Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Mission Impossible - Ghost-ProtocolThe words Tom Cruise and action blockbuster in the same sentence have long ceased to carry any significance with fare like “Knight and Day” failing to ignite any spark. The “Mission: Impossible” franchise may be the last bastion for the one-time poster-boy though many might argue that it too has passed its use-by date, particularly after the rather slow third entry directed by J.J. Abrams. Nevertheless, Hollywood will never say die to a cash cow and significantly, this fourth film marks the live-action debut of “The Incredibles” helmsman Brad Bird. After all the Pixar movie was a rip-roaring ride of a spy-film tribute, often more accomplished than its inspiration. If Bird could carry this style over from animation, the potential for a very dynamic and entertaining action flick would be strong indeed.

While continuing a broad story arc over the series, number four can safely stand as an independent plot. After a thrilling prison break, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team of IMF agents set about infiltrating the Kremlin but are foiled by a terrorist plot that would see nuclear war end civilisation. As a result, the U.S. government initiates the “Ghost Protocol” that sees the entire intelligence agency disbanded. Aided by agent Jane (Paula Patton), technician Benji (Simon Pegg) and analyst-with-a-past Brandt (Jeremy Renner), acting against orders, Hunt travels to Dubai to retrieve the stolen nuclear codes and save the world once more. Striking is the lightness in tone that Bird adopts from the off, casting Simon Pegg purely as a device for comic relief where both action sequences and respite have their tongue firmly in cheek. And although the film rarely returns to the all-out hilarity of the pre-credits sequence, the Bondian atmosphere is secured for the following two hours: break-neck chases, exotic locales (Mumbai in addition to Moscow and the Emirates) and more cool gadgets than you could shake a Q at. In other words the best ingredients for the best “Mission: Impossible” spirit are correct and present with Bird keeping a cool handle on things and Cruise more than able to hold his own while approaching 50.

And yet, “Ghost Protocol” never quite clicks with the viewer. With the emphasis placed so much on fun, what little plot there is is never given the opportunity to breathe. The imminent threat of an atomic apocalypse seems distant even when a missile is hurtling towards Los Angeles. The villains and their motives are horribly two-dimensional but then, they simply aren’t given any screen time; they exist only on the film’s peripheries which is a bit of a waste considering the presence of actors like Michael Nyqvist or Léa Seydoux. And while jaw-dropping hijinks atop the Burj-Khalifa (that’s the world’s tallest building to you) really are amazingly put together, the disregard for interesting plot and characters are the film’s downfall. Jeremy Renner in particular is in desperate need of fleshing out, ultimately has very little to work with and come the post-climatic scenes, seems extraordinarily throwaway. Whether anyone will care about things like this is doubtful but even the hyperbolic action becomes tired and predictable after a while: Cruise is hit by cars on several occasions and miraculously escapes unharmed for example. Realism surely isn’t the goal here but it’s also possible to over-egg in certain situations. Naturally, this almost slapstick aspect was much better suited to “The Incredibles.”

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol OSTMichael Giacchino’s score to the third chapter was characterised by ballsy action music that lacked thematic development, save the odd statement of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme. The composer’s approach to “Ghost Protocol” continues in this muscular, percussive and brass-driven vein with one important difference: Due to the location-hopping, Giacchino is able to provide each third of the film it’s own unique identity in all their stereotypical glory: Male choirs reminiscent of Basil Poledouris define Russia while appropriate ethnic flavours are added for Dubai and India. And while not much is done to connect the separate identities, there are enough explorations of the famous theme tune to act as binding material for Ethan Hunt and his team. It’s exciting stuff reflected on an album characterised by Ghiacchino’s obsession with horrible cue-name puns such as “Kremlin with Anticipation” or “Mumbai’s the Word.” Make of these what you will but there’s no denying the entertainment value of the score in its lengthy presentation. Not as heartfelt as “Super 8” perhaps but one for the action nuts.

Entertaining sure, but very little substance behind it. It’s refreshing to sit back and lose oneself in the ridiculous world of “Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol” but if only Bird could have combined plot and wit with the action more fluidly, this could have rivalled De Palma.

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Unknown (2011)

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UnknownIn the days when even James Bond is remodelled along the lines of Jason Bourne, it seems the formula of modern action thrillers has been defined. And inevitably the stylised, shaky camera shots and the search for a lost identity pioneered by Greengrass and Co. inspires, or is imitated by a host of inferior filmmakers who want a slice of the genre pie. And by plot synopsis alone, Jaume Collet-Serra’s film certainly is generic. However, the Catalan-American director previously responsible for interesting but generally unremarkable horror-fare (the “House of Wax” remake, as well as 2009’s “Orphan”), must be commended not only for keeping the reins on a largely European production without major Hollywood backing, but for developing an intriguing and engaging movie that can live beyond the pulling power of Liam Neeson. The film is based on the 2003 novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert.

While in Berlin for a biotechnology summit, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is involved in a traffic accident that leaves him in a coma for four days. On waking up, he learns that nobody recognises him and that he may be part of a very thorough set-up: His wife (January Jones) is with another man (Aidan Quinn) who claims to be Harris. Pursued by mysterious forces, it looks as if the powers that be will do anything to silence him. Stuck in the city without identification, Harris tries to find Taxi-driver Gina (Diane Kruger), who was at the wheel of his taxi for help. She in turn introduced him to ex-stasi agent and self-proclaimed investigator Ernst Jürgen (the venerable Bruno Ganz). Could the prominent guests at the summit (Mido Hamada and Sebastian Koch) have anything to do with it and, most importantly, can Harris right the pieces in time? Simply put, the film can be viewed as a concoction of the Bourne series with Harrison Ford vehicle “The Fugitive,” the influences are certainly clear. From the setting of post-Cold War Berlin, lending the images an appropriately sombre mood, to the design of the many car chases, a sense of familiarity abounds throughout, though never approaching set pieces with the ingenuity or adrenaline pounding activity of those set for the amnesiac CIA agent.

Liam Neeson is a very solid choice for the title role, continuously reaffirming his survival-hero status he’s been polishing since “Taken.” His Dr. Harris’ personal search for truth is the glue of the film and Neeson lends the role the necessary hard looks and concerned stares. The same cannot be said for all of the actors however. Diane Kruger does her best in a role with very little meat while the presentation of Bruno Ganz as socialist-fan spy is contrived in the extreme. With the arrival of Frank Langella, somewhere in the second third, the entire film takes a turn for the worse. The resolution is not necessarily foreseeable but disappointing nonetheless, the expectations of most audience members will not be met by the fact the truth isn’t half as exciting as it could have been. “Taken” floundered in a similar manner towards the end, the possibility of rounding off a decent premise has not been realised in either case, though the damaged exteriors of a Berlin landmark are suitably convincing. Overall, “Unknown” is certainly an entertaining view with great mood. The encroaching parallels between it and other, superior ventures in the genre may irritate anyone even little acquainted with action-thriller trends over the last decade.

Unknown OSTThe music for “Unknown” was composed by relative veteran John Ottman and newcomer Alexander Rudd. The pair approached this project with much the same, now generic sound utilised by John Powell on all three of his Bourne scores and beyond. It’s a hybrid of string ensemble and electronic elements, driving the score with percussive loops and other effect-like sounds. for added emotional impact, a piano and sparse woodwinds join in, fro cues such as the opening “Welcome to Berlin” and “Nice to Meet You,” both of which serve as a musical identity for the film as a whole. The action too is spread around the album, exploding in cues such as “Evil Car.” This action music however, is written without much direction and could very well be applied to almost any action or intrigue film. The score also lacks any clear thematic identity that could distinguish it from others, in particular that of the famous Bourne staccato motif. Very much like the film, this music is enjoyable (and certainly effective next to the pictures) though it offers nothing new and will feel worn-out and even tired to those who listened to “The Bourne Supremacy” and the following “Ultimatum.”

Fans of Liam Neeson will like “Unknown” for it concentrates some of the actor’s greatest talents. And while some parts of the film do sag a little, there’s not much can be said against the fact Collet-Serra can muster enough action and mystery (in a healthy balance as well) out of plot, actors and locations to maintain the interest of the audience throughout.

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Inside Man (2006)

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Inside ManJudging by it’s premise, it may seem that “Inside Man” is nothing but another generic heist picture. But that is but one of the movie’s very clever deceptions as it constantly plays with the audiences’ expectations, just when we thought we had it all figured out. Originally intended for Ron Howard (he bowed out to direct “Cinderella Man”), his replacement Spike Lee manages far more than to put a slick of fresh paint on a formula as old as time. Curious and off-beat at times, an intelligent script by Russell Gewirtz and powerhouse performances all-round makes this one of the most compelling thrillers since Michael Mann’s “Heat.”

The set-up is simple, or so it seems: A bank robbery in New York city quickly turns into a hostage situation as Clive Owen and his assistant trio of crooks barricade themselves in. As the Police arrive in numbers and lock down the block, it is up to detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take charge and diffuse the situation and complete the mission, namely bringing all the hostages out alive. So far, so predictable. Only, it’s not. The detectives quickly realise they’re being outsmarted at every turn, the motives behind the robbery becoming ever more cloudy. At the same time Jodie Foster’s fixer is hired by bank boss Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) who wants desperately to protect his assets in the bank the hold a dark secret, assets that we realise are exactly what the robbers are after. Lee tells the story in flashback form, intercutting with interrogations of the hostages who have all been dressed exactly like the robbers. It’s effective filmmaking in that it leaves the viewer baffled and confused, trying to make sense of events even after the end-credits have rolled. But the fact that not everything is safely explained doubtlessly adds to the “Inside Man’s” success, and makes it stand out.

Actingwise, it’s flawless. Washington is very rarely on poor form and here he once again proves himself king of the serious action picture. With little to no back story to his character, he nevertheless manages to build a not only credible but also very likeable character. Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe make for good assistants but the real meat as it were, is between Washington and Clive Owen. Despite wearing a mask for most of the film, Owen is creepily convincing. From his short opening monologue, through to the climatic deception, he could be named the Danny Ocean of the picture, the cool bank-robber, except that his motives are so intelligently scattered, he remains close to scary psychopath throughout. But Spike Lee, a native New-Yorker, is simply perfect perfect as a director and the vehicle’s biggest star: He expertly balances all the humour and the darker elements, slowing down the pace of the film and then exploding into action. And avoiding most of the cliches, the film can thus raise issues about morality, guilt, good versus evil, and corruption without ever beating us about the head with it. Some viewers may not appreciate it’s convoluted climax, or might demand a little more explanation but on the whole this offers some really gripping thrills and is quite far above regular action movies these days.

Inside Man OSTHad Ron Howard directed, James Honer may well have scored “Inside Man.” As it happened however, Spike Lee turned to jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard with whom he previously collaborated on “Malcolm X.” Unlike the film however, Blanchard takes a much more conventional approach in the music, a mainly electronics driven action score with some strings and horns in support. On album, the film’s main thematic idea is presented at the outset of “Ten Thirty” and is reprised several times. Few tracks offer any respite from the action, only a few tracks are allowed to provide any emotion. “Follow the Ring” near the album’s conclusion is one such example. It’s in many ways a decent action score but it would have provided Blanchard an opportunity to insert some of his own jazz sensibilities to create a truly good score. Totally nonsensical is the inclusion of an Indian style song over the opening and end credits, written by A.R. Rahman. Although it does hint at some of the film’s multicultural themes, it’s placement here is a huge detraction both in the film and on the album. Overall, it’s not the best introduction to Blanchard’s work.

“Inside Man” succeeds because it is intelligent. That may be a damning statement about the action movie industry in general but would take credit from this incredibly well structured and crafted film. For Denzel Washington, it adds yet another solid performance to a quite considerable portfolio. For Spike Lee it marks one of his best entries in the new millennium. See it therefore if you are a fan of either or just a fan of intelligent moviemaking.

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Casino Royale (2006)

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Casino RoyaleDespite being the longest running and one of the most successful franchises in movie history, the tried, tested, retried and retested James Bond formula was wearing more than a little thin. Even a revitalisation at the beginning of the Brosnan era had petered out by the 2002 entry “Die Another Day”, a film with many creative ideas but a real lack of focus.  The fans were leaving, tempted away by the grittier Jason Bourne series which saw its inception around the same time, and even the most hardcore fans must have been regularly plagued by flashbacks of Roger Moore dressed as a clown. And while decent action flicks like “The World is Not Enough” were fun in their own right, from a critical perspective, the world’s most famous spy needed more reinvention than revitalisation, a little shaking or stirring certainly wouldn’t go astray. “Casino Royale” makes changes as producers Barabara Brocolli and Michael G. Wilson saw fit, not only introducing us to new, blonde Bond Daniel Craig but guiding a general shift in the Bond universe. Ironic perhaps that sourcing the very first of Ian Fleming’s novels (and the only which had not been adapted as an official Bond film), “Casino Royale” takes us back to the spy’s roots, many components of which had been long abandoned by the film series.

It’s an origin story, introducing us to James Bond just after being promoted to his “double-O” status and his first mission with a license to kill. Opening with a powerful, black and white, almost noir style scene, the producers’ intent is clear: This Bond takes a much darker route. He bleeds for example, he makes mistakes, gets poisoned and quite literally has his balls whipped. It is the tale of how Bond attained the identity of the ruthless and heartless killing machine we know him to be. This was met with apprehension from some fans but after the post-opening-credits chase scene at the very latest, any doubts in director Martin Campbell’s (who was previously responsible for “Goldeneye”) ability to handle the film will be forever dispelled. Comparisons with Bourne are legit in a way, the action is more realistic compared to previous films, but “Casino Royale” finds it’s own middle ground between realism and the fantastic, take the awesomely assembled Madagascar chase: Sebastien Foucan’s acrobatics known as “freerunning” were all done for real (CG only used to remove safety wires).

The plot’s main focus however is a man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), private banker to the world’s terrorists. After loosing hundreds of millions of Dollars, betting on a disaster Bond manages to prevent, he organises a high-stakes Poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro for a refund, all the while hunted by his angry clients not exactly pleased that their money is gone. This too is an interesting premise. There’s no grand plan, no giant evil lair where the forces of ill prepare to dominate the world, there’s only poker. Le Chiffre is therefore as much in danger of losing his life as Bond, but how do you make a thriller out of a card game? The games themselves are not exactly fascinating but Campbell punctuates them at repeated intervals with well-staged action set-pieces, some graphically violent, others full of intrigue and suspense, others in turn are heartfelt and moving – the shower scene is one of the most powerful moments in a Bond movie, ever. It’s the balance of these different elements which will really keep you glued. The requisite Bond-girl too is different, Eva Green’s portrayal of Vesper sticks remarkably close to the novel, she’s feisty and holds a terrible secret. Her beauty is perhaps more subtle than some of the helpless incarnations of the past but it’s an excellent role. She manages to pull off something only one girl has managed before: To have Bond fall in love with her. And really, it’s easy to see why he would.

But what of Craig? He had his fair share of criticism both before and after the film’s release, some of it being downright cruel (The Sunday Times stated he looked like Gollum’s younger brother). If you’re going to gripe about the colour of his hair or about his swimming togs, you should really know better because Craig’s interpretation of the most suave of the suave is quite simply excellent. The cold, emotional detachment from his job, the armour he wears while at the same time being an arrogant and vulnerable mess is portrayed very well indeed. He even wisecracks from time to time (best line: when asked if he’d like his martini shaken or stirred he returns “Do I look like I give a damn?!”), and plays cool when needed. The scenes shared with Green have particular sparkle. While it’s a shame that Bond regulars like Moneypenny and Q (even if John Cleese could never replace Desmond Llewelyn) were left out, it makes sense in this, more serious storyline. Only other negative criticism that can be made is that the exterior shots of the house in Venice at the film’s climax just look horribly fake. It’s a combination of model photography and CG apparently but could have been made a lot better.

Casino Royale OSTOne of the elements of the “old” Bond that remained intact for “Casino Royale” is composer David Arnold who has provided consistently good scores for the series since “Tomorrow Never Dies”. The 2006 score is his best yet for the series. Not dominated by electronics like “Die Another Day”, the soundtrack here is both pulsating with orchestral and percussive force for the action but is counterbalanced with a beautifully elegant yet mournful piano theme for Vesper. This theme alone allows it eclipse many of the previous scores. Another intelligent decision was Arnold’s restraint with Monty Norman’s oh-so-famous James Bond theme. As Bond’s identity is not yet completely formed, the theme is hinted at in places throughout the score, only exploding with full force at the very end to the words “Bond, James Bond!” The title song is sung by American rocker Chris Cornell and was (annoyingly) released separately from the score album. The song itself is adequate but nowhere near the series’ best.  Particularly because the title sequence is one of the very best, this is a disappointment. The music however is without question, Arnold’s most mature and best Bond score.

“Casino Royale” is fantastic both as a Bond movie and as an origin story. It is the reinvention the franchise required and sets up infinite possibilities for future continuations. Unfortunately this good thing was screwed up almost beyond repair in “Quantum of Solace” two years later. If you can view this movie without having the direct sequel in mind, “Casino Royale” will rank in the top ten if not top five Bond movies of all time.

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The American (2010)

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The AmericanOnce upon a time in the distant past of the 1990s, films like “Out of Sight”, “The Peacemaker” or Gulf War venture “Three Kings” has George Clooney firmly billed as an action star. However the dawning of the new millennium has brought certain change to the one-time Bruce Wayne and Dr. Doug Ross: Again and again Clooney has made forays into drama and ‘serious’ film-making, be that through films like “Syriana”, last year’s excellent “Up in the Air” or his very own “Good Night, and Good Luck”, while at the same time maintaining the sort of suave cool befitting a James Bond or indeed a Danny Ocean. And perhaps at face value “The American” could be perceived as a throwback to those formative late 90s. But let the title not delude you, director Anton Corbijn and his star have produced something that is decidedly un-American: Indeed the feel and pacing can very well be termed art-house or European.

Screenwriter Rowan Joffe (son of Roland Joffe of “The Mission” fame) adapts the story from Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman” which takes the set-up of a very classic spy tale: Cold assassin Jack (the Clooney) is at a mid-life crisis, pursued across a continent and takes on one last job that will let him escape the espionage world forever. Forced to lie low in the remote Italian town of Castel del Monte, he gradually becomes attached to and falls in love with beautiful prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) but of course his past is destined to catch up with him. It’s not so much that there’s a huge twist at the end, “The American’s” captivating feature is doubtlessly its moody and atmospheric tone. There’s very little dialogue and overall the movie is very slow and quiet. It’s not a false sense of security Corbijn is lulling us into but rather stretches the audience out on a taught string. From the opening in  snow-covered Swedish tundra which then yields to beautiful and extremely eerie arial shots of Italian countryside, the silence is as deafening as any explosion. As a result, when outbursts of violence do punctuate the storyline, they create even greater jump-out-of-your-seat moments.

However the entire movie really rests on Cooney’s shoulders, who stands at the head of a largely unknown cast (to average Joe moviegoer eyes anyway). A difficult task maybe but not for Clooney who has proven time and time again to be a master of his art. It’s a minimalist and subdued performance, many shots for example consist of him staring blankly into space. Similarly in few scenes he shares with other characters like Paolo Bonacelli’s priest or Thelka Reuten’s fellow assassin there’s very little emotion on show, only Placido’s character can eventually get under the cracks in his hardened personality. It’s not the kind of performance that usually wins Oscar plaudits like Ryan Bingham in  “Up in the Air” but it’s still fascinating to watch Clooney weave himself into these kind of roles, backed up all the way by Corbijn’s lingering photography. As an audience we are drawn in very close, watching for example extended sequences of firearm modification and assembly. This style may be rather difficult for those expecting a Bond film to swallow but  those who have a sufficient attention span are very likely to be rewarded with some great thrills and suspense, like those old thrillers used to be.

The American OSTHerbert Grönemeyer is probably best known for his acting role in Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine classic “Das Boot” but is in fact a very popular singer-songwriter in Germany. “The American” represents his first movie score since a 1986 TV film called “Sommer in Lesmona”. His music to accompany George Clooney is a mixture of some beautiful reflections on piano, joined by orchestral strings and percussion to provide the suspense. Indeed many scenes in the film are so silent, Grönemeyer’s music is the main source of tension and even though it is placed relatively high in the mix does an excellent job of only registering subconsciously. Unlike the film, the music makes no references to the genre that inspired it but despite this it’s an excellent effort and we can only hope to hear more of Grönemeyer in the near future.

“The American” is probably not the best film in the “disillusioned spy” category but thanks to an excellently measured performance from its leading man and direction that knows exactly where it’s going, this film has a pretty good shot at it. All in all it makes for an excellently suspenseful two hours, which can claim it’s place next to the Bonds and the Bournes of this world. For fans of art-house and European style films (love the retro-poster-art by the way!) or for those seeking an introduction, it comes highly recommended.

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