Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Christopher McQuarrie - Impossible Mission?

World renowned and Oscar winning Screeplay writer and Producer, Christopher McQuarrie has also directed three films during the first fifteen years of the 21st Century and here are my spoiler free reviews of "The Way of the Gun" (2000), "Jack Reacher (2012) and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" (2015).

"M:I 6 - Mission Impossible" is currently in pre-production and scheduled for release in 2018 and I thought it was high time I re-visited his three directorial efforts so far! Aside from the following three films (on which McQuarrie also wrote the screenplays), Christopher is a famous and highly regarded screenplay writer who shot to prominence in 1996 for his Oscar winning screenplay of the era defining zeitgeist movie "The Usual Suspects" and in the 21 years since has, in addition to directing the following three films under review, also written the screenplays for "Valkyrie" in 2008, "The Tourist" in 2010, "Jack The Giant Slayer" in 2013, "The Edge of Tomorrow" a year later and this year's eagerly anticipated "The Mummy".

In recent years I have had the great pleasure of following McQuarrie's career with a keen eye and indeed ear as I have watched and listened to numerous podcasts and video interviews of an incredibly vibrant, energetic and engaging filmmaker and a man who's open and honest about his craft, his vast collaboration with Tom Cruise on a number of highly successful and well regarded movies and his vision for entertaining and thought provoking films.

It is not my intention to provide spoilers for the coming three films, but rather my purpose is to give an overall flavour as I do not want to spoil these films in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these uniquely different cinematic creations.

The Way of the Gun (2000)


"Don't get smart with me Doc. Superman never gets the girl"

Seventeen years after it's initial release, Christopher McQuarrie's directorial debut behind the camera is now viewed as a cult classic in many circles and draws many thematic comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde and characters such as The Man With No Name. I see these comparisons but I have to admit that the film's first frames before the opening titles threw me completely out of the film and that's hardly a ringing endorsement just a few minutes into the film! The Way of the Gun does improve greatly after it's initial gratuitous burst of incessant swear words and mindless violence with a constantly changing and evolving narrative story depicting some well drawn characters but I simply never warmed to the film and felt it was as cold and distant as it's two main protagonists. Which is maybe where it has derived it's cult status from and that I'm completely misreading the film? Perhaps, but I only ever felt drawn to, and indeed compelled by, one single character in the entire film, a film in which the characters are well drawn and each have a narrative arc but despite this had very little in the way of redeeming qualities in either the characters themselves or the performances provided by a stellar cast list.

Ostensibly the story is a simple one: "Mr Parker" (Ryan Phillippe) and "Harold Longbaugh" (Benicio Del Toro) are renegades and petty criminals and doing anything they can to get by as admitted in Mr Parker's narration that peppers the film, they have "nothing to offer the world". They are anarchic, reckless and somewhat repugnant characters that although loquacious and cheeky at the beginning of the film begin to turn inward and more dour and wordless as the film progresses. They are seeking a big score to lay low with and off the grid of civilisation and chance upon an opportunity to kidnap pregnant "Robin" (Juliette Lewis) who in dire need of funds and a real start in life has agreed to sell her unborn baby to wealthy money launderer "Hale Chidduck" (Scott Wilson) and wife "Francesca Chidduck" (Kristin Lehman) for $1M. Following the bungled kidnapping and his two trusted bodyguards "Jeffers" (Taye Diggs) and "Obecks" (Nicky Katt) outsmarted by the renegade pair and now in prison, Hal Chidduck instructs "bagman" and "laundryman" "Joe Sarno" (James Caan) to act and resolve the kidnapping and ransom. In the maelstrom of this madness is the film's stand out performer and Dylan Kussman as "Dr Allen Painter" who is thrust into the centre of the storm as Robin's regular gynaecologist and quickly becomes yet another bagman between the kidnappers and the Chidducks crime family. 

Although a film I sadly didn't particularly like or engage with, I was particularly impressed with a narrative that at first glance and from the above incredibly brief summary seems straight forward but to the film's credit is anything but. As the film unravels you are constantly questioning each character's motivations and who is playing who and to what ends. The secrecy, duplicity and double crossing (there's even a hint of a treble crossing!) plays well and does engage to an extent but I was simply left wanting more, more nuance and more subtlety from a film that perhaps wasn't in fact aiming in that particular direction. For me, Dylan Kussman's portrayal of the harried and in over his head Dr Painter was the film's true stand out performance in only his fifth feature film outing to date and eleven years on from his brilliant performance in Dead Poet's Society. James Caan is admirable in his gruff role as aged bagman Joe Sarno and Juliette Lewis carries her difficult role well but again, I wanted more and especially so from the film's two leading characters. Yes they are disaffected at the world and at odds with a mainstream society they hold in contempt and during the film's final narration they "don't want forgiveness........or absolution". That just seems redundant as their character portrayals don't allow for this from an audience.

A cult classic this film maybe but in this humble narrator's opinion McQuarrie would write many more accomplished works in the twelve years between this and the next film he would write as well as direct.

Jack Reacher (2012)


"Who the hell is Jack Reacher?"

Based on Lee Child's 2005 novel "One Shot" and written for the screen by Director McQuarrie, this is the first of two Jack Reacher films to date (April 2017) but which in time will no doubt become another behemoth franchise of future spin off films. I've used the tag line of "Who the hell is Jack Reacher" as it's apt in so many ways as well as used in dialogue during the film on two, maybe three occasions and a perfect way to commence this brief appraisal of a film I absolutely adored from my first viewing in early 2013. Jack Reacher is an every man and a nowhere man, a drifter, a loner "a ghost" and "a guy who just wants to be left alone". He's also a highly decorated ex Army Major and Military Police Officer with a specialism in hand to hand combat, however Reacher's biggest specialism is his ability to "ghost" in and out of scenarios and even life as a whole, a solitary figure with no baggage of any description and a desire to be alone and ploughing his own furrow. These qualities arguably lend themselves perfectly to a life as a dispassionate investigator who, by a variety of circumstances, becomes embroiled in the investigation of a multiple murderer upon whom he has investigated before.

Cleverly McQuarrie, in his position as the film's screenwriter here bucks conventional movie wisdom and introduces the killer and killings that prompt Reacher's investigation in the film's opening frames. Or does he? What McQuarrie does do without question, and in both his dual capacities as screenwriter and Director is propel the audience headlong into the film in it's opening eight, dialogue free minutes. Whilst there is indeed zero dialogue there is also a taut, tense opening of a serial killer preparing and taking his place in order to carry out a random killing spree that we as an audience see up close and through the sniper scope of the rifle as well as his slow, controlled breathing as he takes deadly aim. The quickly collected evidence points at "James Barr" (Joseph Sikora) as the lone assassin and under the threat of the death penalty for his crimes has a three word written request "GET JACK REACHER"

Jack Reacher the film was incredibly eagerly awaited by fans of Lee Child's source material as well as the cinema going public as McQuarrie was in the Director's chair and a stellar cast of Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Robert Duvall and even fellow esteemed director Werner Herzog delivering McQuarrie's crafted dialogue. There were even minor cameo roles for Lee Child himself and Dylan Kussman returning to a McQuarrie film 12 years after The Way of the Gun. Mixed reviews would follow it's release, mainly centring on Tom Cruise's lack of height for the titular role of Jack Reacher as he's described as a towering presence in Child's novels. However, I was instantly won over, and remain to be so on repeated viewings of a well crafted crime thriller that flows through it's run time, never feels baggy, weighed down or exposition heavy and which balances the overt crime with a thorough investigation full of vim and vigour punctuated by some brilliantly crafted set piece action sequences and sardonic humour to boot. Much of which is down to Jack Reacher himself and in the hands of Tom Cruise this is all capably, and at times superbly, carried out. I have been an unabashed fan of Cruise since the very beginning of his career in the early 1980's and so I may be a little myopic in my praise but as Reacher he crucially holds the audience's attention as well as convincing them of his character, his flaws and frailties as well as his almost impregnable nature. Reacher has a devil may care attitude and yet is meticulous in his unorthodox investigation of a crime that will see his client sent to Death Row if convicted yet in the hands of Cruise, Reacher exudes a constant air of the renegade outsider set against the Establishment Police Detective "Emerson" (David Oyelowo), District Attorney "Rodin" (Richard Jenkins) and his daughter "Helen" (Rosamund Pike), a Defense Attorney acting on behalf of James Barr and ostensibly Reacher too. Oyelowo, Jenkins and Pike are all outstanding in their respective roles with three further excellent portrayals falling to Jai Courtney as "Charlie", Werner Herzog as "The Zec" (and that Siberian Prison speech!) and the ever dependable screen presence of Robert Duvall as the genial owner of a local gun range "Cash" in his first re-teaming with Tom Cruise since 1990's seminal film Days of Thunder. Their joint scenes are a joy and it's simply wonderful from a fan's perspective to see these tremendous actors playing off each other so well once again.

As the narrative unravels it's apparent the story is anything but the straight forward tale we are initially presented with and where McQuarrie excels in his dual roles of Writer and Director is keeping a coherent, narratively engaging story running amid flashbacks spanning Reacher, Barr and his victims whilst also weaving many beautiful visuals of the city of Pittsburgh amongst the film's brilliantly realised action sequences, the pick of which being a thrilling car chase that aptly climaxes with Reacher melting anonymously back into the general populace. Cruise truly excels in the titular hero role (as he so often does - and he needed to) in the first of what will no doubt be an expanding franchise of films. Ably supported all round, Cruise and McQuarrie have created an all encompassing 21st Century thriller with well drawn characters supporting a superb screenplay full of sardonic humour, wit and invention that takes you on a journey of discovery as you, along with Jack Reacher, unravel the clues presented in an engaging, thrilling and entertaining film.


Mission:Impossible Rogue Nation (2015)


"The Syndicate is real. A Rogue Nation. Trained to do what we do"

As a lifelong fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise I was particularly excited at the latest instalment for a myriad of reasons, namely the re-teaming of Tom Cruise with Director McQuarrie and their joint vision of what the fifth instalment of this film series should be. The return of many of the on going Impossible Mission Force (IMF) team from the previous films as well as some valuable additions in crucially important roles that excelled in yet another richly sardonic and humourous screenplay from Director McQuarrie that epitomise the franchise. In a similar vein, this instalment is littered with brilliantly executed and jaw dropping action sequences that honour it's long held traditions, as well as several worldwide locations featured as backdrops to the intense action and we have an arch villain that is immediately front and centre and on display from the film's earliest frames. I was immediately impressed in 2015 when seeing this for the first time at the cinema and after re-watching this numerous times since (I have converted my teenage son to the delights of all things Mission: Impossible and we have therefore seen this many times on hard rotation) I remain completely in awe of a brilliant and joyous film that sniffy critics immediately dismissed out of hand but whilst not the best in the series (you simply cannot beat Brian De Palma's 1996 original!) this is far from the failure the professional film reviewers would have you believe.

The premise is a simple one: The IMF, for 40 years free from bureaucratic constraint and oversight are merged into the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and now under the direct control of CIA Director "Alan Hunley" (Alec Baldwin) and against the wishes of it's last remaining supporter, IMF Field Director "William Brandt" (Jeremy Renner). Their recent missions, whilst of course impossible, were successful yet highly publicised and criticised for the methods undertaken and the IMF are now seen in intelligence circles as being a rogue agency and none more so than their top agent "Ethan Hunt" (Tom Cruise) who is regarded by CIA Director Hunley as "both arsonist and fireman" and thus merely justifying the continued existence of the IMF. Working secretly in the field, Hunt has been tracking a rogue nation of terrorists, a "Spectre" for fans of James Bond, and here named "The Syndicate" and as we see in the film's first eight minutes, headed by "Solomon Lane" (Sean Harris) a former MI6 British Intelligence Agent. The Syndicate is awash with money, rogue international terrorists and has carte blanche to act as it wishes across the world with all of it's vital data stored on an encrypted USB drive. A Rogue Nation of terrorists versus rogue agents of the IMF that, if caught, the CIA will disavow all knowledge of their existence. Hunt as usual is well aware of the perilous situation, however with the IMF now under the direction of the CIA Brandt chillingly informs him "This may be our last mission Ethan. Make it count", but Hunt is in a seemingly no win situation as Lane threatens him with capture if he pursue's The Syndicate, or death if he resists them. Hunt has been given an impossible mission, he must once and for all face his fate. 

Cruise and Renner return and reprise their respective roles from previous Mission: Impossible films, with Cruise an ever present across all five films in the franchise to date and an ever dependable screen presence once again, imbuing Hunt with the tenacity, spirit and vigour of a secret agent whilst also continuing to echo the very best aspects of a James Bond/Jason Bourne shadowy hero figure. Renner returns from his first franchise outing in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (the fourth in the series) and is as accomplished as ever and with a more expanded role here than previously. But crucially it's his joint scenes with Alec Baldwin that really take the eye as they joust for supremacy and the upper hand in the much vaunted circles of the intelligence community and for Baldwin, this is yet another example of the brilliant renaissance in his cinematic career and one that for a man of his undoubted talents and screen presence, long overdue, and Baldwin is pencilled in to star in the sixth instalment of the franchise due for release in 2018. Two further returnees from previous Mission: Impossible films arrive in the shape of ever present and again ever dependable screen presence, of Ving Rhames as technical field expert "Luther Stickell" and the brilliant Simon Pegg as IT and technical expert "Benji Dunn". Pegg first appeared in the franchise in the third film in 2006 and has since gone on to make the role indispensable and very much in his own image as a wisecracking and funny sidekick thrown into the deep end and way above his head and indeed "pay grade". Pegg infuses the role of Benji with so much warm hearted humour and sly suspicious glances but like Jeremy Renner's role, his is now a fully expanded role and a mainstay of the IMF team and far more than the simple comedic relief. Make no mistake, he still is and perfectly encapsulated with his sardonically cutting remark of "Join the IMF. See the world. On a monitor. In a closet" and Pegg is quite outstanding yet again. As are the remainder of the marquee roles in this instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, from Sean Harris' almost silent building rage as arch villain Solomon Lane, Simon McBurney's cameo as MI6 Director "Atlee" and Tom Hollander's performance as a befuddled "Prime Minister". In a film top heavy in male lead roles, two female performances are worthy of note with Jingchu Zhang as "Lauren" but specifically a stand out performance from a brilliant Rebecca Ferguson as a double/triple intelligence agent "Ilsa Faust".

Rooted in the present day with continuing themes of electronic surveillance, terrorism, banking crises and civil wars all threatening the stability of every country's national security, this instalment of the franchise also has echoes of the past with the motorcycle chase scene similar to the one enacted in the second film of the series, however I was particularly taken with the lighting of the film's tension filled scene beside the river Thames as the film draws to a close which to my eyes was eerily reminiscent in texture and tone to the key double cross scene in Prague from Brian De Palma's 1996 original film. Perhaps this is the fan in me talking! Perhaps too my praise of the film as a whole as, whether you're a lifelong fan of the franchise or new to this series of films there is much to love and appreciate from the vision of Director McQuarrie, be it the stock in trade globetrotting of the franchise as we venture from Belarus to Malaysia, the UK, USA and Cuba before ending on the streets of Morocco or the beautiful realisation of an opera in the heart of the Austrian capital of Vienna. The set pieces that pepper the film are just sublime at times, whether the motorcycle chase as mentioned above or the incredible opening scene as Ethan Hunt clings to the side of an aeroplane at take off (with Cruise actually doing the entire stunt from start to finish) or the sarcastic humour that pervades the film and another stock in trade of the franchise, of bluff, double bluffs and counter bluffs in a thrill ride and exciting film that is far better than our professional film critics would have you believe and more than a worthy addition to the Mission: Impossible franchise as a whole. Roll on instalment six in 2018 I say!

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