Saturday, September 26, 2015


"Ninja Assassin" director James McTeigue's "Survivor" (***1/2 OUT OF ****) qualifies as a tense, London-based, international-terrorist thriller about a wrongly accused American Foreign Service Officer sought for murdering a colleague, while a lethal assassin pursues her to finish his execution.  Milla Jovovich plays the heroine, but she isn't in full kick butt "Resident Evil" mode, wielding weapons and mixed martial arts. Instead, she is simply exemplary at her job, rides a motorcycle with style, speaks several languages, and knows how to stay one step ahead of her fleet-footed adversaries.  Nevertheless, while this makes her an efficient, no-nonsense protagonist, nothing about her character is terribly interesting. In a splendid example of casting against the grain, former 007 star Pierce Brosnan exudes menace as an evil assassin who refuses to quit. Brosnan's hit-man is nicknamed 'the Watchmaker,' and he is both smart and resourceful.  One of 'the Watchmaker's smartest efforts occurs when he takes a short-cut to catch up with our heroine as she scrambles down a staircase.  The Watchmaker spots a series of lights attached by a cable dangling in the stairway well.  Improbably, he leaps onto it and shoots out the lights as he slides down the cable.  Of course, he doesn't get her, but it is a really cool move of his part. This scene is reminiscent of Matt Damon in "The Bourne Identity" when he used a man's body to drop from several floors in a stairway well to reach the bottom.  A solid supporting cast, with James D'Arcy and Angela Bassett in minor roles, backs up Jovovich and Brosnan.  At the core of this outlandish but briskly-paced thriller is a terrorist's ambitious plan to use the New Year's Eve ceremonies in Times Square as the setting to detonate a bomb.  McTeigue maintains palatable tension throughout this above-average nail-biter despite a minor lapse in credibility that occurs about three-fourths of the way through his 96-minute, PG-13 melodrama.

Passport visa clearance is a hot issue at the American Embassy in London where Kate works, and she has the final say on who gets a passport.  Nonetheless, a fellow Embassy employee, Bill Talbot (Robert Forster of "Jackie Brown"), wants her to lighten up with regard to a physician, Emile Balan (Roger Rees of "The Prestige"), who wants to attend a conference in the U.S.  Warning signs come up that alert Kate Abbott (Milla Jovovich of "The Fifth Element") and she has second thoughts.  During the prologue, two American helicopter pilots are shot down over Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and the villainous natives let one of the pilots live while they doused the other with gasoline and immolate him. Now, Bill Talbot is struggling to get Kate out of the picture, but the villains have his son, believed dead, in custody and are blackmailing him. Indeed, he is desperate enough that the villains hire a ruthless assassin, Nash (Pierce Brosnan of "Die Another Day") to blow up the Embassy staff, including Abbott, who is attending Bill's birthday party at a fashionable British restaurant. Ironically enough, the Embassy staff are going to be served pressed duck. Our heroine escapes by the skin of her teeth because nobody remembered to bring Bill's birthday present. She leaves the restaurant and enters a shop across the street about the same time that Nash triggers the bomb. Imagine Nash's surprise when he spots Abbott in the street looking battered and worse for the wear from the experience. He whips out an automatic pistol with a silencer attached to it and pursues her.

Naturally, since Kate is the protagonist and the protagonist must survive, Nash's accuracy with his weapon is compromised enough that she escapes.  Later, adhering to protocol, she encounters Bill at a rendezvous safe zone in a public park. Shocked at her presence, Bill pulls out an automatic pistol and tries to kill Kate. The two struggle over Bill’s weapon, and Bill winds up accidentally shooting himself in the stomach. Following all the classic tropes since "North by Northwest," Kate ends up with the pistol in her fist. Moreover, Bill staggers into public view, and sightseers snap photos and lens videos of the dumbstruck Kate several steps behind the mortally wounded Talbot with the pistol conspicuously held in her hand. Of course, she denies her guilt but then takes flight. Now, the video has gone viral, and Kate's superior, Sam Parker (Dylan McDermott of "In the Line of Fire"), is trying to reach her before British authorities with shoot-on-site orders can catch her. Indeed, the troubled U.S. Ambassador, Maureen Crane (Angela Bassett of “Waiting to Exhale”) contacts British security expert Paul Anderson (James D’Arcy) and grants him clearance to kill Abbott. The first half-hour goes by really rapidly despite its formulaic shenanigans, and McTeigue generates an air of urgency as Kate takes it on the lam and Nash resolves to liquidate her. Kate enjoys extraordinary luck eluding the authorities and Nash is the kind of assassin who likes to tie up as many loose ends as possible. Incredibly, she manages to impersonate a tourist and gets back to the United States in time to barely take down Nash. The finale atop a Big Apple skyscraper with Jovovich battling it out with Brosnan will have you on the edge of your seat holding your breath. Not only does "Survivor" live up to its generic title but it also is a terrific little thriller.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Tall, wiry, British actor Ed Skrein resembles the late Hollywood superstar actor James Coburn of the “Our Man Flint” franchise.  Not only does Skrein make a suitable substitute for brawny Jason Statham in “The Transporter Refueled” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), but Skrein also appears agile enough to carry EuropaCorp’s cinematic reboot on the strength of his personality. Skrein and Statham are cut from the same cloth.  Muscular, crew-cut, and rough hewn, these fellows tote a stick around on their shoulders and dare somebody presumptuous to knock it off.   Statham looks more like a traditional movie hero because he fits Frank Martin like a surgical glove.  Skrein looks like a far younger Frank Martin, and I believe writer/producer Luc Besson cast the former “Game of Thrones” actor for this quality.  Skrein looks like he was born to kick butt, and he radiates a raw-edged spontaneity that makes him ideal as Statham’s replacement.  Add to it his blue-collar British accent, and Skrein is reminiscent of Michael Caine when he was a Young Turk.  Clearly, if the franchise performs at the box office like the Statham trilogy, Skrein could own the role until he sheds that lean, hungry, wolfish tenacity that he brings to his younger Frank Martin.  

Meantime, “Brick Mansions” director Camille Delamarre stages several dynamic scenes in this swiftly-paced, $22-million thriller with as many audacious but entertaining escapades as any of Statham’s “Transporter” epics ever delivered.  Instead of Inspector Marcel Tarconi (François Berléand) interfering with Frank Martin's activities, the new Transporter has to put up with his dear old dad, and British actor Ray Stevenson relishes the parental role with scene-stealing charm.  Stevenson and Skrein have chemistry together, and it will be a sad day when one or the other departs from the franchise.  Naturally, the production values are stunning; the scenery is gorgeous; the close-quarters combat scenes savage enough; the sexy babes provocative; and Michel Julienne's careening car chase sequences are exhilarating.

Neither Delamarre nor scenarists Adam Cooper and Bill Cottage of the forthcoming “Allegiant: Part 1,” including Luc Besson of the original “Transporter,” have tampered with the formula.  Indeed, the same rules still stand in “The Transporter Refueled.”  First, Frank dictates that the deal must never change.  Second, Frank insists on no names.  Third, Frank never opens the package.  The melodrama of either any “Transporter” movie or television episode grows out of our hero’s decision to break his own rules.   This time around Frank Martin doesn’t have to second guess French Police Inspector  Tarconi, because Tarconi wasn’t written into “Refueled.”  Instead, Frank Martin must forever contend with his father’s constant criticism.  Frank, Senior (Ray Stevenson of “Punisher—War Zone”) is a former British Intelligence agent who has been put out to pasture and doesn’t savor the prospect of listening to his arteries hardening.  Actually, Frank, Senior, probably wouldn’t have volunteered for some of the shenanigans that he finds himself embroiled in, but he behaves as if his heart were in it.  Of course, young Frank, or ‘Junior,’ as his father affectionately refers to him throughout this rugged, PG-13 rated, 96-minute opus, gets tangled up with a quartet of duplicitous dames. 

Anna (Loan Chabanol of “Fading Gigolo”) contacts Frank at a restaurant after he refuses to discuss a deal over the phone.  No sooner has our hero picked up this brunette in a blond wig the next day in front of a bank than he discovers that she has duped him.   Anna promised him two packages, but two more brunettes in blond wigs with bundles of loot join them.  As it turns out, these two babes, Gina (Gabriella Wright of “22 Bullets”) and Qiao (newcomer Wenxia Yu) as well as Maria (Tatiana Pajkovic of “Nynne”), constitute a quartet of Musketeers.   Anna’s money grubbing mother sold her daughter into prostitution for $500.   Like Gina, Maria, and Qiao, Anna has decided to stop taking things lying down.  She cooks up an ambitious scheme to wreck revenge on their despicable pimps who are raking in hundreds of millions while the girls wind up doing all the grunt work.

“The Transporter Refueled” features unsavory villains who deal in prostitution and human trafficking.  They would rather slit your throats than spit on you, and they eliminate their chief competition on the French Riviera with gunfire during the first quarter hour.  Not long afterward, Anna finds herself forced to ply her comely wares on the streets.  Fifteen years elapse, and Anna has grown up and dreams up a plan to pay back the dastards who forced her onto her back to make them millions.  These girls quote Dumas: “All for one, and one for all.”  They take Frank, Senior, hostage to get Frank, Junior to cooperate.  Before we’re treated to Anna’s grandiose scheme, we get to watch the new Frank Martin stomp a quintet of hoods who insist that he surrender his black, Audi S8 car to them in a parking garage.

“The Transporter Refueled” is beautifully lensed, but formulaic nonsense.  I enjoyed it as much as the three Statham epics and the two-season, Chris Vance “Transporter” television series.  Radivoje Bukvic, Yuri Kolokolnikov, and Lenn Kudrjawizki--the actors who play the villains--are cut from the same dangerous cloth as Skrein.  These guys make the kind of surefire villains that are appropriate for a gritty, hard-edged crime movie like “The Transporter Refueled.”  The close-quarters combat scenes resemble those that Statham had in his trilogy.  At one point, the new “Transporter” dukes it out with three adversaries in a room crammed with filing cabinets.  The kinetic choreography of this fisticuffs scene is both inspired and ferocious. When our hero isn’t battering his formidable opponents with his fists, he is slamming shut their various appendages in cabinet drawers.  These fights bristle with an amusing Jackie Chan vibe. Camille Delamarre doesn’t squander a second and emphasizes the outlandish. A gritty underworld saga of revenge, deceit, and Tarantino-like showdowns, "The Transporter Refueled" propels its narrative like a high-octane blend of white-knuckled adrenaline and fresh harsh faces.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


Occasionally, life imitates art, even in the cinema.  “As Above, So Below” director John Erick Dowdle’s “No Escape,” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a spellbinding, ‘stranger-in-a-strange land’ saga about an amiable American family scrambling to stay alive during a cataclysmic coup in a nameless Southeast Asia nation.  Initially, when Dowdle took his cast and crew to Thailand back in 2013 to lens this gritty, straightforward, action-thriller, few knew the smoldering political unrest would flare up into a full-scale military insurrection later in 2014.  Moreover, the recent August 2015 bombing at a popular Hindu shrine that left 20 people dead and more than 100 wounded has heightened the plausibility of Dowdle’s nail-biting, take-no-prisoners thriller.  Originally, this Weinstein Company release was entitled “The Coup,” but audiences couldn’t relate to such as bland title so the producers changed it to something appropriately melodramatic.  Reportedly, when Dowdle made “No Escape,” he went to painstaking lengths not to specify Thailand as the film’s setting.  Additionally, the filmmakers refrained from using the color yellow in their palate because it represents Thailand’s official color and its royalty.  This white-knuckled but xenophobic exercise in suspense dispenses with comic relief, clever one-liners, and amounts to a cautionary tale for tourists contemplating a vacation in Thailand. Indeed, China, Australia, and Hong Kong officials have issued travel warnings to tourists about Thailand. In Dowdle’s R-rated epic, murderous mobs armed with sticks, stones, machetes, knives, revolvers, and assault rifles declare an ‘open season’ on tourists and those who accommodate these foreigners.  Ostensibly, “No Escape” has been lambasted by many film critics because it depicts the rebel natives in a demonic light but portrays tourists, particularly Americans, as if they were saints.  “Empire” magazine critic Simon Crook has even gone so far as to compare “No Escape” to a zombie movie and Americans as the endangered species!

Austin, Texas, engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson of “Behind Enemy Lines”) represents a benevolent American company dispatched to an unknown Asian country to improve the quality of the water supply.  Events beyond Jack’s control have forced him to take this dreadful job as a last resort because his other enterprises haven’t worked out for him. Predictably, Jack refuses to fly off to this exotic, faraway, fourth-world, paradise without packing along his family, wife Annie (Lake Bell of “Pride and Glory”), and their two daughters.  Imagine a Brady Bunch with only two children finding themselves swamped in a blood and gore revolution with bloodthirsty natives dying to kill them, and you’ve got the gist of “No Escape.”  Dowdle and his brother Drew who helped him script “Quarantine” spend the first ten minutes or so of “No Escape” introducing us to Dwyer and his happy family.  Adorable daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) are elementary school aged moppets who are no more prepared than their parents for the perilous predicaments that await them. What the Dwyers don’t know is that the country’s current President has just been terminated with extreme prejudice by ruthless terrorists.  You know things are bad when the President’s personal bodyguard takes one look at what has happened and slashes his own throat. 
Meantime, the Dwyers have checked into the motel, and Jack has gone downstairs to report that nothing seems to work in his room when he spots a fellow passenger from his plane performing karaoke.  Hammond (Pierce Brosnan of “GoldenEye”) is a grizzled, alcohol-imbibing Briton who knows the country like the handle of the automatic pistol that he conceals on his person.  Hammond and his native grinning pal Kenny (Sahajak Boonthanakit of “Elephant White”), who owns a taxi plastered with posters of country music crooner Kenny Rogers, help the Dwyers commute from the airport to their motel without being taken advantage of by the locals. Jack leaves the motel to buy a USA Today newspaper and finds himself caught between rioters wielding bombs, baseball bats, and guns and the police armed with helmets and shields.  Jack knows that his goose is cooked when the rioters scatter the police and start executing Americans as well as any locals who appear to be collaborating with the American devils.
The first obstacle the Jack and Annie face is getting out of their motel room without being slaughtered.  They join other nervous tourists barricaded atop the motel roof. Initially, an approaching helicopter allays their anxieties.  Ironically, the chopper carries rebels equipped with machine guns who aren’t about to rescue anybody. Jack realizes their only alternative is to jump to nearby high-rise building.  If you’ve seen the “No Escape” trailer, you’ll be prepared for this ordeal as the Dwyers hurl their horrified kids into the sky toward the other building. These taut moments will grip you with chilling terror, and things escalate for the worse as they flee for freedom.  One crucial scene shows the entire family astride on a motorcycle that the father pushes through waves of irate rebels, but only one rebel spots their Nike sneakers.  Later, when Jack barters for a boat so they can cross into Vietnam, he has to surrender his Nikes.

“No Escape” reminded me of a long dormant film genre that flourished during the Cold War in the 1960s. In a game of political dominoes with the Communists, imperialist Americans sought to convert Southeast Asia countries to capitalism.  Specifically, the Marlon Brando diplomatic thriller “The Ugly American” (1963), concerned Uncle Sam’s meddling in local politics where those empire-building antics were not appreciated. Meantime, “No Escape” conjures up a harrowing portrait of heroism under fire.  The imperiled American family emerges as whitewashed saints, while virtually all of dark-skinned Asians are hopelessly maniacal miscreants.  Mind you, it is difficult not to root for Wilson and his family, especially when former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan sacrifices his life to rescue them from their homicidal Asian adversaries.  Although Owen Wilson is best known for his smarmy comedies, he sheds his light-hearted image here. During one scene, when Jack’s own daughter is forced to hold him at gunpoint, director John Erick Dowdle doesn’t let the suspense slacken for a second. This scene is just as intense as the Russian roulette scenes in “The Deer Hunter.”  “No Escape” will keep you poised on the edge of your seat, even when you know you’re being shamelessly manipulated for the sake of thrills and chills.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


Sequels rarely live up to their predecessors, but French director Louis Leterrier's new big noisy dumb action-thriller "The Transporter 2" (***1/2 OUT OF ****) with lean, mean Jason Statham behind the wheel again, proves the exception to the rule. Mind you, the plot of the original "Transporter" about the contemporary international slave trade merely provided the framework for a number of audacious auto stunts and hyper-kinetic martial arts combat face-offs that obscured its politically correct plot. Famed Hong Kong martial arts guru Cory Yuen did double-duty on the first "Transporter" (2002) as director and action choreographer. (No, you don't have to worry about walking blindly into "Transporter 2." However, if you fork over the bucks for the new DVD 'Special Delivery' version of the original "Transporter," you'll find a free ticket inside, so you can kill two birds with one stone. The first "Transporter" ranked as a roller-coaster of a crime thriller.) This time around Yuen serves strictly as action choreographer, while art director Louis Leterrier takes over the helm on a follow-up film that surpasses its predecessor by virtue of a bigger budget for larger, more outlandish stunts and more inventive martial arts aerobatics. An equally politically correct plot about an attempt to exterminate the world's head drug enforcement honchos at an international narcotics summit provides the scaffold for these stunts. No, "Transporter 2" isn't a foil the assassination yarn. Initially, this Twentieth Century Fox film resembles director Tony Scott's slam-bang, high-octane, actioneer "Man on Fire" (2004) with Denzel Washington as a bullet-proof bodyguard determined to rescue kidnap victim Dakota Fanning. Happily, Leterrier and his scenarists, producer Luc ("Le Femme Nikita") Besson and writer Robert Mark Kamen, ditch the child-in-jeopardy plot early on for bigger game. Nevertheless, they were shrewd enough to know that it's not the game that counts so much but how you play it. The kind of audience that will relish "Transporter 2" are those who refuse to let realism dictate the bottom line. They know from the get-go that the hero can't die. Genuine connoisseurs of the genre make allowances for stunts and fights that violate the laws of gravity. In big, dumb, noisy action movies, anything visually possible is plausible no matter how implausible it ultimately is. Director Robert Rodriguez's shoot'em up sagas "Desperado" (1995) with Antonio Banderas as well as "Once Upon A Time in Mexico" (2003) exemplify the prime examples of big, dumb, noisy action thrillers. Some stunts in "Transporter 2," especially the fast-car driving, have their antecedents in older movies. At least, Leterrier and company have taken the stunts a bit farther than previous ones. Sadly, "Transporter 2" suffers from clearly obvious computer-generated style video game footage that undercuts the dramatic impact of the aerial scenes. Furthermore, the quality of the matte shots that stand in for different backgrounds is pretty awful.

Anybody that saw the original "Transporter" knows that British protagonist Frank Martin (Jason Statham of "Snatch") is more than just a top-notch driver who can get out of the worst traffic jam. Moreover, he can kick, punch, and shoot his way out of the most ominous predicament. In this latest entry in the trilogy, we learn that Frank is ex-special forces and led an elite commando unit for five years specializing in search and destroy.  According to the authorities, Frank has been in and out of Lebanon, Syria, and Sudan.  "The man is a hunter," Stappleton (Keith David) grimly informs the family of an abducted child when they arrive at his house to set up a surveillance system to track the kidnappers. The predicaments that Frank faces in "Transporter 2" make the tough times in "The Transporter" look like a cake walk. When the action opens, we find Frank newly transplanted from the south of France to sunny Miami, Florida. Rather than acting as the wheel man for crazy bank robbers or human slavers, Frank is chauffeuring a high profile politician's son, Jack Billings (newcomer Hunter Clary), back and forth to elementary school. Actually, Frank is helping out a friend by temping for him. Meanwhile, Jack's parents are U.S. Drug Enforcement Czar Billings (Matthew Modine of "Full Metal Jacket") and his neglected wife Audrey (Amber Valetta of "What Lies Beneath"). You don't have to be a genius to figure out that a kidnapping lies right around the bend, and that's part of the fun of "Transporter 2." Like the previous "Transporter," "Transporter 2" doesn't stray far from the sure-fire formula that fueled the first movie's word-of-mouth success on DVD. Of course, nobody could survive the close scrapes that Frank survives, but then nobody leads a life as charming as Frank. During an early scene, Frank nimbly thwarts a carjacking. However, Frank's sense of style makes the scene memorable. Before he tangles with a thuggish gang of ruffians backed up by a bimbo school girl armed with an automatic pistol, our hero sheds his recently dry-cleaned suit jacket, folds it neatly atop his sleek, shiny car, then demolishes the opposition without a second thought. As her compatriots in crime lay writhing in agony on the pavement of the parking garage around her, the school girl pitches her pistol and takes a powder. This amusing little incident nearly makes Frank tardy for his appointment to pick up Hunter. Punctuality guides Frank's way of thinking. During the brief time that they have known each other, Hunter and Frank have managed to bond. Yes, "Transporter 2" takes short-cuts when other more realistically-oriented movies might wallow about for twenty minutes showing the bonds as the characters forge them. Frank and Hunter grow close enough that Hunter treats Frank as the father that the youth wishes that his real-life dad were. Audrey notices this bond when she isn't quarreling with her husband, who has let his duties override his home life. Into the storyline steps tough guy Gianni Chellini (hunky Italian thesp Alessandro Gassman of "Quiet Chaos") who dispatches his henchmen to kidnap Hunter. As one of his ruthless henchmen--perhaps—henchwomen, statuesque model Kate Nauta makes an impressive as well as an intimidating killer babe called Lola. She emerges like a cross-between of a sexy Victoria's Secrets model and a trigger-happy small arms sales lady. She has a tattoo on her inside right thigh of a heavily armed rabbit that reads "Death by Rabbit." 

Aside from one drawn-out dialogue scene between Billings' lonely wife and Frank, "Transporter 2" never breaks its stride. Clocking in at Spartan 88 minutes, this adrenalin-laced, Twentieth Century Fox release features a sympathetic hero, a fiendish villain, and the kind of action that provides a sense of catharsis for audiences that love big, dumb, noisy action movies. Two major scenes stand out for their sheer implausibility. First, Frank eludes the police by crashing through the barrier at a high-rise parking garage and plunging his automobile safely into the confines of another high-rise parking garage across the street.  As if to compensate, Frank's car slides to a halt sideways at the edge of the parking garage.  Second, the villains have placed an explosive device under the chassis of Frank's car and he dislodges it by launching his car into the air so that he can knock the device off by hitting a dangling block and tackle hook hanging from a gantry.  The best parts of "Transporter 2" involve Frank's former nemesis, French Inspector Tarconi (Francois Berleand), who comes to visit Frank in Miami.  Neither man gets to see the other until Frank wraps up the kidnapping caper.  No sooner has Tarconi arrived at Frank's house than the kidnapping takes place and the U.S. Marshals descend on Frank's house in hope of catching him in residence. Instead, they find Tarconi baking madeleines.  At the police station, one of the Marshals finds it interesting that Tarconi would take the liberty of using another man's kitchen. Taken aback by such questioning, Tarconi explains simply enough that he is French.  Afterward, he appraises the terrible looking sandwich that the authorities have provided him and sets about using their kitchen to furnish them with something edible. This subplot and Frank's use of Tarconi to acquire information for him while he is at police headquarters is imaginative and offsets some of the preposterous quality of the action.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


The latest installment in the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise ranks as one of the best.  “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation” (**** OUT OF ****) rivals its superlative predecessor “Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol” with spine-tingling suspense and spectacularly staged set-pieces.  Mind you, things haven’t always been so first-rate.  The initial “Mission: Impossible” movie was arguably exciting enough in its own right, especially when Tom Cruise suspended himself Spider-man style at CIA Headquarters to hack a computer.  Nevertheless, the film portrayed one of the most beloved television series characters in such a sacrilegious light that most “Mission: Impossible” fanatics abhorred it.  I grew up watching Peter Graves play Jim Phelps from 1967 to 1973 and then again briefly from 1988 to 1990 on the weekly, hour-long, CBS-TV program, and the heretical notion that Phelps could turn traitor constituted nothing short of blasphemy.  Little did it matter that the people who produced “Mission: Impossible” gave Phelps legitimate grounds for his treachery.  Comparably, this would be tantamount to turning either Marshal Dillon of “Gunsmoke” into a homicidal hellion or indicting Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Andy Taylor for police brutality.  Never has a film franchise impugned a television character’s virtuosity with such cavalier abandon.

As the second entry in the Paramount franchise, director John Woo’s “Mission Impossible II” emerged as a vast improvement over the original and got things straightened out.  The head-butting motorcycle confrontation between Ethan Hunt and the villain is something to remember as well Woo’s choreographed gunfights.  Unfortunately, the stimulating third installment “Mission Impossible III” made an error almost as egregious as defaming Jim Phelps.  Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams gave Ethan Hunt a wife to worry about, and that matrimonial madness provided the motive force in its contrived melodrama.  The secret agent with a double life and a wife is the stuff of spoofs, and the marriage plot was predictable.  Perhaps if they had substituted Hunt’s parents (remember them from the 1996 original?) for his wife, the idea might have been more palatable.  As swiftly as the franchise got Ethan hitched, it got him just as quickly unhitched with ambiguous details.    “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” kept Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) separated from his wife, and he reverted to single status as he had in “Mission Impossible II.”  Happily, neither Cruise nor his latest collaborators have pulled anything as idiotic as “Mission Impossible III” with “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.”

Like the best James Bond extravaganzas, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” opens with a cliffhanger gambit.  Ethan Hunt scrambles atop the wing of a military cargo plane, an Airbus A400M, as it trundles down the runaway for take-off.  He slaloms off the wing down to the fuselage and seizes a convenient door handle.  Hunt’s cyber genius colleague Benjamin Dunn (Simon Pegg of “Shaun of the Dead”) struggles to open the door remotely while Hunt clings desperately for dear life to it as the huge plane gains altitude.  Reportedly, Cruise performed this barnstorming stunt on his own on an actual plane with a special camera attached to the fuselage to record the exploit.  Frantically, Benji opens the wrong door, but eventually he opens the right door.  Hunt gains access to the cargo hold and spots the pallet of VX-nerve gas missiles.  The villains, a band of Chechen separatist fighters, discover Hunt’s presence too late, and he deploys the chute on the pallet, so both the missiles and he plunge into the blue.  This snappy incident is peripherally related to the plot, and it gets this outlandish escapade off on the right foot.  Mind you, this tense scene reunites Hunt with not only Benji but also series regular Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames of “Pulp Fiction”) and “Ghost Protocol” addition William Brandt (Jeremy Renner of “The Bourne Legacy”). 

This time around our heroic quartet wrestles with their worst nightmare: the Syndicate, an enigmatic league of terrorists, alluded to at the end of “Ghost Protocol,” that threaten not only to destroy the IMF but also initiate global chaos.  Predictably, of course, we know that Hunt and company will preserve the status quo.  Nevertheless, writer & director Christopher McQuarrie takes everything right to the brink and lets it teeter.  Earlier “Mission Impossible” movies relied on the plot device of ‘disavowing’ Ethan Hunt so he wound up as the man in the middle between the good guys and the bad guys.  “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” raises the stakes considerably by ostracizing the entire IMF Agency, with bureaucratic, stuffed-shirt CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alex Baldwin of “The Hunt for Red October”) arguing passionately for the IMF’s dissolution after the San Francisco incident involving a Russian nuclear missile.  Unless you’ve seen “Ghost Protocol,” you won’t know about this escapade.  Meantime, IMF Representative William Brandt refuses to confirm or deny anything about the mission to which Hunley refers in his efforts to convince a Senate Committee to shut down Brandt’s group.

In London, Hunt stumbles onto the Syndicate quite by accident when he is heading for a briefing at an album shop called The Vinyl Option.  He follows the usual procedure and enters a listening room with a recording.  The big difference, however, is this briefing doesn’t originate from his own organization but instead from the opposition—The Syndicate.  This shadowy, sinister organization consists of thousands of spies who have deserted their respective outfits and have been listed officially as dead.  Think of the vintage Nick Nolte shoot’em up “Extreme Prejudice” (1987) from director Walter Hill where Nolte’s small time sheriff dealt with murderous combat veterans reported killed in action.  Syndicate honcho Solomon Kane (Sean Harris of “Prometheus”) appears outside the booth, holds a silenced automatic pistol to the record shop clerk’s head, and shoots the poor girl in the noggin while a stupefied Hunt watches in horror from the listening booth as knock-out gas obscures his vision. When Hunt recovers consciousness, he finds himself in captivity, strapped to an eight-foot tall pole, in a locked, underground room.  Pretty but pugnacious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson of “The White Queen”), a gorgeous babe with shapely legs who follows Kane’s orders to the letter, argues with a sadistic henchman called the ‘Bone Doctor’ (Jens Hultén of “Skyfall”) who wants to do more than question Hunt for information.  The ‘Bone Doctor’ wants to carve him up, but Hunt surprises him with a head butt that knocks his adversary unconscious.  A strenuously athletic bare-knuckled fight with the ‘Bone Doctor’s’ own henchmen ensues with Hunt decimating the opposition with Faust’s help.  Essentially, this is the bulk of everything you need to know.  McQuarrie’s movie with its complex, labyrinth-like plot defies synopsis.

“Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation” delivers everything that we’ve come to expect from this intrigue-laden, stunt-oriented, gadget-encumbered franchise.  Our resourceful heroes still sport those latex masks that they peel off at dramatic moments to surprise us.  Not surprisingly, they are required to break into and out of various buildings bristling with sophisticated security safeguards that sometimes challenge them to the point of death.  The debonair 53-year old Cruise performs his own perilous stunts, virtually all of them hair-raising, acrobatic endeavors.  He careens a small car around in a maze of narrow city streets with the villains in hot pursuit and then launches himself astride a motorcycle with daredevil gusto.  Meanwhile, director Christopher McQuarrie succeeds at making everything appear doubly difficult for our protagonists, and they encounter an improbable but death-defying gauntlet of obstacles that would stymie lesser souls.  Several scenes benefit from throttling tension because one set of heroes execute tasks that prevent another hero from either being captured or killed.  Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson team up in several helter-skelter, close quarters, combat scenes that surely required lots of rehearsal.  Ferguson displays dazzling dexterity when she clashes with a henchman twice her size who wields a knife far larger than her blade.  One of the best sequences has Cruise debating which villain to perforate before either assassinates a foreign dignitary during a live opera performance.  Simon Pegg supplies the incidental comic relief that seasons this largely straightforward saga, while Sean Harris is effectively malicious as the chief villain.  Everything from “Tomorrow Never Dies” lenser Robert Elswit’s widescreen cinematography to James D. Bissell’s production designs is appropriately polished to virtual perfection.  The fifth globe-trotting “Mission Impossible” foray qualifies as a rapid-fire, white-knuckled, adrenalin-laced, nail-biter with momentum that never slackens and surprises that always astonish.