Top Gun: Maverick

The end of the movie star is inevitable, headed for extinction. Maybe so, but not Tom Cruise.

I have heard it a thousand times, the age of stars is over, and then Tom Cruise releases another film and everyone has to put an asterisk next to their statement. He may be the one star that still can open a movie, at least in the right vehicle. “American Made”, “The Mummy” and “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” did not light up the box office numbers, but the Mission Impossible films still open the cash registers, and this sequel, coming in 36 years after the original and two years after it was supposed to be released, sure did the trick. This is clearly a Tom Cruise movie and he is clearly the reason that it opened so well.

This movie has received near universal praise as an entertainment, with an audiences score on Rotten Tomatoes of 99% and a critic score of 96%, it won’t be too hard to figure which direction this commentary will go. I have no intention of bucking the trend. The Lambcast this last weekend had the one poor review of the film that I have encountered, and had I been on the show, I would have disputed some of the criticisms leveled at the film, but even from someone who was not a fan, they acknowledged that it was a handsomely mounted film that probably will entertain the masses. Count me in as one of the masses. I did not think there needed to be a sequel to the film, and when I first heard that it was in production, I thought Cruise might be getting a little desperate. Nope, this is the sequel that we needed and Cruise has his confident fingerprints all over the film.

It was a little unnerving at first because the opening moments of the movie are lifted out of the original film. The shots of the planes on board the aircraft carrier, the tech crew who participate in the launch and recovery of the planes, even the establishing shots of the carrier, are note for note. I think the sequence is updated and new but I could be wrong. The same narrative scroll appears at the beginning of both films, so maybe it is the same footage. The motorcycle footage is new, because it is the current version of Tom Cruise on the bike, although he still looks relatively the same. It does not take too long however to get to something I know is fresh. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is now a test pilot for the military, checking out a new supersonic plane that is about to get canceled. The main reason we get this sequence is to remind us that Maverick skirts the rules, presses the limits and still manages to land on his feet.

From the trailer of the film, it seemed like the focus would be on the tension between Maverick and the son of his dead RIO Goose. Miles Teller plays Rooster, but it is not really the death of his father that is the source of the division between the two leads. An artificial conflict has been managed for that. Speaking of conflicts, it was not clear to me why the mission in this film had to be carried out in the way it is designed, but it was extremely clear what the goal was and how it was supposed to get done. The problem that brings Maverick back to Top Gun is a logistics course, that he has to get the best pilots in the world to master. If there is one thing that feels right in the film, it is the prep and training that the pilots have to go through. The simulated conditions feel very real even when there is not a matching physical environment. All of the pilots should be able to comprehend the strategy if they have seen Star Wars because the obstacle in front of them is the same one that the X-Wing fighters were working against. When you add on top of this, the fact that the aerial shots are largely done in camera on actual planes with real g-forces, the technical excellence of what is being done is even more impressive.

The actors work fine in their roles. Tom carries the charisma for the film, Jennifer Connelly adds an age appropriate love interest and when she smiles, the scenes warm up immensely. Teller is a doppelganger for the previously dead Goose, but he is not front and center until the last act of the film. When we get there, his interaction with Cruise is much stronger. Most of the other pilots have only minimal character, although they did seem more distinct to me than most of the secondary characters in the original film. Although his screen time is limited, Val Kilmer gets a chance to act again and he is used in a manner that is completely in keeping with the character he played in the original. The connection between Kilmer’s Iceman and Cruise’s Maverick turns out to be the most enriching story arc in the movie, both because of the two characters but also because of the two actors. Maybe it is fan service but it is the kind of fan service that fans deserve and the actors earn.

Now the plot line is the main issue that might risk criticism from the naysayers. I heard it described as an act of war and something that NATO would not approve of. A preemptive strike on a rogue nations nuclear program is not unprecedented. Israel took out Iraq’s early program and the U.S., Israel and others continue attacks on the programs that the Iranians are engaged in, although those have largely been clandestine rather than overtly military attacks. The U.S. has made extensive use of drone attacks on military targets, including personnel. The U.S. government has made open military attacks on Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and others in the context of terrorism, that has long been standard U.S. practice. The movie does not give us context on the mission, it only outlines the military strategy, not the diplomatic world in which the attack took place. It is quite possible that the U.S. led action in this film was authorized by a U.N. mandate, it just never comes up as part of the story.

The truth is, that political element is superfluous to the story we are watching. This is about how a military unit prepares for a mission and carries it out. The characters are relevant to the emotional core of the story, and the ones that matter, Maverick, Iceman, Rooster and Penny, were given enough story arc to justify our caring about what happens to them. The music pumps us, the tension moments work, and the cathartic explosions, flying stunts and character ticks give us the go ahead to have a good time. So head on out to the danger zone and enjoy the need for speed.

Mission Impossible: Fallout

When I mentioned at one point that this was the film I was most looking forward too this summer, I received some verbal shrugs of the shoulder from a few fellow bloggers. An attitude that I simply cannot fathom. This series has been consistently excellent in my point of view, and the fact that Tom Cruise is the driving force behind the production seems to irritate some people. The internet is full or terrible things but most of the film sites I visit have rational people offering reasons for their love or hate of a particular film. So it was a surprise to me to see this comment on one of the blog posts I visited this week,

”  I have no interest in watching some aging dinosaur doing stupid stunts just to prove that he’s still got it. If he wants to impress me, why doesn’t he just jump off of a f#@king cliff and f#@king die?”

Does that seem a little harsh to you? It did to me. There is apparently a lot of Tom Cruise hate out there, not too far under the surface.

So before I begin my discussion of the film, let me make a brief defense of Mr. Cruise. Regardless of his personal life, he has always been a professional. He works hard at putting on screen, those things that he thinks will make a film better for the audience. To use the vernacular of the author of this note, I’d rather see an aging star who gives a damn about the quality of his film, perform a practical stunt, than watch a pretty boy flavor of the month, dangle in front of a green screen, trying to sell something that they look down on in the first place.

As a producer on these films, Cruise has been responsible for employing thousands of behind the scenes technical crafts people. The creative types from cinematographers, writers, stunt coordinators and directors, have all been given an amazing canvas to work on. Maybe the results are not always pretty to everyone. That is your prerogative and taste. I do think however dismissing it as “stupid” and assuming that the star is trying to impress you may be off target a bit. What is completely off target however is wishing death to someone because of your petulant views. OK, end of rant.

“Fallout” is the sixth film in this franchise, and I think you will find that most objective viewers will say that since the second film, they have gotten steadily better. A couple of things that help make that true are the continuing inclusions of new characters that allow conflict, humor or more emotional spark in the film. Since Simon Pegg came on board in “MI:III “, he has become more than just the comic relief and his character is more integral to the teams mission. Jeremy Renner, who made two appearances in the series, but is sadly missing here, also added some gravitas to the proceedings while providing a completely different form of humor.

The two most recent additions from the previous film to this one are Rebecca Ferguson as MI:6 operative Ilsa Faust, who provides a counterpart to Cruise for  skill, action and wits. In addition, there is a nice hint of romance that is not oversold like it is a Bond film. In this movie she represents the B plotline that is at odds with Ethan Hunt’s objective for the story. Because her character is capable, it makes the action and events seem more interesting and complicated. Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne and Tom Wilkinson all made one off appearances in the series, so it was nice to get some payoff from having Alec Baldwin return for a second episode. As a reluctant and judgmental ally and Superior to Hunt’s IMF group, Baldwin gets a chance to play both sides a bit and ultimately be played as well. I sort of enjoy the coincidence in Angela Bassett as the new C.I.A. chief, it’s as if Tina Turner is stepping into Ike’s shoes with Fishburne out of the picture. It is likely that if there are future installments in this franchise, she will return.

The plot is as complicated as these things usually get. A dangerous macguffin is out in the open and must be recovered by the team. Of course no path is straight and this plot develops an interesting twist by requiring that a previous villain be exchanged for the missing “dangerous item in a suitcase”. This puts Ethan and the team in an awkward position that ultimately creates a very ironic twist to the story.

To get though all of this, we get several incredible action sequences. There is a terrific, over the top hand to hand combat fight in a glittering white bathroom. Ethan and his team have to improvise a heist in the middle of the picture, so that he can sleep at night. The screenwriter/director Christopher McQuarrie injects some morality issues into this spy shoot em up, through a couple of nightmare sequences that visualize for us the qualms Ethan has about the choices he makes. The Tom Cruise haters will point to several chase scenes as proof that it is all about Tom as he rides a motorcycle like a bat out of hell or jumps from one building to another while doing the traditional Tom Cruise running. Those actions are not just to make Cruise look good, every spy film has chases and acts of derring do which put us in with the hero.

Henry Cavill and his mustache, take a break from the D.C. Universe to play a mysterious C.I.A. enforcer, foisted on the mission by the new DCIA. He looks good in a fight and not much effort was made to hide the fact that he is substantially taller than the star. His addition to the team suggests that not all the competent field agents have the temper for some of the delicate work that has to be done. The helicopter chase and battle that are the climax of the picture go a long way in showing that no one here is really a Superman, they all are vulnerable to a lot more than kryptonite. Ethan Hunt may have tried to bury his weakness, but it does get exploited well at the climax of the film.

“Mission Impossible: Fallout” owes most of it’s success to producer and star Tom Cruise. The film is not perfect, after all there are some plot-holes and lucky coincidences, but you never really care about that. This is a film that wants to keep you on the edge of your seat and it manages that nicely for all the two and a half hours of it’s running time. OK, maybe Cruise should be sure to send part of his profit participation to Lalo Schifrin, who created the iconic theme that sells this movie in the trailer, the titles and the end credits. I’d be willing to defend a proposition that it is the single greatest piece of theme music ever.

American Made

Now that we have talked about the foreigners, let’s discuss a home brewed concoction of history, baloney and Tom Cruise. “American Made” is the supposed true story of Barry Seal, who as a convicted drug smuggler negotiated a deal to assist the D.E.A. in in their investigations. The makers of this film, decide to splice the C.I.A., Iran-Contra and every president from Jimmy Carter up to George W. Bush into this story. I just hope that film goers recognize that Hollywood is a bad place to learn about history, even when it is a good place to make an engaging film.

All of the political material is nearly superfluous, since there is no real agenda in this movie other than to entertain us for a couple of hours.  The time line, characters and general insanity that take place are clearly the invention of creative minds rather than advocates with an agenda. In my opinion, this is the movie that “the Wolf of Wall Street” could have been if that film making crew had stuck to telling an interesting story instead of glorifying in excess and then pontificating at us. Director Doug Liman has the good fortune to have his personable con-man played by the personable Tom Cruise, who shakes off the unfortunate “Mummy” curse with a much more polished performance here.

The visions of excess here do not involve repeated episodes of drug use, sex and humiliation of other human beings. Rather, the situation attempts to lampoon the success of the drug trade by noting how problematic the issue of laundering the money would be. While there is one scene where Cruise as Seal gets covered in the imported product, he does not spend two thirds of the movie cranked up like Leonardo DiCapro. Instead, he is waist deep in cash and can’t find a way to hide the money as fast as he is making it. The story plays out like a comedy version of a double episode of “Miami Vice”. Seal and his wife argue over when he should rake up all the buried cash the dog has dug up. The town that he relocates to is flush with newly created financial institutions that seem to be serving a population of under 3000 with the kinds of banking services you’d find not too far off of Wall Street.

Domhnall Gleeson plays the imaginary C.I.A. recruiter who is supposed to have set Barry down the path to self destruction. He has a great American Accent, but not a very believable role. Sarah Wright plays the spouse of our gun running, drug smuggling, money laundering hero. I’ve not seen her before that I recall but she fits the part as written just fine. Caleb Landry Jones plays the misbegotten brother-in-law JB. Up to the point when his character exits the picture, the film plays like “Hogan’s Heroes” set in Central America. The movie takes a nasty turn after that and you will find that the real life BarrySeal had real life consequences to his actions.

I was a little nonplussed at the inclusion of a sequence that seems to have been taken from last year’s “Jack Reacher” film, also starring Cruise. I suppose the allure of Tom being so untouchable is just too much catnip to resist for film makers. I will however advise that they drop this soon to be Cruise Trope before the next “Mission Impossible”. I don’t think you want your Crown Jewel film franchise to be seen as cribbing from lesser works. Even if they are entertaining.

The Mummy (2017)

How is it we know that a movie is exceptional? One of the ways that we can reach such conclusions is by making comparisons to other films. A movie that is mundane will pale in comparison to something really strong. Excellence can therefore sometimes be measured by mediocrity. That’s why we need films like “The Mummy”, they show us how good films like “Wonder Woman” really are. I am not implying that this movie is bad, simply that it meets no standard for greatness except one, and that is the most obvious selling point for the film, it stars Tom Cruise.

I am probably a Cruise apologist. Of the forty plus movies he has made, only a handful have been clunkers. I would include his last film, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”  in that handful of dismal efforts. This film is miles better than that weak sauce film from last year, but that does not make it great, it makes it average. Cruise as usual is winning in his role, in spite of the fact that his character is designed to be a thoughtless douche-bag who fails to follow orders as a soldier, steals from women and generally engages in the kind of archeological theft that Indiana Jones was accused of, without having any scholarly justifications for his actions. Tom just has charisma and it turns even vile characters into people we are willing to watch. As I said, this is the one big selling point of the movie. Cruise puts in as much effort as anyone can to try and bring this story to life.


The film is basically an action movie with a horror theme that needs to be a little more horrifying. There are a few creepy moments, like the camel spiders and rats that seem to be under the command of the villainess of the story. An ancient creature inadvertently raised from the dead and determined to bring the evil lord she made a pact with into the flesh, she has chosen Tom’s character Nick, to be that vessel. So there is a monster and a curse but there are also stunning aerial stunts and chase sequences. With a half dozen jump scares that become progressively less effective, the film barely feels like a horror movie at all. Still it is mildly entertaining in creating a universe for these characters to exist in and providing a series of hoops for them to jump through.


A few of the things that make this movie passable include the two female leads. Sophia Boutella as the ancient princess returned to the world looks exotic enough and she grimaces well in conveying a sense of evil. Annabelle Wallis is sweet enough for us to sympathize with and hope the best for. Neither could carry the movie but they don’t have to with Cruise in control and a scenery chewing middle aged matinee idol ready to turn into Mr. Hyde at any moment. Just like the pygmy zombies that were so fun in one of those Brendan Frasier Mummy movies, this update has something cool to sell it in the effects department. zombie crusaders. They are solid and they look especially creepy in the water.


A lot of people have been bad-mouthing the start of a new “Dark Universe” from Universal Studios, but everyone else in the film business has a steady supply of material to exploit and Universal is simply trying to keep up.  Their iconic monsters are laying around doing no one any good unless new stories are written for them, so the studio is following up. The paranormal team led by Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe may not be the Avengers, The Justice League or even Transformers, but hey can be entertaining if given a chance. I can’t say this film is a bright start to that future of serialized stories, but it is not the failure that others would have you believe. This a a popcorn picture, disposable as any other fast food product of our consumer society. There is a place for romance novels in literature, hamburgers in dining circles and Fords in the car business. “The Mummy” reminds me of one of those mid-range sedans from Ford, it will get you where you are going but nobody will be bragging about the cool ride you showed up in.  You may look over at that Lincoln in the next theater, but if you have already driven it and know what a nice ride it is, watch this film. It will fill your two hours and remind you that it is just a car, and there is luxury out there that you can still aspire to.