Guy Ritchie breathes new life into an old UNCLE

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It’s not easy to convert a popular ‘60s TV show into a successful movie or franchise. For every successful Mission: Impossible and Star Trek film, there are still-born attempts like Wild Wild West, Bewitched, The Saint, The Avengers (not the Marvel comics one!) and Get Smart. Although the trailer didn’t give me much hope, Guy Ritchie’s big-screen effort with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had me going Oliver Twist by the end and saying, “Please sir, I want some more.”

Anyone who has seen the trailer might think that this is another James Bond clone in a ‘60s setting. And they would be right, because the show concept was co-created by none other than Ian Fleming for MGM TV in 1963. Originally titled Ian Fleming’s Solo, it followed the template of his Bond stories with the names and nationalities changed – Napoleon Solo instead of James Bond and international spy organization U.N.C.L.E. instead of MI6. The show producers switched to a new title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. under legal action from the producers of Bond movie Goldfinger, as there was also a character called Mr. Solo in that movie. Clearly, Mr. Fleming wasn’t keeping track of what names he was using in which series! The show ran from 1964-68, and was a career launch pad for both its stars Peter Vaughn and David McCallum. It even inspired Stan Lee to create his own version of a spy organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics in 1965.

What has changed in this big-screen adaptation 50 years later? Well, for a start, the lead characters sure have become bigger. Compared to the suave and somewhat diminutive Peter Vaughn, CIA agent Napoleon Solo is now played by 6’1” Henry Cavill with his Superman muscles virtually bursting out of his impeccably tailored suit. Likewise, the character of Ilya Kuryakin has been completely recast with 6’5” Armie Hammer playing the Russian KGB agent in place of 5’7” floppy haired David McCallum.

The plot is fairly basic: In 1963, Nazi-era nuclear scientist turned American collaborator Udo Teller goes missing; he is presumed to be in the hands of Nazi sympathizers who are using his services to build their own private nuclear bomb. This is not welcome news to either the CIA or the KGB, so they bring together their two best operatives (Solo and Kuryakin) to find the missing scientist and put the bomb out of commission. To find the scientist, they enlist the help of his estranged daughter Gaby, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. She is the 2nd Swedish actress to feature prominently in a spy movie this summer, the other being Rebecca Fergusson in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The trio end up in Italy as guests of the wealthy and flamboyant Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra, who are suspected of using their shipping business as a cover for building the weapon. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely striking as the classy and ruthless femme fatale Victoria Vinciguerra. There is plenty of verbal repartee, humor and physical slapstick used as padding for the thin plot, but it all falls into place due to the charisma of the actors.

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Cinematographer John Mathieson is a purist and has done a great job of using older model lenses to mimic the 60s look, in spite of shooting on digital; surely credit also goes to the highly accomplished Arri Alexa XT digital cameras, which supposedly provide the same color/ tonal range as real film. This is what action movies would have looked like if Douglas Sirk had directed them! The only disappointment for me was the night time action scene in the Vinciguerra Shipyard, when the footage lost all texture and started looking like a home movie. For the most part, the color and opulence of the costumes and sets just pops off the screen. When combined with Daniel Pemberton’s playful and exotic European soundtrack, it makes for a very distinctive movie experience.

I also love the way Guy Ritchie visualizes his action set pieces; unlike a lot of other modern directors who shoot their action sequences in close-up and edit with fast cuts, Ritchie goes for frequent long-shots, with pan-and-zoom, giving viewers a very good perspective of where people are in relation to one another (something that would have been very useful in a movie like Pacific Rim!). I had noticed this style in that memorable forest shootout scene of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as well.

Sadly, the film has had a very soft launch across the world and I think it would take a financial miracle for Warner Bros. to greenlight a sequel.


Tom Cruise makes every Mission possible

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In 1996, Tom Cruise got his first ever credit as producer of a movie. This was for Mission: Impossible, the big screen adaptation of the famous TV show which ran from 1966-73. Interestingly, the original series was produced by Desilu Productions, which was co-owned by comedienne Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy fame.

I doubt even Cruise could have predicted in ’96 that nearly two decades later he would be acting in the fifth release in the franchise and announcing the beginning of production on the sixth!

What an amazing run it’s been for the franchise with the iconic opening title track, composed by Lalo Schifrin (almost as famous as the Bond theme, I think). As producer of the film series, Cruise has tapped into a who’s who list of directors to bring the stories to life.

Each of these directors came on board on the rising curve of their respective career trajectories and in several cases the M:I film they directed became their highest grossing or best known work.

The first film in 1996 was directed by Brian De Palma who by then was already famous for Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables. Mission: Impossible was his biggest hit and after a couple of big budget films his output diminished as he entered his 60s. The two action set-pieces – the CIA heist and the fight on top of the speeding TGV – particularly the former, have become part of movie lore.

Four years later, Cruise tapped John Woo to direct the follow-up. After a decade of stylish Hong Kong action-dramas, Woo had already directed two Hollywood films including the high-concept Face/Off (starring John Travolta and Nic Cage). Tonally, this sequel was more John Woo than M:I, replete with his flying doves and dual pistols. It made a ton of money globally, but is generally disliked by M:I fans. It was too melodramatic for an M:I film, I think. It was also the beginning of the end for John Woo in Hollywood and he made a couple of smaller films before returning to China for good.

Fast-forward six years and a writer-director-producer who had made his name in TV was picked to direct his first ever feature film, Mission: Impossible III. This was J.J. Abrams of course, who at that time was perhaps the biggest name in dramatic television with hits like Felicity, Alias and Lost. This third entry was darker, had a truly disturbing villain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the smallest ‘scale’ of any entry in the franchise (the director still thinking in terms of TV probably). It also was the lowest grossing entry in the franchise. For Mr. Abrams it was only the beginning and he has now become the only director in history to have directed a movie in both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.

Another five years passed before Ethan Hunt returned. This time the director was Brad Bird, making his first ever live-action film after gaining fame and respect with perhaps three of the best animation movies of the modern era – The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. How would Mr. Bird handle the transition from pixels to people? Like a dream. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was a return to the non-stop pace and breathtaking stunts of the original film, the Kremlin attack and the Burj Khalifa scene easily in the same league as the CIA heist scene for audaciousness and heart-stopping thrills.

Now, we have the release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, perhaps the least celebrated or well-known director in the history of the franchise. Make no mistake, Mr. McQuarrie is a top-notch screenwriter, having won an Oscar in 1996 for The Usual Suspects. He has been closely associated with Cruise in recent years, writing the screenplay for three Cruise starrers – Valkyrie, Jack Reacher (which he also directed) and Edge of Tomorrow – all excellent scripts, turned into taut, engaging thrillers.

Critics have been heaping praise on the latest entry and the trailers seemed to indicate that this film would pick up where Ghost Protocol left off, especially with the scene of Cruise hanging onto the door of a giant cargo plane as it takes off! This scene is also featured in the movie poster. However, I was a bit disappointed when the film actually began with the set-up for this scene; I had really expected to build up to it later in the film, just like the CIA heist or the Burj Khalifa climb. Almost before I had settled into my seat, the thrill was over and done with!

Even though there are plenty of other action scenes, including a tense under-water mission and a satisfying finale, this is actually the most character driven entry in the series since Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. Certainly, the villain Solomon Lane, played by Sean Harris is as frightening as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian. And with British spy Ilsa Faust (played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson and somehow reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman), we have a worthy female foil to Ethan Hunt. Faust is a stronger female character than Paula Patton’s Jane from Ghost Protocol and eventually develops a close bond with Hunt (it’s clearly platonic and I guess the assumption is that Hunt is still with his fiancée Julia from the previous two films).

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This is interesting, because one of the edicts of the original TV series was that there was to be no character development whatsoever, and each episode was to focus purely on the mission in as minimalist a fashion as possible. Of course, 2 hour movies are a different kettle of fish from half hour TV shows and the tone of the film series has developed well beyond the original TV shows. This constant change shows how much Cruise as a producer has allowed the different directors to bring their own unique stamp to each entry in the series. In comparison, I feel the Bond franchise has been much more consistent in tone over the years (taking into account, evolving tastes and social mores of course).

In this age of digital cinematography that makes everything look like home made video, I very much enjoyed the grainy old world look of the film. All thanks to Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), who also lensed Ghost Protocol.

I would like to see where they go with Mission: Impossible 6 (targeting a summer 2017 release). Commercial realities dictate that there should be bigger and more audacious stunts, performed in far flung corners of the world to bring the global box office dollars in. On the other hand, with so many global spy franchises doing the same thing (the James Bond series, the Jason Bourne series and even the Fast and Furious movies), it’s going to be awfully difficult to bring in the crowds just on the basis of stunts. Cruise will be 55 by the time that film is released and although he still looks youthful, one wonders how long he can pull off the suspension of disbelief of a man his age hanging from trains, planes and skyscrapers. If McQuarrie writes the next film, it’s likely to skew a bit more towards character development and who knows, they may even introduce a new (younger) agent with Hunt taking on the role of mentor.

On-screen chemistry helps Ant-Man punch above its weight

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The seeds of success for Marvel’s movies were sown way back in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. What differentiated this film from other successful superhero flicks of the past decade was the light-hearted banter and repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, which then became the framework for all subsequent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

This undefinable, magical thing called ‘chemistry’ sits at the heart of Marvel’s latest cinematic production Ant-Man. While sub-atomic chemistry in the form of ‘Pym Particles’ is the source of Ant-Man’s shrinking power, it’s the on-screen chemistry that powers this film and makes it a candidate for repeat viewing. There are so many emotional bonds interconnected in a complex tug-of-war here – veteran scientist Dr. Henry Pym trying to draw his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne away from his megalomaniac former protégé Darren Cross; ex-con Scott Lang trying to go straight while his well-meaning buddies Luis, Kurt & Dave entice him into another heist job; Lang’s young daughter trying to adjust to her mother’s new married life with upright cop Paxton, while pining for her absent dad; Lang reluctantly being tutored by Dr. Pym under the critical eye of Hope; Dr. Pym’s on-going rivalry with his ex-SHIELD colleague/ antagonist Mitchell Carson, who is now a potential business associate with Darren Cross.

With so much character interplay, the casting choices for this film were critical and the filmmakers went for some interesting choices…all of which worked! Comedian Paul Rudd (who I have never particularly cared for) was cast against type as the reluctant superhero. Acting thesp Michael Douglas who has previously played intense characters fighting real world adversaries, was cast as Dr. Henry Pym, the creator of the Pym Particles, the original Ant-Man and now a reclusive retired billionaire. Evangeline Lilly who was very convincing as the elf Tauriel in The Hobbit movies is perfectly cast as Hope Van Dyne; comic fans will note that her on-screen appearance (especially the hair) is a spitting image of the character’s mother Janet Van Dyne, aka The Wasp. Corey Stoll who made a big impact in House of Cards S1 and is the lead in The Strain plays the bad guy Darren Cross.

But besides these lead roles, the supporting cast has really lifted the movie and deserves special mention:-

Michael Peña previously played typical Latino supporting roles in ensemble action films like Fury and Battle: Los Angeles, with occasional meaty roles as co-lead (End of Watch and World Trade Center) or lead (Cesar Chavez) in serious dramatic fare. In Ant-Man, he shows off his funny side as Luis, Scott Lang’s former cellmate who tries to get Lang back on his feet when he gets out of jail. Peña is the comedic lynchpin in the film, stealing every scene he’s in, particularly a couple of brilliant exposition dialogues (referred to as ‘tip montages’) written by uncredited writers Gabriel Ferrari and Andrew Barrer that will surely end up on YouTube soon. I also loved the clever touch of him whistling “It’s a small world after all” at the start of the climactic heist scene.

The hard-working Bobby Cannavale plays Paxton, a cop who is married to Scott Lang’s ex-wife. Cannavale rose to prominence on TV (Boardwalk Empire, Nurse Jackie) and then broke out onto the big screen playing the Marlon Brando role in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s reimagining of A Streetcar Named Desire. Earlier this summer, he was very good as Al Pacino’s estranged son in the highly watchable Danny Collins. In Ant-Man, Cannavale’s Paxton is someone who genuinely wants the best for his new family, which means having to cut some slack for his wife’s ex-con ex-husband, while staying true to his job as a cop. He is the straight foil to all the other over-the-top stuff going on in the movie.

Young Abby Ryder Fortson plays Scott Lang’s daughter Cassie with a lot of gumption and charm. I suspect we will see her in a lot of cute and sassy child roles in the years to come.

Another aspect of the movie that worked for me was the music. Christophe Beck (the guy who created the theme for Buffy the Vampire Slayer) delivers the best superhero movie soundtrack since Henry Jackman’s work in X-Men: First Class. It has an old world spy movie feel to it, but also elements of playfulness with the horns, big band and latin sounds. The closing piece Tales to Astonish reminds me of Dick Dale’s Misirlou. Lots of percussion; definitely worth listening to on its own.

Scriptwriters Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish would have been fully justified in telling a conventional origin story about Dr. Henry Pym’s discovery of the rare sub-atomic Pym Particles that allow him to shrink in size and communicate with insects. That’s how Marvel introduced Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. But over time, audiences have become fatigued with origin stories which have been accused of just being a set-up for a sequel. Rather than ‘waste’ an entire movie on it, Ant-Man’s origins are explained through dialogue referring to Dr. Pym’s undercover exploits way back in the ’80s (yes, that’s what ‘the past’ is for this generation; for me, it would be the ‘50s and ‘60s) and there is also a short but thrilling flashback segment which shows the original Ant-Man and his partner The Wasp in action trying to dismantle a rogue ICBM.

So, instead of a padded up origin story, Ant-Man has been set up as a heist movie…and in the case of Scott Lang’s character, it also plays out as an ‘underdog-beats-the-odds’ movie. Especially in the latter context, the vibe between Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd reminded me at times of Burgess Meredith and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky or Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.

Going forward, Paul Rudd will reprise the character in next year’s Captain America: Civil War and I guess he will show up in The Avengers sequels scheduled for 2018 and 2019. Currently, there is no Ant-Man sequel scheduled, so I’m not sure if we will ever get a chance to see this entire ensemble of actors together again, which would be a great pity. I hope the brains trust at Marvel is thinking about bringing this magical chemistry back to the screen again soon!