American Made

AMDirector: Doug Liman

Screenwriter: Gary Spinelli

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, and Jesse Plemons

I had an idea once for a movie where I’d pluck out a completely inconsequential character from a well-known film, and then base an entire story around that character. What I love most about this idea is that the film I write would stand firmly on its own two feet with no overt mention to the protagonist’s connection to the larger, famous work. Only those who pick up the subtle clues would ever even be able to connect them.

I had a similar experience watching American Made. I’ll admit that I am not up to date on my drug cartel history, but I do watch and love the Netflix series, Narcos. So as I’m sitting, watching, and enjoying Tom Cruise’s new film American Made, I suddenly start thinking, “I know the name Barry Seal. Wasn’t he in an episode of Narcos?” And then two things happened: 1. I felt what it would be like to have that revelation of realizing a frivolous character from one story is now the subject of another, and 2. I realized I knew everything that was going to happen in this movie. I loved realizing the first thing, but I was not as excited about realizing the second one.

The good news is I love Tom Cruise, and he made up for all the predictability that followed. So it turns out, yes, this is the story of Barry Seal – they guy from Season 1, Episode 4 of Narcos. Seal, played by Tom Cruise is a TWA pilot, who as America is in the grips of the Cold War during the 1970s catches the attention of a CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Domhnhall Gleeson). Seal has been smuggling Cuban cigar exiles into the states as a means of additional income, and Schafer sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative. Schafer offers Seal a chance to work secretly for the government, taking reconnaissance photos of South American guerilla camps and delivering bribes to Nicaraguan and Panamanian politicians and military personnel for information.

Of course, the CIA doesn’t pay much, and Barry wants nothing more than to make a great life for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids. That being said, it doesn’t take long for the Columbian drug cartel headed by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and an up-and-coming-kid Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) to take notice of an American spy plane running in and out of South America on a pretty regular basis. The cartel sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative…rinse, wash, repeat (see what I did there?).

The movie spends the rest of its focus watching Seal bounce back and forth between running drugs for the cartel and informing on “Commies” for the CIA. Meanwhile Seal just keeps getting richer, and richer and richer.

Still, the movie doesn’t jive like I wanted it to. I think director Doug Liman and screenwriter, Gary Spinelli bet on the fact that most people who see this film wouldn’t have seen episode 4 of Narcos. I also think they knew Tom Cruise in a plane is something people enjoy. Additionally, this marks the second collaboration between Liman and Cruise after 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, or was it called Live Die Repeat? No one knows for sure. Anyway, that was a great movie and Liman directed the hell out of it, a film which was basically Groundhog Day meets Terminator and has Cruise reporting to Brenden Gleeson. So why couldn’t Doug Liman direct the hell out of a movie that is basically The Wolf of Wall Street meets Top Gun where Cruise is reporting to Dohmnall Gleeson? He can and he pretty much does. Liman gets a great performance out of Cruise, and a little birdy tells me there are at least two more Liman/Cruise joints in the works. This is good news.

What doesn’t quite jive for me in this film are the circumstances, a deficit that I think mostly falls on the writing. There is a lot of coincidence and shrugging off of impossible situations in American Made. At one moment Seal is in a Columbian prison as government agents are about to raid his New Orleans home with his family asleep inside. The next moment, Seal and his family are living in Arkansas and they own an airplane hanger. It’s not quite that sudden, but it’s pretty close. Gleeson’s Agent Schafer character is also oddly underdeveloped and while I understand his persona is supposed to be mysterious, he seems contradictory and far more dramatic than necessary. Lastly, Jesse Plemons is in this movie as a local sheriff, and I have to assume there is a cache of great footage of him on the cutting room floor somewhere because what’s left of his character is barely an arc.

All in all, Cruise continues to entertain and gives more than just an action-packed performance. In a fall season where all there is to see is It for the 10th time, this is a worthy film that has far more high points than low ones. B

American Made is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation PosterDirector: Christopher McQuarrie

Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, and Ving Rhames

A scene early in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (a title so dramatic, it requires both a colon AND a dash!), finds our heroes in Casablanca, Morocco – a city fairly iconic in American cinema lore.  In one shot Tom Cruise, reprising his role as Ethan Hunt for the fifth time, seemingly looks at the camera and gives one of those Tom Cruise smirky smiles that he has perfected over the past 34 years.  A smile that at least in this case seems to say to director Christopher McQuarrie, “This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

And it just might be!  McQuarrie, most famous for his Oscar winning screenplay for 1996’s The Usual Suspects, has written three of Cruise’s most recent projects[*] and served as director for two of them, including this film.  This time McQuarrie “rounds up the usual suspects,” and puts together this year’s best action film that does not involve super powers or dinosaurs.

Kremlin Explosion Scene from Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Oops!

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation begins right where Ghost Protocol left off.  The nefariously named Syndicate (gasp!), has managed to force the American government to basically dissolve the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) over that nasty Kremlin incident from Ghost Protocol.  Now the Syndicate has its eyes on…world domination, Mwa, ha, ha, ha, ha!  Yes, the Syndicate’s goal is to set off a series of global terrorist attacks, creating a need for an entirely new world order.   Now Ethan Hunt is a rogue agent who will stop at nothing to bring down the Syndicate and clear the name of the IMF.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
“Of all the torture chambers in all the towns in all                   the world, she walks into mine.”

But he can’t do it alone…although he tries.  Eventually, Hunt has to recruit his old team including William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames).  Hunt’s only lead is a blonde man with glasses named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whom Hunt believes is the director of the Syndicate.  When Hunt is surprisingly rescued from a torture chamber by a mysterious double agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt’s mission is further complicated regarding her motives.  Is she MI6 or is she working for the Syndicate?  Questions abound as Hunt trots the globe searching for Lane, while also trying to prevent more catastrophes.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is as fascinating as they come.  Each entry is a fresh take starting with director Brian De Palma in 1996 and inviting a new director for every subsequent film: John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and now Christopher McQuarrie.  The result is a series of films that while connected through narrative have a truly unique look and tone that makes for a really interesting set of films.  Of course, the critical unifying element is Cruise.  Cruise is a juggernaut, and he does not take it easy the fifth time around.  Rogue Nation opens with the much talked about scene featured on the poster above where Cruise hangs on to the exterior of an aircraft as it takes off.  The reason that this scene can be talked about and be used to open the film is that there are at least four more tremendously entertaining action stunts left to come that rival this opening scene’s intensity.  Too often films are ruined in the trailer; this is not one of them.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is an action film that harkens back to the golden age of adventure, invoking films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard or as I mentioned earlier, even Casablanca.  However, the film it will be most compared to is the fantastic fourth Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol.  As great as Rogue Nation is, it does fall slightly short of the magnificence of its predecessor and here’s why.  Ghost Protocol was a real ensemble film.  The stunts were incredible, but more importantly, every character was deeply involved.  Cruise, Pegg, and Ferguson are on full display in Rogue Nation, no doubt about it, but Renner and Rhames are given very little to do in this film.  And did I mention Alec Baldwin is in this film?  He is, but he’s there to wear a suit and say stuff like, “Where’s the proof of this so-called Syndicate?” or “I need Hunt captured by whatever means necessary.”  Someone does need to say lines like these, but they feel wasted on Baldwin, who is slowly devolving into a caricature of his Saturday Night Live appearances.  Let’s hope Mission: Impossible 6 or M:I 6, as it’s bound to be called, has more in store for these second tier characters because, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”  Nonetheless, this film represents the best time at the theater so far this year.  A-

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

[*] McQuarrie wrote and directed 2012’s Jack Reacher, wrote 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, and served as writer/director on 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Edge of Tomorrow

ImageEdge of Tomorrow, the latest sci-fi/action film from Tom Cruise, is best marked coincidentally by two outrageously dissimilar events: the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the 30th anniversary of the film Groundhog Day. In fact, 70 years to the day prior to the US opening of the film Edge of Tomorrow, allied forces invaded Normandy suffering tremendous casualties but contributing to what would eventually be an allied victory in World War II. Now one may ask, who in their right mind would choose a day like that to live over and over and over? Well, that is precisely what John McQuarrie explores in his screenplay for Edge of Tomorrow.

Cruise plays Major Bill Cage, a coward of a military officer who has used his business experience and education to stay as far away from combat as humanly possible even with the world under siege by a brutal and powerful alien race. However, after pissing off the wrong general (Brendan Gleeson), Cage finds himself on a London army base under the command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) with transfer papers listing him as a deserter and stripped of his rank. Now, Private Cage will be among the first to land on the beach of Normandy in a secret mission to catch the enemy by surprise.

It turns out the aliens have a secret weapon that makes the human resistance utterly useless. Several aliens known as “Alphas” possess an ability to “reset” upon death and relive the day with the knowledge of what will happen next. Thus, the aliens can always anticipate every enemy move and plan for it on a continual basis until victory is won. What the aliens didn’t count on and what cowardly Cage inadvertently discovers is that if a human were to slay an Alpha and be covered in its blood, that human would then absorb the same power to “reset.”

Armed with his new power but entirely without any skills to fight a war, Cage teams up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) a legendary soldier who secretly once had Cage’s power but lost it. Together, Cage and Vrataski may have what it takes to save the world.

The “reset” gimmick is most notably and skillfully used in the late Harold Ramis’s film, Groundhog Day. Many films have used similar gimmickry – some to good effect, some poorly – but few have used it so identically. Nonetheless, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go, Swingers) captures the fun nature of Ramis’s film and instead of using this concept for romance, he re-purposes it for a more fitting genre: science-fiction. Liman gets the tone just right as he tracks Cage’s evolution from detestable loser to someone of merit, and it’s a fun ride. He weaves together a story that pulses with energy and humor, and the alien antagonists are worthy opponents, fast moving and very deadly. The film does get a bit lost in its own absurdity once in a while and Liman shamelessly uses the “reset” plot device to hit the audience over the head with the film’s theme about humans being in control of their own fate (Bill Paxton’s character is basically a Ned Ryerson, designed to spew the same thematically rich monologue every 15 minutes!). But I liked Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise proves he’s still up to the challenge of carrying a big tentpole of a movie, Blunt is a fine co-star, and Liman has produced a film that while somewhat familiar, is just fresh enough. B+

Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour 53 minutes.          

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