Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – review

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Cruise on motorcycle posterI don’t know whether you know this or not, but Tom Cruise is the most awesome guy on the planet. Not having met Cruise personally, I know this only because that’s what the plots of all his movies are about. This plot comes in two variations. The first one is straight-forward: Tom Cruise is totally awesome! The second variation is a little less direct: People don’t appreciate how awesome Tom Cruise is! (Think of Jerry Maguire, in which his girlfriend dumps him and he loses his job, just to prove that even though he’s totally awesome, we should still sympathize with him because the world treats him so unfairly.) The interesting thing about Cruise’s latest effort, insofar as there is anything interesting about Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is that it conflates these two strains into a single if somewhat uncomfortable hybrid.
In Phase One of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise plays the super-awesome Ethan Hunt once again, who hangs off airplanes when he’s not out-fighting, out-running, and out-maneuvering everyone else in the film. In Phase Two of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the CIA (in the person of Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin) wants to kill Hunt because, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Hunley doesn’t  like the Impossible Mission Force’s carte blanche to engage in unsupervised covert ops. Consequently, while Hunt is busy trying to save the world yet again, his own ungrateful country is trying to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
It’s really not fair for such an awesome dude to be treated this way, but the plot plays well for viewers who think that America should kick-ass on the rest of the world, and that any sort of restraint is the result of scheming forces that want to undermine the good guys.
Unfortunately, this amalgam, instead of being more than the sum of its parts, turns out to be somewhat less, because the two phases, like musical notes out of phase with each other, tend to cancel out rather than combine. The filmmakers can’t spend half the movie showing us how awesome Cruise is and then expect the audience to worry that the CIA might actually catch and execute him. Likewise, when the filmmakers spend the other half of the movie showing Cruise easily evading the entire CIA, they can’t expect us to have any doubts that he will have any trouble defeating the villain du jour.
Which is rather unfortunate, because Phase One of the film is supposedly built around the concept that Hunt may have finally met his match, which would have been interesting if we had believed it. Of course, we don’t – the two-phase approach makes it impossible to even pretend to believe it, and it certainly doesn’t help that the fiendish mastermind is too blind to notice (or at least do anything about) the rather obvious double-agent he is employing. But at the end of the day, none of this really matters, because the movie’s only message is: even when Hunt meets his match, he still wins, because no one can match Cruise’s awesomeness!
Before I forget, let me mention that the plot mechanics are constructed around a MacGuffin that Hunt must steal from a super-duper high-security facility. There is an explanation for what this MacGuffin is and how it got into the facility, which makes a kind of movie sense at least; however, the MacGuffin actually turns out to be something completely different from what we were told (you need twists in this kind of spy thriller),. This raises a question the film never bothers to address: if the explanation of the MacGuffin’s identify was false, does the explanation for how it got into the facility make sense anymore?
I suppose one could dismiss all of this as mere pretext, the necessary plot elements to justify exciting set-piece, of which there are several. Unfortunately, the best one comes up front, with Cruise hanging off the side of a plane taking off from the runway. It’s a bold, can-we-top-this? gambit that overshadows the rest of the film; the following fight scenes, suspense scenes, and chase scenes (including a pretty nifty one on a motorcycle) are all good – but not that good.
With Cruise’s awesomeness blazing throughout the film, there is not much room for anyone else to shine. It’s nice to see Ving Rhames again, but I’ve already forgotten what if anything he contributed. Jeremy Renner cements his position as Hollywood’s top also-ran, treading water while waiting for the producers to spin him off into a Bourne-like sequel. Rebecca Ferguson is supposed to be amazing, but she’s just okay – good enough to play second fiddle, but no threat to the star. Alec Baldwin somehow manages to make his CIA prick fun to watch even before his change of heart (he’s basically Ralph Fiennes from SKYFALL).
In spite of my qualms I did find Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation reasonably diverting, and the ending even managed to build up a fair share of tension (though why I should have doubted that Cruise’s awesomeness would prevail, I don’t know). Maybe my expectations were too high. Its predecessor,  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, supplied some actual thrills (for once, the danger seemed real rather than pretend), and I was expecting more of the same – an expectation seemingly confirmed by wildly enthusiastic reviews (93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).
Sadly, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation winds up seeming a bit like someone who tells you he’s funny instead of telling you a joke. The film insistently harps on Cruise’s awesomeness, without fully achieving awesomeness itself.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (July 31, 2015). Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, based on the television series by Bruce Geller. With: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Bladwin.  In IMAX 3D. PG-13. 131 mins.

Edge of Tomorrow – Spotlight Podcast 5:22

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Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise in EDGE OF TOMORROW

No one went to see it, but EDGE OF TOMORROW is one of the most clever and interesting science fiction films of the summer, outdistancing the more successful X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. In Cinefantastique’s Spotlight Podcast Number 5, Volume 2, Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski explore the virtues of the worthy effort, which has become a critical darling in spite of audience indifference.

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Edge of Tomorrow review

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It’s probably too late to rescue Tom Cruise’s latest film from box office oblivion, but I would like to go on record saying that the financial failure of EDGE OF TOMORROW represents the greatest inverse relationship between quality and ticket sales since TWILIGHT sent breathless teen girls storming into theatres.* Easily surpassing the summer’s successful action-oriented science fiction (the incoherent THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2; the over-rated X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED), EDGE OF TOMORROW  defies low expectations set by the coming attractions trailers, which promised little more than a standard-issue futuristic battle movie. Though loaded with special effects, military hardware, and alien invaders, EDGE OF TOMORROW actually explores a clever conceit in an imaginative way, engaging viewers’ Sense of Wonder, along with their appetite for adrenalin-soaked thrills. Though the end result is not all it could have been, EDGE OF TOMOROW is about as close to sophisticated science fiction as we are likely to see this season.
Cruise plays Major William Cage, a public relations flack whose job is to boost morale back home while our soldiers duke it out with aliens in Europe. The latest gizmo in the war is the “Jacket,” an exo-skeleton that supposedly enables even neophyte soldiers to go head-to-head with the invaders, after only minimal training, laying the groundwork for a D-Day type invasion. Unfortunately for Cage, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) wants him to cover the invasion live, from the front lines. In a beautifully wrought scene that immediately tells us we are in for something different, Cage attempts to decline the order, at first demurring, then hinting blackmail, and finally fleeing. Captured and stripped of his rank, Cage is sent to the front lines anyway – but as canon fodder rather than as a journalist. Knowing him for a deserter, Cage’s squad mates do little to train or help him, and somewhat predictably he dies in the first wave of the assault. And that’s when things get interesting…
Unfortunately, the central surprise of the story is already given away in the promotional campaign: whenever Cage dies, he jumps back in time to the moment when he woke up to find himself in his new squad. Though this sounds a bit like the comedic GROUND HOG DAY, it works more like a videogame: Cage is not simply repeating the same 24-hour cycle over and over; he goes on for as long as he survives – hours, days, maybe weeks – before death hits the proverbial Restart button for him. Along the way, he teams up with Rita (Emily Blunt), a soldier who believes his incredible story because she previously possessed the same ability. She trains him (over and over and over), hoping to reach a level where he will be skilled enough to get off the beach where Earth’s counter-invasion was (is, will be) slaughtered.
Eventually we learn that time-travel is a power possessed by the aliens, who used it to be ready for counter-attack. Cage, like Rita before him, inherited the ability when he killed one of the aliens, its blood pouring over him. Rita lost the ability when she received a blood transfusion, so the joke becomes that Cage cannot risk mere injury: he must succeed or die; every time he is merely wounded, Rita kills him to send him back to the beginning. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect: eventually Cage and Rita learn what they need to know to defeat the aliens, but as fate would have it, Cage loses his ace-in-the-hole, forcing a final assault with no hope of a second chance…
By its very nature, EDGE OF TOMORROW has a great deal of repetition built into the story line. Fortunately, Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (working from a draft by Jez Butterowrth and John-Henry Butterworth, which took its central idea from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need Is Kill) includes numerous clever variations during the re-runs, and eventually the editing becomes more elliptical, omitting scenes we have watched before and skipping ahead to the new material, as Cage gets a little farther in his quest each time. The strategy does not totally work: as we move into the second act, there is a sense of approaching tedium; fortunately, the third act moves in a new direction, removing the Rest button and creating a more conventional suspense scenario.
Until then, however, EDGE OF TOMORROW works in very interesting ways. Starting Cage off as a coward and a deserter, the film is obviously setting up his transition to warrior-hero, but that transition does not play out as expected. Cage never becomes a gung-ho Top Gun-type hotshot. By the time he has learned the skills he needs to survive on the battlefield, he has been through the battle so many times that it seems like old news; he moves through the carnage by rote, following his practiced moves and anticipating every attack, almost bored by the action.
Instead, the suspense turns on an emotional hinge: Cage knows that, when he finally succeeds, he will lose his alien-inherited ability and, with it, loose any chance to reset the clock and resurrect those who died beside, including Rita. In one fine scene, we see Cage reluctant to proceed, ostensibly from a fear of flying, but Rita soon deduces that his hesitation stems from having played the scenario out multiple times without finding a way to keep Rita alive.
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Little touches like this hint at an even more sophisticated film than the (very entertaining) one that we have. At first, Cage’s ability seems like a gift – which it is, to the extent that it allows him to defeat the enemy. However, on a personal level, it inevitably results in days, weeks, perhaps months of repeated actions; the chance to go back and fix mistakes leads to frustration, even boredom, as Cage goes through what must feel like a lifetime of re-experience the same few days and hours again and again. There are hints regarding the psychic toll this takes, but by necessity those suggestions remain in the background, overshadowed by the action-adventure scenario.
Fortunately, director Doug Liman (THE BOURNE IDENTIFY) delivers action as exciting and fast-paced as anything in a Michael Bay film, but he grounds the action in the drama and builds gradually to a climax that doesn’t seem like just more of the same, after two hours of previous bullets and bombs.
Liman also knows how to milk the inherent black humor in the situation. After it comes clear the Cage will die multiple deaths over the course of the film – to the point where the thought of dying becomes a typical, almost daily experience – Liman litters the frames with potentially lethal hardware, as when Cage visits Rita in a training room equipped with some nasty looking razor-edged hardware, meant to simulate attacking aliens. We’re safely in SOUTH PARK territory (“Oh my god, they killed Kenny!”); even a simple dialogue scene becomes fraught with tension, as we wonder whether a stray alien-simulator will take Cage out in mid-sentence.
As is apparently obligatory for all action-packed movies, EDGE OF TOMORROW is presented in 3D. As far as live-action movies go, the third dimension works tolerably well, enhancing some of the battle sequences and adding an extra layer of creepiness to the aliens. Liman has always been good at rendering comprehensible action scenes: sure, they seem to zip by, but they’re not simply a blur of images and quick cutting – you can tell what is happening, and all the more so in 3D.
Performances are strong all around. Emily Blunt is fine as Rita; though I’m not sure I buy her as a super soldier, her passionate commitment to the cause contrasts nicely with Cage’s personal concerns. Brendan Gleeson is good as the general who sends Cage into battle, and Bill Paxton absolutely relishes his turn as a master sergeant, eager to haze the new recruit – an officer busted down to enlisted man for desertion.
Cruise himself gives one of his best performances ever. His early scenes of fatuous confidence, predicting victory during a series of media appearances, contrasts wonderfully with the unpleasant surprise he registers when General Brigham assigns him to cover the war up close. Cruise makes Cage believable even as the character is attempting the unbelievable – turning down an order from a superior officer; you really see the wheels going round inside the guy’s head as he imagines that if he plays this right, he will walk away. And of course it’s hysterically funny to see “Maverick” Mitchell run like a coward when he realizes that nothing he says will get him out of the situation.
Unlike X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED, which used its time-travel plot as little more than a gimmick to get the new and the old X-Men cast into the same movie, EDGE OF TOMORROW makes at least an effort toward exploring the ramifications of its premise, and does so without  adopting an aura of pretentious seriousitude. To some extent, the film sells out with a contrived ending, but I’m willing to cut the filmmakers some slack. No, it’s not the science fiction masterpiece  it could have been, but EDGE OF TOMORROW is great entertainment, with a good idea or two. It proves that summer flicks do not have to be dumb to deliver the goods (though apparently they do need to be dumb to become blockbusters).
[rating=3]
Recommended!
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FOOTNOTE:

  • Though in the case of TWILIGHT, the imbalanced weighed in favor of box office over quality.

EDGE OF TOMORROW (Warner Brothers Pictures: June 6, 2014). Directed by Doug Liman. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, based on the book All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. PG-13. 113 mins. Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way.

Edge of Tomorrow – Radio Film Review

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt gird their loins -- their technologically advanced loins -- for war in EDGE OF TOMORROW.
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt gird their loins -- their technologically advanced loins -- for war in EDGE OF TOMORROW.

Well, this is a ticklish situation. I went into EDGE OF TOMORROW a little nervous, knowing this much about it: that Tom Cruise played a soldier who, by some trick of the time-space continuum, was reliving over and over his death during a disastrous attack on an alien invasion force. Sounded intriguing, no question. But it also smacked, in general conception if not plot specifics, uncomfortably of last year’s OBLIVION, where Tom Cruise played a survivor of an alien invasion who was also confronted with the mystery behind his own existence. What was doubly dismaying was that I could conceive of a possible explanation for EDGE’s protagonist that would parallel a major revelation in OBLIVION. If that was the case, it’d be game over for me. I liked OBLIVION just fine, but there was no need to revisit it.
A lot of people may have been thinking the same way — not too long before EDGE’s release, the good folks over at Warner Bros. altered their ad campaign, filling in a bit more about what Cruise’s character was going through. That put me more at ease, but I was still concerned that, like Cruise’s soldier, we’d be reliving the same day over again.
Here’s the good news: EDGE OF TOMORROW is not OBLIVION redux. But here’s the conundrum: As a result, the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. I explore the problem in my latest review for Jim Freund’s HOUR OF THE WOLF. Click on the player to hear the segment.

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Here’s What’s Going On 07/17/2013: Tom Cruise Film to Get New Title

Tomorrow will get a whole lot edgier… MAMA director to get post-apocalyptic… Science fiction thriller EXTRACTED gets dreamy…
From the luxurious Cinefantastique Online studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of fantastic film & TV.

FULL-SIZE VIDEO IS BELOW


OBLIVION & THE LORDS OF SALEM: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 4:16

Tom Cruise confronts the unknown in OBLIVION.
Tom Cruise confronts the unknown in OBLIVION.

OBLIVION is a fun, state-of-the-art, big-studio science fiction adventurer, action-packed and, under the direction of Joseph Kosinski, quite beautiful. That, in its telling the tale of post-apocalyptic caretaker Tom Cruise discovering his alien-war-ravaged Earth suffered its wounds for reasons other than he was told (with Morgan Freeman doing for the Morpheus role what he previously did for penguins), the film isn’t much more than an assemblage of well-established science fiction tropes shouldn’t be an impediment to enjoyment — at a time when studio films seem to have a problem getting a basic story across, coming across a corking-good adventure is not something to sneeze at. Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they debate the pluses and minuses of the film, and once again pledge their troth to Stanley Kubrick.
Also: Steve and Dan discuss Rob Zombie’s moody, new horror film, THE LORDS OF SALEM. Plus: Nothing coming to theaters next week.

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Oblivion in theatres April 19

Universal Pictures releases this science fiction film starring Tom Cruise. Joseph Kosinski (TRON: LEGACY) directed from a script co-written with Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, based on the comic book by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson. Morgan Freeman co-stars, along with Zoe Bell, Olga Kurylenko, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Andrea Riseborough, and Melissa Leo. Cruise stars as a repairman fixing drones on a future Earth depopulated by war (vaguely reminiscent of WALL-E?). The plot kicks into gear when he rescues a woman in a crashed space ship, which leads to a confrontation with forces that lead him to doubt his assumptions about the war.
U.S. Theatrical Release: April 19, 2013
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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Capsules: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/The Dark Knight Rises Prologue): CFQ Spotlight Podcast 2:50.1

Ghost Protocol in the Machine: Tom Cruise (falling) shows Michael Nyqvist (demonstrating the wrong way to order at the McDonald's drive-thru) how to keep things moving in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL.
Ghost Protocol in the Machine: Tom Cruise (falling) shows Michael Nyqvist (demonstrating the wrong way to order at the McDonald's drive-thru) how to keep things moving in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL.

What says Christmas Spirit more than nuclear holocaust, life-or-death chases in an automated car park, and scaling the world’s tallest building? Maybe that’s why Paramount scheduled the release of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL for this most festive of seasons. Or maybe it’s that it’s just plain fun. Stripping the IM force down to leader Tom Cruise — aided and abetted by Paula Patton, Simon Pegg and new recruit Jeremy Renner — and paring the story down to a struggle to prevent a megalomaniacal terrorist from triggering WWIII,  the film (under the direction of animation vet Brad Bird, here making his live-action debut) unpacks some of the baggage accrued in the previous installments to become a lighter, wittier exercise in epic action.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons discuss their reaction to all the chaos, exploring how director Bird fares in his first foray in the tangible world, considering Tom Cruise’s future in the franchise and evaluating whether the IMAX format makes the Impossible Missions seem even… uh… impossibler.
Also: Larry delivers his verdict on THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and Steve gives his reaction to the THE DARK KNIGHT RISES prologue screened at MI’s IMAX venues.

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Super 8: CFQ Round Table Podcast 2:21.3

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SUPER 8 – the highly anticipated science fiction thriller from writer-director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg – explodes onto screens this week. Naturally, the Cinefantastique Round Table Podcast – the podcast of horror, fantasy, and science fiction films – is here to tell you whether or not to get your hopes up; CFQ regulard Dan Persons, Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski wiegh in, and Dan, who got a sneak peak months ago, opines that, yes, you should be excited.
Also on this week’s agenda: a look at some recent headlines, including news that Tom Cruise is signing on to appear in the big-budget futuristic would-be blockbuster OBLIVION and that directorial stylist Alex Proyas (THE CROW, DARK CITY) is developing a new science fiction film.


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Disney Cuts Loose 'Horizons'

Joseph-Kosinski_panelAccording to The Hollywood Reporter, Walt Disney Pictures has decided not to move forward with director Joseph Kosinski’s (TRON:LEGACY) science fiction film HORIZIONS (also previously known as OBLIVION).
The studio made the decision after going through some pre-production for the project, but they apparently felt the sci-fi action film had a harder edge than they were comfortable making at the Mouse House, despite interest by actors such as Tom Cruise.
However, they want to retain a amicable relationship with Kosinski, and he’s free to shop it  around the others studios. “Unnamed sources” tell the site that Warner Brothers. 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Paramount have some interest, and Joseph Kosinski has apparently been making presentations this week.
The screenplay by William Monahan (KINGDOM OF HEAVEN) and Karl Gadjusek (DEAD LIKE ME) is about a solider posted to a “desolate planet,  who meets a mysterious traveler”.