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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988-2011): Full series overview, Part 2

I debated with myself whether to edit my original “Full series overview” post to add the revival, but I think it would be easier just to link to it and add a second post, mainly covering the 1988-90 revival series and the feature film series, but also updating some of the bits from the first post. So here’s the link:

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-73): Full series overview (Part 1)

The revival TV series added 35 episodes to the tally from the original, for a total of 206 episodes and 197 distinct adventures — or maybe 193, since four of the revival episodes were fairly close remakes. Highlights:

1988-9 Season

Regulars: Reactivated government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), electronics engineer Grant Collier (Phil Morris), theater professor Nicholas Black (Thaao Penghlis), all-around tough guy Max Harte (Tony Hamilton), fashion designer Casey Randall (Terry Markwell). Randall dies midseason, replaced with journalist/singer/Secret Service agent Shannon Reed (Jane Badler).

Initially remakes of original-series episodes, soon giving way to new episodes and loose reuses of original premises in different ways. A surprisingly direct continuation from what had come before, with a mix of international intrigue and crime-busting cases; after an initial emphasis on capers that go off-plan and create jeopardy for the team, the season settled into routine, clockwork capers with very little character exploration, much like the original. A high percentage of episodes featured supernatural-themed capers exploiting villains’ superstitions, usually through holography.

Production in Australia allowed more striking and exotic location work and more international flavor, unfortunately leading to worse ethnic stereotyping than the original generally had. In departure from original, most episodes were set in real countries.

Beginning of the fleshing out of the IMF as an organization, establishing other agents, a research lab, and the like. First steps toward a more action-oriented focus.

Cold opens used in every episode. Tape-scene briefings replaced with video minidiscs in special players, and ending in freeze-frame title card/music sting like that in the original’s dossier sequences. No off-book missions, so disc scenes used in every episode. Video dossier scene used only in pilot. Team briefings occasionally took place on site rather than in Jim’s apartment, and were often more preliminary and straightforwardly expository than in the original, with little of the gadget/trick demonstration common in the original.

Main title theme modernized, electronic/guitar arrangement. Preview clips in titles replaced with generic title sequence. End titles initially over “IMF” logo, later over stills from episode.

  • Best episodes: “The Pawn” and “The Fortune,” followed by “The Legacy.” Best remake: “The Legacy,” whose final act improved upon the original’s weak ending.
  • Worst episodes: “The Devils” is worse than anything from the original series. “The Haunting” is also quite bad, and “Submarine” isn’t much better. Worst remake: “Submarine,” a hugely inferior reworking of the original’s finest episode, though it’s only a loose remake.

1989-90 Season

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Grant Collier, Nicholas Black, Max Harte, Shannon Reed. Only season besides S6 where the same regular cast appears in every episode. Only season in franchise where the team has no supplemental members.

Entirely new episodes, though a couple were loosely inspired by original-series premises. First season since S4 to include a 2-parter. The first half-season broke formula much as S5 did, having more capers go wrong and delving more into the characters. The characters spent more time as themselves (rather than playing assumed roles) than in any previous season. The second half largely dropped the caper formula in favor of more conventional action storytelling where the characters were searching and improvising more often than enacting preplanned strategies.

Unique in having no purely crime-focused episodes; every criminal case had an international/geopolitical aspect. Resumes original series’ practice of using largely fictitious countries, though with several real locations (or caricatures thereof) used. Increased emphasis on action, solving problems with force or gunplay rather than deception and stratagems. The opening 2-parter was essentially an over-the-top action movie, almost a trial run for the feature films. Increasing shift toward fanciful or exaggerated scenarios, and continued emphasis on supernatural cons.

No change in initial formula: Cold open, disc briefing, team briefing usually in Jim’s apartment but occasionally at on-site command post.

  • Best episodes: “Countdown,” “The Fuehrer’s Children,” “For Art’s Sake,” and “The Princess.”
  • Worst episodes: “Cargo Cult” is the worst episode in the entire franchise. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are both dreadful.

So how would I rank these seasons relative to the whole? Remember, my rankings for the original series were:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 2

The 1988 season — call it season 8 — was generally routine and mediocre in storytelling, about on the same level as S2, but weakened by less interesting music and by the disappointing presence of Terry Markwell in the first 2/3 of the season. I’d pretty much have to rate it below S2, then. The ’89 season — call it season 9 — is trickier to rate, since it started out so strong but sank so low. In that respect, it’s close to season 6, which had a number of strong episodes offset by a number of poor ones. But the worst episodes of S9 are below the quality of anything in the original series, so I’d have to put it below S6, though it has enough interesting ones to put it above the generally bland S2. So the new ranking would be:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 9
  8. Season 2
  9. Season 8

Movies

Regulars: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the only true regular. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appears in all four films but is only a team member in three. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is effectively a regular starting with the third film. No one else appears in more than one film.

A remarkably inconsistent film series, with each film reflecting its own director’s style and sensibilities. The first two films and the subsquent J.J. Abrams-produced series can be seen as three separate, highly distinct attempts to adapt M:I to film, sharing only a leadactor and a few recurring tropes. Unlike the TV franchise’s team focus, the films are focused on Ethan Hunt as a lone hero and romantic lead, with only Ghost Protocol having an ensemble approach (and eschewing a romantic subplot, for the most part); but Hunt does not emerge as a well-drawn character until the third film. Only the third and fourth films have any shared continuity besides the return of Hunt and Stickell. What the films have in common is a shift toward a greater emphasis on action and on tales of intrigue and treachery. All of the first three films involve traitors in the IMF, and all but the second involve Ethan Hunt being accused of treason and going on the run. The intricate capers that characterized the original series are generally reduced to set pieces within the films’ plots.

The IMF is fleshed out into a division of the CIA, based in Langley, VA. Every film features either senior IMF officials or “the Secretary” himself, though with different officials in each film. The first three films have the briefing videos narrated by the agent’s superior in the IMF, and the fourth has the Secretary deliver “your mission, should you choose to accept it” in person (along with other mission briefings by an anonymous, possibly computerized voice). The method of the briefing delivery is different in every movie. Dossier videos are incorporated into the briefings in films 1, 3, and 4, and as part of a visual montage in film 2. Teams are usually selected by the superior rather than the team leader. Team members are now career IMF agents rather than civilians, although the premise that they are deniable, non-official agents without the protection of their government in the event of discovery is retained — and utilized far more heavily than in the series.

All films take place in real locations and are generally filmed in them. All plots focus on large-scale espionage or on the terrorist acquisition of WMDs.

Every film has a cold open, though the subject matter varies. Every film uses the Schifrin main title theme, but only the first and fourth have full-length title sequences based on the format of the original series. Only the third and fourth films use “The Plot” in full, though the first uses snippets; the second film is unique in the franchise in eschewing the melody altogether.

  • Best films: M:i:III, M:I — Ghost Protocol.
  • Worst films: M:I-2 is clearly the worst, but the first M:I isn’t much better.

Ranking the movies is pretty easy:

1) Ghost Protocol: Very well-directed and fun, with the greatest focus on classic M:I-style capers and schemes and the only really ensemble-driven story in the film franchise. Very close in quality to its predecessor, but the greater fidelity to M:I and the superior music put it over the top.

2) M:i:III: Just as well-done in its own way, but more serious. Terrific, rich character work and effective action, and by far the best use of a female lead in the franchise. The first film to give Ethan Hunt an actual personality. The only drawbacks are an insufficient focus on the ensemble (though they do get a few nice moments here and there) and relatively little use of classic capers, with the Vatican sequence being essentially the only one.

3) M:I: A fairly tepid conspiracy thriller with mediocre acting and a key plot point that makes no sense whatsoever (the Bible “clue” that proves nothing at all), not to mention a climax that defies physics more ridiculously than most action movies do. Further marred by the character assassination of “Jim Phelps.” Still, it’s redeemed somewhat by the effective and iconic set piece of the Langley heist, and by making more use of series-style capers and tropes than any other film in the series save GP.

4) M:I-2: A cartoony, over-the-top, Hong Kong-style action movie, which is something that might be fun as a separate entity, but that doesn’t work as something calling itself Mission: Impossible. An aggressively mindless exercise in style over substance, dominated by insanely overdone action and a deeply superficial excuse for a romance between Hunt and the film’s one and only female character, a travesty next to the moving relationship he has with Julia in the subsequent films. Barely even feels like M:I, barely uses a team, and the villains use more IMF-style tactics than the heroes. The best that can be said about it is that it succeeds in its goal of being a dumb, shallow action cartoon, unlike its predecessor, which fails in its goal of being a smart conspiracy thriller.

Musically, the revival series was less interesting than its predecessor, featuring only three composers in the first dozen episodes and only one for the remainder of the series. The three scores each contributed by Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones were of mixed quality, though each had one really interesting one, one reasonably good one, and one mediocre one. The remaining 23 scores by John E. Davis (assisted by Neil Argo in season 2?) were generally uninteresting. However, the changes in US union rules requiring new scores in every episode mean that Davis is second only to Schifrin in the total number of M:I episodes scored.

The films have used three different composers, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino, with only Giacchino being used twice. Elfman’s score was reasonably good and Giacchino’s were both excellent, with the Ghost Protocol score being particularly impressive. Zimmer’s score for the second film was mediocre, and the only one geared more toward rock sounds than orchestral scoring.

The updated list:

  • Lalo Schifrin: 26 credited scores, seasons 1-8, plus themes used in 4 films
  • John E. Davis: 23 credited scores, seasons 8-9
  • Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
  • Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
  • Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
  • Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
  • Ron Jones: 6 scores, S8
  • Walter Scharf: 5 scores, S1-2
  • Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
  • Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
  • Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
  • Michael Giacchino: 2 scores, films 3-4
  • Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
  • Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
  • Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
  • Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
  • George Romanis: 1 score, S6
  • Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
  • Danny Elfman: 1 score, film 1
  • Hans Zimmer: 1 score, film 2

The list of composers who have worked on M:I and Star Trek has grown, now including Fried, Fielding, Romanis, Jones, and Giacchino.

Here’s the updated list of regular and recurring IMF team members by number of appearances, incorporating the entire franchise. This includes everyone who was a team member more than once, so it leaves out most of the movie characters. This time I am incorporating Barney and Lisa Casey’s return appearances in the revival despite their not being formal team members, since they did actually participate in the teams’ endeavors, something I didn’t recall when I made the original list.

  • Jim Phelps: 178 (not counting presumed impostor in first movie)
  • Barney Collier: 169 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
  • Willy Armitage: 147
  • Rollin Hand: 76
  • Cinnamon Carter: 71
  • The Great Paris: 49
  • (Lisa) Casey: 35 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
  • Grant Collier: 35
  • Nicholas Black: 35
  • Max Harte: 35
  • Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
  • Shannon Reed: 24
  • Dana Lambert: 23
  • Doug Robert: 13
  • Casey Randall: 12 (mostly minor contributions)
  • Mimi Davis: 7
  • Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
  • Ethan Hunt: 4
  • Luther Stickell: 3
  • Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
  • Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2
  • Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg): 2 (only 1 as formal team member)

Note that Jim has now surpassed Barney as the most frequently appearing character in the franchise.

Bob Johnson (Voice on Tape/Disc) is heard in 192 episodes (all but 14), with 9 being recaps in multiparters, coming out to 183 distinct briefings. Johnson is in none of the movies, having died three years before the first film’s release.

Revised comparisons:

Best Team Leader: Previous winner: Jim Phelps. New candidates: Evil Impostor Jim Phelps, Ethan Hunt.

Is there even a contest? Well, we can rule out Jon Voight’s Evil Jim right off the bat; assassinating your own team is kind of a disqualifier. And Ethan is too much of a lone wolf and grandstander, plus he has a hard time holding onto a team. No change here — the original Jim Phelps, accept no substitutes, still wins by a mile.

Best Second-in-Command: Previous winner: Barney Collier. New candidates: Grant Collier, Ethan Hunt.

I’m counting Ethan because he was Evil Jim’s second-in-command in the first film, and Grant because he generally seemed to be the first one Jim briefed before the others. Ethan didn’t give a very good showing in the role, allowing virtually his entire team to be killed by their team leader, so he’s out of the running (no pun intended) again. And Grant was never really given the chance to take the lead in Jim’s absence, so while I have the feeling he would’ve done a great job, he never got to prove it. No change here: Barney still wins.

Best Master of Disguise: Previous winner: Rollin Hand. New candidates: Nicholas Black, Ethan Hunt.

Man, that Hunt guy sure gets around. But his full-mask impersonations are too dependent on high technology, including synthetic voice chips, which seems like cheating. His less extreme makeup jobs using his own face and voice aren’t bad, but they don’t display as much range as Rollin’s did. And Nicholas had even less versatility; though theoretically he could do a perfect job mimicking anyone so long as the actor’s voice was dubbed over his, in practice the actor was unconvincing in the role. So again, no change: Rollin still wins.

Best Tech Guy: Previous winner: Barney Collier by default. New candidates: Grant Collier, Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), Luther Stickell, Benji Dunn.

Let’s start with the movie guys. Jack Harmon’s main accomplishments, as seen in the first film, are watching stuff on a monitor, being out-hacked by his own boss, and getting killed by a truly ridiculous deathtrap. Not impressive. Luther’s good with the hacking and with monitoring the team operations, but he’s not as hands-on as his predecessors. And Benji, while enthusiastic as anything, is a bit of a bumbler. The only real contender for Barney is his own son. And I’m tempted to give Grant the win. All things considered, he’s a more versatile IMF agent than his father, skilled not only in the tech stuff but in roleplay and physical combat as well. True, Barney expanded into those fields when necessary, particularly in seasons 6 & 7, but Grant did them better. However, this category is specifically for best tech guy, not best all-around agent. And tech-wise, while Grant had more advanced gadgets than his father, it seemed that his activities involved a higher ratio of typing on keyboards to doing hands-on gadget/mechanical stuff. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he accomplished less, but it does feel like his tech work was less versatile, more in the direction of Luther’s one-note hacking and monitoring. Still, he did a fair amount of field work and gadgeteering as well. It’s a very close contest, and I’m tempted to call it a tie. But here’s the thing: Grant owed his skills to what he learned or inherited from Barney. So if anything, Grant’s achievements only add to Barney’s legacy. So again, the original verdict stands.

Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Previous winner: Cinnamon Carter. New candidates: Casey Randall, Shannon Reed.

For once we have no candidates from the movies, since no female agents have made repeat appearances. That leaves the two women from the revival series. Casey Randall was by far the weakest regular agent of either sex, rarely given anything significant to do and limited in range when she was. She was certainly the weakest seductress of them all, despite being relatively beautiful. But Shannon Reed was very impressive — strong, smart, charming, sexy, reasonably versatile as a roleplayer, and a pretty good singer too. Her main drawback was a tendency to be made a damsel in distress, but despite this, she never felt weak or helpless, and indeed it sometimes gave her the chance to be even more heroic. It’s another close contest — indeed, the contest between the original series’ three main female leads was also quite close — but I think we have our first upset, with Shannon now getting my vote for the best female agent, by a narrow margin.

Best One-Shot Female Agent: Previous winner: Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from “Odd Man Out.” New candidates: Every female agent in the movies.

Again, I won’t list all the candidates by name, but my favorite of the movies’ female agents was Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). Jane Carter (Paula Patton) got more to do, but she felt uncomfortable and out of place in the IMF’s roleplaying gambits, being more a blunt instrument who struggled to fulfill her responsibilities. Still, I don’t think Zhen quite upsets Crystal, although it’s very close.

Best Strongman: I’m changing this category from Best “Other Guy” because now we have more than one candidate in the strongman category. Previous winner: Willy Armitage. New candidate: Max Harte.

For once, we have a clear upset. Willy was pleasant enough and good with the physical stuff, but limited as a roleplayer. Max was less a strongman per se and more an all-around tough guy and fighter, but he was also a much more capable roleplayer, pilot, stunt rider, and the like. He was a great asset to the team and wins my vote easily.

Best One-Shot Male Agent: Previous winner: Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from “Memory.” New candidates: Jack Harmon, Franz Krieger, Billy Baird, Declan Gormey, William Brandt.

Okay, Brandt is the only one on the list who made much of an impression at all, aside from Krieger, who was a villain. But since he’s allegedly attached to the upcoming fifth movie, I’m not sure he qualifies for the one-shot category. Let’s leave this undecided.

So there we are — nine seasons and four movies. Please don’t ask me to redo this whole thing again when M:I-5 comes out, or this reviewer may self-destruct. Until then — “Mission… accomplished!”

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) Movie Review (spoilers)

Now adding a more detailed overview of the most recent Mission: Impossible film, which I offered initial thoughts on back in 2012M:I — Ghost Protocol was the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), with a script by Alias writer-producers André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum. J.J. Abrams produced the film, providing some continuity with its predecessor, a first in the M:I feature film “series.”

Bird establishes his strong visual sense right away with sweeping, dynamic overhead shots of Budapest, closing in on Josh Holloway as he flees from pursuers, casually leaping off a roof — after tossing down a cartridge that inflates into an airbag to catch him. He thinks he’s home free, but a dainty-featured blonde beauty (Lea Seydoux) assassinates him before he has a chance to react, hugging him close and kissing his cheek as she shoots him a few more times, then stealing the package he’s carrying.

Cut to a Moscow prison, where a small IMF team consisting of returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton), no known relation to Cinnamon Carter. Benji is controlling the prison doors to let out a certain person they’re trying to spring, who turns out to be Ethan Hunt, again with longer hair (this is becoming a pattern, short-l0ng-short-long). Benji plays Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” over the prison PA so Ethan can time his escape (during a prison riot, hence the song selection), a trick evocative of the use of carnival music to time a prison break in season 1’s “Old Man Out.” But Ethan won’t go without rescuing another prisoner, Bogdan (Miraj Grbić), who gave him intel and would be killed for it if he were left behind. Once they get out through a hole Carter blows in the cellar floor, she introduces herself to Ethan and he tells her to “light the fuse,” very cleverly incorporating the opening of the main titles into the action, and leading into a title sequence like a Pixarized version of the original series (or first movie) titles, with the CGI fuse burning through not just clips from the movie to come, but shots showing moments from the film from entirely different angles. It’s a bravura sequence, and Michael Giacchino scores it with an even bolder, brassier rendering of the Schifrin theme than he used last time. It ends with the fuse detonating a charge that I now realize must’ve been intended to bring down the tunnel and prevent pursuit, though that was only implied, since…

We cut right to Ethan, Benji, Carter, and Bogdan fleeing in a van — until they deftly transfer Bogdan to another IMF van. Benji explains he passed the field agent’s test, and Carter explains that Josh Holloway was her partner (and lover) and was killed trying to prevent Russian nuclear launch codes from falling into the wrong hands, which they now have — those hands belonging to the girlish assassin from before, Sabine Moreau, who intends to deliver them to a terrorist called Cobalt. The van stops by an old public phone which opens to reveal an IMF computer thingy that gives Ethan his mission — the first time in the film franchise that the briefing voice is anonymous rather than Ethan’s (or Phelps’s) boss. The gig is to infiltrate the Kremlin and get the files identifying Cobalt before he can destroy them. The “self-destruct in five seconds” bit is comically subverted when Ethan has to go back and smack it to set it off. Meanwhile, Benji mentions to Carter that Ethan’s marriage with Julia didn’t work out — disappointing, since she was so important to him in the third film.

Giacchino gives us a taste of “The Plot” when the briefing voice informs Ethan that he’s been assigned Benji and Carter as his team to save time. The agents hardly ever get to pick their own teams in the movies! He then gives us a bit more of “The Plot” as Bird’s camera swoops over the Kremlin — and then modulates into a similar-sounding melody in a bombastic Russian-marching-song idiom, one of my favorite pieces of music from the score. Carter uses a remote-controlled toy balloon to drop a hacking transmitter down a chimney so that when Ethan and Benji enter disguised as a Russian general and his aide, their clearance shows up on the computer. Then Ethan and Benji set up an elaborate projection-screen system in the hallway that tracks the eyes of the desk guard (ubiquitous Vancouver actor Mike Dopud) and shows him an image of the hall behind it. As I remarked in my initial review, this is a fancier version of a gambit seen in “The Falcon, Part 3,” but it’s exercised with a lot more comic flair. But things get serious when Ethan finds the records already expunged and then hears a voice cutting in on their frequency, announcing to the “team leader” that the detonator has been set. The Kremlin guards also pick this up and are alerted to the infiltration. Ethan aborts the mission and gets out, but then the building he was in blows up, and even the Patented Tom Cruise Run isn’t fast enough to get him away unscathed. He awakens in the hospital, under arrest and blamed for the bombing, as he learns from Russian intelligence man Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov), who’s determined to punish him for his alleged crime. Ethan makes a break onto the window ledge but has second thoughts about jumping shirtless and barefoot into a dumpster full of medical waste, and there’s a humorous bit of interplay with Sidorov, who’s watching him amusedly from the window. But then Ethan manages to slide down a wire onto a passing van’s roof and get away, swiping some poor guy’s cell phone to call for retrieval.

He’s picked up by no less than The Secretary (Tom Wilkinson), who happened to be in Moscow but has been recalled in disgrace. He tells Ethan the entire IMF has been disavowed and shut down, but lets him know he intends for Ethan to escape and mount a rogue operation using an “overlooked” equipment cache. He also introduces Ethan to William Brandt (The Avengers‘ Jeremy Renner), an IMF analyst. Ethan realizes he passed Cobalt in the Kremlin and sketches the face on his hand to show to Brandt, who recognizes him as Kurt Hendricks, a nuclear strategist with an apocalypse obsession and a belief that global cataclysm is a necessary step in evolution. He stole a missile-controlling briefcase from the Kremlin and blew it up so they wouldn’t find out, as well as to put the blame on the US and heighten tensions.

The Secretary personally delivers “your mission, should you choose to accept it” on a flash drive, but just as he’s telling Ethan what a friend he is, the car is attacked and the Secretary and driver killed, and as the limo overturns, Bird cleverly shoots the entire sequence from inside the back seat, until it crashes into the river. Ethan concocts a diversion to get himself and Brandt away from the firing guards, and afterward Brandt is confused about how Ethan knew it would work. Ethan explains it was more a matter of instinct, both his and the wildly firing guards’, than rational thought.

The equipment cache is in a train car that happens to be moving when they find it, leading to some slapstick as they try to gain access. Inside they find Jane and Benji, and Ethan briefs them on the mission to intercept Hendricks’s henchman Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) when he buys the launch codes from Moreau, then follow him back to Hendricks. He insists that both Moreau and Wistrom are assets that need to be kept alive until they find Hendricks, which angers Carter, who wants revenge on Moreau for killing Sawyer from Lost. But Ethan’s adamant: revenge must wait.

The movie series’s skyscraper fetish now reaches its greatest height, literally, for the meeting is at the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Another of Bird’s swooping chopper shots introduces it magnificently, and Giacchino gives the tower its own lush Arabian motif, my other favorite theme from the film. The gambit is one used on the original series, to intercept both parties in a meeting and make each one think they’re meeting the other, with Jane meeting Wistrom as Moreau and Ethan meeting Moreau as Wistrom. But they have to hack the building’s security servers to control the elevators, and of course the only way to get to them is via our climactic installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things.” I doubt I need to summarize the most famous sequence from the movie, but Ethan’s free climb of the glass exterior of the Burj showcases a lot more of Bird’s flair, wit, and comic timing, as well as Cruise’s impressive commitment to his work and insistence on doing his own stunts.

Ethan barely survives the climb and return, but then more things start to go wrong. The mask machine breaks down, so Ethan and Carter have to pull off the impersonations without masks and pray that Moreau and Wistrom have never met. Then Wistrom shows up with a Russian code expert he’s kidnapped to verify the codes, so the plan to replace them with fakes and track the paper to Hendricks needs revision — the copies (scanned by a special contact lens and printed inside a special briefcase) have to have authentic codes. (But the paper still has to be fake since it’s impregnated with a tracer they can track.) Brandt balks at handing over the real codes, but Ethan convinces him there’s no other way. The team manages to pull off the deception long enough for Wistrom to leave with the traceable codes, but then Moreau gets wise to Brandt’s contact lens and attacks him. Carter captures her and takes her back to the team’s room, handing Benji the gun since she knows she’ll kill Moreau if she has a gun on her. Moreau gets the drop on Benji, and Carter ends up having to kick Moreau out the still-open window a hundred-odd stories up. It’s unclear whether she even had a choice, but she’s screwed up.

After encountering Sidorov again and eluding him, Ethan breaks out the Patented Tom Cruise Run and chases Wistrom through a sandstorm, and I like how Bird uses the blinding conditions as a contrast to the wide-open action of the Burj Khalifa climb, mixing it up and keeping it interesting. But here’s where things didn’t quite work for me, since the idea was to trail Wistrom back to Hendricks, but Ethan ends up chasing him openly and then trying to catch him, even crashing a car into his to stop him, but he gets away and removes a mask revealing that he was Hendricks all along. Huh? Why? That doesn’t seem to make sense. Was it just something they inserted because there had to be at least one impossibly convincing mask impersonation in the film?

Later, the team is torn up with mutual recriminations, and Ethan confronts Brandt about the mad fighting skills he showed in the Burj Khalifa, asking why such a capable field agent would be just an analyst. On getting no answer, Ethan seems to abandon the team and goes off alone. Carter confronts Brandt, and he tells her and Benji what he wouldn’t tell Ethan: That he was responsible for protecting Ethan and Julia without their knowledge, but he failed and Julia got killed — much to the shock of Benji, who thought she’d simply left Ethan. Hunt was in the Russian jail for killing the Serbian assassins.

Ethan goes to meet with a Russian arms dealer, a relative of his old friend Bogdan. I think the sewed-up ski mask used to blindfold Ethan is the same ugly-muppet one from the first film. He tells the dealer about the nuclear threat and asks where Hendricks could get a satellite able to relay the control signal to a missile, learning there’s one that was sold to a Mumbai media mogul. But he won’t be able to hack it alone. So he has to mend fences with the team, and they fly off to plan the mission. There’s some fun banter between Brandt and Benji as the former is skeptical of the latter’s plan to get him past the deadly cooling fan into the massive server for controlling the satellite.

At the party held by the mogul, Nath (Anij Kapoor), Carter’s job is to be the seductress, getting Nath alone and getting the satellite control codes from him however she can. She’s in a sexy turquoise dress that tries to be as impressive as Maggie Q’s little red number from the last film, and comes reasonably close (though Paula Patton’s own physique helps enormously). But Jane is totally clumsy at playing the seductress, and only gets away with it because Nath doesn’t mind the dominatrix type. Once Brandt hesitantly takes the leap, gets into the server control, and gives Benji access, Benji finds that Hendricks has already taken control of the satellite. Carter gets the codes by force, but it’s too late. The only option is to get to the transmission site before missile launch, but even Ethan and Jane’s fancy sportscar can’t get through the Mumbai crowds in time. Now their last chance is to abort the launched missile in the few minutes before impact. Ethan spots Hendricks leaving and gives chase while Jane, Brandt, and Benji deal with Wistrom, who’s trying to damage the transmission equipment, which they have to repair while also contending with Wistrom and his gun (and Jane has to keep going despite being shot). Benji ultimately saves Brandt from Wistrom.

Meanwhile, Ethan chases Hendricks to an automated car-park tower (a full-size, working one constructed specifically for the film), and they battle for the case among the moving platforms, the logic of the sequence playing out not unlike that Popeye cartoon about chasing a baby through a construction site. It’s very clever and funny. Although it takes a serious turn when Hendricks, a true fanatic believing the apocalypse will save humanity, jumps to the ground and kills himself to keep Ethan from getting to the case in time. Ethan drives a car off its platform and relies on its seatbelt and airbag to save him (they do), then crows “Mission accomplished!” as he hits the abort button on the missile control — which doesn’t work until Brandt, freshly saved from Wistrom, turns the transmitter back on, neutralizing the missile. Sidorov, whom Ethan had the arms dealer contact, shows up just after the nick of time and realizes that Ethan wasn’t the bad guy.

Later, in San Francisco, Ethan is hanging out with Luther Stickell in a cameo scene when he meets with the others, tells them they made a good team, and offers them new missions. Benji and Jane accept, but Brandt resists, confessing that he let Julia die. But Ethan’s timed the meeting to show him that Julia is still alive, that Ethan faked her death and got her into witness protection to spare her. Michelle Monaghan gets only a wordless cameo, but it’s nice that she’s still potentially in play for the future. All’s well, and Ethan gets an assignment to go after a terrorist group called “the Syndicate,” an in-joke reference to the name always used for the mob in the original series. He vanishes into the mist, leading into an end-credit sequence scored, for once, not by a pop tune but by a suite of Giacchino’s (and Schifrin’s) themes for the film.

As my original review made clear, this is my favorite M:I film and the one that I think comes closest to the original series. But I have to revise what I said before, that the first three directors made movies very much in their own characteristic styles while Bird made more of a faithful M:I movie. Actually, Bird makes this movie his own just as much as the others did. It uses a lot of the tropes and trappings of M:I, but subverts them comically (along with many action-movie tropes as well), and it’s the intricately plotted visual and character humor that make it a Brad Bird film. The movie is much more fun and snarky than its predecessors and more so than the original series. It’s got the same kind of character focus that Abrams’s M:i:III had, but with a different tone and pace. It’s also unique among the M:I films in being an ensemble piece: All three supporting team members have their own arcs and stories, rather than just being there to back up Ethan. (Which may be because there was a tentative plan to phase out Cruise in favor of Renner as the franchise lead, although that plan was abandoned.)

Giacchino’s score here is my favorite of the series as well, even richer and more gorgeous than his score for the previous film, and one of my favorite Giacchino scores overall, the other being The Incredibles. I do wish he’d used “The Plot” for more than just the Kremlin sequence, though. It would’ve been interesting to hear an Indian-styled rendering of it in the Mumbai sequence, although we do hear a bit of the main title in that idiom.

Mission: Impossible 5 is currently in pre-production, with Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, and Edge of Tomorrow) as director and a script by Iron Man 3‘s Drew Pearce. Abrams is still producing, but this franchise just can’t hold onto a director for more than one film. We’ll have to see what fresh flavor McQuarrie brings. For now, though, this is the end of my review series — although I do have one more franchise-overview post to come.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) Movie Review (spoilers)

With this film, the M:I series returned after a 6-year gap, with Paramount bringing aboard Alias creator J.J. Abrams to relaunch the series — which he did so successfully that Paramount entrusted him not only with the ongoing M:I franchise, but with its sister franchise Star Trek as well. But that’s later. For now, M:i:III, as it was styled on posters, was directed by Abrams and written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams.

The cold open this time is a flashforward in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt awakens in captivity and is told by Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that he has a bomb in his brain. Davian grills him about the location of something called the Rabbit’s Foot, which Hunt believes he’s already given Davian. Davian threatens the life of a woman who’s clearly dear to Ethan, counting down relentlessly from ten, and Ethan runs the gamut from pleading to bargaining to threatening to reasoning to begging. Ethan Hunt shows far more characterization, and Tom Cruise shows far more acting range, in the first four minutes of this film than in the previous four hours of the franchise. It’s a brilliant, stunning opening and deeply refreshing after the tepid films that preceded it.

Once the countdown ends, we hear an ominous shot, and cut to a brief title sequence, with Abrams’s regular composer Michael Giacchino giving us a big, brassy orchestral variation on Schifrin’s theme. Cut to the woman we just saw threatened, and it’s Michelle Monaghan as Julia Meade, who’s throwing an engagement party with her fiancee, Ethan Hunt, whom she believes to be an employee of the Virginia Department of Transportation. It’s another marvelous scene rich with everyday texture, and it humanizes Ethan and grounds the film in a way that M:I has never been grounded before. This is the first time ever that we’ve been given a reason to identify with Ethan Hunt on an emotional, human level — and it only took ten years for it to happen. At last, our wooden action hero has become a real live boy.

But Ethan gets a call that Giacchino accompanies with Schifrinesque bongos, hinting at intrigue ahead. The call draws him to a 7-Eleven where he’s met by IMF Operations Director John Musgrave (Billy Crudup), offering him a shot at rescuing a trainee of his, Lindsey (Keri Russell, star of Abrams’s Felicity), who’s been taken captive. Ethan resists, since he’s given up field work to become an instructor training new recruits; but Musgrave suggests he buy a disposable camera, which contains the mission briefing, delivered by Musgrave himself (the first time the narrator’s face has ever appeared in a briefing recording). Lindsey was taken in Berlin while searching for arms dealer Davian, and Musgrave has already assigned a team — the second time in the film franchise that we’ve seen the team selected by the director rather than the team leader. The team consists of recurring character Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and newcomers Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) and Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, future title character of the 2014 Dracula TV series). For some reason, Zhen’s name is pronounced “Zen.” A nickname?

When we see the team’s faces in the briefing video, Giacchino introduces a leitmotif he’ll be using throughout the film, reminiscent of Schifrin’s “The Plot” but more Giacchino-esque. But then Ethan tells Julia that he’s going out of town for a transportation conference, and once he rendezvouses with the rest of the team, I’m delighted to say that Giacchino gives us the first full statement of “The Plot” in the film series to date, and indeed its first full use since the revival episode “For Art’s Sake” 17 years earlier. It’s glorious. The motif is used again in the mission that follows, but it’s a very, very un-IMF-style mission, going in with guns and bombs to break out Lindsey and retrieve Davian’s laptops (which are damaged in an explosion). The team members even have military-style code names for the op: Ethan is “Raider One,” Luther is “Observer,” Zhen is “Groundhog” (since she breaks in from underneath), and Declan is “Phoenix” because he’s the chopper pilot. How come movie-era IMF teams always have chopper pilots? Anyway, Lindsey tries to tell Ethan something for his ears only but doesn’t get the chance due to all the bangs and booms. They get to da choppa but are chased by another choppa through a wind-vane farm, and Lindsey suffers severe pain, and Ethan finds out she has a bomb in her head and tries to fry it by zapping her with a defibrillator, which will stop her heart, but then he plans to zap her again to restart it. Which isn’t actually how defibrillators work (they stop fibrillating hearts but don’t restart stopped ones, despite 99.99999% of their portrayals in fiction), but he doesn’t get the chance to do it anyway, because the action of the chopper chase delays him until she dies (the charge being small enough to be entirely internal but still fatal).

So he’s all bummed out about that, and even worse, he can’t confide in his beloved Julia about his grief. Not to mention that he and Musgrave are raked over the coals by Director Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), who’s something of a blowhard fond of labored and colorful turns of phrase, but he still comes off as a strong authority figure by virtue of being Laurence Fishburne. Anyway, at Lindsey’s funeral, and after some flashbacks to her IMF training (which is all firearms and fighting, not a trace of the deceptions and gadgets and roleplay that are supposed to be the IMF’s bread and butter), he gets a call from a package service that Lindsey sent something to a mailbox she kept for him. It’s a postcard with a microdot, but Luther can’t read the dot without special equipment.

Meanwhile, Simon Pegg makes his debut as Benji Dunn, a colorful IMF technician who’s deciphered enough from Davian’s hard drives to know that he’s planning to steal and sell a valuable weapon called the Rabbit’s Foot, though Benji has no idea what that is, aside from a rambling speculation about high-tech end-of-the-world superweapons. He’ll be in the Vatican soon to meet a buyer, so now the team knows where he’ll be and when. He goes to tell Julia he’ll be away again, and she senses he’s hiding something and asks when he’ll let her in. He responds by convincing her to get married right there and then, which is at once very romantic and very evasive.

We finally get something resembling an apartment scene as Ethan briefs the team on the operation to kidnap Davian. The Vatican sequence is the closest thing in the film to a classic M:I gambit. Ethan and Declan stage a delivery-truck breakdown by the Vatican wall to give Ethan a chance to infiltrate via our next installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” this time combined with the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he PTCRs up the wall on a retracting cable. Now, I’m not even going to try to keep track of all the PTCRs in this film; there’s barely a major action sequence here without one. Not since Lee Majors has an action star gotten so much mileage (so to speak) out of his run. Anyway, Ethan spoofs a security camera, then changes to a priest disguise to get in, while Declan gets in as the delivery guy and then changes to a guard’s uniform so he can let in Zhen as a party guest in a fancy sportscar. While Ethan helps Luther break in by vandalizing a wall with artwork painted on it, Zhen enters the party wearing the most amazing red dress I’ve ever seen, and uses a compact to take reference photos of Davian for Luther’s mask-making machine. Yes, the movie’s following the precedent of the revival series in using computer-aided, photo-based technology to manufacture masks, though the specific mechanism is more elaborate. Meanwhile, Luther lectures Ethan about how long-term relationships can’t last in their line of work, until Ethan breaks down and tells him he’s already married Julia. Luther also benefits from the film’s innovative use of actual characterization for its characters, giving Ving Rhames more to work with than he had in the previous film, and making Luther’s friendship with Ethan feel more substantial than it did in the first two.

Zhen then spills a drink on Davian’s shirt so he’ll have to retreat to the bathroom, where Ethan in Davian disguise tackles him and forces him at gunpoint to read from a card so they’ll get enough phonemes for the voice-altering throat gizmo (returning from the previous film) to mimic his voice accurately. I think this is a really clever new touch, a nice bit of comedy that actually makes technical sense. They smuggle Davian out through the ducts while Ethan-Davian lets Zhen pick him up and drive off in her car, which they exit via a sewer cover underneath just before blowing up the car to fake Davian’s death.

On a plane back, Ethan quizzes Davian about the Rabbit’s Foot, but Davian only threatens to find his loved ones and make them suffer and die. He boasts about killing Lindsey for fun in order to provoke Ethan to threaten his life, so that Luther calling his name to stop him will reveal his name to Davian, getting him one step closer to revenge. Although he only gets the first name, so his ability to find out the rest so quickly is a subtle clue that he has help inside the IMF. As is the fact that he’s promptly freed by an attack on the IMF convoy crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a nice sequence because we see Ethan and his team trying to protect and help the civilians endangered by the attack. That’s very refreshing after the last film, where Ethan was insanely reckless about civilian safety in his car and motorcycle chases, even the “playful” one with Thandie Newton in the first act. But no sooner is Davian out that he calls Ethan and threatens to kill Julia unless Ethan steals the Rabbit’s Foot for him, so Ethan has to flee the scene in the first car he can steal (which happens to be a high-end Mercedes — what are the odds?) and race to the hospital where she works. But Davian’s man gets her first, and Ethan is confronted by an IMF team sent to arrest him. Even the PTCR can’t save him from a tasering. At HQ, he’s all trussed up and gagged as Brassel bloviates over him, revealing that he’s suspected of being the mole who helped spring Davian because he fled the scene. It’s the second time in three movies that Ethan’s been accused of treason. But Musgrave helps him escape after clandestinely letting him know that the Rabbit’s Foot is in China. (I like how this is done. In the party scene earlier, we saw a bit of Ethan using his lip-reading skills to answer a question Julia was asking in the next room, to set up this later scene where Musgrave mouths his secret message for Ethan to lip-read. Yet it was established very subtly and organically, well-disguised as just a bit of character interplay.)

So Ethan goes to downtown Shanghai — how come superweapon labs are never in boring, non-photogenic locations? — and finds his team has been sent by Musgrave to help him. He devises a plan to get to the skyscraper housing the lab by rappelling across from another building, just what we’d expect from Ethan — but then he starts writing math equations on the window to plot his trajectory, which is not what we would’ve expected from the hotheaded daredevil of the first two films, and is another touch that nicely grounds the film in a less cartoony reality than its predecessor and fleshes out Ethan as an individual. Anyway, we then see him swinging across and breaking in, but we only see the reactions of the other team members waiting outside and having a character moment or two, before the action kicks in again and Ethan makes an abortive and near-lethal BASE jump to get out and then has to contend with Shanghai traffic and weak cell signals before telling Davian he has the RF, just in time to spare Julia’s life. Then he sends the rest of the team home and gets picked up by Davian, and we end up in the scene we saw in the cold open, with Ethan getting the bomb injected into his head. After it appears that Julia’s been killed, Musgrave shows up! He says “It’s complicated,” then tears off “Julia”‘s mask to reveal the face of the translator/security chief (Bahar Soomekh) who failed to protect Davian at the Vatican. Musgrave explains that he’s cultivated Davian as a resource in defiance of Brassel’s orders because he thinks it can do more good to control his arms sales so the IMF/CIA can track down bigger fish through him and take them out. Which sounds like the kind of strategy the intelligence community might actually use, tolerating the little fish as informants to get the big ones, so it’s not that clear why he has to do this in secret. But now it’s personal for Ethan. He gets Musgrave to call the people who have Julia so he can hear her voice, then takes out Musgrave while still shackled to a chair, breaks out, and calls Benji on Musgrave’s phone, getting him to trace the location of the last call.

And this leads to the apotheosis of the Patented Tom Cruise Run as he dashes through the streets of old Shanghai, including a single unbroken shot that must be 30 seconds long. Eventually he finds Julia held captive in a small clinic, but Davian shows up, activates the bomb in Ethan’s head, and fights with him, eventually losing. Ethan frees Julia and gets through her fear and confusion to persuade her to shock him temporarily dead to short out the bomb — after giving her a lightning-quick lesson in firearms. And then, while he’s out of action — I love this part. This part is amazing. Julia gets into a firefight with Musgrave’s men, then takes out Musgrave by chance when he shows up with the Rabbit’s Foot. Then she CPRs and cardiac-thumps Ethan until he revives — so fortunately we never did see a defibrillator being unrealistically used to start a stopped heart. (I wondered why she didn’t find a shot of adrenaline for his heart in the clinic, but maybe she couldn’t read the Chinese labels.) So after being in the conventional role of the love interest and the damsel in distress for most of the film, Julia ends up being the one who single-handedly beats the main villain, retrieves the McGuffin, and saves the hero’s life. It’s an awesome subversion of action-movie gender roles, and particularly refreshing after the last film did so poorly with gender balance. And it suggests that Tom Cruise’s ego is perhaps not as inflated as people tend to think — because he was willing to have himself rendered ineffectual in the climax of the film so that someone else could save the day.

Afterward, Ethan tells Julia the truth about his job, and then, once Brassel clears and thanks him, we see that he’s brought in Julia to meet his team, letting her fully into his life. The story ends back in the everyday, character-oriented place where it began, and reinforces that Julia is Ethan’s equal and his partner, not just his lust object.

I love this film. Okay, granted, it’s no more faithful to the M:I formula than its predecessors, much more a big spy-action movie than a caper movie. It’s also like the previous two films in its reuse of tropes like a traitor in the IMF, Ethan being on the run from the IMF, Ethan being lowered into places on ropes, etc. It’s a blend of the conspiracy-thriller elements of the DePalma film and the over-the-top action elements of the Woo film. And it’s still “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt and His Backup” rather than a full ensemble piece, at least until the climax where Julia becomes the heroine. The Vatican sequence feels like a faster-paced version of a classic M:I operation, but it’s a small portion of the film. I realize now that the first film actually had more classic M:I-style material (the Kiev opening, the Prague operation, the Langley heist) than this one did. So this film is nearly tied with the Woo film for being the least Mission: Impossible-like installment in the franchise. But Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci took what had been a tepid, shallow action series to this point and brought humanity, thoughtfulness, and wit to it even while maintaining a similarly exaggerated level of action. This is what Abrams did effectively in Alias at its best, balancing larger-than-life spy-fantasy action with everyday, human relationships and emotions, and that human touch makes it easier to enjoy the crazy action because there’s a reason for emotional investment in what’s going on. The film also makes much better use of Tom Cruise as an actor, and makes Ethan Hunt a person at last rather than just an action figure.

As I’ve said before, M:i:III is more like Alias: The Movie than Mission: Impossible. But it’s the first Ethan Hunt movie that’s actually good.

I already gave my thoughts on the fourth film, Ghost Protocol, when it came out. But I’m going to do what I suggested I would and post a fuller analysis to complete my review series. Maybe seeing it in the wake of all three predecessors will offer new insights.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000) Movie Review (Spoilers)

The second Ethan Hunt film, styled in posters and promotions as M:I-2, was directed by John Woo. The script was by Robert Towne from a story (and first draft, I gather) by the Star Trek: The Next Generation writing team of Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga. This is the only non-Trek production the two writers worked on as a team, and I can only surmise that they got the job due to their work on the earlier Paramount features Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. That makes this the first M:I feature film to have a connection to Star Trek, which was the sister show of the original M:I series.

The film follows the precedent of the last five television seasons (counting both series) by commencing with a cold open establishing the crisis. A scientist named Nekhorvich has arranged with the IMF to deliver a secret called Chimera, and is shepherded on a jet by the only man he trusts, Ethan Hunt — and Tom Cruise’s hair is considerably longer than it was the last time. But then Ethan, the pilot, and several others contrive to knock out the crew and passengers of the jet and steal the package the scientist was delivering. Has Ethan gone evil? No, he rips off his Ethan mask to reveal Dougray Scott, and peels off a new innovation, a throat patch that alters his voice — and once it’s gone his accent is suddenly Scottish. He and his men point the jet at a mountain and bail out before it crashes. Smash cut to Moab, Utah, where we get the series’s first installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things,” in this case an insanely dangerous free climb of a really high, thin mesa, which Cruise did without a net (but with a harness). Once he’s at the top, a helicopter flies in and fires a projectile which Hunt opens to find a pair of sunglasses that play the mission briefing for him in the dulcet tones of Anthony Hopkins — a vast improvement over the previous film’s Henry Czerny. Hopkins’s spiel goes directly from “Good morning, Mr. Hunt” to “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” without any initial exposition, and the mission described is simply to retrieve the stolen Chimera, no more explanation. Already we’re getting a sense of the relative emphasis on exposition vs. action in this film. Ethan’s told he can pick two team members of his choosing, but must also recruit Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton), a master thief. Hopkins’s voice adds that Hunt should meet him in Seville in 48 hours, and appends a note that the next time Hunt goes on vacation, he should let the IMF know where he’s going. Ethan tosses the glasses aside as they self-destruct in a fiery explosion right in front of the camera, leading into a totally incoherent barrage of images under the titles. Oh, is this a John Woo film? Hans Zimmer provides a rock score that at this point only approximates the main title theme, using the ostinato and the chord structure but not the main melody.

In Seville, Hunt has a “Some Enchanted Evening” moment with Nyah (i.e. “see a stranger across a crowded room”) as they gaze at each other in slow motion across a stage where flamenco dancers are performing. The dancers, by the way, are essentially the only women in the film other than Nyah; this film fails the Bechdel Test on every possible level. Ethan interrupts Nyah as she breaks into a safe by a bathtub, and she pulls this man she’s just met into the bathtub into a sexually suggestive position as they hide from someone, and they continue to flirt blatantly as he lets her open the safe, but then he trips the alarm and gets her out of the jam by selling the pretense that she’s his assistant in a security test of the alarm system, making her return the necklace to its owners first. He tries to recruit her for IMFery, but she’s not buying. So the movie gets even more self-indulgent as he calls her on her car phone the next morning while chasing after her in another sportscar, and they engage in a stupidly dangerous car chase that risks the lives of innocent passersby as well as each other, and there’s this totally dumb moment where he crashes his car into hers to keep her from going off a cliff and they spin out together in slow motion while exchanging a romantic look, and once she almost goes over another cliff and he pulls her to safety, that’s somehow all the courtship they need to end up in bed together. I’m not sure that’s what the phrase “whirlwind courtship” is supposed to mean.

(Oh, by the way, “Nyah” rhymes with “Maya” or “Gaia.” It’s not like “nyah, nyah, nyahhh.”)

So then Ethan meets with Hopkins, who went uncredited in the film but whose name in the script was “Mission Commander Swanbeck.” Swanbeck explains that, since Nekhorvich would only meet with Hunt and Hunt wasn’t available, the IMF sent in Sean Ambrose (Scott), who’s served as Hunt’s double on a couple of missions. But Ambrose went rogue to steal the Chimera, whatever it is. Ethan is shocked to learn that Nyah was recruited because she’s Ambrose’s old flame whom he desperately wants back — so her job is to rekindle their romance. Ethan’s dismay at this might be more convincing if there were more to their relationship than one meet-cute, several counts of reckless driving, and a one-night stand. Swanbeck also gets in a sexist line about how just being a woman qualifies her to sleep with a man and lie to him. Ethan doesn’t want to make her do it, but apparently that whole “should you decide to accept it” thing doesn’t mean much anymore. He insists it would be difficult, but Swanbeck says “This isn’t Mission: Difficult, it’s Mission: Impossible.” Ouch — too meta. Would’ve worked better if he’d said, “This isn’t the Difficult Missions Force, it’s the Impossible Missions Force.” Because that’s what they actually call it in-universe, guys! (But then, Moore and Braga are the same duo who had Zefram Cochrane say “You’re astronauts on some kind of star trek.”)

Anyway, Nyah is reluctant, but Hunt convinces her to go in, promising to have her back. She says it’ll only be convincing if she’s in trouble that only Ambrose can get her out of, so they arrange for her publicized arrest so he’ll come and bail her out. He takes her to his compound located in Sydney Harbour, the second time a movie-length M:I installment has used that location. Finally, more than half an hour into the film, we hear a rock version of the Schifrin main theme over a brief montage introducing the two supporting team members: Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the master hacker returning from the first film, and Billy Baird (John Polson), who’s basically just the pilot and the comic relief. He’s sort of an Australian prototype for Simon Pegg’s Benji from the following films, but with less personality or screentime. Their command post is a small house in the outback, for some reason. Luther has the only computer that can track or detect the chip implanted in Nyah, so they can follow her via satellite. Yup, not only is she the only woman in the film, but they’ve got her Lojacked. And Ambrose is rather forceful about getting her in bed once they’re reunited. Ambrose is also quite upset at his sidekick Hugh (Richard Roxburgh) for making the entirely reasonable suggestion that Nyah might be a plant.

Later at the horse-racing track (I didn’t notice if it was the same racetrack used in a couple of the revival’s episodes, but I wouldn’t be surprised), Ethan and Billy make contact with Nyah while Ambrose meets with McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), the head of Biocyte Pharmaceuticals, and shows him data on a digital camera’s memory card. Ethan has Nyah pickpocket the card and deliver it to him so Luther can view and copy it. The data reveals that Chimera is a deadly virus, sort of a superflu created to test a universal flu antidote called Bellerophon. Ambrose has the cure, and is taking bids from terrorists and rogue states, but he lacks the disease, which he wants. Ethan tells Nyah he’ll get her out, then sends her to return the disc to Ambrose’s jacket — but she gets agitated and puts it in the wrong pocket, which he notices.

Later, she’s met by Ethan, who tells her she has to stay inside and do everything Ambrose says. At the same time, we cut to McCloy being abducted and met by what appears to be the late Nekhorvich, who makes him think he’s been infected with Chimera and goads him into a rather stilted confession that he deliberately created the supervirus as an incentive to market his supercure, as well as deliberately exposing and killing one of his scientists to test it. “Nekhorvich” knocks him out again and takes off his mask, revealing Ethan. But then we’re back to the continuation of the scene with Ethan and Nyah at Ambrose’s compound. Was what we just saw a flashback? Nope. Once Nyah leaves, we find that Ambrose was impersonating Ethan again, and now knows Nyah’s a spy. He also knows Ethan plans to raid Biocyte to destroy the virus, and knows him well enough to anticipate his plan. The movie rather blatantly imitates its predecessor by requiring Ethan to drop on a cable down a very high shaft in order to get to the virus lab without anyone knowing. Then he breaks in and sets to destroying Chimera during a window when some kind of generator is active so comms are down, and I guess alarms are off or something. I wasn’t clear on that part. But Ambrose breaks in another way — with Nyah, allowing Luther to track them — but Luther can’t warn Ethan, plus he almost gets blown up by the baddies. For some reason, the Chimera is in several handy injector guns, and just before Ethan can destroy the last one, the bad guys arrive and there’s a reallllly long firefight before the injector falls on the floor and Ambrose gives a hold fire order so it doesn’t break open. He sends Nyah to retrieve it as a hostage for Ethan’s cooperation, and Ethan has finally figured out that Nekhorvich injected Chimera into his own blood and Ambrose’s love of killing kept him from retrieving a sample the first time. This serves little narrative purpose except to inspire Nyah to inject herself with the virus so Ambrose won’t kill her. (Umm, why would that work? He doesn’t need her alive to retrieve a sample of her blood.) Ethan has to leave her behind when he blows out the wall and escapes via parachute (did I mention the lab was on the 42nd floor?) — I guess his chute couldn’t handle the extra weight. He’s got 20 hours to save her before it’s incurable.

Ambrose meets with McCloy for his payoff for the Bellerophon, but demands not only money but stock options. He’s released Nyah into downtown Sydney as a Typhoid Mary, planning to start an epidemic that will create great demand for the Bellerophon cure and make Biocyte stock invaluable. It’s actually a rather clever plan, except for their total and crashingly stupid failure to place Nyah under any kind of supervision — more on that in a bit. We get “Ethan Hunt Climbing Things” Part 2 as he climbs up to their island meeting place, then he breaks in and deals with the guards in the corridors of the compound, and there’s a moment where he does a Patented Tom Cruise Run in slow motion through a flock of doves that are there because John Woo. He blows the door of the meeting room and gets Hugh’s attention, and Hugh comes after him and he releases a grenade and there’s a kaboom, and then Hugh drags a mute Ethan (allegedly with a broken jaw) before Ambrose, who shoots him dead, but then he realizes he killed Hugh in an Ethan mask with his mouth duct-taped underneath, and Ethan in a Hugh mask has absconded with the Bellerophon and Chimera vials, and also there are doves in the hallway. Which leads to an absurdly long chase with cars and motorcycles that endangers a lot more innocent motorists before gradually getting pared down to Ethan and Ambrose dueling on motorcycles and then charging at each other and leaping off their bikes which spontaneously explode at exactly the same time for no clear reason, and then having a huge martial-arts fight, and at this point I finally realized this was supposed to be an over-the-top, cartoony Hong Kong action flick and just kinda tried going with it. Still pretty stupid, but Cruise does his own stunts pretty impressively, although I could’ve appreciated the stunt work better without all the slow motion. Meanwhile, Nyah has wandered off to a cliff that she plans to throw herself off of rather than infect the city. Gee, I guess it didn’t occur to Ambrose that she might have functional legs and a will of her own and should be guarded. I mean, having her stay in downtown Sydney was only the linchpin of his entire plan, after all.  But Luther and Billy intercept her just before she cliff-dives and bring her to Ethan, but they have to pause for the final shootout between Ethan and Ambrose because he stupidly got into another slugfest with Ambrose after getting a decisive edge over him, because Ambrose insulted Nyah. But it doesn’t do much more than prolong the already extremely prolonged action, since Nyah gets the shot in time, and then Ethan lies to Anthony Hopkins about the “accidental” destruction of the last Chimera sample he was supposed to retrieve intact, and then he and Nyah walk off in a park by Sydney Harbour, and we get an end-title song by “Limp Bizkit,” whatever that is, that incorporates the Schifrin theme into it.

This movie didn’t have that much plot, I guess, since so much of it was long action set pieces and slow motion. I guess if you like style over substance, and like that particular style, that might be okay, but I found it mostly a rather ludicrous exercise, especially the cartoony excuse for a courtship between Ethan and Nyah and the insanely over-the-top bike stunts in the climactic chase. (Really — those bikes endure an impossible amount of strenuous riding and being shot at, but then spontaneously explode when the combatants leap off them?) And it doesn’t feel much like Mission: Impossible at all. It’s more of a solo mission for Ethan Hunt, with Luther and Billy being secondary supporting players. There’s hardly any role-playing or elaborate gambits, except at the racetrack and when they capture McCloy. It’s also the only M:I installment ever that makes no use of Schifrin’s “The Plot” at all, not even in brief snippets. Hans Zimmer’s score is in a driving hard-rock sort of idiom that doesn’t do much for me. Zimmer’s a composer I have a mixed response to. He’s very chameleonic, good at doing what a director wants from him, so whether I like his scores is often contingent on what director he’s working for. Anything he does for a film directed or produced by Christopher Nolan is just a bunch of blaring, droning, nigh-atonal chords that I find generally annoying and tedious, while conversely I’ve found his work on Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to be just the opposite, extremely rich and creative and melodic and fascinating. This score wasn’t as ponderous and unpleasant as his Nolan scores, but it didn’t do anything for me.

I’ll give the film this, though: It’s the only one of the four movies to date that doesn’t involve Ethan being suspected of treason and on the run from his own agency. He’s got full IMF support and a sanctioned team throughout. So it’s odd that we see so little of that team. If anything, it’s the villain Ambrose who seems to make more use of familiar IMF tactics than Hunt does, devising elaborate deceptions and strategies to pursue his goals and working with his own team.

Cast-wise, Cruise gives a better, more relaxed and confident performance this time around, even though he has less to work with. Ethan Hunt still doesn’t have much of a personality; he gets to be a full-fledged romantic lead for the first time (rather than just kind of borderline-cheating with another man’s wife who turns out to be evil), but the romance is so superficial and absurdly developed that it establishes more about Hunt’s driving skills than his emotional life. Thandie Newton is effective as Nyah; her basic role is to be lovely and desirable, and she pulls that off splendidly, but she also manages to give Nyah a fair amount of attitude and strength that are better than the material she has to work with. Anthony Hopkins is, well, Anthony Hopkins, though he pretty much phones it in. The other cast members are okay but nothing exceptional. This wasn’t really a movie about character drama, it was a movie about car crashes and explosions and fights and a sexy token female and the odd flock of doves. And climbing. Lots of climbing.

On reflection, I’m unsure whether we should take this as an actual IMF mission or as a fantasy story Ethan Hunt wrote in his diary in spy school. It’s just so very silly and shallow and self-indulgent. And it’s an enormous departure from its namesake franchise. I guess it’s more successful at being what it wants to be than the first movie was, but what it wants to be is not what a Mission: Impossible fan is likely to be looking for. Fortunately this film would not define the future direction for the film series. Indeed, the gap between this film and its sequel would be the longest in the franchise’s history to date — paving the way for yet another, much more effective reinvention.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) Movie Review (Spoilers)

And now I begin the home stretch of my M:I review series with the debut of the Tom Cruise movie series. Mission: Impossible (1996) was directed by Brian DePalma, from a story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian and a screenplay by Koepp and Robert Towne.

We open in the middle of a caper in progress in Kiev, with Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez, uncredited for some reason) watching a screen on which an older moustachioed man is grilling another man in Russian. The man thinks he’s killed the woman lying on the bed, and the older man is demanding the name of his contact in exchange for helping him out of the mess. The scene is scored by Danny Elfman with a few hints of the melody of “The Plot” peeking out here and there. Harmon is concerned that the woman has been under too long. The Russian finally gives a name, whereupon a maid gives him a drink with knockout drops. The older man rips off his mask (via a digital effect) to reveal an astonishingly young Tom Cruise, who orders that the man be disposed of while his team begins striking the set of the hotel room. He injects the woman (Emmannuelle Beart) and there’s clearly a thing between them as he strokes her face once she revives. “We got him,” he confirms…

And we cut to a match head being struck, and a title sequence that’s a flashier version of the original, with very brief, split-second clips from the movie ahead, and occasional shots of an actual fuse burning rather than the animated one from the TV titles. Like the ’88 revival’s titles, it includes a few shots of gadgetry, passport photos, and the like as well as action clips. Elfman gives us a really rich, gorgeous arrangement of Schifrin’s theme. Only Cruise gets his name given over the title sequence. The rest of the credits are shown over the next scene in a jet, where a flight attendant offers a movie on tape to Jon Voight, whom she addresses as Mr. Phelps. For the moment, let’s stipulate that this individual is Jim Phelps, though we’ll explore this idea more later on. The tape scene that follows is in the familiar pattern, except it isn’t Bob Johnson giving the narration. The mission is to intercept Golitsyn, a traitor who’s stolen half of a list of US agents’ non-official covers (the NOC list) and stop him from stealing the other half which reveals their true identities. (Apparently, in real life, NOC agents are spies that have no official government status and are disavowed by their employing government if caught — which means that all IMF agents are NOC agents.) A dossier sequence is incorporated into the spiel, with the narrator saying he’s taken the liberty of selecting agents from Phelps’s usual team, and redundantly telling Phelps what his own usual team members’ jobs are, a really awkward bit of “As You Know, Bob” exposition. The significant ones are Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the point man “as usual,” and Beart’s Claire Phelps, Jim’s wife (and Jim apparently needs to be reminded of this by the tape as well), who’s in charge of “transport.” There’s also Jack as the hacker, Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) already embedded in an undercover role, and a minor female team member named Hannah on surveillance.  Phelps lights a cigarette to cover the smoke from the self-destructing tape. So far, aside from a few stylistic touches and the cast changes, this feels like the M:I we know. So far.

In Prague, the team meets in a safe house to plan the mission — reminiscent of the revival series’ frequent use of on-site “command post” briefings. Voight’s Phelps is a sterner boss than Graves’s version, giving curt, fast-paced orders with plenty of CIA-style operational jargon; if anything, he reminds me more of Dan Briggs. But then Ethan asks an impertinent question and the tone softens, with the group joking around like old friends, though Phelps still seems at a remove from the rest. The banter makes a point of referencing a Chicago hotel where Jim stayed during his absence on the Kiev mission. In another echo of Briggs, Phelps doesn’t participate directly in the mission but monitors from the safe house. Since it’s 1996, every team member now has a hidden camera and earwig radio, so Phelps can see everything that’s going on. He’s also able to override Jack’s hacking of the elevator when Jack is too slow, something that I’m sure won’t be at all significant later. Ethan goes to the US embassy in Prague disguised as a US senator who’s basically Cruise in age makeup doing an impression of George Bush, Sr., and Sarah helps him get into the secure area so that he can plant his video glasses to get a shot of Golitsyn when he arrives shortly thereafter to steal the NOC list from the computer.

The plan is to follow Golitsyn to his contact, but something goes wrong — Jack loses control of the elevator that he’s sitting on the roof of, and it sends him up to the top of the shaft, which for some reason is equipped with deadly spikes that drop down and impale him. Phelps says he’s lost control of the system and comes to rendezvous with the team, but then reports he’s being tailed. Ethan goes to him while sending Sarah to tail Golitsyn. Then Ethan hears shots and arrives in time to see a bloodied Phelps falling off a bridge into the river. The car that Claire and Hannah are apparently in blows up, and Ethan finds Sarah and Golitsyn stabbed, the list gone. The cops come after him and he rabbits. Getting to a phone and inserting a security gadget, he contacts IMF director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) for help, and Kittredge, who’s surprisingly in Prague already, arranges to meet him at an aquarium-themed restaurant. Czerny is apparently the voice we heard giving Phelps’s briefing at the beginning. The idea of the briefing coming from the IMF director himself never occurred to me; I always figured the Voice on Tape/Disc was some support staffer relaying instructions from on high. But it makes sense — if the IMF was originally this small, deniable, garage-band operation as I like to think, it wouldn’t have had much of a permanent staff. So maybe Bob Johnson was playing the actual head of the IMF all those years, or at least someone very senior.

Anyway, Czerny gives a twitchy, smarmy, unsubtle performance as Kittredge grills Ethan, and Cruise’s performance isn’t much better, his reaction to the death of all his friends consisting mostly of shouting. I need to make something clear here: Although Tom Cruise gets a lot of guff for his personal eccentricities, I think that should be kept separate from his work as an actor, and I’ve long been very impressed by his total commitment and professionalism in his film work. So don’t expect any habit of Cruise-bashing in the reviews to follow. However, he’s really not that good in this one — which is interesting given that he would be nominated for an Oscar for his work in the same year’s Jerry Maguire, after previously getting an Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July and a Golden Globe nomination for A Few Good Men. Since Czerny does a pretty bad job too, maybe the fault lay with Brian DePalma.

Ethan recognizes that the restaurant patrons around him were at the party and on the streets in various roles before — they’re a second IMF team! Kittredge reveals that the Golitsyn mission was bait to catch a mole inside the IMF with a fake NOC list — and since Ethan’s the only survivor from his team, that suggests it’s him. Realizing he’s in trouble, Ethan palms a chewing-gum explosive from his pocket, a final legacy from Jack, and tosses it against an aquarium wall, producing one of the more famous action scenes from the film as the glass breaks and all the water pours out, even from the aquaria overhead. (One guy is blown clear through the front windows even though the charge isn’t much more than firecracker-sized. Huh?) Ethan breaks into a Patented Tom Cruise Run to get away.

For some reason, he then decides that the best place to hide from his own agency is the very safe house his own team leader set up. Not to worry, though — he shatters glass from a light bulb across the hallway so he’ll hear if anyone comes. He remembers Kittredge’s exposition about the buyer for the NOC list being an arms dealer named Max, who referred to the deal as “Job 314.” Hunt attempts a rather implausible Usenet search in which terms like “Max” and “Job” produce, not a useless overabundance of hits as you’d expect, but no hits whatsoever. Then he happens to notice a Bible on the bookshelf and thinks of Job 3:14. He finds Usenet forums about that chapter and verse and sends e-mails to Max, warning that the stolen list is a fake. Later, weary, he has a rather ridiculous dream of a bloody Phelps accusing him of failure, only to wake up and find it’s actually Claire, whom he holds at gunpoint since he can’t believe she’s alive. The whole scene is kind of incoherent, and kind of uncomfortably rapey as he forces her onto the bed at gunpoint while she insists it’s really her. But just reminding him over and over again of their plan to return to the safe house at 4 AM, 0400, four o’clock, when the big hand’s on the four, eight bells, etc., is enough to convince him.

Later, Ethan gets a hit from Max and arranges a meeting, which involves blindfolding him with a stocking cap that makes him look like the world’s most badly assembled Muppet. Max turns out to be Vanessa Redgrave (you were expecting maybe Tony Hamilton?), who flirts with him shamelessly. He warns her the list is a fake and has a homing device (somehow), but the only way to prove it is to let her activate it and then flee just before Kittredge’s team arrives. In order to get the true identity of the mole called Job, Ethan arranges with Max to steal the actual NOC list. So… basically his plan to clear his name of a crime is to commit the actual crime he’s accused of. Oh, that makes perfect sense. Claire agrees to go along to avenge her husband, and they need to recruit help from the “Disavowed List.”

Okay, now, I commented back in my review of “The Fortune” that it doesn’t make much sense for the IMF to keep a computer record of agents it’s disavowed and denied any knowledge of. Isn’t that rather counterproductive? Also, wouldn’t most disavowed agents be either dead or imprisoned in foreign countries for their crimes? But the movie, despite using the familiar phrase in the briefing scene — and despite building the whole story around the real-life NOC phenomenon that’s the closest equivalent to M:I-style disavowal — suddenly decides to reinterpret disavowed agents as ones who’ve simply gone rogue. It’s never really explained, though, since we cut right to Ethan and Claire’s first meeting with the “disavowed” duo. Ethan’s pick was Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), a master hacker, while Claire has brought in Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), an “exfiltration” man, i.e. getaway chopper pilot. They break into CIA headquarters in Langley, VA to steal the list, and I’m not sure I need to recap the most famous sequence in the franchise. It’s really very clever, a set piece worthy of the best of M:I (and drawing on the Topkapi heist scene that was part of the inspiration for the entire franchise). They have to break into a vaultlike security room with pressure sensors in the floor, heat sensors, and audio sensors, and it’s very clever the way they circumvent them as Krieger lowers Ethan down on a cable from a grille in the ceiling, with Luther hacking in from outside and Claire slipping an emetic to the vault’s lone staffer so he’ll be out of the room for a while. (Although their crawling around through metal air conditioning ducts without making a huge amount of noise is quite implausible.) I love DePalma’s use of silence, something that so few action movies appreciate how to use. It really adds a layer of suspense (no pun intended) to the scene. Anyway, Ethan almost has the data when Krieger is startled by a rat and lets the rope slip, leading to the famous and well-executed moment where Ethan is stuck just a couple of inches above the floor and forced to flail around in two dimensions, which must’ve been very difficult for Cruise. It highlights the physical skills that Cruise will use to impressive effect in this film series. They’re almost out scot-free when Krieger drops his knife into the room, tipping the clerk off on his return. The team makes its escape, but Kittredge knows what they’ve taken.

The team goes to London, where Ethan and Krieger have a falling out and Krieger leaves. Hunt notices that the Bible he’s been drawing verses from for his communications with Max comes from the same hotel where Phelps mentioned staying earlier. After learning that Kittredge has arrested his parents on trumped-up drug charges, Ethan calls Kittredge from a public place to confront him, making sure to hang up before he can be traced. He’s shocked to find Jim Phelps standing next to him. Phelps tells him that Kittredge is the mole, and Ethan plays along, but we see his thoughts as he reconstructs what really happened: Phelps himself faked his death and killed the team. Though Ethan backs away from the suspicion that Claire helped him kill the others. He also realizes that Krieger’s knife was the one that killed Sarah and Golinsky. He asks why Kittredge (read: Phelps) would do what he did, and Phelps spins some vague excuse about the Cold War being over and not having a purpose and the President running the country without his permission or something. At this point it’s very clear that this is not the Jim Phelps we knew. (This is probably the point where Greg Morris stormed out of the theater when he saw the film.)

Hunt arranges to meet Max on the bullet train to Paris, and makes sure Kittredge gets tickets. He gets the list to Max, but has Luther nearby jamming her laptop signal so she can’t transmit it. We don’t see him at this point, only hear his voice as he stage-manages things, and seeing what looks like Jim Phelps assembling a gun. Once Max reveals the location of the money, Claire goes back to the baggage compartment and confronts Phelps, letting on that she’s in cahoots with him and telling him they can get away with the money. “Phelps” pulls off his face digitally to reveal a disappointed Ethan. But then the, err, real Phelps (for the sake of argument) comes out and holds him at gunpoint. He asks how Ethan figured out that he was the mole, and Ethan tells him about the Bible from the hotel room.

Except… that makes absolutely no sense. Okay, so the Bible was from a hotel he knew Phelps had stayed at — but he found the Bible in the safe house that Phelps himself had set up!!! The only thing it proves is a connection between Phelps and Phelps’s own safe house. Ethan only used that Bible to figure out the Job clue and contact Max because it happened to be the copy of the Bible that was on the shelf where he already was when he had the idea, so he had no reason in the world to associate that particular copy of the Bible with Max herself. The chain of reasoning absolutely does not work. It’s an enormous, enormous plot hole that’s bugged me about this film for years, and no matter how many times I see the film I just can’t see any way to make sense of it.

If anything, the person Ethan should have suspected was Claire. She’s the one who brought Krieger aboard, so once Ethan recognized Krieger’s knife as the murder weapon, he should’ve concluded that Claire was the mole, and recruited Phelps to help him expose her. He had a legitimate chain of evidence leading to her involvement, something he absolutely did not have for Phelps. Although, granted, he did suspect Claire in his “here’s what really happened” flashbacks earlier, but backed away from that suspicion because he was in love with her. So he could’ve been blinded to Claire’s involvement here too. But that still doesn’t give him any actual reason to suspect Phelps.

But Phelps, existing within the movie, goes along with the totally invalid premise that the Bible somehow proves his guilt, yet reminds Ethan that nobody else has seen he’s alive. Until Ethan puts on his video-glasses and sends the signal to the video-watch he left for Kittredge, thereby video-proving that Phelps was the mole. It’s not at all clear what Hunt planned to do next, because he just dodges and Phelps randomly shoots Claire by mistake, and then Phelps escapes through the roof hatch and Ethan follows and fights the ferocious winds, and Krieger shows up in a chopper to pick up Phelps, but Hunt grabs the cable and hooks the chopper to the train, so Krieger has to fly it into the Chunnel behind the train. Is that even possible? Somebody call the Mythbusters, I want to know if it’s possible for a helicopter to fly inside a train tunnel. Is there enough air in there to hold it up? Anyway, Phelps jumps onto one runner, then Ethan jumps onto the other, and he somehow still happens to have a stick of Jack’s plastique gum on him, and he uses it to blow up the chopper, and the force of the blast blows him back onto the train and somehow doesn’t liquefy his organs in the process, and the chopper blades are right up against his throat when the train abruptly… stops?

Wait a minute…

It stops. Abruptly.

This vehicle massing thousands of tons was traveling at 300 mph one moment… and is suddenly at a complete stop seconds later? How the hell did that happen? More to the point, why? Even if we stipulate to the fantasy premise that a bullet train could brake as quickly as an automobile, why would they choose to stop the train when a fiery crashing helicopter was coming right at them from behind?!!! I’m sorry, this makes as little sense as the Bible non-clue.

So anyway, Kittredge annoying turns out not to be the bad guy, and he arrests Max, who flirts with him too, proving she has no standards. And Ethan and Luther are pardoned, but Ethan doesn’t see much point to the work anymore and plans to leave. But he gets an offer of a mission from a flight attendant just like Phelps did at the start, and that’s when the movie ends, with the end titles giving us a modernized version of the Schifrin theme courtesy of a couple of members of U2.

This is a very, very flawed movie. There are parts of it that work. The teaser, main titles, and briefing scene feel authentic, and while the Prague caper is a little off and the initial team rather nondescript (and lacking in racial diversity), it’s fairly well-handled. And the Langley set piece is really nifty, the highlight of the film. And Elfman’s music is pretty good, a lively action-movie score that quotes or paraphrases snippets of “The Plot” at key moments (though never uses the whole melody, continuing the trend established by John E. Davis in the revival) and occasionally breaks into big statements of the main title theme. But a lot of the rest doesn’t work well, or just plain doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. There are enormous plot holes and implausibilities, as I’ve described. The characters lack depth and clear motivation and don’t give us much reason to care about them. Some directorial touches are interesting but not successful; for instance, there are a couple of sequences that are shot from Ethan’s POV without showing his face, as if to create suspense about what face he’s wearing, but in the first case it’s a face we’ve already been shown (in video footage of the senator as Ethan practiced mimicking him) and in the second it’s just his own face. And the actors are directed too broadly. Like Cruise, Ving Rhames seems lesser here than he’s been elsewhere, including later in this franchise. Emmanuelle Beart is stunningly lovely and waifish, but just okay as an actress. Jon Voight is actually a pretty good choice as a replacement for Peter Graves, bearing a certain resemblance in his features and his manner, at least until he’s revealed as the baddie.

But that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Jim Phelps a traitor? How do we cope with that?

Now, the obvious answer is to say the movies are a reboot, out of continuity with the series. After all, there are no characters in common beyond Phelps, and this Phelps is unlike the one we know — more like Dan Briggs, as I said, and that’s before he goes all smarmy and evil. So maybe we just treat this as a separate reality. After all, it’s not like the previous series had any real continuity to speak of, particularly since the revival series even remade episodes of the original. I’ve even said before that the original series may not all take place in a single reality.

But just as a thought exercise, let’s examine the question of whether this can be reconciled with the shows. Could Jim Phelps have gone rogue? Consider the final season of the revival, which I recently completed reviewing. For whatever reason, in the latter part of that season and to a lesser extent earlier on, the standard caper/heist formula of M:I gave way to a more conventional spy formula; instead of orchestrating master stratagems worked out a dozen moves in advance, Jim was just sending in his team undercover with no clear mission but to find out some information so they could then improvise a way of dealing with it. Could it be that Jim was losing his edge, growing sloppy? Maybe he got some of his team members killed (statistically speaking, Shannon Reed is the most likely candidate, given how routinely she was placed in danger), and it turned him bitter, filled him with doubts about whether he could go on. Maybe that’s why he stepped back to supervising missions remotely rather than participating directly. And maybe he  grew disillusioned with the spy game and decided to get out while he could and get rich doing it.

But no… no, I really don’t think that works. Voight-Phelps’s meandering explanation about losing purpose when the Cold War ended didn’t really fit, because Jim’s IMF team took on many missions that weren’t Cold War-related, tackling organized crime and international terrorists and the like. Graves’s Jim Phelps would’ve still seen a purpose to his work with or without the Cold War. So I just can’t see it happening that way.

But of course the M:I universe gives us another alternative, because it’s full of impersonators. Voight-Phelps could be a foreign agent who took the real Phelps’s place — perhaps using a plastic-surgery dodge like Nicholas Black used in “Deadly Harvest.” Maybe this happened once Kittredge took over as IMF director from the former head (the Voice?); he didn’t know Jim well and is pretty much a lousy director anyway, so he could’ve been fooled. This creates the unpleasant possibility that the real Jim was murdered. But maybe he escaped and laid low, or maybe the enemy was holding him captive to get information from him. It’s pleasant to imagine that the mission Ethan Hunt was offered at the end of the film was the rescue of the real Jim Phelps.

Still, one way or the other, the story of Jim Phelps is over now. From here on out, this series is about the adventures of Ethan Hunt. Although this wasn’t a particularly impressive introduction to Hunt as a character. I can’t say much about his personality except that he gets really ticked off when his teammates get killed and he isn’t above flirting with his boss’s wife. I know he gets better later on, but this is not an impressive beginning. Frankly I’m surprised this movie even got a sequel. But it did, so there’s more to come.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Search engine terms of note

This is interesting… In checking my blog’s statistics page, I see that on the list of search engine terms that led online searchers here to Written Worlds,  there were two hits for “fan art for only superhuman.” I was intrigued to think that two people might be looking for Only Superhuman fan art, but I realized it was probably a single search that led to two different pages here, most likely the posts containing my sketches of Emerald Blair and Psyche Thorne. Still, it’s nice to know that someone out there is interested in OS fan art. Unfortunately, I did the same search myself and found nothing that fit the description. That’s a pity, since I’d love it if there were fan artists out there invested enough in the Green Blaze’s world to undertake some artwork. (Feel free to consider that an invitation.)

On the other hand, one of the search terms on today’s list is “only superhuman torrent.” I’m disappointed in you, whoever you are. I made little enough profit from this book as it is — I need whatever I can get.

The overwhelmingly dominant search terms that people use to find WW are things like “doctor who last words,” “first words of new doctor,” “last words of the [nth] doctor,” and so on, all leading to what I thought was a fairly random, frivolous compilation of The Doctor’s first and last lines, but which has turned out to be by far the most popular post in the history of my blog. I also get surprisingly many search terms leading folks to my “How to dismember a recliner chair” post, which is really not an advice column of any sort. But aside from the Doctor Who post, the most frequent category of searches leading here are those pertaining to Mission: Impossible. I’ve even come across the occasional searches like “mission impossible christopher bennett review [episode title]” — there are people out there actively searching for my M:I reviews by name. That’s gratifying. (And yes, I’ll be completing that series with my reviews of the movies in the days ahead.) And people sometimes search for Written Worlds by name, which is also nice.

Here are some more unusual ones I find in the list:

“re-atomizing human body by medbeds” — Hm. Must be a reference to my Elysium review, in which I did mention the term “medbed,” which is the term I use in the Only Superhuman universe for what Larry Niven called an autodoc. I’m surprised someone else would search for it by that term. Maybe a fan of my work? Or is the term in more general use than I’m aware of?

“anamated cartoon hot hensei girls in bikinis showing their bodies” — Ummm. Oh…kay, I have no idea how that led someone to my blog. “Hot composition girls?” That’s what “hensei” means. Kind of hard to search for Japanese cartoon porn if you don’t even know how to spell it.

“dune books in chronological order” — I don’t think I ever talked about those books here.

“karolina wydra eye” and “karolina wydra eye pupil” — I seem to have gotten things like this a few times that I know of, no doubt connecting to my Europa Report review. Not sure who’s so fascinated by her eye, though.

“how was your drive home” — Err, thanks for asking, but who would ask that of Google?

“teacher at aloha johnson” — No idea.

“acts 6:2 why does the holman use financial rather than wait on tables” — Did a human being type that?

“lesbian scene from massion impossible” — If only, man. If only.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 1989 Season Overview

While the first season of the Mission: Impossible revival felt surprisingly like a typical season of the original series — mostly following the classic formula with only a little more flexibility or innovation than the original generally had — the second season experimented and departed more. In the first half or so of the season, this worked pretty well, giving us a run of mostly solid episodes with a good amount of legitimate suspense and personal stakes for the team members. In some ways I was reminded of my favorite season, year 5 of the original, in terms of the frequency with which Jim’s plans hit snags and dangers and the team was forced to improvise.

But then, in the latter portion of the season, things began to fall apart. In four of the last five episodes, the intricate advance stratagems that had always been the trademark of M:I vanished, and the team’s strategies were mainly reduced to going into an unclear situation, trying to find stuff out, getting in trouble that they weren’t prepared for, and having to improvise solutions. (This also happened in “Target Earth” in the first half of the season.) Maybe this was at network request to create more of a sense of suspense and danger — something that, admittedly, the original series generally lacked when the team’s plans usually played out like clockwork — but it was a fundamental change in the premise and character of the series. As I’ve remarked multiple times, Mission: Impossible wasn’t really a spy series at heart; it was a caper series in the spirit of Topkapi or The Sting, or the more recent Leverage. The spy stuff was just an excuse to make the heroes’ con games and elaborate thefts and other crimes seem patriotic and heroic. What defined M:I was the intricacy of the team’s stratagems and cons; it was a show about people who triumphed with their wits and their skill rather than their fists or their guns. But this season increasingly departed from that approach in favor of a more conventional action formula where the heroes were reactive and unprepared, making things up one step at a time rather than plotting out a whole game in advance. It made the show feel simpler, less intelligent. The writers didn’t have to work as hard to come up with intricate strategies while concealing their specifics from the audience. It seemed that the writers got lazier, and that made it feel like Jim Phelps was losing his touch. Although that didn’t explain the rest of the team losing their basic competence in episodes like “The Assassin” where they broke cover right under the watching villain’s nose. And it wasn’t just the plotting that got lazier. A lot of the episodes in the back half of the season are extremely dumb and poorly thought out, often inconsistently plotted, and tending toward lazy stereotypes of other cultures just as badly as the previous season, and perhaps even worse.

As a result, the season feels split in two. The first half is stronger overall than the previous season, with only one episode I’d rate below average (“Command Performance”). But of the final eight episodes, only one was excellent, three were decent, and the other four were weak to horrible. So while I’d call the first half of the 1989 season one of the strongest runs in the franchise, the second half was, overall, the weakest in the television franchise’s history. It’s an unfortunate way for the series to go out, especially after such a promising start.

Despite the writers’ strike being long over, this season has two stories that seem loosely inspired by original episodes, borrowing their setups if not their details: “Command Performance” has a similar premise to the 1966 season’s “Old Man Out,” while “The Assassin” has nearly the same setup as season 6’s “Mindbend.” There are no actual remakes this year, though.

The strongest episodes this year were “Countdown” and “The Fuehrer’s Children,” both of which created a strong sense of danger and had effective stories. These were followed closely by “For Art’s Sake” and “The Princess,” both solid capers, if imperfect ones. “The Gunslinger” is almost as effective, if a bit sillier in premise. “The Golden Serpent” and “Target Earth” were pretty entertaining, albeit more as action thrillers than standard M:I capers; “The Golden Serpent” in particular feels like an over-the-top ’80s action movie that occasionally pays lip service to being M:I, and is enjoyable largely for its extravagance, which is unmatched by the rest of the season. In a lot of ways, it feels like a test run for the feature films (particularly since the second film was also shot in and around Sydney and made extensive use of its scenery). “War Games,” “Deadly Harvest,” and “Church Bells in Bogota” are reasonably entertaining if unremarkable. “Command Performance” is mediocre and pales in comparison to the original episode it resembles, and “The Sands of Seth” is not exactly awful, but quite fanciful and ridiculous in premise, feeling like the kind of story you’d see in a Saturday morning cartoon version of M:I. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are badly written and incoherent, and “Cargo Cult” is a disaster, nonsensical and deeply racist, probably the worst episode in the entire franchise.

Cast-wise, Phil Morris continued to be the breakout star, showing great talent, charisma, and versatility. In a more ideal, colorblind Hollywood, I could’ve easily seen Morris taking over the lead role if the series had continued long enough for Graves to retire from it — or even becoming the lead of the movie franchise. Jane Badler was pretty impressive too, charming and sexy and confident, conveying a lot of strength and competence despite the producers’ insistence on putting her through the Perils of Pauline on an ongoing basis. (But then, Pauline in the original 1914 silent serial was a pretty competent action heroine herself, not the helpless damsel we’ve subsequently come to associate with the name.) Peter Graves was his usual stalwart, avuncular self, playing up his kinder side as the emphasis on team bonding increased, and took the occasional opportunity to show off his skills in horse riding, quick drawing, and the like. Tony Hamilton didn’t seem to have as much to do this season, but continued to be effective when he did. And Thaao Penghlis was consistently adequate, managing to do a few more accents this season than last, though American still eluded him. Still, he remains perhaps the least versatile “master of disguise” I’ve ever seen.

The season expands on some of the characteristic elements of the previous season. There’s a lot more of the team out of character, discussing plans and problems — often with the usual roleplay/scam elements diminished to near nothing. We see more of the team’s friendships and affinities, particularly all the men’s warm feelings for Shannon — which gets a little tired when the episodes constantly put Shannon in danger to create anxiety among her teammates. We also continue to get a number of episodes where the team skips Jim’s apartment and assembles at a “command post” on site — although it’s only five out of the fifteen distinct stories, fewer than I’d thought (“The Golden Serpent,” “Banshee,” “For Art’s Sake,” “The Assassin,” and “The Sands of Seth”). Four of those five are in the latter half of the season, though.

Last season, the focus was somewhat split between espionage and organized-crime missions, but here there’s a far stronger emphasis on international intrigue, terrorism, and politics. The criminal cases all involve greater international-scale threats: the international drug triad in “The Golden Serpent” includes the prince of a foreign nation, the arms dealers in “Banshee” threaten to reawaken a religious war, the art thief in “For Art’s Sake” is working to create an international incident, and the drug lord in “Church Bells in Bogota” threatens to overthrow the Colombian government. So essentially every episode has political stakes, making this perhaps the only M:I season without a purely crime-oriented caper. By contrast, the percentage of episodes featuring supernatural-themed cons is close to what it was in the previous season, though “War Games” only dabbles with playing on the villain’s astrological obsession, and “Cargo Cult” uses supernatural illusions to fool the “primitive villagers” and turn them against their exploiter rather than the usual trope of playing on the villains’ superstitions. “Banshee” is perhaps the crudest example of said trope, with a caricatured villain who goes into a cartoonish panic over any superstition, even one he’s never heard of before. And “The Sands of Seth,” like “Cargo Cult,” features a villain who is himself using supernatural deceptions, so it’s fighting fire with fire.

Beyond the opening 2-parter, which for the first time shows us a second IMF team operating independently of Jim’s, we get no further insights into the IMF as an organization. Indeed, the season is unique in having not a single episode in which the core team was joined from the start by a supplemental agent. The only episodes where anyone assisted the core team were the 2-parter “The Golden Serpent,” where Barney Collier worked with Jim’s team after having previously been assigned to another, unnamed IMF agent’s team, and “Command Performance,” where the rescued priest Father Thomas Vallis (Ivar Kants) assisted in his own rescue. So despite the variations in story structure, in some ways this is the most formulaic season ever: Essentially no variation in team composition, no off-book missions, no briefing discs without the “Secretary will disavow” line.

Location-wise, Europe was the site of five episodes and the teaser of a sixth, with most of the locations this season being fictional: the Monaco-like Valence in “The Princess,” a nameless Baltic state in “Command Performance,” the Eastern European lands of Sardavia and Bucaraine in “War Games,” and the fictional Irish town of Bally-na-Gragh in “Banshee.” The only real European locations were Hamburg (or nearby) in “The Fuehrer’s Children” and Geneva in the teaser of “The Assassin.” America was the focus in “For Art’s Sake” (NYC), “The Assassin” (Boston), and “The Gunfighter” (the fictional Pontiac, NV), though “Fuehrer’s” began in Oregon, “Deadly Harvest” was partly in Kansas, and “Target Earth” featured scenes at NORAD. Australia was the site of two stories, “The Golden Serpent” (Sydney) and “Target Earth” (the Outback), while “Cargo Cult” was on the fictional island of New Belgium in the Southwest Pacific. “Deadly Harvest” and “The Sands of Seth” were in the Mideast, the former in the fictitious terrorist state of Orambaq and the latter in some alternate-reality cartoon version of Cairo, Egypt. Only “Countdown” was set in Asia, in the fictional land of Kangji, and only “Church Bells in Bogota” was in Latin America — do I even need to say where? Oh, and “Target Earth” was the first and only M:I episode to take place partly in Earth orbit.

Musically, there is very little to say. Every episode was credited to John E. Davis, though IMDb lists Neil Argo as an uncredited additional composer throughout the season. The music was generally unremarkable and often cliched, nothing to write home (or blog) about. It’s quite a letdown from the original series, where music was so important. I wonder why the producers chose to go with the bland Davis over the more talented and interesting Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones from the ’88 season. But then, a lot about the new series lacks the stylistic sophistication of the original, in terms of directing and cinematography, and in this season the plotting got a lot less sophisticated toward the end. Its visual effects were far more ambitious than the original’s, but usually quite crude in execution. The revival just didn’t quite have the class of the original. The one thing it consistently did better was location work, featuring lavish and varied locales in contrast to the backlot-bound feel the original generally had. But then, that’s one thing that Australian and New Zealand productions are known for — the lush, spectacular scenery.

In sum, the ninth and final season of Mission: Impossible started off strong and ambitious, improving on its predecessor and coming close to rivalling the best of the original — but toward the end, its weaknesses came to the fore and it became downright sloppy, stumbling its way toward what by that point was an inevitable cancellation. I wonder if the producers saw that cancellation coming well in advance and just stopped trying. If so, it’s a shame. If only they’d kept up the quality of the first half or so of this season and gotten at least one more year at that level, this revival could have been a really impressive addition to the franchise. As it is, I’d say it’s still worth checking out, even just for Phil Morris and Jane Badler, who are two of the best IMF team members we’ve ever had. And it’s still a legitimate continuation of the original — mixed in quality, but then, so was its predecessor. If nothing else, it gave us the continued adventures of Jim Phelps and the IMF as we knew it from the original… a last look at the familiar incarnation of M:I before it moved to the big screen and transformed into something radically different. Even several different somethings. But we’ll get to that.

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