Category Archives: Spy

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Sicario (2015) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77
Genre: Crime
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro

Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.

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Mission Impossible III (2006) 2.69/5 (5)

 

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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.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) 3.37/5 (5)

 

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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.

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The Peacemaker (1997) 3/5 (4)

 

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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.

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Where Eagles Dare (1968) 2.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.8
Genre: War, Thriller
Duration: 158 mins
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Stars: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure

Richard Burton leads a unit of commandos behind enemy lines to infiltrate the Alpine headquarters of the Wehrmacht located in an inaccessible fortress perched atop of a snow covered mountain. WWII based men-on-a-mission movies are very a different animal to the more mainstream WWII treatments. Emerging in the 1960’s & 70’s as a less cynical tonic to the earnestness (forced or otherwise) of the propaganda films of the 40’s and dramatised retrospectives of the 50’s, they were the first action extravaganzas of the genre – not to be taken too seriously but a pleasant distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And Brian G. Hutton’s 1968 classic is arguably the best of the bunch as Burton and Clint Eastwood sidewind their way through a series of double crosses as labyrinthine as the formidable fortress amid gunfire, TNT, and showers of grenades, and all along to Ron Goodwin’s mighty soundtrack. The brilliant action becomes a cathartic backdrop to the intelligently constructed plot, and mirroring those dual tones are Burton and Eastwood at their most enigmatic. The former’s character with that mellifluously accented English being the very embodiment of intrigue and deception while the latter, Eastwood’s serial Nazi slayer, Lt. Schaffer, being the coolest and baddest assassin to ever grace a war movie. While classics such as The Dirty Dozen and Guns of the Navarone (also penned by this movie’s writer Alistair MacLean) mixed personality with an edge of moral commentary, Where Eagles Dare substituted any such sentiment for immense style and a callous bodycount making the whole thing a treat to the the baser depths of our brains. Given the more carefree vibe of the sub-genre, such stylish entertainment is perhaps its most critical quality and so Hutton’s movie rises to the top of the pot.

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Syriana

Syriana (2005) 3.97/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer

For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.

An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.

And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.

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Bad Company (1995) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.8
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Damian Harris
Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, Michael Beach

Lawrence Fishburn stars as a disgraced former CIA agent who moves to the world of corporate espionage where he immediately becomes embroiled in a double cross involving his devious new partner Ellen Barkin and a host of other nefarious individuals each with their own agendas. The plot may be as mad as a box of frogs but there’s much to recommend in the manner of this thriller’s execution. It’s an eminently slick and determined piece of intrigue that panders little to an impatient audience. A psychological homage to the murky combination of intelligence and greed shot in the soft glow of 90’s lighting and set against a emphatically sinister Carter Burwell score. Ross Thomas adapted his own novel and didn’t compromise an inch in how he depicted the ambiguity of this dark world and while Damian Harris repeatedly spills the tension of his expositional scenes, he crafts his key moments with some real finesse and proper power. So much so that the bleak rawness of the emotional landscape can become quite repelling towards the end. The acting is for the most part as competent as you’d expect from a cast as good as this but it’s their ability to see the hidden qualities in their characters that hooks the audience and keeps us guessing. Fishburn in particular gives us a colder more unsettling anti-hero than we are typically used to and Michael Beach treats us yet another seriously intimidating 1990’s villain. Where the movie falls down quite significantly is in its progression. Too many crucial sequences are omitted or rushed through so that the plot loses cohesion as it twists and turns to avoid our expectations. Bad Company is more than worth a watch but one suspects this could’ve been a genuine classic in more capable and/or artistic hands.

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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) 3.29/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 68.4
Genre: Action
Duration: 133 mins
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg

Tom Cruise takes charge of his IMF team on its fourth cinematic outing and despite its watery plot, there’s enough thrills and cleverly worked out set pieces to justify its existence. Joined by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton as he tracks down a “nuclear terrorist” bent on destroying most of the world, this adventure whisks us around the near east from Moscow to Dubai to India in one breathless sequence after another. Brad Bird’s installment isn’t going to incur much in the way of second or third viewings but the cast are just engaging enough to compensate for yet another generic bad guy and over-familiar plot. One would think the impossible mission scenario would offer a variety of jeopardising circumstances and, to be fair, such is the tradition since De Palma’s original big screen adaptation (and before). However, the plot to this one was grabbed straight off the shelf marked “Stock Plot: 21st Century Action Movie”. What’s even more unforgivable is that despite the franchise’s history of wonderfully colourful and nefarious bad guys – from John Voight’s reptilian traitor to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s terrifying arms dealer – writers Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec serve up an even blander villain. Ultimately that, even more than the story, is the great let down here. Thankfully, a back to form Cruiser is on hand to elevate things and his scaling of the world’s tallest building not to mention the accompanying caper set inside it is a peach.

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Mission Impossible (1996) 4.04/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.4
Genre: Action
Duration: 110 mins
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart

IMF secret agent Ethan Hunt, is forced to turn rogue when his operation is blown from the inside and his team is killed. Hunting for the mole who set him up, he recruits a new team of equally disavowed spies and begins to put a complicated plan into action. This original movie adaptation of the popular television show has all the hallmarks of the source material but with the added style of Brian De Palma who demonstrated yet again that his genius for set-pieces applied just as much to the action genre as it did to thrillers and horror. Mission Impossible is an accomplished action movie in nearly other every respect too from the charismatic acting to the hip script underlying it. Tom Cruise is in top form as Hunt, Jon Voight’s presence is used well in the role of Hunt’s mentor, and a host of other familiar names contribute in equally well suited roles.

Of course, the star of the show is De Palma who while subduing his innate signature style somewhat, still manages to craft one of the more distinctive action movies of the 1990’s. The sequels were all directed by action heavy weights but none of them seemed to understand (or appreciate) the TV show to the same degree as he did and so their movies, while fine, were merely just action vehicles. The action present in De Palma’s Mission Impossible was defined by the concept of the television series and so it had an appropriate, distinctive, and recognisable personality. Indeed it’s worth noting that this signature style, built around intelligent brain-over-brawn set-pieces, laid the groundwork for the type of action movie that was to dominate US action cinema during the 2000’s and thus it signified an important break from the formula which defined the action movies of the late 1980’s and early 90’s.

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The Informer (1935) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 82.3
Genre: Drama
Duration: 91 mins
Director: John Ford
Stars: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster

John Ford’s early feature was made only 14 years after the Irish won their War of Independence against the British so there’s a real sense of authenticity to the characters and events depicted here. Victor McLaghlen headlines as Gypo Nolan, a big lug too fond of the drink, whose recent expulsion from the republican army and desperation for money leads him to inform the whereabouts of his wanted friend to the ruthless Black and Tans and claim the reward on his head. However, when the Tan’s kill his friend, his ensuing guilt combined with his continued drinking throughout the night reveal more and more clues to those around him that he might have been the informer.

The Informer is a dark film shot beautifully by Ford whose eye for staging and lighting imbued it with a heavy tension. The emotional trials faced by the main characters are real and engaging and for the most part the acting is top drawer. McLaglen is unfortunately extremely wooden and the decision to give a non Irish man the central role in a cast full of actual Irish actors was regrettable as his stereotyped accent and mannerisms are exposed all the more. If you can ignore that however, there are plenty of big names from the Irish stage to give the rest of the characters the right tone and thus retain that intimate sense of authenticity.

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Last Embrace (1979) 2.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 62.1
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Roy Scheider, Janet Margolin, John Glover

Jonathan Demme’s Hitchcockian thriller is an interesting film even if it doesn’t live up to its potential. Roy Scheider stars as retired spy who finds himself the target of a mysterious conspiracy which he believes lies within the agency that retired him. Scheider is his usual competent self and really shines in the early parts of the film when his character is coming apart. John Glover offers interesting support as always and Christopher Walken pops up in one of his earlier appearances. Like De Palma did in Dressed to Kill and Body Double, Demme is explicitly channeling Hitchcock in the way he sets up many of his scenes and it adds a certain dramatic quality to the film. However, the plot shift about halfway through which really counts as a genre change (Hitchcock would be proud) weakens the film as it substitutes one form of intrigue with a lesser form. Last Embrace is still an interesting watch though and counts as another opportunity to catch Scheider at the height of his powers and Demme at the beginning of his career.

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Edge of Darkness (1943) 2.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.7
Genre: War
Duration: 119 mins
Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston

Errol Flynn stars as a fisherman in Nazi occupied Norway who rallies his village against the vicious soldiers amid traitors, devout pacifists, and quiet folk just afraid for their lives. Director Lewis Milestone gives Edge of Darkness all the trappings of classic Hollywood movies. It’s paced beautifully and there’s drama bursting from all angles as a number of interesting subplots are played out, some of which are quite dark. The cast could’ve done more to give their characters a sense of authenticity as the abundance of thinly veiled American accents slightly detracts from the premise as the film progresses. However, that aside, the acting is generally competent and the large ensemble cast work well together with Flynn and Ann Sheridan bringing most presence to their roles. It all builds up to an exciting conclusion, wherein each of the subplots are tied off neatly and to much satisfaction. Edge of Darkness is classic propaganda fodder given the time it was made and the message it sent out. However, given the value of that message, it’s no bad thing and it certainly doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film.