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July 14, 2023

Reviews: The Sound of Freedom and Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One

Both are really good and I recommend both. Interestingly, both are also espionage thrillers. And both feature a hero who goes rogue, against the wishes of his government.

The Sound of Freedom is a frequently-upsetting, taut thriller about an investigator with DHS -- real life agent Tim Ballard -- who has burnout and secondary trauma due to his work busting pedophiles and peddler of child p0rn.

A coworker who is even more broken by the job than Ballard is asks him, "How many pedophiles have you busted?" Ballard gives the exact number. "And how many of the children have you recovered?" Ballard is silent, as the number is "zero."

He decides to do something about that.

The movie follows both Ballard and a very young brother and sister who have been abducted by child traffickers. The young actors cast for these roles are outstanding. They're heartbreakingly young -- one has just turned seven, the other is nine -- both are completely natural and convincing.

This movie drives it home that child exploitation doesn't just involve teenagers, but very little children.

I've mentioned it before, but don't let squeamishness about the crimes being committed by the villains keep you away from the movie. Yes, this is some tough stuff and you'll squirm through some scenes. But the movie has good judgment in showing just enough to make you understand the horror of child slavery, but not so much that you'll run out of the theater. No actual abuse of children is shown. For example, a pedophile talks to that very young seven year old boy about "spaceships" and other things that he thinks a seven year old boy will find charming. It's vile to see a middle-aged man talking about spaceships to get a little kid to like him. But they don't show more than that. The movie shows the preparatory steps of the abuse, and the monstrous intent behind their actions, but not the terrible deeds themselves.

After tracing an abducted child, Ballard realizes there are just too many exploited children. Tens of thousands of them. And that finding them one by one just isn't enough. He concocts a plan to induce the traffickers to bring the children to him, rather than hunting them all down.

And to do that, he enlists the help of a former Pablo Escobar drug runner who's attempting to repent his sins, as well as a wealthy civilian who will fund and front the operation.

It's at this point the DHS orders him to stop the operation and come home. His boss (played by Kurt Fuller, "Woody" from Psych) is not presented as evil or as wishing to abet the traffickers. It's just that the DHS doesn't have any kind of foreign jurisdiction. He had given Ballard some leeway to conduct the initial stages of his investigation, but now that he's organizing a major undercover operation in Colombia, he tells Ballard to come home or he'll be fired.

The film is very well shot. It's amazing what someone can accomplish with a good camera if he just chooses interesting things to point the camera at. Establishing scenes in Tijuana and Cartagena, Colombia are very effective. The best photography is in the jungles of rebel-controlled areas of southern Colombia. They didn't even need CGI! They just went to actual physical locations and photographed things! Amazing!

You might expect an action movie based on movies with plots about child abduction -- Taken movie, for example. Although there is some action at the end, the film relies on suspense more than actual physical combat for excitement. Much of the movie features Ballard pretending to be a pedophile himself to infiltrate the trafficking networks, having to con his way in and maintain his cover, and also make some difficult decisions about whether he should protect a child now, even though that will give away the fact that he's not here to prey on children but to rescue them.

Caviezel, playing Ballard, creates some tension in his performance because, while he's pretending to be a pedophile enjoying the company of other pedophiles, sometimes he can't keep up the act and shoots a look that says, "I'm going to f***ing kill you." And one wonders: Did anyone else see that? Did he get away with that, or did he just give it all away?

Overall, just a very well-made, good-looking, expensive-looking (despite the $14 million budget) drama of suspense. A high recommendation.

Also worth your time is Mission: Impossible -- Dead Reckoning Part One, aka Mission Impossible 7 or MI7.

Some quibbles first: Dead Reckoning Part One has three weaknesses that keep it from topping Rogue Nation, the fifth and so far best installment in the series:

1. The plotting is sometimes unclear and clunky. Mission: Impossible movies are always written with the big action beats and twists and revelations first, and only later is a logical (or semi-logical) plot written to connect these beats.

Sometimes, in outings like M:I 3 and M:I 5, the connect-the-dots nature of the plotting is well disguised and the movie flows and connects well. Sometimes, though, it feels jerky and roughly constructed, and the structure of the movie becomes Action Set Piece, Talking Scene Where Tom Cruise Yells the Plot At You, Action Set Piece. M:I 4 felt that way to me, as did M:I 6. (Which is one of the reasons that I disagree with people who say M:I 6 was the best entry.)

Most of this plot jerkiness occurs early in the film. An early scene features the Director of National Intelligence having the Plot Intoned to Him by his senior staff. The first act of this movie tries to be very fast-paced, but it winds up feeling a little slow because we don't totally understand what's going on. It's like the gears aren't turning smoothing, but keep getting stuck and then abruptly jumping. Watching the film I thought of the old bit of wisdom, "If you want to go fast, go slow." Maybe if they had slowed down the exposition a little it would have actually felt faster to the audience.

However, once all the exposition stuff is done, the movie starts really moving.

2. The villains are a little weak. There are two villains: first, "The Entity," an AI created by America's national intelligence services to take over any other computer on earth, which has now become sentient and free-willed, and apparently... angry.

The second villain is The Entity's principle human agent on earth, called "Gabriel," a nasty covert agent who likes killing, we're told, but even more enjoys the suffering that killing causes for the living.

The movie tries to develop both of these villains but the division of attention winds up short-changing both. We hear a lot about The Entity, and we know it is present by the plot convolutions it causes, but we don't actually meet The Entity except during one sequence. It's a cool sequence, and I liked actually hearing the "voice" of The Entity. I also strongly suspect this is just a teaser, and that The Entity will be much more present in Part Two. I wanted more from The Entity, which I guess means that this isn't much of a flaw, if at all.

The human agent is a much bigger problem. He gets more screen-time than The Entity, but the actor just doesn't play him with a menacing presence. We're told he's a cold, calculating psychopath who loves hurting people, but the actor playing him seems like a normal suburban guy. He seems like a friend of your dad's who knows a lot about Excel. What we're told about him just doesn't match what we see.

Incidentally, the movie has a really cool line about him. Mission: Impossible movies have long played with Biblical names and imagery to suggest that the latest threat to the world isn't just a possible apocalypse, but rather The Apocalypse. Someone calls Gabriel "the dark messiah" of The Entity, suggesting that The Entity is Satan in the guise of computer code, and that Gabriel is his Anti-Christ.

Sounds awesome. Wish I could actually see and feel that from this actor.

I think they should have gotten someone like Cillian Murphy who could give this character a more psychopathic edge.

3. This is part one of a two part movie. The plot involves attempting to get both halves of a "cruciform key" -- each half looks like a regular key, but when you slide one into the other into an x-shape or cross-shape, you have one key with four different blades.

Kind of like a videogame where you need to get the Silver Key to proceed to the boss battle.

A real-world cruciform key

Cruciform, huh? More religious/mystical imagery.

I liked that McGuffin a lot. Yes, it's literally just finding two keys to enter the Boss Level, but it's at least a cool version of a key.

But still, the film is only about the recovery of the two halves of the McGuffin. When combined into a single cruciform key, the McGuffin will open up a box that provides some way of destroying The Entity. In other words, the McGuffin in this movie is just a Plot Coupon to open the box containing the next movie.

Some people might not like the fact that this is just the first half of a longer, five hour movie. I didn't mind it. The climax is so big and huge it feels like it's a complete movie, even though Gabriel and The Entity are still very much a threat.

And yes, I said a "longer five hour movie." This movie is 2 and a half hours long, or two hours and forty-something minutes with credits. (Which you shouldn't bother with, this isn't a Marvel movie.)

The length is not a problem. It moves fast and you barely notice it's a long movie. I didn't even go to the bathroom during it.

Though, you know, you should make sure you go to the bathroom just before it starts.

Those are the problems with the movie. Everything else is great.

Mission: Impossible 5 introduced a great character in Ilsa Faust (there's that metaphysical imagery again), a cover operative of ambiguous loyalties who longs to come in from the cold. That character is another reason that 5 is my favorite.

But this movie maybe -- probably -- tops Ilsa Faust with "Grace," an elite-level pickpocket and thief hired by "the White Widow" to steal the McGuffin. The character twist here is great: Grace is top notch when it comes to her specialty, but when it comes to action-movie stuff, she's a pure civilian who has no idea what she's doing and is over-her-head and terrified. There's a scene where she escapes Tom Cruise in a stolen police car, but apparently hasn't driven in years, because she just keeps hitting parked cars on the side of the street. Cruise is able to follow her just by the trail of damage.

Her chemistry with Cruise is so good you forget that Cruise also had great chemistry with Ilsa Faust and... wait, didn't Mission: Impossible 6 suggest that Faust and Hunt were a couple now?

Her character is very funny. That leftwing idiot Grace Randolf pointed out that the Mission: Impossible movies are always pretty funny, and yet no one thinks of them as being funny.

I think Haley Atwell is going to graduated to A-list actresses based on this movie. She's always been a stunner, but I didn't know before this that she was a good comedic actress.

Speaking of humor, this movie manages a trick that James Bond movies always screw up: the funny action scene. I always hate it when James Bond movies try to be "funny" in chase scenes, whether it's the hydrofoil gondola in Moonraker or the ever-destructible car in View to a Kill. I never find these "funny" chases funny at all, and resent them for being so cartoonish as to also make the rest of the film seem silly.

M:I 7 has a funny chase scene that actually works, featuring the comedically-small and yet absolutely real Fiat Mini 500, but apparently an IMF model with a little more under the hood than you might be expecting. Because this is a real car -- well, except maybe for the powerful engine this one seems to have -- it doesn't take you out of the movie. It's funny, it's silly, but it's the kind of thing that really could happen. These cars are ubiquitous in Rome, so why wouldn't the IMF make use of one?

They don't play it clownlishly, like having the car, I don't know, drive through a kid's playground and go right under the monkey-bars because, do you get it?, it's so small you guys, it's smol. Please clap.

That's the kind of joke a James Bond movie would do.

This movie doesn't take the humorous presence into absurdity. In fact, they take the car's smallness and make it work dramatically, as the car chasing them is a big armored police Humvee, which is absolutely battering all other vehicles off the road. When that big black armored Humvee is closing on the little Fiat the heroes are in, it's a David and Goliath situation.

Action in Mission: Impossible movies isn't just well-staged and filled with big (and sometimes amazing) stunts. They're often clever and novel, featuring a spin on an fight or chase that's been done literally hundreds of times before... but this new spin makes them fresh.

For example, there's a simple fight between Ethan Hunt and two of Gabriel's killers. The twist is that the fight takes place in an extremely narrow alley, about four feet across at most, with one killer on one side and the other killer behind Ethan. There is no way for Hunt to fight one killer without giving the other one a free, undefended attack on his back.

It's not a big huge stunt -- it is probably the least costly action sequence in the movie-- but it's a taut scene that's visceral and punishing. (And it's all been arranged by The Entity, who led Hunt into this narrow killing box.)

The start of the climax is that big motorcycle jump off a cliff that they've promoted a lot. But that's just the opening. There is a big sequence on a train that follows, which features just about every stunt you can do on a train... while the train screams down the tracks, out of control.

The climax might be better than the helicopter chase climax of MI:6. It's close.

Overall, just a really well done, funny, exciting action movie. I'm going to see it in IMAX this week, before Oppenheimer takes all the IMAX screens. Having not seen it in IMAX yet, I can't review it in the IMAX format -- but it seems like the sort of movie where the IMAX format would improve the experience. I waited to see Top Gun: Maverick too long and missed the first weekends when it was in IMAX, and then waited when I heard it might come back in IMAX. It eventually did, and it was spectacular in that larger format. I imagine this MI:7 will likewise benefit from the bigger screen.

Oh, please avoid spoiling anything. There's a plot development in Mission Impossible that was spoiled for me, and I'm still bothered by that.

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posted by Ace at 04:21 PM

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