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[I’m aware that this film hasn’t been released in some countries yet, so I’ve tried to keep this review spoiler-free.]

Let’s hope Zack Snyder’s watching, as this is a superhero film that successfully manages to balance its well-thought out action sequences with weightier concerns. Captain America: Civil War contains all the balletic, multi-hero set pieces you’re probably expecting (including the one teased by the trailer), and it also pays heed to the political and moral ramifications that arise when modern comic book heroes smash buildings, cities and imaginary states to smithereens (thereby killing thousands of imaginary, innocent people along the way). It’s a post-Man Of Steel, post-The Avengers none-more-2016 fad, I guess, and as with Snyder’s recent Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice the principal question asked here is whether anyone should be watching the watchmen. As such Civil War‘s superheroes argue and fall out, with some strongly believing that their hero cabal should continue to self-regulate and others feeling that submitting to NATO control is the way forward. Yet where Snyder’s film floundered as it tied itself up in knots while addressing similar issues, this blockbuster by Joe and Anthony Russo – who also directed 2014’s entertaining Captain America: The Winter Soldier – tackles the political and moral side of things in a light, uncomplicated fashion, and by doing so it doesn’t allow any portentous soul-searching or hand-wringing to overtake the main aim of the film, which is to entertain as wide an audience as possible. The conflicting opinions of the characters central to this story are set out clearly and concisely, but ultimately the Russo brothers have recognised that Civil War is…y’know…for kids (of all ages). And the fact is the majority of kids (of all ages) want to see Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America batter the living daylights out of one another.

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Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) gets busy

Evans and Downey, Jr are the clear stars here, but as both actors have appeared in so many films as their two characters it seems pointless to discuss the performance of either actor. I suppose at the very least I should say they are consistent with earlier turns, and that I’ve gradually warmed to Evans’ portrayal of the world’s most earnest, uptight man. There are several returning characters, too, with those currently without their own standalone movies (played by Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie) all benefitting from the extra screen time. Needless to say anyone watching this who hasn’t seen any of the previous Avengers or Avengers-related films will be irrevocably lost. And as the trailers revealed, the film introduces two further additions to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Tom Holland’s fresh-faced Spider-Man amusing far more than he irritates and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther making an equally-strong impact. Given the sheer number of characters that appear the pre-release concern from some quarters was that the Russos would not be able to do justice to all of them, but somewhat triumphantly the film never seems overstuffed, and only a couple are given short shrift. (I guess the longer-than-average running time helps in that respect.) Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is one; in the space of 15 minutes he threatens to steal the film from his more illustrious co-stars, a fact that the Russos seem to have taken into account, as he doesn’t get too much screen time after an initial cameo. You’re left wanting to see more of Rudd and his character, which I guess is a good thing. Lastly, Daniel Brühl is perfunctory as the scheming (Baron) Helmut Zemo, a Marvel comic villain who will probably be unfamiliar to most viewers, but he’s slightly more interesting than many that we’ve seen in this series of films to date.

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Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War

But really we’re not here to see villains, or their dingy underground bunkers, where they seem to do little other than inject musclemen and women with brightly-coloured liquids. We’re here to see superheroes blast and kick and punch and chase and swoop down on one another, and Captain America: Civil War builds up to the kind of spectacular free-for-all that was popularised by expansive crossover Marvel titles such as Secret Wars (though Civil War itself has been very loosely adapted from Mark Millar’s similarly-named comic). The majority of superhero movie fans will sit through this six-on-six dust-up with a smile on their face, and to the credit of the directors it’s not at all chaotic, or difficult to follow the action. The exchanges and mini-scraps that occur within the larger pitched battle are filled with zingers, surprises and even compassionate, friendly exchanges between former colleagues who have temporarily taken opposite sides, though it’s the central fight between Iron Man and Captain America that packs the biggest punches, and which seems laced with the greatest animosity.

I’ve moaned about superhero movie fatigue on this blog – though I’ve also repeatedly admitted that it’s not as if anyone’s holding a gun to my head and forcing me to watch these films – but the fact is there have been a few releases that have seemed completely unnecessary or poorly written – Thor 2, Iron Man 3, for example – and I still dislike the feeling that I’m on a cinematic treadmill: one thing these films do – Civil War included – is hit the same notes over and over again, for better or for worse. There have been a few breath-of-fresh-air exceptions (Ant-Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy), but it’s the Russos who have made the two best recent installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here they’ve cranked out a multi-hero film that’s a lot of fun, if utterly silly, and I genuinely feel sorry for anyone non-plussed by the experience. Look, ultimately it’s just another Marvel film, and by this stage you probably know what’s in store, but it’s a blast nonetheless and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Directed by: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo.
Written by: Christopher Markus, Steven McFeely.
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Brühl, Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Emily VanCamp, William Hurt, Martin Freeman.
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch.
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt.
Music: Henry Jackman.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 147 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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Like the preceding Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation delivers exhilarating action in spades, and as such it’s probably the most entertaining live action blockbuster of the summer so far (you wait months for one intense set piece and three come along at the same time, etc.). The franchise has achieved a degree of stability, with three actors returning from previous episodes to join Tom Cruise for round five (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner), and as you’d expect the magic, money-spinning formula has been strictly adhered to. Most of the elements that people seemed to like in Ghost Protocol can also be found in Rogue Nation, and all-told it works very well as an non-challenging action thriller, even if the nagging sense of déjà vu refuses to go away.

Disbelief must, once again, be suspended throughout. As per usual Cruise’s super-agent Ethan Hunt is discredited and disowned by his country, and must avoid his new CIA paymasters while battling shadowy terrorist organisation The Syndicate in a number of locations around the world: Minsk, London, Havana, Paris, Washington, DC, Langley, Casablanca and Vienna are all visited within an hour, sometimes just for a couple of seconds (‘Hey, it’s the Eiffel T…’), and Hunt’s team seemingly have identities and gadgets stashed in every city. Somewhat laughably we’re told that The Syndicate are behind everything, from plane crashes to power plant explosions to (I can only presume) any comedic slips on banana skins that occur, and their goal is to cause global instability. How they are actually managing to do this and how they intend to profit from it in the long run is never clearly explained, but we do discover that The Syndicate started out as a secret MI6 project and – like all the best evil organisations – it can ultimately be boiled down to one slightly creepy head honcho (Sean Harris) and his stupidly-named right-hand-man (‘The Bone Doctor’, with a performance straight out of The Big Book Of Musclebound Bad Guys by Jens Hultén). If this Multiplex Terrorism wasn’t silly enough in itself Rogue Nation viewers must also accept that someone who has reached the position of second-in-command at Syndicate Towers cannot actually hit Hunt while using a machine gun in a corridor that’s no more than four feet wide, that people who are shot in the back of the head from point-blank range do not bleed, and that people who jump through two window panes in the space of ten seconds can emerge without a scratch or a hair out of place. And that’s before we even get on to the big set pieces.

Few would look to the action thriller (or, more accurately, the spy action thriller) for their daily reality check, however, and if you sit back and go with it the running/shooting/fighting/jumping/swimming/driving tableaux provided are very entertaining; in fact three of the set pieces here give the famous Burj Khalifa and Langley scenes of earlier Mission: Impossible installments a good run for their money. Cruise hanging off the side of a plane is an obvious early highlight, while I also enjoyed the twenty minutes spent at the Vienna State Opera House, director Christopher McQuarrie channeling Hitchcock and, rather pleasingly, De Palma (indeed the production design, lighting and photography here often references the look of the original Mission: Impossible film, particularly the scenes set in Vienna and London, though McQuarrie’s film sadly only pays lip service to the series’ connective tissue of deception and false identity). There’s also a fine extended sequence involving a tense break-in to a water-filled chamber, while the car and motorbike chase that ensues through narrow streets and winding mountain roads is acted impeccably (by the principal cast members involved and the stunt crew). Cruise powers through all of this in an impressive, committed fashion, mostly joined by Simon Pegg’s tech wizz Benji rather than Renner’s agent Brandt, who has to settle for Congressional hearings and frantic phone conversations in corridors for much of the film.

The performance by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, who plays a duplicitous British agent named Ilsa Faust, has been praised in some quarters. Faust injects some much-needed mystery into the film and is a character that regularly kicks ass (or rather ‘thighclamps head’, given that’s what she does to most of her male adversaries), but McQuarrie makes a number of troubling decisions with regard to the way she is portrayed, and it’s worth pointing out that she is the only woman in an all-male ensemble. There’s no doubt that Ferguson is excessively sexualised here, male-gazed by a camera that pans up and down her legs in a seedy fashion on a number of occasions, and there’s even the kind of antiquated mission-impossible-rogue-nation-rebecca-ferguson-reviewexiting-water-in-a-bikini shot that the Bond franchise flipped and subsequently dispensed with a decade ago to herald the modern Daniel Craig era. Some may argue that Cruise gets similar treatment, and indeed he is predictably topless within the first twenty minutes, but it’s a very different kind of objectification and it’s one that typically shows how male and female characters are treated disparately in action movies. In Rogue Nation Ferguson is objectified to make her more sexually attractive and this is primarily done because it entertains the majority of watching (straight) men, hence the grubby nature of the camerawork, the ‘bikini scene’ and the repeated clamping of thighs round male heads before they are thrown to the floor (a submissive male fantasy if ever there was one, and a character trait that has been written by a man). Cruise is also objectified by his shirtless minute or two, but the intention feels different: in his case it’s to make the character look stronger, to establish his heroic credentials; of course it will also please anyone watching who happens to fancy Tom Cruise, but I don’t think that’s the writer-director in question’s main concern. (In the largely forgettable Jack Reacher – McQuarrie’s previous film as director – there was a half-decent gag about Cruise being shirtless, but such wit is missing here.)

It’s hardly original to point out that it’s rare for the men who make big budget Hollywood action films to introduce strong female characters and then simply allow them to be strong without any other agenda. In this particular film the character of Faust may be tough but apparently that’s not enough on its own: she must also be Hunt’s love interest and is duly filmed – rather clumsily, it must be said, but not always – in a way that reduces her to eye candy. Still, she isn’t defined wholly by her looks and it’s worth pointing out that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation doesn’t end with Faust and Hunt in bed together, even though their relationship often appears to be heading that way. Ultimately including female characters in action films who are the intellectual and physical equals of their male counterparts is a start, but it’s only a start: while directors like McQuarrie leer over their legs (or while studio executives keep telling them they must include that kind of thing) there’s a long way still to go. And all of this on the back of the unfortunate way Ferguson was depicted on the movie’s posters, too.

Less importantly, once again artistic licence is taken with the geography of London: you can’t run from the Tower of London to the Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street in five seconds flat, and unfortunately it annoys me when films do this kind of thing, even if most people won’t notice or care (though presumably residents of Vienna and Casablanca who watch the film will notice mission-impossible-rogue-nation-trailer-01similar discrepancies). It’s sloppy, and I can’t imagine a similar trick would be pulled if, say, New York City or Los Angeles were the location in question. I also wish we could move on from bomb props that have big LED screens showing a countdown to zero or that flash the word “DISARMED!” in red letters when they are disarmed. Presumably this kind of thing is left in for the sake of dimwits who, with regard to the scene in question, need an explanation as to why Simon Pegg is still making chirrup-y quips seconds after it looked like his organs were about to be splattered across the screen. But let’s end on a positive note, because overall this is a decent action blockbuster in a year of disappointing event movies: Joe Kraemer’s score is pleasant enough, and the now-familiar trick of working short-and-long-term nostalgia-inducing pieces (in this case Nessun Dorma, which features heavily in the Vienna sequence, and Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme) into the soundtrack is executed with aplomb (see also Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys, etc.). I guess interpolation is par for the course when a franchise is twenty years old, and not just in terms of the music, so it’s worth pointing out how unusual it is to have this much fun when you’re five films in.

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie. Story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. Based on Mission: Impossible by Bruce Geller
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris.
Cinematography: Robert Elswit.
Editing: Eddie Hamilton.
Music: Joe Kraemer.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 131 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOLWithout consciously making a deliberate decision I dropped off the Mission: Impossible bandwagon after the disappointing second film, though the release of a fifth this week has persuaded me to get back on, rewind and watch Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the fourth action spectacular to feature Tom Cruise’s American super-agent Ethan Hunt (as well as established call signs such as as Lalo Schifrin’s magnificent theme and those self-destructing messages).

Ghost Protocol is the quintessential modern franchise blockbuster, a film that tries to provide most things for most tastes: as a viewer you’re required to do nothing more than switch off and enjoy watching the conventionally good-looking actors, the spectacular action, the easy comedy, the suspense and the resultant triumph for a western power. It carefully adheres to that rigid modern format: there’s an exciting prologue and the requisite three big set pieces that follow take place in far-flung locations, each one involving peril but also cautiously safe and bloodless (a conscious decision made to keep some distance between Mission: Impossible and Bourne, or latter-day Bond, but admittedly one that has been ever present in the series as far as I can remember). There’s also a strong whiff of contractual obligation throughout, whether it’s from the glitzy lifestyle-oriented product placement (BMW and Volkswagen cars, Apple’s gadgets, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, Persol sunglasses) or the overly-familiar shot of The Cruiser at the end as he looks straight down the camera (yes, I know he’s supposed to be looking at someone from afar, but he’s got to ensure that the giddier members of the audience are still coming back for more piercing stares when he’s in his 60s). A flimsy, time-worn plot strings the action sequences together (in this case characters are racing to either start or stop a nuclear war between the US and Russia) and we finish with a brief hint that there will be another tale plopping into our lives in a few years’ time, as if we couldn’t have guessed anyway.

Helping Hunt this time round are team members played by Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner. The former’s there to provide comic relief, and in doing so repeatedly makes you wonder what kind of halfwit organisation would place all of its eggs in The Simon Pegg Character’s basket when the stakes are this high. The second kicks ass and conveniently provides insurance against accusations that the whole shebang is one big sausagefest. However the reality is that this franchise is one big sausagefest, tellingly bringing Pegg and Renner’smi-ghost-protocol-still09 characters back for no. 5 while dispensing with Patton’s; Rogue Nation‘s director Christopher McQuarrie stated that Patton was unavailable for the 2015 film because of scheduling issues, though given the fact she only worked on one movie in 2014, in which she had a minor role, and apparently didn’t work on any TV shows, one has to wonder if that really is the case (though perhaps ‘scheduling’ was used simply to keep private decisions private). Anyway, they could have re-cast if they actually gave a damn about the character, but let’s move on to Renner, who looks a little sheepish as he prepares to play ‘second fiddle’ in yet another blockbuster; perhaps we’re witnessing the face of a man who is coming to terms with being in some of the biggest movies of the era while knowing deep down that they’re actually limiting him.

Up against the team are baddies Michael Nyqvist and Léa Seydoux, though sadly the more interesting villain of the two is killed off around the hour mark; I either missed or tuned out of the scene explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing, but it’s definitely something to do with diamonds, or money, or nihilism, or world peace, or a general desire to be a complete fucker, or an audition for a six-year scholarship to Evil Medical School. I’ve lost count of the number of action films that narrow a worldwide threat down to the activities of one single individual, but this is definitely another one of them.

None of this really matters anyway, because the selling point of the film – the reason lots and lots of people went to see it and enjoyed it – is obviously the frenetic action above all else, and very impressive it is too. The first act takes place in Moscow, and although eyes may roll at the resurrection of the old east-vs-west scenario so beloved of writers in the 1980s, I have to admit that watching Cruise’s Hunt run away from an exploding Kremlin while wearing a Bruce Springsteen t-shirt elicited a few chuckles in my house (as did the gadgetry on display, some of which would have been deemed ‘too ridiculous’ by the makers of Die Another Day). After Moscow the characters reconvene in Dubai a very Tom Cruise Action Movie destination – where the tallest building in the world serves as a backdrop for some quite breathtaking vertical thrills n’ spills and also as a big glass n’ metal muse to cinematographer Robert Elswit. Lastly the story shifts to Mumbai, where Hunt and co manage to avert tragedy at the very last second by pressing a red button next to a digital clock that’s counting-down, an image that I have not seen in the movies for at least three whole weeks.

Although it takes place in a weird futuristic garage with thousands of cars stacked on top of one another the fight at the end is every bit as disappointing as ‘two middle-aged men scrapping over a briefcase’ sounds, especially in light of what has preceded it, but I’ll be kind, shrug, and point out that I’ve certainly seen worse (both pre- and post-Jason Bourne’s screen debut). It’s also the only time that Cruise moves like a man approaching his 50s, but what’s interesting is that this extended finale, beginning with the infiltration of a swanky party, is oddly reminiscent of the very first team-oriented snafu in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (albeit without the surprise character deaths, a game-changer at the time). And that pretty much sums up franchises like this one for me; you watch and you watch and you watch but it’s the same film over and over again, with tweaks made so that it looks like the emperor’s wearing new clothes. The first cut is always the deepest, regardless of any influx of new faces and regardless of the crazier stunts, though I won’t deny that this is exhilarating and tense at times.

Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Josh Applebaum, André Nemec. Based on Mission Impossible by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Michael Nyqvist, Léa Seydoux.
Cinematography: Robert Elswit.
Editing: Paul Hirsch.
Music: Michael Giacchino, Lalo Schifrin.
Certificate: PG.
Running Time: 129 minutes.
Year: 2011.

7 Comments

DknsbHC[Note: I’m aware that Avengers: Age Of Ultron isn’t out in the US for a few more days, and has only just been released in other territories, so I’ll try as hard as possible to avoid spoilers here; however I will mention one or two things that have already appeared in the trailers, or that have been discussed extensively elsewhere during the past six months or so, as I think that’s fair game.]

When all is said and done, and whether you actually like it or not, one must at the very least admire Kevin Feige’s vision in creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which I will grudgingly admit has just about delivered on its original premise of being this decade’s Police Academy; it’s interesting because of its (increasing) popularity with cinemagoers and cultural relevance, its financial returns, its mega-casts and the way it has made all other franchises seem insular and unambitious by way of comparison. If capital ‘b’ Big is your thing then Marvel is presumably an incredibly impressive force to study.

I said this yesterday in a belated review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I’ll repeat it here: while the creation of the MCU has resulted in a wearying conformity from one movie to the next, that is at least intentional and it’s something that has been executed in a clinically impressive fashion. Within producer Feige’s profitable, multi-phase series the two Avengers movies to date have served as crescendos of sorts, bringing together a gang of superheroes – Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America / Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man / Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr), Hawkeye / Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk / Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), lest we forget – who are arguably more interesting and enjoyable to watch when calmly chatting as a group than when they are fighting loud, long battles with their nefarious opponents. And I guess for all the rigid conformity that we have seen to date Joss Whedon, the director working for Marvel Studios with both the toughest and the easiest job, has been the most successful in establishing a voice.

But let me cut to the chase: if you’re a fan you’ll be happy to know that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron; similarly if you’re not a fan you will be unsurprised to hear that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. I’ll try and concentrate on the positives, as there are quite a few, but there will be a few gripes along the way. Please: no death threats.

Given how familiar these characters are by now (or the latest incarnations of one or two of these characters), Whedon is able to begin proceedings with the first of a series of action-packed sequences, which also introduces two new characters: Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s lightning-fast Quicksilver (different to the Quicksilver seen in last year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past) and his telekinetic twin sister, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch; both were seen briefly at the end of The Winter Soldier, but they are given prominent roles here. The film’s MacGuffin is quickly established as the Avengers secure old enemy Loki’s sceptre, which contains an ‘infinity stone’ (the multi-film plot device becoming increasingly familiar within the MCU); this magical object contains an alien form of artificial intelligence, eventually taking the shape of Ultron (James Spader), a sentient being occupying one of Tony Stark’s robotic exoskeletons. And thus with the enemy established the Avengers repeatedly do battle with Ultron and his army of robotic henchmen across a number of locations: the fictional Eastern European capital of Sokovia, New York, Seoul and South Africa (lazily referred to as ‘The African Coast’, which effectively translates as ‘I dunno…Africa somewhere…it’s all the same thing, right?’).

The film is indeed action-packed, though I’m aware that hardly needs saying; I went in with a slight headache and came out feeling like I’d been in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. However, as mentioned earlier, Whedon wrote some very good scenes for The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble in the UK) that focused on the somewhat spiky relationships formed by the characters during downtime – the clash of egos was always a big part of the comics – and again here the writer capitalises on the work already done in other MCU films when the heroes go tête-à-tête in various locales (an early party scene being a highlight). Downey, Jr is at his snarky, cocky best and Stark’s gentle ribbing of the prissy Rogers turns into an amusing running joke. Thor’s fish-out-of-water grumblings are toned down this time, but still evident, and largely enjoyable.

More effort has gone into developing the relationships and backstories of the three main characters who do not currently have their ‘own’ films – Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye – with a sweetly-observed romance and the appearance of Freaks N’ Geeks’ Linda Cardellini (last seen repeatedly getting into lifts with Don Draper) as an Avenger housewife. It’s a welcome response to earlier criticisms, even though the injury-prone Hawkeye still seems like the first one that you’d put forward for redundancy if budget cuts had to be made. Age Of Ultron benefits from the increased confidence of the three actors playing these roles: the charismatic Downey, Jr remains the presence it’s impossible to ignore but Ruffalo, Johansson and Renner all make the most of their bigger parts, and the balance between the six main heroes is much better this time round.

The battles? Well, as I’ve said, they are loud, long and noisy. Motorbikes fall from the sky. Vibranium shields and uru hammers fly across the screen with their owners close by. Things that can explode do explode. Walls are smashed, cars are tossed, buildings collapse and the rubble stacks up (purely in terms of wanton destruction the battle between ‘Hulkbuster’ Iron Man and Hulk – it’s in the trailer – is the standout, while also containing the movie’s funniest moment). Once again you’re presumably expected to care about collateral damage as this version of our world gets smashed to smithereens, and once again the strict adherence to certain formulaic ticks and tropes makes it nigh-on impossible for you to do so. At least in wrecking districts of cities across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa the Avengers show that discrimination is not an issue; South Americans and Australasians can presumably expect to have a couple of their metropolises duffed up in the future.

In terms of the new additions, Spader’s voicing of the sarcastic and duplicitous Ultron is a decent variation on the Tony Stark template, but I’m ambivalent about the character overall. One or two bad guys have stood out in Marvel’s recent films – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, most notably – but more have disappointed, and I’m torn with this one; Ultron initially appears to be more than a match for the six Avengers (and those who join in later) but the threat gradually peters out. Paul Bettany – usually the voice of Stark’s computer J.A.R.V.I.S. – fares well as The Vision, and the appearance of this character will most likely excite Marvel fans and intrigue casual viewers the most. Olsen is OK as the Scarlet Witch, her toned-down costume far different from the ones I remember in the comics, and her presence at least helps to redress the male-female imbalance in the MCU. Some actresses – Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, neither of whom feature here – have to make do with weak love interest roles in related films, so it’s good to see a woman other than Johansson who can actually do something and affect the plot significantly (yes lots of the supporting scientist and agent characters are female, but are they actually important?).

As with the X-Men franchise, if a new character is lucky enough to make it to a second film then that’s where you begin to see improvements; Johansson’s Black Widow is a perfect example: less of an immediate hit initially than others, she has gradually grown in importance thanks to enhanced roles in The Winter Soldier and this film, and the final scene here, effectively setting up the next wave of Marvel Studios films, is telling. Perhaps the biggest problem for both Olsen and Taylor-Johnson is that they’re having to compete with a number of actors who are now well-established in their roles, and naturally they are both forgettable when compared with the likes of Downey Jr or the torso that functions as a base for Chris Hemsworth’s head. The new pair grasp their respective opportunities as well as you can expect, but their movie this ain’t.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the unnecessary reappearance of numerous minor characters that have featured in the other films. I’m sure there are fans out there who will be delighted by the brief glimpses of characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle (please, Don, make it stop), Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell and Stellan Skarsgård, but by the end it just seems to tip a movie that is satisfyingly over-the-top and packed with characters into a movie that is irritatingly over-the-top and over-stuffed with characters. The appearances of several for a mere scene or two are largely pointless – most of them just get in the way and I’d rather watch more Tony Stark than a spot of old ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes doing the same thing – but then this is a film that actually casts Julie Delpy for a flashback sequence that lasts all of 15 seconds, so there you go.

Ultimately, despite the negatives, it’s clear that Whedon has fulfilled his brief. Avengers: Age Of Ultron is exactly the film you expect it to be, for better or for worse, and there’s more than enough to delight fans here; obviously it will be a record-breaking success in financial terms, too. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad that the studio has improved its output during the past year or so, even if the films still steer clear of alarms and surprises (you really have to question any action thriller when you’re sitting through the end credits waiting for something unanticipated to finally happen). Is it better or worse than The Avengers? Hmm: same same – a nice mix of humour and grandstanding CGI-filled set pieces, but if you don’t have that gnawing sense of ‘there must be something more’ 11 films into the MCU then I’m afraid I can’t help you.

Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey, Jr, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson.
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek.
Music: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 141 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 6.8

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There are few movie franchises that are able to sustain audience interest as far as a fourth instalment, and although The Bourne Legacy manages to pack in the same amount of excitement and action as the three recent movies based on Robert Ludlum’s signature character Jason Bourne, the occasional feeling of déjà vu makes you wonder whether a semi-reboot like this was really necessary at all (though Tinseltown’s bean counters will argue that $270 million dollars says it was extremely necessary). Still, considering the behind-the-scenes events during the initial stages of the movie’s development, it’s something of an achievement that the film itself is fairly enjoyable even if it doesn’t pull up any trees.

After the director Paul Greengrass decided he wanted to move on from the franchise Matt Damon, who played rogue CIA special agent Bourne in the previous three films, also stated that he did not wish to return for The Bourne Legacy. With a script already in development since late 2008 this was something of a blow for Universal Pictures, but Tony Gilroy – who co-wrote the earlier Bourne screenplays – was employed to develop a script with his brother Dan, who has himself recently been in the headlines due to the success of his film Nightcrawler. Eventually Tony Gilroy was announced as the director of ‘Bourne 4’ and Jeremy Renner was cast as a rogue CIA agent named Aaron Cross, whose story bears some similarities to that of Bourne.

While the public announcements made by Greengrass and Damon in order to distance themselves from the project hogged the headlines, the largely-unreported move to keep Tony Gilroy involved was a shrewd one, and both his writing and direction successfully continue the themes, traditions and tone of the earlier films; he manages to simultaneously dissociate the new story from the three prior efforts while keeping some background continuity that ties The Bourne Legacy to the earlier Greengrass and Doug Liman movies. The steps that are taken in a new direction are clearly tentative, but Gilroy and his cast and crew have kept the franchise alive: both Damon and Greengrass have confirmed they will return for a fifth film, though Renner will not appear in it; however a second Aaron Cross-related film is still in development.

The plot will seem familiar to Bourne fans, although The Bourne Legacy actually bears little resemblance to Eric von Lustbader’s 2004 novel of the same name. Cross, who is part of a covert black ops team of special agents collectively known as ‘Operation Outcome’, is first seen training in Alaska while events depicted in the previous film, The Bourne Ultimatum, play out in the background. That earlier movie ended with several high flying CIA staff – played by Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Scott Glenn, all of whom return here briefly – facing investigation after the illegal adaptations of two covert CIA operations named Blackbriar and Treadstone were exposed by Bourne. In The Bourne Legacy a YouTube video ties Operation Outcome to the already-compromised Blackbriar and Treadstone and the director of the former, Eric Byer (Edward Norton), decides to shut down Outcome before it can be investigated. Naturally ‘shut down’ in this series is CIA shorthand for ‘cover your tracks by killing everyone involved’.

What follows is basically a re-tread of the earlier trilogy with a few added bells and whistles: Cross must go on the run while the CIA attempts to locate and kill him, though the main difference here is the presence of experimental pills, called ‘chems’, that the agent must take in order to enhance his physical and mental abilities. Where Damon’s Bourne grappled with on-going amnesia, Cross must fight his addiction to the tablets, and Renner’s junkie-style desperation is convincing, although it’s a side of his performance that eventually gets lost amid all the flying fists. Eventually the agent hooks up with a travelling companion, a biochemist involved in the Outcome programme named Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who has also become a target of the Agency.

The Bourne Legacy globe-trots like its predecessors, with the action shifting from Alaska across the USA and finally ending up in the Philippines, where Cross and Shearing are targeted by a chemically-brainwashed CIA sleeper agent (played by Louis Ozawa Changchien). The main problem with the film is that aside from two or three very well-executed set pieces much of it looks utterly familiar, and at times while watching the film it’s a bit like having amnesia yourself, with vague misty memories of the earlier movies occasionally becoming clear thanks to repetition here. There’s yet another high-octane rooftop chase scene, for example, and a cat-and-mouse fight at a rural house that recalls the showdown between Clive Owen and Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity. A car and motorbike chase finale – despite being as thrilling as it is technically impressive – also brings to mind the similar feats of driving in the earlier films, and when the movie concludes on the exact same note as The Bourne Identity it’s hard not to feel a little short-changed.

Still, as action films go, this does have a lot going for it: the chases may be overly-familiar but they’re still good, the quickfire hand-to-hand combat remains pulsating, and there are a few early moments that suggest there’s a bit of life in the franchise yet: Oscar Isaac shines as a cautious super-agent early on, there is some exciting footage involving a military drone and there is a gripping scene involving a pack of predatory Alaskan wolves. The Bourne Legacy even manages to genuinely shock with a disturbing cold-blooded massacre sequence, a sequence that trumps the surprise death of a major character in The Bourne Supremacy.

Unfortunately, though, it looks as if Gilroy ran out of ideas when it came to the CIA. Following a host of duplicitous characters and back-stabbing incidents in the other films it’s hardly a surprise to witness further ruthless behaviour by high-ranking Agency officials as they seek to wipe out all traces of Operation Outcome, and sympathetic CIA figures are notably absent here. Norton is fine, as is Stacy Keach (playing a retired Navy admiral), but there’s a seemingly endless supply of those panicky, pressure-cooker control room scenes where orders are barked and reports arrive that reveal Cross has once again escaped with his life. After a while they all blend into one another and it’s too easy to tune out as the dialogue spoken barely matters at all.

As a cinematic spy hero Jason Bourne has often been compared with James Bond, despite the many differences between the two characters, and the success of Damon’s original effort with Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity, is famously credited as being the reason for the subsequent tougher change of direction in the Bond franchise. It would seem that the Bourne series now has its own equivalent of the 1967 version of Casino Royale, or the return of Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, an oddity that sits apart from everything else but remains enjoyable enough nonetheless. Despite the fact it regurgitates old ideas and characters The Bourne Legacy is a decent action thriller, but when all is said and done … can you imagine a James Bond film that doesn’t feature James Bond? That’d be pointless, right?

The Basics:
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Written by: Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Stacy Keach, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 135 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 6.1

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Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) are staring at what is apparently a fake Rembrandt, hanging on a gallery wall. “People believe what they want to believe because the guy who made this was so good that it’s real to everybody,” says Irving. “Now who’s the master, the painter or the forger?”

This scene is key to David O. Russell’s latest energetic offering, American Hustle, as it is a significant reference to the fact that the director himself has manufactured a masterful forgery; brilliantly, this is a story that deals with the concept of deception and wavering facades, but the entire movie has been constructed as an imitation of two of Martin Scorsese’s finest achievements, GoodFellas and Casino. It doesn’t feel enough to simply say this film recalls those two peaks of 90s cinema: Russell has deliberately made location, editing, voiceover, set design, camera movement, casting, flashback, soundtrack and costume / make-up choices that echo Scorsese’s films.

Rosenfeld is a con-man who divides his time between running a legitimate laundry business and tricking desperate people with his loan scams (or selling forged or stolen artworks to rich, dumb collectors). He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party, and the pair gradually fall in love. Sydney begins to help Irving perpetuate his scams, successfully portraying an English aristocrat called Lady Edith Greensley to help draw in unsuspecting victims.

Complicating matters for Sydney and Irving, though, are the increasingly bizarre actions of two other main characters: Irving’s young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) – whose son Irving has adopted – and ambitious FBI man DiMaso. DiMaso catches Irving and Sydney in the middle of one of their cons during an undercover sting, and in order to avoid a jail sentence they agree to help the feds by working alongside DiMaso as he attempts to bribe a succession of corrupt politicians and public figures, including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). (The plot is partly based on the FBI’s Abscam sting, which took place in the late 70s and early 80s.)

As the web they weave gets ever more complex, Irving’s relationship with Sydney reaches breaking point, while Sydney aligns herself with the infatuated Richie. Richie is a loose cannon, clashing with his mild-mannered mid-level boss Stoddard (Louis CK), and his judgment becomes increasingly questionable as a result of his ever-inflating ego and his unquenched desire for Sydney. Meanwhile the presence of the mob, led by the violent mafia boss Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro in an uncredited cameo) signals further worries for Irving.

This reasonably-intricate plot is married to Russell’s constant Scorsesefication (it is a word.). The fast cuts and zooms made me think instantly of GoodFellas and Casino, not the films that influenced Scorsese. Rosenfeld’s narration is occasionally interspersed with a separate one from Sydney, recalling Sharon Stone and De Niro’s brilliant dovetailing voiceovers in Casino. The soundtrack – a mix of well-judged late 70s pop by the likes of David Bowie, Elton John and Steely Dan, jazz and swing – seems to depend on both the film’s pace and what exactly is happening on screen, showing a great deal of consideration as to what has been included: just like GoodFellas and Casino.

As the film plays the similarities stack up. While Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly Scorsese’s latter-day muse, De Niro still remains the actor most closely associated with the director. What does Russell do? He casts De Niro in a minor role. If he had wanted to distance himself from Scorsese at all he could have picked a dozen other actors, but he specifically chose De Niro. Why? Because he wants to continually remind the viewer they are looking at a forgery. Why does Bale deliberately incorporate De Niro’s mannerisms into his portrayal of Rosenfeld, even down to the narrowed eyes and down-turned mouth? Again: to remind you of De Niro, the Scorsese actor above all Scorsese actors. Why does Jeremy Renner have that particular haircut? Because it constantly reminds you of Joe Pesci’s GoodFellas character Tommy DeVito. Why does the restaurant look like it does? Because it makes you think of the steakhouse in GoodFellas. Why is there a scene showing a young Rosenfeld drumming up business for a glazing company by smashing windows? Because Scorsese did similar with the young Henry Hill.

It’s so easy to sit back and enjoy American Hustle as it rambles along with all this rambunctious style and fizzing energy. After an initial 20 minute burst the film actually settles down for half an hour or so (this is when you hear more jazz and swing on the soundtrack) before halfway through it goes supersonic, introducing tried-and-tested crowd pleasers like sex, drugs and rock n’ roll disco as these impossibly cool characters go about the business of craftily trying to get one over on each other.

As has been stated many times before now, the principal cast members of this film are superb. Bale, Lawrence and Cooper are all given flamboyant characters, but Adams is equally impressive in her less-showy role. She could so easily have faded into the background, but her Sydney is a vital presence throughout. Renner is a reassuring on screen figure too as the devoted family man Polito, and it is worth praising his restraint given the scenery-chewing that is taking place all around him. Bale matches his best work here, which for my money was in Trevor Reznick’s The Machinist, and not Russell’s earlier film The Fighter: I greatly enjoyed his Rosenfeld, a man who is cocksure one minute and reduced to a heap on the pavement with heart trouble the next. He may swagger around the screen despite his hairpiece and pot belly, but he’s also easily reduced to silence by his tempestuous wife, a woman he maintains he detests despite being totally addicted to her. He is vulnerable, scared, and puts on a hell of a front to mask it.

Lawrence is also excellent, and I will not be in the least bit surprised if she picks up another Oscar this year for her performance in this film. I found myself wanting to see more and more of her character, as she is involved in so many of the film’s great moments: defiantly facing down Sydney in the toilet, cleaning at home to Live And Let Die, berating Irving for bringing a ‘science oven’ (i.e. a microwave) into the house … she is really enjoyable to watch. Rosalyn is another fascinating character: on the surface she gives the impression of being a dumb blonde, but she later reveals a conniving, measured side when it suits her needs. Lawrence exposes the façade skillfully.

An equal amount of scene-stealing comes from Bradley Cooper. The one segment that reveals DiMaso’s home life is a stroke of genius, altering instantly our perception of this smartly-dressed, cocky agent, and one of my few issues with the film is that it didn’t explore the off-the-clock life of Richie thoroughly enough. Still, his jealous bickering with Rosenfeld is very funny, and no less enjoyable are the increasingly-humiliating scenes he has with Stoddard. Cooper is getting better with every film, and he seems well-suited to dark comedies like this.

The screenplay for this shaggy dog story was originally called American Bullshit, and all of the four main characters are in the process of reinventing their lives and – frequently – deceiving others by their appearance. They are all so careful in constructing their particular fronts that there is great pleasure to be had when the pressure cranks up and each of them begins in turn to buckle and the masks begin to slip. One running motif throughout the film is that of hair styling; the picture begins with Irving steadily putting his hairpiece and comb-over in place, and we are treated to the sight of the other three in curlers at various points. These characters are in the process of inhabiting new (meticulously detailed) personas, with huge attention paid to the details, but they can only keep up appearances for so long.

Problems? Not many. I don’t have a problem with the fact it is derivative, because I fully believe it is derivative for a reason. De Niro’s mob boss has been criticized, but I found him to be an unsettling, frightening presence, even compared to some of the roles in the man’s back catalogue. For me it’s just a relief to see him in something good again, rather than his late period default mode of chimping for laughs in some third rate, half-arsed comedy or other.

If you think I’m gushing, I’m afraid I’m not going to apologize for it. This is exactly the kind of film that I love: entertaining, expertly-directed, beautifully shot, knowingly-witty, well-acted, a fantastic script filled with memorable lines and with so many other sundry elements that add to the finished whole American Hustle is a joy to behold. There are so many scenes here that will be considered as ‘classic’ in the years to come, and iconic performances that leave you wanting more despite the long-ish running time. The pretentious and impenetrable I Heart Huckabees aside, I have enjoyed all of Russell’s films that I have seen, but this is the first one that has knocked me to the floor. I haven’t seen many of the other supposed leading Oscar contenders, but by all accounts it is shaping up to be a difficult year in which to guess the eventual ‘Best Picture’ winner; this must surely be in the running. A forgery it may be, but at times it is very, very difficult to distinguish from the finest works of the master it tries to copy.

The Basics:

Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 9.1

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