Rating: The Good – 72.1 Genre: Action Duration: 126 mins Director: J.J. Abrams Stars: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Easily the better of the first two sequels, Mission Impossible III isn’t as much defined by its traditional set pieces as it is by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s über-villain. After retiring from the field to get married, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is drawn back into the fold when his protege is killed by the aforementioned nasty arms dealer who among other things is attempting to secure some kind of doomsday device. Picking up the ball after John Woo had somewhat fumbled it in MI:II, J.J. Abrams, fresh from his television successes with Alias and Lost, shows an intuitive touch in his handling of some modestly conceived but impressively staged set pieces. And though opening in perhaps too high a gear, the movie does eventually settle to the extent that a decent story plays out.
After a six year hiatus from the role, Cruise gives us the same enjoyable but watered down version of Ethan Hunt as he did in the first sequel. No doubt the movie could’ve used the cheeky verve of his cracking original turn but what he fails to provide, Seymour-Hoffman makes up for in spades. Not known for his roles in action thrillers, Seymour-Hoffman spits his wonderfully acidic dialogue at everyone and anyone who gets in his way right before he tortures them in some novel but psychologically cruel manner. He’s as thrilling a bad guy as you’ll find and a scene in which he wakes up in chains yet immediately turns the tables on his captors through sheer force of will is chilling to behold. The majority of the characters excluding Hunt’s new bride (Michelle Monaghan) and his sarcastic tech-specialist (Simon Pegg) are merely vessels through which the extended action sequences play out but so brisk is the pace Abrams sets, it won’t really be noticed.
Rating: The Good – 65.4 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 105 mins Director: Kenneth Branagh Stars: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley
Chris Pine assumes the role of CIA analyst Jack Ryan for this unambitious yet entertaining reboot of the Tom Clancy series. Beginning with his recruitment to the agency, we follow Ryan from England to the U.S. to Russia as he attempts to uncover the latter’s plans for a financial attack on his country. With his handler (an always in-form Kevin Costner) watching over him and his girlfriend (Kiera Knightley) suspicious of his covert behaviour, he suddenly finds himself “field operational” and charged with infiltrating the accounts of Kenneth Branagh’s ruthless former KGB agent who’s leading the Russian attack. Once again, Pine gives us a charming younger version of a well known character and he and Knightley form a strong pairing on which much of the drama is surprisingly built. Best of all, though, is Branagh who contrasts his own peculiar charm with a cold edge that proves nicely intimidating. Impressively, Branagh is also calling the shots from the director’s chair and he sets and maintains a taut pace throughout its 100 minutes. In the post-Bourne world, the set pieces were always going to feel somewhat subdued but they’re all executed with skill. Martin Walsh’s crisp editing is particularly impressive, his job made easier by Branagh’s slick angles and pans. David Koepp’s script is of the efficient variety in that it doesn’t get in the way of the action but nor does it rise to level of his best work. However, where Shadow Recruit fails to live up to its predecessors is in the absence of any substantial agency intrigue or inter-military politics. This should probably come as no surprise given that it’s the only movie in the series not based on an actual Clancy novel but because of this, Shadow Recruit succeeds merely as a generic action thriller, albeit a well polished one.
Rating: The Good – 64.3 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 124 mins Director: Mimi Leder Stars: George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures
Run of the mill action thriller by the 1990’s standards that still managed to distinguish itself with a couple of neatly staged and exhilarating set pieces and a classy performance from Nicole Kidman. George Clooney stars as a special forces colonel assigned to help Kidman’s civilian advisor locate and retrieve some stolen nuclear weapons before they can be used in a terrorist attack. Outside of a severely protracted opening, Mimi Leder sets a jaunty pace and Clooney and Kidman match that pep with a somewhat edgy dynamic that the latter very much controls. Clooney was still a head-bobbing up-and-comer but was on the verge of honing his screen presence and he quite professionally follows Kidman’s lead during the slower scenes while cutting a dashing action man during the more kinetic moments. Unfortunately, Michael Schiffer’s screenplay adapted from Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s article “One Point Safe” is rather ordinary and beyond it serving the plot adequately it does little to build on the leading pair’s chemistry. The Peacemaker was the debut production for DreamWorks SKG so Leder found herself with a fair budget to play with and, for the most part, she spends it well. That said, a rather significant but cheaply attended subplot concerning an aggrieved Eastern European terrorist feels flimsy at best and more often intrudes on the more exciting manhunt narrative. More the pity because The Peacemaker solely succeeds as an action movie.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Crime, Film-Noir Duration: 100 mins Director: Raoul Walsh Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis
The same year John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were to make their big splash with The Maltese Falcon, they preceded it with this collaboration but with Raoul Walsh at the helm. Bogie stars as the career criminal, Roy Earle, recently pardoned and heading straight for the Sierras for the biggest score of his life. On arriving there, he finds his volatile young partners fighting over the street-smart Ida Lupino while becoming enamoured of a crippled girl who reminds of him of his old family’s country stock. The story is a little stretched and Earl’s hard exterior could probably have been penetrated without the extended subplot concerning the young girl and her family which pulls against the tension of the darker scenes rather than offering an effective contrast. It’s a pity too because the planning and execution of the heist is wonderfully put together juiced up by the sultry presence of Lupino and hardbitten grit of Bogie at his most intimidating. The turns of phrase, the simmering of violent urges, the psychology of the criminal relationships, and the action sequences all furnish High Sierra with the most important elements of the classic noirs and result in some hair-raising confrontations. The memorable ending involving the police’s mountain pursuit of Earl is also terrifically staged and would’ve provided an even more effective end-point to a more streamlined script. In the end, Huston can chalk it off to experience because his next film was to be a veritable masterclass in the funnelling of plot but High Sierra still offers much more than most crime thrillers from that era.
Rating: The Ugly – 66 Genre: Action Duration: 92 mins Director: Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen Stars: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze
A meticulous driver and all-action bad-ass in the form of Jason Statham transports illicit cargo around the French countryside but gets sucked into a people trafficking racket when he breaks his own rules and looks inside the package. Written and produced by Luc Besson but directed by Louis Leterrier, The Transporter still bears all the hallmarks of the legendary director’s most enjoyable work. An action comedy with a quirky energy that flirts with the laws of physics and slaps a couple of charming characters right in the centre. Statham delivers the goods in more ways than one with his usual mixture of suave wise-cracks and kickboxing acrobatics and Qi Shu makes for a worthy co-star as his endearing yet unintended sidekick. The plot is daft as a brush and you may even struggle to recall what the whole thing was about but with two strong leads, a considered screenplay, and more breathless car-chases, bullets and grenades, and kicks and punches than you can keep up with, The Transporter will race into the good graces of even the most cynical of movie fans.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 109 mins Director: Baltasar Kormákur Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster
The modern thriller is a tired animal indeed what with the scarcity of original plots and mind numbing dialogue that, instead of building character, is simply a vehicle for tying scenes together and abiding by an MTV archetype of cool. However, if you must turn one of these scripts into a movie then a watchable cast and able director are bare minimum prerequisites. Contraband just about pulls this off with Ben Foster and an always enjoyable Mark Wahlberg starring as a couple of drug smugglers and Giovani Ribisi as a slightly deranged wannabe tough guy attempting to pull their strings along the way. Yes, the plot swings between predictable and confused and, yes, it’s bloated with the contradictory ideas of a script writing committee but there’s some fine gunplay and car chasing to complement the cast’s chemistry. If you’re stuck for something to watch, this one will fill the void adequately.
Rating: The Good – 83.5 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 120 mins Director: George Miller Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Few films have been as eagerly awaited as the fourth instalment in the Mad Max franchise, not simply because of its jaw dropping series of trailers but because the highly selective George Miller, who hasn’t put a foot wrong since the third offering, was back behind the wheel determined to shoot the entire thing old school. Under a sand storm of hype, it opened to resounding commercial success with glowing critical reviews hot on its tail. Amidst such expectations, it’s possible for fans of the genre to be overly forgiving and for its disciples to be overly harsh. And it may just be that both will have a case.
In Mel Gibson’s place, Fury Road gives us an overtly (but appropriately) monosyllabic Tom Hardy as the former family man roaming the wasteland of a post apocalyptic Australia while dodging one manic tribe of lunatics after another. A self-described personification of the will to survive. When he’s captured by Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe, the leader of a cult like settlement of high octane warriors who turn him into a “blood-bag” (don’t ask!), he inadvertently gets dragged into an epic desert pursuit of Immortan’s wives fleeing under the protection of his most famous soldier, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Fear not if the premise feels a little bewildering, for it’s used to do little more than provide an admirably modest funnel for the high-gear auto carnage that runs non-stop for the first 45 minutes of the movie not to mention the final 25. Contrary to much of what we’ve heard, there’s plenty of CGI but it’s used on the periphery of the invigorating real life stunt work. The result: a feast of cranked-up, rust-eaten behemoths cutting swathes of dust trails through the Nambian desert, sideswiping, spearing, devouring the gravel, flipping like tossed coins, and exploding into rocketing balls of shrapnel! Within the wonderfully narrow parameters of the pursuit, and with no small help from John Seale’s (who came out of retirement to shoot this) cinematography, Miller brings this action to life with with hectic tension and pure excitement and there will come a moment when everyone watching will look away to give their eyes a rest and use that brief reprieve to exhale the words “Bloody hell!” or something along those lines. In the modern age of generic computerised action and simulated movie stunts, this isn’t just rare achievement, it’s a downright reason for celebration. More than that, it’s the blueprint for the future of the action genre!
But it gets better! The characters (though not well developed – wrong movie for that) are plump with personality and coloured with unusual mannerisms befitting a world so different to ours. And it’s in this regard, that writer-director Miller succeeds most impressively. For the first two acts, Fury Road completely owns itself. Dialogue, set-up, plot, characterisation, production and costume design are uniquely organic to Max’s anarchic world, meaning there’s a depth of originality to the movie that’s truly rare. Beyond an awareness that the three main characters are going to make it at least to the last act, little else is predictable. Even Hardy’s Max persona is unfamiliar, an erratic collage of communicative grunts and base intentions (to the extent that he sometimes sounds like a befuddled cartoon character). It’s missing the outback spirit of Gibson’s portrayal but it’s so damn wacky, it seems somehow more in line with this more deranged world. Theron’s Furiosa is played somewhat more accessibly than Miller’s character concept but she is nothing close to derivative in her mannerisms (though in all honesty, she’s still a little bland). Keays-Byrne (Toe-Cutter from the first film) is a law onto himself so its unsurprising that his Immortan Joe qualifies as unique. But that he (and again Miller’s character conception helps abundantly) represents the horror of this futuristic world so viscerally is legitimately arresting. Of course, as is the point, this degree of originality all adds to the integrity of the premise.
Where the film fails to reach the high ground of The Road Warrior and Mad Max, however, is in its final act. Maintaining a single link between premise and pursuit in the first half of the movie worked a treat so it’s all the more disappointing that they went overboard in explaining the motives of the final charge. Worse still is that those motives are no different to the motives of any number of post-apocalyptic characters from Logan’s Run to Battlestar Galactica. With each heartfelt emotion and yearning for a life of green and plenty we get slowly drawn back to normality and everything seems less exotically savage. Miller is essentially repeating the mistakes of Beyond the Thunderdome here. Letting familiar sentimentality intrude on a world where it doesn’t belong. There can be sentiment, for sure, but it should bear the hallmarks of its world’s stripped-down motives. Like those that carried us through the first two acts: survival with a splash of self-determination. Max says it himself in his opening monologue:- he is driven by the instinct to survive and nothing more. As streamlined and action-friendly a motive as you could hope for, an idea which the first two acts champion (to the film’s emphatic benefit) but which the last act loses grasp of. It doesn’t ruin the film, it just tempers its brilliance.
Rating: The Good – 87.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 86 mins Director: Joseph H. Lewis Stars: John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Berry Kroeger
One of the all time great films noir, Gun Crazy or “Deadly is the Female”, as it’s also known, stars John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a husband and wife sharpshooter, turned stick-up team who, piece by piece, unfold a romantic tragedy across the American Midwest. Joseph H. Lewis’s masterpiece was revolutionary for myriad reasons but most notable among the trails it blazed were the technical innovations of the movie’s shooting and its unflinching account of a homicidal woman and her guilt ridden husband. Lewis improvised a number of unique methods with which to stage and capture the various heist sequences including an early use of insert cars and modified camera cars. A solitary process shot that captures the couple’s dreamlike honeymoon is all we get in the way of rear projection, a magnificently symbolic contrast to the down and gritty life of crime that was to follow. In addition to such technical mastery, Lewis brings all his know-how to bear on the movie’s aesthetic, rendering this one of the more beautifully shot noirs. A relative abundance of daylight sequences would appear to belie the genre’s more typical remit but they serve here as a conceptual contrast as powerful as any amount of shadow or key lit faces (though there’s plenty of those too). What stirs most effectively however is the simple tale of desire and morality that’s spun at the film’s core. Cummins’ Laurie cuts a sinister strip through the film and while Cummins is more than adequate in the role, it’s (then blacklisted) Dalton Trumbo’s writing that largely plumbs her murky depths. Dall’s is the more tragic character and an extended introduction of him and his childhood makes him resoundingly sympathetic before we ever lay eyes on the actor himself. Armed with some heart wrenching dialogue and thrillingly shot set pieces, Gun Crazy ever develops a subtle power as it moves through the reels, so much so that its wonderfully staged finale will linger as long in memory as the outlaw mythology it so deftly taps.
Rating: The Good – 74.7 Genre: Thriller, Action Duration: 130 mins Director: Christopher McQuarrie Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall
When a sniper shoots six random people, a former crack investigator with the military police, Jack Reacher, begins chipping away at the District Attorney’s case and uncovers a wider conspiracy. Back in 2000, Christopher McQuarrie slipped into the director’s chair and comfortably exhaled the word “action” and, indeed, that’s exactly what his forte turned out to be. Action dripping with condensation rescued from overkill by a confident playfulness and pulsing with a similarly restrained tension. The perfect accompaniment for his trademark dialogue that, along with Tarantino’s, seemed to define the 90’s crime thriller.
His latest offering to this genre was the subject of much controversy during its development as word broke that Tom Cruise would take on the role of Lee Child’s much loved title character. The problem: Jack Reacher is 6’5″ tall in Child’s books and his physical presence is a defining feature of the fearsome detective. Cruise? Well, as one of Hollywood’s smallest A-listers, 6’5″ is more than a (err..) stretch. However, despite the hesitation on the fans’ part, the movie succeeds as one of this century’s better action thrillers. Sure, it lacks the intimidating presence of Child’s Reacher but Cruise is more than solid in a less distinct formulation of the character and to make up the difference, McQuarrie surrounds him with a highly capable and charismatic cast. Rosamund Pike is equally watchable as the attorney representing the police’s prime suspect, Robert Duvall pops up in an interesting extended cameo as an wily ex-marine sharpshooter, and Werner Herzog, of all people, turns in one of the more bizarre movie villains in recent years. Best of all, however, is Jai Courtney as his right-hand man with a killer charm.
While the set pieces are ably handled, not to mention defined by a refreshing degree of live action stunt work, in a nice twist on the modern blockbuster, it’s the plot that drives this movie as McQuarrie picks the best elements of the original story and juices it up with his edgy yet humorous dialogue. That goes for every character except Herzog’s who is given one lame line after another to struggle with. There’s no doubt that casting a more beast like actor in the lead role would’ve added the much absent menace to this movie’s narrative but, in the end, McQuarrie and Cruise deliver an eminently worthy action flick. Jack Reacher won’t leave you bowled over but you’ll more than likely find yourself substantially entertained.
Movies that tread new ground are a rare breed these days but Dan Gilroy’s grimy psychological thriller gets neck deep in a premise, plot, and movie perspective that’s unlike anything we’ve really seen before. Jake Gyllenhaal headlines as Louis Bloom, a degenerate dork looking for a vocation in which he can shine not to mention make a quick buck. Happening by a late night accident, he rapidly immerses himself in the world of sensational nighttime news and places himself at its forefront by videotaping crimes, accidents, and anything that bleeds and delivering them to Rene Russo’s desperate news director fresh off the blood-soaked pavement.
Nightcrawler introduces us to one unsavoury character after another but each are rooted in a desperate need that makes their wretched deeds all too relatable. Gilroy lures us through this looking glass of fast food media and successfully captures the upside down personal morality of all involved. Everything seems a little too incredible but at no point do we disengage. In fact, we want more, even as, no especially as, the credits begin to roll.
A skeletal Gyllenhaal is electric in a performance that reflects the movie’s creepy themes of the ‘real unreal’ on a singularly focused level. We begin by dismissing the likelihood that anyone could be so deranged only to recoil later on at the frightening sincerity in his bulging eyes and the sound of his voice as he recites his night-school rhetoric for business success. Gilroy was certainly taking a risk building the movie around the one truly irredeemable character but the entire film gravitates around Gyllenhaal’s magnetism and though we loathe him, we definitely enjoy doing so. Russo is wonderfully complicated as the TV exec who crawls onto his web, soliciting everything from the audience’s pity to their curiosity. The always great Bill Paxton pops up in a compelling cameo as a fellow nightcrawler who crosses paths with the manic Bloom and Riz Ahmed rounds off the cast with a sympathetic turn as the latter’s weary assistant.
Gilroy’s script is gleefully twisted in its originality while behind the camera he, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and indeed composer James Newton Howard give the nighttime streets of LA a character and personality of the kind we experienced in Michael Mann’s Heat. And whether they act as a still background to the patient madness of Bloom waiting for his scanner to announce his next shot or the frenetic blur of the subsequent high speed pursuit, they bring a critical balance of grit and gloss to the proceedings. It all adds up to a triumphant movie experience that should easily stand the test of time not only as a satirical social commentary but as a pulse thumping crime thriller to boot.
Rating: The Ugly – 63.4 Genre: Crime, Action, Martial Arts Duration: 150 mins Director: Gareth Evans Stars: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra
After escaping the infamous apartment block of The Raid: Redemption, police officer Rama is manipulated into a deep cover assignment designed to expose corruption at the highest level of the Indonesian underworld. But as he gets close to the son of a powerful gangster he finds himself fending largely for himself amid a gang war. The Raid 2 counts as a mildly enjoyable sequel to the surprise Indonesian hit of 2011 that in the absence of a similarly neat premise suffers under some pretentious efforts at compensation.
It’s a familiar problem:- failing to replicate the priceless energy of the first film, the director invests greater attention on the technical side to the production. Thus, The Raid 2 looks wonderfully polished, and individually there are some striking scenes but, overall, it doesn’t work as a package. The lavish production design and overly self conscious cinematography begin to smack of pretension as they intrude repeatedly on the plot’s rational progression which, on a whole other level, struggles to facilitate the same level of action that it’s predecessor dished out. With The Raid: Redemption, there was a streamlined plot which didn’t simply allow carnage to happen naturally, it demanded it! Under pressure to up the ante but without that same bespoke pretext, The Raid 2 contrives one sequence after another until we’re left with a complicated story that lacks the integrity of one solid motivation. This is borne out most clearly in how Rama drifts in and out of the movie despite being the principle character not to mention the only one who links the two films. The other side to this issue is that the action fails to hit the critical momentum of the first film which was a veritable masterclass in that respect.
That said, Iko Uwais makes for a solid lead yet again finding that perfect balance between fresh faced charm and a flurry of fists and feet. The movie always picks up with his presence and the fight sequences are at their most balletic when he’s at their centre. So it’s more the pity they didn’t build the entire show around him. More often than not it seems, we traipsing after the gangsters and their enforcers of which there are just too many littered about. The “colourful bad guy” is a staple of the great action film and the one or two that tend to populate them should be pillars of the movie’s personality. With so many popping up and disappearing through the course of this movie, they fade into nondescript references of the script’s confusing allegiances.
Though letting himself down on his script writing duties, Gareth Evans still manages to prove himself an able director with an eye for scene composition. But he needs to learn discipline so he can tell when to hold back with the visuals and when to deliver them with punch. With too many striking set ups and bold colour contrasts, it all just whites out after a while. He’s shown he can handle action, and then some, and he’s given us glimpses of more but he didn’t properly deliver it with The Raid 2.
Rating: The Good – 70 Genre: Action Duration: 105 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Halle Berry
Tony Scott and Bruce Willis are in top form for one of the better action vehicles of the 1990’s. With Scott’s trademark soft noir lighting, his liberal use of dry ice, and the pump action sarcasm of Shane Black, Willis shoots, grins, cracks wise, and jibes his way through the movie as the weary private dick stuck in a malaise since he was thrown out of the secret service. When he’s asked to protect a young dancer (a brief but telling performance by a young Halle Berry), he and her boyfriend (Damon Wayans) get sucked into a scheme of blackmail and murder in the high stakes game of pro football. With its over the top action scenarios and hair-brained plot, Scott knows that the key to this is chemistry and with Willis and an in-form Wayans, he had all the right tools. The banter is terrific, the quips are cutting, and the hits and kicks are just as funny. Willis was rarely better outside of his McCain persona, his character here being a perfect blend of his dry wit and irascible charm. Wayans is more than watchable despite his acting limitations thanks to some interesting characterisation on Black’s part. Like all the best action movies, the story is balanced out with a number of memorable bad guys from Noble Willingham’s corrupt franchise owner to his slightly nuts right hand man, Taylor Negron in gleefully nasty form. Needless to say the action sequences are bursting with innovation and though modest in premise (at least compared to those of the Die Hard franchise), they’re executed to perfection and always work effectively with the plot. Can you ask for more?