Fair Game (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a covert CIA agent who worked in the Anti-Proliferation program where she and her team gathered secret intelligence concerning possible weapons of mass destruction. She was connected internationally and she gained people’s trust even though their lives were on the line. But when a man in the government leaked her identity to the papers, with impunity, all for the sake of shallow revenge involving the article her husband (Sean Penn) wrote aimed to criticize the Bush administration, Valerie and her family’s lives were turned upside down my the media, politicians, and the people they knew back when they still had valuable anonymity. Directed by Doug Liman, “Fair Game” was an effective thriller about an injustice in America and the unnecessary betrayal Valerie had to go through just because some men wanted to remind themselves that they still had power. The acting was top-notch. Watts did a tremendous job in making Valerie sympathetic but not so much that we ended up feeling sorry for her. Instead, she controlled her character in such a way that, if we were in her shoes, we would be outraged by what was done to us, especially when all we wanted was what was best for our country. She was a smart and strong woman, fully capable of thinking on her feet, in a thankless job where they could easily deny connection to you when things went sour. I was surprised that she didn’t receive more acknowledgement for her performance here. Much of the film’s strength was the complexity she injected into Valerie. The suppressed emotions were just as vivid as the expressed. Penn was also wonderful as the husband hell-bent on finding some sort of elusive justice. Although not always making the smartest choices in which his strategy was to appear in all sorts of interviews to gain exposure, his persistence was admirable. I loved the scenes between Penn and Watts as they evaluated their marriage amidst the chaos of revealed identities and realizing that what they had romantically might be beyond repair. What’s more impressive was the picture worked even if it was based entirely on fiction. It was exciting because we cared for Valerie and her family, the enemy was invisible and powerful, and it offered no easy answer except for the fact that revealing a CIA agent’s identity, while very active in the field where other lives depended on her, was a crime. I thought “Fair Game” was brave for showing its audiences the nastiness and ugliness that happens in America just so we would have the comfortable illusion of control or prosperity. We (or most of us anyway while others remain in denial) are all the wiser of the incompetency of the Bush administration, but it isn’t any less maddening when we are reminded of the fact that we allowed charlatans to rule our country for eight years.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Phelps (Jon Voight) and his American spies (Tom Cruise, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Emilio Estevez) were assigned in Prague to intercept a disk from a terrorist before a trade was made. The disk contained the aliases of undercover agents in Europe. If coupled with another disk, bearing the real of names of the IMF agents, important long-term missions would be compromised. But something went wrong in Prague. Phelps and his agents ended up dead with the exception of Ethan Hunt (Cruise). Kittridge (Henry Czerny), an IMF operative, was suspicious and believed that Hunt was a double agent. Like a pest inside a controlled system, he was to be captured and exterminated. Based on a television series by Bruce Geller, “Mission: Impossible,” directed by Brian De Palma, was a tense and atmospheric spy film but it wasn’t afraid to jump into cheekiness when it came to the dialogue and physically demanding stunts. As a result, coupled with a handful of creative twists and turns, it was very entertaining to watch. The best scene involved Hunt breaking into the CIA vault with the help of disavowed agents (Ving Rhames, Jean Reno). The way the trio handled complicated hurdles in order to prevent triggering the pesky alarm was suspenseful because it turned the viewers’ expectations upside down then turning it right back up just when we think we had it all figured out. I was particularly impressed with the small details. Hunt and Krieger had to crawl in the vents before getting into the room of interest. When Hunt slowly descended in the room, his arms were actually covered with dust and grime throughout the entire relentless, breathless, soundless mission. Even though there was something silly about the way it all unfolded, like the CIA analyst (Rolf Saxon) having to go in and out of the restroom while Hunt and his team extracted information from a computer, that level of attention to detail was a small but important reminder that the filmmakers respected the project as well as their audiences. Another scene that stood out, for a different reason, was the train sequence. The way the score was piled on top of one another as danger increased then capping them off with the movie’s main theme as the tension reached a peak was executed elegantly. It’s impossible not to feel roused when that classic theme blasts through the speakers. The film’s main criticism was it got confusing due to a combination of its tech talk, spy vocabulary, and plot twists. If a person takes a bathroom break while the movie runs, he ends up having no idea what’s happening when he returns. But that’s what I loved about it because it opted to challenge instead of allowing us to passively sit and fall asleep. Sitting through it was like examining a detailed chain and to understand the big picture required a bit of autonomy, to think and weigh the possibilities that maybe the person we trusted initially was a dire mistake. Since it was involving not merely on a superficial level, we could still feel the endorphins working even after the big explosions.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A spy for the CIA, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), had been tracking Sebastian Shaw’s (Kevin Bacon) activities for quite some time. Initially unknown to her, he was a mutant and it was his goal to start World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union. He believed that by having the world’s superpowers obliterate one another, Mutants could finally rise and rule. Shaw was also the man who murdered the mother of Erik Lehnsherr, future Magneto, during the Nazis’ evil rule in Germany. Through rage and other negative emotions, he trained Erik to control his ability. Fast-forward to the 1960s, Erik (Michael Fassbender) hunted the men responsible for his terrible past. Shaw was the final man on his death list. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, I found “X-Men: First Class” to be admirable not because of its action sequences but because its attention was largely on its story. It focused on the complicated relationship between Erik and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). The former favored violence while the other valued diplomacy. We learned that Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), also known as Mystique, were childhood friends and how her loyalty shifted over the course of their friendship. We also met Professor X’s first students: the intellectual Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), the timid Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the assured Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edu Gathegi), and pretty boy Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till). The cast had great chemistry, especially Fassbender and McAvoy, but I wish the younger actors were given more screen time. The film would have been more fun and exciting if the politics wasn’t always at the forefront. I thought it was wonderful that the screenplay treated us like intelligent audiences by choosing a specific time to establish the parallels and eventual divide in Magneto and Professor X’s beliefs and ethics. But I have to admit that the picture had a certain energy that made me smile with scenes in which the students showed each other their powers and did a bit of destruction while being held by the CIA. Those parts made me realize that maybe it was taking itself too seriously. There were moments of humor dispersed throughout but it needed more to allow the material to breathe. Perhaps two or three grand speeches by Magneto should have been left on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback involving January Jones’ performance as Emma Frost, one of Shaw’s most loyal henchmen, a telepath and whose skin could turn into diamonds. While I thought her acting wasn’t great, I didn’t think she was terrible or distracting. The way I saw her character was she grew up pretty and privileged, though not exactly intelligent despite being able to read minds, and so she was apathetic to the politics around her. To me, all she cared about was being Shaw’s trophy. With some girls, it’s enough for them to have a guy next to them. I want more superhero movies like “X-Men: First Class” because it was clear that it had ambition. Although its tone was vastly different from its predecessors, it made itself an important piece of the package.
★★ / ★★★★
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent, had been living in isolation in the snowy mountains of Europe. Hanna was trained to defend herself, to always be alert, and to never trust anyone. But the reason for their preparation was unknown to us. When the two finally revealed their location using a tracker, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative, was given the case because she was willing to do whatever necessary to assissinate the sixteen-year-old girl. “Hanna” had all of the elements of a film I would immediately love despite its less significant flaws. Unfortunately, it failed to explore its characters in a meaningful way so that we would care more about what would happen to them when placed in a situation where a small mistake could cost them their lives. For example, Erik, Hanna’s father, seemed to have a past which involved Marissa when she was still an active agent in the field. But the bond between the two opposing sides was never under a magnifying glass. Instead, there was one flashback designed to explain it all. I thought the writers were confused about the notion of subtlety versus keeping its audiences in the dark for the sake of mystery. When Erik and Marissa were finally in the same room after years of not seeing each other, there was, without a doubt, genuine tension. However, it was because the technical aspects, like editing and camera angles, were so strong. It wasn’t because we fully understood their history and the possible repercussions if one of them received a bullet in the head. There was also a strand that involved Hanna meeting Sophie (Jessica Barden), a hilarious and outspoken girl who traveled with her family (Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Aldo Maland), and how the two eventually became friends. The things Hanna and Sophie went through, like spending time with handsome Spanish boys in motorcycles, were typical coming-of-age elements designed to explore Hanna’s capacity for humanity, despite being a killing machine, and the childhood she never had a chance to cherish. It was effective in its own way because we had a chance to see Hanna laugh and, in small dosages, experience emotions outside of her training. Unfortunately, Hanna had to go back to reality and face the woman who wanted to kill her. Blanchett sported a great haircut and creepy compulsions, but I wish she was given the chance to really show the monster behind her composure. Directed by Joe Wright, “Hanna” was not as rewarding as it should have been. I appreciated the risks it took so that warrants a slight recommendation. However, it could have been more engaging if we knew Erik and Marissa just as deeply as the title character.
★★★ / ★★★★
Retired agent of the CIA, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) began to flirt with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) over the phone. The pair seemed to make a genuine connection. But when assassins came sneaking into Frank’s home, after disarming them with relative ease, he had no choice but to meet Sarah in person because he believed that they were after her, too. Reluctant at first, she eventually realized that maybe this was the kind of excitement and danger she needed–feelings she only encountered in books she so often enjoyed reading. “Red,” which was actually an acronymn for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous,” was a slick action picture that made the smart decision to not reveal its aces too early in the game. Frank and Sarah traveled across America but we, like the dynamic duo, didn’t exactly know why they were being hunted by the CIA which was led by a young agent with a blind ambition and a nice haircut (Karl Urban). The action sequences offered nothing particularly new but they were inspired because the filmmakers and the actors injected a certain hyperkinetic energy to such scenes. I noticed that during the intense violence, the film would often cut to Parker’s brilliantly executed bewildered and sometimes utterly confused expressions. She may not be able to fight but she was charming and we always knew why she was perfect for Frank. We were supposed to relate to her because she represented ordinary folks plucked from the mundane and thrown into extraordinary events. The film benefited from strong and very colorful, to say the least, supporting characters. John Malkovich was excellent as the paranoid former agent with a penchant for hilarious sneak attacks. Morgan Freeman was sublime as the gentle aging man but could easily kill men half his age when pushed to a corner. Helen Mirren was fantastic as the British lady who enjoyed overkill. I’m used to seeing her play roles where she had to be soft and elegant so it was refreshing to see her wield gigantic machine guns. They had individual spark but the real magic was in their interactions. However, the weakest part of the film was how the revelation of the mystery was handled in the end. Questions involving the hit list and the cover-up were answered, but it wasn’t perfectly clear how that was related to a certain politician. The last-minute twist about the identity of the real “big bad” felt forced and unnecessary. Nevertheless, “Red,” directed by Robert Schwentke, was highly enjoyable because it had a balance of suspense, action, comedy, and wit. Similar movies with a younger cast fall on the wayside because the actors either lacked chemistry or the filmmmakers attempted to do too much. Those movies could learn a thing or two from here.
Expendables, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of mercenaries (Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews) was hired by an enigmatic man (Bruce Willis) to go to an island in South America in hopes of overthrowing a dictator (David Zayas) being controlled by a former CIA agent (Eric Roberts) and his beefy minion (Steve Austin). The film was thin on plot and very heavy on the action which means it’s perfect for men just wanting to sit back, have some laughs, and a couple of beers. I think it succeeded as a brainless action film but it failed in terms of strongly establishing a franchise that could potentially continue and thrive. The script developed certain characters like Lee Christmas (Statham) being a softie at heart, Ying Yang (Li) wanting to have a family someday, and Tool (Mickey Rourke) having a tortured past. However, the rest of the group didn’t get enough attention. For instance, I thought it was very awkward when Crews suddenly appeared (with the big guns and hilarious overkill) near the end when I didn’t see him at all since the beginning of the movie. The picture would have benefited as a whole if it had taken a little bit of time to explore each one even though the exploration may not have been very deep. Forgetting about a character is the worst. Furthermore, not for one second did I believe that the villains’ plans could succeed at the end of the day because they were overpowered by the good guys in numbers and weapons. Was it too much to ask for more (former) action stars to have been hired as bad guys? Although there was genuine tension in the action scenes and I found my heart pounding like crazy because of the adrenaline during the impressive car chase and plane acrobatics, I didn’t feel a thing when all the action died down. When the characters conversed, the lines were laughable; their words were obviously directed toward each other but I felt like they were having completely different conversations altogether. They were like young children still developing how it’s like to really communicate with someone else in a meaningful way. “The Expendables” proved that nostalgia could only take a movie to a certain extent. Without surprising twists and compelling moments of silence (I did love the one scene when the camera was fixated on Rourke’s face as he told his painful story) in between action sequences, the movie stayed limp even though there was an overdose of testosterone. Those impressed with the trailer will end up enjoying the movie one way or another. I did like it but I thought it could have been a lot better if it had filled in some gaps and ironed out its inconsistencies.
Losers, The (2010)
★ / ★★★★
“The Losers” was titled as such because five members of the CIA (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short, Óscar Jaenada) were framed by a voice on the radio named Max (Jason Patric) whose goal was to obtain a new generation of weapons in order to generate a worldwide war. The CIA operatives, after everyone believed they were dead, took refuge in Bolivia (and acted as, well, losers) until they met a woman (Zoe Saldana) with plenty of resources who wanted to hunt down and kill Max. “The Losers” is anything but boring because action sequences were abound. I liked its energy, its reckless abandon in terms of sticking with realism, and even its (very) lame jokes. What I despised with a passion, however, was the fact that it was never really clear on why Max wanted the five CIA agents dead. Since Max was supposedly smart and had a lot of money, why were the five men so special or so threatening? If he had kept the five in the dark in the first place, then he wouldn’t have a problem with achieving his goals. Furthermore, his ambition to obtain a weapon and eventual world domination felt like it was something out of an “Austin Powers” movie. Not for a second did I believe that he was menacing or remotely intelligent because he kept making ridiculous voices. I found his right-hand minion (Holt McCallany) a more believable villain. What could have made this movie more interesting was if it had given the five main characters more heart. Since it was based on a comic book series by Andy Diggle and Jock, it would have been nice if the movie had given us an extra dimension to explore instead of just the typical revenge story. Three of the five had families and the picture could have explored what it meant for them to survive. I wanted them to be torn between their loyalty to their team and their families. As for the romance between Morgan and Saldana, although they looked together and they had undeniable chemistry, I did not feel tension between them. Since Saldana’s character had a malleable sense of loyalty, I kept waiting for the movie to be one step ahead of me when it comes to delivering the potential twists. It was painfully obvious and eventually I just could not wait for it to end. Directed by Sylvain White, “The Losers” is like pop rocks candy. Once it enters the mouth, it’s explosive and we are able to feel strange and fascinating sensations. However, once the explosions die down, we all know that we’ve consumed nothing but empty calories.
★★★ / ★★★★
A Russian defective (Daniel Olbrychski) arrived at a CIA facility accusing of Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) of being a Russian sleeper agent whose role was to assassinate key political figures in order to spark a war between the United States and Russia. CIA officers (Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor) wanted to take precautions by detaining Salt but she attempted to break out of the facility to try to get to her husband (August Diehl) and prove her innocence. I liked that this movie actually went beyond the trailer’s question about whether or not Salt really was a mole. At times even I was unsure whether we were observing a good guy or a bad guy but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen because Jolie played her character with such gravity and conviction. Although the film did not have anything particularly new to offer the action-thriller genre involving spies and mistaken identities, its willingness to entertain by delivering high adrenaline, often nail-biting, fast-paced action sequences was enough to take the material to an above average action flick. However, its technique of constantly throwing plot points and twists was ultimately its downfall. In the middle of the picture, I wanted it to take a couple of minutes and just breathe. In the end, I was not quite sure who Salt really was other than she was really good at jumping on and off trucks and essentially an effective killer. A little bit of character development and exploring her relationship with her superiors and husband would have gone a long way. Another problem I had was its weak ending. I’m not sure if its aim was to leave the door open in hopes of starting a franchise–a femme version of the “Bourne” saga considering both are about finding out about the main character’s true identity. It did not quite work because it left me wanting more in a negative way. When the screen cut to black, I felt like I was still in the middle of an action sequence and I felt a bit cheated for its lack of falling action and resolution. Even if the filmmakers were trying to make a franchise, like “The Bourne Identity,” it should have been able to stand on its own by having a completely satisfying story arc. Written by Kurt Wimmer and directed by Phillip Noyce, “Salt” was at its best when building tension and releasing it by having Jolie’s character construct her own way out of very tricky situations. Watching it was not brain surgery but I wished it had more complexity in terms of the relationships between the characters and what it felt like to have your country turn on you when you’ve dedicated your life trying to protect it.
From Paris with Love (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A CIA agent (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who wanted to leave the safe but boring life of working for a U.S. Ambassador was given a promotion to work in a more exciting but dangerous field with a more experienced partner (John Travolta). The assignment was to track down leads that could help the government prevent a bombing mission. I enjoyed this movie even though there wasn’t much story because of the chemistry between Meyers and Travolta. In fact, Travolta and Meyers were very good. Unfortunately, the material that they had to work with was not as good as them. I must say the odd coupling worked because they had completely different personalities (novice vs. expert, cerebral vs. impulsive, both are smart in their own way) which reminded me of one of my favorite films “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” only with more action, less comedy and quirkiness. And the fact that it was essentially a spy picture definitely helped me get into it that much more. I agree with a lot of critiques about the film such as not truly having a clear purpose from the very beginning. I found myself a bit confused regarding what the real assignment was and why the two leads were running around all over Paris shooting all sorts of people. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but stay with them because there were nice twists and amusing jokes sprinkled here and there. It was almost cartoonish so it was unpredictable at times. I wished that the film had been a little longer to work on the character development that it seriously lacked. The bantering scenes and eventual agreement between the characters were nice but it felt too shallow and rushed. It made me feel like it sacrificed a lot of depth for the sake of kinetics and running time. However, there were a lot of memorable scenes such as the Chinese restaurant, a revelation involving a double agent and the intense freeway scene involving a bazooka. “From Paris with Love,” directed by Pierre Morel who also directed the superior action-thriller “Taken,” was a slick movie with energy to spare even though it was hollow in its core. But I’m giving this a recommendation because I really had fun watching it; it was obviously tended for people who enjoy action movies that are adrenaline-fueled and not just relying on the story for everything to make sense. I can say that the more one thinks about why things were happening the way they were (in which I found myself doing), the more one will end up getting confused. I say just sit back and enjoy the escapism.
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team of commandos (Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, Shane Black) take up a mission to rescue fellow members of the army from the Latin American jungle. Schwarzenegger’s old pal (Carl Weathers) who now worked for the CIA also came along with them to put his own agendas into motion. But little did they know that from a distance, an alien creature was observing their every move and mimicking their voices and expressions. Right from the very beginning, it was obvious that this was a “guy movie” because of its great focus on showing the military lifestyle, its weapons and artilleries, and men acting nothing short of masculine. But what makes it better than most typical films targeted for men is that it had a strong ability to build tension while at the same time still delivering the glorious violence and buckets of blood. Directed by John McTiernan, he didn’t let The Predator reveal itself until thirty to forty-five minutes into the picture. It simply observed from afar via the soldiers’ and the surroundings’ heat signatures while trying to practice certain human qualities. As the commandos started dying one by one, each scene became that much more intense because it meant that the final duel between Schwarzenegger and The Predator was that much closer. Acting-wise, this movie didn’t have much to offer because all the actors had to do was either look tough or scared. Nevertheless, I was engaged and curious what would happen next because the soldiers were pretty much fighting a creature who was a master of camouflage. I thought the strongest part of the film was the final twenty minutes. The dialogue was minimal because Schwarzenegger was the last man standing and he had to stay quiet in order to avoid attracting the alien who loves to hunt. The movie then had no choice but to rely on both the movements of the camera and that of the lead actor’s as he tried to find ways to trap and hopefully kill his enemy. Its special and visual effects may seem a bit dated now but with older films, what’s important to me is the concept. I believe “Predator” more than delivers because it was entertaining, sometimes smart, suspenseful and at times downright terrifying. This is a prime example of a sci-fi action flick that learned something from the horror genre.
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Tony Gilroy’s spy film “Duplicity” greatly benefits from the two very charismatic leads, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. The two met four years ago when both were on a mission in Dubai. Unknowing Owen, an MI6 agent at the time, hits on Roberts whose mission was to steal some documents for the CIA. After a one-night stand, Roberts leaves and the film shows the two of them meeting again in New York four years later in very amusing circumstances. This is not the kind of spy movie where objects blow up and people end up dying. The target audience of this picture are those who are into astute and often confusing storytelling that eventually makes more and more sense toward the end. I mentioned that this was confusing but I meant it in a very good way. It managed to keep me guessing from beginning to end because it kept pulling the rug from under my feet. I was invested in the two lead characters because I constantly had to reevaluate who was trying to trick who and up to what point they start to trust each other (or if it’s ever possible). After all, the two are in a relationship and trust is a requisite in order for such a thing to be successful. I liked the suppporting characters, mainly Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as two rival major pharmaceutical executives. Their intense performances were so ridiculous to the point where I ended up chuckling or laughing out loud whenever they were on screen. While the picture did have its slow moments, such scenes were a nice break from the constant one-upmanship between the timeless Roberts and suave Owen. There were times where I almost preferred watching them banter in the bedroom instead of being on the outside playing professionals. As for its ending, I thought it was wonderful; there was something very comical about the whole thing for two reasons: I didn’t see it coming and it was very ironic. Overall, the film had a nice flow to it because it had a nice balance of light thrills and genuine dramatic weight. I very much enjoyed Owen and Roberts in “Closer” as well as in this film. Hopefully, in the near future, they’ll team up again to spice up the screen.