Jackie Chan Returns in THE FOREIGNER (2017)

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Jackie Chan is back, and he’s taking on Pierce Brosnan in today’s thriller, THE FOREIGNER (2017).

Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) is a quiet store owner living in London whose world is shattered when his daughter is killed in a terrorist bomb attack.  He seeks out answers, demanding to know who killed his daughter. A group identifying itself as a new faction of the IRA claims responsibility for the London blast, and so Quan’s search leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former officer in the IRA who’s now working for the British government.

Quan isn’t the only one demanding answers.  The British government wants them, too, and Hennessy promises to find them.  He assembles a group of his IRA contacts and puts them on notice with his suspicions that someone in their circle is part of this new faction.

When Quan shows up at Hennessy’s doorstep looking for the names of the bombers, Hennessy tells him he doesn’t know who is responsible and quickly dismisses his visitor without a second thought.  But Quan is relentless, and soon he is bombing Hennessy’s home and threatening his family unless he is given the names of the terrorists.

Hennessy’s search for the terrorists leads to some  unexpected answers, while his efforts to apprehend Quan, who is a former special forces soldier, repeatedly fail.

THE FOREIGNER tells two different stories, and as such, at times seems like two different movies.

The emotional story is Quan’s, as he vows that nothing is going to stop him from finding the people responsible for his daughter’s death.

Quan Ngoc Minh is a serious somber role for Jackie Chan, and it’s not the usual lighthearted fun action role that Chan generally plays.  Quan is an older, more reflective character who goes all in to avenge his daughter’s death. Chan doesn’t play the character as unhinged but as extremely determined and focused.  He somehow manages to keep Quan a sympathetic character throughout, even when he is blowing up Hennessy’s property. It’s an impressive performance.

But while Quan’s story is emotional, it’s also just a simple revenge tale, and as such,  is far less interesting than the more intriguing story of Hennessy’s investigation into his IRA contacts.

As Liam Hennessy, the former IRA officer who’s now in the difficult position of siding with the British government, Pierce Brosnan delivers a solid performance, showing grit, determination, and eventually despair.  That’s because the deeper Hennessy digs, the more his world unravels.

Hennessy has the double whammy of learning some unsavory things about both his IRA connections and people very close to him, while being unable to fend off Quan who is hiding in the woods outside his home and is constantly attacking him.  The scenes where Hennessy expresses frustration and disbelief that his trained security detail cannot handle Quan are some of Brosnan’s best.

Both the IRA storyline and Quan’s vengeance story are dark, grim tales, but there is a disconnect between the two that prevents this movie from really taking off.  The two stories never really come together in a satisfying way.

One reason is that they are so different.  Quan’s revenge tale is right out of an old Charles Bronson movie, while Hennessy’s investigation into the depths of the IRA is more akin to a political suspense thriller.  They don’t mesh all that well, and the biggest reason for this is the film’s climax. For Quan, there’s only one solution, and in this movie just like in those Charles Bronson movies, whether or not he achieves it is never really in question, and for Hennessy, the answers he finds have less to do with what Quan wants to know and more to do with his own past.  And so their two stories aren’t exactly on a collision course with each other.  They connect, but only long enough to send each of them on their merry ways.

If you like Jackie Chan action scenes, you won’t be disappointed. Director Martin Campbell does a nice job with them, and they were probably my favorite part of the movie.  My only beef is that there weren’t enough of them.

The Hennessy scenes are taut and intriguing.  The investigation into who is behind the bombings is compelling and hard-hitting.

Director Campbell is no stranger to action thrillers.  He’s directed two James Bond movies, GOLDENEYE (1995) the first Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, and CASINO ROYALE (2006), the first Daniel Craig Bond movie.  Both films are excellent.  Campbell also directed GREEN LANTERN (2011), which was not so excellent.

David Marconi wrote the screenplay, based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather.  It’s an okay screenplay.  It has believable characters and tells two compelling stories, even if they don’t mix together all that well. Marconi also wrote the screenplay for LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007).

Chan and Brosnan are helped by a solid supporting cast.  Michael McElhatton from TV’s GAME OF THRONES (2012-2016) plays Hennessy’s loyal right hand man, Jim, while Dermot Crowley from TV’s LUTHER (2010-2015) plays Hugh McGrath, one of Hennessy’s IRA brothers who may have his own agenda.

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, a woman who Hennessy is having an affair with, and Orla Brady plays his wife Mary, who has her own issues with her husband.

And Rory Fleck Byrne is very good as Hennessy’s nephew Sean, a tracker and an assassin, who Hennessy eventually employs to find and take out Quan.

But the two best performances in THE FOREIGNER belong to the two leads, Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. Chan is excellent in a far more somber and serious role than he usually plays, and Brosnan is just as good as the increasingly beleaguered Hennessy whose world is under constant threat.

THE FOREIGNER is a decent thriller featuring two veteran actors. Its two separate stories don’t always gel, but the acting, directing, and writing are strong enough to make THE FOREIGNER an enjoyable action movie.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

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AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) – Action Tale Not Really Believable

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AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it only been believable.

The trouble starts within the first few minutes of the movie.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on a picture perfect beach, but moments later, terrorists shoot up the shoreline, wiping out countless people, including Katrina.  Devastated, Mitch decides to seek vengeance, and in a Rocky-like montage, Mitch trains himself to become— an assassin!  He’s actually training to be a terrorist, so he can infiltrate the secret terrorist cell responsible for murdering his fiance.

And he does all of this with relative ease.  So, before you can say “Jason Bourne,” he infiltrates the terrorist cell responsible for killing his girlfriend and even finds himself in the same room with the man responsible for giving the order.  How convenient!

But before Mitch can finish the job, the CIA intervenes, kills the terrorists, and whisks Mitch away.  Why?  To turn him into a CIA agent of course!  He’s sent to train under the rough and tough Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) who sets out to break Mitch, but of course, you know how that turns out.  Mitch passes all the macho tests with flying colors.

The next thing you know Mitch is on Stan’s team and they’re in hot pursuit of some deadly terrorists who are intent on detonating a rather nasty bomb.  The man behind all the dastardly stuff is a shadowy figure known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who it turns out, was trained by— you got it, Stan Hurley.  Ghost is the one who got away, the one who felt Stan betrayed him, and so now it’s up to Stan’s latest protegé, Mitch, to take on the old protege, Ghost.  Ten cents says you can figure out how that confrontation will turn out.

As I said, very little of this one is believable.

For starters, I simply did not buy Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp.  O’Brien, who stars in the MAZE RUNNER movies, was chosen for the role specifically because he’s young, and there are plans to turn this movie into a film series since Mitch Rapp is a recurring character in a series of best-selling novels by Vince Flynn.

But I thought he was too young here.  The idea that he could stand up to Michael Keaton’s Stan Hurley was never believable.  O’Brien just was never convincing as a tough assassin.

On the other hand, Michael Keaton was very convincing as the rock solid Stan Hurley, but Hurley is not the main character here, and there’s only so much Keaton could do here to help this movie along.

Taylor Kitsch was sufficient at Ghost, but Shiva Negar delivered a more memorable performance as fellow agent Annika.  I liked the chemistry she shared with Dylan O’Brien.  This part of the movie was believable.

Likewise, Sanaa Lathan was also very good as CIA agent Irene Kennedy, the woman who recruits Mitch and then struggles to control him.

This one was written by four screenwriters.  Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz all worked on this screenplay adaptation of the novel by Vince Flynn, and they all have a decent number of writing credits, too.  It didn’t really seem to help all that much here, though.

Michael Cuesta directed with mixed results.  I liked the opening terrorist attack scene on the beach, which I thought was a jarring way to open the movie, but subsequent action scenes didn’t pack the same punch.

There’s a torture scene which isn’t as effective as it should have been.  When Ghost captures his former boss Stan Hurley, he tortures him for information, but the trouble is, Stan is just too tough for this sort of thing.  Michael Keaton has a field day in this scene which if it wasn’t so violent would have been comical.  Keaton follows each brutal method of torture with a wisecrack and a grunt.  Things get so bad for the villain Ghost that he nearly throws a hissy fit.

I went to see AMERICAN ASSASSIN specifically because I wanted to see Michael Keaton.  I knew going in that he wasn’t playing the lead, and he does a fine job in a supporting role. But truth be told, this one would have been much better had Keaton been playing a lead role.

I see lots of action movies.  The really good ones make you forget they’re telling an impossible story.  They’re convincing in their execution.  The lesser ones simply go through the motions.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN clearly falls into the latter category.  It expends little or no effort in convincing its audience that any of it could be true.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JASON BOURNE (2016) – Fifth Film in “Bourne” Franchise Repetitive

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Jason Bourne.  Jason Bourne.  Jason Bourne.

Does that sound repetitive?  Welcome to my problem with today’s movie, JASON BOURNE (2016), the fifth film in the Jason Bourne series, the fourth starring Matt Damon.

I mean, how many movies will it take for Jason Bourne to stop looking into his past and move on to something new?  Apparently more than four, because this is Matt Damon’s fourth turn as the character and he’s still searching for answers.  Yawn.

Which is too bad because I’m a fan of the Bourne series.  I loved the first one, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) and enjoyed the next two as well, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007).  I even enjoyed the one without Damon, which starred Jeremy Renner, THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012).  That being said, with each  successive film I grew wearier of their plots which were pretty much variations of the same premise- Jason Bourne coming out of hiding to learn the truth about his past and make life miserable for whichever nasty good-for-nothing CIA chief  was in power at the time.

I’m sorry to say that this newest film in the series, JASON BOURNE– hey, how about that title?  Score one for creativity! Let’s call this one– Jason Bourne!— offers nothing new and  is exactly what I just described.  It’s just hard to get excited about a movie in a series with the same exact plot of the films which came before it.

So here we go.  In JASON BOURNE, former CIA operative Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is once more looking for answers about his past, this time about his deceased father’s involvement in his CIA recruitment.  So once again Bourne comes out of hiding, and this time the CIA heavy who’s out to stop him in order to prevent Bourne from exposing their secret programs is CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).

Dewey is assisted by his young protege, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), although as the story goes along, it becomes clear that the two don’t see eye to eye, as Dewey sees Heather as inexperienced, and Heather views Dewey as a dinosaur, and so both deal with Bourne on their own terms.

They also have at their disposal an assassin named Asset (Vincent Cassel) who has a history with Bourne and is only too happy to be the man asked to eliminate the former CIA operative.

The plot in this one revolves around Dewey’s shady dealings with a young social media mogul named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed).  Dewey basically wants to use Kalloor’s technology to spy on eveyone, and this secret alliance is endangered when Bourne in his search for answers about himself uncovers information about this union.

JASON BOURNE gets off to a rather slow start as the first half of this film could have been directly lifted from any of the previous films and I wouldn’t have noticed.  Nothing in the opening of this movie drew me in or got me excited about what was to come.  I felt like I was watching the films I had already seen.

Things eventually do get better as finally the film begins to take on its own identity.  About the time Bourne gets to London things pick up with one of the film’s better sequences where Bourne outsmarts both Dewey and Heather’s forces.  It’s also about the time when it’s clear that Dewey and Heather are not working together, which is one of the more interesting dynamics of the film.  And that’s because Heather is one of the more compelling characters in the movie, although she certainly is far from original.  Most of this interest comes from Alicia Vikander’s performance.

The cast is decent.  I’ve always enjoyed Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, but his performance here is like the rest of the movie:  nothing I haven’t seen before.  This movie is just screaming for a different plot.  Put Jason Bourne in a different situation, for crying out loud!  Have him try to save the world or something!  Does he have to be stuck in the same God-forsaken plot in every Bourne movie?  Apparently so.  There’s nothing wrong with Damon’s performance, but the character does the same things he did in the previous films.  He doesn’t even have any memorable lines.

The best peformance in the movie, hands down, belongs to Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee.  Vikander made a big splash in the science fiction film EX MACHINA (2015).  She also starred in THE DANISH GIRL (2015), and I liked her a lot in the underrated THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)  She’s excellent here once again.  Granted, there’s nothing all that special about her character, Heather Lee.  But Vikander gives her a nice combination of icy professionalism with chiseled sexuality.

Tommy Lee Jones is actually very good as CIA Director Robert Dewey.  He makes Dewey quite the despicable villain, and he does it effortlessly, as you would expect from someone with Jones’ talent and experience.  It’s just too bad the character is the same exact type of CIA villain that all the Bourne films have had.

And Vincent Cassel makes for a formidable foe for Jason Bourne as the assassin Asset, but since the title of the is film is JASON BOURNE, there’s little doubt as to which character will have the upper hand here.

JASON BOURNE was directed by Paul Greengrass, who directed the second and third films in the series, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM.  If he succeeds at anything it’s making the films look consistent.  The style for all these films is the same.

There are the expected action scenes, but I was actually disappointed with the film’s centerpiece action sequence, the high speed chase through the streets of Las Vegas, where they destroy about 50 million cars along the way!  Seriously, it’s insane how many cars they wipe out during this chase.  All without any bloodshed.  Imagine that!  I should have loved this scene, but it was edited with such quick edits that I often found the action happening too quickly, so much so that I almost had to turn away at times.  It was a case where I was noticing the camerawork which is not a good thing.  Had the camera moved in close to the action and remained there, rather than  cutting this way and that, the scene would have had a grittier more realistic feel.  As is, it plays like a swiftly edited television commercial.

The fight sequences were okay, but they certainly didn’t blow me out of the water.

The screenplay by director Greengrass and Christopher Rouse was meh.  The biggest knock against it is it’s just not original.  It’s a rehash of all Bourne films which came before it.  The dialogue is nothing special either.  Of course, their screenplay is based upon characters created by Robert Ludlum in his Bourne novels.   So, I suppose one could argue that they were simply being true to the spirit of the Ludlum novels by not shaking things up here in their latest Bourne movie.  I don’t know about that.

I do know, that this film would have been a better movie if, in the words of that other more famous spy from the other side of the ocean, its plot and its characters had been shaken, not stirred.

 —END—

Bryan Cranston Leads the Way in THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

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If you’re a Bryan Cranston fan, you’ll love THE INFILTRATOR (2016).

THE INFILTRATOR tells the true story of how U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) took on the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar and won. It’s 1986, the heart of the “War on Drugs” as waged by then President Ronald Reagan, and Mazur comes up with the idea to take down the drug lords not by going after the drugs but by following the money.

And so Mazur and his partner Emir (John Leguizamo) set up an elaborate money laundering scheme where Mazur impersonates a Mafia money guy in order to infiltrate the drug business.  They work their way to the higher-ups, which in this case means a man named Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and of course the ultimate prize of Pablo Escobar.

Along the way they meet with their share of undesirables, and the stakes grow increasingly high, as Mazur and his “wife” Kathy (Diane Kruger) infiltrate Alcaino’s home and family.  One false slip of the tongue and they’re dead.

THE INFILTRATOR is a well-made and highly entertaining movie.

While there’s lots to like about this one, the best thing is the acting, led by Bryan Cranston. While it may not be as crafted an effort as the one Cranston gave in TRUMBO (2015), nor as powerful as his five season stint on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), it’s still a thoroughly captivating and entertaining performance.  Cranston gives Mazur an admirable confidence without sacrificing his vulnerablities and fears that go with the territory.

Cranston has that presence where he can hold your attention the entire time he’s on screen.  While there were many things I enjoyed about THE INFILTRATOR, the main reason I enjoyed it was because of Bryan Cranston.

The rest of the acting is also very good.  John Leguizamo is a natural as Mazur’s wisecracking unpredictable partner Emir.  It’s always fun to see Leguizamo when he’s not voicing Sid in the ICE AGE movies.

The women here also fare very well.  I really enjoyed Diane Kruger as fellow agent Kathy Ertz who joins the undercover ruse as Mazur’s wife.  She becomes a prominent player in the second half of the film, and she’s excellent.

Juliet Aubrey is also very good as Mazur’s real wife Evelyn.  She takes what could have been a cliched role- the worried wife- and makes her a three-dimensional and very sympathetic character.

Benjamin Bratt makes the most of his brief screen time as drug cartel leader Roberto Alcaino.  While there’s little doubt that Alcaino is a dangerous man, Bratt surprises in how sympathetic and likeable he makes Alcaino, making Mazur and Kathy more uncomfortable the more they get to know him, because they grow to like him.

Elena Anaya is equally as good as Alcaino’s wife Gloria.  Like Alcaino, she welcomes Mazur and Kathy into her family, adding to the difficulty of their continuing the sting.

The film is loaded with all sorts of unsavory characters, and as a result there are a bunch of noteworthy supporting performances here.  Among them are Yul Vazquez as bisexual drug man Javier Ospina who can’t seem to take his hands off anyone in the movie, especially the men.  It’s a weird and mesmerizing performance by Vasquez as there’s something almost vampire-like about Ospina.  And in a neat movie homage, at one point in the film Ospina mentions THE GODFATHER movies, and later, when he learns the truth about Mazur, he tells him, “You broke my heart,” which is the famous line uttered by Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to his brother Fredo when he learns his brother betrayed him in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974).  It’s not clear that Mazur gets the reference, but the audience does, making the moment frightening and menacing.

Speaking of vampires, Joseph Gilgun plays a lively character named Dominic, a convict who Mazur springs from jail so he can act as his personal protector.  Dominic is there to watch Mazur’s back, and he does.  Gilgun curently plays a vampire on the frenetic TV show PREACHER (2016), a nutty character named Cassidy, and Gilgun is just as wild here in THE INFILTRATOR.

And Olympia Dukakis is wonderful in two key scenes as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, the latter where she also gets to take part in the sting operation.

Director Brad Furman previously made RUNNER RUNNER (2013), a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, and THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011),  a drama starring Matthew McConaughey, both okay movies.  I enjoyed THE LINCOLN LAWYER better than RUNNER RUNNER which struggled to remain believable.  THE INFILTRATOR is probably his best movie yet, a stronger film than these other two.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Ellen Sue Brown, based on the book by Robert Mazur.  In addition to the obvious drug war plot, the story also makes a point of painting a sympathetic portrait of drug villains Roberto and Gloria Alcaino.  They speak of family and loyalty, and they welcome Mazur and Kathy into their home.  At one point, Roberto asks Mazur who the biggest money launderer in the United States is, and he tells Mazur it’s the U.S. government, which while publically waging the war on drugs, privately welcomes drug money into its banks.

The film also makes a point of including bank executives as the villains here.  We see top bank officials listen to Mazur tell them point blank that his money comes from cocaine dealers, and yet they don’t bat an eye.  They simply welcome the money.  So, there is definitely an anti-business/banking element to this story, a la THE BIG SHORT (2015).

While the plot is not overly complicated- U.S. Customs official sets up sting to take down drug cartel- there are a ton of characters in this film, coming and going at any given time, and so one really has to pay attention or else risk being lost.

The actual pace is somewhat slow.  Do not see THE INFILTRATOR expecting an action movie.  It’s not.  It’s a drama and a thriller.  It’s also a movie where the dialogue drives the tension, and  most of the suspense comes from this dialogue, as you keep expecting Mazur and his fellow agents to say the wrong thing and then pay the price.

The film takes place in 1986 but curiously the hairstyles, clothes, and look of the whole thing reminded me of a decade earlier, 1976!  The grainy print gives the film  an authentic feel, but of the 1970s not the 1980s.  I felt like I was watching SERPICO (1973) rather than MIAMI VICE.

But these are small matters.

I really enjoyed THE INFILTRATOR.  It’s a nail-biting suspense drama and showcase for the acting talents of Bryan Cranston and a stellar supporting cast.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout.

—END—

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) Taut Thriller Is One of Summer’s Best

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OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) is my kind of movie.

This thriller based on the John le Carre novel of the same name is well-acted, written, and directed and provides edge-of-your-seat excitement from beginning to end.  It’s one of the best films to come out this summer.

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR opens in Moscow with the chilling assassination of a Russian mobster and his family.  We then meet a young British college professor named Perry (Ewan McGregor) on holiday with his attorney wife Gail (Naomie Harris).  All is not well with them, as they took this holiday to help their marriage, which suffered a blow when Perry slept with one of his students.  In a restaurant, Gail receives a work-related call and she leaves Perry to dine alone.

At a neighboring table a boisterous group drinks and parties hearty.  One of these partiers, Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) invites Perry to join their table since he’s dining alone, and Perry reluctantly agrees.  Dima then invites Perry to come with him to another party, and he gives it the hard sell, to which Perry- with nothing better to do since his wife is working- agrees.

Suddenly, Dima is confiding lots of confidential information to Perry, and the next thing Perry knows, the man is handing him a flash drive which he wants Perry to hand over to the British Secret Service. It turns out that Dima is a member of the Russian Mafia who now fears for his life and his family’s lives and wants to defect.  Perry agrees.

Back in London, Perry turns over the flash drive, which captures the attention of a British intelligence officer named Hector (Damian Lewis).  The flash drive contains the names of prominent British citizens who are in cahoots with the Russian mob, and Hector has his own personal reasons for wanting to retrieve this information and more of what Dima says he has to offer.

Dima agrees to meet with Hector, but only if Perry is in on the deal.  At first, Perry wants no part of further meetings, but eventually he is covinced by Hector to go, and so he and wife Gail make the trip.

Soon, Perry and Gail find themselves embroiled in a very dangerous situation, caught in between the merciless Russian mob and the calculating secretive MI6, and rather than wanting out, they want in, as they grow closer to and fonder of Dima and his family.

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is not receiving much hype, and so I went in to this one not expecting much, but it’s a heck of a thriller, and is one of my favorite movies of the summer so far.

Director Susanna White has made an effective thriller that caught my attention from the very first sequence, the jarring assassination scene of the Russian mobster and his wife and daughter.  From that moment on, the film had me, and it never let up.  The direction remained stylish throughout.  While the action scenes are few and far between, there are scenes of suspense throughout.

When Perry and Gail are whisked away from a party by a key member of the Russian mob and taken back to a ghetto apartment, the tension is paramount.  Likewise, the sequence when MI6 and Perry and Gail try to rescue Dima’s family is taut and thrilling.  This is the kind of movie John Frankenheimer would have directed in his heyday.  Director White does an excellent job.

The photography is also excellent as there are plenty of picturesque location shots, from Moscow, to London, to Paris, to the French Alps.  There’s a nice almost Bond-like international feel to this one.

The screenplay by Hossein Amini based on le Carre’s novel is a good one.  There’s plenty of lively dialogue, the characters are fleshed out, and the narrative flows nicely from start to finish.  Amini wrote the screenplay to DRIVE (2011), a film by director Nicolas Winding Refn [THE NEON DEMON (2016)] and starring Ryan Gosling, that I loved.  He also wrote the screenplay to SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), a film that I did not like so much.  I think his screenplay here is even better than the one he wrote for DRIVE.

I loved the acting performances all around.

Stellan Skarsgard is fabulous as Dima, the Russian mobster who wants to defect but won’t do so until he can guarantee the safety of his family, something British Intelligence isn’t keen on doing.  They want the information first, which Dima won’t part with without that guarantee.  It’s a loud, boisterous performance by Skarsgard.  He’s a hoot to watch in the film.  Early on, he has one of the movie’s best lines as he tells McGregor’s Perry “don’t be a sourpussy” when Perry refuses to go to a party with him.  Perry quickly corrects him, “It’s sourpuss.”

Better yet, Skarsgard is able to instill a warmth to his character that makes Perry and Gail’s connection to him all the more believable.  You’re not sitting in the theater wondering why they are helping this man.  Because of Skarsgard’s performance, you know why.

Ewan McGregor is just as good as Perry, but in a more understated way.  Perry is the perfect innocenct caught in middle of all the espionage.  He could have walked off the set of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie.  McGregor is perfect in the role, in what might be my favorite performance of his yet.

He makes Perry a really interesting character.  At first, he’s not interested at all in helping Dima, but yet, as MI6 agent Hector points out, he still agreed to deliver the flash drive. Perry is a man of honor, a man of thought who will nonetheless stand up to a Russian thug for striking a woman, a man who will risk his life for another man who he hardly knows because he feels it’s the right thing to do.

And yet, later, when Perry asks Dima why he chose him, Dima answers that Perry was the only other man in the restaurant that night, a remark that provides both men with a laugh.

Rounding out the triumvirate of great performances is Damian Lewis [HOMELAND (2011-2014)] as MI6 agent Hector. Lewis is excellent here, and even with Skarsgard’s larger than life performance as Dima, Lewis’ performance as the complicated and driven British Intelligence Officer might be my favorite of the entire movie.

Lewis makes his mark in his very first scene when his no-nonsense manner dives right into a calculating and pointed questioning of Perry at the airport.  At first, we’re not quite sure what to make of Hector, as he lies to both his superiors and to those working under him, but the more we learn about him, the more we understand why he does the things he does, and as a result the more we like him.

The supporting cast is also excellent, led by Naomie Harris as Perry’s wife Gail.  She takes what could have been a throwaway role- the wife of the leading man- and makes it into something more.  At first, she’s angry with her husband for getting involved, but the more she learns about Dima and his family, the more she wants to help.

I really enjoyed Harris in the two recent Daniel Craig Bond films, SKYFALL (2012) and SPECTRE (2015) where she played Moneypenny, and in those films she certainly wasn’t the Moneypenny of old.  She’s just as good here, in a role that provides her with more depth and range.

If you like political thrillers and tales of international intrigue, you’ll love OUR KIND OF TRAITOR.

Dont’ be a sourpussy.  Go out and see this one.

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EYE IN THE SKY (2016) Contrived But Effective

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eye in the sky poster

If you could save the lives of hundreds of people who will perish in a terrorist attack, but by doing so, take the life of an innocent little girl, would you do it?

That’s basically the question asked in EYE IN THE SKY (2016) a taut thriller in which the powers that be wrestle with this exact dilemma.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is coordinating a mission via drone cameras to locate members of an elusive terrorist cell in Kenya.  Piloting the drones in the air are two American pilots, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox).  Powell also has a man on the ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) who controls a smaller drone which is able to take interior pictures of the compound.  It’s this drone that not only locates the terrorists but reveals that they are about to conduct a suicide mission.  Suddenly, the “capture” mission becomes a “kill” mission.

To complicate matters, a nine year-old girl sits out front of the compound selling bread for her family. As a result, pilot Steve Watts requests that Colonel Powell verify with her superiors that they have the clearance to conduct a mission that will cause lethal collateral damage.

What follows is an oftentimes terse study in diplomacy, politics, and military positioning as the various powers-that-be wrestle with the decision of just who will be the one to give the official green light to a mission that will no doubt kill an innocent little girl.  And it’s all decided upon from the relative comfort and safety of situation rooms across the globe, miles upon miles away from the action.

This would all be terribly disturbing if it wasn’t so contrived.  I had difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that a government worth its salt would even consider letting a terrorist group armed with suicide bombs walk away, if the collateral damage was simply one life.  It’s a great essay question for a philosophy class, but as a plot in a movie, it wasn’t convincing.

Still, the story put forth in EYE IN THE SKY is timely and relevant.  It’s just not always believable.  It asks important questions in this day and age where warfare can be conducted by drones.  And the screenplay by Guy Hibbert does create three-dimensional characters who struggle with the dilemma they face.

Of course, the high caliber of actors in this one also helps.

Helen Mirren is superb as Colonel Katherine Powell.  Her take on the situation is simple:  the terrorists must be taken out.  The innocent girl’s inevitable death must be accepted.  If not, they will have the blood of many more innocent victims on their hands if they let the terrorists escape.

Both Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are equally effective as the pilots who want no part of killing an innocent girl.  Paul, who was phenomenal on TV’s BREAKING BAD as Jesse Pinkman, has been excellent in every film I’ve seen him in since.  I hope he continues to land film roles and that they grow in prominence.  Here, his Steve Watts just wants to do the right thing, and Paul is excellent showing Watts’ anguish when it becomes clear he’s going to have to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Phoebe Fox, who I enjoyed a lot in the horror sequel THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2:  ANGEL OF DEATH (2014) is equally as good as fellow pilot Carrie Gershon, as she shares Watts’ frustrations.

Alan Rickman, in his last live action film role [he lends his voice to the upcoming ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)] plays Lieutenant General Frank Benson, a military officer who tries to see both sides of the coin but ultimately sides with Mirren’s Colonel Powell.  Rickman also enjoys one of the best bits in the movie, a brief speech near the end where he scolds a diplomat for questioning a soldier’s understanding of the price of warfare.  It’s a great moment.

Rickman, who passed away in January,  looks pale and tired here. Perhaps he was supposed to look this way for the role, but I couldn’t help but think while watching him on screen that he didn’t look healthy.

The movie is dedicated to Rickman’s memory.

Barkhad Abdi, who was memorable as the head pirate in CAPTAIN PHILIPS (2013), is nearly as good here as Jama Farah, the agent on the ground flying the miniature drone, who later risks his life in a futile attempt to buy the little girl’s bread so she can get clear of the area, in one of the film’s more suspenseful sequences.

EYE IN THE SKY was directed by Gavin Hood, who also appears in the film as Aaron Paul’s superior officer Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh, and he’s actually very good in these few scenes.  He’s not bad as the director either.  Hood directed the superhero film X-MEN ORIGINS:  WOLVERINE (2009), a film that most X-Men fans hated, but I really liked.

That being said, EYE IN THE SKY is not a phenomenal movie, nor does Hood hit a homerun with it.  The pacing is somewhat slow, and it takes a while to get going.  More importantly, its main moral dilemma, whether or not to spare the girl’s life, comes off as a fake hypothetical situation.  Had we been talking about hundreds of lives potentially lost due to collateral damage, then that might have been more believable.

Still, the actors here do such a good job bringing this situation to life, that I found myself looking past this flaw and going along with the story.

The more relevant topic this film examines is warfare conducted from the comfort and safety of war rooms miles away from the action, but even this theme is not handled crisply.  The movie seems to be implying that this kind of warfare— using drones— is too easy and will lead to generals making ill-fated decisions because they don’t have to worry about the lives of their soldiers on the ground.  However, in this movie, the folks giving the orders are more cautious than if they had soldiers on the ground.

All this being said, EYE IN THE SKY does have some fine moments.  The scene where Barkhad Abdi’s agent on the ground attempts to buy the little girl’s bread to get her away from the missile strike is extremely suspenseful and one of the more exciting scenes in the film.

And every time Alan Rickman is on screen the film seems to become that much more compelling.

EYE IN THE SKY is an inconsistent movie, but it builds as it goes along and finishes strong, ending with an emphatic exclamation point.  And with its talented cast, it overcomes its contrivances to the point where it’s ultimately worth your while.

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BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) BRINGS HISTORICAL MOMENT TO LIFE

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Movie Review:  BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

By bridge_of_spies

Michael Arruda

 

Tom Hanks is sensational in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), Steven Spielberg’s compelling Cold War thriller based on the true story of an American lawyer who defends an accused Soviet spy.

Sure, Hanks is almost always good, but even so, this is probably my favorite Hanks’ performances in quite some time.  While he was very good in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) I enjoyed him more here in BRIDGE OF SPIES.  It might be my favorite Hanks’ performance since way back when in APOLLO 13 (1995).

BRIDGE OF SPIES opens in 1957 with the arrest of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).  The U.S. government asks insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him, and Donovan reluctantly agrees.  It quickly becomes clear to Donovan that the U.S. justice system has already made up its mind about Abel’s guilt, and he is heavily criticized for putting up a valid defense for the man. This does not sit well with Donovan, and the more pressure he receives to just show up and let Abel be found guilty, the harder he works at defending Abel.

During this process, Donovan gets to know Abel quite well and a friendship of mutual respect develops.  Later, when Air Force Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured for the Soviets, a trade is suggested, Powers for Abel.  The CIA asks Donovan to broker the trade, and to travel to East Berlin to do it.  It’s a sensitive operation, as neither government will publicly acknowledge what’s going on, and so Donovan will be working in East Berlin on his own.  Because of his feelings for Abel, Donovan agrees, and he finds himself embroiled in Cold War espionage as he has to deal with the Soviets, the East Germans, the lack of public support from the U.S., and his growing fear that by arranging this deal he might be sending Abel to his death at the hand of the Soviets.

The main reason to see BRIDGE OF SPIES is Tom Hanks because he delivers his best acting performance in years, but there are also plenty of other reasons to see it as well.

For starters, the director is Steven Spielberg.  It’s hard to say if BRIDGE OF SPIES is better than Spielberg’s previous effort, LINCOLN (2012), a movie I liked a lot.  It’s certainly equally as good.  In some ways, it is better, as it definitely generates more suspense and drama than LINCOLN did.  In terms of historical dramas, they’re on equal footing, but BRIDGE OF SPIES is paced slightly better and is definitely more intriguing.  Both films feature phenomenal acting performances by their two lead actors, Tom Hanks here, and Daniel Day Lewis in LINCOLN.

In BRIDGE OF SPIES, Spielberg painstakingly recreates the Cold War period and thoroughly captures the feel of the time.  Sets, costumes, and make-up are all topnotch, and the images memorable, some of them haunting, like the scene where Hanks witnesses the barbaric activity at the Berlin Wall from a passenger train.

The acting is superb throughout, with the other stand-out besides Hanks being Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel.  The scene where he recounts the story from his childhood about his father’s friend, who he relates to Hanks’ James Donovan, is another of the film’s highlights.

The screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen pretty much tells a straightforward story with the emphasis placed on James Donovan and how this ordeal both changed and shaped his life.  It also details Donovan’s relationship with Rudolf Abel, and how the two men developed a mutual respect for one another.  It’s a gripping historical drama, and it’s honest and direct.  Don’t expect the quirkiness of some of Ethan and Joel Coen’s other movies, like FARGO (1996) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

BRIDGE OF SPIES is the whole package.  It’s got one of the all-time best directors in Steven Spielberg at the helm, phenomenal acting led by Tom Hanks, a superb script, and cinematography worthy of an artistic painting.  It’s a satisfying cinematic event that is both entertaining and rewarding.  Moreover, it succeeds in bringing a moment in our history to life.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is one bridge you’ll definitely want to cross.

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