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Clearly the best action film that has been released so far during 2018, this latest franchise entry delivers plenty of the high-octane thrills that have become synonymous with the series, particularly during recent years. There’s a quite thrilling, brutally bone-crunching fist fight that takes place in a bathroom, for example, involving Tom Cruise’s familiar IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Henry Cavill’s CIA assassin August Walker and a man who may or may not be an international terrorist called Lark, with all the shots of bodies slamming into washbasins and through walls that have become de rigeur post-Bourne. There are also speedy, exciting vehicle and foot chases through the streets of central Paris and London, with the requisite number of landmarks incorporated into the sequences’ establishing shots. And the finale – though marred a little by the awful expository dialogue that precedes it, which all of the actors involved seem a tad embarrassed by – is staged very well, particularly with regard to the helicopter chase that was teased in the trailer.

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Simon Pegg and Henry Cavill

This ending is also indicative of Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s laziness, though, perhaps epitomised by the use of such cliches as characters grimacing as they tensely cut the red wire on the left-hand side of a bomb’s interior (WAIT…OR IS IT THE GREEN WIRE ON THE RIGHT, ETC ETC?!!), figures dangling off incredibly high ledges or ropes and timers slowly ticking down to zero. These tired action movie tropes have long been ditched by more inventive, thoughtful writers and directors, and it’s a little dismaying to see them employed yet again within this film, when the marketing tends to proudly push the line that its stunts are next-level and its characters are presented as sprightly and able to think outside of the box in order to outfox the enemy. Allayed to this there’s a nagging sense that even the actors are a little bit bored by it all, performing in variations on scenes that they’ve already appeared in numerous times before (particularly with regard to Cruise, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, all veterans of this series). When one character is hoodwinked by Hunt’s team’s misdirection early in the film, for example, and another subsequently falls for a switcheroo involving one of those rubber face masks that seemingly come out of nowhere in these films (because… someone has a laptop handy), are there any audience members who feel the same level of surprise at having had the rug pulled from under their feet? Isn’t it time to move on from the kind of twists seen in Brian De Palma’s first entry in the franchise, and from the more novel ideas that were contained within David Koepp and Robert Towne’s Mission: Impossible movie screenplay?

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Vanessa Kirby

Supporting actors are game, but this is of course A Tom Cruise Film and as such the rest of the cast is marginalised, their characters unable to wallow in a sub plot or enjoy an independent thought of their own that isn’t somehow for Hunt’s benefit. Rebecca Ferguson’s assassin Ilsa was, for some, a breath of fresh air in previous entry Rogue Nation, but she takes a back seat here, appearing with impeccable timing whenever Hunt is in a bind and needs some help. She’s just another team member now, albeit a quasi-member for much of this story, and the actor is surely destined to go the same way as the likes of Emmanuelle Béart, Emilio Estevez, Jeremy Renner and various others have before; but maybe time will prove me wrong. Elsewhere, Sean Harris reprises his role as the big bad of the series, a puppet master of Very Bad Things who is all beard and gravel-voiced threats, while Vanessa Kirby smoulders unconvincingly as new character ‘The White Widow’, a wealthy, powerful broker of dodgy deals who would not be out of place in a Roger Moore-era Bond film. Pegg has already fully accepted his sidekick status, wisely, while Ving Rhames is also seemingly happy to continually play a character who was last given a bit of meaningful personality and a sense of his own life outside of service to Hunt and the IMF way back in 1996, a full five films ago.

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Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise

There’s terrible dialogue here and lots of wooden acting – particularly during the opening, pre-credits scenes – but evidently people go and see these films to be wowed by stunts, and Fallout will not disappoint in this respect; they are very well-staged and each set piece is exciting and incredibly well-choreographed, especially when you consider how many vehicles are involved at times. Somehow the years do not seem to be catching up with Cruise, who yet again gives a solid impression of a man who happens to leap off buildings, kill people and stop nuclear weapons from being deployed almost as often as he eats cornflakes or takes a dump. It seems like there’s plenty left in the tank. (3/5)

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

hero_oblivion_la_critique_galerie_photos_portefolio_26Here is a film – another Tom Cruise-led high concept sci-fi actioner – that fails to capitalise on its excellent special effects, score (by M83) and production design. Oblivion, directed by Tron: Legacy‘s Joseph Kosinski and adapted by Karl Gajdusek and Michael deBruyn from Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel, certainly looks good, but unfortunately its supporting roles are meagre and the story doesn’t stand up to any kind of rigorous analysis.

Both problems could be overlooked, in different circumstances, but there aren’t enough original thrills n’ spills here to divert your attention away from the numerous plot holes and the poor characterisation. It doesn’t help that Kosinski pays homage in different ways (sets, costumes, images, twists, themes and so on) to a whole raft of 1960s and 1970s sci-fi films – Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, most obviously – each of which included original stories that truly fascinate on first viewing, and more memorable characters. While watching Oblivion there were a few moments when I wished I was sitting through one of those earlier movies instead.

We’re on Earth, in the aftermath of an alien invasion. Humans won the war, but the planet is largely uninhabitable and survivors have set up a colony on one of Saturn’s moons, heading there via a giant triangular space station. Alien scavengers (‘scavs’) prowl what’s left of the inhabitable land and cities (not much) while Cruise’s Jack Harper (a typically Cruisian hero’s name for a typically Cruisian hero) has stayed behind to keep watch on giant hydroelectric power stations that drain the remaining resources. He is joined by lover ‘Vika’ Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), who monitors Jack’s engineering missions while reporting in to NASA commander Sally (Melissa Leo, sadly a mere presence on a computer monitor, though that is a necessary plot device).

All is not as it seems: Jack and Vika are not alone on Earth, contrary to their belief; both have had their memories wiped so that they will not divulge valuable information to the scavs if captured, but Jack is haunted by memories of a mysterious woman in pre-war New York City (Olga Kurylenko). Is she still on the planet, somewhere? Meanwhile Morgan Freeman plays the leader of a rag-tag bunch of freedom fighters and has dressed for the part accordingly, as if he had been presented with the costume upon graduating from Rag-tag Bunch Of Freedom Fighters College with distinction. Joining him is lieutenant Nikolal Coster-Waldau; both actors’ talents are wasted and they spend most of their time trading concerned looks in one of those typical underground, post-apocalyptic hideouts.

Above ground, however, is where it’s at. Kosinski certainly makes the most of his budget with a film-full of excellent effects shots as Cruise flies, runs, jumps and fights his way around this futuristic, diseased Earth. There’s a dominant blue and white palette, reflecting much of the setting (lots of sky, lots of sea) and it certainly brings to mind the minimal look of the older sci-fi works mentioned above, while also being thoroughly modern. The cloud-high interiors are spartan and the landscapes are too, as most buildings have seemingly been destroyed during the war, or have been destroyed by nature and the scavs in the interim; a few sights remain, such as the top of the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument and Capitol Building, but thankfully Kosinski stops short of allowing the Statue of Liberty to poke out of the barren ground.

Unfortunately, having established this futuristic vision of our world with great skill, Kosinski and his writers fail to finish the job. There are a few ‘big reveals’, but they only serve to pique one’s interest for a short while, and before long we’re back to more of the same old shots of Cruise on a motorbike, or filmed from below, or in the cockpit of his bubble-copter, or grappling with yet another deadly flying football (Oblivion is big on deadly flying footballs). Much of this feels depressingly familiar, while a lack of focus on other characters means there’s nowhere for director or viewer to turn when it inevitably becomes boring.

The blame should lie with the actor, as well as Kosinski. I normally enjoy the Cruise-plus-sci-fi combo, but after seeing this I can’t help but wonder what might have been had he carried on working with directors of the stature of Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg, as he was doing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or even if he risked the occasional project with an up-and-coming talent every now and again. Cruise was stretching himself back then, and that period contains most of his best performances; perhaps the equivalent parts today just aren’t landing in his in-tray, or perhaps he just doesn’t care any more. Freeman seems damned to spend the rest of his days playing the same character over and over, too; he barely seems motivated at all and there’s little to distinguish his dreary, expository father-figure role here from all the others he has played of late. Well, unless you count the fact that he wears sunglasses. Kurylenko and Riseborough are given little to do, especially the former, to the point where a cardboard cut-out would have sufficed for some scenes.

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski.
Written by: Karl Gajdusek, Michael deBruyn. Based on Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda.
Editing: Richard Francis-Bruce.
Music: M83.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 125 minutes.
Year: 2013.
Rating: 4.4.

6 Comments

JACK REACHEROh Tom. I’ve got to take my hat off to you, it’s a tough ask to deliver lines like ‘You think I’m a hero? I am not a hero. I’m a drifter with nothing to lose’ or ‘I mean to beat you to death and drink your blood from a boot!’ with a straight face (particularly when that face is more than a little prone to an eye-twinkle or a shit-eating grin). Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is full of risibly macho but entertainingly daft lines like this, many of which were presumably lifted from or inspired by Lee Child’s Reacher novel One Shot, which served as the literary base for this debut cinematic outing.

For the uninitiated, Child’s popular character is the subject of 20 bestselling novels to date, as well as several short stories; I’ve never felt curious enough to read one, but a friend tells me they’re not bad as airport novels go, which I guess is meant as praise. Anyway: Reacher’s a hard-as-nails ex-US Army Major who has effectively taken himself ‘off the grid’, and he spends his days drifting around the country using aliases while taking on various criminal investigation jobs. Oh, and he’s supposedly 6 ft 5 inches tall, meaning that the employment of Tom Cruise as the safe bet to kick start a Reacher film franchise wasn’t appreciated by a number of vocal fans, who felt the actor was too slight to convince in the role.

Cruise has plenty of polished action flicks like this under his belt, though, and as per usual thanks to a combination of innate confidence and favourable camera work he manages to pull it off without ever appearing to struggle, though this is one of his more uncomfortably leery performances: when he’s not doing battle with the various henchmen of glass-eyed Russian crime lord The Zec (Werner Herzog in a spot of hilariously on-the-money casting that sends up the director’s public persona) he’s usually standing uncomfortably close to defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who can do little but try and match the veteran actor’s intense flirt-gawping with some boggle-eyed glares of her own. The intention, presumably, is to develop the illusion of a little chemistry between the two characters, but all too often it looks like a stare-off in which neither participant is willing to back down.

Rodin has a seemingly impossible task on her hands in defending ex-military sniper James Barr (Joseph Sikora), who has apparently shot and killed five people in Pittsburgh (a sequence that McQuarrie uses to open his movie, though there’s little quite as gruesome or as uncomfortably enthralling in the two hours that follow). Facing the death penalty Barr cryptically writes ‘Get Jack Reacher!’ on his confession statement; no-one actually knows how to do that but thankfully Reacher simply shows up on cue anyway, and thus the investigator becomes involved in the case, quickly casting doubt on the pile of evidence collected by Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo).

Jack Reacher is a typically sleek Cruisian crime thriller. I was expecting a feast of fights, gun battles and car chases, but it’s more like a vaguely disappointing brunch, with a huge dollop of the star’s overflowing stash of smarm ladled on top. We see Cruise’s Reacher regularly besting his opponents, verbally and in combat, but really there isn’t much here to enable either the film or the character to stand out from the pack; it’s just Another Tom Cruise Character doing things very well indeed, and it’s difficult to distinguish Reacher from Ethan Hunt, the actor’s long-running Mission Impossible government agent. Really, anything would have helped. Pet chihuahua? Grafted-on roller blades? Lapsed interest in mahogany furniture?

Meanwhile talented actors like Pike, Oyelowo and Robert Duvall (who plays the owner of a shooting range) are wasted as they struggle to wring interest out of their dull archetypes and credibility out of the intermittently dodgy writing, while Herzog’s ridiculous criminal overlord (who once chewed off all-but-one of his fingers in a Siberian death camp) only gets about five minutes of screen time. It’s an absurd cartoon villain, but at least the German director provides the film with several flashes of camp entertainment, so it’s a shame not to see more of him; unfortunately this means that The Zec’s inevitable comeuppance at the end of the film feels as flat as a wet fart on a Wednesday in Worthing.

Though it is mostly safe and predictable, with characters that are hard to care about and generally unmemorable, Jack Reacher isn’t a complete duffer. McQuarrie’s a good writer on his day – The Usual Suspects is all the evidence you’ll ever need – and his script contains a decent gag at the expense of a shirtless, buffed-up Cruise, while occasionally there’s a zip to the dialogue that makes good use of the star’s buttery slickness (witness, for example, the quickfire insults he fires at a gang of fools in a bar that mistakenly single him out for a scrap). Though they’re very much by-the-book the action sequences are enjoyable enough, too, even though nothing truly dazzles; ultimately it just feels a little lazy, a fact perhaps best highlighted by the presumably-unintended but insidious racism surrounding its typically-Hollywoodian villains (Russians, the only black character in the film, yawn yawn yawn).

Unfortunately I suspect that in a month or so I’ll have completely forgotten about most of Jack Reacher, save perhaps for the opening sequence and Herzog’s bizarre appearance; the rest of it will be a blur of shootouts, predictably duplicitous characters and The Cruiser’s face as his Reacher smugly tells various people that they’ve got something wrong. The actor isn’t as bankable as he once was, but a worldwide return of $200,000,000 isn’t to be sniffed at, and unsurprisingly a second outing is in the pipeline. I’m sure that too will make a wedge of money, but unless there’s a serious improvement I’ll probably pass.

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie.
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie. Based on the novel One Shot by Lee Child.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Werner Herzog, Jai Courtney, Joseph Sikora, Robert Duvall.
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel.
Editing: Kevin Stitt.
Music: Joe Kraemer.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 130 minutes.
Year: 2012.
Rating: 4.6

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[Please note: the following review contains a couple of spoilers, which I’ve had to divulge in order to discuss the movie, but rest assured I’m not giving away major plot twists like the fact that Darth Vader is revealed to be a woman in The Empire Strikes Back, or the revelation that the woman in The Crying Game is actually Luke’s father. In fact I reveal less below than the movie’s trailers did, but thought I’d give a polite warning in case you’ve managed to avoid all info so far.]

In Edge Of Tomorrow Tom Cruise’s character is forced to live the same day over and over again, which is ironic because I often feel a cloying sense of deja vu myself when I’m watching a Tom Cruise movie. The actor usually plays it safe with variations on the same grinning uber-capable hero, and has done so for quite a while now, although with such a long career at the top there are a few very good performances and leftfield roles in the midst of the many tired, predictable ones. Still, most of the time there’s a nagging feeling that you’re watching Tom Cruise play a version of Tom Cruise, rather than a distinct, fresh character.

In this high concept sci-fi action film by Doug Liman he plays Tom Cruise Major William Cage, a man who has achieved his high rank not through heroism in combat but a background in advertising; his value to the military as a spin doctor is considerable, as an allied force drawn from all four corners of the globe is at war with an alien race, and the total number of soldiers is dwindling. The aggressive aliens are called ‘mimics’, an imaginative name bestowed upon them due to their ability to copy and respond to human military strategy, and in a clear reference to the Wehrmacht during World War II they have invaded and occupied most of Europe (landing in Germany via meteor strike first of all before spreading out across the mainland).

The spin here is that Cage is a coward, of sorts, although given the fact he has no military training and is thrown into battle against the vicious mimics as part of an incomprehensibly odd PR stunt by the stubborn General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), it’s hardly surprising that he’s scared and desperate to avoid the scrapping. Most people without military training would be petrified, quite honestly, but at least Liman and his screenwriters make it crystal clear why Brave, Bankable Tom isn’t playing Brave, Bankable Tom at the start of the film, lest your head explode as a result of the confusion.

In case you hadn’t worked out the Second World War allegory it’s rammed home by the allies’ plan to launch an assault on the beaches of Normandy, and despite his protestations that’s where Cage eventually finds himself, desperately trying to find out how to switch off the safety trigger lock as he enters the fray. (There are also references to a previous and important tide-turning battle in Verdun, which is a town more closely associated with the First World War. It is a cynical move to release the film as the 70th anniversary of the landings approaches.) His fellow soldiers couldn’t be more unhelpful or unfriendly if they tried, which made me snort with disgust when the honourable Cage later tries to save some of them, the chump. The mimics they must battle – four legged beasts with many tentacles that can move fast above and below ground, a little bit like the sentinels in The Matrix trilogy – are gruesome, heartless killing machines, but the human soldiers improve the odds of survival by wearing Aliens-style metal exoskeletons, and count in their numbers legendary special forces soldier Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), nicknamed ‘The Angel Of Verdun’ and ‘Full Metal Bitch’ for her previous mimic-bashing exploits. The aliens have prepared an ambush, though, and amidst all the confusion and slaughter that takes place on the beach, Cage is killed.

Oddly, he wakes up in the same position he was in several hours earlier, back at the military base in England. As stated earlier, like Groundhog Day and Source Code, Liman’s film deals with a main protagonist who is forced to live through the same day – and in this case the same battle – over and over again. Gradually Cage must memorise patterns, improve his own abilities as a solider and make decisions in order to affect the outcome of the day. If he dies, he returns back to the military base before going through the whole harrowing process once more, attempting to figure out the whys and wherefores as he tinkers with the day’s events.

No doubt the pitch went along the lines of ‘it’s Groundhog Day meets Source Code meets Aliens meets Starship Troopers (an attempt to replicate the tone of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical news stings is wisely ditched after the first couple of minutes) meets Saving Private Ryan’, and I suppose if you’re a studio executive that’s the kind of talk that quickly gets the blood flowing down to the nether-regions (right before a certain popular actor’s face pops into your head as if he’s Grin-o, The Magical God Of Predictability, Scientology And Huge Profits). Though it’s adapted from the Japanese young adult novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge Of Tomorrow feels like a calculated, unoriginal amalgam of those five films, but the magpie pilfering actually works.

This is in part due to a well-judged script by Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, which makes no attempt to disguise the preposterousness of the story, keeps the faux-science simple and contains a considerable amount of humour. (There is an amusing moment where Cage wins a fight simply by stepping to the side a couple of times, as it becomes clear he has had to experience the incident time after time in order to perfect such a response. Additionally, Rita’s repeated killing of Cage in order to restart the day becomes ever-funnier thanks to Cruise’s tired acceptance of its inevitability. This is surely a nod to Groundhog Day, recalling the exasperation of Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, as is the array of confused faces when Cage is able to relay secrets or life stories to other characters despite the fact they have seemingly only just met him.) Cruise rarely works with the same director again; to date he has appeared in films by Steven Spielberg twice, Tony Scott twice and Cameron Crowe twice, but that’s it from more than 30 years in Hollywood. However he is obviously drawn to McQuarrie’s work as they have collaborated three times now in six years (McQuarrie wrote the screenplay for Valkyrie, adapted the screenplay for Jack Reacher, which he also directed, and will direct Cruise in the fifth Mission Impossible film later this year).

Edge Of Tomorrow is a gritty sci-fi action movie but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and thankfully it doesn’t tie itself up in knots with the exposition either. Granted, the time loop idea isn’t new: it was popularised in La Jetée in 1962 and in recent years it has been used in Twelve Monkeys, Looper, Donnie Darko, two of the movies mentioned above and many, many more besides. Similarly the use of powered exoskeletons in science fiction movies has become so commonplace there’s a Wikipedia page now. Ultimately, though, the suits of armour are pretty damn cool and Liman deals with the repetition of time well, employing similar editing techniques to those used in Groundhog Day and Source Code; as Cage’s day plays out over and over we see fewer and fewer details, to the point where we can safely assume hundreds of days have passed between certain scenes without us seeing a single moment from them. This gives the film momentum, and Liman is wise to avoid showing the same events too often and to vary the locations so that the action doesn’t simply career back and forth between barracks and beach.

The action is the real draw here. The battle on the beach at Normandy is quite gripping, bringing to mind the grandstanding of video games like Halo, which is a good move considering the task-based repetition and the seemingly endless supply of lives at Cage’s disposal. The body count is high, the fighting is frenzied, and the film manages to capture the adrenaline rush of war well, even if it ultimately lacks the nail-biting realism of Saving Private Ryan‘s Omaha Beach re-staging. There are twists to the battle each time you see it, based in part on Cage’s decisions to try and save certain people or leave them to the fate he is aware will befall them; if he leaves certain people to die he has a better chance of saving others further on in time. Unfortunately there’s little sense of Cage wrestling with these life-and-death decisions away from the fray, though to be fair he is constantly racing against the clock, struggling to complete necessary actions before the day resets.

Cruise is…Cruise. There’s an inevitability about his transformation from spineless army politician to fearsome warrior in the film, so it’s hardly surprising that the pretence of him playing a character that differs from the heroic, shit-eating grin norm is abruptly ditched. He still makes a decent action hero at 51, though, which is fortunate because he shares very little chemistry with Blunt or any of the other actors (he is most comfortable when acting with Bill Paxton, who plays a stereotypical ballbreaker of a sergeant, but his scenes with Gleeson will make you wonder why you are watching two actors who are themselves seemingly attempting to figure out why they’re in a room together). Blunt meanwhile really goes for it, apparently training in a variety of martial arts in preparation for her part, and she is convincing despite relative inexperience with this type of film.

The cast overall isn’t terrible, by any means, but Edge Of Tomorrow is hampered by some poor acting from those with smaller parts; there’s an attempt to include a roughneck unit like the merry bands in Aliens and Starship Troopers which isn’t very credible at all, and though the parts of Cage’s fellow soldiers are undeveloped some of the acting is well below par. Noah Taylor is given the thankless task of playing this film’s crazy-scientist-who-might-just-be-onto-something, but just about pulls it off, though his character isn’t particularly memorable. Jeremy Piven was apparently added to the cast late last year with some new scenes filmed and set to be inserted, but they appear to have been left out after all.

For all my jibes above, I actually think Cruise and science fiction are a good fit. I haven’t seen last year’s Oblivion, but he has made two very good sci-fi blockbusters with Spielberg in the past decade or so and this is a half-decent addition to his long CV as well. Liman keeps things simple and the confidently-handled action sequences here lay to rest the ghost of his previous attempt at the genre, 2008’s Jumper. The movie benefits from a smarter-than-average screenplay (though, y’know, my expectations were low to begin with), but it must be said the ending is a damp squib and it brazenly copies from a host of superior films. Still, Edge Of Tomorrow is energetic for the most part, it’s funnier than you may expect, and it delivers plenty of alien-blasting entertainment.

The Basics:
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 113 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.8

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