Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – A Review

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Tom Cruise needs a haircut.

That’s a weird way to start a review, but that thought was running through my mind the entire time that I was watching a screening of Mission: Impossible – Rouge Nation. Despite the very cool action sequences and stunts, every time Cruise was on the screen I was thinking that he needed to see a stylist. The longer, shaggy hair was not befitting a man of his age or who is going to be hanging off airplanes in his free time.

The fact that I was focusing on Cruise’s hair and not his personal life is actually a major upgrade. For years, no matter how much I enjoyed a Cruise performance, there was a part of me that was fixated on his relationship with Scientology, his couch jumping or his weird intensity that gives you the impression that underneath this nice guy demeanor that there could possibly be lurking a serial killer. Something about Cruise has always struck me as off and usually I judge his success in disappearing into a role as to how much I think about all his personal baggage during it. So fixating on his hair is actually a really positive sign; it means that I forgot about everything else that is going on with him and was invested only in what I was seeing on screen. That, my friends, is tantamount to a big win for Cruise.

The nice thing about the Mission: Impossible movies is that at this point in the franchise you generally know what you are getting: there will be some cool gadgets, there will be some exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes and at some point when it is most convenient for the plot, someone will be wearing a mask that allows them to look exactly like another actor in the film. If that makes the Mission: Impossible films sound formulaic, to some extent they are, but that’s kind of what I like about them. The reason the franchise continues to do so well is how they continue to play with these elements and find new and exciting ways to do them. There is always some stunt in the film that is show stopping – especially when you discover that Cruise did most of it himself – and the overall result is an entertaining film. I may not necessarily be super pumped about seeing a new Mission: Impossible movie, but I know that I am almost guaranteed to have a good time while I’m watching it. After a steady diet of usually dark art house films and needlessly complicated superhero movies, there’s something about the more streamlined Mission: Impossible movies that is refreshing. It’s kind of like if the Bond movies and the Fast & Furious franchise had a baby. At this point in the Mission: Impossible movies, they have learned from some previous missteps and have figured out what works for the films and for Cruise; the result is perhaps not particularly daring, but it is extremely confident. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a fun action movie that is streamlined for maximum enjoyment.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation begins with IMF (Impossible Missions Force) being disbanded after a string of questionable missions that while successful left an awful lot of death and destruction in their wake. The IMF is usurped by the CIA, a move spearheaded by Alan Hunley (Alec Bladwin, being Alec Baldwin). This is poor timing, as Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has just discovered intel that the mysterious “Syndicate” does in fact exist. With the CIA demanding that Hunt be held accountable for previous activities with IMF, Hunt goes rogue to try and uncover the Syndicate. He is assisted in this by his old team – William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) – and the mysterious Ilsa Fuast (Rebecca Ferguson), whose true loyalties are questionable. Can the off-books IMF team expose the Syndicate and their illicit activities while also be found and accused of treason?

While the story is important to Rogue Nation, it also serves as a way to quickly move from one exciting action sequence to another. Rogue Nation is absolutely jam packed with thrilling fight scenes and stunts; these exchanges are beautifully choreographed and absolutely a delight to watch. The scene of Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane – which is in all the commercials and is the scene that he’s been showing on his tour of talk shows (because he really did it) – takes place within the first five minutes of the movie and they keep their foot on or near the accelerator for the duration of the story. There are occasional moments when they pause, but those breaks are just to allow you to prepare yourself for the next exciting burst of action. It all moved along very quickly and efficiently and the two hour run time absolutely flew by.

Everyone in the cast did their usual solid job – the Mission: Impossible movies have figured out how to channel Cruise’s brand of intensity – but Rebecca Ferguson deserves special recognition as the newcomer to the team. She succeeded in being a true bad-ass in Rogue Nation; it’s refreshing to see women get the chance to mix it up in these action films and Ferguson (and her presumable stunt double) more than hold their own. Her character is second only to Ethan in the physicality of the role and while most action films allow the women in the cast just a moment to shine (and often limited to exchanges with other women), the character of Ilsa is fully integrated into multiple action sequences throughout the movie. It was a nice change of pace and felt totally organic to the film.

Another surprise in Rogue Nation was just how funny the film was. Usually action films have a few one-liners here or there to lighten the mood, but there were more consistent laughs in this installment than I remember in previous movies. Jeremy Renner, in particular, gets to do a little comedy and he does a nice job. So while Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is definitely an action movie, there are also plenty of moments of levity, which serve as a nice counterbalance and make Rogue Nation just feel fun.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation isn’t going to change the world and isn’t doing anything all that different. It is, however, a very solid action movie that knows its characters and actors well enough to operate like a well-oiled machine. If you’ve like the previous movies in this franchise or just like action movies generally, you’ll like Rogue Nation a lot. Lots of thrills, lots of laughs and a plot that doesn’t require a lot of attention to easily follow. That’s the recipe for a very enjoyable summer movie. Now get Tom Cruise to a barber.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation opens nationwide today.

 

Born on the Third of July

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Today is Tom Cruise’s 52nd birthday, which seemed as good a time as any to take a quick inventory of his career. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a little ambivalent about Cruise – I think that he’s got real screen presence and is talented, but the shenanigans in his personal life (primarily his ongoing relationship with the Church of Scientology) often cloud my perception of him. When Tom Cruise, the man, can disappear into a role, the likelihood that I’ll enjoy it is much higher. But when his performance or the material fail to distract me from the fact that I think he’s a little kooky, I’m not going to be entertained. If he doesn’t meet that threshold, I’m most likely walking away from the film feeling underwhelmed.

But since it’s the man’s birthday, let’s focus on the good rather than the bad. I may be fairly wishy-washy about the majority of his performances, but there are some that I have really enjoyed or that I find impressive. This mostly happens when Cruise plays against type – darker or more unlikable than his carefully cultivated persona – or has a smaller part in the film; I don’t dislike all of his blockbusters, but the chance that I’ll be a fan is increased when he steps out of his comfort zone. I could probably live without ever seeing him run or ride a motorcycle again as well.

So without any further ado, here are my favorite Tom Cruise performances to date, with the important caveat that I haven’t seen everything that he’s done. I’ve somehow missed Born of the 4th of July, Days of Thunder and The Color of Money, so while he may have been great in them, I can’t include them.

Magnolia (1999)

 

This is definitely my favorite Tom Cruise performance, possibly it was the first time that he really derivated from the “Tom Cruise formula” and portrayed someone that was crass and on the surface not a very nice guy. It was nice to see him mix it up a bit and because it wasn’t more of the same I think this role was more memorable. It helped that he was surrounded by a very talented cast and people behind the scenes, which elevated his performance. I’m not sure that I really got this movie as a whole – the whole frog thing kind of confused me when I first saw it – but Cruise as Frank T.J Macky is the first thing that I remember from Magnolia.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

 

Again – perhaps I am easily impressed by a balding and swearing Tom Cruise, but Cruise as Les Grossman was a real surprise. There was no vanity in this performance and Cruise totally became Grossman (with the help of some prosthetics). Tropic Thunder is a very funny and clever movie, but Cruise manages to steal all the scenes that he is in; I think it works because it is a smaller role and you don’t get sick of Grossman because he is a secondary character. Of course, Hollywood has to ruin everything so there are plans for a spinoff Les Grossman movie, which I think is a real mistake. But until they ruin this character with overexposure, I think it is one of Cruise’s most enjoyable on screen appearances. He just doesn’t take himself too seriously and that is refreshing.

Jerry Maguire (1996)

 

Jerry Maguire is dangerously close to a rom-com, but there is enough sports stuff and a cute kid that helps balance out this film and makes it something that a person like me would enjoy. This film is perhaps the most likable that I’ve found on screen, partially because though Jerry is basically a good guy, he is definitely flawed which I find much more interesting. Sure, this movie gave us that cheesy “You had me at hello” nonsense, but Cruise and the rest of the film are able to overcome it.

 

Collateral (2004)

 

Yup – we are back to dark and disturbed Cruise, which I guess is my favorite flavor that he has to offer. I am overdue in my revisiting of Collateral, but it managed to pull off the impressive double feat of making me enjoy both Cruise and Jamie Foxx, another actor that I struggle with. Cruise is usually the hero, but as contract killer Vincent he strikes all the right notes and gives a fantastic villainous performance.

From the above recommendations, it is clear that if I were shepherding Cruise’s career that I would have him taking far more chances and playing smaller, darker characters. While he may be more comfortable in the action/hero genre, I really think it is when he stretches his wings and tries new things that he really is at his best. He doesn’t take many risks anymore and that’s a shame.

What are your favorite Tom Cruise roles? Do you think my picks are crazy? Sound off in the comments below.

Edge of Tomorrow – A Review

Tom Cruise reminds me of a person I know, in that if you told me that someone discovered a bunch of bodies in either of their back yards I wouldn’t be all that surprised. Under the extremely gregarious exterior, I wouldn’t find it that shocking that there beats the heart of a serial killer. There is something just too calculating and rehearsed about their carefully cultivated nice guy persona; in my mind it rings inauthentic. Of course there are nice people in the world, but something about him just rings false; I get the feeling that the Tom Cruise that we see on interviews is just another role that he’s playing, like this is what he thinks a normal person should act like. He reminds me a lot of the character Dexter, played by Michael C. Hall on the Showtime series. Now, while it is more likely that Cruise is probably hiding the fact that at a bare minimum he’s a little weird, if ten years from now we find out that he’s been up to something far more sinister I’m going to look like a genius. I’m not rooting for it, but I’m telling you something about that guy is off.

My metric for Tom Cruise movies, therefore, is pretty simple – can he disappear enough into the role that I forget that he is probably coo-coo banana pants? If that happens, chances are pretty high that I’ll enjoy the movie. When all I see is Tom Cruise, the likelihood that I’m going to like the film is negligible (Jack Reacher, for example). While I’m suspicious of Cruise the man, I’ve never questioned Cruise the actor – he’s capable of good work, though I don’t think he necessarily is great at picking the best roles for himself. He has carved a place out for himself in movies that are filled with action – an arena where he does do a good job – though I tend to enjoy him more in supporting roles where he plays against type. Give me Magnolia and Tropic Thunder over films where Cruise just runs a lot any day. His action movies are generally entertaining, but I think he’s unnecessarily limiting himself. He can do more challenging stuff.

While Edge of Tomorrow is basically in keeping with the sort of films that Cruise has been doing lately, there are some subtle differences that make his performance, and therefore the film, more interesting. Unlike most of the characters that he plays, Major William Cage is not a guy for whom being an action hero comes easily. We’re used to Cruise playing the tough guy who is always ready to rumble and seems unbreakable; in Edge of Tomorrow, he plays a military man that wants nothing to do with actual combat. He’s a PR guy – he’s great at selling a war but has no interest in actually participating in one and will do anything necessary to avoid it. He’s ill equipped to be any sort of real hero and it is a real change of pace to see Cruise play something that he’s not played in a long time – a dude that is scared. In this film, we see Cruise struggle and fail – and Edge of Tomorrow is the better for it.

I think that Jimmy Fallon described the movie best when he said that Edge of Tomorrow is “Groundhog Day meets Call of Duty.” It’s a sentiment that I’m sure Fallon didn’t originate, but after seeing the film it strikes me as the perfect encapsulation of what the viewing experience is like. The Earth has been invaded by creatures called mimics that are slowly taking over the planet. After the first major victory of the humans against the creatures, Major William Cage (Cruise) is sent to the front lines against his will. Unprepared for battle, Cage dies quickly but not before taking out one of the mimics. However, when he opens his eyes, he realizes that he is not dead but rather he has somehow re-set the day. He lives through the exact same experiences over and over – every time he dies, the day begins again. He can adjust his behavior to events because he knows what is going to happen; in a lot of ways, it’s the same thing as when you are playing a video game – your player may “die,” but you just start the level over at the last checkpoint. During these “re-dos” he meets war hero Rita Vrataski (a very buff Emily Blunt), who understands what is happening to him. The two of them team up to try and use his ability to save humanity and defeat the mimics.

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The idea of rebooting the day is not necessarily a novel one; not only was it used in Groundhog Day, but it was also the main gimmick of the truly dreadful Vantage Point. It is a useful trick to have in your bag, but it can’t be overused or it becomes tedious. The viewer doesn’t want to watch the same thing over and over again with very little altered; that is just a really boring movie. Edge of Tomorrow uses this particular hook mostly effectively, though they go to that well one too many times in my opinion. The repeated scenes are mostly abbreviated, which for that I am thankful, but after re-seeing the same general scenes multiple times my mind started to wander a bit. This means that there is something of a lull in the middle of the movie where there just isn’t a lot of forward momentum; it’s fun to see Cruise die a few times, but after the fifth time in a row even that loses some of its novelty. The film picks back up again when they finally have some forward momentum and make it further in their mission than they have to date. The overuse of the technique doesn’t derail the movie, but it does slow it down a bit and allows interest to wane.

The action sequences and explosions in the film are pretty spot on and are entertaining; the first time that Cruise goes into battle you really get the sense of discombobulation and confusion. Cruise serves as our proxy, running around and just trying not to die while not even being sure how to turn off the safety on his weapon. One of the things that I appreciated about Edge of Tomorrow is that the movie doesn’t get weighed down in backstory – the film doesn’t really make any attempt to explain what these mimics want or even much about what they are. As Cruise says in one particular scene, none of that really matters – the mimics are here and they have to be dealt with. Their motivation is really irrelevant. I liked that Edge of Tomorrow didn’t fall into the trap of trying to drum up some ridiculous explanation or build a mythology. Mimics are bad and need to be killed – that’s enough for me. By not devoting a lot of time to the backstory, the film can instead concentrate on the important stuff in the action. Well played, Edge of Tomorrow writers.

Cruise clearly has his action hero bona fides, but it was nice to see Emily Blunt more than hold her own in a genre that is relatively new to her. I thought that she was great as Rita; she was stoic and tough and a total bad ass. I liked that the roles were reversed in Edge of Tomorrow and that Blunt was the one that was training Cruise; it’s nice to see a woman take the lead and serve as a mentor to the man for a change. Cruise and Blunt had fairly good chemistry, though I didn’t buy any sort of latent romantic interest and I wish that the writers hadn’t have gone down that route. They can care about each other without falling in love. That wrinkle just didn’t work for me.

Some other thoughts:

  • As I was walking to my theater, I passed the first screening of The Fault in Our Stars and there was audible shrieking by the girls in the audience over the excitement of seeing the film. I’m sure that similar things happened with Twilight (it didn’t happen at the midnight screening of the first Hunger Games movie), but it was crazy to hear. I also had to laugh at the line of bored looking dads that were sitting outside the theater waiting to pick up their moppets after the movie.
  • I think it is a contractual obligation that Tom Cruise gets to ride a motorcycle in his movies. He inexplicably does so in this one.
  • You know the drill – I skipped on seeing this one in 3-D.
  • Emily Blunt was pregnant with her first child (with hubby John Krasinski) during the reshoots for Edge of Tomorrow; she talks about baby Hazel in this clip from The Graham Norton Show:

 

  • Will Smith and Tom Cruise should team up for a movie – they both enjoy battling aliens.

Edge of Tomorrow was generally good, though I was not completely won over by it. Perhaps I was just not in the mood for this type of movie, but I did find it was too boring in spots – and not just the constant rebooting. Though the film doesn’t spend a lot of time creating the rules for the premise of the movie, I still found myself questioning some of the developments as big plot holes. There is a scene where Cruise seems to have an awful lot of knowledge about a group of people that we never see him spend much time with in any of the reboots; I guess the idea is that he specifically went back to get this info to become more persuasive, but that seemed like a bit of a stretch for me. I also wish that there was a little more humor in the film – there are a few laughs, but Edge of Tomorrow takes itself very seriously. I could have used a little more levity. I liked the film OK, but I’m nowhere near as enthusiastic as the rest of critics – the film is currently hovering around 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, which seems really high to me. I would have put this solidly at 82%. It was good, but not great and I can’t really fawn all over it and be representative of my movie experience. Perhaps I am, as my friend Mike said, getting jaded.