Paramount Pictures’ Mission: Impossible franchise is a rare phenomenon. Few film series based on properties as old as it is have retained such relevance in the modern movie market and few take as long a break in between installments making each new entry a highly anticipated event. Such is the case with Ghost Protocol the fourth in fifteen years starring Tom Cruise as super-agent Ethan Hunt. Adding to the hoopla surrounding the holiday release is the fact that it marks the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird the Pixar wunderkind responsible for Oscar-winning hits The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Unfortunately I feel that the animation auteur had too much to prove in his first physical outing and tried a bit too hard to thrill resulting in a film that plays more like John Woo’s over-the-top M:I:II than Brian de Palma’s suspenseful original.
The plot essentially kicks off when a bomb blasts a hole the size of a football field in the Kremlin (Russia’s most important government facility) while Hunt and his team of IMF agents (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) attempt to extract a nuclear detonation device from the fortress before a mysterious figure known only as Cobalt can get to it first. The problem: Cobalt has gotten to it first and frames Hunt and company for the bombing causing the U.S. President to enact "Ghost Protocol " which disbands the IMF and disavows its soldiers. Knowing that the theft of the device and a batch of codes that enable it to be used prior to this event means that Cobalt surely intends to start World War III the agents go rogue to retrieve the components and bring the terrorist to justice.
Like the fore mentioned bomb blast Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec’s script is devastating leaving scattered pieces of information all over the place and making it hard for the story to truly find its footing. Expository plot points are dropped in way after they’re needed or wanted messing with the pace of the movie on more than one occasion. Perhaps their biggest crime is crafting a lame villain with little presence in the picture. After the intensity that Phillip Seymour Hoffman brought to his antagonist in M:I:III Michael Nyqvist’s quiet and composed Hendricks just isn’t convincing enough as a true threat. On the other hand Bird’s direction is anything but composed.
While his use of IMAX cameras is quite breathtaking when filming the much-publicized Burj Khalifa climb and other notable set pieces as stated before his approach to the material seemed to be “let’s make every action sequence as ludicrous as we can.” I realize that MIGP is a holiday blockbuster designed to get audiences blood pumping but I’ve always found that action films work best when they operate (mostly) within the confines of reality. That’s clearly not the case here where Hunt drives perfectly through a blinding sandstorm without causing much collateral damage and nosedives a Volkswagen off of a 30-foot drop and lives to save the day.
Still it’s all in the name of fun and he does manage to create an entertaining dynamic between his IMF agents. Patton is totally passable as Jane Carter an agent seeking revenge for the murder of her cohort and apparent beau Hanaway (Josh Holloway) while Pegg returning as Benji the tech-geek from the preceding film has been promoted to field agent and is without question the movie’s saving grace. Though his comic relief is relied heavily upon it’s absolutely welcomed. The biggest surprise is Jeremy Renner who was supposedly brought in to take the reigns of the franchise but is pretty stale as Brandt. He never elevates his character to the level of coolness that Cruise has maintained throughout the years and doesn’t provide anything significant other than assistance. Given the talent that we all know he possesses his negligible contribution was a bigger let down than the film itself.
In this era of remakes and reboots writer-director J.J. Abrams is here to introduce a third option: the throwback. Though ostensibly an original work his new film Super 8 is meticulously designed to appear as otherwise. Its intent which it makes no effort to hide is to mine our nostalgia for the early oeuvre of Steven Spielberg to invoke our affection for films like E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even Jaws. Should Mr. Spielberg be concerned? Hardly: He’s complicit in the scheme. The presence of his name atop the poster and his production company Amblin in the opening credits doesn’t just bestow credibility; it embeds the association in our memory making the bridge between what is and what was that much shorter.
Super 8 is set in 1979 – a creative decision which affords a measure of built-in nostalgia and allows the filmmakers to sidestep modern narrative nuisances like cell phones and Google – in the fictional working class community of Lillian Ohio. Our hero our embodiment of those prized (and I believe copyrighted) Spielbergian virtues of youthful innocence and wonder and unbounded curiosity is Joe Lamb (wonderful newcomer Joel Courtney) a polite earnest boy made all the more sympathetic by the recent death of his mother a steelworker in a workplace accident. Joe’s home life is rather dreary – his father Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) is too immersed in grief to be much of a parent – so he jumps at the chance to spend the summer with his mates shooting a DIY zombie movie.
They gather one night at a local train station to shoot a key scene for which they’ve pulled off the minor coup of convincing a pretty classmate Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the female lead. But the camera has scarcely started to roll when a passing train collides head-on with a pickup truck. resulting in perhaps the most over-the-top train crash I’ve ever seen on film an interminable sequence of ever-escalating vehicular carnage that would make the Final Destination folks gasp.
The driver of the truck that caused the crash is revealed to be the kids’ science teacher Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman). Bloodied but still breathing he delivers them an ominous warning: “Do not speak of this. They will kill you.” We learn who “they” are soon enough when hordes of soldiers members of a top-secret branch of the Air Force descend upon the crash site to comb the wreckage.
Shortly thereafter the town is beset by strange unexplained phenomena. Engines disappear from cars. Dogs flee en masse. Worst of all townsfolk are vanishing abductees of a creature glimpsed only in shadow and yet utterly terrifying nonetheless. We need not see the monster to know its fearsomeness: All of the scare scenes are expertly choreographed by Abrams the score shot and sound design fine-tuned for maximum menace.
Chaos and panic spread. Believing the mysterious events and the train crash to be related Joe and his pals decide to mount their own investigation. With each successive clue they gather the implications of the conspiracy become clearer and they are soon on the verge of a revelation that will change their lives – and indeed the world – forever.
Super 8’s genre spread is staggering. The film is equal parts sci-fi epic conspiracy thriller creature feature coming-of-age drama and teen comedy. (You can even add “zombie flick” if you include the film-within-a-film.) The mish-mash isn’t so much a problem in the first half of the film – Abrams is such a gifted storyteller that he handles massive tone shifts with almost laughable ease – but as the story gathers steam it has more and more difficulty reconciling its disparate elements. More than once in the third act does Super 8 teeter on the edge of Shyamalanism only to pull back at the last moment.
The film is surprisingly affecting but never in a cynical or manipulative way. (This is a minor miracle.) Abrams’ secret weapon in this regard – and easily the film’s best feature – is his cast of child actors who are universally superb. Their interactions feel genuine their comic rapport natural and unforced. Fanning in particular is wondrous. At this point calling her a “child actor” feels somehow belittling as her talent easily outpaces that of the majority of her adult counterparts.
Their efforts are largely betrayed by an ending that feels false. A hasty and belated attempt is made to turn the creature into a sympathetic figure followed by a denouement drenched in artificial sentiment with smiles and hugs and assurances both stated and implied that everything is going to be all right from now on. It’s an ending that Spielberg might have been able to pull off but Abrams is no Spielberg. Not yet.
“Just make sure O’Leary doesn’t get on that train ” smalltime gangster Stef Czyprynski (Marcus Thomas) warns his gin-soaked mess of an uncle Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley). All the button man’s got to do is pop a rival mobster. But Frank passes out drunk and O’Leary (Dennis Farina) survives the night. That’s bad news for Frank’s boss (Philip Baker Hall) as O’Leary’s planning to muscle in on his turf. It’s worse news for Frank. He’s ordered to dry out or face the consequences. Taking with him a bottle of booze and a snow globe as a reminder of sweet home Buffalo Frank heads to San Francisco with no desire to sober up. He enjoys drinking as much as he enjoys killing. But he knows he must attend AA meetings. Even if he does occasionally slip back into his old drinking ways the change of scenery is good for Frank. He lands a job in a funeral home dressing corpses. He makes friends with his sponsor Tom (Luke Wilson). He even falls for Laurel (Tea Leoni) a go-for-broke TV ad exec who’s not fazed at the prospect of dating a cold-blooded killer. (Once he opens up Frank is er frank with everyone about what he does.) At this point You Kill Me unfolds as a sharply written but less noisy middle-aged version of Grosse Pointe Blank as Frank’s professional obligations begin to intrude on his personal commitments. And he’s not sure how to handle all this especially when he decides to return to Buffalo to make amends. Just when you thought Kingsley was now only in it for the money (BloodRayne and Thunderbirds anyone?) along comes a gem like You Kill Me. Upon first meeting Frank you dismiss him as a weak pitiful fool whose problems extend beyond his drinking. Without smoothing out Frank’s rough edges Kingsley unapologetically makes this hit man a complex and sympathetic figure deserving of a second chance. And whenever Frank is clean and sober Kingsley doesn’t make the mistake of blaming our antihero’s criminal actions on alcohol. Instead he portrays Frank as a regular Joe who happens to take great pride in a job he loves. He also mines great humor from Frank’s fish-of-out-water predicaments and his brutal honesty about himself though he never allows Frank to become the subject of ridicule. Kingsley and Leoni make an odd romantic couple but they play up their obvious differences to persuade us their love is real. Sure Laura’s desperate to find a man but Leoni chips away at her tough exterior to reveal that she really adores Frank and accepts him for who he is. An annoying bundle of nerves in just about everything she does Leoni finally manages to lower the shrill factor and let’s down her guard. Yes she still talks a mile a minute but Leoni for once is confident likeable and delightfully acerbic. Even Luke Wilson pulls himself out of his usual stupor and employs his wry wit to truly reflect the mixed feelings the audience harbors toward this nice-guy killer. Director John Dahl made a name for himself with several little-seen neo-noirs that masterfully combined knotty plots with a wicked sense of humor. Unfortunately he failed to live up to his potential after The Last Seduction and Red Rock West with only Rounders standing out from such recent disappointments as The Great Raid. But You Kill Me finds Dahl back in his element. He’s clearly more comfortable cozying up to society’s unsavory types than he is eulogizing heroic prisoners of war. You Kill Me though separates itself from Dahl’s earlier thrillers by being a fascinating and darkly comical character study rather than a cool calculated exercise in deceit and manipulation. As he explores the empty lives of a man and woman destined to become soul mates Dahl embraces and celebrates their flaws rather than judge them for their past actions. Some may find it hard to identify with a man who kills for a living so Dahl goes to great lengths to show Frank as just a working stiff in need of a hug and a kiss. Yes You Kill Me does tread heavily on Grosse Pointe Blank territory during Frank’s unorthodox courtship of Lauren. But Dahl can be forgiven for this transgression as he and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide a fresh and funny look at unconditional love. And thankfully Dahl resists the urge to fire too many guns. Washing the screen red with blood really would not have been in keeping with Frank’s preference for a swift clean kill.