Film Reviews: Action Abstractions, Or Setpiece ‘Stravaganza

May 2, 2016



Transformers: Age Of Extinction / Directed by Michael Bay / PGLV                          2

San Andreas / Directed by Brad Peyton / 13V                                                              5

Jupiter Ascending / Directed by the Wachowskis / PGLV                                            3

Hercules / Directed by Brett Ratner / 13V                                                                    6

Mad Max: Fury Road / Directed by George Miller / PGV                                             7.5

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation / Directed by Christopher McQuarrie / 13V       7.5


As a concept, the “blockbuster” doesn’t really exist anymore. Even franchise fanboy fare such as the Star Wars films don’t get people queuing down the street anymore – that privilege is reserved for the launch of the new iWhatever…

Nevertheless, the style of film for which the term was coined – big and brash, with unlikely setpieces in which everything bar the protagonists are destroyed – is in rude health, at least in terms of the numbers in which such movies are being made.

That vast boatloads of cash are routinely spent on such productions is guaranteed. That any sort of return in terms of critical acclaim will result is much less certain.

One man immune to concerns about such matters is Michael Bay, whose Transformers: Age Of Extinction is so preposterously over the top that it is better suited to being the basis of a drinking game – down the contents of your glass every time Mark Wahlberg looks dolefully into the middle distance, say, or pass your shooter to the left every time a Dinobot flattens a skyscraper. Any semblance of a plot or even a vaguely structured narrative is thrust to one side early on because it would get in the way of important explosions. Stanley Tucci does his reputation no good at all by hamming his way through his role as a villainous businessman, but frankly, by the end of the whole over-wrought affair, you’ll worry about reviving your affection for him on another day.

Dwayne Johnson is another actor stretching his onscreen credibility. There’s no questioning the man’s work ethic and the resulting earning power, but if, like so many action heroes, he wants at some point to make the switch from roles that require little more than the flexing of his massive muscles to increasingly intellectual options, he’ll need to put the likes of Hercules and San Andreas behind him. That’s not to say that these offerings don’t have strengths worth celebrating, though. Hercules is a pleasingly epic sword and sandals number that, though it relies rather too heavily on obvious CGI help, leaps along at a diverting pace and, like the Greek myths on which it is based, packs in dozens of fantastical characters and creatures to keep viewers absorbed. San Andreas has all the tropes expected of a disaster movie: a hero who needs an opportunity to redeem himself, an unavoidable catastrophe – the eponymous fault line is getting ready to blow, and blow big – and untold trillions in special effects budgets. Thanks to that money and expertise, the piece looks incredible, with San Francisco’s demise looking about as realistic as Hollywood choreography can make it. No mental engagement is required, but your heartrate will rise occasionally.

The problem with making a more or less timeless game-changer like The Matrix is that everything you do after that will be held to the same standard. Realistic filmgoers won’t necessarily expect you to achieve that, but still, Jupiter Ascending, directed by the Wachowskis, is not a great effort. As with all of their major titles bar that first Matrix story, the plot is hopelessly, needlessly overcomplicated. It involves a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she is, unknowingly, part of an intergalactic scheme that involves alien powers harvesting Earth’s life forms (that’s about as simple a distillation as you’re going to get) and if she plays her part, she can save the universe from the tyranny of an unstable rogue named Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, shouting a lot). Large parts of the story feel extraneous, though no expense is spared on making them look otherworldly and science fiction-appropriate. Ultimately, among all the hubris – on the part of both the filmmakers and many of the characters – there’s simply nothing to engage with emotionally. Channing Tatum on hover-boots may distract temporarily, but beyond that…nah.

Mad Max: Fury Road is that rare animal: an all-action speed-fest that’s wormed its way into the hearts of almost every critic who’s reported on it. Part of that is likely down to the peculiar appeal of all the Mad Max movies (this is the fourth), in which aggressive nutters chase other aggressive nutters and the only way you can tell the good guys from the bad is by the relative distortion of their faces when they leer. The bulk of the acclaim, though, has been earned by more mainstream input, in particular the cinematography and make-up involved in bringing to life a dystopian society in which water is scarce and integrity scarcer still. The bulk of the screen time is taken up with battles between the rebellious Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her allies (who include the title character, with Tom Hardy in the role that Mel Gibson built his early reputation on) and everyone else, and the composition of these scenes is breathtaking. Everything happens on the move, in cars that look like hell’s hot-rods, so the stunt work is spectacular and the props incredibly detailed. There’s heart amid the heat and hustle, too, and Theron and Hardy are good enough actors to ensure that the more emotional themes are strongly communicated without for a moment slowing the pace of the whole breakneck business. An impressive piece of filmmaking without much of a plot.

A film with much more in the way of a storyline, and the predictable elements of a long-running franchise (in this case, Tom Cruise will spend time both running fast and riding a motorbike; there will be much fringe-flapping as he does so; he will at some point hang on to something at a perilous height or speed; and there will be space-age gadgets to help him get out of tough spots) is Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the fifth in the hugely successful neither-Bond-nor-Bourne spy thriller series. As ever, there is a shady international criminal organisation for Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his cronies to counter, and the challenge this time around is that said organisation – The Syndicate – comprises exclusively other highly trained secret agents, so some extra imagination is required. In addition, Hunt’s own outfit is being shut down by the US government, so he becomes a wanted man from all sides. It may be that audiences have become used to the convoluted plot structures after three films, but in Rogue Nation, it’s easier to enjoy the gala scenes without being distracted by minor side threads than it has been in the past. Along with this, there are some sumptuous sequences set in new, creative contexts, including the lighting rig in an opera house. A great cast – Jeremy Renner, Alec Baldwin, Simon Pegg and the rather lovely Rebecca Ferguson – enjoy the ride, adding cocky tongue-in-cheek humour to the mix. A well-balanced, high-octane package.