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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Cruise’

Things change. Once upon a time I was somewhat given to commenting on the rather languid pace at which the makers of the Mission: Impossible movies produced their wares: six year gaps between instalments not being unusual. These days, however, they’re coming out nearly as often as Bond films – though, again, the once regular-as-clockwork schedule of Eon’s franchise has rather slipped in recent years.

Even so, nineteen years on from Brian de Palma’s original movie, they’re still only up to number 5, or Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (he of The Usual Suspects renown, should the name occasion a tinkle). This time around, the story is – well, to be perfectly honest, it’s very much like the story in the last couple of films in its general tone and so on, but the particularities are as follows.

Following a preposterous sequence with Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane in flight (this is the one you may have seen in the trailers and so forth; it has virtually no connection to the main plot), the Impossible Mission Force’s government overseers come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Cruise is raving mad and shut the whole agency down. However, Cruise has come across the existence of a secret organisation dedicated to counter-intelligence, terrorism, revenge, and extortion, though it’s obviously not That One, and refuses to be packed off to the padded cell the CIA have got ready for him. (Cruise goes on the run from his own bosses with such tedious regularity in these films that it’s practically his standard operating procedure.)

Six months pass, with, we are invited to infer, Cruise leading the ham-fisted regular spooks a merry dance around the world, while back home his usual associates (primarily Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames) take a lot of stick from the new boss (Alec Baldwin) on his behalf. Anyway, Cruise invites Pegg to the opera in Vienna, not for a cultural night out but because he believes beastliness is afoot.

Of course Cruise is right and there follows a preposterous sequence in which no fewer than five people try to either shoot or blow up the Austrian Chancellor, and it seems like every loose object in the opera house contains a concealed weapon of some kind. Cruise and Pegg make contact with enigmatic British agent Rebecca Ferguson (the only female main character, and the only one required to do a scene in her pants, in case you were wondering), and this leads to the obligatory sequence in which an impregnable bank vault must be robbed. It is, naturally, preposterous.

There is a motorbike chase and then a preposterous climax based around Cruise and the gang sticking up the British Prime Minister (the PM is played by Tom Hollander as a vague and comical figure, though of course he doesn’t approach the wretchedness of the genuine article), and then… well, let’s just say that Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme gets played a lot.

It is all, in case you hadn’t noticed, very preposterous stuff, but then that’s what people seem to want, as it is raking in the readies and Mission: Impossible 6 is already on the drawing board. This series has become the purest of popcorn entertainment, owing no great loyalty to Bruce Geller’s classic TV series: people just go along to see each new film because it’s big and slick and loud entertainment, and it’s got some reliable, familiar faces in it.

Chief amongst those is, of course, Tom Cruise, although the confusion amongst some commentators as to what exactly’s going on with Tom Cruise’s face is not without foundation – he may well be in alarmingly good shape for a man of his age, but his face does seem, um, variable at different points of the film. Nevertheless, this remains at heart a Tom Cruise vehicle, with all the baggage that comes with it – scenes where characters exclaim that he’s a deranged obsessive take on a whole extra meaning, for instance. Early on someone says of him, ‘I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true,’ which again suggests someone somewhere is being a bit playful. Regardless, the godlike essence of Cruise and his character is ultimately confirmed – he is, apparently, ‘the living embodiment of destiny’, or words to that effect, and this is said by someone who doesn’t even like him very much. (One wonders whether the increased frequency of Cruise’s Impossible excursions may be at all linked to a slight but definite fading in his star power.)

Business as usual continues elsewhere, with much of the film’s heart and warmth coming from supporting bananas such as Pegg and Renner. Rhames gets a couple of nice moments but it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s mainly there to provide a link with previous films. There is the faintest sense of this being something of a greatest hits package, incorporating as it does a number of bits very reminiscent of previous films – bike chases, locations, and so on. There are also possibly-ominous signs of the undertaking running out of ideas – there’s a long scene expositing the plot in the third act, and I caught myself thinking ‘that guy there is going to whip off a rubber mask and reveal himself to be Tom Cruise in a minute’, and – lo! – it came to pass pretty much as I expected.

Possibly the only real innovation this time is the fact that we are back in a position where the bad guys are British. Well, not everyone from the UK turns out to be a bad guy (and the question of what someone as audibly British as Simon Pegg is doing working for the CIA is never really addressed), but the British authorities are presented as being variously corrupt, ruthless, foolish, and self-centred. All very charming I’m sure, and perhaps in some way indicative of the fact that various companies in the Middle East and Asia co-financed this movie.

But, as I believe I said, this movie is preposterous, so it’s quite difficult to get genuinely annoyed with it. It’s a good kind of preposterous, anyway – you don’t actually question the plot while it’s slipping by so agreeably, and if you won’t remember the details of the plot a couple of weeks later, so what? It’s undeniably fun while it’s in front of you, but not much more.

 

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I am not entirely surprised to learn that all is not well in the state of Tom Cruise: the gleamingly betoothed one is not busting blocks in the way he was wont to do in years gone by – Stateside, at least. Why exactly should this be? Is it a case of audience fatigue? Is it due to the films themselves not being quite up to scratch? Or is it simply that the great American public have, rightly or wrongly, come to the conclusion that, off-screen, Tom Cruise is just a tiny bit weird?

Certainly it seems to me that Cruise is increasingly resembling the great Charlton Heston in his final years, in that the quality of the star’s creative output has been overshadowed by his real-life beliefs and antics. His willingness to lend his name and star power to decent studio SF movies adds to this, admittedly: Cruise hasn’t made a truly game-changing genre movie like Planet of the Apes yet, but he keeps on trying.

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His latest offering is Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, which instantly scored points with me by establishing its scenario without recourse to either expository captions or voice-over. Basically, Europe has been invaded by squiggly space aliens, but their advance has ground to a halt at the English Channel, and a vast high-tech invasion force is massing at Heathrow to drive the gribbly hordes back (insert your own joke about UKIP here, if you must).

Cruise plays Cage, a US Army media relations officer in Britain to document the invasion. A dedicated staff officer, he is therefore not best pleased when commanding officer Brendan Gleeson orders him in with the first wave of the assault (it’s basically the scene with Melchett and Darling from the last episode of Blackadder, but with shinier teeth), and his attempts to dodge this backfire and see him busted to private and packed off to the staging area.

The invasion proceeds and is a disaster, with the squiggly aliens slaughtering everyone in sight, including Cruise. Up until now the film has had a general sort of war-movie vibe, cheerily mixing up bits of Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Starship Troopers, and Aliens – the movie acknowledges some of these influences, not least by casting the great Bill Paxton as Cage’s topkick. Not surprisingly, given that the film is only about fifteen minutes in and everyone has already died, things take a left turn as Cruise finds himself back in the previous day, reliving the events leading up to the doomed assault. Again it happens, again he dies, again he snaps back to the day before. Can he find a way to survive the battle, and perhaps even help win the war? Perhaps the fact this is even happening might offer some kind of a clue…

Well, here’s the funny thing about Edge of Tomorrow: one of the reasons I was slightly lukewarm about Cruise’s last SF offering, Oblivion, was that it felt rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones’ first film as a director, Moon. And something rather inescapable about Edge of Tomorrow (for all that it’s based on an original novella by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) is the fact that it feels rather like a bigger-budget, sexed-up, actioned-up retread of Duncan Jones’ second film as a director, Source Code. Tom, if you want to work with Duncan that badly, there are more straightforward ways of letting him know.

The chief similarity between Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow is the time-resetting gimmick, which of course dates back over twenty years (to Jonathan Heap’s 12:01PM). I’ve always said that just being derivative isn’t in itself enough to make a film bad, so let’s not get too hung up on this. The film does handle the gimmick with a certain dark wit, with quite a few of Cruise’s various demises played for laughs – it doesn’t have Source Code‘s oppressive sense of an endlessly recurring nightmare, and it doesn’t quite explain how Cruise isn’t driven totally nuts by an insanely large number of traumatic demises, but then this is more of a generic action movie anyway. It is very much a movie for the games console generation, and anyone who has found themselves repeatedly slaughtered while trying to get to the next save point on an FPS will probably have some sympathy for Cruise’s predicament.

On the other hand, the film is solidly written, with a due appreciation of how difficult it is to seriously challenge someone who is effectively immortal and able to teach himself any required skill instantly, and so the final act becomes a rather more conventional SF-action movie set piece. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anybody – Edge of Tomorrow may touch on a bunch of different movie genres, and be predicated upon a fairly outrageous bafflegab premise, but it inevitably boils down to being Tom Cruise gritting his extraordinary teeth and shooting at stuff in front of green-screen.

That it succeeds in coming across as something more than that is partly a result of the inventiveness of the script and direction, but also due to the talent of the actors involved. This being a Cruise vehicle, the script has been tinkered with to give the star a chance to do his stuff – there’s an arc about him changing from an unreliable, barely-competent coward to a committed, dedicated warrior which I suspect has been beefed up – but he remains one of those actors with enough presence to prevent watching essentially the same scene four or five times over from becoming a drag. Brendan Gleeson isn’t in it enough, obviously, and the same really goes for Bill Paxton. I expect Noah Taylor fans will say the same (he appears, briefly, as a boffin). This is a Cruise vehicle, and that’s never really in any doubt, but his chief foil on this occasion is Emily Blunt as a ferocious female soldier with whom he establishes a relationship (over and over again). Blunt is a versatile actor and does well in a role which could easily have become a cypher.

Edge of Tomorrow isn’t going to set the world on fire or mark the beginning of a New Golden Age of Intelligent SF Film-making, but on the other hand if this is the worst, dumbest genre movie we see all summer then 2014 should turn out to be a pretty good year. This movie never really succeeds in becoming more than the sum of its parts – so it’s just as well that those were pretty good parts to begin with.

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All right, as you probably know, I try to avoid proper spoilers hereabouts – if I can, anyway. Every now and then, however, a film comes along which it is very difficult to talk about in any detail without risking giving the game away about its story. This is particularly the case with movies which help themselves to story ideas and concepts from other (usually low-budget) films willy-nilly, presumably in the belief that no-one will notice the steal – or nobody who matters, anyway. Joe Kosinski’s Oblivion is one such movie.

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Oblivion (the meaning of the title remains somewhat obscure in the context of the film) is not a sequel or a remake of a big-name property, nor is it a superhero or TV show adaptation. This may explain why it has slipped out ahead of the pack of big summer genre movies (summer movie season now starts in late April, apparently, which is frankly absurd), even though it stars a performer of the magnitude of Tom Cruise.

Cruise has shown an interest in science-fictional undertakings on and off for over a decade now (insert Scientology joke here if you wish) and this is his latest excursion into the genre. He plays Jack Harper, a repairman and one of the very last people on Earth. A catastrophic war with invading aliens has left virtually the entire planet a desolate ruin, and the task of Cruise and his partner Andrea Riseborough is to maintain the security drones protecting a network of power rigs generating energy for a colony of survivors on Titan.

The rigs are threatened by shadowy creatures nicknamed Scavs, with whom Cruise has various run-ins when not waxing lyrical about the good old days, being troubled by enigmatic dreams of a pre-war Earth featuring a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko), or hanging about the remains of famous buildings – the Big Book of Sci Fi Cliches axiom that the more iconic a building is, the more disaster-resistant it will prove is fully in force. But then a Scav signal appears to trigger the re-entry of an ancient spacecraft, and despite being warned off by his own mission control, Cruise discovers within the hibernating form of the woman from his dreams – and she appears to recognise him…

If you are partial to SF movies, and have yourself been in stasis for the last four years, then you will probably quite like Oblivion. It looks impressive, the performances of the four leads (Morgan Freeman turns up to give proceedings some gravitas, but the nature of the plot precludes me from saying in what circumstances) are all at least solid, and for a while it seems to be riffing on ideas and images from SF movies of the early 70s with skill and insight.

That said, it’s not nearly as subtle or clever as it needs to be – a clodhopping early reference to Cruise having had his memory wiped signposts very early on that the audience is being set up for a major plot twist, and so it proves. The twist in question is effective enough, and, to be fair, it’s followed by a few more which are also decent. Oblivion is not short on cleverness – the problem is that it does have a serious shortfall of new ideas, genuine thrills, and soul, and some of the plot does strain credibility just a bit (the ending in particular is an outrageous attempt at having cake and eating it).

I actually feel a bit guilty about not liking Oblivion more than I do, because for all of this there are some genuinely great things about this film – the production design is great, the soundtrack is interesting, and Andrea Riseborough blasts everyone else off the screen, as usual. The problem is that I liked this film even more the first time I saw it, when it starred Sam Rockwell and was called Moon.

I don’t think I’m overstating things if I describe Oblivion as a gargantuanly-budgeted remake of Moon which has had various action sequences, an alien invasion, and a love story grafted onto it without a great deal of elegance. The premise, atmosphere, and even a couple of specific scenes all seem uncannily familiar. If you haven’t seen Moon, then this probably doesn’t illuminate you much – but at least I haven’t spoiled Duncan Jones’ exceedingly fine film for you. If you have, then you now have a very good idea of the direction in which Oblivion ends up going (sorry).

For me the similarities were so numerous and so glaring that they really got in the way of my enjoyment of Kosinski’s film (which, for the record, purports to be an adaptation of an unpublished graphic novel – hmmm). Others may well have a different experience, which is fair enough – there are good things going on here. But I still think that if you don’t like SF, you’re not going to warm to Oblivion simply due to the film’s premise, and if you do, its derivativeness and arguable lack of real substance isn’t going to endear it to you, either. Judging it on its own terms, this is quite possibly a better film than I’m giving it credit for – but to do so seems to me to require wilfully ignoring just what a blatant knock-off it is.

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I’ve always had a sort of soft spot for the Mission: Impossible movies, partly because I like the TV show but mainly because when the first film came along I was at a bit of a low ebb and generally not feeling very good about myself – Brian de Palma’s movie made me forget all that, really cheered me up, and somehow set the tone for a summer which ultimately turned out to be much better than I could have expected. As a result it may be that I am prone to grant subsequent installments an easier ride than I would usually in the case of vacuous studio cash cows possibly coming around the block once too often.

Which brings us to Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, possibly the most punctuation-intensive title for a sequel since the last Tomb Raider movie. If you think that sounds more like a computer game than a movie, then – hmm, your Jedi powers stand you in good stead.

It all kicks off with junior Impossibles Simon Pegg (Mission Specialities: Geekiness and Comic Relief) and Paula Patton (Mission Specialities: Decorativeness and Ticking Diversity Boxes) busting Tom Cruise (Mission Specialities: [deleted on the advice of our lawyers after a close reading of the libel laws]) out of a Russian nick (since the last movie Pegg has passed the exam letting him participate in the main plot). Cruise is in there for a reason, but we needn’t worry too much about that.

Cruise and his new team are required to infiltrate the Kremlin (parts of which appear to have been sneakily disguised as Prague Castle – oh, those Russians!) in search of information as to the identity of a nutty boffin intent on starting a nuclear war in the name of progress. (The whole film operates on this kind of level, in case you were wondering.) But the boffin is onto them, blows up the Kremlin (but not Prague Castle, thankfully) and pins it on Tom and the gang. Caught up along with them is honorary Impossible on secondment from HQ Jeremy Renner (Mission Specialities: Worrying and Having A Mysterious Past).

With the superpowers bracing themselves for war (not that anyone outside the team seems particularly exercised by this) and Tom and the Impossibles disowned and hunted by their own government (though not very hard on the evidence we’re presented with – there’s a Russian cop who keeps popping up, though), stopping the boffin from setting off the nukes is going to be a challenge. But, as Sir Tony observed a couple of sequels ago, it’s not called Mission: Difficult

Ghost Protocol proudly introduces itself as A Tom Cruise Production, and if productions take after their producers in the same way that pets take after their owners, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this movie is utterly bonkers. Not necessarily in a bad way, but you should sever all links with reality before taking your seat. The first couple of M:I movies, at least, were moderately implausible action thrillers with a techno bent – but somewhere along the line a border has been sneakily crossed and by any reasonable definition this movie is really very silly SF. Spider-Man-style adhesive gauntlets, magnetic levitation kits, laser saws, and holographic wallpaper – they’re all here.

To accommodate all the gadgets the script isn’t really very much more than a succession of massively implausible set-pieces – you may well have seen the one with Cruise hanging off the side of a hotel in Dubai, but there are a number of others of broadly the same character. Alarm bells may be starting to ring, but do not be too hasty – crucially, Pixar alumnus Bird knows how to put together a polished and intricate spectacle, and the movie’s money sequences all hold together with every impression of effortlessness. It all still boils down to the Impossibles hurling themselves down ventilator shafts, dangling out of windows, and pretending to be people they’re not (not so much business with masks this time round, however), but it’s done with the greatest of style and energy.

Unfortunately, although this is obviously not the kind of film in which the participants are gunning for acting awards, what it really needs in order to wholly satisfy as a piece of breathless entertainment is a protagonist who can really invest it with some warmth and humanity. And what it has is Tom Cruise. General perceptions of Cruise, whether accurate or not, long ago reached the point where they colour every film he makes – and shall we just say that this doesn’t synergise well with his playing an obsessive, slightly ludicrous figure, as he does here? It’s not even as though he gives much of a performance, anyway – he’s a clenched, impassive lump at the centre of the film (clearly a lump with a good personal trainer, of course), hardly showing any emotion for most of it. As a result, scenes (and a whole subplot) dealing with Cruise’s emotional life and history just seem a bit superfluous – it also feels as if they may be there just to explain how this film connects to Mission: Impossible 3, and I for one wasn’t that bothered about that.

Nevertheless, the rest of the team do sterling work in propping Cruise and the movie up. Jeremy Renner is, as usual, rock-solidly reliable in support. Simon Pegg’s increased visibility reflects the rise of his star in recent years – although it seemed to me he was almost doing a bit too much in the way of comic relief in an attempt to personalise the movie. Paula Patton also carries out her duties commendably (I’m not saying this is a film with somewhat unreconstructed attitudes, and will leave you to discover for yourself which of the four leads is the one required to do a scene in their underthings).

The last two Mission: Impossibles whipped by enjoyably enough without leaving much of an impression on me. It’s early days with regard to Ghost Protocol, but I enjoyed it at the time – a slick, silly, very professionally assembled piece of blockbuster product, with lots of nice bits (not least the unusual sound of Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme played on the sitar). I’ve no idea whether this series has anything left in the tank – I suspect that will rather depend on Tom Cruise’s career trajectory – but Brad Bird’s achievements, at least, are rather impressive, and I’ll be interested to see what he does next.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 18th 2006:

[Originally following a review of Slither.]

Funnily enough, we go from a film about bizarre and unnatural methods of reproduction to Tom Cruise’s latest project. (Yeah, yeah, bring on your lawyers: you ain’t got nothing on me!) This is Mission: Impossible 3, as if you didn’t already know, co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost. This is one franchise which isn’t afraid to drag its feet while the Cruiser gets on with other things – it’s ten years since Brian de Palma’s (quite nifty) original, and six since John Woo’s (kinetic but soulless) follow-up. Well anyway, clearly it has been decreed it’s time for a third installment and our presence in the multiplex is clearly expected.

As you would expect given the director’s pedigree, this latest outing finds Tom Cruise stranded on a tropical island with an invisible monster and a female student who’s secretly a top spy. Ha! Ha! Oh, my sides. All right – it doesn’t really. Instead, our toothsome inch-high superspy has gone into semi-retirement as a trainer of other agents and is all set for domestic bliss with his fiancee – no, it’s not Thandie Newton from the last movie, she clearly got sick of never being allowed to wear heels, it’s someone new. But then – wouldn’t you know it! – one of Tom’s trainees gets into trouble and he’s sent in to rescue her. This does not go entirely to plan and Tom finds himself on the wrong side of lardy arms dealer Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose main hobby is putting bombs up peoples’ noses. A fink within the IMF eventually gives Hoffman the forwarding address of Tom’s new bride and our hero finds himself having to nick a crucial plot device Macguffin for him before his wife gets put six feet under and his own sinuses get decongested with extreme prejudice…

Despite what you may be thinking, Abrams does work fairly hard to make this more than just a cynical cash-in on the Mission: Impossible name. The premise of the show (each week a disparate team of Impossible Missionaries got sent on an unfeasibly complicated, er, mission) is reflected in the structure of the movie – obviously Tom is the Chief Impossible, aided by Deputy Impossible Ving Rhames (yup, back again, still with moustache) and Assistant Impossibles Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Our own Simon Pegg pops up in a couple of scenes as a very junior Impossible who isn’t let out of HQ, presumably because his costume isn’t stylish enough.) Anyway the film is written so Tom and the gang have to go Impossibling in a different location every thirty minutes or so – there is a good deal of globe-trotting involved in this but with the exception of a ridiculous caper inside the Vatican all the locations are used strictly as ‘colour’ – apart from the trip to Rome, they could probably have set the whole film within thirty miles of Birmingham without it needing very much in the way of rewriting. Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme gets blasted out fairly regularly too, which is nice, but the classic ‘your mission, if you choose to accept it…’ schtick is very nearly abandoned, which isn’t.

The plot is fairly bonkers, but acceptably so, and the film only really gets dull in between bouts of Impossibling. At these points Tom hangs out with Ving Rhames (who used to be an ace hacker but who, to judge from his interest in Tom’s personal life, has since retrained as a relationship counsellor) or gets dragged over the coals by snippy IMF boss Laurence Fishburne, who appears to have been on the pies since finishing the Matrix trilogy. Both of these are fairly grim but much, much worse are the segments where we get to see Tom and his missus hanging out and generally just being in love with each other. Yes, Tom’s teeth go into overdrive, flashing and pulsating away like an Aldis lamp. To be fair, his performance throughout is also quite acceptable but the fact remains that when on screen, no matter what the movie, he frequently looks completely nuts – and when, as in this case, the script does not address that fact, the results are rarely entirely satisfying. Hoffman, who’s a much more versatile performer, gets considerably less screentime and his part is so thinly written even an actor of his abilities struggles to really make an impression.

JJ Abrams does a decent job as a debut director, with a fair eye for a striking composition. He achieves some neat effects, too: in particular a sequence where real-live-Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is seamlessly replaced by Hoffman himself playing Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is very neatly done. He seems to be aware of the dangers of franchise fatigue as well – one of the set-piece bits of Impossibling here is dangerously similar to one from earlier in the series, and Abrams handles it in an unexpected way that keeps it relatively fresh. He also handles the blatant nature of the central Macguffin with amusing impudence – though whether this is done as a post-modern in-joke or as an act of sheer desperation I don’t know. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but only if he explains what those ruddy numbers are all about by the end of the year…

In the end, though, this is a fairly sterile and mechanical piece of entertainment. The individual bits of Impossibling are entertaining and amusing and there are some effective bits of action along the way – but the climax is rather low-key, and the film’s attempts to be politically relevant come across as strained and spurious. It doesn’t play with the audience’s expectations in the way the first film did, and doesn’t have much in the way of novelty value either. As a popcorn movie, it works, and I expect it will do very well at the box office. But the prospect of a six year wait before the next instalment doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 21st 2004:

For fifty years now, samurai have cast a long shadow over world cinema. Their greatest advocate, Akira Kurosawa (son of a samurai family himself), invented the iconography of the samurai movie single-handed, as well as providing storytellers of all kinds with a set of archetypes that show no signs of fading with age. From The Magnificent Seven to the Jedi Knights to Ghost Dog, the outsider with ferocious dedication and terrifying martial prowess is part of the Tarot deck of modern culture.

Which makes it all the more ironic that Kurosawa was criticised in his native Japan for portraying an idealised and stereotypical version of the country on celluloid (which I suppose must make him the Richard Curtis of his day). Also the fact that he himself admitted that one of the biggest influences on his style was John Ford – a more monolithically American director could not be conceived of. But the imagery remains, the mystique persists, intact.

Ed Zwick takes a crack at doing Kurosawa’s legacy justice in The Last Samurai, a fictionalised retelling of the samurai rebellion of 1877, although, to ensure we gaijin turn up in sufficient numbers to recoup the sizeable budget, riding with the rebels is none other than Tom Cruise, even though he technically doesn’t make the minimum height requirement. Eh? How’s that work? I hear you wonder.

Well, Tom plays Nathan Algren, an embittered US Army officer racked with guilt about his role in atrocities committed against native Americans, reduced to being a salesman for the Winchester rifle company and trying to drink himself to death. But the appearance of old comrade Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly – but don’t worry, somebody sticks a yari through him before very long) signals a new opportunity. The Emperor of Japan wants someone to train his new modernised army, and Tom and Billy are offered the job.

However, it turns out that not everyone is happy with the westernisation of Japan, and the Emperor has his hands full with a rebellion led by noble samurai lord Katsumoto (a fine performance by Ken Watanabe, squarely in the tradition of the great Toshiro Mifune). Despite his better judgement, Tom leads his half-trained army against the samurai and promptly gets the squaddies minced and himself captured. Inevitably, though, he comes to admire the spirit of his captors and begins to question his own loyalties…

It’s fairly clear that Tom Cruise would really like to win an Oscar for his performance in this film. If that happens, it will be rightly scorned by future generations, but there’s still much to enjoy about The Last Samurai. As I’ve already mentioned, Watanabe is extremely good as Cruise’s main sparring partner, and a little further down the cast list is a pleasing turn from Timothy Spall as an expat Brit (Spall’s presence in a couple of the Cruiser’s recent pics may be down to the great man apparently being a mad keen fan of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). It’s very handsomely mounted and photographed – the first appearance of the samurai as they ride out of the fog, like intruders from a lost world, is wonderful – and the action sequences are extremely spiffy, ranging from Tom twirling his daisho like nobody’s business as he takes on five men single-handed, to a cool ninjas-vs-samurai skirmish, to a full-scale old-school pitched battle, of which Kurosawa himself might well have approved.

Having said that, it is rather long and a tiny bit predictable, and there’s a lot of dead wood in the cast list. (I think the end is a cop-out, too, but will say no more for fear of spoiling the plot.) And this is a film built around a very strange ambivalency. The story is partly driven by liberal angst over imperialist exploitation of Japan and elsewhere – western culture is basically depicted as mercenary and decadent. ‘Why do you hate you own kind so much?’ the villain asks Cruise at one point – I could ask the scriptwriter and director the same question. This is especially pertinent as the culture the film portrays as spiritually and morally superior to the west’s in virtually every way is that of the samurai. These guys are so noble and moral they make the Jedi look like pimps. This is a depiction of the caste far more idealised than anything Kurosawa ever put on film, and an unrealistic one (for one thing, the charming ritual where a samurai could summarily execute any passing peasant failing to show appropriate servility doesn’t make it into the film). This film is about the mythic samurai stereotype rather than the historical reality – a commercially wise choice, I suppose, but one which dumbs it down considerably.

But one thing the film is certain of: and that’s that Tom Cruise is a great, great guy. The samurai are wonderful, and they really like Tom – so imagine how much more wonderful that must make him! Yes, it’s the same old Cruiser narcissism that has so often bedevilled his attempts to be taken seriously as an actor. He doesn’t do the smile so much on this occasion, for which I suppose we must be thankful, but we do get lots of portentous voice-overs as he reveals his insights into the society of his new friends, and far too often things grind to a halt for a scene in which Tom gets to show off his range and talent for no real purpose other than to provide the award shows with a nice clip to accompany the nomination he’s hoping for. It’s this mixture of liberal angst, fetishistic hero-worship, and narcissism that takes the edge off an otherwise worthy piece of epic entertainment.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 21st 2005:

It’s taken a few years for anyone to follow-up the (qualified) success of 2002’s adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, but at least the latest film based on the master’s work has some serious clout behind it. I refer, of course, to the mega-budget version of War of the Worlds (they could afford a lot of things, but clearly not a definite article), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg’s film stars Tom Cruise as Ray, a blue-collar kinda guy whose obvious skills as an ace crane-driver and mechanic don’t stop him from being, as his children accurately point out, a bit of an asshole. His flat is untidy, his fridge virtually empty, and he’s completely unaware that his daughter (former Midwich resident Dakota Fanning) is disabled (or allergic to peanut butter, which is the same thing if you ask me). Yet all this doesn’t stop his ex-wife (Miranda Otto, barely appearing) from dumping them on him whe she goes away with her new bloke. However, over the course of one particularly fraught weekend Ray learns the value of being being a proper paternal figure, of responsibility, of keeping proper food in the house, and all the usual family value stuff you can probably recite for yourselves.

(Perhaps that synopsis is a little bit misleading as the movie also contains a good deal of other material, much of it far from peripheral, about civilisation being virtually destroyed by alien invaders whose hobbies include drinking blood, playing the tuba, indulging in ludicrously long-term planning, and forgetting to have their jabs before travelling abroad.)

Once you get past the change in locale and the parental guff, this is actually an astonishingly faithful adaptation of the legendary novel, faintly iffy ending and all. The tripedal Fighting Machines reach the screen intact and are appropriately iconic, even if the Martians themselves (look, it doesn’t say they’re not from Mars, all right?) look a bit too much like the Independence Day aliens. I was quite curious to see how Spielberg would distinguish his movie from ID4 and the multitude of other War of the Worlds rip-offs that have preceded it to the screen. And he manages it quite inventively, by resolutely making this a film about a handful of characters caught up in a catastrophe – a personal film, rather than a full-blown epic. The story unfolds from Ray’s perspective, rather than that of a scientist or fighter pilot or the president – there’s no sense of a wider picture beyond all-consuming chaos and desperation, and the result is a pervasive atmosphere of nervy unease. Most of the big set-pieces of the Fighting Machines destroying cities and crushing all resistance happen off-screen, definitely not what one would expect from a summer blockbuster.

Equally unexpected is the rather linear storyline (basically Tom and the kids running away from the Martians for two hours). But this does give the film a certain latitude, which Spielberg uses to produce a series of stunning set-piece sequences, a dazzling showcase for his unmatched directorial skills. His mastery of technique is casual but undeniable. a longish segment where Cruise hides in a cellar with Tim Robbins (playing an amalgam of two characters from the novel) probably outstays its welcome a bit, but Robbins is always good value even if the scenes between him (6′ 5″) and Cruise (5′ 7″) vaguely recall Gandalf and Bilbo having a natter.

It would of course be inconsiderate not to mention all the references to Byron Haskin’s 1953 adaptation of the story, of which there are many (including the obligatory cameos by the original leads), nor the obvious allegorial overtones that surround any modern American disaster movie. Suffice to say that at one point Cruise arrives home caked in dust like a Ground Zero survivor, at another he passes one of those boards displaying home-made posters of mssing loved ones, and his son explicitly compares the Martian invasion to a terrorist attack. As subtexts go it’s not exactly deeply buried (though to be fair the film lends itself to a rather more subversive reading equally well, suggesting Spielberg is playing it safe as usual).

This of course doesn’t stop War of the Worlds being a very solid piece of entertainment, for all the illogicalities embedded in the story (some courtesy of Wells, who can’t really be blamed, some of adaptors David Koepp and Josh Friedman, who can). Spielberg and Cruise are both on form and the film has considerable novelty value. Definitely worth a look.

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