of lifting him over. Any number of toils and sacrifices he takes for the movie pay heavy dividends. As an audience, we can see his effort and applaud him for it.

Like Keaton before him, there is something attractive about a hero who is implacable. Nothing can stop them. Cruise even gets a motorcycle chase of his own no doubt worthy of Steve McQueen, if not even better (I can’t believe I said that).

It’s always a pleasure to admit a film has some stellar twists and Fallout more than delivers in this regard. Some are easily foreseeable and a couple might catch just about everyone off guard. As it should be. However, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because the story does not put all its eggs in this single basket. Once the twists are done with, there are still so many other reasons to stay engaged.

If we are to believe Hitchcock, it is not about these sudden payoffs but this maintained sense of constant tension and impending doom. Fallout grabs us in its opening scene and will not dare let up. Writer-director Christoper McQuarrie is in such a unique position because, with the aid of Cruise, he has created his own personal sandbox to work with, while running with Ethan Hunt and the Mission Impossible universe that has been bequeathed to him.

He feels more than comfortable with these characters and the world and this allows him to employ a certain amount of torque and elasticity to stretch it to its utter limit. This is far from Bruce Geller’s franchise headlined by Peter Graves in the 1960s. MI has been cross-pollinated with Bond, Bourne, and anything else you can imagine from Jackie Chan to the plethora of modern spy TV programs on the airwaves.

What sets it apart is the specificity of this world and this we can attribute back to McQuarrie. Vagueness, austere execution, and bland beats will get you nowhere in this day and age. Sure, we have the overarching MacGuffin. There are the three plutonium cores being bandied about for the life of Ethan Hunt’s nemesis Solomon Lane, underlined by the threat of mercenary terrorists operating based on his influence across the globe.

A plethora of covert organizations all have a hand in these international affairs. One of them is MIA headed by Alec Baldwin, another the CIA with Angela Basset. She has brought in her own man (Henry Cavill) to finish up business. In her eyes, Ethan Hunt has already jeopardized the job; he cannot be trusted to see it to completion. If these organizations are purportedly on the same team (along with MI6), one can only imagine what happens when they cross paths with their real enemies mixed in with social terrorists and opportunists like White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). But every antagonistic, tension-filled dynamic is all crucial for there to be a story of any conflict and consequence.

However, the meaning is aggregated because of what our hero is up against. Stakes of a personal nature are almost imperative because they take these broad social issues with heady implications and place them right in the wheelhouse of a hero. It’s no coincidence Ethan Hunt is touted for caring for individual people around him because this influences how he saves the world. It’s full of humanity. It also complicates his life like nothing else.

Not only is Lane still on the loose, conducting a mission of not simply anarchy but out and out revenge, he’s after Ethan and those close to him. Because the friendships of Luther and Benji run thick and deep. He will do just about anything to protect his buddies. The same goes for Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who inevitably ties into the action. In my estimation, Ferguson remains one of my favorite action heroes, full of resiliency, wit, and most important of all, a believable amount of humanity.

In this particular story, their relationship is plagued by the hazards of such an occupation, making excruciating choices, and finding people you care about on the other end of a kill list. But to Hunt, the important differentiation is that these are not liabilities (although they might seem to be), as much as they are what sets him apart. And if you thought the connections end there, you’d be very much mistaken. Someone else very important to him (Michelle Monahan) turns up again.

This film is constantly twisting and turning, bursting with movement and setpieces galore but it simultaneously builds to a genuinely satisfying crescendo. This would not be possible without the legitimate character dynamics built over the years. Even someone like me — a relative latecomer to the franchise — can feel the gravitational pull between these people. There is a weight to the relationships even within this context of cloak and dagger danger.

In the end, the final act feels like a textbook example of cross-cutting because we have three strands that we’re constantly invested in. We care about the characters in peril but also about their objectives. Each one ties into this greater mission and the ultimate resolution of our story.

Disarming a bomb is a staple and alone it would seem trite. It’s reinforced by the other parties tracking down the second plutonium core conveniently stationed with a clandestine Lane, now in hiding.

Simultaneously Hunt fearlessly tracks a helicopter carrying the prop that must be retrieved if all the other tasks are not to be for naught. It’s a throwaway object really but what makes up for it is the continued tenacity of Cruise to take on the stunts and make the action sequences compelling — that and special effects, of course. But we don’t feel completely bloated by them. There is enough personal interaction to make it feel accessible even on this harrowing scale.

We finally reach the peak and just as it seems we’ll either be blasted to oblivion or tossed over the cliffside, the release valve is hit with ultimate satisfaction. This is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating rushes available over the past summer. There’s little left to do but be flabbergasted by Tom Cruise. Top Gun was so long ago. Even the original Mission Impossible is now over 20 years old. Yet he remains as a lucrative action star and for the time being, he isn’t going anywhere.

4/5 Stars

A Few Good Men (1992)

A_Few_Good_Men_posterUpon watching A Few Good Men for the first time, it was hard not to draw parallels with An Officer and a Gentlemen for some reason and it went beyond some cursory elements such as both films involving branches of the military. Perhaps more so than that is the intensity that manages to surge through the plot despite the potentially stagnant battleground like Cadet Schools, Courtrooms, and the like. And that can in both cases is a testament to the stellar performances in front of the camera.

Instead of a seething Richard Gere, we get the smart aleck wunderkind Tom Cruise as Daniel Kaffee. The full-throttle turn by Lou Gossett Jr. is matched in this film by another sneering tour de force from none other than Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup. Most refreshingly of all we trade out the heartfelt yet admittedly schmaltzy romance of Gere and Debra Winger for the professional tension that underlies Kaffee’s relationship with his colleague Joanne Galloway. Demi Moore, surprise, surprise, is more than a love interest even if Cruise is in the driver’s seat and that is a commendable creative decision by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Because their characters have two feet to stand on without having to dive headlong into a full-fledged romance. There’s already enough at stake without having to enter any further into melodramatic territory.

The men involved are two young U.S. Marines stationed in Guatamano Bay who are charged with the murder of one of their compatriots, one William Santiago. Galloway is eager to play point on the case, only to get passed over for Daniel Kaffee a plea bargain king who nevertheless has little courtroom experience or passion for his work. His stint in the navy seems only to be in respect to his late father, who was one of the preeminent judges of his day. Daniel will forever live in his shadow and instead of taking his work seriously, he devotes his efforts to the company baseball team.

Still, joined by Joanne and the veteran support of Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), he begins to realize that there is more at stake in this case even if he doesn’t want to deal with it. As the young marines constantly beat into his skull this isn’t about getting the cushiest deal, it’s about their very honor, the code that they live by as united states Marines.

While hesitant Kaffee agrees to bring the case into the courts realizing what is at stake but it’s also in these precise moments that he realizes the need to man up instead of taken the path of least resistance as has always been his M.O. But of course, doing such a brazen thing has consequences for the young Lieutenant bringing him up against people much bigger than he is, namely the aforementioned Colonel Jessup. Because there is something running down the line of command that simply does not add up going from Jessup, to his Lt. Colonel Markinson (J.T. Walsh), one Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland), down to one of the accused Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison). Kaffee takes a chance on the truth and that’s where the film blows up.

In our sound byte culture “You can’t handle the truth” has been perfect fodder for parody and the like. But doing so we take it out of context and as a culture we seem to be very adept at doing that. Misconstruing information and ultimately succeeding in draining words of all their impact. But when Colonel Jessup lets the words fly under tense interrogation from Lt. Daniel Kaffee there’s so much rooted in those words.

The film probably does not dig into this issue enough but it does imply something. As Americans who take pride in our freedoms, in our very Americanism, are we so naïve as to believe that it does not come without a cost? Not simply of human life but of perhaps darker realities that are kept under wraps for the good of the people, for the betterment of society. It’s a cliché saying, but the old adage goes that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and I know that’s a rather callous statement, how far from the truth is that actually?

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Winston Churchill something to the affect that Truth is so precious she should be protected with a bodyguard of lies. And if this film is any indication, not only truth but our very freedoms or the things we use to define freedoms like honor and codes are indubitably hidden away and swept under the rug.

So A Few Good Men ends on a poignant note because at the very basic, ground level it is an underdog story played out in a courtroom. It has Tom Cruise playing the young Tom Cruise character we know (and maybe love). And that brings me to the final general parallel I found with Officer and a Gentlemen. Both films are invariably predictable and they play to our sensibilities as an audience, yet despite those very things, they manage to be moving and strangely compelling human dramas.

Rob Reiner might not be called an auteur and we unfortunately, are still waiting for his next great picture but his string of modern classics during the 80s and 90s are a joy for the very qualities mentioned above. Everyone can enjoy them and A Few Good Men is yet another example of that.

4/5 Stars

 

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

Rain Man (1988)

Barry LevRain_Man_posterinson doesn’t have a masterpiece per se, but he has some thoroughly enjoyable films in his filmography including Diner and Good Morning Vietnam as two prime examples. Rain Man is similar in that it is an interesting film and a heartfelt film, but not, dare I say, a great film.

Tom Cruise plays his typical stuck-up jerk named Charlie Babbit who learns what really matters in life, over time. He starts off as hotshot car dealer in Los Angeles who is trying to swing a big deal while balancing a vacay in Palm Desert with his girlfriend. However, when he gets news that his estranged father has passed away, he must change course for Ohio.

It’s there that he rehashes his old bitterness towards his father, and it is there that he learns something life-changing. He has a brother. An older brother to be exact, named Raymond. Except he never heard about him, since Ray is living in Wallbrook, a mental institution for individuals with autism.

He lives on a regimented schedule that he adheres to without fail. He loves books, baseball, and Jeopardy! among other hobbies. Whenever he gets nervous he starts into a monotone monologue of “Who’s on First.” He seems completely at odds with the world of his younger brother, but the catch is that all their father’s wealth is essentially given over to Raymond.

So in the name of equality, Charlie takes his brother away and holds him at a kind of ransom so Ray’s doctor will hand over half of the family fortune. The doctor doesn’t budge, however, so Charlie is left to travel with his brother to California. Matters are complicated because Ray will not fly on planes, citing the many fatalities in the past. Thus, this story of two brothers turns into a road film where Charlie begins to learn how special Ray really is.

True, he constantly sticks to his regiment (ie. Lights out at 11 and such), but he also has amazing abilities including doing extraordinary calculations and having tremendous recall ability. At first Charlie’s girlfriend, Sussana is upset with how he treats Raymond and she leaves. That was unfortunate because she for a time was my favorite character. However, it does allow for Cruise and Hoffman to share more scenes together. They take Vegas by storm and Raymond is a success while Susanna finally rejoins them. Most importantly Charlie has a newfound respect for his brother and what he is able to do. Dr. Bruner wants to take Ray back to the institution, and despite his objections, Charlie can do little about it. He will have to find solace in the fact that he will be visiting his brother next Wednesday.

In Rain Man I found Tom Cruise to generally be a jerk because that was the part he was playing and he was made for that type of role. Dustin Hoffman, on his part, gave an extraordinary performance which managed to be emotionless and robotic at times. However, he seemed to capture the humanity and reality of an individual with autism so well. Just because they act differently than what we are used to does not mean they are not just as human and relatable. They have feelings and emotions too that matter. That being said, it is understandable why he would be hard to deal with sometimes. Valeria Golino was a fairly good addition because she brought some more energy and seemed to generally care about Raymond. Although Charlie did eventually come around, thanks to a few revelations about his “Rain Man.”

3.5/5 Stars

Jerry Maguire (1997)

Jerry_Maguire_movie_posterJerry Maguire is your typical feel-good sports story, but it has a different angle. The eponymous character, Jerry (Tom Cruise), is on top of the sports industry. Not as a player, executive, broadcaster, or anything like that, but as an agent. His job is to make his clients the big bucks and protect their interests while also thinking about his own. He’s constantly on the phone cajoling and soothing big time egos so they stick with him and do as he desires. A lot of it is a flattery game, and Jerry is the best of the best whether it’s face-to-face or over the phone. He knows how to play the game.

In a brief moment of so-called weakness, however, he writes an impassioned memo after he realizes he has gone away from his initial values of being a sports agent. The idealistic magnum opus he comes up with late one night is well received and yet it signals a real hitch in his career, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

He gets let go at his agency, and he struggles to hold on to any clients he can, but slowly, bit by bit, they leave him. First one, then two, and then on and on they went. When a top prospect leaves him it looks like Jerry is sunk. And then there was one. Loud-mouthed, prima donna Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) known for famously uttering the phrase, “Show me the money!”

All the while, unassuming single mom Dorothy Boyd (Rene Zellweger) buys into his dream when no one else will and in the process, she begins falling in love. He’s not quite at the same place she is however.

Jerry Maguire is invariably sad, but it is an ultimately uplifting look at the sports drama told from the sidelines which are still chock full of drama, conflict, and romance in its own right. By consolidating and getting smaller, Jerry learns what is truly important. He finds who his true friends are in Rod and Dorothy. And he learns what it means to truly love someone, not only in a cheesy romantic sense (You had me at hello), but as a true blue friend.

So although not always a great film, Cameron Crowe’s story holds some of the same sensibility of Say Anything… and Almost Famous. It shows that something as big and blown up as professional sports can always be brought down to a more basic level of humanity. It falls somewhere in between films like The Blind Side and Moneyball and that’s not necessarily too bad a place to be.

3.5/5 Stars

“And I’m free, I’m free fallin'”

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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Time loops are fun. Scratch that. They’re fun to think about and to watch as an audience in the comfort of an armchair, but they get old real fast for movie characters. Just ask public affairs officer-turned-time looper William Cage (Tom Cruise).

He’s an indolent former advertising agent who wants no part of the actual fighting that is taking place in Europe with a mysterious alien army of so-called Mimics. In his attempts to avoid combat, he ends up handcuffed, stripped of his rank of Major, and shipped off to a base at Heathrow. His worst nightmare is becoming reality as he is quickly thrown into the front lines where he is headed to face the enemy without any training. He is an absolute pitiful mess and his platoon mates spare him no mercy. After all, he’s a sniveling complainer.

He’s just as incompetent on the battlefield, and it becomes obvious he’s not going to last long (There’s potential for a very short movie). But before he gets killed by one of the aliens, its blood covers him. Did you get that? Although seemingly insignificant the whole film soon hinges on this fact.

Where does he wake up? No not hell or heaven, but back at Heathrow airport, handcuffs and all, with a superior yelling at him yet again. He’s back in this nightmare once more and it continues for the rest of the film.

Honestly, Edge of Tomorrow is an awful name for this film. The tagline Live. Die. Repeat. is a little closer. At least it gets at the heart of what this sci-fi tale is about. In a similar vein as Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, Cage first gets acclimated to his new ability to experience a moment in time. He learns how to manipulate and navigate it to help himself, but as would be expected it gets tiresome and monotonous. With great power comes great responsibility, difficulty, and fatigue.

Live. Die. Repeat. Live. Die. Repeat. Slowly but surely Cage makes it farther and father against the mimics joining forces with famed soldier Rita Vrataski who is the poster girl for this noble war (Emily Blunt). Her early advice, “Come find me when you wake up,” is the strangest of greetings, but it starts the ball rolling. In a world where humanity is continually walking into an ambush, they are the only two who comprehend what is happening. Vrataski knows because she used to have Cage’s ability but lost it, so he is the new hope. Live. Die. Repeat. Live. Die. Repeat. She shapes him into a more efficient fighter over numerous time loops and gives him more insight into their enemy. He’s getting sick and tired of getting killed too. Live. Die. Repeat. etc.

He starts seeing visions of the Omega (the nucleus of the mimic), but they soon realize that the mimic is leading them on. Live. Die. Repeat. By this point, Cage has gone through so much with Vrataski and he cannot bear to see her continually dying. They finally locate the whereabouts of the Omega but after numerous failures, they finally run out of second chances. Cage loses his ability to loop, like Vrataski before him, needing a blood transfusion to pull through. Live or Die. No repeat this time.

Thus, begins their descent into the throes of their foe towards the Louvre where the Omega is. However, this time Cage convinces his squad to help and they prove their worth. An alpha comes after Cage and Vrataski as he blows up the Omega with a pack of grenades. There’s an instant of doubt, an uneasy feeling. Live. Die. Repeat…

Except now Major William Cage is back on the helicopter. No stripping of rank, no orders to the front lines, and with a newly weakened enemy. The nightmare is over so it seems and Cage is twice the man he was before. Only one thing matters. You guessed it. He goes looking for Sergeant Vrataski and sure enough there she is where he always found her before. She greets him with the same curtness as he smiles knowingly and most definitely with relief. For the last time or the first, depending on how you see it.

Quick cut to credits and “Love Me Again” by John Newman and it’s all over. It’s an ending that we hate as an audience, but it is the right one. As far as modern sci-fi films go, this one reminded me a bit of Source Code and Looper. Similarly, once you bought into the premise and invested in the setup, it proved to be a smart and entertaining ride.

Tom Cruise proved he can still do action movies and Emily Blunt carried the film with a toughness that would have made Ellen Ripley proud. This may be summer blockbuster material, but it’s also a worthwhile trip that takes us for a loop. Awful pun intended.

4/5 Stars