Cruise continues to thrill with Dead Reckoning
I suppose there is an exception to every rule. The law of diminishing returns states that "benefits from something will grow proportionally smaller as more energy is invested in it." Inexplicably, every sequential entry of the Mission: Impossible franchise disproves this notion, each a testament to the imagination and tenacity of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and megastar Tom Cruise. They seemingly paint themselves into a corner with each sequel, executing one gasp-inducing action sequence after another, each seemingly incapable of being topped. And yet, they continue to provide one showstopping moment after another, the latest chapter, Dead Reckoning: Part One, containing set pieces that confirm we are in the midst of the golden age of action films.
While the plot is made to seem more complicated than it actually is, like many of these movies, it all revolves around a simple MacGuffin – a key that is composed of two parts, one in possession of Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his Impossible Missions Force, the other held by an unknown person with nefarious intentions. It goes without saying that this key will pass through many hands in many different countries before all the chaos subsides.
Along the way, we are introduced to some new players in this world of globe-trotting espionage, most notably Grace (Hayley Atwell), a master thief who sets her sights on the key and manages to get her hands on part of it. Meanwhile, Esai Morales assumes the role of Gabriel, a mysterious figure from our hero's past who knows how to get under his skin and, of course, is after the key as well. The franchise stalwarts are also on hand, Ving Rhames' Luther and Simon Pegg's Benji ably providing comic relief, while Rebecca Ferguson returns as the steely-eyed assassin, Ilsa Faust.
As for the action, it's pretty spectacular. The opening sequence involving a desert chase during a sandstorm, as well as a game of cat-and-mouse that occurs across various airport terminals are prime examples of expertly choreographed scenes that depend as much on the movement of the actors and cameras as the post-production editing. These are just warm-ups for a blistering chase sequence on the streets of Rome and the climax on the Orient Express. The spirit of Buster Keaton is alive and well in both these set pieces. As funny as they are thrilling, each steadily builds until they reach absurd proportions, so much so that I half-expected ACME anvils to start raining from the sky. The chase is one of the best sequences of the year, Hunt and Grace on the run, handcuffed together, eventually trying to drive a tiny yellow Fiat that's dwarfed by a menacing, black Hummer and a battalion of cops.
In the end, the success of the film, both in terms of it being an effective cautionary tale and relentless thrill machine, rests on Cruise's shoulders. He willingly and enthusiastically sets the tone in these movies and his go-for-broke work ethic is to be commended. Knowing it's him riding a motorcycle off a cliff and freefalling at a wrinkle-smoothing rate lends an authenticity to the production that no amount of greenscreen work can match. The movie-going experience is precious to him, and with last year's Top Gun: Maverick and back-to-back Mission: Impossible features, Cruise has taken it upon himself to make sure it endures by providing the sort of entertainment that makes our going to the theater worthwhile. Time and again, he lives up to the high expectations he sets for himself, creating his own brand of cinematic spectacle. And to think, he doesn't have to don a cape to do so. In theaters.
Red effectively closes the door on Insidious franchise
Patrick Wilson's Insidious: The Red Door, the final part in the horror franchise, manages not simply to rehash elements from previous entries but explores more deeply its key themes while delivering an emotionally charged conclusion to the Lambert family saga. Though the first-time director allows things to sag a bit in the middle, overall, this is an effective thriller that provides some genuine scares for horror fans as well as a solid exploration of its subtext.
Events pick up some 10 years after the events of the second film in the series, though things are far from rosy. Josh's (Wilson) mother, Lorraine (Barbra Hershey) has died, and her funeral is the awkward meeting place for the Lambert clan. Josh and Renai (Rose Byrne) have divorced, and as a result their eldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), harbors a deep resentment toward his father. Going off to college, the young man is a bit of an outcast, yet expresses himself forcefully through his art. An in-class exercise, in which the students are encouraged to draw something plucked from their memories, prompts Dalton to furiously render a picture of a red door, for reasons he cannot comprehend. Meanwhile, complaining that his memory is foggy, Josh submits to some tests to chart his brain activity. This too, elicits some disturbing events from his subconscious that cause him to question his sanity.
What Josh and Dalton don't realize is that after their journey into the Further – a haunted realm populated by tortured souls accessed through astral projection – some 10 years prior, they were both hypnotized and told to forget about this experience. At the core of the Insidious films have been the themes of guilt and denial, both of which severely affect Josh's mental health and now his son's. The narrative conceit that the sins of the father will be visited upon the son is the engine that drives the story, obviously through the conflict that exists between Josh and Dalton but from another surprising source as well, one that hearkens back to the original film and allows for closure for both the characters and the franchise.
To be sure, the Insidious movies will never be mistaken for works of great originality. However, what James Wan and Leigh Whannell have done from the beginning is produce, on modest budgets, well-crafted, old-fashioned fright films that provide effective jolts using the most basic cinematic tools and techniques, along with just enough thematic heft to elevate them above the usual genre fare. Wilson should be commended for continuing this tradition, The Red Door being a fitting swan song. In theaters.