Sunday, May 28, 2006

Review - X-Men: The Last Stand

Since Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film appeared in 2000, the mutants at the centre of his story have had to deal with constant persecution from the government and the public, as well as fellow mutants who have turned bad under the leadership of Magneto (Ian McKellen). The good mutants, under the stewardship of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), have handled all of these obstacles and come through the other side; but now they are faced with a threat which surely no mutant can overcome. No, not the ‘cure’ which has been developed to suppress the mutant gene; I’m talking about the awe-inspiring, destructive power of Mr Brett Ratner.

After Singer passed on directing the third instalment of this franchise, deciding instead to lend his talents to Superman Returns, the job was handed to Matthew Vaughan but, after a few weeks of production, Vaughan left the project as well. The producers eventually turned to Ratner, one of the most unimaginative, dull-witted hacks currently working in Hollywood, and gave him the task of providing a fitting finale for this franchise. But with Ratner at the helm, and after such a rocky development, it comes as little surprise that X-Men: The Last Stand is such a mess; such a shallow and insignificant waste of time.

The first two X-Men films weren’t perfect, but they were serious and intelligent films made with care and attention. Under all the expected blockbuster action, the films actually made a fair attempt to deal with very real social concerns, making their mutants a metaphor for anyone who has felt marginalized and ostracised by society. The Last Stand does little more than clumsily pay lip service to these underlying themes - with Ratner proving unwilling or unable to handle them - and what’s left on screen is nothing more than an empty spectacle.

The film starts badly, with a ‘20 years ago’ caption leading us into a scene where Xavier and Magneto (both looking like they’ve had a Botox overdose) first recruit the young Jean Grey. Suddenly, we jump forward to ‘10 years ago’ and find a young mutant engaged in a spot of self-abuse in the bathroom - slicing the wings off his back, that is. Then it’s time to hop forward to ‘the not too distant future’ and to catch our motley crew of X-Men engaged in battle with some unseen foe. Two things leap out at us from these opening segments. First of all, the jumpy start anticipates the absurdly choppy nature of the screenplay throughout the film, as it jumps wildly all over the place to little effect; and secondly we instantly learn that Brett Ratner cannot direct action sequences. This opening battle scene is barely comprehensible at times, with Ratner’s hectic approach causing confusion, and failing to inject any sort of tension or bring a tangible sense of threat into play. The first battle is eventually revealed to be just a simulation, a training exercise for rookie X-Men, but already we sense the director is out of his depth.

After a fashion, we are given something resembling a story. The big threat to the mutants’ existence here is a drug which claims to ‘cure’ the mutant gene, developed after a young mutant (Cameron Bright, who has mastered the art of the blank stare) was found whose powers seem to neutralise the power of any other mutant in the vicinity. This development motivates Magneto to lead his mutant army in a revolution against humanity, while everyone at Xavier’s school seems to be wallowing in self-reflection. Cyclops (James Marsden) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are both mourning the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who perished at the end of X2; Rogue (Anna Paquin) quite fancies the idea of a cure which will enable her to touch her boyfriend without killing him; and Storm (Halle Berry) is moping about the place as well, although I didn’t quite catch her reason to be miserable as a sudden sense of apathy came over me whenever the world’s most insipid weathergirl appeared on screen.

Soon the X-Men are roused from their lethargy by the resurrection of Jean Grey, whose personality seems to have taken a turn for the dark side since her death. Her powers far outstrip those of anyone else in the film, and when the time comes for all the mutants to do battle, both Xavier and Magneto understandably want her on their side.

The Last Stand’s set-up could have been fully exploited if Ratner had shown the insight to focus his story on Jean (by far the film’s most interesting character) or Rogue (whose desire for the controversial cure could have given the film some emotional weight), but Ratner never gives The Last Stand any sense of focus and never shows a willingness to engage with the characters’ emotions in the way Singer’s earlier films did. Instead, the film becomes a series of set-pieces, each one bigger, louder and less impressive than the last; and the moments in between the various action scenes seem to be little more than filler material, marking time until something else blows up. The dialogue is utterly banal, and the film never displays a spark of wit, humour or intelligence in its 104 minutes.

Another major problem The Last Stand never manages to overcome is the sheer number of characters which are stuffed into every corner of the film. I always felt that X2 suffered from having too many characters running in too many different directions, but here there are even more mutants to get to grips with; and with so many new arrivals, the actors are inevitably feeding off scraps. Kelsey Grammer (looking like a particularly well-groomed Smurf) struggles to express any sort of personality under his heavy makeup and Vinnie Jones (an unfortunate relic from Vaughan’s short stint as director) is nothing short of embarrassing as Juggernaut.

There are more mutants to meet and greet along the way, but I didn’t catch half of their names and few of them are given any sort of purpose. At one point, Magneto literally announces a number of new members from a checklist, which pretty much sums up the perfunctory nature of these characters’ introductions.

It’s left to the series’ stalwarts to salvage this film, and they give it their best shot. McKellen and Stewart inject the same note of gravitas and class which they lent to the two previous films, but the one real strength of The Last Stand lies in the relationship between Jean and Wolverine. Janssen gives a performance full of intensity and passion as the woman torn between the two sides of her nature, and whatever sense of emotion the film does contain is provided almost exclusively by her. What a pity Ratner squanders this terrific display by making Janssen stand around in the background for so much of the film’s second hour, an observer who is far more compelling than the action in front of us. For his part, Jackman again gives a muscular and sardonic portrayal of Wolverine, and the scenes which these two actors share are comfortably the best The Last Stand has to offer.

What else does it have to offer? Not much. The film builds towards a climax which is spectacular and explosive but completely lacking in any sense of catharsis or consequence. The big set-piece, in which Magneto brings down the Golden Gate Bridge, is hamstrung by poor effects (noticeable throughout) and a remarkable continuity oversight which sees the action on the bridge take place during bright daylight, until the bridge hits the ground and we’re suddenly plunged into darkness. I assume Ratner decided the subsequent explosions would look a lot cooler at night and took the chance that nobody would notice the sudden shift; but this one incident speaks to a carelessness and contempt for the viewer which permeates the entire film.

If this is, as the title indicates, the last in the X-Men series, then it’s a sad way for a once promising franchise to end. When Singer left, it seems he took everything that was good about the X-Men films with him, and The Last Stand is a long slow death rattle. Or is it? Towards the end of the film a number of heavy hints are made regarding the possibility of yet another entry in the franchise; let’s hope these hints come to nothing. One of these late signifiers actually occurs after the end credits, but I’m sure a number of fans will miss it - they’ll already be filing their way slowly out the cinema, shaking their heads at the sad demise of their heroes. The evolution of the X-Men stops here.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Review - Once in a Lifetime

In the long story of football’s emergence as the world’s number one sport, the game’s struggle to secure a place in the heart of Americans has provided a fascinating subplot. With American football, baseball, basketball and hockey to contend with, football (or soccer) has never really managed to gain a strong foothold in the country; with the average Americans proving unwilling to follow a low-scoring sport played in continuous 45-minute chunks.

It’s a different story these days, of course. While Football hasn’t reached the level of popularity enjoyed by the original American sports, at least it has now found some acceptance, with more youngsters coming into the game and an established league which is growing in stature. The United States national team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, and is now placed as one of the top ten nations in the world by the FIFA rankings. Finally, football seems to have found its place in American life, and many people would credit/blame (depending on your view) one man for bringing the beautiful game to the US - Steve Ross.

Ross was the CEO of Warner Communications. He was a dreamer, a visionary and a huge sports fan; so what could be a greater challenge than bringing an entirely new sport to the American public? Once in a Lifetime is a highly entertaining documentary which charts the astonishing rise, and inevitable collapse, of The New York Cosmos; the dream team Ross put together in his bid to change the face of American sport. It’s a story full of everything you want from a good documentary; money, clashing egos, sex, and scandal. As Rodney Marsh puts it, “The Cosmos were everything that was good, and everything that was bad, about football in America”.

Stylistically, Once in a Lifetime contains striking to similarities to recent documentaries such as Inside Deep Throat and The Kid Stays in the Picture; blending well-chosen footage with snappy editing techniques and a hip soundtrack, to create a film which makes up in entertainment value what it lacks in substance. Filmmakers Paul Crowder and John Dowder are more concerned with spinning a good yarn than giving an in-depth analysis of the Cosmos’ impact on the United States, and in this respect they certainly deliver.

Chief among Once in a Lifetime’s assets is its impressive line-up of interviewees. Steve Ross is no longer with us, but the filmmakers have managed to get almost everyone involved in the Cosmos’ rise and fall to open up on camera. Those who were Warner employees at the time and who helped him build his dream team are gleefully honest about their ignorance of the game, with Raphael de la Sierra admitting that he had no idea how many players a football team should have, and another contributor remarks “I didn’t know what a header was, I thought giving great head was something else entirely”. But Steve Ross knew what he was doing, and he knew that this sport would only leave its mark with the help of the world’s greatest player.

The purchase of Pele is where the story of the New York Cosmos really takes flight. One interviewee predicts that Once in a Lifetime will resemble Rashomon by the end, and with the amount of conflicting reports on show he’s not far wide of the mark. Everyone tries to claim the credit for signing Pele, and nobody can agree on just how much money the Brazilian earned; but what’s beyond dispute is the fact that Pele earned millions during his brief stint in America, and the sport suddenly leaped onto a new level as soon as he set foot in the country.

Pele is sadly absent from the roster of contributors. With his own autobiography and documentary to promote he has declined to take part (although the fact that Crowder and Dowder cheekily announce his decision with the sound of a cash register may indicate the real reason behind his non-appearance), but the range and quality of interviews on offer still provide great value. There are some great anecdotes on offer here, recalling the sheer craziness which surrounded this team. There’s the way the dreadful pitch was spray-painted green in preparation for Pele’s debut; goalkeeper Shep Messing’s attempt to gain exposure for the team by posing nude; and Franz Beckenbauer laughingly recalls Mick Jagger’s surprise appearance in the dressing room. Onetime Tampa Bay Rowdies star Rodney Marsh tells of his first interview in the US, when he was asked if he was “the white Pele” and he replied “no, Pele is the black Rodney Marsh” - a comment which is followed by footage of Marsh being clattered to the ground by the Brazilian in his first match.

Once in a Lifetime even has a pantomime villain on show, in the shape of Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia. Chinaglia was a goal machine who joined the Cosmos revolution and immediately began disrupting the dressing room harmony with his criticisms of Pele and egotistical behaviour. “He was Italian, scored a lot of goals, spoke English with a Welsh accent - and that’s about all the good things I can say about him” remarks a former team-mate, and few of those interviewed seem happy with the way Chinaglia became Ross’s confidante and slowly exerted his influence all over the club. This was the beginning of the end for the Cosmos, but Tony Soprano lookalike Chinaglia seems unperturbed as he chuckles through his reminiscence.

Once in a Lifetime is a tad uneven in places, and doesn’t really explore the reasons for the Cosmos’ failure or its influence on American culture in any great depth, but it’s as slick and stylish a documentary as you’re likely to see. Snappy editing is the order of the day as Crowder and Dowder put their footage and interviews together with a consummate ease and professionalism. Matt Dillon narrates in understated fashion, and the funky soundtrack helps keep things lively, with a number of 70’s hits present alongside some footy favourites such as Nessun Dorma. Unfortunately these songs are occasionally a little too literal in relation to the action, and setting a montage of Franz Beckenbauer goals to Ride of the Valkyries was perhaps ill-advised.

The Cosmos eventually imploded as the sport failed to catch the attention of the American public. But the film doesn’t paint Ross as a failure; in fact it could be argued, in this era of Real Madrid’s Galacticos and Chelsea’s Abramovich revolution, that his only mistake was being thirty years ahead of his time. Football is now a thriving pastime in the US and it’s shame Ross didn’t live to see his dream bear fruit, as he died in 1992, two years before America would host the World Cup.

Once in a Lifetime does suffer from the absence of its two biggest players, Pele and Steve Ross, but it still offers enough superb footage, hilarious stories, and toe-tapping music to make it worth a look. With the domestic season over, and the World Cup yet to begin, football fans everywhere will surely be delighted to hear that Once in a Lifetime guarantees a terrific ninety minutes.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Review - The Da Vinci Code

Purely in terms of box-office, The Da Vinci Code is a sure thing. Dan Brown’s novel has become one of the most successful books of all time, with various spin-off books raking in even more cash, and television programmes debating the potential for truth in what is, essentially, a fairly preposterous work of fiction. Now the Hollywood version has finally been inflicted upon us. With one of the most mainstream-friendly directors in cinema at the helm, an A-list cast on board, and a ready-made fan base ready to swallow the movie whole regardless of quality; it’s a recipe for success which surely can’t fail.

On a business level, the makers of The Da Vinci Code haven’t failed - their film is going to be a huge financial success come what may - but as an artistic endeavour, the film is an utter catastrophe. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly whether this mess is the fault of director Ron Howard, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman or Brown himself, but I’d argue that the attempt to put this story on screen has thrown the inadequacies of all three into sharp relief.
As one of the handful of people in the western world who haven’t yet read The Da Vinci Code (and after this, never will), I can’t really comment on the film’s handling of the translation from page to screen, but others have assured me that Goldsman’s adaptation is relatively faithful, so the blame for this film’s ridiculous plot must lie with Dan Brown. The story, such as it is, follows Robert Langdon (played by a permanently constipated Tom Hanks), a renowned cryptologist who is called in by the French police when a curator is found murdered at the Louvre. We’ve already seen how Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) met his maker, shot by murderous albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany); but after taking a bullet, it seems Sauniere still had the time and the will to take off all his clothes, make strange markings on his body, leave cryptic messages all over the place, and die in a pose which recalls Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Wow, what a way to go.

The clues Sauniere left will lead Langdon on a quest to uncover a secret which has been buried for thousands of years; namely, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had children, and his descendants are walking the earth to this day. Langdon is aided in his crusade by Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a pretty police cryptologist who also happens to be Sauniere’s granddaughter, and by Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an eccentric (i.e. English) expert on the various myths and legends surrounding Jesus. Standing in our heroes’ way is a no-nonsense French copper named Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) and the aforementioned Silas, who enjoys nothing more than a spot of self-flagellation as a respite from all those nasty murders.

The Da Vinci Code follows a very straightforward narrative structure. Landon and Sophie find a clue, explain in detail what this clue means, and then they are led to another clue. Occasionally, they find themselves escaping death by the skin of their teeth (they are saved by a pigeon at one point) or getting involved in a fight with Silas. This pattern is repeated ad infinitum throughout Goldsman’s leaden screenplay, and The Da Vinci Code quickly reveals itself to be a terrible bore.

Goldsman’s adaptation, whether it does remain faithful to the book or not, is a simply dreadful piece of screenwriting. Had The Da Vinci Code never existed in book form, it’s almost inconceivable that a screenplay this bad would have ever been made. Admittedly, there is a lot of exposition which the film needs to get across to the viewer in places, but Goldsman’s approach seems to assume that the audience need to be spoon-fed every single little piece of information lest they should find it hard to keep up. Whenever Langdon and Sophie discover something, they have an unfortunate habit of shouting it out to each other a couple of times to make it plain for the viewer. In fact, nobody in The Da Vinci Code ever seems to say anything which isn’t expositional in some way - it’s all plot, plot, plot; and character or emotion doesn’t get a look-in. With so little to work with, it’s unsurprising to see the actors’ performances suffer.

Poor old Tom Hanks. Stuck with a bad haircut and no character, Hanks struggles to invest some sort of life into a hero who never gets to do anything heroic. He is one of the most intelligent and likeable leading men in American film, but he looks thoroughly miserable here and the result is one of the few really wooden and charmless performances I’ve seen him deliver. Audrey Tautou has to face the twin obstacles of (a) acting in her second language and (b) uttering Akiva Goldsman’s unspeakable dialogue, a double whammy few actors could overcome. Paul Bettany is slightly more interesting as Silas, giving a committed display which is full of intensity, but he’s never really scary for all his commendable effort.

Some relief is provided by Ian McKellen’s appearance after a very long and dull first hour. McKellen has the good sense to not take this nonsense seriously, and his amusingly arch turn thankfully alleviates some of the tedium which descends on the film. McKellen tends to be at the centre of the film’s better moments, offering some of the few intentional laughs (as opposed to the numerous unintentional laughs elsewhere), and he is such a fine actor that he can convincingly switch moods in an instant.

Unfortunately, such relief is hard to find in The Da Vinci Code’s numbing 149 minutes. During the second half of the picture the action switches from Paris to London, but the change of scenery can’t disguise the fact that the plot stopped making sense a long time ago, and the final half-hour falls embarrassingly flat.

Ron Howard seems completely lost with this material. To make The Da Vinci Code work, you’d need a director with a taste for the gothic and macabre (Oh, for a latter day Hitchcock), but Howard’s trademark blandly inoffensive style brings nothing to the party; no atmosphere, no spark, no style. Howard also commits the cardinal sin of overloading the film with an excessive amount of flashbacks. Every time a character mentions a historical event, we are transported there to witness it, and each character also gets a little mini-movie depicting their own past traumas. However, these flashbacks tend to obscure and confuse matters more than they clarify, and they just make this overstuffed, horrendously edited film even more bloated.

Prior to The Da Vinci Code’s release there has been a maelstrom of controversy surrounding the film’s central ideas, its stance on Christianity, and its depiction of albinos. To be honest, it’s really not worth the effort. Nobody should do this ludicrous film the honour of being offended by it, and the only thing that truly is offensive about The Da Vinci Code is how bad it is. The Da Vinci Code is an illogical, uninteresting, borderline incompetent film which is a failure on almost every level; but does it matter? Regardless of critical opinion, fans of Brown’s book will still flock to screenings with zealous enthusiasm, and it will undoubtedly be one of the biggest hits of the summer. There may be nothing of value here, but the mystifying success of The Da Vinci Code shows no signs of stopping.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Review - Brick

We’ve had Shakespeare and Jane Austin updated for modern American teenagers, so why not noir? Brick takes the hard-boiled dialogue, Byzantine plotting, laconic heroes and femme fatales which writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were famed for, and it transfers them all to a contemporary Californian High School. This neat conceit is the brainchild of first-time writer/director Rian Johnson, and his film has struck a chord with audiences already, being one of the most acclaimed films at this year’s Sundance festival.

Unfortunately Brick didn’t quite hit the mark for me. It’s a damn shame to report that a film with so many impressive elements, with so much effort gone into crafting its singular style, doesn’t add up to a hill of beans; but Brick’s gimmicky, self-consciously hip style proves to be its undoing.

Brick’s plot is a tangled web, which would be a chore to explain in any sort of detail, but here’s the briefest of outlines. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is our resident gumshoe. He doesn’t look like a particularly heroic character, with his shaggy haircut and spectacles, but he’s a smart cookie with a sharp wit and the ability to both throw and take a punch. Brendan is called into action when he receives a plea for help over the phone from his distraught ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The next time Brendan sees Emily she tells him to drop it, but then she winds up dead, and Brendan remains doggedly determined to find who or what was behind her demise.

Soon Brendan finds himself immersed in a whole netherworld of drugs and murder which is lorded over by a shadowy character known as The Pin (Lukas Haas), who is something of a mythical figure amongst local teens (“he’s old, like, 26”). From here, the plotting becomes ever more dense, with twists piled upon twists until it becomes almost indecipherable. In truth, following the story is not really a prerequisite for enjoying Brick, because the surface style with which the story is told is ultimately this film’s raison d'être.

What Johnson is attempting to do with Brick is not to parody the noir genre, but to translate it faithfully into another era; and while the film is occasionally very funny, it is more successful in the way it expresses the mood and themes of the classic detective stories it's based on - the obsession, the sense of righteousness - and it admirably steers clear of the lazy, clichéd visual tropes which noir homage/pastiche films often resort to. I just wish it worked as well as it deserves to.

The first problem with Brick is Johnson’s dialogue. The patter is brusque, cool and snappy, with words fired out of the actors’ mouths like bullets. The writer/director also comes up with some dazzling lines which leap off the screen - “I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you”, Brendan tells a group of potheads - but it sounds like dialogue which was written for streetwise, world-weary characters, and it never sounds convincing coming out of these teens. Many of the young actors visibly struggle with the rhythms and speech patterns required to make Johnson’s language work, with Nora Zehetner and Meagan Good two of the most obvious casualties, and while the occasional line might make the indulgent viewer smile, too much of the dialogue is mumbled unintelligibly; too fast or too inaudible to catch.

As a result, I was lost in a haze of confusion quite early on with Brick; straining to catch a word here or there in the hope of making some sense of it all. Confusion often comes as standard with noir (think of Howard Hawk’s notoriously convoluted The Big Sleep, which perplexed even Chandler himself), but the best films in the genre can overcome such issues by giving us strong characters or a memorable atmosphere, while Johnson seems to be so enamoured with his clever dialogue and tricky direction that he fails to back it up with anything of substance.

The characters in Brick are more archetypes than real, believable people. The shady villain, the femme fatale, the know-it-all informer, the volatile brute - all these figures are present and correct. Many of them are well played, with Lukas Haas proving memorable and Matt O’Leary giving strong support as Brendan’s man with the info. But these characters are never fleshed out and seem to solely exist on the surface, making it hard to care when the various players are meeting with their comeuppance.

The notable exception is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who at least gives the film a strong central character to work around. After his astonishing performance in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin last year, this is a remarkable about-face from Levitt which displays a whole other range of acting skills. Of all the film’s actors, he seems the most naturally comfortable with the demands of the dialogue; and his overall display is charming, ambiguous and compelling. It’s another superb role which marks Levitt as the most interesting actor of his generation.

Rian Johnson, too, clearly has bundles of talent. Aside from his aforementioned ability to turn a phrase (“I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed”), his direction here is often striking, and many of the scenes are expertly staged. Johnson also handles comedy well, and a number of the film’s finest moments are the ones played for laughs, such as The Pin doing deals while his mother serves milk and cookies, or Brendan’s shouting match with his Vice Principal (Richard Roundtree) which recalls all those scenes in which a detective has it out with some stuffy DA (“if you’ve got a discipline issue with me, write me up or suspend me. Otherwise, I‘ll see you at the parent conference”). Perhaps Johnson will produce something really special in the future, when he learns to invest some heart and soul into his work, but right now his style leaves me cold.

Brick is ultimately a much easier film to admire than like. It’s as if Johnson is a boy taking on a man’s genre; and while the film may be fairly impressive as an exercise in style, it’s still a hugely frustrating and absurdly uninvolving experience. Translating noir to today’s High School kids must have seemed like a good idea in theory, but nothing in this slick but empty picture ever felt real to me. Clearly Brick is too cool for school, it’s also a good deal too cool for its own good.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Review - Mission: Impossible III

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to enjoy Mission: Impossible III. Achieving this goal will require suspension of disbelief, the ability to ignore a derivative screenplay, and the acceptance of endless explosions and stunts as an adequate substitute for characterisation and plot. This review will self-destruct in five seconds…”

Hasn't the best part about Mission: Impossible - from the original TV series to the big screen versions - always occurred right at the start? When that dynamite fuse sparked into life, the classic Lalo Schifrin theme tune kicked in, and the IMF agents were informed of their tasks - those were always the highlights, with the subsequent missions almost an afterthought. Even the wording of the agents' brief was great; "your mission, should you choose to accept it” - how nice of them to offer a choice.

Since starring in the Brian De Palma film which launched this franchise in 1996, Tom Cruise has made the Mission: Impossible series his own. He reprised his role in 2001, with John Woo's Mission: Impossible II, but to utterly dismal effect. With his ludicrous 'lone wolf' heroics being lovingly admired by Woo's coma-inducing use of slow-motion, the film ended up looking like an bloated, disastrous egotrip; and it seemed we had heard the last from agent Ethan Hunt. But Cruise has been the driving force behind another Mission: Impossible sequel, sticking with the project as it lost various directors and cast members left, right and centre; and M:i:III (as it insists on labelling itself) is now with us.

Straight away, one can see a number of improvements M:i:III (what an ugly appellation that is) sports over its immediate predecessor. Cruise's hair is now under control, with the floppy locks of M:i:II being traded for an eminently more sensible cut which recalls his appearance in Mission: Impossible, and that's not the only resemblance we notice here. Brian De Palma's snappy thriller contained a weak, almost negligible plot which was bolstered by three or four expertly staged action sequences; a structure which surprisingly worked like a charm, and a recipe for success which M:i:III tries to repeat.

Director JJ Abrams, who has secured this gig on the basis of his hit TV shows Alias and Lost, opens M:i:III in attention-grabbing style. Our hero is shackled to a chair, bloody and seemingly beaten, and his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) is tied an adjacent chair with a gun being pointed at her head. The gun is being held by Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a very nasty weapons dealer who is giving Hunt the count of ten to tell him where a device called the 'Rabbit's Foot' is, or his new wife will get it. The decision to add one of Hunt's loved ones into the Mission: Impossible mix is an obvious attempt to humanise Ethan Hunt, to make him a more convincing proposition for the audience, and to steer him away from the ludicrously invincible character who high-kicked his way through M:i:II. This approach is partly successful, but it also necessitates a number of embarrassingly twee and clichéd scenes which detail the pair's happy life together.

After that jolting opening, M:i:III flashes back to show us just how Ethan Hunt got himself into such a predicament. Having retired from field duties to train young agents, Hunt is pulled back into action when an agent (Keri Russell) goes missing in action, an agent who happens to have been Hunt's star protégé. With his loyal team of Luther (Ving Rhames), Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen (Maggie Q) on board, Hunt launches a daring raid on Davian's reputed hideaway - but after his mission ends in tragedy he decides to go after Davian personally.

That's your plot right there. It's straightforward stuff which is complicated by disloyal agents, plenty of face-swapping and the fact that the aforementioned 'Rabbit's Foot' is little more than a macguffin which exists in order to facilitate plenty of explosive action. The story is a load of old nonsense, in other words, but nonsense can still be fun if it's done in the right way. Mission: Impossible III does eventually offer viewers a fair slice of blockbuster entertainment, but it's not the flat-out success it ought to be.

After the pre-credits flash-forward, M:i:III takes a while to click into gear. The aforementioned 'happy couple' scenes between Cruise and Monaghan are awkward and unconvincing, and the first big action sequence - the attempted rescue of the young agent - is a bit of a mess. The sequence is overly hectic and clumsily handled by Abrams, with his shaky camerawork and rapid cuts obscuring much of the action. Things improve slightly during the completely daft Vatican heist which is at least put together with a little more care and wit, and you can almost sense Abrams growing in confidence as the film progresses. Once we reach M:i:III's spectacular bridge sequence it feels like the film has finally found its stride - a fortunate turn of events, because I was starting to lose interest after the laboured opening half. The bridge scene is a real show-stopper which rouses the whole film from its slumber, and Abrams doesn't let the pace flag from this point onwards.

We are subsequently bombarded with scene after scene of Tom Cruise being thrown from pillar to post like the world's most expensive rag doll. The leading man, as you'd expect, is as professional as ever in the midst of all this; Ethan Hunt is a perfect role for him and he's in his element here, but he fortunately allows a few other characters to step into his limelight this time. Recent Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman is on terrific form as Davian, underplaying to excellent effect as the pleasingly brutal villain. Michelle Monaghan works hard to overcome her complete lack of chemistry with Cruise, and Ving Rhames again adds a nice level of humour to his sidekick role; but Maggie Q (gorgeous but ineffective) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (terrible) are barely given any sort of characters to work with.

M:i:III takes off in a new direction for the climax, offering a sense of physicality and pain which is a surprising and welcome change of pace after the incessant action which leads us there. There really seems to be something at stake at the finale, which isn't usually the case, and the decision to strip down the film's climax to focus on the people at the centre of it is one of Abrams' smartest moves.

When all is said and done, Mission: Impossible III is a significant improvement over John Woo's risible effort, while lacking the necessary sense of focus and invention to match De Palma's original. What ultimately cripples the film is the overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Much of M:i:III feels familiar from
True Lies, various Bond films, the Bourne pictures and the previous instalments in this series itself; and while the big set-pieces work well, much of the film feels stale and predictable.

There doesn't seem to be much mileage left in the Mission: Impossible franchise now; Abrams has crafted a well-made, enjoyable but ultimately forgettable sequel which should bring down the curtain on this series. Mr Cruise may yet want one more crack at saving the world, but if IMF do offer Ethan Hunt another impossible mission, let's hope for all our sakes he chooses not to accept it.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Review - 16 Blocks

Bruce Willis has played a lot of cops in his time, and at the start of 16 Blocks it looks like the strain is finally beginning to show. When we first meet Lieutenant Jack Mosley, the character Willis plays in Richard Donner‘s film, he’s about as far from the heroic, wisecracking John McClane as one could imagine. With a pronounced limp and a boozer’s belly hanging over his belt, Mosley ambles his way into an early morning crime scene and, after searching the premises for alcohol, he slumps heavily into a chair and begins to drink his troubles away - starting the day as he means to go on.

This is not a Bruce Willis we’re used to seeing. His appearance and his actions instantly makes us sit up and take notice; is this guy really the film’s hero? He looks like he can barely walk in a straight line and his reputation among fellow officers is pretty low too. Mosley is given basic babysitting duties to carry out, tasks that even he can’t screw up, like watching over a crime scene or transporting a prisoner from jail to the courthouse. The prisoner is Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), a star witness who is due to appear in front of the Grand Jury, and Mosley only has to take him to a destination 16 blocks away; but when some violent attempts are made en route to ensure Eddie’s silence, Jack has to sober up fast.
The set-up’s a good one. Eddie was due to testify against a dirty cop so the killers on their tale are actually a number of Jack’s colleagues, led by his partner of twenty years Frank Nugent (a nicely malevolent turn from David Morse), and Jack must get his charge to court before 10am or the whole case will collapse. 16 Blocks unfolds in something pretty close to real time and as Jack and Eddie lead us on a cat-and-mouse chase across New York, it’s often a breathless, thrilling ride.

16 Blocks is something of a return to form for director Richard Donner, whose output since the glory days of his Lethal Weapon franchise has been mediocre at best and Timeline at worst. Here, he seems to have regained some of the snap and fizz he injected into his earlier pictures, and the opening half hour of 16 Blocks is sensationally good. After a few moments in his car, with the non-stop, nasally chatter of Eddie driving him mad, Jack pulls over to fill up on alcohol. When he emerges from the bar, he finds two gunmen about to shut Eddie up permanently and after a brief shootout, Jack and Eddie speed away from the scene with all the corrupt cops in the NYPD on their tail.

All this is brilliantly orchestrated by Donner, but after a cracking start he soon begins to let things slide. The action becomes unfortunately predictable and plausibility is stretched to breaking point as Richard Wenk’s screenplay contrives a series of predicaments for our heroes to become embroiled in. The film’s real-time gambit should lead to considerable tension but 16 Blocks occasionally feels longer than its 105 minutes, with the brief flurries of action followed by inert scenes in which a large amount of unnecessary exposition is gracelessly brought into the picture. 16 Blocks never quite manages to recapture the electricity of its opening, but it always holds the attention; and much of that is down to the interplay between the two leads.

Bruce Willis is a reliable leading man and here he gives his usual solid, committed performance but with a little bit extra thrown into the mix. The term ‘world-weary’ doesn’t begin to do Jack Mosley justice. His heavy-lidded expression, crumpled suits and shuffling gait hint at a life in which any sense of pain or guilt has been washed away in a tide of alcohol. Jack is a dirty cop, a lazy cop, but he’s a good man at heart; and his awakening sense of righteousness is convincingly etched by Willis in a thoughtful, generous performance.

As the other half of 16 Blocks’ central odd couple, the unusual portrayal of Eddie Bunker is more of a test. Rapper Mos Def has already shown himself to be a fine and subtle screen actor, but or some reason he has adopted a bizarre nasal whine for this role - like some unholy cross between Bugs Bunny and Jerry Lewis - which makes this talkative character almost unbearable at first. “I believe that life is too long and people like you only make it longer” Jack groans after a mere couple of minutes in Eddie’s company, and few audience members would be inclined to disagree with him at this point. But then something strange happens, we start to like the guy.

I’m not sure how or when this change of perspective occurred, but before too long I really began to care about Eddie’s fate. Mos Def invests his character with a strong sense of humanity and skilfully avoids the pitfalls such a potentially stereotypical character could fall into. He and Willis have real rapport, the bickering interplay between them is snappy, and Donner once again proves his expertise at handling such buddy movie dynamics. It was a daring move to present us with a character this irritating and expect him to grow on us the same way he does on Jack, but full credit to all those involved for pulling it off.

16 Blocks just about manages to keep on track towards the climax, but it almost careers off into disaster in the final third. Wenk overreaches himself by trying to take things onto a bigger scale and, after some drastic, not wholly convincing changes of heart by the central characters, the film’s ending seems to be pushed far beyond its natural length. It doesn’t help that Donner has emptied his box of tricks by this point and his direction has become repetitive and sloppy - with his over-reliance on ‘trick reveals’ a particularly cheap way of generating tension. His determination to steer this movie towards a happy ending, whatever the cost, also works against it, with cheap emotional coercion the order of the day in the final third.

16 Blocks is almost two movies in one, with the gritty, violent, 70’s style action of the first half seemingly at odds with the moralising and manipulative nature of the second. Ultimately, it just about works enough of the time to make it worth seeing, and the chemistry between Willis and Mos Def raises the standard of the whole picture a notch or two. It’s a bumpy ride from the jail to the courthouse, and the filmmakers often take an unfortunately circuitous approach, but Eddie and Jack are pretty good company for the journey, and it’s by no means the worst 16 blocks you’ll ever travel.