‘Spectre’ – The Global Criminal Organization Returns to Haunt James Bond in the New Millennium

WRITER’S NOTE: The following review was written in 2015.

James Bond fans will be thrilled to know that the gun barrel sequence has been returned to the opening of this latest 007 adventure. For the past few Bond films, it has been relegated to the end to make clear just how rebooted this long running franchise became when Daniel Craig came on board to fill that tuxedo and enjoy the shaken, not stirred martinis. But now it precedes the action-packed prologue, and it’s just as well because “Spectre” aims to be more along the lines of the classic 007 adventures where the suave spy does battle with a secret organization which is bent on world domination and ends up seeing so much more than the NSA does on a daily basis. Still, it does have a strong focus on character as the past continues to haunt Bond to where the dead are not really dead.

First, let us get this out of the way: Is “Spectre” better than or as good as “Skyfall?” No, but this was kind of a given since the previous installment reached such extraordinary heights which the average Bond film usually never reaches, and this includes grossing over a billion dollars at the box office. In the end this did not matter much to me because, on its own, “Spectre” is a compelling and thrilling movie which reunites Craig with the brilliant Sam Mendes whose work on the last installment was impeccable. With this latest Bond film, they both are determined to dig even deeper into 007’s fractured and turbulent history, and it reintroduces us to certain character types and criminal organizations which defined many of the early Bond adventures.

After a thrilling action-packed opening sequence in Mexico, one of this franchise’s very best by the way, Bond is informed by M (Ralph Fiennes) he is being suspended from duty as his mission there was not authorized by him or the British government. However, we later learn he received a cryptic message from a previous mentor informed him to kill a man in Mexico and attend his funeral in Rome, and this is just the beginning to his uncovering the criminal organization whose name is an acronym for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Suffice to say, they got everything covered.

Mendes hasn’t lost a step here, and he is also served well by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) who gives even the dirtiest scenes an inescapable beauty. This movie also has a great opening and unbroken shot which lasts several minutes as we watch Bond attend a Day of the Dead parade, head upstairs with a lovely lady presumably to bed, and then he suddenly goes out the window in pursuit of his latest nemesis who has seriously pissed off her majesty’s secret service.

The main villain is Franz Oberhauser, and he is portrayed by the brilliant and endlessly entertaining Christoph Waltz. This is the same actor who gave us one of the most fiendish villains in cinematic history in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” but he’s not out to replay Hans Landa here. When we first see Franz, he doesn’t even have to speak up or raise his voice to show how powerful he is. Everyone simply stands at attention, and no one questions his decision making at any point. This makes Waltz’s job even easier as his character clearly exerts a power very few bother to question. Some claim he is too quiet in his first scene, but for him to yell at everyone or shout to keep everyone in place would strike me as being desperate to keep everything under control. Franz doesn’t need to do this because everything has long since come under his control.

As for the Bond women (calling them Bond girls does not feel the least bit appropriate anymore), they are played by Monica Bellucci and Lea Seydoux. Bellucci plays Lucia Sciarra, the widow of an assassin killed by Bond, and she mesmerizes us in the far too few minutes she appears onscreen. Bellucci is said to be the oldest Bond woman ever, but does this really need to be pointed out? I don’t care how old she is because she still sizzles and holds her own against Craig even as he seduces her to the audience’s delight.

Seydoux is best remembered from her role as the beautiful but cold-hearted assassin in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” and here she plays Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who has a link to a person Bond dealt with in the past. She proves to be a strong Bond woman here as she brings up her tragic upbringing which has informed her defensiveness around those she doesn’t know very well, and she makes clear of how she has a strong dislike of guns. She’s a wonderful presence here, and she and Craig make quite the couple.

Dave Bautista co-stars as Mr. Hinx, a character designed to spark our nostalgic memories of Oddjob. Mr. Hinx is a henchman of few words, but his actions speak a lot louder than his words and leave a lot of damage in his path. This is not a henchman content with throwing a hat around as his hands do all the work and leave quite the impression.

Ralph Fiennes confidently fills the shoes of Dame Judi Dench’s M as Mallory, and like the previous head of MI6, Mallory finds he can control Bond as well as she could, which is to say only so much. Naomie Harris returns as Eve Moneypenny who has since settled in to becoming M’s assistant, Rory Kinnear remains reliable as always as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner, Jesper Christensen reprises his role as Mr. White from previous installments, and Ben Whishaw steals every single scene he’s in as Q. Seriously, watching Whishaw is such a delight this time out as he infuses the role with a wonderfully dry sense of humor as he reminds Bond of how he has a mortgage and two cats to feed.

And, of course, Mendes brings back composer Thomas Newman to give “Spectre” an emotional and propulsive film score which will has me eagerly awaiting its release on compact disc. I especially enjoyed his collaboration with the Mexican contemporary classical percussion group Tambuco on the music they composed for the Day of the Dead scenes. As for the theme song “The Writing’s on The Wall” which is performed by Sam Smith, it’s good but nowhere as priceless as Adele’s “Skyfall.”

But let’s not leave out the man of the hour, Daniel Craig. Ever since he made his debut as 007 in “Casino Royale” he has not only made this iconic role his own, but has also given Ian Fleming’s classic character a humanity and a depth his predecessors hoped to give as much of. His respect for Bond is never in doubt as he brings 007 around full circle to where we learn even more about his past than we did previously, and how it has come to define his present state in life. It’s still up in the air as to whether this will be Craig’s last time playing the famous British secret agent who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, but I have to believe he has at least one more Bond film left in him.

How you come to view “Spectre” may depend on the kind of expectations you bring to it, and it’s hard not to have high expectations after the brilliant “Skyfall.” Do yourself a favor and leave them at the door and just enjoy it for what it is; a gorgeous and extravagant Bond film which, while a bit too long (editor Stuart Baird is missed here), has us wondering where 007, a man who another character describes as being a “kite dancing in a hurricane,” will go from here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Skyfall’ – One of the Best James Bond Films Ever Made

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012.

“American Beauty” director Sam Mendes has just accomplished the impossible; he made a better James Bond movie than “Casino Royale.” That one set the bar for so high to where it should not have been a surprise “Quantum of Solace” was not as good, but “Skyfall” gets my vote for being one of the very best in the 007 franchise. This installment continues in giving us a darker and edgier Bond as portrayed by the excellent Daniel Craig, and it also brings back some of the things many felt were missing from the last two films like the gadgets, the one-liners and, of all people, Q.

“Skyfall” starts off with a bang as we catch up with Bond in Turkey where he is on the trail of a man who has stolen the hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents. While trying to retrieve the drive, Bond is accidentally shot by fellow British agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and presumed dead. But being this all happens at the movie’s beginning, we know he will not stay dead for very long. While we watch him use his presumed death to go into retirement where he gets drunk off his ass while remaining deeply resentful of M’s (Dame Judi Dench) order for Eve to “take the bloody shot,” MI6 is suddenly destroyed and his love of England forces him to return to active duty. Upon his return, he soon discovers M’s nemesis has a very personal connection to her which makes him all the more dangerous.

This film does take its time to get going, but in retrospect it was worth it. Craig’s Bond has never been a superhero, but instead a vulnerable agent with weaknesses he cannot hide from others. As we watch him retrain, Craig shows us his Bond is deeply troubled and almost bent on self-destruction. It’s his duty to the country of England which manages to keep him relatively sane. This is Craig’s third outing as 007, and I still think he’s the best thing to happen to this franchise in a long time, and he looks to be having more fun this time around as he cracks a joke or two.

Thankfully, Craig never lets 007 descend into camp or tries to turn him into a standup comedian with a gun. While his take on this iconic role feels like it been deadly serious, seeing him loosen is a real gift as he has long since come to own this character. In a perfect world, Craig would get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but since the other actors who inhabited Bond never did, it is unlikely he will break tradition in this circumstance.

Now when it comes to my favorite Bond films, they usually are the ones where things get very personal for 007 and those around him. When this happens, they become more emotionally involving and exciting for me to watch as there is more at stake than just defeating a villain bent on world domination. This is especially the case with “Skyfall” as it delves into the past of its main characters in a way I don’t think any Bond movie has done before. The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (“Hugo,” “Coriolanus” and “Gladiator”) places most of its emphasis on relationships, especially on the one between Bond and M. It is that emphasis that makes this film all the more riveting to watch.

Dame Judi Dench, who has played M since Pierce Brosnan first played 007 in “Goldeneye,” benefits here especially as her character is given a more severe complexity than what we have seen previously. Dench has always been superb as M, but ever since Craig came into the series she has been a fireball as she starts out with a powerfully brazen attitude which never ever lets up. But here we see the seams in her controlled nature as the past catches up with her in an especially nasty way. Dench nails every moment she has in “Skyfall” perfectly, and she makes M an especially fascinating character to watch this time around.

“Skyfall” also has the advantage of having not just one, but two terrific Bond girls: Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe. Harris, best known for her roles in “28 Days Later” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, shares a sizzling chemistry and playfulness with Craig, especially in the scene where she gives him a very close shave. As for Marlohe, she’s a knockout as she makes her character of Sévérine as enigmatic as she is beautiful. When Bond asks for the name of her employer, the look of utter fear which crosses her face is an unforgettable moment as it sets up the grand introduction of this film’s Bond villain.

The Bond villain of this piece is Raoul Silva, and he is played by Javier Bardem in a deliciously evil performance. It should be no surprise how brilliantly unnerving he is here as this is the same actor who won an Oscar for playing Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” But when it comes to Silva, he is an especially twisted soul to witness in action. This isn’t a villain bent on world domination, but instead on avenging a betrayal which made him what he is today. Bardem actually doesn’t make his first appearance until well into the film, but he has an unforgettable entrance where he tells a story involving rats. The Bond villains always have great stories to tell, and Silva’s proves to be one of this franchise’s most memorable.

And yes, we do get to see the return of Q, and he is played here by Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas”). Whishaw is splendid in the role as he skillfully underplays this classic character to where he makes it his own. Unlike the late, and still missed, Desmond Llewellyn, this Q is not quite in a position to admonish Bond on a regular basis. Whishaw, however, is able to match wits with Craig and hold his own in a way Q has not always been able to do previously, and he is a lot of fun to watch as a result.

Mendes remains a masterful filmmaker as he manages to balance out the action and the story in “Skyfall” to great effect. I also applaud him for not letting this Bond adventure turn into a clone of a Jason Bourne movie. This proved to be a big problem with “Quantum of Solace” as the shaky cam got to be a bit too much, but Mendes is perfectly aware that while Jason Bourne is Jason Bourne, Bond has been around long enough to where he doesn’t need to copy anyone. The opening sequence gets things off to a thrilling start, and it shows how Mendes has a talent for filming adrenaline pumping action scenes as he does in directing actors to great performances.

“Skyfall” also features a terrific music score by Thomas Newman and one of the best Bond theme songs in a long time performed by Adele. The title song brings back the classic Bond song sound which singers like Shirley Bassey made famous with “Goldfinger,” and it fits the movie’s story perfectly. While I miss David Arnold who has composed the scores for the Bond movies since “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Newman’s work here is exceptional as it sounds unlike any score he has done previously. It’s always a thrill to see a composer step outside of their comfort zone to do something a little different.

But another star of this film I have to single out among others is its cinematographer, Roger Deakins. While I was previously familiar with his work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo” and “Revolutionary Road,” the lighting in “Skyfall” is infinitely beautiful to where I am certain few other cinematographers could never accomplish like he did here. Whether it is Bond’s memorable entrance in Istanbul, his time in Shanghai or the climax in Scotland, he gives us visuals no other director of photography could ever give us.

I don’t think I have ever seen a 007 movie I didn’t like, and even the worst of them prove to be very entertaining to watch. Having said that, it is such a thrill to see a Bond movie where all the elements come together in such a truly fulfilling way. “Skyfall” is not only one of the best Bond movies ever, but also one of best films of 2012. It took four years to get one to the big screen, but it was well worth the wait.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘No Time to Die’ – Daniel Craig Gives Bond an Emotional Swan Song

Ah Mr. Craig, Mr. Daniel Craig. How nice of you to return as James Bond for a fifth and final time. Despite your infamous interview with Time Out where you declared you would rather slash your wrists than do another one, even you realized there was still one more chapter in your interpretation of Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Besides, no one should have been asking you about doing another Bond film while you were still in production on “Spectre.” Heck, the last thing anyone wants to think about is the next 007 picture when they haven’t finished making the latest one. Even I would not have asked you that question on a press day.

But here Craig is again for “No Time to Die” which does indeed serve as a fitting swan song to his time as James Bond. Despite a running time which exceeds “Spectre’s” (163 minutes to be exact) and some flaws here and there, it proves to be a highly satisfying concluding chapter. But as thrilling and exciting as it is, my breath was taken away by how emotional it proved to be. Granted, “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” were full of emotions also, but this one seriously took my breath away to where I exited the theater saying to myself, wow.

After a prologue which hints at relationships which will have shocking revelations later on, we catch up with Bond who has since retired from active service and is living a happy and quiet life with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Of course, once we hear James tell Madeleine they have “all the time in the world,” you know the shit will hit the fan, and hit the fan it does with quite a loud and sudden bang. From there, Bond realizes he can no longer fully trust Madeleine, and he finds himself lonelier in the world than ever before.

Cut to five years later, and Bond finds himself drafted back into service not by MI6, but instead through his old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, finally and thankfully returning to the franchise) who alerts the former 007 about the theft of a bioweapon which contains a dangerous new technology which could wipe out millions in an instant. It doesn’t take too long for Bond to jump back into action as he reunites with several friends, a few enemies, and a number of surprises which may shock longtime Bond fans, but should also serve as a reminder of why Craig and the filmmakers went out of their way to break the rules in this endless franchise.

While it is bittersweet to watch Craig here, it is also a lot of fun to watch him inhabit 007 in a far more debonair manner than ever before. Seeing him dish out delicious one-liners particularly, in his first meeting with the new 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), is priceless and had me laughing harder than I have in a long time. Never once did I see him going through the motions as he invests this iconic character with a wounded humanity which has long since started showing its age.

And with “No Time to Die,” we get a new director in Cary Joji Fukunaga. Best known for his work on the first season of “True Detective,” he also directed the brilliant “Beasts of No Nation” which could have gotten Oscar love were they not so white the year it was released. After seeing Sam Mendes direct one Bond film too many (and I did like “Spectre” by the way), Fukunaga, along with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, succeeds in giving this 007 installment a unique look which distinguishes itself from its predecessors, and for the most part he balances out several terrific action scenes with ones focused solely on the characters. Granted, the running time could have been shorter, but Fukunaga along with screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and the fabulous Phoebe Waller-Bridge keep you guessing as to what will happen next, something I do not always expect from a Bond film.

More importantly, everything is brought around full circle here. By that, I don’t just mean with Bond. Whether its Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Felix Leiter or Q (Ben Whishaw), everyone gets a proper ending. We have followed these actors for some time now and, like Craig, they have made these iconic roles their own. Considering how “No Time to Dies” ends, this is likely the last we will see of them as this franchise will now undergo another overhaul. It would be great if any of them returned, but it might cause needless confusion when the next Bond actor arrives on set.

And yes, I loved the Bond women here. Lashana Lynch quickly turns Nomi into a formidable 007 and is ever so cool from start to finish. Even when James gets the best of her, Nomi is quick to get right back on her feet, and seeing her stare down with such a beautifully icy glare is worth the price of admission alone. As for the lovely Ana De Armas, she makes Paloma into a wonderful tease of a Bond woman as she initially looks to be out of her depth, but then delightfully shows us how lethal she can be. The only shame is that Armas disappears from the proceedings early on, and it would have been great to see her some more.

If there is any disappointment to be found here, it is with its Bond villain. While Rami Malek gives Lyutsifer Safin an imposing and intimidating presence, the character is left hanging in the shadows for too long and is only given so much to do. Even after his first masked appearance onscreen, Malek seems to give a largely one-note performance to where I wished he had dug much deeper into his role. While Safin says he looks at Bond as though he is his mirror image, he says it with nowhere near as much depth as Javier Bardem gave us as Raoul Silva.

I also would have loved it if the filmmakers would have brought back composer David Arnold. I have been missing his music ever since Mendes replaced him with Thomas Newman, and this is with all due respect to Newman. Fukunaga brought in frequent collaborator Dan Romer for “No Time to Die,” but he left over “creative differences” and was replaced by Hans Zimmer who appears to be scoring every other Hollywood blockbuster these days. All the same, Zimmer gives us a terrific film score which heightens both the action and emotions and pays tribute to Bond themes and songs from its celebrated past. Granted, at times it sounds like he is echoing some of the themes he created for “The Dark Knight” trilogy to where I wondered if he steals from himself the way the late James Horner often did, but still.

As for the obligatory theme song sung by Billie Eilish, it is a thoughtful and moving song which captures Bond’s history and the past he needs to put behind him. It is no “Skyfall,” but it is miles better than Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” which somehow inexplicably won an Academy Award.

With Daniel Craig’s reign as James Bond now at an end, it will be interesting to see where the 007 franchise will go from here. I cannot help but fear for the actor who will step into this iconic role as he will have big shoes to fill, but I do remember feeling the same way when Pierce Brosnan was cast aside after “Die Another Day.” Part of me believes Barbara Broccoli and company will return to the over-the-top action spectacles which dominated Brosnan and Roger Moore eras, or perhaps they will find another action movie franchise or trend to mimic so the series can keep up with the times. Hopefully, they will remember how Bond needs to have an edge and not just be another clean-shaven spy.

Nevertheless, these past five Bond films have been a godsend to a franchise which was in dire need of an overhaul 15 years ago. While many say you cannot do this or that in one a Bond film, Craig and company said rubbish and did it anyway, and it resulted in many invigorating cinematic adventures. Hell, we even here the word “fuck” in this one, and if there is another 007 film where this happened, I have missed it.

Godspeed Mr. Craig, and thanks for all you have done.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Quantum of Solace’ – Not the Best Bond, But Not the Worst Either

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

So, what’s all this talk about wanting the old James Bond back? A lot of talk from fans about the latest 007 film, “Quantum of Solace,” is that they miss the Bond who had all the gadgets, knew all the best wines, had his martinis shaken and not stirred, and always bedded the most beautiful women. Wait a second, isn’t this what we were all getting sick of after “Die Another Day?” Didn’t we want to see the Bond franchise revitalized? Isn’t that why “Casino Royale” was so damn good? That it didn’t give us the same old Bond and gave us a tough new one who you could for once say honestly was the best one since Sean Connery? Did everyone get amnesia?

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Quantum of Solace,” said he wanted the producers to remember that James Bond is not an action hero. Not an action hero? Is that what you see here Ebert? Because that’s not what I see here at all. Instead, I see a man who is devastated by loss and betrayal, and who is trying to keep his head on straight to do his duty while trying to get his revenge. Maybe when we get the next film, we can get the Bond we know back, but this one still has issues to sort through, and he is still early into his British spy career. There are still bumps in the road he must navigate through before he reaches the heights of sophistication.

“Quantum of Solace,” as I’m sure you all know by now, is not the equal of “Casino Royale” which was easily the best Bond film in years. Following it must have been daunting for everyone involved as the bar had been set higher than ever before. The early reviews for Craig’s second go around as 007 had me curbing my expectations before going to see it, but I probably should stay in the habit of curtailing my expectations in general. It is a flawed film which has several problems that might derail others, but what keeps it afloat is Craig’s great work as Bond, and how he gives us an MI6 agent who is not just going through the motions. Also, he continues to share one terrific scene after another with the always fantastic Dame Judi Dench who reprises her role as M.

This 22nd Bond film is the first in the long-running franchise to act as a direct sequel to a previous installment as it starts off just mere moments after Bond nearly shot off Mr. White’s (Jesper Christensen) leg. It also literally starts off with a bang as Bond is pursued in a high-speed chase with the minions of Mr. White right on his tail. This brings me to one of my criticisms which I kind of see as a double-edged sword. A lot of the action scenes are filmed with the same shaky camera work we expect from the Jason Bourne movies. Seeing a James Bond movie instantly remind you of Bourne is not a good sign. At the same time, it gives the action sequences here a visceral urgency to where I felt those car crashes instead of just watching them passively. I have really come to love car chases like this one.

The QUANTUM of the movie’s title refers to the new evil organization which is the SPECTRE of the new millennium. Their goal is, of course, world domination and control over everything that can be sold at a high price. As a result, the Bond villain here is a man who wants control the world’s last natural resource, but it’s not the one you might think. As played by Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), Dominic Greene speaks to the public of saving the planet from global warming, but then we see him talk to an Army general about how they managed to talk some sense into the local government about not raising the minimum wage for workers since it would, you know, cut into the profits. Basically, Dominic is like the head of Wal Mart and someone we want to see get a huge bitch slap on a regular basis, perfect for today’s Bond movie.

But as Bond villains go, Dominic Greene is far from being one of the most threatening of the bunch and he will probably not go down as one of the series’ most memorable. Still, I love the glint of anger and overconfidence Mathieu shows us in his eyes, and his work is greater proof of how some of the best screen acting can be done without saying a word. Seeing him getting pissed when Bond spoils his well laid plans is quite a kick.

The Bond girl this time around is Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko. One of the best ever? No, but she is far from being among the worst. Kurylenko’s performance during the first half is a little too stiff, and her character seems underwritten. As “Quantum” goes on, however, she gets better once her real motives are revealed to us which involve revenge against a devious military official who murdered her family. The parallel between Camille and Bond is they are both after the same thing, revenge. It makes their relationship towards the climax all the more interesting.

But the real key relationship of “Quantum” is between Bond and M. The scenes between Craig and Dench are some of the best here, and it is no love affair between these two. It’s a mother and son kind of relationship if you can picture as both are estranged from one another, and are constantly to get back on the same page with each other. M wants to trust Bond but feels as though she cannot, and Bond wants to go after the one who almost had her killed. Talk about tough love.

Dench has been playing M since Pierce Brosnan debuted as Bond in “Goldeneye,” and she has been a huge asset to this franchise. She has continued to be a strong presence and has gotten even better since Craig began portraying Ian Fleming’s iconic spy. Right from the start, the actress makes M into the kind of person who will not take bullshit from anyone no matter their government or nationality. She is a real pleasure to watch in just about anything she does, and I love how she easily intimidates her male assistants who constantly tremble in her presence.

“Quantum” also features other strong performances which need to be noted. Jeffrey Wright returns again as Felix Leiter, the first actor to play the role consecutively in close to 20 years. His cool approach to Felix is great, and hopefully we will see him playing this character again. Giancarlo Giannini returns from “Casino Royale” as Mathis, and this could have been problematic as his character had betrayed Bond previously, and having him be the only person Bond can trust could have been far-fetched to say the least. But thanks to Giannini’s performance, he makes Mathis’ presence believable in story and welcome as his sadness over the death of Vesper gets him to team up with Bond. His final scene is actually quite touching as he encourages Bond to forgive himself. These character moments never get as much credit as the stunts do in a Bond film, and this one has them to give us a rest from the visceral action scenes.

Marc Forster, best known for “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” takes on the directing chores this time around. He almost seems as unlikely a choice to direct a Bond as Michael Apted was when he helmed “The World Is Not Enough.” His handling of the action sequences may be confusing to some as the editing is done in a rapid-fire manner, but they are still thrilling if you can get past this. While Foster doesn’t bring anything new to this franchise, he does keep things moving at a steady pace. At under two hours long, this is the shortest Bond film ever. Given how stringent the Broccoli family is about keeping 007 confined to a certain formula, I’m not sure how much freedom Forster was given to work with on this one.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are back along with Paul Haggis who is doing his usual screenplay polish here. Their work here is not as strong as it was on “Casino Royale,” and the characters are what really made it so good as it benefited all the other elements of that film like the action sequences. “Quantum Of Solace,” on the other hand, seems to exist more for the action sequences than the story which is a little frustrating, but they do still keep the central character of Bond very interesting and complex. They deal with the different layers of 007 and keep him from becoming a one-dimensional schmuck. There is some good work here, but not everything is as fleshed out as it could have been.

I also need to point out how David Arnold has been composing the scores for the Bond franchise since “Tomorrow Never Dies.” I love how his scores really complement the action scenes in all their ferocity. I also admire how he was able to move over seamlessly from the Brosnan era to the Craig era and didn’t simply repeat the same musical themes over and over again. I ended up buying the soundtrack a couple of days before the movie was released, and it is a great listen.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I should bring up “Quantum’s” title song “Another Way to Die” which is performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Everybody is trashing it, but it’s actually not bad. For me, it actually sticks in the head as opposed to other Bond theme songs which go in one ear and out the other. Look, I love Sheryl Crow, but here theme to “Tomorrow Never Dies” was one of the least memorable to where I can’t remember any of the lyrics.

Yes, “Quantum of Solace” is not one of the best Bond movies, but it is far from being one of the worst (for that, see “The Man with The Golden Gun”). It has screenplay problems and some characters could have been better developed, but the things which did work won me over for the most part. And once again, Daniel Craig proves to be one of the best Bonds ever as he gives this iconic character a rough edge and dimensions which have been absent from the movies for far too long.

No, he is not the old Bond we grew up with, but I am fine with that because this one is far more interesting to me. So please stop whining about wanting the old Bond back. We may get him back in a future installment now that Bond has moved on from his revenge cycle, but at the same time, I hope Craig doesn’t lose any of the edge he has brought to the British spy.

Whatever happens from here will be very interesting even if we have to wait another few years for the next film. All the same, James Bond will return…

* * * out of * * * *

‘Casino Royale’ – James Bond Reborn and Reinvigorated

I came into “Casino Royale” with guarded expectations. When it came to the James Bond films which starred Pierce Brosnan, I found they were best enjoyed with lowered expectations as they veered to the more openly ridiculous films of the Roger Moore era. But once this particular Bond film started with something other than the standard gun barrel sequence, I quickly realized how serious the filmmakers were about reinventing and reinvigorating this long running franchise.

To put it mildly, “Casino Royale” proved to be the best Bond filmI have seen in years, and it was far and away one of the best movies of 2006. For once, we had a 007 movie which actually bothered to take itself seriously, provide us with a villain who was not going after world domination, and a Bond woman who is not just here for display. After seeing the franchise descend into self-parody for far too long, I was stunned at how much effort the filmmakers and producers put into this installment

This film also marked Daniel Craig’s debut as 007. These days, it is hard to believe many were quick to write him off and say how wrong he was for the role of Ian Fleming’s iconic character. What a joy it was to see him have the last laugh on everyone. Right from the start, Craig makes this character is own and gives Bond an edge I felt this British spy had been lacking after Timothy Dalton departed the franchise. But moreover, Craig gives Bond a shocking vulnerability to where it seemed criminal he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance. Seriously, he was that good.

“Casino Royale” also marks the return of director Martin Campbell to the Bond franchise as he previously directed Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as 007 in “Goldeneye,” a film I did not give enough credit upon its release. Rather than simply repeat what he did before, Campbell paints a whole new canvas for Craig to work with, and he gives us a number of thrilling actions set pieces throughout which quickly prove to be the most thrilling this franchise has seen in some time, and they get extra support from the enthralling music score composed by David Arnold.

As I said earlier, this Bond film does not contain a villain bent on world domination, and I was thankful for this as those villains had long since become overused in this or any other franchise. Instead, we get Le Chiffre who is played by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor who has since become famous for his own interpretation of Hannibal Lecter. Le Chiffre may have an Achilles heel or two with his asthma and an eye duct which lets out tears of blood, but he is a formidable foe with his mathematical genius and brilliance at playing chess. Mikkelsen also dares to make Le Chiffre an especially vulnerable Bond villain as his immense ego gets pierced as easily as Bond’s does, and this leads to a scene of painful torture which we have not seen since “Licence to Kill.”

I also have to say how “Casino Royale” does a great job or making Poker such an exciting game to watch. Playing cards in a movie does not sound like something which would lend itself much to cinema, but Campbell milks Poker for all it is worth here to where seeing Bond stare Le Chiffre down is such an immensely satisfying delight.

Now let us go to the Bond woman of this piece as calling her a Bond girl would be an unforgivable insult. She is Vesper Lynd, and she is played by an actress as wonderful as she is beautiful, Eva Green. So memorable in “The Dreamers,” she quickly makes her strong presence known upon her first meeting with Craig on a train speeding to Montenegro. Seeing them stare one another down is a terrific sequence as this Bond film presents us with the first real love story it has had since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and this is saying a lot.

If there is a holdover from the Brosnan era, it is Dame Judi Dench who gives audiences the most intimidating version of M yet. She never took it easy on Brosnan, but she goes ballistic when it comes to Craig as his Bond just reached 007 status. Dench makes M a tough nut to crack and a superior who truly means business. If there are any vulnerabilities to this character, we do not see them here as she makes clear to Bond she is not one to be trifled with. Dench is a thrilling presence in “Casino Royale” as a result, and it made me glad she would continue to inhabit this role for a few more films.

In a sense, this franchise has come around full circle with “Casino Royale” as the producers finally got the rights to Fleming’s book after so many years. But more importantly, they came to realize that this franchise needed a serious reboot even though “Die Another Day” was an enormous hit at the box office. While I am not always a big fan of origin stories, movies like “Casino Royale” and “Batman Begins” remind me of how necessary they are and of just how good they can be.

We don’t hear Craig utter the words “the name’s Bond, James Bond” until the very end, but this is perfect as it shows how we have many great adventures to look forward to from here, and we certainly did.

* * * * out of * * * *

Bérénice Marlohe on Playing an Especially Haunted Bond Woman in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

French actress Bérénice Marlohe leaves quite the impression with her performance as Sévérine in the James Bond movie “Skyfall.” Like many “Bond girls” (or “Bond women” as many would prefer to call them), Sévérine is beautiful and glamorous, but she also proves to be very enigmatic as she shows a sleek confidence which soon becomes undone at the mention of her employer Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Marlohe is a knockout in the role, and she makes Sévérine one of the more unique and mysterious of Bond girls in this franchise’s history.

Marlohe appeared at the “Skyfall” press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California to answer questions regarding her role as Sévérine. When asked what the notion of being a Bond girl meant to her, Marlohe responded about how what excited her was the mix of “male attitude of power and danger” and “a very glamorous feminine figure” this particular one had to offer.

Bérénice Marlohe: They are theatrical characters, bigger and more colorful than in life like any of the Bond characters. I sensed that I would have a lot of freedom on set, and after the experience I was happy that I could be in those iconic scenes in the casino (where she and Bond meet over a shaken martini) that you find a lot of the time in Bond movies. For me, they are very meaningful in the history of the series so I was very happy to get to be in one of them.

When asked about the audition process, Marlohe said she heard about a friend who encouraged her to go after the role, which she did.

Bérénice Marlohe: I felt so connected with the Bond universe that I spent two days in front of my computer trying to find the contact information of anyone I could possibly find who was involved with the movie. I even found Sam Mendes’ agent Facebook account! And then I found Debbie McWilliams’ (the movie’s casting director) email, and I was so happy that she saw and liked my reel. They auditioned me in Paris on two scenes from “Skyfall,” and they called me back in London and I auditioned again with Sam Mendes. And then I did the third audition with Daniel (Craig) and Sam as well as Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, and then Sam told me I was chosen. I felt extremely peaceful and had a huge feeling of happiness in my stomach over getting the part because I felt very connected with the Bond universe. I called my father and family, and they were very happy for me.

Upon getting cast, Marlohe was determined to create “a real human being” out of the character of Sévérine. It involved a lot of digging inside herself to see what moves her as a human being, and also questioning herself about her own ancestors whom she never got to know. Being in “Skyfall” has also allowed her to speak out for causes she truly believes in as well

Bérénice Marlohe: Researching that character just had me become even more aware of the condition of the world and mainly of what happened in Cambodia years ago. I always wanted to be a voice to fight against the injustice, but I could never do that before. Now I have this ability to be heard, and I just learned that there is a very important trial going on in Cambodia where leaders of Pol Pot’s genocide 37 years ago are being judged. This is what I connected with. I wanted to be a voice for that. This is the incredible advantage I got from doing this movie; the connections I had as a human being and the revelations I had on the set.

Marlohe described her preparation as being very serious, but it was especially important to her that she be relaxed when on set. She also recalled joking around a lot with Craig on a daily basis.

Bérénice Marlohe: You have to be very relaxed and build your connections to the other actors so that it shows onscreen. The shower scene for instance, we (Daniel and I) were so relaxed that I would sing in the shower and he would be like, what? Daniel was doing some impersonations and other stuff in between takes, and the six months we worked together were like that so it was fabulous.

When it comes to Bond’s relationship with women, many still debate if he is still the love them or leave them type, or if 007 has evolved in this three movies Craig has starred in. Marlohe herself hopes that it her character’s destiny were different in “Skyfall,” a huge love story would have come about between Bond and Sévérine. Still, she describes Craig as succeeding in making Bond seem like a real human being.

Bérénice Marlohe: You can see that through his relationship with M (Judi Dench) that he has a sensitivity. They have a very beautiful and pure relationship that is very human and moving.

Some Bond girls develop a great career after they have appeared in a 007 movie while others have somehow vanished without much of a trace. Watching Bérénice Marlohe in “Skyfall” makes me believe we will be seeing a lot more of this French actress in the near future.

Dame Judi Dench on Making M a Central Character in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

Skyfall” marks Dame Judi Dench’s seventh appearance as MI6 spy master M, and it gives the Oscar winning actress her biggest role yet in the James Bond franchise. Ever since her first appearance in “Goldeneye,” the same film which introduced Pierce Brosnan as 007, Dench has made the character a no-nonsense leader who considers the famous secret agent “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War.” M also shows no hesitation about sending Bond to his death if the situation calls for it, and this made the role all the more exciting for Dench to play.

“A man saying that to Bond is one thing, but a woman saying that to him was quite another,” says Dench.

Whereas M has typically remained on the periphery of the Bond movies, “Skyfall” has her playing a significant part in the film’s story. We come to learn more about M’s past as it catches up with her in the form of one of the nastiest Bond villains ever, Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem). Dench was understandably excited about her enlarged role in this particular 007 film as Bond struggles to protect M against Silva who has a very personal vendetta to settle with her.

“It’s very nice to be out from behind the desk,” Dench said. “It’s extremely nice to get a go in the field, as it were, and get a bit of the action. It made me feel very grown-up. It’s not just the fellas who are spinning about and shooting guns – I get a go.”

In talking about M’s backstory, Dench talked about the need for actors to create one for themselves even if it is not there in the script.

“You always have to make a backstory for yourself in order to know how to react to certain things,” Dench said. “I’ve had this backstory with two grown up daughters and everything. I knew her capabilities and I knew that she must have been through all sorts of things in order to get where she was and hold this job over a lot of chaps at MI6. So I knew her capabilities but I’m very glad they came to the fore.”

As for how she prepares for a role, especially this one which she has held onto for 18 years, Dench said it is no different from when she plays a character in the theatre.

“With M, she’s always slightly changed in each film,” Dench said. “In the first one (“Goldeneye”) naturally I would have thought out why and how this woman has gotten to this part and why she’s head of MI6. Each time you come to do it you actually learn a little bit more about her, and you supply a little bit more about her. So there’s a lot more of the relationship between her and Bond beforehand that goes into this one, but it adds a bit more because there’s more to tell.”

There’s a lot more which could be said about Dench’s role in “Skyfall,” but doing so would give away many of this film’s surprises (and there are several to discover throughout). What can be said about Dench is she will always be a tremendous acting talent we should all feel privileged to watch in anything she appears in. Perhaps the person who can sum Dench up best would be “Skyfall’s” director Sam Mendes who also had the fortune of directing her in a production of “The Cherry Orchard.”

“She was the first bona fide great actor I had ever worked with,” said Mendes. “I learned more from watching her, the way she worked, than I ever had before. She would never think of herself as a teacher. She has too much humility and too much grace to consider herself to be knowledgeable. But in fact, it wasn’t about what she said, it was about how she conducted herself, how she rehearsed, how she thought about the play, her dedication to the play and the audience, her work ethic.”

SOURCES:

Jake Coyle, “Judi Dench on ‘Skyfall’ & Her Reign as M (SPOILER INCLUDED),” The Huffington Post, November 9, 2012.

Daniel Fienberg, “‘Skyfall’ star Judi Dench enjoyed going to ‘the ammunition shed’ for the new James Bond adventure,” Hitfix, November 5, 2012.

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Dame Judi Dench Talks SKYFALL, Working with Roger Deakins, the Best Part of Playing M, Her Upcoming Stephen Frears Film, and More,” Collider, November 8, 2012.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Dr. No’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008 when I was way behind on my 007 watchlist. RIP Sean Connery.

I keep hearing over and over telling me Sean Connery was the best James Bond and still is. And yet after all these years and so many 007 movies later, I have only seen a few of the ones starring Connery. Until yesterday, the only ones I had seen all the way through were “From Russia With Love” which remains one of my favorite Bond movies ever, and the rogue Bond “Never Say Never Again” which brought Connery back to the role for the first time since “Diamonds Are Forever.” The James Bond I really got weaned on as a kid was Roger Moore who played the character like a flamboyant playboy who got caught up in events he looked as though he had no business getting caught in. Nevertheless, Moore managed to get the job done even as the franchise started to descend into parody.

Yesterday, New Beverly Cinema, my favorite movie theater in Los Angeles, had a double feature of the first two Bond movies ever made: “Dr. No” & “From Russia With Love.” I had seen bits and pieces of “Dr. No” previously, but never the whole way through. Watching it today, this 007 adventure seems like an average Bond with the megalomaniac villain bent on world domination. I was starting to get sick of this in the last few films which starred Pierce Brosnan as Ian Fleming’s famous spy. Every once in a while, I like to see Bond go head to head with a villain who is not looking for an infinite level of power, but instead one whom he just wants revenge over like in “License to Kill.”

It helps, however, to keep in mind what action movies were like before James Bond came along. Compared to “Dr. No,” they were nowhere as gritty. Shooting female characters in a film was not allowed back in 1962, and this Bond quickly did away with this unwritten law. There was a lot more going on than just your average good guy here. While it might appear to be something of an average film for those seeing it today, “Dr. No” was in many ways a groundbreaking film which led to a franchise which has lasted longer than so many others.

OK, I am in agreement, nobody played James Bond better than Connery, and this is even though I consider Daniel Craig to be a very close second. His very first appearance as 007 in “Dr. No” was truly brilliant as you could see him at the card playing table, but you did not see his face until he uttered one of the most famous lines in cinematic history:

“Bond. James Bond.”

My dad is always telling me what made Connery so great in playing Bond is that he was so believable in how he could romance a woman one second, and then slap her when she was holding back information from him. There was a raw danger which Connery brought to this iconic character, and he set the bar almost impossibly high for the others who inhabited Bond after him. When he lets a driver take him to his destination, even though he knows this driver is up to no good, shows how quickly Bond can change from being suave and debonair to lethal and dangerous in a heartbeat. Connery’s Bond kept his cool and managed to get his way in the end. The bad guys think they have him cornered, but this is what he wants them to think.

It is endlessly interesting to see how the Bond movies have evolved since “Dr. No.” It remains the only 007 film to not have a pre-titles scene which the others are famous for having. It just goes right into the gun barrel opening in which Bond shoots right at us. The titles look cheesy today as “Dr. No” and “007” are put everywhere on the silver screen. It was the first of many opening credits sequences designed by Maurice Binder, and this one remains the most disjointed of the bunch. It goes from the unforgettable Monty Norman theme we all know to three men superimposed over the credits to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” The audience at the New Beverly laughed at this part, and I couldn’t help but laugh myself. Things have changed a lot since “Dr. No” came out.

Seeing Bond flirt for the first time with Miss Moneypenny (the late Lois Maxwell) here makes me miss the banter these two characters have had from one film to the next. Miss Moneypenny was not in “Casino Royale,” and I have no idea if we will ever see her again in the future. But seeing these characters here for the first time reminded me of how great and fun their banter was until M made her buzz Bond in for his next assignment. Just when things got interesting between the two, business comes to obliterate pleasure.

In “Dr. No,” Bond actually gets to bed several different ladies instead of just one. Connery makes seduction look so easy to pull off. The fact such seduction is not this easy in real life is utterly frustrating. This lucky bastard of an Oscar winning actor had quite a selection before he came to meet the first Bond woman ever, Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), whose entrance in a flesh colored bikini is still one for the ages. This also marked the first time Bond actually sang, and he has not sung since. I can’t help but wonder if this was a good or bad thing. Then again, I can’t quite picture Timothy Dalton singing “Thunderball.” As for Brosnan, I never want to hear him sing again after “Mamma Mia.”

One of Bond’s first death-defying moments involved a tarantula, and just typing out this particular spider’s description sends shivers down my spine! UGGH! This may have been why I never bothered to watch “Dr. No” earlier in my life. Those damn things creep me out like nothing else. Seriously, get that creature away from me! Easily one of the scariest moments in any Bond movie, the tension escalates so quickly to where the rest of this movie can never quite match it. Still, it wouldn’t be the last time we saw spiders in a Bond movie. My brother covered my eyes during one scene in “Octopussy” which included them. I think it is just as well that he did.

Watching “Dr. No” was fun, and it is an excellent Bond movie in many ways. Time has not been exactly kind to it though. We can see the green screen being used, so we have to snicker some. The pace is a lot more leisurely, and no Bond movie can move so slowly these days. Norman’s Bond theme is played endlessly here to where we threaten to get sick of it. But decades later, it is impossible to tire of this theme as it is to tire of John Carpenter’s theme to “Halloween.”

The print New Beverly Cinema had of “Dr. No” was in peak condition, and it was a recent printing down for the occasion of United Artists’ 90th anniversary. It was great to see it on the big screen all the way through instead of just on television. From here, the Bond series had nowhere to go but up. The formula was more or less perfected with “From Russia With Love,” and the producers did not mess with this formula until after “Die Another Day.” I enjoyed “Dr. No,” and I love how it paved the way for many more exciting adventures with this British spy. May there be many more in the years to come.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *

‘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 * * * *