Film review – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

13 December 2011
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Like the original film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, part four focuses more on the group dynamic of the Impossible Missions Force agents rather than solely on the Ethan Hunt character, played once more by Tom Cruise. Hunt is joined by fellow agents Jane Carte (Paula Patton) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who previously appeared in the third film, and analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Forced to operate without any official support, the team have to stop the codes for a nuclear device falling into the wrong hands while on the run after being falsely accused of committing an act of terrorism.

This time the director is Brad Bird, continuing the franchise’s tradition of bringing in new directors to give each film a unique look and feel. Bird is making his live action directorial début after an extremely impressive background in animation, having worked on The Simpsons and then directing films such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Bird knows how to handle cinematic space, making full use of the film’s impressive IMAX sequences during scenes set in Budapest, Moscow and Mumbai. The middle section of the film takes place in Dubai, where the film truly excels, culminating in an exhilarating foot and then car chase through a sand storm. As perhaps a nod to Bird’s animation background, there is an early scenario that utilises a high tech version of the fake wall gag that Wile E Coyote often used to try to trick Road Runner.

The use of elaborate technology in the series somewhat functions in the way that superpowers or magic functions in fantasy films. Characters can achieve the unbelievable with the use of a super computer or some other extraordinary device, which in the real world seems absurd, but in the world of the film is part of the internal logic. Bird successfully inhabits the film with such technology with the right amount of tech speak to make the audience accept what is being seen without getting bogged down in the details. It also helps that most of the devices do have some grounding in the real world.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol: Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

Most interesting about this latest Mission: Impossible film is the frequency in which technology fails at the critical moment. Far from being a lazy plot device, there is a strong theme of fallibility and unreliability of technology throughout the film allowing the action sequences to be inventive and surprising. This extends to the human characters who all have moments of hesitation and nervousness, and occasionally allow emotions to get in the way of their work. Even Hunt is less than enthusiastic when he realises he is going to have to scale the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This results in a high level of improvisation by the characters throughout the film, making a much more engaging narrative than in the previous films.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the best film in the franchise so far. The characters are likeable and developed, the scenarios are complex without feeling ridiculous and the action is engaging. This film will benefit from being seen in an IMAX cinema where some of the bigger set pieces will most effectively provoke gasps, especially during the Burj Khalifa scenes from anybody with even a mild degree of vertigo. The whole cast are excellent, especially Renner and also Pegg, who plays a character who has only recently begun fieldwork. Pegg effectively articulate the audiences’ wonder, excitement and delight over the film’s elaborate scenarios and gadgets. Cruise is still the star of the film, but much more part of an overall ensemble than previously, which may make him more palatable to non-fans. Regardless, he looks great running in a suit.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Town (2010)

13 October 2010
The Town: Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck)

Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck directed and co-wrote the script (based on Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves) for The Town, a crime thriller/drama set in the Boston suburb Charlestown, which has a reputation for its criminality. He also plays the lead role of bank robber Doug MacRay who is contemplating leaving behind his life of crime. Part of what is motivating him is his new relationship with bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall from Please Give). However, Claire was taken hostage by Doug’s gang and while Doug knows this, she has no idea of what he does for a living let alone the fact that he was one of the people responsible for a recent highly traumatic experience.

It is very difficult discussing The Town without acknowledging its resemblance to Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece Heat. Both films are about a highly professional gang of career criminals, both films depict a relentless man on the side of the law trying to bring the gang to justice and both films explore the dynamics of a criminal attempting to hold a relationship with somebody outside of the crime world. The Town even has a stylistically similar opening sequence where we see the tense build-up and then execution of a heist. However, while the Los Angeles-set Heat was an operatic and slick version of the classic cop-versus-robber story, The Town has more of a gritty aesthetic to it with a lot of emphasis on its Boston working-class neighbourhood setting. In this way it shares a similar look and atmosphere to James Gray’s films such as The Yards and We Own the Night.

The Town: Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner)

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner)

The Town does suffer from being so derivative of Heat and many other similarly themed crime films. While it is entertaining it lacks a lot of complexity and surprise. Doug is too clearly defined as The Good Thief while the increasingly unpredictable and volatile James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker) is too clearly defined as The Bad Thief. Both Affleck and Renner deliver fantastic performances but the way that their characters develop is too blatantly signposted. Also, despite the promising dramatic intrigue behind the deceptive circumstances under which Doug and Claire fall in love, it is a scenario that is never explored to its full potential.

The Town is a decent crime thriller/drama but it has the veneer of a film with far more substance. The fact that it is as enjoyable and compelling as it is owes a lot to Ben Affleck in his second outing as a director. The action sequences, including a gripping car chase through the extremely narrow Charlestown streets, are exceptionally good. Along side Hollywoodland this is also one of Affleck’s better films as an actor and he is clearly very good at directing other actors, with Hall in particular really standing out. Ultimately The Town works perfectly well as a narrative-driven crime genre film but it falls short of being truly great.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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