China Sky (1945) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Of the innumerable war-time propaganda movies that Hollywood cranked out during World War II, 1945’s China Sky must be one of the lesser ones. One of the intentions of this picture was to foster a friendship between the American and Chinese peoples in the face of Japanese aggression, but that message is overshadowed by a soap opera of plot. You see, Dr. Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott) is aiding a remote Chinese village during the Second World War with its medical needs, when a romantic triangle develops between him, his colleague Dr. Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), and his wife Louise Thompson (Ellen Drew).

There’s a good story tying to get out of China Sky, but the melodramatic romance does it no favors. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of warfare in the Chinese countryside, this work is more concerned with Ellen Drew’s character’s jealousy of her husband working closely with a female coworker. The end result is a dull film with a largely non-combat-related plot that I didn’t care how it resolved.

Fortunately, Anthony Quinn arrives, playing Chinese guerrilla leader Chen-Ta, which brightens things up (yes, Quinn plays a Chinese person in this feature…it’s one of those kind of movies). There is some occasional action, and the war-related part of the story is concluded by a firefight in the streets of a Chinese town. Even Randolph Scott’s Dr. Thompson gets in on the action, mowing down a few Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun. He just loves healing and killing people.

China Sky is a relatively short flick, but it is not a memorable one. I was pretty checked-out for several scenes in the middle. Even the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, with Wikipedia currently saying that he found it “disappointing.” I suppose it had good intentions, but the outcome of the picture was somewhat boring. China (1943) is a far better World War II film with the word “China” in the title.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Two Years Before the Mast (1946) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The high-seas adventure-drama Two Years Before the Mast was just one of six movies that actor Alan Ladd made with director John Farrow. Here, Charles Stewart (Alan Ladd) is shanghaied to serve on a sea-faring ship under the thumb of a sadistic, rigid captain, Francis A. Thompson (Howard Da Silva), in the mid-1800s. Soon, threats of mutiny are in the air, as the crew struggles to survive under their tyrannical commander.

The beginning scenes of Two Years Before the Mast are actually pretty boring, but, once the Alan Ladd character is impressed to serve as a sailor, things pick up considerably. The film does a good job showing the cramped conditions aboard the Pilgrim (the boat that Ladd’s on), and the viewer really sympathizes with the crew’s predicament. The Howard Da Silva character is one mean bastard, but he’s a believable one, making him more intimidating. The feature contains a romantic subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere.

What this picture brings to the table is an interesting discussion of when revolt against authority is justified. When is it acceptable to raise a gun against the legal powers that be? Two Years Before the Mast comes to an optimistic conclusion on the matter. This flick sort of reminded me of Souls at Sea (1937), another adventure-drama that deals with moral dilemmas on the high seas. Supposedly, Alan Ladd had an uncredited role in that movie, and seascapes from it were used in the film currently being reviewed.

This motion picture doesn’t have much action, unfortunately, but it’s still watchable. Its direction is impressive, and those interested in the morality of humankind’s unending struggle for human rights and human dignity might get a kick out of it. I’m not ecstatic about it, yet I know it will have its fans. Two Years Before the Mast might be worth checking out for certain audiences.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Fighting Caravans (1931) Review

Directors: Otto Brower and David Burton

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Fighting Caravans is an early sound western that stars the great Gary Cooper. To be frank, it’s nothing that special. Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper) is a Wild West scout who pretends to be married to lone Frenchwoman Felice (Lili Damita) on a covered wagon caravan headed to California. Of course, the journey will be perilous (those Native Americans aren’t going to give up their land without a fight), and Clint and Felice just might fall in love for real.

This flick is decidedly an old-timey affair. There are times when it feels creaky, even by the standards of the time. The comic relief, provided by drunken mountain men Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), will probably provoke as many eye-rolls as actual laughs. The action scenes, such as a large barroom brawl and a battle at a river crossing with some Native Americans, feel somewhat clunky, but they’re alright, I suppose.

The movie is not particularly friendly to the indigenous populations of North America, who’re treated as faceless baddies to be gunned down. The “i-word” (the one with a “j” in the middle) gets thrown around incessantly. This contributes to the Pre-Code nature of film, since this picture was released prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. Other Pre-Code content includes Gary Cooper’s character trying to bed Lili Damita’s character as part of their husband-wife act.

If you’re going to watch Fighting Caravans, please keep in mind its 1931 release date. Cooper and Damita (who’s probably better known as being the wife of Errol Flynn for a while) can’t really rescue this oldie. That being said, it looks like it had a decent-sized budget and there is some action to be found here. The feature was quickly remade as Wagon Wheels (1934) with Randolph Scott in the the Cooper role.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Americano (1955) Review

Director: William Castle

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Americano is a thoroughly mediocre western movie only notable for its setting. American rancher Sam Dent (Glenn Ford) travels to Brazil to deliver some cattle, but finds himself embroiled in a range war. Apparently this adventure picture was actually partially filmed in Brazil, which is a nice touch, but it’s certainly not enough to redeem the work.

One of the very first things I think of when I try to remember The Americano (Heaven forbid) is the animal footage. Being shot in South America, there’s plenty of exotic wildlife on display here (probably mostly photographed by the second unit), with these creatures often stealing the spotlight from the humans. Glenn Ford is his usual tough guy here, and Cesar Romero (who would later play the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series) gives an Anthony Quinn-esque performance as bandit Manuel Silvera.

The biggest flaw with this picture is the severe lack of action. A shoot-’em-up this ain’t, although we do get a sweet pitchfork fight towards the end. A western doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall action to be good, but it certainly helps elevate generic material…and generic this is. The film is almost more concerned with a quasi-musical number than the rough-and-tumble stuff. I guess the filmmakers wanted some dancing to appeal to as many viewers as possible.

Yes, it’s set in Brazil, but take that away, and it’d be even more forgettable than it already is. The Americano isn’t really a bad feature, but it could’ve been so much more. I wouldn’t describe it as “offensive,” even if the the Goofs section of its IMDb profile reports that, despite being set in the Portuguese-speaking part of South America, most of the Brazilians either speak Spanish or “a terrible mix of the two.” Nice.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) Review

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 147 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the first film in the series with the same director as the previous entry (the man in the director’s chair being Christopher McQuarrie). Can he keep the franchise on its hot streak? After the events of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fights to recover weapons-grade plutonium from a group of fanatics Hellbent on stirring up as much suffering as possible. The clock is ticking.

This movie, as expected, is filled to the brim with magnificent action set-pieces and life-endangering stuntwork. We’ve got a parachute jump through a thunderstorm, a bathroom slugfest, vehicular chases (on the ground and in the air), and more. It’s quite possible that they’ve gone overboard, but, considering the ecstatic reception the feature got, maybe not.

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, this flick may contain too much of a good thing. It’s the longest Mission: Impossible picture yet, and one can tell. Yes, it’s very exciting, but how many close-calls can you cram into one film? Also not helping is the somewhat familiar plot. Nuclear weapons in the hands of evildoers again? There is a bit of a been-there-done-that quality to this work of cinema.

Many viewers feel that Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the best installment of the franchise at the time of the publication of this review. It certainly gives you plenty of bang for your buck. The action sequences are stunning, but the story that they rely upon is merely pretty good. So, do I recommend this movie? Yeah, but I don’t find that it quite reaches the highs of the previous two Mission: Impossible films.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) Review

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 131 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

In the fifth Mission: Impossible movie – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes rogue (is that even a pun?) to try to take down an organization of renegade ex-secret agents known as “the Syndicate.” The stakes don’t feel quite as high as the will-there-be-a-nuclear-holocaust? tension of the previous entry into the series (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011]), but this installment really plays to the franchise’s strengths. Excellent action, insane stunts, and lots of badass teamwork are center-stage.

The Mission: Impossible flicks at this point feel like modern-day Indiana Jones features without the archaeology. This picture has plenty of cliffhanger high-jinks and heroic globetrotting. The action scenes are appropriately high-impact, with some how-did-they-do-that? stuntwork to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. On the down side, I think that they might’ve “saved” the best major stunt for first (it’s, of course, the one with Tom Cruise and an airplane taking off).

This fast-paced action-adventure film, like the rest of the movies in the series, benefits from the team dynamics on display. You see, Cruise couldn’t do this all by himself, so he backs himself up with one of the best damn squads of agents possible. There’s Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who provides the comic relief, and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the tough tech expert. William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) handles the political wranglings over the Impossible Mission Force’s future. A newcomer is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose allegiance is questionable.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation wisely doesn’t try to immediately top the end-of-the-world stakes of its predecessor, but it still lays a lot on the line. The stakes, if anything, feel a bit more personal this time around, as evidenced by the finale, which is relatively small in scale, yet still huge in intensity. The fourth and fifth Mission: Impossible features are definitely a formidable one-two punch.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) Review

Director: Brad Bird

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol definitely upped the ante for the series upon its release in theaters in 2011. It still might be the most purely fun entry into the franchise at the time of the publication of this review. The story’s about secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting to prevent a nuclear war and clear his name after being blamed for a massive terrorist attack.

Some of the scene-stealers here are the gadgets. The endless, inventive pieces of imaginative technology on display in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol really put the James Bond series to shame. Hell, this could be seen as the movie where this series really began to surpass the 007 franchise in excellence. The wonderfully-crafted, nail-biting energy of this feature makes any Bond adventure look lethargic in comparison.

Another aspect of Ghost Protocol that grabs the viewer by his or her lapels is the stuntwork. This action-packed flick is home to the now-iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper sequence, where Tom Cruise, with the help of some digitally-erased cables, climbed around the outside of that huge superstructure. It’s an amazing set-piece that’s probably one of the very best action scenes of the 2010s. The movie’s go-big-or-go-home attitude really pays off.

In addition to being pretty violent for a film rated PG-13 by the MPAA, Ghost Protocol is probably one of the better action-adventure pictures out there. Okay, maybe it’s a hair too long, but the individual scenes making up the film are terrific. Will future installments into the Mission: Impossible series manage to recapture the magic here?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) Review

Director: J.J. Abrams

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 126 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

After the cartoony Mission: Impossible II (2000), the series got back on track with its third installment. Mission: Impossible III may have some preposterous elements, but they’re played straight enough that they become tolerable. Set after the events of the first two flicks, spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to prevent the so-called “Rabbit’s Foot” from falling into the hands of vicious arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while protecting his girlfriend – Julia (Michelle Monaghan) – from said bad guy.

In addition to being rather slick, this entry into the Mission: Impossible saga is also noticeably darker than its peers. This is understandable, considering it was the first movie in the franchise to be released after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Much of the film’s menace comes from its villain, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s easily one of the more memorable baddies in the series, with his controlled, yet sadistic, personality.

Director J.J. Abrams, whose love for “mystery boxes” is evident here, does a good job of handling the big set-pieces, with their compounding action and suspense. The rescue mission in Germany, for example, impressively escalates tension and throws a few curve-balls at the audience. That being said, the finale, with its prolonged climax, borders on being tiring. The entire third act is just so turbo-charged that it gives the audience little room to breathe.

I’d actually consider Mission: Impossible III to be the best of the franchise at the time of its original release in 2006. Sure, the first one was very entertaining, too, but the third picture’s blend of suspenseful secret agent antics, explosive action, and a seriously threatening bad guy make it the winner of the original three films. However, it wouldn’t stay at the top of the pack forever, with the next installment being Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible II (2000) Review

Director: John Woo

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 123 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Back in 2000, a film directed by Hong Kong action expert John Woo and written by Robert Towne (you know, the guy who wrote Chinatown [1974]) was unleashed on the public. Its title: “Mission: Impossible II.” No, I’m not joking about Robert Towne (who also wrote the first entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise) penning this thing. The plot’s about super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting to prevent a gang of goons from making a financial killing off of a deadly virus called “Chimera.”

This, being the weakest of the series to be released at the time of the publishing of this review, is easy to mock. It certainly was sent to theaters around the turn of the twentieth-first century, as made apparent by its now-absurd-looking editing flourishes and alt-metallic soundtrack. This movie tries desperately to look cool, but it feels trapped in the year 2000.

The saving grace of Mission: Impossible II, as you might expect (considering it is directed by John Woo after all), is the action. This just might be the first picture to spring to mind when I hear the phrase “high-octane action.” Everything explodes here, and Tom Cruise has rarely looked more badass than when he, clad in sunglasses, drives through said explosions on a motorcycle. These aren’t Woo’s best scenes of physicality, but they still get a thumbs-up from me.

Mission: Impossible II has a few lulls that slow down the pacing a bit too much, but it’s nothing worth getting too bent out of shape over. John Woo may be an action master, but I’m not sure if he was the right choice to helm this project. The flick feels a little different from the rest of the series. It’s a watchable actioner, but it’s also the black sheep of the Mission: Impossible franchise.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible (1996) Review

Director: Brian De Palma

Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Mission: Impossible was actually the second time that director Brian De Palma took a popular television series and turned it into a highly successful motion picture. The first time was, of course, The Untouchables (1987). In Mission: Impossible, secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) plots to prevent a top-secret list of all friendly spies in Eastern Europe from falling into evil hands. Expect a lot of twists and turns along the way.

The first entry into the Mission: Impossible film franchise is a far cry from what the series would become. To be honest, I don’t even consider this first one to be an action movie. It’s really more of a Hitchcockian adventure-thriller with a train-versus-helicopter chase at the end. However, the suspenseful set-pieces make up for the relative lack of action. You must’ve been able to hear a pin drop in movie theaters during the heist sequence at CIA headquarters during its original run.

Mission: Impossible has a tricky plot that you really have to pay attention to. Even with repeated viewings I don’t think I’ve fully absorbed everything. The flick can be subversive when it wants to be, which may rub some fans of the T.V. show the wrong way, but I think that its gambles pay off. It doesn’t shy away from pulling the rug out from under the audience.

With its intense, borderline-melodramatic camera angles and catchy musical score (composed by Danny Elfman, and based on themes created by Lalo Schifrin), Mission: Impossible is fairly formidable entertainment. The truth is that it would be topped by several installments in the series down the road, but this is a solid start. It may be the least action-packed of the franchise, but some viewers still believe this to be one of the better features in its collection.

My rating is 7 outta 10.