Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The one where Ethan Hunt hangs from a cliff-face. The one where he crawls up the side of the world’s tallest building. The one where he clings to the outside of a plane mid-take-off. If Mission: Impossible movies are defined by the outrageous, insurance-busting stunts Tom Cruise is prepared to to throw himself into, Fallout will not be so easily constrained. Is it the one where Hunt dangles from a helicopter? Or the one where he leaps out of a plan at 25,000ft, or the one where he races a motorcycle the wrong way around the Arc de Triomphe? In fact, so determined are Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie to make this film bigger, bolder and twistier than previous instalments, they’ve essentially crafted a heart-pumpingly relentless two-hour action sequence. And it might just be one of the best action movies ever made.

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It also has the rarest of elements for an action movie: an engaging plot that more or less makes sense. After a botched IMF sting operation hands a batch of nuclear weapons to The Apostles, an elusive gang of terrorists loyal to anarchist baddie Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), Hunt and his team take it upon themselves to right the wrong. But first they must get past their new handler Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, sporting that now infamous piece of lip fuzz), the CIA’s number one ‘plumber’ who has orders to hunt and kill the team should they step out of line. When the mission inevitably goes south, Hunt finds himself in a race against time to evade a number of assassins and neutralise the threat.

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Although such a twisting, consistently surprising plot requires a fair amount of heavy exposition lifting early on – for which McQuarrie semi-successfully compensates with some stylish noir visuals – once the pieces are in place and the mission has been accepted, the movie (literally) dives head first into the globe-trotting action… and things only crank up from there. There’s a taut, adrenalin-triggering car chase through a bustling city, a bone-shattering, vertiginous rooftop jump, and a brutally visceral bathroom brawl in Europe (something that is fast becoming a niche calling card for Cruise). And those are meant to be the low-key sequences where we’re able to catch our breath in between the more death-defyingly bonkers set-pieces Cruise and McQuarrie have cooked up.

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The cast is superb too, with McQuarrie (who also writes) smoothly layering powerful character moments between the revving and punching. Whether it’s sharing a joke in the middle of a skydive or a tearful goodbye during a bomb defusion, the writer-director raises the personal stakes just enough to make us fret about who will survive the next insane set-piece. Even Cruise, upon whose apparent super-human infallibility this franchise relies, allows Hunt to appear more tormented and vulnerable than ever before and a heart-pounding finale set atop the Kashmiri mountains is all the more gripping for it.

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The question posed throughout Fallout is why someone would keep throwing themselves into impossible scenarios at the risk of their own life. The same could be asked of Cruise himself as he continues to push himself into unimaginably dangerous stunts for our entertainment. One thing is for sure, though: whether it’s the one where Hunt paraglides down Everest, clambers up a launching rocket or grapples with a pony-tail wearing Ben Affleck – as long as Cruise eps upping the ante, we’ll keep coming back for more.

Runtime: 148 minutes (approx.)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill

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Incredibles 2 – Film Review

The world has waited the best part of 14 years for a sequel to 2004’s Incredibles, but for the Parr family – Pixar’s delightful superhero clan – hardly any time has passed at all. Picking up a few short months after they defeated Syndrome, the Incredibles are hot on the tail of the Underminer as he continues to wreak havoc throughout Metroville. This instant continuation proves to be a mixed blessing. While it’s an undoubted joy to revisit this super-human, yet charmingly relatable crime-fighting family, the world has changed a lot since they last graced our screens. Incredibles 2 struggles to meet the challenge of setting itself a part in a modern landscape saturated with spandex-clad vigilantes, delivering a gloriously fun adventure, but one that holds very few surprises.

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One area where the movie is ahead of the curve is in pushing mom-of-three Elastigirl/Helen to the front of the super-heroic action as she becomes the figurehead for a campaign to reinstate the legal status of supers. That dynamic shift is a savvy piece of PR spin from the Incredibles’ new billionaire benefactors, Winston and Evelyn Deavor, who have their own mysterious motivations for helping our heroes win over the public. With his wife out thwarting villainous ne’er-do-wells, Mr Incredible/Bob is left behind to tackle the far greater challenge of being a stay-at-home-dad to a moody teenager, a rebellious youngster and a newborn baby with unpredictable superpowers.

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The crime fighting action is thunderously entertaining, with a wildly kinetic train chase that perfectly showcases writer/director Brad Bird’s knack for character-driven set-pieces. But Incredibles movies always shine brightest when marrying the superheroic mayhem with the frazzled domestic trials of raising a nuclear family. Bob’s struggles in coping with Jack-Jack’s polymorphous powers are frequently hilarious, cleverly spoofing newborn teething problems. Helen helps Dash find his favourite pair of sneakers while chasing down new foe Screenslaver. The whole family bickers over whose turn it is to look after the baby while trying to thwart the Underminer’s latest scheme. Moments like these are what make the Parrs such a relatabley endearing bunch and this movie is crammed full of them.

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It’s not all maths homework, first boyfriends and diaper changes, though – Incredibles 2 has more complex, grown-up issues on its mind, too. The plot hinges on the question of whether superheroes should be banned from helping people and, if not, how far are they prepared to go to fight back against the law. From there, Bird tackles such weighty topics as law and order, equality, Trump’s America and our dependence on technology, all handled with a wit and charm that will ensure the movie appeals to parents as well as the nippers.

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If there is to be one gripe, it’s that these progressive, intelligent themes aren’t matched by a similarly boundary-pushing plot. The main structure of illegal heroes secretively combating super baddies with the help of a rich benefactor is a complete retread of the first movie, only with a less engaging villain. Whereas Incredibles’ disgruntled former fan Syndrome was a believable, fully-rounded foe, the elusive Screenslaver’s telegraphed identity is revealed too late in proceedings and their muddled reasoning simply doesn’t pass muster. The action is also repetitive. The film’s three major set pieces involve a runaway mining vehicle, a runaway monorail and a runaway super yacht. Surely 14 years was enough time to think up at least another two set-piece ideas?

Still, the heroes are so warm and well-intentioned, and the action whizzes by in a blur of dazzling energy and joyous enthusiasm that you might not even care about the minor quibbles. It’s a delightful thrill to have the Incredibles back – here’s hoping they don’t leave it quite so long between their next visit.

Runtime: 125 mins (approx)
Screenwriter: Brad Bird
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener

Skyscraper

‘This is stupid,’ says Dwayne Johnson’s soot-strewn action man at one point in Skyscraper. That’s about as close as we come to self-awareness in a film overburdened with clumsy dialogue, senseless plotting and hackneyed character developments. It should have been the perfect Johnson vehicle: an undemanding yet insane thrill ride, filled with preposterous, physics-defying set-pieces (the trailer-heralded crane jump is just the tip of the ludicrous iceberg) that coasts on the considerable charms of one of the hardest working action heroes around (this is Johnson’s fifth outing of the past 12 months). But rather than a towering triumph, it’s little more than an infuriating disappointment.

Reuniting with his Central Intelligence director Rawson Marshall Thurber, Johnson plays retired FBI agent and war veteran Will Sawyer. Looking to kickstart his security business, he takes a job assessing the world’s tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong. The state-of-the-art structure is apparently so safe, it’s known as the ‘mile-high Fort Knox’… so naturally it’s soon engulfed in flames and overrun with terrorists, leaving Sawyer’s family trapped inside as he desperately searches for a way to save them.

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Though Skyscraper is pleasingly unique in having a disabled hero (Sawyer loses his leg in an early character-building trauma), for the most part it’s a shameless regurgitation of other films that leaves little in the way of surprise. It doesn’t help that every twist and turn in Thurber’s script is clunkily foreshadowed in the first act: a kid’s asthma, a high-tech tourist attraction at the top of the building, Neve Campbell’s character’s uselessness with technology… all of these elements come back into play later on, in exactly the ways you’d imagine.

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The lack of attention paid to Sawyer’s disability is the biggest missed opportunity. Early on the film works hard to paint its hero as emotionally and physically vulnerable. He’s nervous, untrusting of his body and unsure in his decision making. But all of this is quickly discarded as soon as Johnson is required to perform the super-human stunt work that people came to see. Even the (literal) handicap of having one leg barely troubles Sawyer, being used mostly as a convenient get-out for tricky scenarios rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

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That’s hardly ruinous for a film that’s intended to be pure wild escapism – and to Thurber’s credit, he delivers a number of vertigo-inducing sequences. Yet everything is played with such a po-faced manner that it sucks the joy out of proceedings. There’s a lack of clever zingers to let us know the filmmakers are in on the joke, and we’re burdened with a bland, all-muscle-no-flair villain and an absurdly convoluted plot that essentially boils down to a spat over a memory stick.

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Johnson is such a likeable (not to mention bankable) star, there’s no risk that we’ll tire of his alpha male antics and you’ll almost certainly find yourself hooked on the action as the film races towards it’s fiery climax. But there’s no ignoring the fact that Skyscraper does not play to his strengths. It lacks the bonkers ferocity of Rampage, the clever comedy of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the suped-up muscle of the Fast and Furious franchise. In other words: it’s just stupid.

Runtime: 102 mins (approx.)

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller

Sicario 2: Soldado – Film Review

There are no heroes in this world. That was the message so brilliantly and bitterly delivered by 2015’s Sicario, which brutally crushed Hollywood perceptions of good guys and bad guys by lifting the lid on US undercover operations tackling the drug war and revealing the vicious and violent characters working on both sides. That Sicario 2: Soldado manages to be an even darker, badder, bloodier beast than its predecessor is an impressive achievement, then. Which only makes it all the more frustrating when the film lurches unconvincingly off its dark, dusty road in search of cheap, sequel-baiting path toward the light.

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We re-join the action an indeterminate time after Sicario to find the drug war escalating further out of control. After a horrific terrorist attack on US soil is linked to cartel-backed Mexican people smugglers, Josh Brolin’s coldly pragmatic covert ops specialist is tasked with inciting a war between rival gangs. For that he needs an agent of chaos and immediately turns to Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a ruthlessly efficient hitman who has no qualms about gunning down cartel lawyers in broad daylight to send a message. Introduced in the first film as a relentless vengeance-bent killing machine, Soldado adds deeper layers to Alejandro’s character, bringing del Toro’s tragically soulful performance to the fore as he comes into contact with the kidnapped daughter of a druglord and finds himself at odds with his employers.

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While he might not possess original director Dennis Villeneuve’s mastery of pulsating rhythm or hypnotic pacing, Stefan Sollima (Suburra) shows he has an eye for slick, gritty set-pieces. A bone-shattering suicide bombing is the standout sequence, viscerally exposing the harrowing mundanity of modern terrorism. That scene neatly segues into a Zero Dark Thirty-style raid in Somalia, as Sollima launches into a series of taut, confident set-pieces that’ll make your jaw ache.

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Intersecting with the tale of Miguel, a seemingly unrelated young man being inducted into cartel life by his cousin, the plot is dense and rather heavy-going, meaning the story takes a while to click into gear in the early stages. But once the central premise has been explained and the bodies start to pile up, things hurtle towards an inevitably bleak and bloody conclusion as returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan reaffirms his reputation for delivering smart, surprising character studies of violent men.

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Having built such a tense, absorbingly complex story, it’s hard to understand why Sollima and Sheridan pull their fingers off the trigger at the final moment. The first film was defined by its remorseless approach to tackling the drug war in unflinching detail. It took Emily Blunt’s virtuous FBI agent and dismantled her sense of right and wrong so ruthlessly, there was nothing left of her character to return for this follow-up. Soldado is the antithesis of that approach. Having steered their characters into desperately grim situations of their own making, Sollima and Sheridan work hard to find implausible ways to get them out of harm’s way so that they can safely return when a third film inevitably arrives, which a clunky final scene all but confirms. There’s undoubtedly more stories to be told in this rich, complex world Sheridan has crafted, but if future instalments are going to match the success of Sicario they need to stay true to the fundamental tenet of this dark, violent world. This is no place for heroes.

Runtime: 122 mins (approx.)
Director: Stefan Sollima
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez