Doing Your Own Stunts

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In a film season marked — or marred — by sequels, remakes, and television upgrades, two films characterized by old-fashioned filmmaking provide the most fun to be had in a movie theater this summer. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation puts the superheroes to shame, with thrilling action sequences, snappy dialogue, satisfying storytelling, and palpable rapport among the cast members. Add to this director Christopher McQuarrie’s decision to have Tom Cruise perform most of his own stunts (and Cruise’s obvious glee in performing them) and you have easily the best big film of the summer.

Once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

This is the fifth in the Mission: Impossible series, each with a different director and each creating its own ambience. The original MI (1996) was dark and foreboding, while this one, although it has its share of menace and torture, is more lighthearted and campy, thanks in large part to the presence of Benji Dunn (comedian Simon Pegg), the techno geek who has been pulled reluctantly into field service in the last three films.

As this story opens, the Impossible Missions Force is being absorbed by the CIA for wreaking havoc around the world while trying to save it, and all IMF agents have been called in. MI fans will get a kick out of references to capers in earlier films as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) makes his case before a congressional committee. However, Ethan (Cruise) is hot on the trail of The Syndicate, the ghostly supervillain organization that dogs him in every episode, and he refuses to come in. Yes, once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world (and his own skin) by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again.

His biggest quandary comes from beautiful and mysterious double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who helps him in one scene and tries to kill him in the next. Is she a double agent or a triple agent? Or a quadruple agent? We don’t know, and that keeps us engaged. Her name gives us a clue — has she indeed made a pact with the devil? A Swedish beauty who looks a lot like Ingrid Bergman and channels Bergman’s cool charm, Ferguson plays the role flawlessly, with just the right mix of passion, pathos, and power.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again, with stunts that are performed by the actors themselves, not by stunt doubles, and not by computer geeks in post-production. Yes, that really is Tom Cruise hanging sideways from the door of an Airbus A400 M, sans parachute or wires, while it flies at full speed as much as 5,000 feet from the ground. Yes, that’s him again speeding recklessly through narrow streets and down the steep steps of a foreign town while being chased by bad guys with guns. That’s him again, leaning so far into the curve from his high-speed motorcycle on a winding mountain road that his knee nearly skims the pavement. It’s so refreshing to see his face in these exciting scenes, instead of the telltale hat that actors usually don that signals “Here comes the stunt double” in most action films. It has been almost 20 years since the first MI episode, but Cruise still has it.

Add to all of this the soaring score of Puccini’s Turandot mixed with Lalo Schifrin‘s iconic Mission Impossible theme, and you have the perfect summer popcorn flick.

Another film that shines as much for its filmmaking as for its storytelling is Mad Max: Fury Road, which premiered in late spring and is still in theaters. It is easily my favorite film of the year so far. OK, the characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.

What you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre.

I reviewed Road Warrior for Liberty in March, after seeing a special screening of a remastered version hosted by director George Miller at the gigantic Paramount Theater at SXSW. I pointed out some of the characteristics that made RW so unusual, including its linear filming strategy (Miller filmed each scene in order, from beginning to end), crazy S&M costuming, and souped-up classic cars, live stunts that produced eye-popping heart-in-the-mouth gasps from the audience, and an implied but unstated mythology and backstory for the characters. The story couldn’t be simpler: a lone hero travels through a dystopian future searching for fuel, food, and survival while avoiding marauding bands of violent scavengers. He encounters a community of people who need his help. Will this humanize him, or will he continue on his isolated journey to nowhere?

I wondered: could a new version filmed more than 30 years later using CGI special effects and modern action-movie expectations possibly measure up to the live-action craziness of the original film?

Not to worry. Miller chose to eschew CGI and stay true to his original film process, including a heavily storyboarded linear film schedule, multiple homages to the original film and characters, and live action stunts, even in the most harrowing chase scenes. He did use a few computerized magic tricks, but they were reserved for things like changing Charlize Theron’s arm into a prosthetic device and air brushing the stunt rigging out of scenes. For the most part, what you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre, with wild characters swooping down on their victims by means of giant flexible poles, drivers spraying their mouths with chrome war paint, and a crazy electric guitarist riding on the front of the lead truck like a revolutionary drummer boy, spewing heavy metal and fiery flames all at once. The music inFury Road isn’t classic opera, à la MI’s Turandot, but its thundering soundtrack blares an anthem nonetheless.

Granted, Fury Road isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t take my mother. Heck, I wouldn’t even take my husband. But for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation," directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Bad Robot Films, 2015, 131 minutes; and "Mad Max: Fury Road," directed by George Miller. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015, 120 minutes.



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The Dirty War

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How much would you be willing to do for your children? Would you give up a good career to be a stay-at-home parent? Go into debt for college? Donate a kidney? How about joining a drug cartel to keep your child out of prison?

Based on a true story, Snitch offers an inside look at the drug war, and what we see isn’t pretty. A system that forces people to lie, snitch, and entrap their friends in order to avoid severe jail time is nothing to be proud of. According to the film, the US has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with 25% of all prisoners worldwide residing behind our bars.

Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) is a typical high school senior. He has a girlfriend, he’s applying for college, and he’s trying to fit in. When his best friend Craig (James Allen McCune) skypes from overseas and asks him to accept a FedEx package, Jason is torn between pleasing his friend and not wanting to get involved in something so risky. Mailing drugs from foreign countries has become the transportation of choice since airport security became more stringent. Jason doesn’t agree, but the next day, the package arrives anyway — along with a federal tracking device and about a dozen armed DEA agents. It turns out that Craig was caught mailing the drugs, and in order to get a reduction in his mandatory sentence, he said that Jason was planning to distribute the drugs.

Now Jason is offered the same deal. He faces a mandatory ten years in prison, but if he will snitch on someone else, his sentence will be reduced to two years. Shorter if he fingers someone big. The only problem is, Jason is a good kid. He doesn’t do drugs. The only person he knows who does drugs is Craig, and the feds already have Craig.

“Get someone to sell to you, and we’ll give them the same offer,” the feds tell him. “That’s the way it works.” Mandatory sentencing is not designed for punishment or rehabilitation of the offender; it’s not even designed to get users off the streets. It’s designed to get offenders to snitch. “That’s how we work our way to the top,” the feds tell them. Snitches “pay it forward” until a big one gets caught.

Jason’s parents are desperate to get their son out of this situation. “Take the deal!” they tell him.

“I can’t set someone up!” Jason says. He’s scared, but he’s adamant. “You’re asking me to do this to someone else! I won’t do it.” You gotta admire that. Jason is, as I said, a good kid. But drug enforcement officers are anything but good. The so-called war on drugs is all about entrapment and deceit.

Jason’s dad, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) is a successful business owner of a construction company. He has some connections on the local police force and he knows a couple of judges. But it doesn’t do him any good. The trouble with federalmandatory sentencing laws is that they are mandatory. Local judges have no authority to use judgment. Only the feds can offer a deal, and deals are only made to snitches.

The US has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with 25% of all prisoners worldwide residing behind our bars.

US Attorney Joanne Keegan (Susan Sarandon) has no problem with the ethics of turning people into snitches. “I believe in the mandatory minimums,” she says. “We’re fighting a war on drugs, and the violence they cause.” But the violence is caused by the illegality of the drugs, not the drugs themselves. If drugs were legalized, most of the crime and violence associated with them would go away.

This point is made subtly early in the film, when Jason is first arrested. His mother (Melina Kanakaredes) waits outside, puffing on a cigarette. When John goes home, he pours himself a scotch. These are drugs too, but they are legal. Consequently, their use doesn’t lead to violent crimes and turf warfare. Yes, there are externalities that merit certain regulations; you have the right to smoke and drink whatever you want, as long as you avoid violating another person's reasonable right to privacy and safety. Reasonable regulation leads to reasonable use. John drinks a scotch in the evening, but when he goes to work the next day, he drives an 18-wheeler and runs a successful business.

Eventually John offers himself as the snitch in the place of his son. Keegan agrees that if he will go undercover and catch a drug dealer — any drug dealer! — she will reduce Jason’s sentence to one year. From this moment forward the film becomes what we expect from “The Rock” (Dwayne Johnson’s screen name and WWE moniker before he had children and started making family-friendly films like Tooth Fairy [2010] and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island [2012]), with plenty of bulging muscles, steely glares, blazing guns, car chases, and crashes.

The film tries to maintain John’s heroic stature by portraying “his” drug dealers as dirty, vindictive, dangerous criminals. But he needs an introduction to that underworld, and toget it he sets up an ex-con who works for him. He does the very thing that his son refused to do. There is just no way to stay clean in the dirty business of the war against drugs.

Snitch is intense and exciting, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill action film. It is an important film about how the federal government is destroying lives in its relentless and futile attempt to stop the use of illegal drugs. Drug laws destroy lives. The drug war destroys lives. It’s time we end the war and recognize that drug abuse is a medical problem, not a legal problem.


Editor's Note: Review of "Snitch," directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 112 minutes.



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