‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ is a Thrilling Spectacle From Start to Finish

Mission Impossible Fallout poster

This is never supposed to be the case. Movie franchises are not supposed to improve with each sequel. We all expect them to get worse and worse to where you wonder why the filmmakers even bother making them anymore. But with the “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise, actor and producer Tom Cruise continues to work closely with gifted filmmakers to create motion pictures which defy expectations as he is intent on topping what came before. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is the sixth film in a series which began back in 1996, and it proves to be the most thrilling installment yet. I cannot wait to see it again, and I am determined to see it in a IMAX theater as this sequel demands to be seen on the biggest screen in town.

The plot of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is a bit convoluted, but I will give you the gist of it. The terrorist group from “Rogue Nation” known as The Syndicate has since reformed into The Apostles, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is tasked with intercepting the sale of three plutonium cores to them. But despite the presence of team members Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benjamin “Benji” Dunn (Simon Pegg), the mission is thwarted and the plutonium is stolen right out from under them. From there, they are determined to get the cores back, and their latest impossible mission has them meeting up with characters old and new to where alliances and methods are questioned endlessly. It all reminded me of what Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio told Willem Dafoe in “White Sands:”

“You’re honest, even when you’re lying.”

Does everything we see here make perfect sense? No, but I really didn’t care. Even at 147 minutes, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” never drags, and it is a movie I am happy to describe as exhaustively thrilling as it kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Just when you think it’s over, we are pulled back into another astonishing action set piece which leaves us out of breath.

Let’s talk about the stunts, shall we? Among the first is the HALO (high altitude, low opening) jump which is a skydive from a seriously insane height. We all know how Cruise is a stickler for doing his own stunts, and while the average skydive is done from 7,000 to 9,000 feet, a HALO jump is often done from 15,000 feet and with the aid of oxygen. Taking this all into account makes this particular sequence all the more thrilling as it is done in what seems like an unbroken shot which would make even Alejandro Inarritu stare at the screen in awe.

There’s also a motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris, and I kept waiting for the characters to get seriously injured or killed as no one can navigate traffic like that in real life. And yes, it is indeed Cruise jumping from one building to another. Everything culminates in a thrilling helicopter chase which outdoes the ones I loved watching in “Blue Thunder,” and it is in this sequence where Cruise and company attempt to complete the most impossible mission of all as what they are tasked with doing has a higher probability of failure than success.

Cruise is now 56 years old, and he shows no signs of slowing down. While many be telling him to act his age, a term which has now lost all its meaning to me, he continues to defy the odds and show just how far he is willing to go to make an action movie which is anything but average. The scenes of him “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes” are few and far between this time around as we instead see him playing mind games with actors who are playing characters not entirely trustworhty. And yes, there is the obligatory scene of him sprinting at warp speed, and I hope I am able to run like he does when I reach his age.

“Fallout” almost marks the return of writer and director Christopher McQuarrie, making him the first filmmaker to direct more than one “Mission: Impossible” movie. “Rogue Nation” was terrific entertainment, but he really outdoes himself this time out. His screenplay is full of endless plot twists and enigmatic characters to where I was quickly reminded of he was the same man who wrote the screenplay for “The Usual Suspects.” Seeing him balance various plot threads makes me admire him as a director even more as he brings everything together for a furious climax which is just staggering.

Simon Pegg has been great fun in the “Mission: Impossible” movies, but in “Fallout” we see his character of Benji Dunn evolve a bit. Granted, Benji has always served as the comic relief, but we see him become a better field agent to where, even when he whines about the things he doesn’t want to do, he can hold his own with Ethan to where he doesn’t have to perform a HALO jump to make this clear. Pegg has always been a great comedic talent, but he’s also a better actor than people give him credit for.

Ving Rhames continues to make Luther Stickell the uber cool IMF agent, and Luther has evolved to where he is not as concerned about his expensive taste in clothes anymore. Rebecca Ferguson, who all but stole “Rogue Nation” as Ilsa Faust, once again makes her character wonderfully enigmatic to where I was desperate to get at the secrets inside Ilsa’s brain. Alec Baldwin has more fun this time around as Alan Hunley, Sean Harris makes “Rogue Nation” baddie Solomon Lake even more sadistic than ever before, and Michelle Monaghan once again provides this franchise with a warm human presence as Ethan’s ex-wife, Julia.

We also get introduced to some new characters including Erica Sloane, the new CIA director played by Angela Bassett. Although we don’t get to see much of Bassett here, she reminds us of how badass she remains after all these years. It has been 25 years since she broke through as Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” and she hasn’t let us down since.

Acclaimed stage actress Vanessa Kirby makes her American film debut as White Widow, a black-market arms dealer. Kirby makes this character such an alluring presence as she keeps her cool even as her life is constantly being threatened and as she dangles a plutonium core right in front of Ethan’s eyes, knowing full well just how much he wants it.

And, of course, we have Henry Cavill who gets to take some time off from his day job playing Superman to portray CIA assassin August Walker. Cavill is a bit stiff in some early scenes to where he threatens to get upstaged by his mustache, the same one he was unable to shave off for “Justice League” reshoots. For a time, I kept waiting for him to say, “It’s just you, me, and my mustache” as such a big deal was made about it having to be digitally removed. But as “Fallout” goes on, Cavill makes August into an especially dangerous character who is never to be trifled with. And while he may not be playing the Man of Steel here, he throws punches which had me thinking his arms were made of steel.

Seriously, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is the best movie yet in this franchise, and it may very well be the best action movie of summer 2018. Just when I thought nothing could top the sight of Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa tower in “Ghost Protocol,” we are given some of the most amazing stunts, and they are coupled with characters busy playing mental chess games with one another as what the eyes reveal can be even more threatening than a bullet to the head. “Fallout” is a thrilling spectacle, and it makes me wonder if Cruise and company can possibly top what they have accomplished here.

Cruise had a tough time in 2017 as “The Mummy” reboot proved to be a critical and commercial bomb, and the biographical crime film “American Made” underperformed at the box office. It’s a good thing he still has “Mission: Impossible” to fall back on as he always pushes himself to outdo what he did previously as an actor and producer. Just when I thought his career would self-destruct in 5 seconds, he manages to come back with a vengeance.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Black Panther’ Gives Us One of the Best Superheroes Yet

Black Panther poster

Complain all you want about the proliferation of superhero/comic book movies, the last year or so has given us some of the best. In 2017 we got “Logan” which saw Wolverine freed from his PG-13 shackles to where Hugh Jackman and James Mangold gave the “X-Men” character the sendoff he truly deserved. Then came “Wonder Woman” which not only filled our need for a female-led superhero movie, but also succeeded in putting the DC Extended Universe on the right track (of course, then “Justice League” arrived). And with “Thor: Ragnarok,” Marvel Studios allowed themselves to turn this particular franchise upside down and inside out, and what resulted was the most entertaining “Thor” movie yet.

Now it’s 2018 and we have “Black Panther.” You could say it provides audiences with the long overdue African-American-led superhero movie, but having watched it, this description is not entirely appropriate. T’Challa, the Black Panther of this movie, is a hero for everyone. Like Steve Rogers/Captain America, this is a character whose desire to do good in the world comes across with a powerful sincerity which no amount of cynicism can possibly take away. Along with confident direction, terrific performances and slam-bang action, “Black Panther” proves to be one of the best superhero/comic book movies ever made, a true high point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the best movies of 2018.

As I write this review, “Black Panther” has been in general release for several weeks and has held the number one spot at the box office for as many times as James Cameron’s “Avatar” did. Clearly you have all seen it at least two or three times by now, so let’s not even bother with a plot description. Let’s just talk about what makes this particular Marvel Studios release so awesome.

Kudos to Ryan Coogler who has now graduated from low and medium-budgeted movies to full on Hollywood blockbusters with tremendous confidence. With “Fruitvale Station” he made us look at the life and tragic death of Oscar Grant in such a powerful way to where he can never be dismissed as a mere statistic. With “Creed” he brought a freshness and energy to the long running “Rocky” franchise which I never could have expected. Now with “Black Panther,” he has given us a movie which supersedes others of its genre to an outstanding degree as he combines the typical spectacle that comes with $200 million budget, and he combines it with a strong story filled with complex characters to where you cannot walk out of this one and say this was just an average motion picture.

Kudos to Chadwick Boseman for inhabiting T’Challa/Black Panther in a way to where there is no doubt he has the world’s best interests at heart, not just Wakanda’s. Through ferocity and feeling, Boseman makes T’Challa into a true hero for everyone and anyone. While this character has doubts about whether or not he is truly ready to be Wakanda’s king, something I have truly come to loathe about origin movies, Boseman never imbues him with the kind of hesitation which would easily destroy another. When the time comes to defend his people, he is most definitely up front and center.

Kudos to Michael B. Jordan for his performance as N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. N’Jadaka serves as the chief antagonist in “Black Panther,” but the character is not so much a villain as he is a victim. Jordan makes you see how N’Jadaka was wronged and of why his need for revenge is understandable if not condonable. This character was wronged and abandoned, so his bitterness at what was denied to him ends up feeling justified even when it poisons his soul. We root for N’Jadaka to fail, but we cannot help but feel empathy for him, and Jordan ends up creating a complex villain who can never be mistaken for some one-dimensional schmuck.

Kudos to every single actress in “Black Panther” as they give us badass Wakandans who refuse to run away from impending danger. Whether it’s Angela Bassett as Ramonda or Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, they fill their characters with a strength and pride which can be wounded, but never easily broken. Special mention goes out to Danai Gurira who steals every scene she has as Okoye, a proud Wakandan who wears her pride on her face for all to see. If you threaten Okoye and she pulls a saber out on you, Gurira makes it clear you best start running in the other direction.

Kudos to Martin Freeman for making his character of CIA officer Everett K. Ross more than just mere comic relief. Even when we see him stumbling about in the midst of warriors who are prepared for conflict, Freeman allows Everett to evolve into a far more capable agent than he was at the movie’s beginning.

Kudos to Andy Serkis for his go for broke performance as gangster Ulysses Klaue. It’s a blast watching the “Planet of the Apes” actor smash through everything in his path. But even though he is not doing a motion capture performance here like he has done unforgettably in the past, he probably won’t snag an Oscar nomination for his work here anyway.

Kudos to Forest Whitaker for not just making Zuri a powerful religious and spiritual figure, but for also letting us see the cracks in the character’s façade when he reveals a burden he can never forgive himself for. Whether you see Zuri as “Black Panther’s” Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Whitaker lets us know right from the start no one could play Zuri better than he could.

Kudos to Daniel Kaluuya, currently riding high off of the tremendous success of “Get Out,” for making W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend, a vivid study of internal conflicts which are constantly pushed in different directions to where common sense can be thoughtlessly tossed aside.

Kudos to Winston Duke for making M’Baku into a ruthless warrior, but also one with a deep conscience. This character could have existed simply as a plot device for “Black Panther” to take advantage of when the going gets tough, but when T’Challa and his closest friends plead with M’Baku to join them in their battle of resistance, Duke makes the character’s eventual decision believable without ever seeming predictable or convoluted.

And kudos to all those filmmakers and artists behind the scenes who made Wakanda look so beautiful in “Black Panther.” Of all the places the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to, this is the one I would like to visit the most. Wakanda forever? Damn straight!

Seriously, I cannot say enough great things about “Black Panther” as Coogler and company have made a film which was so well-thought out and put together. All the characters are complex and interesting, and what could have been just another superhero/comic book movie was elevated into something far more thrilling than I ever could have expected. But more importantly, “Black Panther” gives us a true superhero who everyone, and I mean everyone, can and should look up to. This, among other reasons, should explain why this movie has been such a box office behemoth since its release.

Even better, we won’t have to wait long to see this superhero again as he will appear in “Avengers: Infinity War” whose release is just around the corner.

* * * * out of * * * *

Gregg Araki Grows as a Filmmaker with ‘White Bird in a Blizzard’

White Bird in a Blizzard movie poster

With “White Bird in a Blizzard,” Gregg Araki deals with the life of an adolescent once again. Based on the book of the same name by Laura Kasischke, it takes place in the 1980’s and stars Shailene Woodley as Kat Connor, a young woman whose mother ends up disappearing from her life. This happens at the same time she is discovering her sexuality with the next-door neighbor, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), and she doesn’t seem too phased by her mother’s sudden absence. Her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), has long since become a complete wimp, and his emotional repression prevents him from dealing with this situation in a rational manner. We follow Kat as she goes from high school to college, and eventually, she comes to see just how deeply affected she was by her mother’s disappearance and becomes determined to find out what happened to her.

Many of Araki’s films deal with the lives of teenagers, and he deals with them in a way which feels both honest and emotionally raw. “White Bird in a Blizzard” is the latest example of this, but while it deals with similar themes, it also feels somewhat unique to what Araki has given us before. He appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the movie’s press conference, and I asked him if his view of adolescence has evolved much from one movie to the next. Araki replied it definitely has.

Gregg Araki: Back in the 90’s I did a series of three films (“Totally Fucked Up,” “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere”) that I have become sort of famous or infamous for that were kind of a trilogy about being a teenager. It was called the “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” and they were very unhinged in a way and a little bit chaotic. I made those films 20 years ago and I definitely feel like in that time I’ve become older for sure and I think more mature and I’m more developed. I don’t really think I had a film like “White Bird” in me then. The analogy I make is that in this film I did called “The Doom Generation” which is also about young people, those kids have no parents. They have no house and they have no family; it’s just these kids doing crazy stuff. And in this movie Shailene does play somebody who is 18 and Shiloh (Fernandez’s) character is 18, and so they have their teenage moments and they meet in a Goth club and dance and they have that sort of carefree youth about them. But at the same time, this film is so much more about the family. Kat’s relationship with her mother or father, her parents’ marriage and just that whole world that, to me, like “American Beauty” or “The Ice Storm,” is about the world of the American dream and what is underneath the surface of it all. To me, that’s much more this film than my earlier movies about young people.

It’s always great to see a movie which takes adolescence seriously, and “White Bird in a Blizzard” does qualify as one. It also allows Woodley the opportunity to give another great and honest portrayal of a teenager just like she did in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” and it shows how Araki, even at the age of 54, still truly understands what teenagers go through. But moreover, it shows how far Araki has come as a filmmaker, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

“White Bird in a Blizzard” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Here is a video interview I did with Araki, Woodley and Chris Meloni which I did for the website We Got This Covered.