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Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

The Mission: Impossible movie franchise always seems to find a way to outdo itself.  Generally, I believe they’ve become progressively better films with each sequel, which is not the norm.  In the least, they always happen to trump the big action sequences of the previous film.  I absolutely LOVED the third film through and through.  I felt it was great!  Still, now that we’re at a fourth movie, have the filmmakers been able to keep up this strenuous challenge and succeed?  Well, I surely couldn’t make a full judgment until the very end of the film as there are a few reassuring tags there.  I do have some reservations about this film, but that’s not to say it wasn’t entirely enjoyable and entertaining.

A nuclear extremist known as Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist) seeks to obtain launch codes for Russian nuclear missiles.  He intends to ignite a nuclear war to eliminate the weak from humanity to force the next stage of human evolution.  An IMF operation, ran by Agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), to intercept those codes goes awry when assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux) promptly kills an IMF Agent and steals them for Cobalt.  In response to this, the IMF sends Agent Carter and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) to extract Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of a Russian prison so that he can head up the mission to infiltrate the Moscow Kremlin, and locate files which identify Cobalt.  However, everything goes wrong when someone hijacks the team’s communications signal to alert security to their presence, and then, detonates a bomb destroying the Kremlin.  The IMF team is blamed for the bombing as an act of terrorism.  The U.S. President initiates “Ghost Protocol” which disavows the entire IMF, but the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) gives Hunt an unsanctioned mission to bring down Cobalt along with his team without the aid of back-up.  Incidentally added to Ethan’s team is William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Mr. Secretary’s Chief Analyst who has some personal secrets he must struggle with, and exceptional skills which attract Ethan to question just who Brandt really is.  Ethan Hunt’s team must learn to work together beyond their personal vendettas and internal conflicts to avert nuclear disaster.

Really, my only major scrutiny with this movie is the untapped potential of Jeremy Renner and his character of Brandt.  Renner plays his role exceptionally well hitting all the beats, both obvious and subtle, and he definitely is leading role material.  He surely handles the action requirements with amazing precision and physical sharpness.  My problem is that Brandt seems like a very interesting character to explore that could’ve been used as a more critical element in the story.  More of the plot could have been hung on him in either an internal or external fashion.  I believe a lot of talk leading up to this film was that Renner would be put into a position where he could possibly take over as the lead if Tom Cruise chose to step down from the franchise.  While that was in the back of my mind, it was Renner and the character or Brandt himself that drive this feeling in me.  There appears to be so much more to develop out of Brandt, and make him a more prominent player in the story.  However, that’s not the agenda here.  We get some general mystery about him, and a few moments for Renner to shine.  Still, at the end of the movie, despite obtaining some absolution, he’s still just another member of the team.  It’s not a situation of the filmmakers leaving you wanting more because they don’t give you enough of him in the forefront to whet your appetite.  It’s unutilized potential of the right actor in the right role.  Renner is very capable and quite impressive with everything he presents in this film.  I just wish he was given a chance to standout more instead of exclusively being part of the supporting cast.  Maybe there’s a chance he’ll reappear in a future sequel, but the IMF team mostly changes with every movie.  Still, I have to hope for a better expectation.

That leads me to a small issue.  Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell is not part of this team.  However, he does have a brief appearance in the film’s final scene which is a nice coda to the adventure, but his rapport with Cruise is rather missed.  It’s always been a highlight of franchise, but in a way, I understand why he was not part of the team.  Part of the story is about a team that’s untested with one another having to find cohesion when they have no back-up and no resources to smooth out their mission.  Putting Ethan and Luther back together would work against that idea and dynamic.  So, I am glad there’s a story driven purpose to his general absence.  Thankfully, Rhames’ single scene is quite funny, and it’s nice that they threw us that bone.

Beyond all that is pristine cinematic action gold.  Like I said, each film finds a way to outdo the action set pieces of the last one.  It’s not just the size of the building they break into, but the tension and various story elements that surround those sequences which enhance them further.  Early in the film, Ethan has to scale the world’s tallest building in Dubai to break into a computer server room, and the electronic suction gloves start malfunctioning, forcing Ethan to slowly abandon the tech for human ability.  It doesn’t even end there as nothing goes along perfectly, and he has to keep improvising when the time comes for an escape.  Ghost Protocol piles on more and more elements to make the peril higher and the tension tighter.  Plus, what I like about this franchise is that action sequences don’t end where they would in other films.  Here, Ethan Hunt finds a way to keep it going.  An on foot chase sequence gets a sandstorm thrown into the mix, and then, it turns into a car chase in a sandstorm.  Mission: Impossible really lives up to its name by pushing the limits of what is possible by forcing its characters to do the extraordinary.

How the team works these operations is also very inventive.  The team has to do what I call a “double fake-out” when trying to intercept the nuclear launch codes between the assassin and the buyer.  They have to divide and conquer by impersonating both sides.  I won’t spoil anything, but I found it to be a very original idea that further re-enforces that this has never been a lazy franchise.  They don’t go the route of any other action film.  They get smart, and work out far more satisfying scenarios which increase the entertainment value and story quality.  There’s plenty of time for the action pay-off later as a cleverly woven plot is something I will always give great credit for.  The plot is well crafted and nicely paced making the action scenes work for the story twists, and allowing the characters’ personalities to drive the action.

I am indeed a Tom Cruise fan.  Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money, Interview With The Vampire, & Collateral are all highlights that I thoroughly enjoy.  Why people are surprised when a Tom Cruise movie is actually good is beyond me.  He has gotten a lot flack for his personal life craziness, but as a professional, he brings it every time.  He is absolutely one of the best actors of his generation, and he has a very solid professional business sense.  He makes great films year after year, decade after decade.  They are blockbuster hits, and modern cinematic gems.  Plus, you can see he pushes himself to the max with these action scenes by performing many of his own stunts.  He indeed did the scaling of the Burj Khalifa Tower himself entirely.  With that precarious height, I thought it would’ve been a green screen effect like when Batman jumped off that Hong Kong skyscraper in The Dark Knight.  Not at all.  Plus, the man can RUN like I’ve never seen anyone do.  When he is running on screen, you believe he is running for dear life with unwavering determination.  Cruise is clearly in incredible shape, and he doesn’t allow himself to slack off in any aspect.  As Ethan Hunt, he keeps bringing more layers to the character, and maintains an emotional continuity that creates a linking thread between every film.  The screenwriters never forgot to touch upon what Ethan has been through and resolve that for Cruise and the fans.  While this entry doesn’t have the deep personal and emotional motivations for Ethan as the previous sequel, Cruise still leads the film with his usual diverse qualities handling all the dramatic, charming, physically intense, and humorous moments with perfect balance.

Now, I surely want to spotlight Josh Holloway’s amazing sequence at the film’s start.  I would definitely love to see a whole film with that amazing, action capable character.  That’s no knock on Ethan Hunt, but seeing what Josh Holloway he does as Agent Hanaway in such a brief appearance really set an amazing tone for the rest of the film.  It was a very exciting and dynamic way to introduce the character.

In comparison with M:I-3, I can only say that this film lacks a strong antagonist.  Philip Seymour Hoffman was such a blockbuster villain as Owen Davian in the previous installment, and would be a hard act to follow.  This time through, the villain of Hendricks is not given much presence in the story.  It’s more focused on the nuclear threat, and the IMF team trying to absolve themselves of their alleged crimes.  That’s not a bad thing at all, and maybe it’s better to change up that dynamic on occasion.  Still, on the villainous front, Léa Seydoux is quite exceptional as the assassin Sabine Moreau.  She has a dangerous presence, and backs that up well in her fight scenes.  Plus, she has a very cool sexiness to her.  Clearly, she’s physically attractive, but as Moreau, she creates en engaging quality with her coldly confident attitude.  She is a top level professional, and has many subtle things going on that create a fully dimensional character with a definite personality and skill set.

And speaking of good women of action, Paula Patton eventually proves to be very solid.  Her character of Jane Carter starts off as a slightly shaky agent due to the awry events at the film’s start.  However, as the film progresses, she comes more into her own, and reasserts control of her wits and confidence.  First, she shows how action capable she is, but later, is able to mix that field savvy with a very strong sexiness.  I’m not saying that such a character requires a sexy edge, but as a man, I happen to notice these things quite prominently.  Simply put, it is a compliment for Ms. Patton and the character she portrays here.

I also want to give very pleasing praise to Anil Kapoor in his suave and charismatic, yet playfully entertaining role as Indian multimedia mogul Brij Nath.  He works opposite Paula in the scene where her assertive sexiness takes form, and the two play off one another so well.  As Nath, Kapoor really takes a relatively minor character, and makes him really standout.  Such an actor was necessary to keep the audience hooked into this part of the story, and it was done with exceptional success.  Nath was a highly enjoyable character that added some extra flavor of fun late in the film.

Of course, speaking of fun performances, right from start, Simon Pegg brings his rich comedic ability to the movie reprising his role of Benjamin Dunn.  At one point, I was afraid they would exploit it too much, but it eventually settles down into a situation-relevant personality trait which never hijacks the film’s tone.

Generally, I have nothing bad to say about the cinematography, but I also don’t have anything exceptional to say about it.  I always remember some shots from the previous films of large dramatic scope.  Something that allows you to take in the magnitude of a location or beat before a dramatic action sequence.  The locations are very well represented from Moscow to Mumbai with some very nice aerial shots.  Everything is well shot, and the action sequences are very competently staged, shot, and edited together.  There’s just nothing that sticks out with the visuals this time out, but that’s merely a point made in context with the franchise as a whole.  In and of itself, there is nothing at all to criticize about the work of Director of Photography Robert Elswit.  I’ve seen many action movies shot without any artistic integrity or visual competence to say that Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is surely one of the far better shot films of the genre.

The visual effects are excellent.  I was never once taken out of the film.  Every last effect is seamless and realistic with its surroundings.  They entirely serve the story by reflecting the tone and intensity of the moment.  The music does the same.  The classic Mission: Impossible theme is punched in every so often at the right moment, but overall, it services the moment by enhancing it but not overwhelming it.

Frankly, I believe Brad Bird should be highly commended on his live action directorial debut.  I’m sure he had very supportive assistance from Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams, but at the end of it all, Bird is the one responsible for the final product that we see before us.  Everything he was given was executed greatly, and I don’t feel there’s any fat in this motion picture.  It’s very lean and well paced with smartly conceived and shot action sequences.  This surely doesn’t disappoint as it delivers on the promise and expectations of the franchise.  However, if their intention was to position Jeremy Renner to potentially take the reins of the franchise, I don’t think they succeeded.  The screenplay simply doesn’t give him the opening to rise to an equal level as Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.  Again, absolutely none of this is a failing of Renner himself.  He has every quality needed to take on that role as franchise lead, but the story treated him as too much of a supporting character than one to step forward into the forefront.  Regardless, I do highly recommend Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.  The franchise continues to please by improving upon itself and setting higher standards for each new outing.


Double Team (1997)

Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman.  Far too strange of a pairing to ignore.  You throw Mickey Rourke into the mix as the villain, and how can you really say no?  Okay, so this wasn’t a blockbuster, and even plans for a sequel never materialized.  I was not allowed to see the film in theatres at the time, punishment for getting poor progress reports in high school that week.  So, I discovered it on VHS, and now, re-discovered it on a decent widescreen DVD.  I can understand why this got negative reviews, but the fact is, Double Team wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was – a fun, exciting, and highly entertaining action film.

Van Damme portrays CIA counter-terrorist operative Jack Quinn who runs one final mission before retirement to start a family with his lovely wife Kathryn.  Years later, with his pregnant wife in the South of France, Quinn is paid a visit by an old colleague to rope him back into action to help bring down his old nemesis Stavros (Mickey Rourke).  A man who once worked for the good guys when they needed someone with the stomach for dirtier work to be done, but has long since worked for the other side supplying arms and other contraband.  In prepping this operation in Antwerp, Jack taps eccentric arms dealer Yaz (Dennis Rodman) who himself “doesn’t play with the bad boys anymore, just the good guys.”  They strike a fun chord with one another, making a memorable impression.  However, Quinn misses the target, and the mission is a failure.  Stavros loses both his son and girlfriend in this violent encounter.  In the aftermath, Quinn is sent to an island called “The Colony” where former intelligence agents and assassins work together to counteract terrorist plots around the world.  Jack is ushered through this new environment by former operative Goldsmyth (Paul Freeman).  However, Jack seeks escape from the seemingly inescapable island after he receives a message from Stavros stating the he has abducted his pregnant wife who is about to give birth to their son.  A daring and dangerous escape brings Jack back to Antwerp seeking Yaz’s arsenal and savvy.  What ensues beyond this is an unlikely partnership that evolves, through adrenalin fueled danger, into a trusted friendship as Quinn attempts to save his wife and child while trying to burn down Stavros once and for all.

What would make or break this film was clearly going to be how Van Damme and Rodman meshed.  The eccentric NBA star was hot news at the time easily coined a bad boy for his antics on and off the court.  Here, he is surprisingly funny and likeable without being crass.  I found him nicely charming generating a lot of the film’s clean sense of fun and humor.  Van Damme holds down the more serious end of things nicely.  It’s not anything exceptional, but he inhabits Jack Quinn very well.  You can feel his determination and love for his wife and child throughout the film.  JCVD has a lot of heart to offer in these roles which I think gets overlooked by the sensational aspects of his movies.  As Quinn, it really shows through.  And while Rodman handles the bulk of the humor, Jean-Claude dishes out a few quips here and there as banter with Yaz.  As a team, they may not be 100% pitch perfect, but their performances balance out the film well.  Van Damme and Rodman seem to be enjoying themselves, and their chemistry works out to surprising success to make them a fine, if unlikely team.  Of course, there are numerous basketball jokes throughout the movie, but they are handled with a bit of charm.  And frankly, would you expect otherwise?  A film of this sort with many plot, humor, and character throwbacks to the cliché 1980s action film couldn’t possibly deny those ripe opportunities.  Don’t take that as a knock at all.  Double Team takes that style and formula, and gives it a nice splash of fresh paint with a late 90s style.  A sharper, sleeker design that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Mickey Rourke could play a heavy without even trying, but as we’ve seen in recent years, he has a wide range of acting talents.  Here, he doesn’t need to stretch far, but Stavros is a solid villain with a fine array of henchmen and assassins.  He has a clear plan of revenge that he handles calmly and confidently.  He keeps his cool throughout because he’s got the game nicely strategized for Quinn to follow his lead.  Mickey has a smooth coolness wrapped up with a tough bad ass edge which suits Stavros perfectly, and gives Quinn a hell of an enemy to combat.

Rounding out the meat of the cast is Paul Freeman as Goldsmyth.  The role has some nice British charm mixed with a touch of humor and shadiness.  He’s both ally and adversary to Quinn, and he shifts from one to the other with a bit of grace without losing his likeability.  Goldsmyth would rather not have to be an adversary, but circumstances deem it necessary for him to be as such.  In the end, Goldsmyth is given an upbeat final note to go out on.  Freeman handles the role smoothly.

The action, of course, is very well handled.  Competently shot with a dash of style, and nicely edited to maintain energy and pace without sacrificing the clarity of the visual storytelling.  I have not seen even most of Van Damme’s movies, but this has a nice mix of action sequences that should satisfy his fans.  He does plenty of hard hitting martial arts fights mixed with shootouts and explosions to keep the film exciting and varied.  The climactic action sequence is flat out AMAZING with a tiger set loose on Quinn in the Roman Coliseum with a field of hidden landmines, and some daring motorcycle antics by Yaz.  It’s an explosive, rather original double edged ending that also gives Rourke the chance to show off his impressive physique.  Mickey Rourke trained rigorously to be up to Van Damme’s level for their fight scenes, and certainly holds up his end providing a formidable adversary.  This being a film from the late 1990s, there’s some splashes of John Woo style action, but in general, it’s solid work.  The European setting is a very nice touch giving a different style to the film in many ways.  It helps the movie to stand out a bit more with a fresh flavor.

Other elements of fun definitely come from Rodman’s character.  He handles some brief, but enjoyable and entertaining action sequences.  Being an athlete already, I’m sure it was an easy fit for him, and the role is written in such a way to maintain a sense of sly humor.  It all fits for his character’s style, and supplements the more hard hitting action that Van Damme offers.  Another fun bit are Yaz’s “cyber monks.”  A group of monks in Rome that Yaz has befriended with the gift of modern technology.  They are an endearing bunch which provide some additional smiles and chuckles for a brief period late in the film.  The humor present in the film really does help balance out the heavier dramatic and action aspects, and gives Double Team its endearing charm.  There’s some cheesy dialogue, but it’s all handled in good fun.

Again, the cinematography offers up some style that is very telling of the time it was made.  Dutched angles here and there are used more to add a stylistic composition to a few shots than create an artistic off-kilter perception.  Unlike in Thor when it was used to no purposeful effect, here, it just feels like a sign of the times.  Dutch angles in action films were used as a stamp of “cool.”  You would shoot a subject with an awkward angle, and they take on a more skewed “cool” look in combination with the sleek, shadowy lighting.  It’s nothing I take issue with, but it is indeed a trademark of late 90s action films that a modern audience wouldn’t be so used to.

The plot is pretty standard fare that was practically a decade old by this time.  That was brightly highlighted in the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the movie, which is what sparked me to check it out, again.  However, as I’ve said, I think the storyline is handled well with doses of humor, Van Damme’s unique action stylings, and the European setting.  While the film does have its humor, it’s never used at the expense of the drama.  It’s very nicely balanced for both to co-exist without clashing. The movie is well cast with actors who bring distinctive personality to their characters, and make the ride one worth taking.  There are certainly gaps in logic with the screenplay, and some things on-screen are a bit ridiculous.  Still, like I said, this was meant to be a fun thrill ride.  It never takes these elements are serious, and are usually brief gaps.

I watch Double Team again now, and I just wish they made a sequel.  It’s so much fun with enjoyable, colorful characters, and nicely energetic and slightly over the top action sequences.  Plans were considered for a sequel, and while its box office take did exceed its production budget, it wasn’t a huge success.  Every film, generally, should be judged on its own merits, and based on the genre and style of film this is, I think it’s definitely worthwhile.  Plenty of big action to be had along with some solid laughs.