REVIEW: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation's teaser poster

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’s teaser poster

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation won’t disappoint fans of the five-film, 19-year-old series.

Daredevil stunts, including many performed by star-actor Tom Cruise? Check. Lots of plot twists and turns? Check. Familiar supporting players such as Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner doing their thing? Check.

Whether the movie reaches out to a broader audience (as was the case with previous entries) remains to be seen. Still, Cruise & Co., aided and abetted by screenwriter-director Christopher McQuarrie, keep things fresh enough to hold the viewer’s attention. There’s also a new character played by Rebecca Ferguson to keep both cast and audience guessing.

There are a number of clever bits, including a twist on “The Syndicate,” a mysterious, shadowy group. In the original 1966-73 series, the Syndicate was another name for the Mafia. McQuarrie and co-plotter Drew Pearce devised an interesting twist on the concept, one consistent with darker, more cynical 21st century movies.

One of the best things about the movie is the score by Joe Kraemer. The composer embraces the Lalo Schifrin music template of the original show (which extends beyond the iconic theme). Kraemer comes up with a compelling sound while acknowledging what Schifrin started almost a half-century ago.

Kraemer’s score is somewhat like the musical equivalent of writing a sonnet or haiku. Kreamer follows the M:I template but is also original while using the occasional Schifrin riff. Schifrin even gets a credit in the end titles for one of his pieces of underscore from the series, while the main titles includes a credit for his M:I theme.

For spy-fi fans, there’s enough worth watching. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation may not break a lot of new ground, but there are enough tweaks on the margin to keep things interesting. GRADE: B.

REVIEW: The sequel that doesn’t seem like a sequel

Iron Man's Hulkbuster armor vs. the Hulk, a highlight of Avengers: Age of Ultron

Concept art of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor vs. the Hulk, a highlight of Avengers: Age of Ultron

Director Joss Whedon, in his farewell to Marvel movies, has come up with a rarity: a sequel that doesn’t seem like a sequel.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, while not a perfect film, achieves something unusual. It’s a sequel that’s more introspective (at least for a time) than the 2012 original Marvel’s The Avengers, that Whedon directed and co-wrote. There’s a substantial attempt at demonstrating what makes its main characters tick that’s deeper than what came before.

It’s rare these days where there’s a “written and directed by” credit, but that’s what Whedon has here. It’s even more rare in genre movies not to mention a studio (Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel) that isn’t known as a haven for “auteur” filmmakers.

Still, the movie is all that and more. Whedon successfully walks a tightrope. He successfully balances commercial concerns (the 2012 movie had worldwide ticket sales of $1.5 billion), throws more than a few bones to the hard-core Marvel Comics fan base (including Tony Stark’s “Hulkbuster” armor, a popular bit from late 1970s comic books) to giving his main actors plenty of material to work with.

Concerning the latter point, the introspection occurs relatively early in the movie, something even more surprising. The super hero group encounters a set of brother-sister twins, who’ve been experimented upon by the evil organization Hydra. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) can mess with the minds of people.

Whedon uses that as a device to explore the personalities of his main cast (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner).

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Downey Jr. and Ruffalo) have been working on something they believe can result in good. As it turns out, they’ve crossed into Dr. Frankenstein territory (and Whedon provides a couple of references for those not familiar with that story). As a result, Ultron (James Spader) is born, a robot with artificial intelligence who decides humans should be exterminated.

Since 2008, Marvel Studios has been on an amazing run of movies that have been highly successful (and then some) at the box office. At the same time, those movies haven’t been paint-by-the-numbers. That’s especially true with Whedon’s second Avengers movie. He shakes things up (though not too much).

Whedon has indicated that after five-plus years of living with the Avengers he wants to movie on to developing projects featuring his own characters. That’s very understandable. Nevertheless, he has set a high bar for his successors.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo will helm a two-part Avengers movie due for release in 2018 and 2019. They’ve already directed one Captain America movie and are about to begin filming another featuring a Cap/Iron Man clash.

Yet, Whedon has demonstrated what can be accomplished in a genre film. Sam Mendes, director of the 007 film Skyfall and the currently filming SPECTRE, has been using Christopher Nolan’s Batman films as a guide to making James Bond movies. It’s too bad he didn’t get a chance check out Whedon’s work on the two Avengers movies as well.

Avengers: Age of Ultron has flaws. It’s a bit long and gets exhausting at times. For all that, it’s worth a look. GRADE: A-Minus.

Does M:I 4 make a peace offering to fans of the TV show?

We watched Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (or M:I 4 for short) this week. Maybe it was a coincidence, but it seemed as if the film, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Brad Bird, was maybe, kind of attempting to apologize to fans of the original 1966-1973 Mission: Impossible series.

A bit of background. Some fans of the show strongly objected to Cruise’s first M:I movie in 1996, which turned Jim Phelps (Peter Graves in the show, Jon Voight in the movie) into the story’s bad guy who eventually gets dispatched, leaving Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as Mr. Impossible Missions Force. Also, in the Cruise version of M:I, Ethan Hunt did it all — mastermind, disguise expert, etc., etc. The IMF was more of a Greek chorus cheering Ethan Hunt on than a real team.

Well, with M:I 4, Cruise, Bird and company seemed to make some homages to the show. (WARNING: spoilers follow)

Early in the film, Ethan Hunt and IMF team member Benji (Simon Pegg) have infiltrated the Kremlin. They bring with them a high-tech screen that they can hide behind. The guard down the hall will look at the screen and see everything as they should be. This is remarkably similar to The Falcon, the only three-part story of the original series, which aired in season four. In that story, Phelps hides behind a projection screen so he can free a prisoner. M:I 4’s version has more bells and whistles but this certainly appears to be more or less the same device.

Later, former IMF field agent-turned-analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) wears a metallic suit under his clothes, dives into a shaft headed toward massive fan blades that keep a massive computer installation cooled. A robot craft controlled by Benji stops Brandt from falling into the blades using magnetic power. Brandt is suspended mere inches from the blades, evoking a moment in Cruise’s first M:I film. But Benji then steers the robot craft (with Brandt still suspended above it) through a series of shafts. Benji can also raise or lower Brandt as needed.

That device is a larger, more elaborate version of a device Barney Collier (Greg Morris) rigged up in a two-part episode called The Bunker that ran in the third season of the television series. In that show, Barney had a small, radio-controlled saucer that could navigate through ventilator shafts as part of a typically complicated IMF plan. The saucer had to descend and rise as it traveled through the shafts. The device didn’t really work and in some shots you could see the wires holding it up. MI:4, thanks to 21st Century special effects, is more elaborate.

Finally, after the mission has been completed successfully, Ethan Hunt is listening to an audio recording related to his next assignment (should he decide to accept it). It turns out a terrorist group calling itself “The Syndicate” is making trouble. The Syndicate was used in the M:I television series, and other 1960s and ’70s shows, instead of the word Mafia. Syndicate bosses of that time also tended to have Anglicized names.

M:I always had at least some episodes featuring The Syndicate as villains and opted for Syndicate story lines pretty much exclusively in the sixth and seventh season as an economy move (no need to make up signs for fictional European countries, for example).

But the biggest homage to the TV show comes in the film when Ethan Hunt attempts to complete the mission by himself and can’t. He actually needs a team and for team members to blend their talents.

As we said, all of this may be coincidence. But all of the above elements comprise an awful lot of coincidence.

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