Tag: spy

Allied


Allied (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” wears the spirit of a 1940s picture, so beautifully detailed in nearly every aspect. With its ability and willingness to unfold slowly, it dares us to appreciate the minutiae, from the material of clothing and how it matches with or contrasts against walls or sides of buildings to the subtle interior changes a character goes through upon learning information that might lead to a reassessment of a relationship. Here is a film that has an intriguing story to tell where no easy solution is offered. Had screenwriter Steven Knight been less ambitious, it would have turned out to be just another spy thriller and a hunt for a mole.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard portray an intelligence officer and a French Resistance fighter in World War II, Max Vatan and Marianne Beauséjour, who are assigned in Casablanca to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. It is apparent that the two experienced dramatic performers enjoy their roles for they infuse a high level of energy behind every body language and between exchange of words. And coating their enthusiasm for the roles is a frisky elegance, so joyous to watch and think about because these are characters who at times do not say exactly what they mean. They come across as real individuals who just so happen to belong in a world of secrets and lies where differences could mean life or death.

The first half of the film comes across as an extended exposition. Although it may bother or annoy less patient viewers who crave action from the get-go, I was completely enraptured by its rhythm, long silences, and knowing glances. The material provides a realistic situation of how people may act around one another when handling a top-secret government assignment. Equally important during this hypnotic first hour, we get to a chance to ascertain who is the better tactician depending on the occasion. Max and Marianne’s respective approaches to complete a task differ greatly sometimes. And through their differences we recognize specific reasons why are attracted to one another eventually.

Although still intriguing, the second half is less strong by comparison. With the story moving away from exotic Casablanca to London, the locales are not as exciting visually. Perhaps the intention is to shift our focus from environment to increasing internal struggles, particularly of Max receiving news that his wife is possibly a German spy, but there is a way to pull off such a strategy. One way is perhaps to amplify the human drama. Instead, the dramatic core, while able to offer surprising details at times with its elegant screenplay, it remains as subtle as a flickering ember rather than a full-on blaze.

The suspense is embedded in how much we have grown to care for the characters. This is a challenge because we go in with the assumption that it is going to trick us somehow, or try to at the very least, since, after all, it is an espionage picture. But because those behind and in front of the camera choose to treat the material seriously and with respect, genuinely committing to a sub-genre that is not foreign to a spice of melodrama, it works somehow. Those who jump in with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised.

Spy


Spy (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

With her mentor killed in action and the rest of the CIA’s active agents’ identities compromised, Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a computer analyst, volunteers to go on a field assignment to track a nuclear weapons buyer (Bobby Cannavale) and report directly to her superior (Allison Janney)—emphasis on track and report. But once actually in the field, starting in Paris, circumstances compel Susan to engage in more than what she has been assigned. Susan’s best friend at work, Nancy (Miranda Hart), backs her up through her mission via an earpiece.

Written and directed by Paul Feig, “Spy” is infectious fun because of its energy, a willingness to take risks both on a physical comedy level and witty banters, and the action offers fresh surprises missing too often in action-comedies. But perhaps what I enjoyed most about the picture is that the script does not rely solely on fat jokes to be funny. Every character is the butt of a joke at one point or another whether it be in terms of their looks, personality, or position of power. It is a comedy with a good spirit.

McCarthy proves once again that she is a star—not a chameleon but a performer who commands powerful magnetism when she is on screen. Her character is required to wear the most ridiculous disguises but McCarthy’s personality and inner-light is so strong, she does not get lost in the unflattering wig and hideous clothes. This is a story of a likable underdog who is underestimated at times because of the way she looks. And yet there is no lesson in the end about loving oneself or something cheesy like that. McCarthy makes the story, even though it is a spy comedy, more grounded, relatable.

Although the material offers a consistent ebb and flow of action and comedy, it does run a little long. The last few scenes, once the twist is revealed, are not as interesting even though the material is still able to deliver a forward momentum. I suppose the whole situation involving a deal going awry during the final act has been done so many times that maybe removing it altogether would have been the best decision. Still, even though the final fifteen minutes offers nothing new, it is watchable and has a few jokes worth sitting through.

In terms of standout supporting performances, it is a toss-up between Jason Statham, playing a very enthusiastic spy (to say the least), and Rose Byrne, portraying a femme fatale with the hopes of selling nuclear weapons. Statham is so intense that it feels as though his character came from a completely different movie—maybe from a pure action flick or a high-end action-thriller. Just about every moment he is on screen, he is making fun of his previous roles involving men with a certain talent for violence and a knack for extrication from trickiest situations. Byrne, on the other hand, is beautiful, as expected, but she has a lot of fun with the role. She oozes sex appeal but mixed with a bit of menace. When her character signals her bodyguards to punish those who have wronged her, it can be chilling especially when the violence happens off-screen.

“Spy” does not change the landscape of action-comedies in any way, but it does offer a good time. Although the template is composed of standard material we expect from the sub-genre, there is enough inspiration here that delivers creativity and intelligence, coupled with amusing performances across the board without the screenplay necessarily relying only on caricatures to make the gags work.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

A relatively simple retrieval turned excessively complicated when three IMF agents failed to realize that there was another group interested in acquiring the same documents they were after. One of them ended up dead (Josh Holloway) so it was up to the other two to rescue Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from a Berlin prison. While the prison break was successful, Hunt, Benji (Simon Pegg), and Jane (Paula Patton) were blamed for the bombing of The Kremlin which meant, in the least, a breach of international relations between Russia and the United States. As a result, the president issued Ghost Protocol: a disavowal of all IMF agents and their activities, which implied they were now rogue agents and, if captured, to be treated as terrorists. It was up to Hunt and company to exonerate the IMF from unjust blame and to prevent the real terrorists from starting a nuclear war. “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, was the expected fast-paced and globe-trotting action-adventure escapism with a myriad of twists to spare, proof that the franchise is worth continuing given that it has a strong script and is led by a director with a keen eye for detail and a solid grasp between thrill and suspense. Excellence was prevalent in the first hour and a half. The scene inside the Kremlin where serious Hunt and hilarious Benji had to set up an optical illusion in the hallway using advanced gadgetry, making them invisible to the guard as they broke into a vault, was genius. The scene was done without any dialogue and almost no sound but it garnered so much nerve-wracking tension, a beep on the computer or a silent opening of a door felt as threatening as watching someone put a gun on another person’s head, pulling the trigger, but no bullet comes out. Just a deafening click. Another scene I found myself very engaged in was when Ethan chased a terrorist through a sandstorm in the magnificently urban Dubai. Talk about using the environment as an inspiration for an action sequence. It was a typical cat-and-mouse chase but, like the first scene, made exponentially complicated when sand and wind were raging all over the streets which made our protagonist blind to potential threats like cars swooshing by. However, the film wasn’t without important missing pieces. I would’ve liked to have gotten to know more about the villains. Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), a diamond collector, killed Jane’s partner in the field. While it was very exciting to watch them duke it out in a posh Dubai–and extremely, vomit-inducingly high–hotel room, if we had known Sabine’s background a bit more, either she was painted as more ruthless and cunning or, more interestingly, slightly more sympathetic, then it just wouldn’t be about Jane wanting revenge for someone she lost which, by the way, grew tired as the movie went on. Sentimentality was not this installment’s forté. I was more interested in the relationship between Hunt and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst bearing a heavy personal secret, who may or may not be a double agent. Furthermore, Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), the leading terrorist, ultimately felt like a henchman. It was odd that didn’t we get to see Hendricks and Hunt speak to each other. Not one word. Regardless, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” directed by Brad Bird, had enough highs that gave me chills with how good it was. And guess what? It made me laugh, too.

Mission: Impossible II


Mission: Impossible II (2000)
★ / ★★★★

Dr. Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) was on the plane to the United States after he discovered a virus named Chimera, fatal to its host within twenty hours of contact. However, the only way to transport the virus safely was to inject it inside a living person. The plane never made it to its destination. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was assigned by his superior (Anthony Hopkins) to recruit Nyah (Thandie Newton), a professional thief, so that she could reconnect with Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), former beau and rising international terrorist. Incidentally, Ambrose used to double for Hunt during missions back when he was still an IMF agent. He’d gone rogue and he planned to profit from the virus by forcing a pharmaceutical company CEO (Brendan Gleeson) to surrender his company. Based on the screenplay by Robert Towne and directed by John Woo, “Mission: Impossible II” was everything Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” was not: gone were the atmospheric paranoia that kept the characters from fully trusting each other, the heart-pounding scenes in which silence was successfully executed to attain the highest levels of suspense, and the thrilling possibility that anyone could drop dead at any time. Instead, we were subjected to more hand-to-hand combat, slow motions that featured Cruise’ well-shampooed and well-conditioned hair, and forceful, supposedly meaningful, glances between Hunt and Nyah, both of whom shared no chemistry. I wouldn’t have a problem with the direction the filmmakers wanted to take if more thought was put into it. The elements of great drama, a bridge to a solid action movie with a heart, were certainly there. Nyah was trapped between two men, obviously attracted to her, who used to work for the same team. But how were Ethan, not as Hunt the IMF agent, and Sean, not as Ambrose the criminal, different and similar to each other? The closest we got to getting to know them was toward the end when they tried to kill each other from their motorcycles. Ambrose knew how Ethan worked and processed information given that they went through the same training. There should have been more scenes when Ambrose took advantage of the fact that he knew who he was up against. Ethan, on the other hand, didn’t know much about Ambrose. He saw the man as just his double. It would make sense if he took a while to get accustomed to his adversary. Furthermore, there was a duality involving Greek mythology: Chimera, a monster with a head of a lion and a tail of a serpent’s head, and Bellerophon, a hero most famous for slaying Chimera. Incidentally, Chimera was the name of the virus and Bellerophon was the name of the cure. But how was Chimera and Bellerophon related to Ambrose and Hunt, respectively? The film missed another opportunity to further explore its characters independent of blazing guns and egregious slow motion montages. What bothered me most was the script seemed desperate to turn Ethan Hunt into James Bond. Doing something different for a sequel does not mean it’s acceptable to be disloyal to the original character. It means giving us something unexpected but still hanging onto his core, the reason why we rooted for him in the first place.

Mission: Impossible


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.

Killers


Killers (2010)
★ / ★★★★

An uptight woman (Katherine Heigl) who recently got out of a relationship decided to go on vacation with her parents (Catherine O’Hara, Tom Selleck) in Nice, France and luckily met her future husband (Ashton Kutcher). He seemed to have it all: he’s charming, has a sense of humor, a great body and he genuinely wanted her despite her geekiness and flaws. He just happened to be a contract killer who worked for the government. I really wanted to like “Killers,” directed by Robert Luketic, because I have a penchant for stories involving spies and sleeper agents. Unfortunately, the picture needed to trim a lot of fat, especially the very unfunny first thirty minutes. It had a chance to establish the characters before diving into the action scenes but the dialogue was so flat, so empty, and so one-dimensional. I found that our conversations in real life were more interesting to listen to than the two characters having a dinner date by the sea. Their conversations didn’t pull me into their relationship because there were far too many giggly, awkward moments instead of two people sharing a real connection. I think this would have been far more effective if the first half was a romantic comedy and second half was a predominantly serious but occassionally funny thriller. The elements were certainly there: the close-knit suburban community which reminded me of “Desperate Housewives” with perfect picket fences and all, the quirky and sometimes annoying neighbors, the parents who were too involved with their daughter’s marriage, and the husband harboring a secret that he couldn’t hide forever. I thought it had a very difficult time juggling comedy and action so it managed to excel at neither of them. As for the sleeper agents, like the lead characters, they would have had more impact in the story if we got to know them a little bit. The battle scenes would have been more interesting if each of them had a specialty and a different style of assassination. Because let’s face it: gunning someone down with fragments of glass flying everywhere can get old pretty quickly. “Killers” desperately needed a lot of substance and a lot of edge in order to be a killer film. Heigl and Kutcher were easy on the eyes but that was about it. Be warned: there is a vast difference between the trailer and the movie–like having a crush on someone from afar because of their looks but when you really try to get to know them, it’s very disappointing because they turn out to be quite empty. Rewatch “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” instead because “Killers” was just no fun.

A Scanner Darkly


A Scanner Darkly (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” was about a cop (Keanu Reeves) who was assigned to spy on his group of friends in order to capture a guy named Bob Arctor. But it turned out that the main character and the man that the cops were interested in was the same person; Bob, like many people, was addicted to a drug called Substance D which supposedly induced multiple personality disorder. Directed by Richard Linklater, “A Scanner Darkly” is one of those movies that is full of promise but it gets in the way of itself because too many questions were asked but very few (if any) were answered in a clear way so I couldn’t help but feel cheated. For instance, I was curious about the real underlying effects of the drug in question. Some addicts experienced hallucinations such as bugs taking over their bodies, others experienced drunken stupor, while some were always on the verge of euphoria. It then begs the question whether the drugs’ effects were somehow connected to our personalities. I wanted to know more about the science and the effects of the drug in the brain. There were scenes that tackled the drug’s effects on the brain (I liked how it related the whole phenomenon to split-brain patients) but they were superficial at best. Maybe it wasn’t that shocking to me because I’ve seen split-brain experiments in real life. I didn’t care much about the friends (one of which was played by Robert Downey Jr.) acting stupid and asking “insightful” questions that led nowhere. The scenes with the friends made me feel like the movie was way into itself; instead of trying to pull me in, it made me question whether the story was really going anywhere. I do have to say that the animation was enjoyable because it added an extra dimension to the project. Everyone pretty much led their lives half-awake so that lucid tone made me feel like I was one of them. I liked that the animation was there to highlight certain facial expressions and quirks to convey certain truths behind the dialogue so it didn’t feel much like a gimmick. I thought the animation worked especially well in scenes where characters experienced hallucinations. Nevertheless, I wish the movie spent more of its time in engaging us instead of teasing us with its vast ideas. It was borderline pretentious. I felt like there was a disconnect (when it should have been clearly connected) in exploring the relationship between the drug world/addicts and the very same people who wanted to eliminate the drug off the streets. The main character embodied both worlds but the way the story unfolded left me hanging, somewhat confused, and frustrated. It’s definitely a different movie experience but I think it makes a good double-feature with Linklater’s other film “Waking Life.”