Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

I have one of these. It's awesome.

I can’t say I’m surprised that the best action film of 2011 came in the form of animation maestro Brad Bird‘s live action directorial debut.  Take a close look at his three earlier films; the criminally underrated Warner Bros. feature ‘The Iron Giant‘, and his two Pixar pictures, the exhilarating superhero caper ‘The Incredibles’ and the insightful artistic comedy ‘Ratatouille’.  All three films, in addition to their strong characters and distinctive styles, boast extraordinary action sequences, the likes of which rarely seen in live action filmmaking.  After all, truly effective cinematic action is all about telling a coherent and consistently surprising story, and it doesn’t matter what form that takes.  It’s one of the grandest — and therefore, one of the hardest — magic tricks in existence.  Most of what passes for action is actually noise.  True action relies on suspense, clarity, easily discernible rules, and character development.  A giant robot shooting a gun is not action.  A giant robot shooting a gun while it avoids being shot by another giant robot is not action.  A giant robot having to shoot another robot before a bomb goes off is not necessarily action either, but it is getting close.  Unfortunately, that third iteration is about as far as most filmmakers will ever go.  At best, they will add more robots, guns, and bombs, but they will not use these elements to tell an effective story.  This is because the clarity required to deliver an edge-of-your-seat action sequence is not just external; primarily, it applies to the characters, and through the characters to the audience.  Bird’s ability to quickly build bridges between characters and audiences is the foundation of his cross-medium action expertise.  It’s why ‘Ghost Protocol’ is not only the best film in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series, or the best action vehicle of 2011, but indeed one of the best of the past ten years.

Without doubt the best scene in the film is Ethan Hunt’s unfortunate climb of the Burj Hotel, which, in case you didn’t know, is Dubai’s crown jewel and the tallest building in the world.  The way Bird eases the audience into the scenario is masterful.  First, he takes advantage of the IMAX format to immerse us in a tremendous establishing shot of the tower.  Scale matters.  If, for example, you want a giant robot fighting another giant robot whilst humans run in terror at their feet, you should probably pull the camera back and hold it steady so we can drink in the sheer and literal weight of the conflict.  It’s ultimately about sympathy; if we’re intended to connect with the five-foot humans running around, the composition needs to center on both their perspective and their emotions within the context of character.  Put someone on the ground whose reactions matter to the audience, and have that person change over time as the scenario evolves in logical ways.  In the climbing scene, Bird does this immediately; as soon as the IMF team discovers that they have to send someone to climb the tower, we see Ethan’s mix of fear and determination, and we connect with it because we are, in a sense, going out there with him.  Sympathy has been established — we know how high the tower is, and dread it just as much as Ethan does, but we also know that if he doesn’t go out the IMF team can’t stop the bad guys.  Suspense and clarity are in full force.  What about rules?  Clearly, Ethan requires some apparatus to make the ascent, and the team provides him with futuristic gloves that glow blue when adhesive and red when they fail.  “Blue is glue,” Benji, the tech expert, offers, “And red is dead.”  As long as Ethan makes the proper motions when climbing, the gloves should work; but what happens if they simply quit on him?  As you can see, rules, clarity, and suspense feed into each other.  Every subsequent development strengthens the bond between the Ethan and the audience, and makes his eventual improvised descent — which is highly reminiscent of the original ‘Die Hard’ — one of the most thrilling cinematic moments since Indy went under the truck in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘.  The Dubai scenes alone would have made ‘Ghost Protocol’ a standout picture, but Bird and company keep up the intensity through the final act, and it all comes together in a highly satisfying way.

‘Ghost Protocol’ is an extremely effective piece of escapist entertainment, more faithful in tone and structure to Bruce Geller’s television series than the other entries, and pleasantly reminiscent of the golden age James Bond films.  Indeed, it’s more spectacular and fun than any Bond since Timothy Dalton fell out the back of a plane in ‘The Living Daylights‘.  Perhaps Brad Bird could inject some vigor into that spy series, as well; as the box office numbers have shown, ‘Mission: Impossible’ is more alive than ever, simply because of Bird’s willingness to get swept up in the exhilarating places the genre can go.  Darkness, grit, and serious themes can make for compelling stories, but they can also be as predictable and disappointing as fluff.  Balance gravity with levity, however, and you have the most potent concoction in the business.  Once you have a taste, you’ll always be looking for your next fix, and I’m glad to say that after ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ got me hooked, ‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’ satisfies my need for a cinematic high.  Brad Bird, you’re with Steven Spielberg as one of the great pushers of our day.

MMM: You Only Live On Her Majesty’s Daylights Twice

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Standing before you guilty of loving James Bond movies, I present in my defense three (or so) classic pieces from composer John Barry, who scored the series’ majority until ‘The Living Daylights’.  I hope they can convince you to be lenient in your sentencing.

‘You Only Live Twice’, with its screenplay by Roald Dahl, bizarre hijinks, and Bond made up ambiguously Asian, is one of the chief reasons I was brought before this honorable court.  To offset its awesome British badness, I offer this gorgeous instrumental of its famous theme song.

George Lazenby was a great Bond, I think.  ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ was pretty darn entertaining, which is why I chose this video to illustrate this point and hopefully rebuff some of my accusers, your honor.

I confess!  Timothy Dalton’s underrated turn as James Bond turned out my favorite of the series, ‘The Living Daylights’.  You might as well haul in the chair right now and fry me.  This medley of the main themes as performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic sums up its musical appeal.  Now, where’s the priest and my last meal?  Can I get chocolate chip cookies for that?

NR: The King of the Monsters

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

There are a couple of film series that I watch purely for nonsensical gratuitous action-packed thrills.  One is the acclaimed ‘James Bond’ series, and the other is Toho Ltd.’s legendary slice of cheese, ‘Godzilla’.

After 50 years in which Toho produced 28 films, the series went into hibernation, awaiting a third reboot. Now, working with Legendary Pictures (responsible for reboots such as ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’), Toho shall wake the king of all kaiju for a Hollywood film in 2012. The last time Toho left the series in American hands, it turned out as a drive-thru action picture, not a feast of monster mayhem. The folks at Legendary seem to understand the franchise’s essence and appeal, however, so I’m quite positive about the project.

Now, as Collider (among others) reports, Legendary has hired the reboot’s director: Gareth Edwards, a new kid on the block.  This guy just brought us an independent monster movie, appropriately titled ‘Monsters’, that I, unfortunately, missed in the preferable theater experience.  The critical reaction was mostly positive, citing it as intelligent, emotional, and effective, and Edwards’ reputation got a level up.  I wish I could say something of value about his skill set, ideas, etc., but so it goes.  There is reasonable doubt of whether Edwards is too green to handle a project the size of ‘Godzilla’.  It’s a lot on his shoulders, and I would understand if he played it safe, or went with the studio’s agenda without much resistance.  In question also is his ability to handle a larger-than-life action picture, having jumped from conservative filmmaking to a film devoted to colorful excess.  I can’t answer either question, of course, but it has me somewhat worried.

‘Godzilla’ is a B-movie icon because of the violence inherent in the premise. Still, the creature was born from legitimate fears.  It’s not only possible, it’s certainly preferable to tell the story about the apocalyptic paranoia at its heart.  This, hopefully, is why Legendary hired Gareth Edwards.  I hope that he can prove the monster’s transcendence.  He’ll also have to deliver on the fiery intensity, awesome visuals, and monster mashes the franchise is known for.  For what my wishes are worth, I wish the project luck.  Go for it, folks.  Earn my ten dollars.

Classic Review: Dr. No

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The fantastic, intelligent, archetypical spy movie.

Review: There’s something intriguing about persons who live deceptive, decadent and devilish lives yet find themselves on the side of truth, justice, and fair play. Just such a human contradiction is writer Ian Fleming’s iconic spy James Bond (also known by his code number 007), realized by actor Sean Connery in this, the first of many official big screen films starring the character.  It’s the archetypical spy movie, beautifully designed, perfectly cast, well-written, and exciting throughout.

Unlike future Bond adventures that would focus on his action capabilities and grand set pieces (inspiring Steven Spielberg’s interest in creating Indiana Jones), those elements, though fantastically present in this debut, take a backseat to letting the viewer get to know the mysterious spy and his skill as a detective.  James is not yet the violent “blunt instrument” as in 2006’s reboot of the series, ‘Casino Royale’, and its followup, ‘Quantum of Solace’, where Bond is basically described as a problematic weapon.  Though Daniel Craig’s portrayal is no less intelligent than Connery’s, by the nature of the story in ‘Dr. No’ it is clear that Bond is something approaching a Renaissance Man akin to pulp hero Doc Savage and/or a stimulant-seeking genius who can put himself in anyone’s shoes, ala Sherlock Holmes.  His ruthless manipulation of those who dare to manipulate him reveals an intimate understanding of sociopathy, a condition he obviously shares and is probably aware of.  Bond is the ultimate Cold War figure; an individual capable of literally sleeping with the enemy for the advantage of King & Country.  Dr. No, the titular villain played by Joseph Wiseman, recognizes this unnerving trait and praises it, inviting the secret agent to join SPECTRE, the shadowy supercriminal organization that works to pit East & West against each other.  This seems to imply that Bond is, really, not too different from Dr. No at all, only that Bond chose the right friends and loyalties.  Yet perhaps this isn’t true.  The villain’s plot is to frustrate the U.S. space program, to disturb the balance of power, and if Bond were really as wicked as No, he would have taken advantage of the situation to create World War III, which could then be promptly won with Dr. No’s technology.  Instead, he becomes determined to blow the operation to smithereens, a gesture that denotes respect for both sides of the frigid conflict.

Bond’s similarity to Holmes is evident in the pursuit of the constant challenge.  But while Sherlock avoided women, James both hunts them and entraps them like a skilled playactor running through a familiar routine, similar to Sherlock’s routine of obtaining information from witnesses.  Holmes did what he did because of an obsession with information; Bond acts so because of an appreciation of beauty, that has run out of control.  And yet, like Holmes’ appreciation for his cases and even for the brilliance of the perpetrators, Bond truly cares for the good-hearted women he encounters, and in ‘Dr. No’ he goes to great lengths to save his main love interest, Honey Ryder, from the villain’s clutches.  This points once again to the probability that 007 is a self-aware sociopath, who, though he uses his emotional callousness to do his job, understands the importance of basic humanity when it really matters.

‘Dr. No’ establishes a long list of James Bond film traditions, such as having dinner with the villain, over-the-top technology, exotic locales, multiple femme fatales, a reluctant woman won over by James’ nobility, the Walther PPK, Felix Leiter, villains with physical deformities that turn out to be advantages, car chases in the hills, etc. etc. etc.

This is a must-see for fans of the spy and action genres.  It’s in the top ten of my favorite Bond movies, and it’s there to stay.

Buy It From Amazon: Dr. No (James Bond) [Blu-ray]