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Posts Tagged ‘Ving Rhames’

It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind of film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

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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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 1st 2004:

‘History repeats itself – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’ – Karl Marx

Another week, another unnecessary big-name remake. On this occasion the donor is George Romero’s 1978 classic (and I use the term with precision, folks) Dawn of the Dead. This is one of those films that is so perfect and special that it really deserves listing or ring-fencing or otherwise putting beyond the greedy reach of creatively bankrupt modern studios (see also The Ladykillers). As you can imagine I turned up to Zack Snyder’s new take on this masterpiece with a good deal of apprehension.

Rather pleasantly, it’s not that bad at all (especially, I would guess, if you haven’t seen the original). The film starts off with overworked nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) coming home from a hard day at the hospital, watching Pop Idol with her boyfriend, and then missing an emergency news report through being in the shower at the time. This proves to be a serious mistake as when she awakes the next morning she has overslept and missed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Her boyfriend has his throat torn out by the cute little girl next door (now deceased), and comes after Ana himself. Jumping into the car and heading out of town, she quickly realises civilisation is collapsing around her…

And all this even before the credits! Soon enough Ana hooks up with Ving Rhames’ tough cop Ken (his name doubtless a reference to Ken Foree’s memorable performance in a similar role in the 1978 film) and together with a few other refugees they take cover in a huge shopping mall, much to the dislike of the redneck security guards already in control of the place. More survivors arrive, and as Ana, Ken and their friends (of whom Mekhi Phifer and Matt Frewer are about the best known) fortify the mall against the vast undead hordes swelling outside, they realise that help is not coming, and it’s up to them to find a way to survive…

Snyder’s film keeps the mall setting of the original, but otherwise this is a very free adaptation, heavily influenced by 28 Days Later – the zombies in this film (never actually referred to as such, of course) go in for a spot of Romero-style shambling and putrefying when they’ve nothing better to do, but at the first whiff of live flesh they’re sprinting around like puppies on amphetamines. Purists may object, but it fits in rather well with Snyder’s reimagining of the story as a kinetic rollercoaster of an action movie, punctuated by lavishly gory set-pieces at frequent intervals.

All this comes at the expense of some of the characterisation (quite a few of the characters trapped in the mall remain cardboard cutouts) and nearly all the satire and intelligence that defined Romero’s zombie films. In those movies the zombie apocalypse was only ever a backdrop to the conflicts and problems arising between the human characters – the original Dawn opens and closes with acts of violence committed by the living against the living. While the new film remains as bleak and dark as its forebears, this element is toned down. In its favour, though, Snyder’s film is often tense and is unafraid to retain Romero’s very black sense of humour.

The digital effects are never less than adequate to tell the story, and most of the splatter and makeup work is top-notch, even if it lacks the novelty and visceral yuck-factor of Tom Savini’s original make-up. As usual, this is a bigger (well, sort of – it’s nearly an hour shorter, for all that it has a vastly greater budget) telling of the tale, but by no means a better one.

Polley and Rhames make charismatic leads, and at least some of the supporting cast are very effective – f’rinstance, Jake Weber as a resourceful everyman, Phifer as an overzealous husband and father, and Ty Burrell as the sort of wretched yuppy-scum no crisis situation should be without. As is customary in this sort of undertaking, stars of the original get cameos – Savini lands a plum role, basically as the sheriff from the original Night of the Living Dead (‘That one’s still twitching – somebody shoot her in the head!’), while Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger also pop up briefly.

The new Dawn of the Dead is really stuck between a rock and a hard place – comparisons with the original are bound to be unfavourable, simply because the original is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. And it’s true that Snyder panders to the audience in a way Romero never did, and that this is in nearly every way a much more conventional piece of storytelling (particularly at either end). But for all that, this is still an extremely proficient and effective horror film, certainly the best I’ve seen in quite some time. Bloody good fun, and well worth a look if you like that sort of thing.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 5th 2009: 

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which has recently crawled one space higher on the Sugababes reserve list. Were you to have really nothing worthwhile to do and dive back into the tottering, mouldy piles of 24LAS back issues which perpetually threaten to clog up my virtual office space, you would discover in the Christmas 2003 edition a heartfelt plea for a talented young actor named Gerard Butler to be released from the near-obscurity a succession of bad script choices had landed him in. Fast forward a few years, and good fortune and a lot of shouting whilst wearing leather shorts have indeed made Butler a bona fide star – it’s just a pity the column was on hiatus when it happened. Anyway, he’s back on the big screen now as the leading man of Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer.

Gamer is not a movie afraid to partake freely from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches. In the future the world is dominated by powerful corporations, but nobody minds that much as they’re all obsessed with computer games – plus ca change and all that, but the twist is that in these games, rather than controlling a sprite on a screen, you control a real live person whose motor cortex has been injected with nanotechnological cells. The game at the centre of the film is Slayers, where death-row inmates are equipped with high-powered automatic weaponry and let loose on each other under the remote control of computer gamers from around the world. If one of the cons survives for thirty sessions in a row, he wins his freedom. Current champion Kable (Butler), under the control of star player Simon (Logan Lerman), is getting perilously close to releasing himself. The mogul running the game, Castle (Michael C. Hall, in a role that demands he use anything up to thirty percent of his talent), has his own reasons for wanting Kable silenced, so it’s rather unfortunate that one of those improbably well-resourced subversive networks so often found in this kind of film set about springing Kable and stopping Castle’s plans.

As you can probably surmise, unlikelihoods pile up on unlikelihoods in quite dizzying quantities as Gamer proceeds (my favourite being when Kable fuels his getaway vehicle by chugging a bottle of vodka and then widdling in the petrol tank), especially as this film is supposedly set only a few years into the future. The story is so implausible (a less charitable individual might prefer ‘incoherent’) that to begin with it’s a little difficult to follow, something not helped by the onslaught of whip pans, smash cuts, handheld camerawork and crazy-paving editing the viewer is bombarded with. To be honest, your reviewer is feeling rather old and embarrassed for not twigging straightaway that this is the signature style of the game-savvy directors who perpetrated the indescribable Crank movies.

Gamer aspires to be rather more serious than either of the Cranks, but it’s not appreciably more mature. I would normally assume with a story like this that the directors’ message was basically ‘Isn’t the way we’re entertained by sex and violence just awful?’ – which, of course, would be immediately and terminally undermined by the fact that the film is being marketed on the strength of its sex and violence – but it seems to me that this is hardly the kind of line likely to be taken by the guys who in the past have gleefully given us Jason Statham sticking a shotgun up someone’s backside before frottaging an old lady. Any serious moral condemnation Gamer appears to be making is surely only a trick of the light, or a convenient pretext should this movie itself be taken to task for its content. Similarly, the potentially fruitful subtext of the movie – that people behave on-line in ways they’d never dream of doing in real-life – is only really examined in passing.

I was going to observe that Gamer is the first movie in history to be named after its target audience, which if nothing else is considerate, but I’m not entirely sure the computer-gaming community will appreciate being depicted as they are here. Simon comes across as a far from likeable spoilt nerd, and he’s by far the most positive specimen on offer. The only other real candidate is a morbidly obese slob living in squalor whose life appears to revolve around using his computer to engage in vicarious sex acts. Not exactly guaranteed to get the crowd on your side, guys. By extension the rest of the gaming community is depicted as morally bankrupt and/or depraved, quite happy to see human beings blown away for entertainment (in Slayers) or used and abused in grotesque and personal ways (in Society, the movie’s version of something like Second Life). One gets a strong sense that Neveldine and Taylor have a low opinion of human nature. (I’m inclined to wonder what Castle’s version of Hootoo would look like, but it would probably be in a rather lower-octane movie than this.)

I’m sounding quite negative about this film, and I feel I have to, and yet, and yet… Crank and its sequel were by most civilised standards utterly horrible, but also pieces of bravura film-making and hugely enjoyable in their way. Gamer doesn’t have the same freewheeling absurdity to make it fly, and the plot itself isn’t really anything special once you take away the admittedly striking visuals. The actors all do as well as they can with underwritten parts and the plotline about Castle’s hidden agenda in wanting Kable dead feels very much like an afterthought. The sequences in the Slayers games are surprisingly brief and confusing – the rules of the game are never made entirely clear. I wouldn’t make a very good Rollerball player (to choose a relevant example), but I at least know how to play it – in Slayers I would only have the faintest clue what to do beyond just shooting everyone in sight. The faintest sign of the spectre of Stanley Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange wafts through the film, but this may largely simply be due to an eye-catching musical-routine-come-graphic-punch-up near the climax, which surprises more than nearly anything else on offer.

Gamer is a bit too frenetic to pass muster as an actual thriller or piece of SF, but too thematically dense to be dismissible as simply a piece of high-energy fluff. I found myself getting desensitised to its various excesses rather rapidly and the sheer implausibility of the story really stopped me from getting involved in it. Butler and Hall do their considerable best with it, and the direction and visuals are frequently striking, but on the whole, given the talent involved this is a bit of a disappointment.

Speaking of living vicariously through your computer… one of the truisms of proper SF is that it really says more about the time it’s written than the time it’s set in. One of the ways this manifests in movies is that technology just tends to be enormously exaggerated versions of things we’ve already got rather than anything wholly innovative (not many pre-1990 movies saw the internet coming, for example). Unusually, this isn’t quite true of Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, a thriller which still shares quite a few similarities with Gamer. In a (different) unspecified near future, life has been transformed by a single new technology developed by a reclusive boffin (James Cromwell this time) and opposed by rebels, the refusenik Luddites being led by a rather hammy Ving Rhames here.

The technology in question is surrogacy, whereby people spend all their time at home with their brains hooked up to an android replica which goes out and lives their life for them. The utopia this has supposedly created (no crime, no accidental deaths, and so on) is disrupted when somebody finds a way to kill people via their link with the androids, liquidising their brains (I caught half an episode of What Katie Did Next recently so I have a good idea how this feels). On the case are FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell (and before you smirk, yes, Bruce’s android does have hair).

Once again improbabilities abound – we’re told ninety-eight percent of the global population routinely uses an extremely sophisticated robotic proxy and the associated high-spec communications network. Ninety-eight percent! Who’s paying for all this stuff? Then again someone at one point implies that the total population is only a shade over one billion so there must be a bit more cash in circulation. Even so, why the fall in the crime rate? (And so on.)

Anything like this would surely utterly transform the world beyond recognition, and to be fair the film runs with the ball as far as it can, showing amongst other neat moments a future where war is almost literally a computer game – armies sprawled in front of massed computer screens, ‘dead’ soldiers simply being issued a new robot and sent back into battle – but it’s beyond the scope (not to mention the budget) of Surrogates to explore the full possibilities of its central idea. So we end up with a world with astoundingly advanced robotics, cybernetics, and data processing systems, but where the cars, guns, and phones are virtually unchanged and people still use USB sticks. That said, the movie does make use of its central idea intelligently in terms of both plot (it soon becomes apparent that you simply can’t be sure who’s connected to a particular android) and character (Willis goes out on the street ‘in the flesh’ for the first time in ages and finds he’s well outside his comfort zone). There’s interesting, if not exactly subtle stuff going on here, although it perhaps does the ‘shocking contrast between inhumanly perfect android and its unexpectedly decrepit operator’ bit once or twice too often.

I must confess I turned up to Surrogates expecting something as bland and mechanical as the titular machines, and to begin with I thought I was right – Mostow’s direction isn’t exactly inspired, while all the actors playing their robotic avatars seem to feel obliged to give blatant ‘I’m really an android’ performances. Add to this the subtle but still intrusive CGI used to create the surrogate characters, and initially at least the film has a rather odd, tranquilised quality. But it improves quite considerably as it goes on. The thriller plot whizzes along cheerfully, it’s neatly played by most of the cast (and Rosamund Pike is probably slightly better than her part deserves as Willis’ traumatised wife), and there are a couple of well-executed if sub-Matrix action sequences where a fleshy mortals pursue or are pursued by souped-up androids.

I’m still not completely convinced about the climax (without wishing to spoil the ending, and despite what the film itself states, I can’t believe Bruce Willis’ character wouldn’t end up in court on charges of multiple manslaughter), and the film never quite rises beyond the level of simply competent at any point, but it focuses on telling an effective and interesting story without getting all in a tizzy about shocking the audience or stuffing every frame with a different kind of directorial razzle-dazzle. In short, it feels like a film made for grown-ups, and of the two films we’ve just discussed it’s Surrogates I’d recommend you went to see.

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