I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Mission Impossible franchise. For example, I love the original TV series from the 1960’s. (Do you guys even know that it’s based on a TV series? So many people I talk to haven’t got any idea). I loved characters played by the likes of Steven Hill and Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. I loved the weirdly repetitive formula with the self-destructing tape bit, the needless dossiers, the apartment scene, the really complicated scams, the brazenly confident drive away at the end of each job completed…
Then they revived the show for a couple of years in the 1980’s and I hated it. Those guys were hopeless. Peter Graves as Jim Phelps would moralize to people at the end of every story, and the agents would get flustered and break cover all the time, they were ridiculous.
Then I heard about the movie coming out in 1996 and I was excited. Tom Cruise seemed kind of perfect to be that cool, unflappable Mission: Impossible guy. And when the movie came out, I both loved and hated it. There were some awesome sequences that demonstrated brilliant direction by Brian De Palma – the meeting with the boss in the restaurant with the fish tank, the Langley break-in, the multiple flashbacks as Ethan is talking to Jim, trying to figure out what’s happened. But then there was incredibly stupid story stuff as well, like Kristin Scott Thomas’ super-spy getting killed in the most absurd way (getting too close to a guy with a knife, even though he’s on the other side of a fence) or a denouement that is based on the idea of exposing that a character is actually alive: in a world of life-like masks, what does that prove? Indeed, why not just dress up like Jim and point a camera at yourself and confess?
(Incidentally, how cool are these art-deco posters of each movie? I found them on Rogue Nation‘s Facebook page.)
Then a few years later the second Mission: Impossible movie came out, this time directed by John Woo, and I mostly hated that one as well, although I also sort of admired it in terms of its shear chutzpah. What other film would feature scenes so brazenly ridiculous as the slow motion loving gaze between the male and female lead as their respective cars lock and spin to their near-doom on a terrifying cliff? But in the end, there is little to recommend that outing besides a few memorable moments: Ethan Hunt hauling it down a catacomb as he rips his mask off, and Anthony Hopkins telling Hunt that since this is Mission: Impossible, “difficult” should be a walk in the park for him. In the long term the movie will be remembered mostly for being the one that kept Dougray Scott too busy to play Wolverine.
Then, the third Mission: Impossible movie came out in 2006, this time helmed by first time film director J.J. Abrams, and strangely, I can’t remember where I saw it first—whether it was in the cinema or on video or whatever. This is weird because usually I can recall these things but also because this was the first (and last, it turns out) Mission: Impossible outing that I completely love. It’s got a taut plot in which each scene genuinely pushes into the next, it’s got the best villain of the franchise (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the richest emotional texture, the deepest relationships, the strongest motivations, and Tom Cruise’s best performance. I enjoy that movie, I use it to talk about Script Writing when I teach, and I will defend it with vigor.
A few years ago, the fourth film—the number eschewing Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol—came out, this time directed by Brad Bird. I had high hopes for that one because I liked Bird’s work on The Incredibles and J.J. Abrams was still involved as a producer. But I was also worried, because the status of Ethan’s domestic life had been such a focus of the previous one, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that Hollywood sequels don’t know how to handle. And it turns out I had good reason to be worried. The movie made a complete mess of Ethan’s personal life—a mess both by wrecking it but also by not making any sense out of it. I’ve written about this before in one of my earliest posts, but the gist of it is that Ethan’s friends thinks that he’s a jerk for leaving his wife, but then it turns out half way through that she actually died, amping up the emotional stakes. Then it turns out she’s actually alive, and that her death was a ruse to fool the bad guys. Except, you know, his closest friends didn’t know she was supposed to be dead, so what sort of ruse is that? And then when she is alive, and the bad guys that the ruse was fooling are taken care of, we see that Ethan doesn’t seem to have any intention of going back to his married life, which now just seems to mean that he’s a bit of a jerk after all.
Inexplicably, people seem to like Ghost Protocol, mostly on the basis of the fact that there is some impressive photography of really tall buildings in Dubai. Who knows, maybe if I’d seen it in a gigantic Imax theatre, I’d have loved it too. But I didn’t, and now, I hate it. Hate it hate it hate it. The paragraph above describes one reason why—my other article adds ten others.
And now, thanks to inexpensive movies in Thailand, I have just seen the fifth movie, Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, this time directed by Christopher McQuarrie who previously was responsible for bringing Tom Cruise to the screen in the well directed but ultimately stupid Jack Reacher. SPOILERS ahead.
Up until this point, it had always seemed that each Mission Impossible film took place in something of an alternate universe. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt always seemed to be sort of a different person, working with a different boss in a different version of the Impossible Missions Force (except they all had the signature self-destructive messages). This time, for the first time, the movie feels like it’s actually a sequel to the previous movie. There are some direct references to the events of the film and more lead cast members than ever before making reappearances (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames all have major roles, although Rhames really looks like he’s struggling a bit to keep up).
But the movie also has it’s own stylish thing going on, about which I had a whole new love-hate relationship going on while the movie was playing out before me. There is some pretty exciting stuff, like an impressive opening stunt (well documented in the trailer), and a great twist on the self-destructing message scene. When the plot actually gets into gear it gets a little shaky. The movie’s first big set piece is at a Viennese opera where not one, not two, but three different snipers have snuck in past security in an assassination plot against the Austrian chancellor, who is eventually killed, but not by any of them. By far the best dressed of them is Ilsa Faust, played by franchise newcomer Rebecca Ferguson, who Ethan trusts from a past encounter (and I’d like to believe maybe because she looks something like his…dead? estranged?…wife!) They have a big escape scene together but she insists on being let go so her undercover position with the bad guy will not be compromised. She manages to keep the bad guy’s trust and is given the job to steal back a piece of technology that is kept a vault so impenetrable that its security protocols can only be accessed by pulling a convenient yellow card out of a computer that is kept…underwater. Huh??!!?! How do they get those yellow cards into them in the first place?
Even though the direction is slick and the action is cool, it’s somewhere around here that the story really takes a swerve for the stupid. First, unnecessary tension is created by timing the underwater hack into the security protocols to be only seconds before one of Ethan’s allies tries to enter the vault (where he will be caught and probably killed if the security system doesn’t recognize him). There is of course no reason given why these two events need to be within an instant of each other.
Then, Ilsa betrays them by stealing the information and running away from and helping to kill a whole bunch of the bad guy’s henchmen. After a spectacular motorcycle chase, she is only able to escape from Ethan by employing the unorthodox strategy of getting off her bike and standing still in the middle of the road. Somehow, this works, and she attempts to bring the info to her boss in the British government, but he’s not a nice guy and compels her to go back to the bad guy, who is pretty much guaranteed to kill her even if her boss hadn’t secretly erased the information that was stolen from the vault. So…either we have to accept that he was purposefully sending her to her doom, or that he was hoping against all reason that the bad guy would accept her again even though she had multiple times hindered his plans.
Fortunately for everybody, the bad guy does let her live, and even gets her back to work again. Well, fortunately for everyone but the villain, since this comes back to bite him in the butt later. Even so, there’s an attempt to justify it all as a sort of “I knew it all along” way, attempting to make the villain a master strategist who would always have another way of accomplishing his goals, leaving Ethan no choice but to go along with things, even if it means kidnapping the Prime Minister of Great Britain. It’s the sort of moment where basically the audience is told to just forget everything that happened in the middle act of the film, because it all actually makes sense if only we were smarter. But of course, we know better.
That middle act includes other stuff like awkward attempts at characterization, with some of Ethan’s team members trying to argue with him and his crazy plans, only to be overcome by his single-minded determination. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Ethan’s friend Benji (Simon Pegg’s character) gets kidnapped and is held for ransom unless Ethan carries out the bad guy’s desires.
Now, contrast this with basically the same thing in Mission Impossible III, where it is Ethan’s wife Julia who is being held prisoner unless Ethan will do what the bad guy is telling him to do. The motivation is much stronger not only because “wife” trumps “fellow agent,” but also because the movie has given us a whole story’s worth of evidence about how Julia embodies Ethan’s hopes and goals in that film. There is a similar scene where Ethan must convince his teammates that the implausible plan to steal a dangerous weapon is there only option, except this time it is grounded in character and is made meaningful for the audience. Such a better movie.
Still, the ending of Rogue Nation really surprised me because of all of a sudden things got kind of awesome again. First, there is a fun sequence where the team manipulates the head of the CIA (and one of their antagonists) into helping them expose the truth about the corrupt head of British intelligence, in which the audience gets the treat of seeing the heroes be really good at their jobs. Then, the final confrontation between Ethan and the bad guy, with the kidnapped Benji and Isla Faust in tow, works really really well. The last moment, where Ethan and his team basically stick it to the villain, was more satisfying than one could have expected from the movie, and kind of reminded me of the brazenly confident drive away that a lot of the episodes would close with, even though that didn’t actually happen.
So yeah, after all is said and done, I kind of liked it. Not as much as Mission Impossible III, which remains by far the best film in the franchise. And it doesn’t have the intelligence of the first film’s visual pacing, or the gutsy audacity of the second. But it doesn’t have its overblown stupidity, or the senselessness of the fourth either. And the weaknesses it does have (and they are there) are sort of balanced by its strengths, especially the fact that Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa is genuinely likeable and sympathetic, and becomes a nice emotional centerpiece for the story. And overall, the film has enough high points (including the ending) to prop up the experience and to leave you with a nice aftertaste as you walk away…
Or really, as you strut away, humming the iconic theme tune.