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Review: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Chases Ghosts

Tom Cruise returns to a role that made him famous. 

Tom Cruise took flight into Hollywood’s firmament of stars in 1986’s Top Gun

Arriving midway through Ronald Reagan’s second term as U.S. President, the film glorified military activity to an obnoxious degree. Under director Tony Scott (The Hunger), the slick visual stylings resembled a feature-length Navy recruitment ad, filled with glistening male abdomens and submissive women who accepted their roles as supporting players in the game of life. Oh, and the jets, and the bombs and the smile. 

Needless to say, it minted a fortune. 

Emulating the original film, Top Gun: Maverick mimics its slick visual stylings, as well as copying its narrative threads and incorporating original footage aplenty, as well as its music cues, themes and characters. Cruise’s character, Pete Mitchell, better known by his military callsign, Maverick, has added a few well-placed wrinkles while otherwise remaining as close to his original appearance as the makeup artists can achieve. 

Evidently, he has learned nothing from his many years in the military. Refusing all offers for promotion, he remains a happy pilot, killing people from a safe distance and obeying only the orders that he likes. His one-time nemesis turned long-time friend, known as Iceman (Val Kilmer), is now commander in chief or some such title, and has consistently saved Maverick from the firing squad. 

Finally, though, Maverick breaks the proverbial last straw and is grounded, ordered to service as an instructor at the so-called Top Gun military training school, where he will teach a dozen top pilots how to do the impossible and blow things up on a mission whose simulation resembles the one in Star Wars (1977). And can you believe it? One of his students is Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Goose (Anthony Edwards), who died in Maverick’s arms many years ago. 

For many years, Rooster has held a grudge against Maverick, but it’s not because his father died in Maverick’s arms or that he holds Maverick responsible. Oh, no, nothing that simple. Instead, Rooster holds a grudge because Maverick held Rooster back from enrolling in the Navy academy for four years and delaying the inevitable start of his destined military career. Can you believe it? The nerve of that guy! 

I wondered why, if Rooster wanted to fly, he didn’t just flap his arms up and down. (See? He’s named Rooster, so …) Or become an airline pilot. No, Rooster must fly jets, just like his dad, and then hopefully become qualified to kill Faceless Bad People from the air. 

When he’s not staring daggers at Maverick during class, Rooster jousts with Hangman (Glen Powell), who continually mocks him and says he isn’t good enough to fly this dangerous secret mission that’s been borrowed from Star Wars. (Reportedly, Glen Powell was up for the role of Maverick at the same time as Miles Teller, so I wonder if that helped him define his anger issues in this film?) 

Maverick is busy trying to get busy with former girlfriend Penny (Jennifer Connelly), as in, ‘if I had a penny for every time she mocked me, I’d have a fortune and could retire.’ Penny has learned better, it seems, though she does have a daughter who kinda looks like Maverick when she smiles. Who knows? I wasn’t there; I’m not judging. 

Admiral Cyclone (Jon Hamm), who, truth be told, would rather be in advertising, gets mad at Maverick a lot, while secretly admiring his nerve. By the Admiral’s order, Maverick needs to train the pilots in just three weeks, which gets repeated so often I lost track of exactly how much time had passed, which allows for much footage of actors in planes and many, many whooshing sounds — as in, “whoosh,” that jet is mighty fast — and a lot of pilots upside down and sideways, and Maverick is still better than all of them, because he’s the star of the movie, which I mention because you might have just been born yesterday. 

Five writers received credit for “writing” the film, though I suspect the actual number of people who typed scenes or lines or floated ideas for this sequel is much higher. I just hope they all got paid and that their checks have cleared. 

Joseph Kosinski, who directed TRON: Legacy, Oblivion and Taco Bell: Web of Fries (not kidding; it’s on IMDb), obviously knows how to make people, scenery and visual effects look really, really good on a big, big screen. I’m not sorry I attended the press screening, which was in an IMAX theater and looked very, very impressive, and boomed tremendously loudly. 

In many ways, this is a stupidly entertaining movie. Intellectually, I suspect I really shouldn’t like this movie so much, but we all need a little more whoosh in our lives. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on May 27, 2022, via Paramount Pictures. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’

'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation'
‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’
Tom Cruise returns for the fifth adventure in the series, playing a larger-than-life version of himself as action hero and really smart guy.

The first installment in 1996 laid waste to its television show origins, which revolved around a team of espionage agents known as the Impossible Mission Force. A big change was that the heroic Jim Phelps was brought back solely to be exposed as a fraud, a phony, definitely not someone to be emulated. Hand in hand, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was boosted toward superhero status, the unquestioned, clearly superior leader of the team, both in his physical daring and his intellectual abilities.

Since then, the missions have slowly edged into fantasy territory, to the point now that Mr. Hunt can lay down his motorcycle at the conclusion of a high-speed chase, tumble madly in the dirt alongside the highway, and get up again with no visible ill effects. He’s Ethan Hunt! He can do anything!

Accepting that Ethan Hunt is a superhero is essential to the drama that unfolds in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. He discovers that an evil spy organization, called The Syndicate, has developed in the shadows, and they are killing people all over the world. They must be brought to a stop!

Simultaneously, the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) has tired of the IMF’s excesses, and hates their ability to operate independently of his control, so he petitions Congress to dissolve the IMF and bring them under his heel. They must be brought to a stop!

Christopher McQuarrie, probably still best known for his Academy Award-winning script for The Usual Suspects in 1996, has steadily built a distinctive reputation as a writer, continuing to work with Bryan Singer (Valkyrie, Jack the Giant Slayer) and, reportedly starting with an uncredited contribution to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise.

McQuarrie has a good understanding of how to write to Cruise’s strengths as an A-list action star. In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, everything revolves around his character; he is always the smartest in the room; and, despite his advancing age, he remains the most potent physical force on Earth. The most intriguing aspects of the movie come when there is some question as to whether he is being outsmarted by his new nemesis, played by Sean Harris with his usual finesse and precision.

A mysterious new character, Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), emerges as a possible challenger to Mr. Hunt’s reign as master of the physical universe. She is a woman — as made exploitatively obvious in a brief yet needless swimming pool scene — and is extremely fit and capable, but her morality is in question, since she appears to be a member of The Syndicate. Thus, she is considered to be of lesser character throughout the movie, due to her (feminine?) duplicity.

Mr. Hunt surrounds himself with supporting espionage experts — he only has two arms and two legs, after all — including the return of Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner, the latter of whom is often stuck in managerial activity this time around. Their primary occupation is admiring Mr. Hunt’s abilities, but McQuarrie injects more humor into their interactions, and demonstrates a good sense of comic timing, which helps keep the movie flowing at a steady pace.

The same can be said about the action sequences, which look spectacular from an overall perspective — a plane taking off! An opera house pursuit with multiple shooters! A thrilling chase through European streets and stairs! A high-speed chase with high-performance motorcycles! And so forth! — although they are often difficult to follow as they unfold; the editing scheme leans too often toward the “cut every ½ second” pattern that has become so annoying in modern action cinema.

Putting those complaints aside, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is an enjoyable ride, offering new scenery to go along with generally sharp dialogue and nifty action scenes. It’s one of the better offerings of the 2015 summer season.

The film opens tonight in theaters throughout Dallas.

Review: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ Loses Its Edge

Tom Cruise in 'Edge of Tomorrow' (Warner Bros.)
Tom Cruise in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (Warner Bros.)
The newest action picture from director Doug Liman threatens to be completely fresh and irreverent, until it realizes Tom Cruise is the star and that its premise is borrowed from Groundhog Dog with a science-fiction twist.

Based on All You Need is Kill, a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka published in 2004, and a screenplay credited to Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s Jack Reacher), Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, Edge of Tomorrow posits that in the near future Earth has been invaded by aliens from space known as Mimics, who resemble giant, speedy circular mops yet are soundly defeating mankind’s military forces, combined into the United Defense Force. Military spokesperson Cage (Cruise) sounds good on television, but his cowardly, selfish nature is revealed in a conversation with General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who orders him to “sell the military” as they make a last-ditch effort to repel the invaders on a beach in France. It’s a battle that is sure to cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and Cage firmly resists the possibility of being one of them.

He ends up in the battle anyway, and — no spoiler — is killed within the first five minutes. Then he wakes up and repeats the previous 12 hours. Then he wakes up and repeats the previous 12 hours. Then he wakes up and repeats the previous 12 hours. Then he —

You get the idea. As Cage desperately tries to figure out what’s going on, he comes into contact with Rita (Emily Blunt), a war hero, and she provides the key to the rest of the story.

The early sequences zig and zag with vim and vigor. Placing Cruise into the body of an uncertain and unlikable character who is only looking out for himself infuses the story with energy stolen from his younger years, when he could embody selfish jerks with elan and a measure of callow soulfulness. (I’m thinking especially of Risky Business, Top Gun, and The Color of Money.) Listening as he endeavors to talk his way out of the clutches of the single-minded Master Sergeant Farell (a delightfully bluff and Southern-twangy Bill Paxton) unearths the actor’s most patently insincere sincerity; it’s easy to see why he would be an effective spokesperson for the military.

All too quickly, the zippy dialogue recedes into the background (resurfacing only occasionally), and the lumbering mechanics of the plot take center stage, calling for multiple extended action sequences that are staged and filmed in an anonymous fashion by director Liman and cinematographer Dion Beebe. A dozen years ago, Beebe collaborated with director Kurt Wimmer to make the stylish and fluid Equilibrium; that same year, Liman made his first action flick, The Bourne Identity, which prized camera movement above visual clarity. Liman’s vision prevails here, of course, and so the result is a series of action scenes that are well-nigh incomprehensible.

When the action pauses, Cruise morphs quickly back into the conventional action hero he was born to play, adapting to his circumstances in rapid order and becoming a supremely efficient and selfless soldier. Naturally, that can be attributed to the nature of the time-travel loop in which he’s trapped, but it’s also a symptom of the Traditional Hollywood Protagonist Trope, his flaws erased from memory as he is transformed long before the climactic third act.

As long as Cruise’s character is imperfect and weak, the movie sings true. Once he becomes ‘all that he can be,’ to paraphrase a one-time slogan of the U.S. Army, the inevitability of the plot twists and turns become all too obvious and predictable. Without a recognizable and relatable character at the center, the movie sags, only perking up at odd times that are unable to halt the slide into mediocrity.

Edge of Tomorrow is a thriller that starts strong and loses its potency throughout its running time, like a carbonated beverage left open in the summer heat and gone flat.

The film opens in theaters wide across Dallas on Friday, June 6.

Review: Tom Cruise Can’t Lift ‘Oblivion’ Into Orbit

Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko in Joseph Kosinski's 'Oblivion' (Universal Pictures)
Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko in Joseph Kosinski’s ‘Oblivion’ (Universal Pictures)

Joseph Kosinski and an army of talented technicians have buffed and polished Oblivion to a high-gloss sheen. The film looks and sounds spectacular in true, giant-sized IMAX, as at the Cinemark 17 IMAX Theatre, and is briskly paced so as to allow little time for dawdling. And the lead performance by Tom Cruise bolsters the visuals with gut-level sincerity.

Indeed, Oblivion takes off with much sound and fury, establishing a future in which the Earth repelled an alien invasion, thus “winning” the war, but losing because the planet was irredeemably damaged. Most of surviving mankind has been successfully transplanted over the past 50 years to a distant moon, where water is badly needed. Thus, special machines have been installed, sucking up the oceans for transfer to mankind’s new home. Automated and fully weaponized drones guard the machines from Scavengers, as the remants of the alien invasion force are known. Sometimes the drones need repairs and maintenance, requiring a skeleton crew of drone repairmen to do mop-up duty on Earth.

Jack (Tom Cruise) is one of the repairmen, teamed with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They are stationed at a mile-high sky tower; Jack heads off every day to make his rounds in a bubble ship — a cross between a helicopter and a jet fighter — while Victoria remains behind at the sky tower, manning a bank of computers and displays to keep him apprised of any potential dangers, and maintain communication with Sally (Melissa Leo), their supervisor at the space station that overseas the final operations before Earth is permanently abandoned.

With only two weeks left on their assignment, Jack and Victoria are eager to finish up their service and join the rest of mankind, but Jack is plagued by dreams of a distant Earth, before the alien invasion, recurring dreams in which a lovely young woman plays a starring role. One day a spacecraft crashes to Earth, bringing the drones to destroy it, but Jack arrives just in time to realize that humans were in the spacecraft and to rescue one survivor, who looks very much like the lovely young woman in his dreams.

Soon enough, the young woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), reveals her true identity to Jack, a shock to his system that is compounded by a meeting with a mysterious “Scavenger” known as Beech (Morgan Freeman). Jack must wrestle with issues of love, romance, identity, and the fate of mankind, and quickly! Because time is running out.

Taking place in a desolate, post-apocalyptic Earth where, nonetheless, many iconic buildings appear, Oblivion presents a sun-bleached future, one that is perhaps explained by the aliens’ destruction of the Moon, but which doesn’t begin to comment on the design of the super-cool weapons, ships, and sky towers. Powered by a rumbling musical score by M83, Oblivion races through sequences with a facile agility, anchored by Cruise’s rock-solid foundation.

While the set-up is sufficiently engaging, perplexing questions start to accumulate quickly as to character motivations, delineations, and narrative destinations. The questions venture too far into spoiler territory for discussion in a review of this sort, but they are pushed aside and then never resolved. This means that the film as a whole is disappointing because Kosinski and multiple screenwriters (of whom only Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn receive credit for the screenplay, with Kosinski credited for original story) do not bring anything particularly new or startling to the familiar ingredients that they have borrowed from many other science-fiction books and movies.

To mention one aspect that is not a spoiler, Jack goes “off communications” to visit a hidden valley that is a verdant paradise, where he has plenty of water — a commodity we’re led to believe is in short supply on the Earth because it’s being siphoned off to replenish makind on that distant moon — and has built a cabin, filled with mementos that he has salvaged from the ruins of the planet. No explanation is given as to how he has created this water-filled paradise, nor are we informed how he manages to keep it from being detected by the all-knowing drone ships and their networked information from the orbiting space station. It exists as a rather obvious plot device, outside of common sense and reason.

Beyond Cruise, the other members of the cast, which includes Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Zoe Bell, are given only a small range in which to play, which they handle ably. Claudio Miranda, who just won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, brings a similar bright look to the film, which has a relatively small amount of green-screen work. Kosinski and Miranda previously made Tron: Legacy together, which was a similar visual treat.

In only his outing as a feature film director, Joseph Kosinski proves that is more than capable as a world-builder. But he has yet to demonstrate a commensurate vision as far as his characters or stories are concerned. Oblivion is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go as far as it thinks it does.

Oblivion opens April 19, wide across the Metroplex. The only giant-sized, true IMAX location where it is playing is at the Cinemark 17 in Dallas.

Review: ‘Rock of Ages’ Sings a Familiar Tune

'Rock of Ages'
‘Rock of Ages’

Do you love cover bands? Do you love karaoke? Do you love musicals? And, most important, do you love 80s hair-band power ballads?

If so, then Rock of Ages is probably right up your alley. Director Adam Shankman, who has specialized in cheerful populist entertainment throughout his career — including the musical adaptation Hairspray and the broad comedy Bringing Down the House — delivers musical numbers well-designed for the big screen, tightly edited in a blitzkrieg fashion that would make any modern action thriller proud.

The screenplay, credited to Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2), Chris D’Arienzo (Barry Munday), and Allan Loeb (The Dilemma, Just Go With It), is based on the long-running stage musical (book by D’Arienzo), and opens up the action to a degree.

The setting is The Bourbon Room, a venerable Hollywood hotspot owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and run with the assistance of the loyal Lonny (Russell Brand). Lately the club has fallen on hard times, and Dennis is counting on the final gig by the legendary band Arsenal, managed by tough cookie Paul Gill (Paul Giammti), to pump up his coffers. Arsenal’s notoriously unreliable leader, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), is breaking up the band to go solo.

The club is also under attack from newly-elected Mayor Mike Whitemore (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The framing device is the romantic relationship of Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), an aspiring singer and recent arrival from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), an aspiring singer and waiter at the club.

In their supporting roles, Baldwin and Brand are snappy and eminently watchable. Their delivery is better than most of their material, but they are such seasoned comedic performers that it’s a pleasure to watch them whenever they appear.

The same cannot be said for the young Ms. Hough and Mr. Boneta. Granted that they are intended to represent the classic archetypes of wholesome Middle America, but they are so bland and vanilla that they tend to disappear into the backdrop rather than sizzle in the lead, as required.

Yet they fare better than Cruise, who is the Jar Jar Binks of the production. He is meant to be a charismatic performer, a sexual god who makes women faint at the sight of him. A portion of that is meant to be over the top, but Cruise is a humorless performer, and the film stops dead whenever he is “acting” dramatic. With his eyes hooded with heavy eye shadow, his age is apparent, and it seems to be a deliberate choice, to emphasize that he’s lost his edge and is slowly tumbling toward oblivion. Everyone is oblivious to the idea that Stacee Jaxx is past his prime, however; he’s still treated as though he’s the bee’s knees.

That speaks to the crux of the film: its effectiveness depends almost entirely upon your reaction to the concept and the music.

For me, the late 80s represents a wasteland era in popular music, a time when adult-oriented radio took hold across the nation’s airwaves and the soul was sucked out of rock ‘n’ roll. Watching Rock of Ages, therefore, is akin to a personal nightmare in which my remote control breaks during an endless episode of VH1’s “I Love the 80s — the Hair-Band Power Ballad Edition.”

Even if the musical aspect of the musical could be put aside, though — admittedly, an impossible proposition — there’s the matter of the cover-band flavoring. In essence, all we have here are secondhand versions of traditional favorites, without the kick that might come from hearing everything live. None of the performances stand on their own; they’re overly-dependent on nostalgia.

As noted, however, some people love cover bands and this particular brand of music and may look forward to humming along with songs like “Sister Christian” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and the like, in which case: Help yourself.

Rock of Ages opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, June 15.

Review: ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’

Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' (Paramount)
Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' (Paramount)

The fourth installment of the spy series is the best yet, a smashing combination of bravura action sequences, comic jousting, and revenge-minded character drama. And it looks spectacular in IMAX.

Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, a secret agent who begins the movie locked up in an Eastern European prison. Quickly he rejoins former teammate Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who has qualified for field work during Hunt’s imprisonment, and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), an agent with a score to settle. Their first mission together is to crack the Kremlin in search of something vitally important to national security. Things go wrong, of course, the Kremlin suffers a mighty explosion, and Hunt’s team is framed for the crime.

As a result, the President orders the entire covert Impossible Mission Force (IMF) disavowed, putting the team into “Ghost Protocol.” They are joined by high-level analyst Brant (Jeremy Renner), who only survives a deadly attack thanks to Hunt.

The mechanics of the plot are set up swiftly and efficiently, initially establishing a clear motive for Carter, and later providing motivation for Hunt and Brant. The film goes easy on the melodrama, however, never forgetting that its main mission is to entertain with outlandish action sequences.

Director Brad Bird, who first came to prominence with the terrific and heartwarming animated picture ‘The Iron Giant,’ subsequently won Academy Awards for his work on ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille.’ While he may seem an odd choice to helm a big-budget, live-action blockbuster sequel, it makes perfect sense if you consider ‘The Incredibles’ as an action movie.

Like ‘The Incredibles,’ ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ boasts multiple action sequences that are defined by their fluid choreography. We always know who’s involved, where they are in physical relation to each other, and where they are in relation to the geography of the setting. That means the stakes are higher, and it pushes the tension level up, all because we can see clearly what’s happening and we know what will happen if a suspect is lost, for example.

The script, credited to Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (and reportedly based on a treatment by the uncredited J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise), builds on the spy-chase-grab framework with good team interplay. Unlike previous installments, the new movie places a refreshing emphasis on the importance of teamwork — and on the reality of things going wrong from time to time, and the need to improvise in the field. That gives the movie a more humane grounding, even as the action frequently takes flight into the world of unbelievable fantasy.

Yet it’s all convincing, faux-reality in the service of mass-market entertainment, and it never insults the audience. ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ is an unadulterated pleasure.

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ opens today only in IMAX theaters — which is the preferred format — before expanding wide next Wednesday, December 21 across the Metroplex.