‘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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‘Salt’ Has Angelina Jolie Doing More Than Tomb Raiding

Salt movie poster

Looking back, the summer 2010 movie season was truly the summer of the preposterous action movie. We got the big screen version of “The A-Team” which had four guys trying to steer a parachuting tank with its turret by firing rounds out of it, then there was Tom Cruise who could do just about anything except take the time to go to the bathroom in “Knight and Day” (Jack Bauer had that problem too), and even the brilliant “Inception” employed a concept which is not at all possible (unless the military is trying to keep it a secret). And then there was “Salt” starring Angelina Jolie which runs very rapidly through a river of plot holes and leaps in logic, and it’s just as much fun as the films I just mentioned. Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger” and “Rabbit Proof Fence”) who keeps things moving at such a fast pace, there’s not much time to sit back and count all the inconsistencies. All we can do is hang on to the edge of our seats and revel in the slam bang action brought to us without an overuse of CGI effects.

Jolie plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt who is just about to head on home to her loving husband Mike (August Diehl) who loves to study spiders when she and her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) suddenly get the opportunity to interrogate a Russian defector. During this interrogation, the defector reveals that a highly trained Russian agent will assassinate the Russian President when he visits the United States. He the name of this agent is Evelyn Salt, and the chase is on from there. Immediately thrown under a veil of heavy suspicion, Evelyn desperately rushes out of the office to find her husband before he disappears from her life forever. Never mind abiding the law or taking the time to explain herself, she wants her husband now! When a woman gets pissed, it is in your best interest not to argue with her, especially if she is a CIA agent!

Evelyn Salt is a mixture of both Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, and this is especially the case in how she manages to evade capture or break free from highly trained agents and officers on more than one occasion. The movie really plays on Jolie’s strengths throughout, and of the kind of person the media has perceived her to be. I say this because over the years she has been treated like some seriously deranged human being who would have sex with her bother instead of a regular person which she is if anyone actually bothered to notice. Jolie plays on these perceptions throughout “Salt” as we watch her relentlessly pursue those who wish to capture and question her, and also when she changes her appearance to get closer to her objective.

I also liked how by the time she comes to meet the man who will soon become her husband, you can believe she has been fully trained to all she can do. A lot of movies would have you believe these characters were born with these skills and have perfected them since they were toddlers. With Jolie, you never doubt her even as the movie becomes more ridiculous by the minute.

There are so many twists and turns throughout “Salt” to where it shamelessly flaunts its illogic plot developments throughout to where we give up trying to figure it all out. Compared to many of Noyce’s other movies, this is easily the most kinetic action movie he has made to date even when compared to “Dead Calm” which introduced Nicole Kidman to the world. You could complain about how things don’t add up, but Noyce never lets the pace of the movie lag for a second, and we never find the time to sort through the plot and characters while we are watching. For other movies this would be a major hindrance, but for “Salt” it works to its advantage. You’re too thoroughly entertained to even care if this film is messing with our head one time too many.

In addition to the talents of Ms. Jolie, you also have Liev Schreiber as her partner and friend Ted Winter. Many consider Schreiber to be this stone-faced actor who wears the same expression in each and every movie he does, but this is probably because they have never seen him act onstage where he gives one brilliantly inspired performance after another. Schreiber holds his own opposite the formidable Jolie as he desperately works to protect his friend from those who would make her disappear, and you root for him as he gets closer and closer to getting a full idea of who she really is.

You also have Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peabody, an agent above Winter who pursues Salt relentlessly. He’s the character you want to shake around and slap in the face so he can see how wrong he is about her (or how wrong we think he is). Chiwetel has done great work over the years, most notably in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” and he makes Peabody more than your average one-dimensional government official who would foolishly believe a Russian defector over a loyal agent from the CIA.

We also have to give Noyce a lot of credit for not relying on a plethora of CGI effects in “Salt.” When you see Jolie clinging for dear life on her apartment building 12 stories up from the ground, that was really her (get ready for some serious vertigo). It all reminded me of how good “Live Free or Die Hard” was as it tried to make the effects as real as possible as the filmmakers came to realize the typical film going audience would no longer be easily fooled by CGI effects. Sometimes they are not even better than the real thing.

If there is one seriously massive complaint I have against “Salt,” it’s in regards to Andre Braugher’s role as the Secretary of Defense. Those of you who know me are fully aware of what a die-hard fan I am of the NBC cop show from the 1990’s, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Braugher’s work on the show was beyond brilliant, and not many other actors can manipulate people through such theatrically volcanic explosions of anger. Furthermore, let us not forget his work in movies like “Glory” where he made the first of many memorable impressions. But in “Salt,” he is relegated to a role where he barely has any lines and is given far too little to do. What gives?! You want to cast Braugher in a movie, then you give him a role which is in tune with his well-known talents. Stop giving him roles which could be played by anyone.

Maybe “Salt” is more fun than it deserves credit for. But along with a pulsating music score by James Newton Howard and some tight film editing by John Gilroy and the well-regarded Stuart Baird, the movie gives you a good dose of adrenalin pumping fun which we don’t always get on the silver screen. Nitpick all you want about the events in “Salt,” it’ll still keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Red Sparrow’ Thrives on the Presence of Jennifer Lawrence

Red Sparrow movie poster

I will be curious to see what audiences will have to say about “Red Sparrow” after seeing it. Those expecting a Jason Bourne-like adventure or something along the lines of “Salt” which starred Angelina Jolie as a sleeper spy may be disappointed as this film feels more like an adaptation of a John Le Carre novel where the lives of spies are not the least bit romanticized. The movie itself is based on the book of the same name by Jason Matthews who, like Le Carre, was once a member of an intelligence agency. What results is a motion picture which is not as interested in gunfights or car chases as it is in the mind games spies play with one another as the art of manipulation becomes a far more powerful weapon than a bullet. It also serves as yet another reminder of how Jennifer Lawrence is one of the best things in movies these days as she sucks you right into her gaze and never lets you go.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a gifted Russian dancer who suffers a career-ending injury at the movie’s start. With her dancing now a thing of the past, she and her mother find their future looking particularly bleak as the loss of their apartment and medical care become imminent. As a result, she accepts an invitation from her loving but undeniably devious uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), to work for Russian intelligence. But whereas most spy movies see recruits being trained in the ways of martial arts and weaponry, the recruits we see here are instead trained in the ways of manipulation. Or, more specifically, sexual manipulation.

The scenes where we see Dominika and others being trained in the ways of manipulation help make “Red Sparrow” stand out among other spy movies as I can’t remember many which see new recruits being made to use their minds and bodies as weapons. Heck, the only one I can think of like it is “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins,” and that film came out back in the 1980’s. As the Headmistress of the spy training school, Charlotte Rampling gives us a passive aggressive version of the sadistic drill instructor from “Full Metal Jacket” as she forces her students into situations which will test their mental defenses instead of their physical ones. We never see her raise her voice or yell at her pupils, but this is because Rampling makes it clear why she doesn’t need to do so. You can question her, but she will make you see why you shouldn’t have in the first place.

Once “Red Sparrow” moves from the school and into Dominika’s mission which involves her meeting up with CIA agent Nathaniel “Nate” Nash (Joel Edgerton), the story enters into familiar territory as we watch these two spies from different countries fall for one another in a way which goes against their training. Still, it’s fascinating to watch Lawrence and Edgerton test one another as each try to crack through the mental they have built to protect themselves. It reminded me of when James Bond went head to head with Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale” as each tried to learn more about the other. Both kept their guard up as they wondered who would break first.

Ever since her breakthrough performance in “Winter’s Bone,” Lawrence has proven to be an amazing talent as she brings a natural charisma and a raw energy few others can these days. Her work in “Red Sparrow” is no exception as she kept my eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. Seeing her go from a gifted ballerina to a methodical agent is mesmerizing as Dominika looks to get the upper hand in each situation she gets thrust into, and Lawrence nails each note of her character while maintaining a Russian accent which doesn’t fail her. She is not out to give us another variation on Katniss Everdeen here as the character of Dominika takes this acress down a road she has not traveled down before.

Speaking of Katniss Everdeen, “Red Sparrow” was directed by “The Hunger Games’” Francis Lawrence, and he certainly knows how to get the best out of his leading actress. In addition, he also keeps a solid level of tension flowing throughout. Yes, the movie does run a little too long, and the torture scenes we see pale in comparison to those in spy movies of the past. Heck, a similar torture scene in “Casino Royale” was far more painful to endure, and that 007 adventure was PG-13. Still, Francis gets plenty of mileage out of the mind games each character plays on the other.

It’s impossible not to think about the #MeToo movement while watching “Red Sparrow” as Lawrence is greeted with brutal assaults on her character by men prepared to take what they want without anything resembling remorse. Like Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” her character of Dominika is forced to exist in a male-dominated world which leaves everyone of her gender little in the way of options, something which needs to change now. This makes the character’s revenge all the more fulfilling as she puts those men in their place in sometimes painful ways. Of course, this will most likely make “Red Sparrow” harder to sit through for many audience members.

“Red Sparrow” does have its flaws, and its conclusion is not as fulfilling as I thought it would be, but I find it impossible to deny the compelling effect it had on me overall. And again, Jennifer Lawrence reminds us why she is one of the most enthralling actors working in movies today. She dares you to look into her eyes to see if you could possibly find your way into her soul. Even as the movie goes through the familiar tropes of the spy movie genre, the Oscar winner keeps us watching her every move.

They say the truth shall set you free, but in the world of “Red Sparrow,” the truth is likely to get you killed. Realizing this reminds me of the Depeche Mode song “Should Be Higher” as David Gahan sung about how “lies are more attractive than the truth.” For Dominika and Nate, their lies have to be. Or do they?

* * * out of * * * *

‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’ Forgets What Makes Tom Clancy’s Hero Stand Out

Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit movie poster

While watching “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” it didn’t take long to realize like the CIA analyst hero of the late Tom Clancy’s novels has been rebooted one too many times. After being portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, Jack Ryan got his clock turned backwards when Ben Affleck played him in “The Sum of All Fears.” I have no problem admitting I liked that film, but casting a younger actor as Ryan ended up screwing with the franchise’s equilibrium. Things were going smoothly beforehand, so why throw a younger actor, any young actor, into this role and take the audience back in time? Why not bring Baldwin back? When is all said and done, Baldwin is still the best actor to inhabit this character.

Well, now we have Pine taking over the role of the brilliant Jack Ryan, and this time the franchise goes right back to the beginning of Ryan’s career. What results is by no means a bad movie as it is well made, features a number of strong performances and some exciting action scenes. Regardless, there’s a feeling of emptiness at this film’s core. The problem it’s not much different from the many spy movies I have seen over the years and, as a result, feels largely forgettable.

For those who remember Fred Dalton Thompson’s character of Rear Admiral Joshua Painter from “The Hunt for Red October,” he gave a speech in which he talked about how Ryan was severely injured in a helicopter crash back in the 70’s and spent the following year learning to walk again. This is the Ryan we meet here when this film begins as he is compelled to enlist in the military after the events of September 11, 2001. From there, we watch him recovering from a helicopter crash, and he recuperates over time with the help of Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the woman we know will eventually become his wife.

During his lengthy recovery, Ryan is paid a visit by CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who recruits him to work for the agency. We then move forward ten years later to when Ryan is working on Wall Street as a compliance officer at a stock brokerage, but this job is of course a cover for his real work as a covert CIA analyst as he keeps an eye out for financial transactions which are suspect and may indicate terrorist activity. Upon discovering trillions of dollars held by Russian organizations have gone missing, the trail of criminality leads him to Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Ryan travels to Russia and, from there, things go bang, bang, bang like you would expect.

I think one of the big mistakes made with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” was that the filmmakers decided not to base it on any of Clancy’s novels. I know Clancy was always highly critical of the way Hollywood treated his books and I’m pretty sure he would have had many things to say about this installment had he lived to see it. At the same time, his stories were always intricate and fascinating, and the screenplay here by Adam Cozad and David Koepp is both confusing and hard in comparison. As a result, it feels a surprisingly lightweight compared to the complex stories Clancy came up with.

In addition to playing Jack Ryan’s chief nemesis, Branagh also directed the movie and has come to show a real panache for filming exciting action scenes. There’s also a crazy car chase near the end which really did have me on the edge of my seat, and he has come a long way from directing big budget movies like “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein” and “Thor.” Granted, you can’t go into this expecting something on the level of his Shakespeare cinematic adaptations, but he does provide the audience with a fun time. The problem is the story of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is very routine, and it was hard to get excited about what unfolded once I made this realization.

In all fairness, Pine does make for a good Jack Ryan in the way the character was written here. As tired as I am of movie studios making all these origin movies, Pine brings the same kind of energy to this role as he did to “Star Trek” as James Kirk. While this Ryan is not as interesting here as he was in the previous films, Pine does the best that he can with a somewhat underwritten part.

One performance in particular I want to point out is Costner’s as Thomas Harper. It’s fascinating to watch him here after having seen him as the heroic young soldier in movies like “No Way Out,” and he is aging nicely into the role of the elder statesmen who imparts his wisdom and advice to newbies. Part of the fun in watching Costner here is how mysterious he makes Harper. Ryan is not sure he can trust him fully, and Costner’s constant poker face throws not only him off, but the audience as well.

But despite all the good things about “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the whole package feels far too ordinary for it to work effectively. We’ve seen this kind of story before, and not much was done to elevate it above the usual fare this genre has to offer. In the process of trying to make Jack Ryan young again in the hopes of jump starting this long-running franchise, they have robbed the character of what made him unique. In this film, he’s like any other young CIA recruit who has yet to understand what he’s getting himself into, and I have seen this scenario played out far too many times before.

For me, Jack Ryan was always the accidental action hero. He has a brilliant mind and always gets to the truth of the matter because he takes the time to study the individual at the center of the story. Like John McClane, he’s not out to be the hero and is always looking to avoid life threatening situations, but he eventually steps up to the plate because no one else can, and no else knows what he knows. If they ever do make another Jack Ryan, they need to make him the analyst he’s always been and not just start from scratch with an origin story. We know all about Ryan’s past, now let’s deal with his present and future. Is this too much to ask?

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Suffers from Overkill, But it’s Still Worth a Look

Kingsman The Golden Circle poster

Ever since his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has done an excellent job of reinvigorating different movie genres to great effect. His “Kick-Ass” was the comic book movie many were too afraid to make, and I like to think it paved the way for “Deadpool.” He brought the “X-Men” franchise back to vibrant life with the prequel “X-Men: First Class,” and it was a prequel which put so many others like it to shame. And then he gave us “Kingsman: The Secret Service” which turned the world of spy movies upside down. In a time where James Bond, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies and the Jason Bourne franchise ruled the spy genre with an iron fist, Vaughn made “Kingsman” stand out amongst the competition to where it felt fresh and unique as it was filled with invigorating action sequences and characters who were wonderfully realized and as suave as 007 is without being anywhere as cold.

While Vaughn skipped out of doing follow-ups to “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick-Ass,” it was very re-assuring to see him come back to co-write and direct “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Now that all the origin stuff is out of the way, we can now watch Eggsy Unwin/a.k.a. Galahad (Taron Egerton) battle the enemies of the world in a beautifully tailored suit without having to prove to us he is worthy of the status he has attained.

Indeed, Vaughn refuses to keep us waiting as “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” opens with a gangbusters action sequence in which Eggsy fights former Kingsman trainee Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in the back of a taxi as it hurtles through the streets of London while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts away on the speakers. It’s a lively introduction to a movie as Vaughn looks to be holding nothing back, and it made me eager to see if he could top what came before.

But just as Eggsy looks to be settling down with the beautiful Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), a sudden attack completely decimates the Kingsman suit shop and its headquarters to where he and his trainer and die-hard John Denver fan Merlin (Mark Strong) are desperate to defeat the nemesis who laid waste to their well-dressed intelligence community. They eventually discover their chief antagonist is the notorious criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who looks to gain worldwide stardom as a drug dealer, and this leads them to join up with their American counterpart, the Statesman, in an effort to exact revenge.

At this point, I should say while “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” proved to be a fun time at the movies for me, it does have flaws impossible to ignore. With a running time of over two hours, I couldn’t help but think a lot of fat could have been trimmed as this sequel feels overstuffed with characters Vaughn can’t give enough attention to as he tries, perhaps too hard, to subvert our expectations as this movie heads towards its unsurprisingly violent climax. Also, while the original was full of anarchic energy, this one settles into a rhythm which might seem more conventional than “Kingsman” fans may care for.

Still, I had a giddy time with this sequel, and one of the main joys I got from it was the casting of Julianne Moore as she gives us one of the most lovely and appealing sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Her character of Poppy Adams is the world’s biggest drug dealer, but she suffers from homesickness while hiding away in the undiscovered ruins of Southeast Asia. Poppy ends up curing her homesickness by making her hideout into a 1950’s theme park which evokes memories of “American Graffiti” and the classic television show “Happy Days.” I kept waiting for The Fonz to show up, but Poppy ends up entertaining herself with a certain musician who should remain nameless before you watch this sequel.

Moore is clearly having a great time co-starring in this “Kingsman” movie as she makes Poppy into a villain who is as delightful as she is devious. Even as she entertains prospective applicants wishing to join her evil empire, it doesn’t take much for her to show an ever so subtle psychosis with those who have failed her as they meet a fate as grisly as the one who got put into a wood chipper in the movie “Fargo.” Even as her actions show her to be incredibly vicious, Moore is a hoot throughout to where she makes it hard for us to hate Poppy even though we should despise her from the get go. She also has kidnapped a certain musician who… Well, I will leave you to discover the identity of the superstar she has kidnapped for her own personal entertainment.

While this sequel does tread familiar ground, it allows our protagonists to travel to Kentucky where they meet their American equivalent, the Statesman who have a flair for alcohol as Kingsman does for clothing. It also allows for charming American actors like Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry to join the party in a variety of roles which they fit them like a glove. It’s especially nice to see Berry in something good after appearing in the critical debacle released this past summer which was “Kidnap.”

One who stands out in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, best known for his work in “Game of Thrones” and “Narcos,” as Statesman secret agent Whiskey. Pascal has a wonderful Burt Reynolds vibe going on here, and I don’t just mean his mustache. He also proves to be incredibly effective with a lasso, albeit an electronic one which can decapitate its victims as well as capture them before they can escape.

As for the cast members from the original, Taron Egerton does a wonderful job of taking Gary “Eggsy” Unwin to the next stage in his life as we watch his character continue his journey from leading an aimless life to embracing one filled with purpose. Eggsy still has his friends from the past, but he is open to embracing a future which includes a lifelong commitment to the woman he loves. It’s not often you see a spy movie where a secret agent calls his girlfriend to ask for permission to sleep with the enemy in order to save the world.

Mark Strong also gets to have more fun with his character of Merlin as he gets to be more of a field agent this time out. Strong also makes Merlin’s funniest moments feel genuine to where it feels more emotionally moving than I expected. His rendition of a particular John Denver song carries more meaning these days than when it first became a hit, and it makes for of this sequel’s most unforgettable moments even as the Monty Python bit, “Farwell to John Denver,” kept playing in my head as I watched him.

And yes, it is so great to see Colin Firth back as Harry Hart. While Harry suffered a rather grisly fate in the original, this character had to come back in one way or another. Even as Harry struggles to remember the secret agent he once was, Firth invests him with a dignity and sense of duty which empowers his performance in a very memorable way.

When all is said and done, I did have a lot of fun with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” regardless of its flaws. At almost 2 hours and 30 minutes, it runs a lot longer than it should, and it does suffer from overkill as Vaughn looks at times to be desperate in topping what came before. The sequel also could have been more anarchic as the original lovingly laid waste to many spy movie clichés. This one threatens to be a little more conventional, but it still embraces its R-rating with a lot of glee.

Rumor has it that Vaughn already has a third “Kingsman” in the works, and it would be great to see this franchise grow even further. But if he is to make another one, my hope is he embraces the anarchic nature of the original more than he did here. As spy movies continue to be made, the genre will always need a swift kick in the butt.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Cars 2’ Outpaces its Predecessor

Cars 2 movie poster

I’m a little befuddled at the critical notices being hurled at “Cars 2.” It’s the first Pixar movie to ever get a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes. Granted, neither this sequel nor its predecessor represent Pixar at its best or most adventurous, but even the least of their movies are infinitely better than most of what Hollywood puts out. “Cars” was essentially an animated “Doc Hollywood,” but as predictable as the story was, it was still wonderfully entertaining and had many memorable characters. Its being made was also worth it just to hear my niece say “ka-chow!” on a regular basis.

But “Cars 2” is easily more fun because the story is not as formulaic as its predecessor’s, and it takes the characters in a refreshingly different direction. This one has Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) going with his best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) to the World Grand Prix to race against the arrogant Italian Formula One car named Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). During this time, Mater is suspected of being a spy by British Intelligence officers Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), the latter whom he takes a strong liking to. What starts off as another racing movie turns into an espionage adventure which circles the globe in an amazingly animated style.

Make no secret, “Cars 2” truly belongs to Mater more than anyone else. I’ve never been a huge fan of Larry The Cable Guy or his kind of humor, but he’s great fun here. Mater is not the brightest car in the world, but his heart shines through everything he does even as it continually gets the best of him. Most of the movie’s funniest scenes come from him dealing with customs unlike those in his home country, and his mistaking wasabi for ice cream is funnier than anything I saw in “Bad Teacher.”

Pixar continues to outdo itself in the field of animation, and the visuals they come up with are brilliant. I’ll go even further and say there were times I stared at the screen and wondered if certain things being shown were actually real instead of animated. Seriously, the resemblance between what’s real and what’s not disappeared for me at certain points,

Directing “Cars 2” is John Lassiter, and this marks the first full length Pixar film he’s directed since the original. His love of all things cars is as evident here as it was in the first film, and he also has race car drivers and announcers like Jeff Gordon, Lewis Hamilton, Darrell Waltrip, Brent Musburger, and David Hobbs voicing characters. You don’t even have to look at, or listen, hard to discover which characters they are voicing as character names are not particularly subtle. For example, we have Jeff Gorvette, Darrell Cartrip, Brent Mustangburger, David Hobbscap, and the subtlest of all, Lewis Hamilton.

I loved the addition of Michael Caine to this sequel as he makes Finn McMissile a cross between James Bond and the character he played in “Get Carter.” Years after playing Jack Carter in the 1971 classic, Caine remains as cool as ever, and not just because his car has an endless number of gadgets Bond could only wishes he had in the real world. His cockney accent is welcome in any movie he does, and this is certainly the case here.

Other additions in this automotive universe include Emily Mortimer who makes Holley Shiftwell tough and sensitive in believable fashion. Mortimer is such a sweet presence in movies like this and “Lars and the Real Girl,” and I always look forward to seeing and hearing her in any movie she does. It’s also great to have Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, Tony Shalhoub, Joe Mantegna, and Bruce Campbell among others on board, and listening to them made me believe they had a blast working on “Cars 2.”

If I had any issues with “Cars 2,” it’s in regards to the character of Fillmore. This really has to do with the fact George Carlin voiced him in the original, and he has since passed on, and that Fillmore has little to do other than to say, “Wow man!” Out of respect for the late Carlin, who I still miss, I wished they had retired the character. This is nothing against Lloyd Sherr who has the unenviable task of replacing one of the great comedians ever as Fillmore, but this is one Pixar character which should have been put to rest. They retired Paul Newman’s character of Doc Hudson as he has also passed into the great beyond, and no one could have replaced him. I mean, I can understand why Pixar kept Slinky Dog on board for “Toy Story 3” even though Jim Varney died long before filming started, but Slinky had more to do in that sequel than Fillmore does here.

“Cars 2” does not equal Pixar’s artistic highs of “Up,” “Ratatouille,” or “Wall-E,” but so what? All that matters is it’s fun, and it easily outdoes the original. While its messages like the importance of being true to yourself may seem cheesy from a distance, they are handled here with a lot of heart and genuine emotion. Whatever you thought of the first one, you have to admit that you cared about the characters, and you will care for them even more in this sequel.

You can waste your money on “Green Lantern,” or you can take the family out to this one. The kids will be restless and noisy whether we like it or not, but I’m used to that by now. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, and parents were incapable of shutting their children up there. That I did not make the same mistake with this sequel is largely why it’s getting a particularly high rating.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

George Lazenby Reflects on Playing 007 in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’

On Her Majestys Secret Service movie poster

After all these years, George Lazenby is still the only actor to play James Bond in just one movie, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” While nowhere as respected as Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, Lazenby still has his share of fans who gave him a standing ovation when he appeared at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The evening’s moderator, Stephen Rubin, proclaimed Lazenby was a “terrific James Bond,” and if he had to do just one Bond movie, he picked the right one to star in.

After five movies, Connery quit playing Bond as he had grown tired of what he described as “impossibly long schedules.” Lazenby was not the first choice to replace Connery as he had no acting experience other than doing commercials, and Lazenby claimed he got considered for Bond when the late Cubby Broccoli spotted him at a haberdashery getting a Connery-like haircut.

Directing this 007 adventure was Peter Hunt who apparently got the job as a Christmas present from the Broccoli family. Lazenby described him as tough and that he got his way most of the time. He also admitted lying to Hunt about being an actor, and when Lazenby later told him he wasn’t, Hunt went crazy and fell down on the floor laughing. Once he composed himself, he told Lazenby, “Stick to your story. I’ll make you the next James Bond!”

The two of them, however, had a falling out on the first day of shooting, and Lazenby said Hunt didn’t speak to him again for nine months. According to Rubin, Hunt’s challenge in getting a performance out of Lazenby was to “piss him off.” Rubin also remarked how tough the last scene must have been for Lazenby as it’s the most emotional in the Bond franchise, and Lazenby said he did one take with tears and that Diana Rigg, who plays Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” bit him to get the desired emotion in another which he said wasn’t needed.

One thing’s for certain, Lazenby’s work in the action sequences was nothing short of excellent. On top of holding several black belts in martial arts, he credited a lot of his toughness from living in Australia where you “smack your mate.” Sounding almost Russell Crowe-ish about his birthplace, Lazenby said he could take care of himself once he got the first hit in, and back then he was too stupid to be afraid.

Regarding his fellow cast mates, Lazenby said Rigg thought he was a “complete idiot,” and she got pissed at him after he beat her in a game of chess. She also didn’t want him mucking around with other girls during filming, a promise Lazenby admitted he was unable to keep. He was discovered having a tryst with a receptionist, and when asked if she was memorable, Lazenby replied, “She was!”

Telly Savalas played Bond’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and Lazenby described him as a “great guy who loved to gamble.” When Lazenby got a raise from $100 to $1,000 a week during shooting, Savalas saw his money and asked, “Hey, do you play poker?” Lazenby also said Savalas used to bet everything he had including his house.

Even if Lazenby is still considered the worst actor ever to portray James Bond, it certainly didn’t seem to be the case considering the standing ovation he got upon entering the Egyptian Theatre. He gave us a 007 at his most relaxed in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this makes his interpretation of the role the most unique in the long-running franchise.

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man movie poster

I have not read any John le Carre novels as of yet, but I have seen many movies based on them. Whether it’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (be it the miniseries or the film), “The Constant Gardner,” “The Tailor of Panama” or “The Russia House,” all of Carré’s stories deal with people who have seen it all and have long since been burned out by the possibility of changing the way people exist in the world. Since he was once an employee of the British intelligence agency MI6, Carré’s books generally deal with spies who are not like the ones we remember from James Bond or Jason Bourne movies. Instead, these are spies who inhabit a morally duplicitous world they have to struggle in even as it tears away at who they once were. They claim to be doing this work for the sake of peace, but after a while, you begin to wonder how much they believe this as they soon look like they are kidding themselves.

A Most Wanted Man” is the latest Carré cinematic adaptation, and it is a perfect example of the kind of spies he has become famous for writing about. This film has also taken on an added importance as it features the very last lead performance from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman who plays Günter Bachmann, the weariest looking spy who has ever walked the face of the earth. Only Hoffman could have inhabited such a worn-out character and make him so endlessly fascinating as Günter goes through this movie looking like he barely has a pulse.

This movie starts off with a note saying the German port city of Hamburg is where Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the September 11th attacks. The fact Atta was able to plan the attacks without being caught beforehand was due to failures in intelligence among other things and, as a result, the intelligence operatives continue to work as hard as they can to make sure this never happens again. The story takes place over a decade after 9/11, and it doesn’t take too long to see how these characters still treat the horrific day as if it just happened yesterday.

Günter is the leader of an anti-terrorism team which seeks to develop sources within the Islamic community in the hopes of getting leads on high-profile subjects. His team eventually finds one in Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian who has just immigrated to Hamburg illegally after suffering torture and imprisonment which has made him look like a walking corpse. At the same time, he is also on the verge of claiming an inheritance worth millions in Euros. The question is, will any of this inheritance go towards funding terrorist groups, or will Issa make sure it goes to who needs it the most?

“A Most Wanted Man” was directed by Anton Corbijn, a Dutch filmmaker who previously directed George Clooney in another spy movie called “The American,” and he is not out to give us the typical spy thriller designed to give the audience a potent adrenaline rush. The spies here are all about playing mind games with their prey as well as with those from another country than they are in getting into gun fights and car chases. This might frustrate some viewers who prefer their spy movies to exhilarate like few other cinematic experiences can, but Corbijn is intent on taking his time with this story at a pace which befits the le Carre novel it is based on. For those of you who have seen “The American,” this should not come as a surprise.

Seriously, not enough can be said about Hoffman’s performance. You never really catch him acting here. Hoffman simply becomes Günter right before our eyes, and he makes you feel his character’s weariness for all it’s worth. Watching Hoffman is heartbreaking because he really does give us a master class in acting here, and this sadly is one of the last times we will ever get to see him do that.

Among the highlights of “A Most Wanted Man” are the scenes Hoffman has with Robin Wright who plays CIA agent Martha Sullivan. Currently on a critical high from her work on the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Wright matches Hoffman scene for scene as these two play a mental game of chess, trying to guess what the other is thinking without revealing too much of themselves in the process. Looking into the eyes of both these actors, you can tell how much fun they have sparring with one another. When they tell one another they are trying to make the world a safer place, you can smell the deceitful sarcasm dripping from their mouths as their jobs now force them to become competitors over nabbing the next big terrorist suspect.

Granted, Hoffman’s German accent is a little off-putting at first, but we do get used to it eventually just as we do with the one Rachel McAdams pulls off. McAdams portrays Annabel Richter, a deeply passionate human rights attorney who does her best to protect Issa from unnecessary prosecution. However, when Annabel is put in a position where she is forced to betray those closest to her, McAdams makes you feel her character’s agony without even having to use words to express it. As for Willem Dafoe who plays bank manager Tommy Brue, you can never really go wrong with him in anything he’s in.

“A Most Wanted Man” is, at times, a little hard to follow to where you may come out of it thinking the plot was a little too convoluted for its own good, but most viewers should be able to get the gist of the story. The pace is also a little too slow at times although things do pick up before the end. Whatever the case, it is definitely worth seeing for the performances, especially the ones given by Hoffman and Wright. It will be hard to escape the bittersweet feeling this movie leaves you with as this is one of Hoffman’s last, and I came out of it wondering if we would ever see an actor like him ever again; one who doesn’t look like a movie star but whose talents have more than earned him the right to be one.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Keeping Up With The Joneses

keeping-up-with-the-joneses-poster

When a movie takes its title from a tagline used to promote “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” I can’t help but walk into it with high expectations. Indeed, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” boasts a plot which quickly reminded me of “True Lies” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in which government spies disguise themselves as ordinary suburban residents, and it has a cast of actors who you can always count on to give you a fun time. It’s even directed by the man who gave us “Superbad” and “Adventureland,” Greg Mottola. But while it does have some inspired moments, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” ends up feeling, to put it bluntly, half-assed.

We meet Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) who works at a corporate office as a human resources director. He is happily married to Karen (Isla Fisher), and they have two children who, as the movie starts, are heading off to summer camp for a few weeks. For the first time in years, the Gaffneys have the whole house to themselves which has them thinking of all kinds of mischief to get into, but any plans they have for getting naughty are interrupted when a new couple moves into the neighborhood.

Tim and Natalie Jones (Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot) are not your usual couple as they look as if they have traveled all over the world, and they look far too gorgeous to pass as ordinary people. As a result, the Gaffneys get overly suspicious and are eager to learn everything there is to know about them. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize they are spies, but whether they are foreign or domestic spies remains to be seen.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” gets off to a strong start as we get a picturesque view of suburbia with the peaceful neighborhood these characters inhabit. As the camera pans around the different houses, one of them blows up into smithereens, and the explosion almost feels like something out of a Kathryn Bigelow movie. Next thing you know, the story moves back to two weeks before the explosion, so we already know this peaceful neighborhood won’t be very peaceful for much longer.

The great things about the movie is the cast. Galifianakis gets to play a different role this time around as Jeff Gaffney is not like the mentally unstable characters he became famous for playing like in “The Hangover.” Seeing him play a down to earth guy who is all about family and good times feels like a stretch for him, and it’s fun watching him opposite Hamm especially when they have lunch at an underground restaurant which is definitely not for vegans.

Hamm gets to play on his sexy guy image, and he is well matched with Gadot who looks very comfortable in the action comedy genre. Isla Fisher has been great fun to watch in any movie she appears in ever since her scene-stealing turn in “Wedding Crashers,” and she doesn’t disappoint here. There’s also a nice pair of performances from Matt Walsh and Maribeth Monroe as a pair of neighbors who might be getting a little to nosy in everyone’s affairs.

But as terrific as this cast is, they are not enough to save this movie which runs out of inspiration very quickly. It would have been more fun if the director and screenwriter kept us guessing as to whether the Joneses really were spies or not. Looking back, I kept thinking everyone missed out on various opportunities to make this movie cleverer than it is. This could have been an uproarious comedy had more effort been put into the script. After a while, we know how things are going to turn out for the four main characters here, and it just reminds us of other movies like it which were much, much better.

When the movie reaches its conclusion, it’s sunk by a predictability everyone could have avoided for the benefit of the audience. What we are left with is a premise which everyone could have and should have had a lot more fun with. The characters, despite the best efforts of the actors, could have been better developed to where they don’t feel like caricatures. The action scenes are fun, but you feel like they could have been more thrilling. Instead of accepting the movie for what it is, we keep thinking about the movie it could have been, and realizing this is depressing.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” is one those films I analyze endlessly as I watch it because I am convinced I could have done a better job with the material. This premise could have been taken in a number of different directions and could have ended up being an insane amount of fun. But we get instead is a motion picture which have spent more time in the development phase because this one came out of the oven far too soon. It has its moments, but it could have had a lot more of them.

* * out of * * * *