Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Made In China: The Promise and Mission: Impossible III

Before an unfortunate shrimp-related stomach problem last weekend, I got in two movies at least partially made in China and whose releases caused some controversy.

Mission: Impossible III played nice with the People's Republic, which only lets a few foreign films play in theaters each year, shooting on location with a local and not making evil Communists the bad guys. For this they're getting screwed over, bumped from their release date until a good two months after release in the rest of the world because part of June and July are apparently "no foreigners allowed" month. Which means it'll be good and bootlegged by the time it gets there. It's tempting to laugh, because the victims are Viacom and Tom Cruise, and that's like feeling bad about Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees getting a raw deal on something, but it's still a kind of a jerk move.

Meanwhile, coming the other direction, The Promise originally had its distribution rights purchased by the Weinstein Company, who promptly showed that it wasn't Disney demanding cuts by getting out the scissors. The Chinese studio balked, the rights reverted, and Warner Independant picked up the rights. And, by the time it got released in the U.S., half an hour was cut out anyway.

This drive me nuts. When Mission: Impossible opens in China, will it have fifteen or twenty minutes cut out? Does Warner really make enough in extra ticket sales to justify what it costs to hire an uncredited editor to do this, especially when they also have to be losing ticket sales from people who will just get it off YesAsia or the like if they can't see it uncut?

Now, The Promise probably wouldn't have become a good movie with another twenty-five or so minutes, although there were spots where it could, perhaps, use some airing out. Of course, I've read reviews of the full-lenth version on festival and Asian film blogs saying it could use cutting. But when you consider that this didn't add an extra showtime, what good does it do, commercially?

One other thing that's interesting is that the two films have complementary weaknesses. The Promise is lush and out there, while Mission: Impossible is kind of businesslike. They're both big time action movies, but I think I'd prefer the crazy to the professional. I like M:I 3, but there were times when I didn't think I was liking it as much as I was expected to, whereas The Promise dropped my jaw on a regular basis. Sure, sometimes it was in disbelief, but it at least had the ability to surprise me at any moment.

Mission: Impossible III

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2006 at AMC Boston Common #14 (First-run)

Three is the dangerous number in franchises. It's where the audience sort of knows what to expect and starts wondering why they should watch the new one which may not be any good when they've got the ones they know they like on DVD. Producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner knew this going in, and sought to forestall it by making each Mission Impossible entry a fresh start with new co-stars, writers, directors, etc. It's a dangerous game, especially since they chose a guy with no feature experience to follow two very big names for the director's chair. Choosing a guy on his way up rather than guys whose best work may be behind them seems to work out, though, as J.J. Abrams turns in a solidly enjoyable movie.

Fans of Abrams's spy series Alias will recognize the gimmick he uses to open the movie right off: The hero in deep trouble - here, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is chained to a chair while Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian threatens a woman who clearly means a lot to him. One shocking denouement later, we jump back in time to examine how Hunt got himself into this situation: He was pulled out of the party celebrating his engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan), by a mission to rescue Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell), an agent he'd trained. Accompanying him on the mission is old friend Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames), along with pilot/driver Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and infiltration specialist Zhen (Maggie Q). The mission leads to a suspected mole, an off-the-books mission, and Davian swearing revenge, all of which involve people and things being shot at and blowing up.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Promise (Wu Ji)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #1 (First-run)

The Promise is crazy, but it is for the most part the good kind of crazy. It's big, fantastical and epic, combining grand scale with individual passion. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at. It's also utterly ridiculous, with action that leaps from exaggerated to cartoonish, a plot driven by trivial things, and special effects that occasionally fall well short of the cinematography that surrounds them. The film careens back and forth across the line between glorious excess and excessive excess.

Back in the time of myth and legend, there was a kingdom where gods and men lived alongside each other. It was not a peaceful place, though - when we first meet Qingcheng, she's a girl of about five, scavenging among the dead soldiers for food and clothes. As she flees the scene, she meets the goddess Manshen (Hong Chen), who offers her the chance to grow up a beauty among beauties, rich, and wanting for nothing, except that she will lose every man she loves. Being five, hungry, and not able to comprehend what it means to be in love, she accepts the bargain.

Read the rest at HBS.

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