The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

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I killed someone! I killed someone! Thirty-year old Audrey Stockton (Mila Kunis) is a drab woman living in LA who has just been dumped – by text! – by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux).  Best friend Morgan Freeman (Kate McKinnon) is trying to cheer her up on a night out. They vow to burn the shit he left behind in the apartment the women share. Drew calls her while he’s on a job – which involves killing people. He reappears and admits to Audrey that he’s CIA, it emerges he is a secret agent as bullets fall around them, and with his dying breath after being shot by a Ukrainian that Morgan picked up at the bar, he asks that Audrey go to Vienna to fulfill his mission and save countless lives. He gives her a Fantasy Football trophy and instructs her to meet someone called Verne at the Cafe Schiel in Vienna. The women have never been to Europe and when another secret agent, the dashing English Sebastian (Sam Heughan), gets involved it becomes less clear who the goodies and baddies really are. But the gals have been bitten by the spy bug, and are determined to save those countless lives all the same especially since it means travelling to Prague, Budapest, Paris and Berlin. Inadvertently they find they have skills that come in handy when they’re being tortured by deranged criminals. They are tagged by hitwoman/model/gymanst Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) who’s umbilically attached to her balance beam and winds up looking like The Terminator … What can I say? I didn’t even know this existed before yesterday and I just saw one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while. And that includes the slowest getaway in movie history (it’s a stick shift…)  followed by a brilliant car and bike chase that just might the wackiest since … Wacky Races. This starts with a chase in Lithuania and after dirty tricks in LA plays out in Eastern Europe before swiftly migrating to safer soil in France and Berlin – so we’re back in comfortable old Cold War territory. There’s a double-double cross with that suspect but super-handsome English agent and his co-worker Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) and some straight up objectifying adoration of their boss Wendy (Gillian Anderson) by hero-worshipping Morgan who realises she is ‘a little much’. Mother, did you get the two dick pics I sent you? This knows its spy tropes but it also knows female friendship and they’re a contrasting pair: McKinnon is the OTT over-sharing feminist actress (who’s trained in trapeze at the New Jersey Circus School!) to Kunis’ organic food store worker straight woman and she’s kinda great. She gets to act out in a zany way that wasn’t visible in the Ghostbusters retread and makes this work. The more honed script here lets her loose in a controlled and satisfying form that pays dramatic dividends – her action finale is fabulous. Kunis’ role suffers somewhat as a result of the climactic sequence but there’s a payoff in the credits (stay to watch them).  With Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser at the end of a phone to offer endless support to their needy daughter Morgan, an extraordinarily good ‘Edward Snowden’ scene (he had a thing for Morgan back in camp), this has comic chops, a lot of rude elements, actual toilet humour and some very dodgy songs on the soundtrack. It may be a spoof and follow in the big boots left by Melissa McCarthy in the hilarious Spy but it’s the most violent one I can recall and is like the souped-up Interrail trip you really wish you had taken the year you did Yerp. With, y’know, grenades and guns and thumbs and stuff. Completely daft and occasionally hilarious and never, ever dull! Written and directed by Susanna Fogel, with David Iserson on co-writing duties.  Oh my God, it’s a stick shift! Do you know how to drive a stick shift? / No!  / How do you change gear?  / What’s a gear? / Abort! Abort Mission! Go!

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Red Sparrow (2018)

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The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

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You go rogue, he’s been authorized to hunt you down and kill you.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF team (Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Simon Pegg returns as Benji) join forces with CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to prevent a disaster of epic proportions. Arms dealer John Lark and a group of terrorists known as the Apostles plan to use three plutonium cores for a simultaneous nuclear attack on the Vatican, Jerusalem and Mecca, Saudi Arabia. When the weapons go missing, Ethan and his crew find themselves in a desperate race against time to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands but Ethan finds himself up against his number one enemy weaselly Solomon Kane (Sean Harris) the man who haunts his dreams and threatens everyone in his orbit, with Ethan’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) the target.  He is saved (again!) by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own mission, while the CIA believe he has forged the identity of John Lark to go rogue himself and he is literally believed to be his own worst enemy. Meanwhile, the future of half the planet is at stake …  All is well with the world, we are back under Cruise control. Nobody is who they say they are, but these days, that’s normal. Double negatives, two faces, whatever. There’s not one but four brilliant women – Rebecca Ferguson is back as the cooler than thou MI6 agent who gets to save the Cruiser again and join the team, ad hoc; Michelle Monaghan shows up, most unexpectedly, in a plot that has emotional heft but wears it effortlessly;  Angela Bassett is Erica Sloan, head of the CIA. And Vanessa Kirby is a shiny-eyed thrill seeking go-between who looks delighted with herself.  There’s an addition to the team and a heroic sacrifice.  There are two hand-to-hand combat scenes that are up there with the best of them. There are not two but three street chases – two through Paris, some of the most realistic I’ve seen since The French Connection and then – and then! – there’s a helicopter chase in the Himalayas! What’s the opposite of climbing? Falling? There’s some of that too.  Ethan Hunt is a man tormented and moral and the guy who holds it together. The arrangement of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme by Lorne Balfe is stunning.  I don’t like some of the photography by Rob Hardy but the use of locations including London and Paris is breathtaking. And there’s the cities that are blown up … or not. It’s all written with tongue firmly in cheek until things get down and dirty and serious. Confused? Feverish? Sweaty palms? Well if you want to stay that way and then some you have got to see this. Simply sensational. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Our Man in Marrakesh (1966)

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Aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!  I just came here to build a hotel.  One of six travellers who catch the bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh is carrying $2 million to pay a powerful local man Mr Casimir (Herbert Lom) to fix a vote at the United Nations on behalf of an unnamed nation. But not even the powerful man knows which of them it is – and his background checks reveal that at least three of them aren’t who they claim to be. As agents from other nations may be among them, he and his henchmen have to be very careful until the courier chooses to reveal himself – or herself. One of them is Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) who is in Morocco to finance a hotel but he seems the most likely prospect. On the bus, he encounters the lovely Kyra Stanovy (Senta Berger) who soon appears to be another dubious individual. When Jessel’s briefcase gets mixed up with Casimir’s the chase is on across rooftops and through bazaars and Jessel and Kyra are thrown together when a corpse materialises in his wardrobe – but what is she really up to aside from being a rather too lovable mod femme fatale? … The mid-Sixties spy spoof sub-genre or Eurospy movie continues apace with this picturesque travelogue, boasting some of my fave film faces including Klaus Kinski as the white-suited Jonquil, Casimir’s creepy little henchman, who gets a great entrance in the titles sequence, Grégoire Aslan as Achmed, a Moroccan trucker, Wilfred Hyde-White as Arthur Fairbrother, a likely courier for Red China and of course the indubitable Terry-Thomas as the Oxbridge educated El Caid, a very useful intermediary. There’s even John Le Mesurier as another would-be go-between for the Communists and Burt Kwouk, who has the tiny role of hotel clerk. Margaret Lee appears as the goofy lover of Casimir. Randall is an unlikely love interest and a hapless hero – don’t let the poster fool you – there’s no attempt to portray him as James Bond, he’s much more James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but this is a lot of fun with a corpse repeatedly turning up at the most inopportune moments. Berger is adorable as the compulsive liar. There’s a colourful score by Malcolm Lockyer. From producer Harry Alan Towers, this was co-written by him with Peter (The Liquidator) Yeldham and directed by Don Sharp.

Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983) (TVM)

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I’d left it too late. That’s the funny thing – everyone thinks they’re exempt. It’s 1974, and Barbara Dean (Judi Dench) is a British assistant manager and loan officer in a foreign bank in Saigon.  She’s something of a depressive and has to ward off the advances of her co-worker Donald (Roger Rees) while her narration informs us she has been a woman of secrets ever since having an affair with a friend of her father’s at a very young age. She meets an American Bob Chesneau (Frederic Forrest) at the end of a party one night when she’s waiting for a taxi home. She has fended off the interest of Frank (Wallace Shawn), a US Embassy officer with whom she plays bridge. She and Bob begin a relationship and she realises that he’s not a cultural attaché but he works for the CIA and knows that the fall of South Vietnam is very near because sources suggest the North Vietnamese are stepping up plans to take Saigon. Things are heating up at the bank when a member of the public comes in armed with a gun demanding all his money. Barbara delays planning her departure even when she’s helping the locals get passports for their own hasty exits. Bob tries to persuade his boss Jack Ockham (Josef Sommer) and the US Ambassador (E.G. Marshall) to evacuate the South Vietnamese who have been working for them but the Ambassador wants to appease President Thieu’s regime. Bob and Barbara’s relationship suffers under the strain …  Made for Thames TV, this is a real auteur work – an original teleplay by theatrical giant David Hare and directed by Stephen Frears the year before he made The Hit. Dench was likewise a lady of the theatre albeit with some TV in the bag but it was a long time before America discovered her properly in Goldeneye. If the direction feels a little clunky at times, and perhaps it’s due to both the low budget and the schematic constraints of Hare’s writing, there are some good elements. There’s a nice juxtaposition when the Jolly Green Giants swoop into the city and White Christmas is on the soundtrack – as Bob has said, When the radio stations play all Bing Crosby Americans know it’s the end.  This is a rather obvious trope but is used to signify that the US military are really out of their depth. There’s a nicely mounted tension and the intermittent meetings between the US Ambassador and the nervy hard-drinking Ockham, with Shawn’s character providing a kind of Greek chorus, add to the sense of fear. Spooky to think that of the cast it’s Judi Dench who went from strength to strength while the marvellous Forrest has been more or less retired for decades. I haven’t seen him since he played in John Frankenheimer’s last movie 16 years ago, coincidentally another TV movie about Nam, Path to War. Now that is a real injustice. I miss him. George Fenton’s score is nicely understated.

 

Ronin (1998)

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Lady I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.  IRA woman Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a team of ex-special ops men turned mercenaries in Paris to carry out a heist on a briefcase carrying some mysterious material. They include ex-CIA agent Frank (Robert DeNiro), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and French op Vincent (Jean Reno). They are joined by Englishman Spence (Sean Bean) and German Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard). Each has a special gift to bring to this party. Spence immediately thinks he knows Frank from somewhere and the narrative die is cast:  as each member of the heist team begins to distrust the other, the body count mounts and this travelogue (through the south of France) speeds at an exhilarating pace with amazing car chases punctuating the stylish action around Arles and Nice. Deirdre meets secretly with fellow IRA op Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) and while she is double-crossing the team their numbers are dwindling at the hands of the Russian mob whose path they cross. Added to the mix is the ice skater Natacha Kirilova (Katharina Witt) whose showcase becomes the venue for the penultimate showdown. J. D. Zeik’s story and screenplay received a major rewrite from David Mamet under the name Richard Weisz and this super smart heist thriller benefits from shrewd juxtaposition of action with gleaming character detail. Add to that beautiful cinematography, some of the best car stunts outside of Bullitt (with Sudduth doing most of his own driving) and spot-on performances and you have a cracking genre entertainment which at the time marked a major comeback for the amazing John Frankenheimer.  The francophile was making a return to the south of France for the first time since French Connection II.  It’s great to see Michael Lonsdale as a fixer whose interest in samurai supplies the story behind the title. The final revelation is both surprising and satisfying. And the contents of that briefcase?  Well you’ve seen enough Hitchcock films to figure it out for yourself in this homage to To Catch a Thief (the locations, natch). Fantastic stuff, brilliantly directed.

Lethal Weapon (1987)

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Where did you get him – Psychos R Us? Its Christmas in LA. A beautiful young blonde takes some pills and swan dives from a high rise apartment onto the roof of a parked car. Ageing police officer and family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) is newly paired with psychotically reckless widowed undercover cop and former Green Beret Marty Riggs (Mel Gibson) who has been suicidal and virtually homicidal since the death of his wife in a car crash. The dead girl is Amanda Hunsaker the daughter of an acquaintance of Murtaugh’s from Nam. Her pills were drugged with drain cleaner so she would have been dead within 15 minutes one way or another. After a shootout with Amanda’s pimp, Murtaugh figures the reason his friend was trying to contact him in the days before Amanda’s death was because he wanted to rat out his colleagues in a heroin smuggling ring dating back to their days in Air America, the CIA front for smuggling in Laos and they likely killed the girl as a warning. The group is led by General McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) whose enforcer Jack Joshua (Gary Busey) is a violent psychotic who meets his match in Marty Riggs and when he captures him it’s torture  … Shane Black’s screenplay caused a sensation when it sold for megabucks back in the day.  It has some uncredited work done by Jeffrey Boam because the original was much darker than what we see here. Sure it’s a trashy loud violent action buddy movie but its real strength is the bed of emotions played by Glover and Gibson, two well-matched actors who have charisma to burn and were ingeniously cast by the legendary Marion Dougherty. Murtaugh’s quandary as the father of a teenage daughter is amplified by his Nam buddy’s heartache over his daughter’s plight and motivates him to pursue the conspirators (and is also a significant plot point); while Riggs’s deranged grief is understandable to anyone who’s bereaved:  his rooftop rescue of a jumper is breathtaking.  The deadpan style is emphasised when Murtaugh is warned by a police psychiatrist after the fact about what could happen when Riggs blows. The treatment of the suicide storyline is extremely well written. It’s all about how these guys choose to express their feelings and confront their fears while carrying out their duties in this smart and funny slambang sensation which is so sharply directed by Richard Donner. It has visual and narrative energy in abundance: Donner makes his usual visual jokes about where he places his credit and puts The Lost Boys on a cinema marquee and the film is dedicated to stuntman Dar Robinson who died after production. This was the first in a long-running franchise and three years later Gibson starred in Air America a film about those very merry pranksters who are the villains here Produced by Joel Silver.

American Made (2017)

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A jaunty trip from the Deep South into and around Central and South America tracing the evolution of the drugs trade in the US with a little assistance from the CIA who blackmailed TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) over his illegal importing of Cuban cigars back in the day. He soon finds himself taking photographs on reconnaissance flights when he’s hired by ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson) an agent who’s getting all the kudos for these dangerous incursions – Barry’s shot at regularly over rebel training camps. Told from his point of view, talking to camera during December 1985 through February 1986 to account for how things have come to a pretty complicated pass, the comic book approach, particularly when it comes to how he’s hired by what would become the Medellin cartel (including Pablo Escobar), lends pace to what could otherwise be an utterly confusing story. He’s done for drug dealing – disavowed – rehired by the CIA – rehired by the cartel – involved in bringing in terrorists to train for a revolution initiated by  Washington – and makes a shedload of money which is eventually threatened by his dumb brother in law (Caleb Landry Jones). All pretty recent history in various territories. And then there’s the matter of Col. Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair. Seal, in other words, was the plaything of the CIA who nearly brought down Washington and there are some nice little cameos including a conversation with Junior ie Dubya not to mention a crucial call from Governor Bill Clinton. This is told in dazzling fashion with graphics and maps to illustrate the sheer nuttiness of the situation.  This is what was going on with the Sandinistas?! Cruise is wholly convincing as a good-time boy entering unknown territory with a breezy cavalier performance that is truly engaging in a crime story that has echoes of Catch Me If You Can in its tone. The speed with which Seal becomes a drugs and arms dealer is whiplash-inducing so the aesthetic of fast and loose is in keeping with the casual expedience of him, his family and eventually, his life. This is what happens when you train South Americans to supply drugs and kill (even if half the Contras went AWOL and kept well out of harm’s way once they got into the US). The clusterf**k that occurs when the CIA abandons Seal and the DEA, FBI, police and ATF turn up at his aerodrome in Mena simultaneously is a hoot and the aerial feats are phenomenal. An astonishing tale, told with verve.  Written by Gary Spinelli and directed by Doug Liman.

The November Man (2014)

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Pierce Brosnan had his eye on Bill Granger’s books for a number of years and acquired the rights to There Are No Spies (the seventh in the series) long before he brought it to the screen under the umbrella of his own production company.  Roger Donaldson is the man he hired to direct this pretty grim actioner set in eastern Europe and Russia about a betrayal in the ranks that brings retired CIA agent Peter Devereux (Brosnan) out in the open to try to rescue his former lover. It ultimately involves the kidnapping of Devereux’s young daughter – whom he had by the woman who is killed off in the first twenty minutes in a violent action sequence that clarifies that nobody is taking prisoners. The fact that his former protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) is now apparently on the opposite side of right causes all sorts of moral quandaries in a story concerning double-crossing and political expediency and rivalries.  It’s all about a former Russian General now in line to become President and the refugee case worker (Olga Kurylenko) who wants to expose him for very personal reasons that go back to the second Chechen war. That and a hatchet-faced Russian hitwoman (like Gisele Bundchen before the rhinoplasty) who has a nasty habit of shooting people in the head. There’s no doubt Brosnan was a fantastic James Bond – he played him as a dark character with some terrifically droll lines – but this is a humourless outing and the post-communist world does not look like a very attractive place. Another film has been announced but it would require a much defter hand than what’s on display here.  It was adapted by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek.