Tuesday, August 11, 2015

COP CAR Delivers Pulpy Awesomeness With a Side of Bacon

COP CAR Review:

- In the last few years, we've seen a string of modern-day, retro-styled grindhouse films that provide self-aware B-movie enjoyment. On the heels of movies like last year's Blue Ruin and The Guest, COP CAR is an awesome example of extreme cinema done right. It's got a fantastic central performance from Kevin Bacon as an unhinged, crooked cop. Its kid actors are surprisingly great. And it 100% delivers in terms of providing a tension-packed thriller designed to shock and entertain. If you're jonesing for some B-movie awesomeness, COP CAR is a total must-watch.

The film follows two ten-year-old boys - Travis and Harrison - who have run away from their homes and are now walking the open road in small-town America, somewhere in the barren, rocky plains of the northwest. Harrison is the quieter, more tentative one. Travis is the brattier one who eggs his friend on at every turn. Eventually, the two walk into the woods and discover an abandoned cop car. Being ten-year-old boys, they decide to take it for a joy ride. But what they don't know is that the car belongs to Bacon's tough-customer cop, Sheriff Kretzer - a guy who's got a lot of buried secrets. One of those secrets is locked up in the car's trunk. Soon, the boys find themselves in the middle of a deadly fetch-quest, as the Sheriff doggedly pursues them so as to get his car back.

Director Joe Watts really kills it here. Soon after the release of COP CAR, he was tapped as the director of the new Spider-Man movie - and you can see why. Working on a low budget, Watts positively packs this movie with tension you can cut with a knife. There is a fantastic scene where Bacon's Sheriff is trying to open a locked door with his looped shoelace. Watts uses a long take and just has you on the edge of your seat, wondering if Bacon will be able to hook the door lock with his makeshift rope. It's that kind of stuff that makes it clear that Watts is the real deal. I also love how he handles the kids in this movie - Travis and Harrison seem like real boys, which means that they are alternately funny, smart, dumb, and at times downright scary. I found myself cringing as they toyed with guns and knives and other weapons found in the cop car - wanting to scream out at their recklessness. Even the film's opening - with the two trying to top each other in a game of "how-many-curse-words-do-you-know?" is both funny and authentic-seeming.

Like I said, Bacon kills it. The mustache, the aviator glasses, the Texas accent - his drug-addled, screw-loose, ultra-intense cop is an instantly iconic cinematic creation. He alternates between preternatural calm and fits of rage, and he deals with the boys with a mix of bemusement and frustration. But what really raises the stakes is when Shea Wigham enters the picture as a criminal who's got a major beef with the Sheriff. Wigham - so great on shows like Boardwalk Empire - is pitch-perfect as a loose-cannon with an axe to grind. The kid actors are also really good - again, authentic is the word I would use to describe their performance.

To say too much about COP CAR is to spoil it - but that's what's so fun about this genre of film. I love movies that don't seem to follow any regular convention and just go for broke. And I love films that carry on the tradition of guys like John Carpenter, who created these cinematic experiences that were just brimming with atmosphere and tension and a palpable sense of danger and menace. COP CAR is over-the-top enough that it works great as a midnight movie, but it's also serious enough to feel like it's got real stakes and real emotional investment in the characters. Interestingly, I also think there's a lot going on beneath the surface here. There's a lot you can unpack from the film, in terms of what it's saying about manhood, about role models, about a harsh world that turns innocent boys into emotionally-scarred and violent men. I love that this movie has that element of thematic intelligence and depth - it works on a lot of different levels.

COP CAR is a small but hugely-effective thriller, and it marks a major debut from director Joe Watts. A must-watch for fans of badass cinema.

My Grade: A-

Monday, August 3, 2015



- The Mission Impossible movies have always been unique among modern action franchise films. There's nothing particularly memorable about their characters or plotlines, yet the franchise has consistently delivered solid - even great - action thrills via a series of talented directors and a star, in Tom Cruise, who is always absolutely driven to ensure that each MI film pushes the limits. Cruise - not his character Ethan Hunt - is the real star of Mission Impossible. He brings an intensity and physicality to these movies - even at age 50 - that few other modern-day action stars can approach. And in ROGUE NATION, Cruise is paired with a director who is similarly old-school in his approach to visceral action - Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie, both as a writer and director, has a knack for infusing movies with clockwork precision in story and action. In a franchise that's gone extreme via John Woo and over-the-top big via Brad Bird, McQuarrie brings things back down to earth - crafting a visceral film that makes sure that each action scene is tightly crafted and tells a story. In my mind, that makes ROGUE NATION the best in the series to date. While other MI movies tend to be entertaining but ultimately somewhat forgettable, ROGUE NATION'S cleverly choreographed action scenes have stuck with me over the last few weeks. This one was a great way to close out the summer blockbuster season - an old-school action movie that works on all levels.

The short version of ROGUE NATION's premise is that Cruise's Hunt is on the run and separated from his team. The Mission: Impossible unit has been disbanded by a government that finds it too much of a liability. But instead of coming home to roost, Hunt goes rogue - convinced that a top-secret organization called The Syndicate is pulling the strings from behind the scenes - taking out MI operatives and plotting various nefarious acts of global terror. Jeremy Renner's William Brandt - the MI government liason introduced in the last film - finds his hands tied by the government's blacklisting of the whole MI program, but he decides to help out Hunt in secret. As does Simon Pegg's ever-loyal tech expert Benji, and Ving Rhames' bruising weapons guru Luther. Hunt desperately tries to find the mysterious man behind the curtain of The Syndicate - the villainous Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), even as he runs afoul of femme fatale Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who may be working for The Syndicate, may be a double agent, or may have her own mysterious agenda.

So, a couple things to talk about there. The first is that McQuarrie does great things with the MI team. After five movies, this is the first one where I realized that I really dug this combo of actors and characters. McQuarrie infuses all of the team members with jolts of personality. I mean, sure, Pegg has the comic chops and charisma to make Benji entertaining regardless. But here, Benji is more than just comic relief - we really get insight into his friendship with /hero worship of Hunt - and there's an added emotional layer to the character. There's lots of great banter - and genuine tension - between Cruise, Pegg, Renner, and Rhames. Throw in Alec Baldwin as a melodramatic government suit at odds with Renner, and you've got lots of great character dynamics to play with.

I also really enjoyed Sean Harris as the villain. He's like Mike Myers' Dieter as the leader of a global criminal conspiracy. And man, the final confrontation between him and Hun is just ingeniously staged. But more than that, the way the villains are introduced here is just Action Movie Making 101. McQuarrie gives each of Harris' henchmen just enough personality to make every fight and chase feel personal.

But the biggest story here is clearly Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust (great character name, by the way). Begin your fan-casting for her in the role of every kick-ass female franchise part now, because she is flipping fantastic in ROGUE NATION. As much as we've seen the which-side-is-she-really-on? femme fatale done before, Ferguson owns the part in a way that's rare and noteworthy. In the past, we've seen female leads in the MI-verse that couldn't quite match Cruise's intensity and presence. But here, Ferguson proves herself to be the real deal. It helps that the film's script ultimately does right by her character - giving her an arc that ultimately makes sense, and emotional and dramatic stakes that matter. But you've also got to give credit to the presence and badassery of the actress bringing this character to life. Suffice it to say, there's a brutal fight scene towards the film's end in which a lesser movie would have sidelined Ilsa. But in ROGUE NATION, Ilsa is not only right in the middle of the fray, but she is a complete ninja.

To talk a little more about Cruise, I think we're all getting to the point where - whacked-out Scientology baggage aside - we've got to acknowledge Cruise as a modern cinematic treasure. The level of commitment the guy brings to these roles - whether it be via participating in insane stunts, or just in general with the ferocity and physicality of his acting - is unmatched. Cruise is one of the few actors who I'm basically okay watching play a version of himself. Not to say he can't also do great character roles. But what I'm saying is: I can forgive Ethan Hunt being sort of a blank slate, because really, we're here to watch the Cruise show. And what's sort of - again - ingenious about ROGUE NATION is how fully aware it is of that on a meta / script level. The movie's main themes - about Hunt being turned on by the cruel system that birthed him, and wondering if he should just chuck it all and disappear - nicely parallel Cruise's own story. In any case, Cruise 100% brings his A-game to this one, and it makes a difference.

Now, Cruise and McQuarrie had a nice little action-sleeper recently with Jack Reacher. But their skill-sets really sync perfectly here. ROGUE NATION has several standout set-piece action scenes that are just masterfully composed. I'm thinking about a gorgeously shot fight scene that takes place backstage at an opera house, as Hunt tangles with a Syndicate heavy atop suspended platforms that rise and fall depending on how they are weighted. I'm thinking about a nail-biting underwater sequence in which Hunt has to hold his breath while trying to open a computerized lock, all while giant rotors rotate around him, forcing him to dodge for his life. I'm thinking of a high-speed motorcycle chase that has you holding on to dear life in your seat. What makes these action scenes work so well? For one thing, each is big, elaborate - and yet, each is grounded in physics and logic and "rules." It's amazing how effective an action scene can be when we understand the physics of what's happening in a given moment - that's how you make something visceral. For another thing, each one tells a story. We understand what the characters are after, it's clear what the goal is, and we understand the underlying stakes. Again, it's movie-making 101, but it feels like a lost-art in today's blockbuster world.

My only complain with the film is that, occasionally, the tone feels a little off. McQuarrie tends towards the pulpy - which is cool - but I think that the movie occasionally has some dialogue and character stuff that serves as unintentional comic relief because it's so grandiose. Alec Baldwin, in particular, goes a little too Jack Donaghy in some places.

ROGUE NATION feels like a throwback - not because there's anything dated about it, but simply because it feels practical, real, and beholden to real-world logic even at its most extreme. This is the rare action movie that has you hanging on every punch, every leap, every bullet's trajectory.  The best Mission: Impossible movie and one of the summer's best.

My Grade: A-