Film reviews: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. Picture: AP

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. Picture: AP

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Tom Cruise hangs off things and rides motorbikes in the latest chapter of his entertaining spy caper

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (12a)

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin
***

Now that we’ve reached the fifth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, a few things are becoming apparent: the even-numbered movies are rubbish; Ethan Hunt’s less annoying with shorter hair; the plots are pretty much interchangeable with the Bond films, and Tom Cruise prides himself on being able to hang-off things that go a) really fast b) really high or c) really fast and really high.

He demonstrates option ‘c’ In the opening moments of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation by hanging from the side of a cargo plane as it heads skyward. The sequence itself is the culmination of a MacGuffin-chasing opener designed to reintroduce us to the Impossible Mission Force (basically Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, Jeremy Renner’s Brant, Ving Rhames’s Luther and Simon Pegg’s tech-savvy Benji – his comic sidekick status mercifully toned down to a bearable level). Really, though, it’s a mission statement in its own right, there to make good on all the promises of “real stunts” that seem to have become this franchise’s raison d’être.

On the plus side, this particular stunt does get the film off to a thrilling start, with Cruise – face distorted by G-force, ground disappearing beneath his feet – melding the old-school thrill of a non-CGI set-piece with our contemporary demand for life-risking authenticity. Ironically, the approach – which is repeated throughout, most notably during a demented car chase that morphs into a hell-for-leather motorbike chase – also grounds the film in a very necessary way, the realism of the set-pieces offsetting the ridiculousness of the story designed to support them.

Once again the script does appear to have been assembled in that order. That was a big problem with the previous film, but it seems less of an issue this time round thanks to the way new writer/director Christopher McQuarrie – who directed Cruise in the underrated Jack Reacher – seems to have a surer grip on the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone the series appears to have settled on. That he also knows how to put together a fun, action-heavy spy movie is also evident in the way he makes the plot characteristically convoluted yet easy to follow. Once again we find Hunt forced to go off grid, this time to exonerate the IMF team in an attempt to justify its continued existence to the CIA, which under its new director (played by Alec Baldwin) is intent on shutting them down following the city-destroying chaos unleashed in Ghost Protocol. The timing of this external scrutiny couldn’t be worse: Hunt has discovered evidence proving the existence of the titular rogue nation – a terror organisation known as The Syndicate intent on destabilising the world for reasons that, well … does it even really matter at this stage?

The film dispenses with real world parallels almost immediately by making the bad guys a combination of blond haired Brits and Eastern European brawlers. That’s actually a good move, though. As brilliant as the Bourne films (and to a lesser extent Skyfall) were at reflecting the realities of the War on Terror, McQuarrie seems to have decided there’s nothing to be gained by trying to draw parallels with, say, Isis, in a blockbuster series that repeatedly deploys rubber masks at crucial moments in the action (the masks – always the most ludicrous aspect of the M:I films – do make a return here). What he does instead is follow the old-school Bond model of pinballing the characters to exotic locations for a series of spectacular escapades designed to propel the film towards some kind of narrative resolution. Along the way he also introduces a new female lead in the form of a British double agent called Elsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who may or may not be on Hunt’s side – but could certainly kick his ass if required.

Not everything works. The chief bad guy – played by the excellent British actor Sean Harris – isn’t as menacing as he ought to be (the high point in the series remains Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain in M:I III). An underwater sequence – notable for being the most CGI-heavy in the film – also brings back unhappy memories of Pearce Brosnan-era Bond. And – as seems to be the curse of the modern action film – the prolonged spectacle eventually starts to drag, particularly as the film descends upon the tourist hotspots of London for its finale.

But the good far outweighs the so-so. An elaborate assassination attempt during a performance of Puccini’s Tarandot at the Vienna State Opera is case in point, with Hunt fighting his way across the lighting rigs while bullets ring out during the climax of Nessun Dorma, it’s an entertainingly showy blend of high and low culture. And Cruise really does give it his all throughout, clinging to his last guaranteed moneymaker the way Ethan clings to the sides of planes. It’s good to see he can still soar.

Hot Pursuit (12A)

Directed by: Anne Fletcher

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Robert Kazinsky

*

At a certain point, films that present themselves as flat-out comedies should generate some actual laughs. Sadly even half-smiles prove wanting in this dismal mismatched-buddy vehicle for Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. Ruthlessly plundering the plot of Midnight Run, the film casts Witherspoon as Rose Cooper, an uptight, man-repelling cop whose stickler-for-the-rules officiousness meets its match in Vergara’s voluptuous Daniella Riva. She’s the fiery Colombian wife of a drug cartel accountant who’s due to testify against a crime lord. With Cooper assigned to help transport Mrs Riva to Texas to give evidence, the pair find themselves on the run across the state after two teams of assassins take out Riva’s husband and frame Cooper for the crime.

What follows is a lot of gurning, screaming and goofing around as Cooper and Riva hightail it in a red convertible and find themselves contending with everything from malfunctioning mobile phones and accidental drug usage to gay panic gags and, at one point, the humiliation of disguising oneself as a deer to evade a roadblock. None of which is the least bit amusing, which makes the sight of two talented and funny women being so thoroughly underserved by such weak material even more irksome.

Witherspoon, on a career high after Wild and her producing stint on Gone Girl, embraces the silliness of her diminutive, wound-too-tight cop, but director Anne Fletcher (who made the vacuous rom-com 27 Dresses) lets all the air out with a tone-setting opening salvo that shows Cooper chasing down a man as he attempts to escape not arrest, but their date. The film never really recovers. Indeed, its introduction of a rugged love interest (Robert Kazinsky) and a plot point involving a suitcase full of high heels only serves to reinforce the Hollywood stereotype that all an uptight professional woman really needs to make her life better is a pair of heels and a macho guy to take an interest in her (see also Jurassic World).

Vergara fares just as poorly. The highest-paid actress on US TV thanks to her turn as Modern Family’s voluptuous immigrant matriarch Gloria Pritchett, she’s essentially been hired to do a watered-down version of that character. Alas, furnished with a script that has none of the nuance, heart or occasional flashes of oddball menace that makes her small screen work so funny and endearing, Vergara proves little more than a screeching irritant here and generates so little chemistry with Witherspoon that the rest of the shoddily constructed action – involving corrupt cops and an execution attempt – feels like even more of an afterthought.

Beyond The Reach (12A)

Directed by: Jean-Baptiste Léonetti

Starring: Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irvine, Ronny Cox

**

Riffing on Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas can’t stem the silliness of this desert-bound thriller about an ageing corporate big shot (Douglas) whose killer instincts come literally to the fore when a hunting expedition in the Montana desert goes wrong. Accidentally shooting a hermit instead of a Bighorn sheep, Douglas’s heartless CEO decides to frame his recently heartbroken tracker (an unconvincing Jeremy Irvine) so as not to jeopardise the multimillion-dollar deal he’s simultaneously negotiating via satellite phone. Why he’s chosen this exact moment to go hunting off-season is a minor detail the film would rather viewers not think about too hard as Douglas strands Irvine in the desert without his clothes as part of an implausible plan to cover up his crime. The ensuing manhunt is dreary in the extreme, enlivened not one bit by Douglas’s myriad character quirks, which run the gamut from driving an espresso machine-equipped off-road vehicle to doing a bizarre impression of WALL-E.

The Cobbler (12A)

Directed by: Thomas McCarthy

Starring: Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi, Dustin Hoffman, Ellen Barkin

**

Revolving around a cobbler who discovers he can literally and figuratively walk in the shoes of his customers, the premise for Adam Sandler’s latest movie proves too high-concept for the indie sensibilities of writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor). Whether that’s down to his star’s involvement or his own misjudgments is hard to say, but what should have been a whimsical parable about fixing your own life by helping to fix the lives of others becomes instead a schmaltzy, never-funny body-swapping comedy that requires reluctant hero Max (Sandler, below) to inhabit different people to help save his New York neighbourhood from gentrification. It doesn’t help that Sandler is at least 20 years too old for his stuck-in-a-rut character not to seem creepy, particularly as he assumes the identity of his good-looking neighbour (Dan Stevens) so he can see what it’s like to be attractive to the opposite sex. The film’s attitude to race and sexuality are similarly questionable.

Cub (15)

Directed by: Jonas Govaerts

Starring: Maurice Luijten, Evelien Bosmans, Titus De Voogdt

**

This Belgian horror starts well enough as a troop of boy scouts on a camping trip are forced to pitch their tents in woods that locals consider out of bounds. Conflating campfire tales of a mythical creature with the erratic behaviour of one of the boys in the group, the film creates a pleasing air of mystery that director Jonas Govaerts sadly loses all interest in sustaining. Instead he piles on the gore by having the children and their thoroughly unsuitable guardians encounter a series of brutal and bloody traps that resemble the torture games from the Saw movies.

Iris (12A)

Directed by: Albert Maysles

***

The final movie from the late Albert Maysles, Iris might seem like a minor work when compared to landmark efforts such as Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, but in following 93-year-old New York fashion maven Iris Apfel, it sufficiently demonstrates what made Maysles, who died earlier this year, great. His ability to capture lives being lived outwith the bounds of social convention is certainly much in evidence: as he follows the former designer-turned-style-icon around New York, his camera subtly reveals the interior life all too frequently ignored by the city’s patronising socialites as they fawn over and try to co-opt the outsized personality Iris’s individualism has generated.

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