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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT (2018) Movie Review (spoilers)

September 5, 2018 3 comments

I had to wait a bit until I had some money to spare, but I finally saw Mission: Impossible — Fallout. This is the second consecutive film in the M:I series to be written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, and the first time that any director has done a second M:I film. Every film in this series since the fourth one has built more and more upon its predecessors, and this is the one that connects most directly to previous films — primarily McQuarrie’s previous installment Rogue Nation, but with major links to M:i:III, and a surprising connection to yet another installment. It reunites nearly all the main cast from RN: IMF agents Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg); IMF Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin); rogue agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson); and villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The one no-show is Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, whose absence is never acknowledged or explained. (It was allegedly due to Renner’s commitment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is odd, because his last appearance as Hawkeye was two years ago.) Notably, the film also brings back Michelle Monaghan’s Julia, Ethan’s bride from M:i:III, last seen only in a cameo in Ghost Protocol.

Unlike its predecessor, Fallout starts slowly with Ethan having a nightmare: He’s marrying Julia, but the priest is Solomon Lane, who recites the litany of how Ethan failed and abandoned Julia before they’re vaporized in a nuclear blast. It’s a handy way to re-establish Julia and Ethan’s backstory for the audience, and a nice callback to III, which also started off with a focus on the Ethan-Julia relationship. I felt Rogue Nation was less successful at substantive characterization than the previous two films, but Fallout was off to a good start with this. (Although it can sort of be read to imply that among his other superhuman powers, Ethan Hunt has developed precognition.)

Ethan then gets the secret briefing — oddly delivered to his home in a vintage miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder (with built-in video projector) hidden inside an old book, at once an homage to the classic briefing scenes and a departure from them, since they’ve never been delivered straight to the lead character’s door before (kind of defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it?). We get an infodump (in McQuarrie’s voice) about the Apostles, the remnants of Lane’s Syndicate from RN, and their terror attacks around the world (including a plague outbreak in Kashmir) designed to tear down the world order and bring the devastation from which they believe a new peace will spring — a thematic link to the motives of Ghost Protocol‘s villain, though no explicit connection is drawn. The Apostles, led by a mysterious guy code-named John Lark, are trying to buy three stolen plutonium cores to make nuclear bombs.

We jump right to Ethan and Benji buying the (improbably lightweight) plutonium cores from the thieves, with Luther running ops from the van as usual. The movie deals with the overlap between Luthor’s and Benji’s tech-support roles by moving Benji fully into the field-agent role rather than the mix of both roles he played in the prior two films; this also fills the void left by Brandt. But he doesn’t really do much besides banter with Ethan, and the buy is just a straight-up buy, no hidden gambits or stratagems. When another faction takes Luther hostage and demands the plutonium, they, not the IMF, are the ones who pull a devious trick, using the threat to Luther’s life to distract Ethan from the cores so they can steal them. At this point, I was afraid that this would be another film that was M:I in name only, ignoring the intricate schemes and tricks that defined the original series.

But then we cut to a scene where Wolf Blitzer reports that three nuclear bombs have gone off in Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca simultaneously. The TV is in a hospital room where Ethan and Luther confront the satisfied bomb-maker, who’s told he’s awoken from 2 weeks in a coma after a car crash. He agrees to give them info on Lark if Blitzer reads his manifesto on the air, figuring there’s no harm now that the good guys have already lost. I was feeling much better at this point, because I recognized the “trick the bad guy into thinking they’ve already won so they give up the info” gambit from several M:I episodes, most prominently “Two Thousand,” which also involved finding stolen plutonium. (See also “Operation Rogosh,” “Invasion,” and “The Freeze.”) Once he gives them the info on Lark, Ethan opens up the fake hospital set and Benji whips off his Wolf Blitzer mask, telling the guy that he’s only been out an hour, not two weeks. (I have a quibble with the end credits, because they list Blitzer as playing “Himself,” when strictly speaking he was playing Benji Dunn.)

All of this is before the main title sequence, which is much the same as RN’s sequence in being a flashier riff on the original show’s titles, with a burning fuse over clips from the adventure to follow. The music this time is by Lorne Balfe, and the theme is an interesting new variation on the Lalo Schifrin theme. Balfe’s score overall is effective and richly orchestrated, but a bit repetitive, not as thematically rich as the previous couple of scores.

After the credits, Baldwin’s Secretary Alan Hunley shows up in person (then why bother with the secret tapes earlier?) to send Ethan in to Paris to infiltrate a party where Lark has arranged to meet the seller of the plutonium. But there’s a bureaucratic clash as CIA Director Sloane (Angela Bassett) shows up, dismisses the IMF as “Halloween” playacting, and refuses to let Hunt go in unless he’s accompanied by her #1 hitman, August Walker. Walker is played by Henry Cavill, whose last involvement in the spy game was as Napoleon Solo in another remake of a ’60s TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Here, Cavill is playing a very different kind of spy, intimidating in his bulk but utterly businesslike, calm, and matter-of-fact. He makes nothing personal, holds no grudges, just does the job, but since that job is assassination, it’s an effectively unnerving characterization. In a way, it’s almost the dark reflection of Cavill’s Superman — that same relaxed, unaffected strength and ultracompetence, but directed toward ending lives rather than saving them. Anyway, here’s where the thematic conflict of the film is established. Sloane is willing to use a hardened killer to get the job done and doesn’t care about collateral damage. But Hunley tells Ethan not to beat himself up for choosing Luther’s life over the plutonium, because his refusal to sacrifice one life for many is his greatest strength. It’s a nice moment. Hunley’s feelings toward Ethan have clearly become far warmer and more fatherly between movies.

For reasons which the film has no interest in addressing, Ethan and Walker fly over the city in a military cargo plane and do a HALO (high altitude, low opening) parachute drop, an excuse for Tom Cruise to do one of his trademark for-real stunt scenes, a continuous take from the plane to (nearly) the ground. While the stunt dive is real (and frankly I’m more impressed by the camera operator than by Cruise, since he had to do all the same stunts backward and with a camera strapped to his helmet), the background is digitally altered to create a thunderstorm Hunt and Walker have to dive through, requiring Ethan to save Walker’s life after he’s knocked out by a lightning bolt, without Walker ever realizing that Ethan saved him. It’s a spectacular sequence, to be sure… but it makes no damn sense. A HALO drop is for infiltrating an enemy country or military camp, flying above the radar and waiting to deploy chutes until the last possible second to minimize detection risk. It’s something you do to avoid getting shot down by enemy artillery. Ethan and Walker had to infiltrate a party in the middle of Paris. Surely there must have been far simpler ways to sneak into the building.

Once inside, Ethan insists on doing things his way — identify Lark, knock him out, make a mask, impersonate him, buy the plutonium. Of course, things go very wrong and there’s a big fight in the men’s room, and Ethan is saved by the unexpected reappearance of Ilsa Faust, who kills the person they think is Lark before he can kill Ethan. She warns him that Lark is a target of assassins, and backs him up as he meets the contact while pretending to be Lark. The contact is a woman known as the White Widow (the scintillating Vanessa Kirby), whose dialogue subtly reveals her to be the daughter of Max, Vanessa Redgrave’s arms-dealer character from the first M:I film 22 years ago. It’s the second time a Christopher McQuarrie M:I film has called back to the original film, although it’s subtle enough to miss. I was wondering if Kirby might have been Redgrave’s daughter in real life; as it turns out, Redgrave was a friend of her family. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa save the White Widow from assassins, though it’s unclear who the real target is. Afterward, we see Walker delivering Lark’s phone to Sloane and telling her it has data on it suggesting that Ethan Hunt is the real John Lark. But McQuarrie made a point of showing us earlier that Lark’s phone was shattered in the fight, while the phone Walker hands Sloane is intact. As if it hadn’t been obvious from the start that Walker would turn out to be the bad guy.

So anyway, the White Widow tells Ethan that she’s just a broker for the plutonium thieves; if he wants the Pu, he has to make a trade by breaking out Solomon Lane and delivering him to them. After Ethan swallows the need for this and asks what the plan is, we see a sequence of him and WW’s men ambushing the convoy and killing a bunch of cops to free Lane. Has Ethan compromised his morals that much that he’d kill dozens of innocents to prevent a nuclear holocaust? But no — it’s just Ethan visualizing WW’s plan in his mind, and he then decides he has a better plan. He rams the armored truck carrying Lane into the Seine (or maybe it’s a canal?) and leads the cops on a very lively, well-choreographed, beautifully shot chase through the scenic streets of Paris, while Benji dives down and frees Lane before he drowns. The bulk of this sequence is scored by Balfe’s version of the main title theme, and I was getting frustrated by the lack of “The Plot,” the leitmotif that traditionally accompanies the capers as they unfold. I was starting to worry that this might be the only M:I production other than M:I:II that omitted that motif altogether. But as soon as we get the reveal of Benji and Luther, extracting Ethan from the chase through an underground canal, “The Plot” is heard in its full glory, in something quite close to its original double-bass-and-snare-drum arrangement from the show.

But there’s a complication or two yet to come. As the team is loading the captive, hooded Lane into a car, they open the door to discover a hapless young traffic cop standing there, evidently giving a parking ticket. She sees what looks like a kidnapping and draws her gun, and Ethan tries to talk her down peacefully before Walker shoots her. She then gets shot by a group of WW’s men who’ve been looking for Ethan, and he shoots them down to save the young gendarme and helps her call for medical assistance. It’s a fairly touching moment, rather remarkable to see in a blockbuster spy action movie.

The next complication is Ilsa, who tries to kill Lane and inexplicably only wings him. After another long chase, Ethan gets Lane away from her, then meets her later and finds out that MI-6 wants her to kill Lane to prove that she isn’t a threat to them. Her original assignment was to protect “Lark” so he’d lead her to Lane, but she killed him instead to save Ethan. Still, she won’t let Ethan get in the way of her completing her mission, since MI-6 will kill her if she doesn’t. I gotta say, British Intelligence comes off really badly in these two films.

Since the Paris scenery has been exhausted by this point, the story arbitrarily moves to London, where Hunley shows up at an IMF safehouse and confronts Ethan about the Lark accusations, demanding that he shut down the operation, bring Lane in, and let the CIA worry about the plutonium. Ethan knocks him out, turns Benji into a mask-copy of Lane, and convinces Walker to give them a chance to do the job before he applies his sledgehammer methods. Once alone with Lane, Walker reveals that he’s the real John Lark and was working with Lane all along. But guess what — this Lane is actually Benji (though I can’t see how the switch was pulled off) and Walker’s just outed himself as the baddie, with Hunley’s willing cooperation in the plot. Hunley has Sloane on his cell and she sends in her troops to bring in Lane, but half the troops work for Walker/Lark and kill the other half, and the main characters fight, with Hunley making a good effort but ultimately getting killed by Walker. Which I guess I should’ve seen coming when they made him a father figure to Ethan. Anyway, Ilsa randomly shows up and helps in the fight, and for the rest of the film she’s treated as a full member of the team, even though we never see a moment where Benji and Luther go through the process of accepting her. Maybe the effortlessness of their acceptance is the point, but even so, it would’ve been nice to have at least a momentary acknowledgment, rather than feeling like we’ve sidestepped into a slightly alternate reality where she was already on the team.

But the film is focused on another action set piece of Ethan chasing after Walker over the London rooftops to keep him from escaping. It gives Cruise a chance to break out the Patented Tom Cruise Run once more, though after all this time the PTCR is visibly slower and more labored than it used to be. (I gather Cruise actually broke his ankle during this sequence and that the shot was kept in the film. I think it’s the point where he misses a jump, catches the building edge, and pulls himself up, but I couldn’t tell for sure.) Walker gets away, but not before revealing that he knows where Ethan’s ex-wife Julia is and will have her killed if Ethan follows him. After this, Luther fills Ilsa in on Ethan & Julia’s backstory, although his explanation of why they split up and how she ended up staying hidden doesn’t exactly align with the events of Ghost Protocol. But it’s more about establishing a character arc for Ethan, about how he couldn’t focus on the work if Julia were on his mind.

The team remembers that Lark’s Apostles released a plague in Kashmir, which led to the establishment of a medical camp. They realize that if the bombs were set off there, it would contaminate a glacier and poison a third of the world’s water supply. (It wouldn’t really.) They rush to Kashmir, but are in the dark about why the Apostles would want a medical camp there. I saw it immedately, though, once I remembered that Julia was a doctor. I should mention that it was established earlier that Lane was doing your standard recurring-villain thing where his evil plans were personally directed at the film’s hero, not just bringing down the world order but making sure that Ethan Hunt was on hand to see all his plans and loved ones brought to ruin. So this whole massive Kashmir strategy we’ve been hearing about since the cold open was all about manipulating Ethan’s ex-wife to be at ground zero.

(By the way, this opens a bit of a plot hole. When they caught the bomb-maker in the cold open and tricked him into thinking the bombs had been meant to attack three holy cities, how did they know he wasn’t aware of the real target? They took a gamble there.)

Sure enough, they find Julia at the relief camp. She’s now remarried, and what Luther said about Ethan’s divided focus never comes into play — or maybe he just underestimated his old friend’s ability to stay focused on the mission. Anyway, the IMF men find one of the bombs and Luther sets to disarm it while Benji and Ilsa search for the other, and Ethan takes off in a helicopter after Walker, who’s in another helicopter with the detonator. Benji’s sussed out that the only way to disarm the nukes is to shut them both down simultaneously after Ethan removes a key from the detonator, but only after the countdown has started. Walker has obligingly started the countdown, so Ethan just has to figure out how to get to him on a different helicopter while the others find and deactivate both bombs simultaneously. Julia finds Luther at his bomb and immediately asks how she can help. Ilsa finds the other bomb and must fight Lane, forced to choose between killing him and saving Benji’s life (of course she chooses the latter). Ethan goes through another insane series of almost-real helicopter stunts (though judging from the behind-the-scenes footage I’ve seen, they digitally altered the backgrounds again, adding snow on the mountains to make them more convincingly Himalayan) and a big climactic fight with Walker to get the key, and even though they’re out of radio contact with Ethan, Luther and Benji trust him to have succeeded, and indeed he has at the literal last second. How the detonator’s shutdown signal could get through when Ethan’s comms couldn’t is left as an exercise for the viewer.

But Sloane shows up to medevac Ethan to safety, finally convinced of the IMF’s value. Lane is taken alive for the second movie in a row (though Walker isn’t so lucky) and the White Widow delivers him to MI-6, clearing Ilsa’s ledger and presumably paving the way for her to finally join the IMF.

All in all, this is a much better movie than Rogue Nation and one of the very best in the series. Its action and intrigue are top-notch, and it does make a better effort at exploring character and relationships than its predecessor did. Although it isn’t entirely smooth in the execution. A lot of the action beats are set up in implausible ways, especially the totally pointless HALO drop, though they’re all so magnificently executed that it’s hard to complain. Also, it’s great to see the long-dormant thread of Ethan and Julia’s relationship finally brought to the fore again after being ignored in the previous film… but it’s odd how detached Ethan himself is from that exploration. Luther does more of the heavy lifting for that particular plot thread than Ethan does, through his exposition to Ilsa and his conversation with Julia while they disarm the bomb. Ethan and Julia get very little time together to really talk about anything. That’s actually rather disappointing when I consider how crucial their relationship was to III’s success.

What I really love about this film, though, is its repeated emphasis on the idea that what makes Ethan Hunt special is his concern for individual lives — something that isn’t just talked about but shown, as in the Paris sequences where he’s twice faced with the choice of sacrificing innocents to get the job done and instead makes a point of finding a better, less bloody way. It’s refreshing to see a spy movie that focuses on its hero’s efforts to save lives rather than take them. To be sure, Ethan and the team do rack up a body count of villains, but not a huge one by spy-movie standards, given that so many of the big action sequences are chases rather than fights. I like the idea that the IMF is about finding less violent solutions and protecting innocent lives. I’m not sure that was ever really emphasized in any previous film, though, or even in the TV series. True, nominally the IMF wasn’t allowed to assassinate its targets (as was stated explicitly in the pilot but left implicit otherwise) and favored more creative, subtle means of achieving their ends, but they did often manipulate or trick their marks into killing each other. I much prefer this emphasis on protecting lives. In Rogue Nation, McQuarrie played up Ethan as a driven, obsessive figure relentless in his pursuit of his foes, an unstoppable avenging angel. This time, though, he and Cruise chose to play up Ethan’s compassion in contrast to Walker’s businesslike ruthlessness, and it makes him a far more likeable lead. It’s one of many ways in which McQuarrie has improved greatly in his sophomore outing with Mission: Impossible.

Now, let’s see… Obviously the prior films that are the main touchstones for this sixth installment in the series were the fifth film (to which it’s essentially a direct sequel) and the third (through Julia). It also follows up on what the fourth film established about Ethan and Julia’s separation — and technically the Syndicate was introduced at the end of the fourth film, though its specifics weren’t established until the fifth. And it ties indirectly to the first film through the White Widow, daughter of Max. The hospital set sequence in the cold open is also a callback to the opening ploy in the original film, although both use elements from the TV series. Luther also tells Ilsa that there have been two women Ethan truly cared for in his life, but only talks about Julia. I thought at first that he meant Ilsa was the other one, but in retrospect I think it’s more likely he meant Claire from the original film. That leaves only the second film. IMDb’s Trivia page reveals that the helicopter’s “Terrain, pull up!” warning voice was the same audio used for the opening plane scene in M:I:II. But that’s a pretty trivial connection that barely counts, and it may be that it’s the same because it’s a standard aircraft warning (though I don’t know if it is). In terms of actual story and character elements, every prior film except II is acknowledged. Which makes sense, since II is by far the worst and the least characteristic of the series.

Still, the overall pattern stands — the level of continuity in the M:I films has been steadily increasing since Ghost Protocol. And I expect that trend to continue. I saw an article or two suggesting that Fallout seemed like the middle part of a trilogy — though the logic was that it had to be unfinished because Lane wasn’t dead yet, and I’m not at all fond of the casual assumption in American feature films that a story’s conclusion requires the villain’s death. Still, that aside, the question of what Ilsa Faust does next now that she’s free of MI-6 remains open. I would like to see her properly join the IMF; aside from Ferguson’s strength as a lead, it’s annoying that the IMF has been a boys’ club for the past two movies, and that no female IMF member has ever lasted for more than one movie. (Come to think of it, we saw as many female IMF members in the first film alone as in the entire remainder of the franchise. There were three women on Phelps’s team in the first act of that film. Thandie Newton in II was a civilian recruit. III had Maggie Q and Keri Russell, though not on the same team; IV had Paula Patton; V and VI only had Ilsa, who’s nominally a rival agent.) Really, at this point, they should probably think about phasing Cruise out or putting him in the “Secretary” role so Rebecca Ferguson could take over as the series lead. That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about the franchise ending as Cruise and Rhames age out of it.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION (2015) Movie Review (Spoilers)

August 19, 2015 1 comment

The newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, director of Jack Reacher) from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. It’s the second M:I film produced by Bad Robot, and thus the third with involvement from J.J. Abrams (who directed M:i:III but apparently did not produce it, I was surprised to learn recently). It continues the trend of continuity between films and the ensemble flavor of Ghost Protocol, with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt returning from that film, alongside Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell, who has a sizeable role this time after having just a cameo in GP. Having both Benji and Luther prominently in the same film could be a problem, since they fill the same role on the team, but this is resolved by having them spend a lot of the film apart, with Benji supporting Ethan and Luther supporting Brandt. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter is neither seen nor mentioned, with the female lead instead being Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent whose loyalties are unclear for much of the film.

The film rather wisely starts out by immediately disposing of the big vertiginous Tom Cruise stunt sequence that was inevitably going to be plastered all over the trailers and promotions and thus wouldn’t be a surprise anyway — namely, the scene where he clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Fittingly, Ethan’s first appearance in the film has him doing a Patented Tom Cruise Run to leap onto the plane, and his plane cling isn’t exactly Ethan Hunt Climbs Things but is pretty close. (Previously, Cruise has had short hair in every odd-numbered picture and long hair in every even-numbered one; here he’s sort of in between.) The sequence is fun and deftly directed, and Joe Kraemer’s score immediately makes an impression equal in strength to Michael Giacchino’s work on the previous two films. Like Ghost Protocol, the teaser leads into a main title sequence that homages the titles of the original series, complete with flashforward clips of the action to come, but in a more conventional way than GP’s titles — rather evocative of the original 1996 film’s title sequence, in fact. The main title arrangement is big and brassy in a way that evokes both the 1996 Danny Elfman version and the Ghost Protocol Giacchino version.

The evocation of the ’96 film is perhaps appropriate, since this is the first sequel to directly acknowledge any events from that film. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) mentions Ethan’s iconic Langley break-in from said film, along with the destruction of the Kremlin and other events of Ghost Protocol, as part of his case that the IMF is a renegade organization that should be shut down. He actually makes an objectively good case that its secretive methods are ill-suited to the modern age of transparency and accountability, but of course we’re supposed to be rooting against him and for Brandt, who argues that the IMF has been doing good work for 40 years — which is short by about nine years, I’d say. Has the original series suddenly been retconned out of existence? Is this proof that the movies are in a separate reality from the show? Or did Brandt just misspeak? In any case, the nebulously defined committee that they’re testifying to agrees to shut down the IMF.

But Ethan doesn’t know this, as he’s going to a message drop in London to get his next assignment. I had to squee at this sequence, because the drop is in a record store and the message is encoded on a vinyl phonograph album — a callback to the 1966 pilot episode!!!!! But with a couple of twists — first, that it uses a modern laser thingy to project graphics onto the turntable lid… and second, that it turns out to be a trap laid by the Syndicate, an evil organization that Ethan’s been hunting down since the closing moments of Ghost Protocol (said to be a year before, even though that was four years ago). It’s fun to hear the formula of the message subverted by the bad guys. Ethan sees a mysterious bespectacled man gun down the pretty store clerk who was his contact, before he’s gassed unconscious as the “self-destruct” part of the message.

Ethan awakes in the clutches of the Syndicate, which apparently plans to use torture to break him and turn him to their side. He’s helped to escape by Ilsa Faust, a mole within the Syndicate, but he finds from Brandt that he’s out in the cold and that Hunley doesn’t believe in the Syndicate’s existence. But he’s determined to find the bespectacled man and get justice, so he goes rogue. Cut to six months later, with Brandt working under Hunley and Benji as a CIA analyst who has to trick weekly polygraph tests to insist he has no loyalty to Ethan. But Ethan arranges to get Benji’s help at an opera in Vienna, whereupon he encounters Ilsa apparently trying to assassinate the Austrian chancellor, though there are two other assassins on hand to take her out if she fails. Ethan foils the assassination — the same way Ilsa had planned to — and they escape together, but the Syndicate has a backup plan and foils their foiling.

Ilsa breaks away to preserve her cover and report to Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who keeps letting her live despite her “failures” because it’s convenient to the plot — err, because he sees “potential” in her. Meanwhile, Ethan explains to Benji that the Syndicate is an “anti-IMF,” consisting of former spies believed dead or missing and employing IMF-style tactics to fake deadly accidents in order to tear down the world order.

Lane gives Ilsa one more chance, sending her to Casablanca to break into an ultra-high security data vault, a job that Ethan and Benji end up helping her with when they learn it’s to access Lane’s ledger listing all the Syndicate’s agents. This is the sequence with Ethan diving into an underwater facility and trying to hold his breath for several minutes, and it’s another tour-de-force action set piece, with the underwater sound design being particularly impressive. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life when he drowns — the second time in the series that the female lead has gotten to bring Ethan back from the brink of death — but then she breaks away with the retrieved data, and Ethan and Benji literally run into Brandt and Luther as they chase after her. A car chase reminiscent of The Italian Job gives way to a motorcycle chase reminiscent of M:I-2, but Ilsa gets away.

She takes the data to Attlee, the head of British intelligence, and demands that she be brought in, but he turns out to be a ruthless bastard who insists she go back in and assassinate Ethan to prove her allegiance to Lane. He also deletes the stolen data on her thumb drive, though of course Benji made a backup, so Ethan’s team now has the only copy. And it’s not a ledger, but a “red box” file that only the Prime Minister of the UK can open. Clearly Lane intends to kidnap the PM. But when the team tracks down Ilsa to confront her, Lane kidnaps Benji in order to force Ethan to kidnap the PM. This was the plan all along. (Why? Seems needlessly convoluted.)

It looks like Ethan’s going to go through with it, and Brandt argues against doing something so insane. We cut to Brandt calling Hunley to tell him what Ethan’s planning. It’s pretty easy to guess that in between scenes, Ethan spelled out a con game that Brandt is playing along with, only pretending to betray him. Brandt lures Hunley to London, where they end up in a room with the PM and Attlee, the latter of whom maneuvers the PM into revealing to Hunley that the Syndicate was a proposal of Attlee’s to found a rogue agency that could act with impunity — a proposal that the PM rejected but that Attlee carried forward anyway. I guessed pretty early in the scene that Attlee was actually Ethan in a mask, since the actor they cast, Simon McBurney, seemed similar to Cruise in size and facial structure. And of course it was, though it’s unclear how Ethan deduced some of the things he reveals as Attlee. They’ve also lured the real Attlee to take the fall, while arranging for Hunley to take the credit for catching him. With Hunley now on their side, they use the PM’s biometrics to open the file, which is Attlee’s financial records intended to fund the Syndicate. (The most awkward moment in the film is here — just before the truth is revealed to Hunley, when he still thinks Ethan is coming to kill the PM, he issues an overwrought warning about how Ethan is this unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny” or some such thing, which just comes out of nowhere and is way too aggrandizing to Ethan. We don’t even get a comedy beat of embarrassment when Hunley realizes that Ethan was standing right there listening to his overeffusive words.)

Lane sets up a trap to force Ethan to turn over the account numbers lest Benji and Ilsa be blown up, but Ethan outmaneuvers him — he memorized the data and erased the disk, so now Lane needs him alive. He gets Benji released and then protects Ilsa from being shot by Syndicate men, and this leads into a final chase through the streets wherein Ethan and Ilsa eventually get separated so that they can each have their own individual action climax. Lane shows up to confront Ethan directly, conveniently forgetting that whole “need him alive” thing, and Ethan leads him into a nice little trap set up by Luther and Benji — a trap that, refreshingly, ends with the villain apparently still alive and unconscious. And the way it’s done, which calls back the record-store incident that was Ethan and Lane’s first meeting, is more satisfying than Lane’s death would’ve been. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa say their farewells — platonically, I’m glad to say, though that’s as close as the film comes to acknowledging that Ethan still has a wife out there somewhere.

The movie ends with an odd little scene where Hunley convinces the Nebulous Committee to reinstate the IMF, whereupon Brandt tells him, “Welcome to the IMF, Mister Secretary.” Now, that’s very odd. It implies that the Secretary is the head of the IMF. In the past, it always seemed that he was the secretary of defense or state, a cabinet-level post that oversaw the intelligence community. Having him be exclusively attached to the IMF and appointed by some kind of committee is hard to make sense of. It’s also a disappointing ending in another sense, because when Ilsa went off to her ill-defined future, I imagined the closing scene I wanted to see: Ilsa some time later showing up to a message drop and then hearing Ethan’s voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Faust. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” I think that would’ve been a perfect ending. Concluding the film without formally bringing Ilsa on board feels incomplete, particularly since it leaves the IMF as an all-male outfit throughout the film.

Rogue Nation was a pretty solid action movie, very well-made. It doesn’t seem to have the plausibility problems of the first two films, and it has a level of humor close to that of Ghost Protocol. I’m getting tired of Ethan always being on the run from his own government, but at least it was set up as a continuation of the events of previous films. Indeed, I enjoy the way this film felt like a continuation of the previous one, even more so than GP did; it’s a refreshing change from the first decade of the franchise, where each film felt like an unrelated standalone. RN didn’t have as strong a character story at its core as the previous two, but what filled that void was the interplay and friendship among the core cast. This is the first M:I film where every member of Ethan’s team is a returning character, and that history gives weight to the character interactions, which is good, because the characters are given little development otherwise. There’s also Ilsa’s story as a reluctant double agent trying to balance her allegiances and stay alive — perhaps not very deep or emotional, but well-handled by Ferguson, who’s a very strong presence and an effective counterpart to Cruise. There’s a degree of male gaze directed toward her by the camera on occasion, but she never really feels objectified, since she’s so poised and in control.

I have particular praise for Joe Kraemer’s score. It integrates the Schifrin themes as strongly as Giacchino’s did, if not more so, and builds new motifs on similar chord structures so that it all feels of a piece, not only with the Schifrin themes but with the Giacchino scores, which did much the same thing. Kraemer actually uses “The Plot” more extensively than Giacchino did, accompanying a lot of the team’s machinations; although, like Danny Elfman in the first film, he never quotes the entire melody, sticking mainly to the first few bars. The most extensive use of “The Plot” is in the Casablanca sequence, where it gets reworked to have an “Arabian” sound to it.

The movie is not without flaws, though. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test. Ilsa is the only significant female character; of the two others, one (the doomed record-shop clerk) is just there to be killed to motivate Ethan, and the other (an aide to Hunley played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who’s prominently credited for less than a minute of screen time) is apparently just there to satisfy the Chinese funding partners. Neither of them interacts with Ilsa at all. I’d say it passes the Mako Mori test, in that Ilsa has a clearly drawn arc of her own that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc, but the overwhelming maleness of most of the cast is distracting. (The Nebulous Committee, for instance, consists entirely of old white men plus one token old black man.) Looking back over the series, though, it seems that none of the films pass the test fully, except maybe the first, which has three named women on the initial team, participating in the group conversation about the mission.

It also doesn’t feel as much like Mission: Impossible as GP did. It’s more in the vein of the second and third films in being driven more by big action than by devious con games. The sequence with the Prime Minister and Attlee comes the closest to an IMF-style con game, and the infiltration of the Casablanca vault has a touch of it (since it’s basically a variation on the classic IMF tactic of inserting fake credentials for a team member into the target’s records). But mostly it’s action over calculating schemes and deceptions, and Ethan and the team spend too much time improvising rather than playing out intricate chess games plotted in advance. The Nebulous Committee even argues that Ethan’s methods are “indistinguishable from luck,” which is pretty much anathema to the IMF of the TV series, wherein every move was calculated from the start and very little was ever left to chance. I regret that the film series has become so defined by its big action, because I’d love to see an M:I movie that was all about a big sting operation. Oh, and the Syndicate is said to be an “anti-IMF,” but its methods seem to consist mainly of snipers and bombs and the like. Dougray Scott in M:I-2 was more convincing in his use of IMF-style tactics for evil, and loyal readers, I’m as astonished as you to hear myself saying something positive about M:I-2. Granted, though, lack of IMFery isn’t a dealbreaker for an M:I movie; the third film had little of it, but it’s still one of the two strongest films in the series. It’s just that GP was the first film in the series that actually felt like Mission: Impossible rather than The Adventures of Ethan Hunt, and I was hoping RN would continue the trend. It did not.

And the lack of character development compared to the previous two films does disappoint me in retrospect. The dramatic tension among the team members played well, but there was little sense of backstory or personal lives like there was in the previous two films. It was all about the job and the plot business they were dealing with. The past two films gave Ethan a personal life that humanized him, but that was totally absent here, with Ethan defined totally by his quest to bring down the Syndicate. So it’s shallower overall, though not as shallow as the first two films.

If anything, RN reminds me of M:I-2 in a lot of ways. It’s a heavily action-driven film featuring a lengthy motorcycle chase; it features a villain using IMF-style tactics for evil; and it centers on Ethan’s competition with the villain for the allegiance of the sole significant female character in the film. But it’s much better in most respects: the action is less cartoony; the female lead is a protagonist in her own right and not merely a lust interest; and the rest of the IMF team functions as a full ensemble rather than just being tacked on.

So out of the five films so far, I would rank Rogue Nation as a close third behind the previous two films, and well ahead of the first two. I still think of the first two as failed pilots for a series that didn’t really get underway until J.J. Abrams took the helm. That series proper is now up to three films that have maintained a pretty consistent level of quality throughout. This is the weakest of the three, but by a narrow margin.

Reflections on ALIAS and FRINGE (Spoilers)

December 16, 2014 3 comments

Recently, I decided to rewatch J.J. Abrams’s spy series Alias on Netflix streaming, and once I was done binge-watching that, I wanted to continue in the same vein, so I went on to binge-watch Abrams’s next series, Fringe, which he co-created with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. I thought I’d share my reactions.

Alias was kind of a mess of a series, starting out pretty strong but subjected to a lot of format changes at the behest of ABC executives, so it jumped around a lot. I rewatched out of curiosity, to refresh my memory about how the show had evolved and changed, about what had worked and what hadn’t.

The show centered on Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a graduate student who also happened to be a globetrotting spy working for SD-6, which she believed to be a secret black-ops division of the CIA but that she discovered was actually a criminal organization run by Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin). She teamed up with real CIA agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) to bring SD-6 down from the inside, discovering that her estranged father Jack (Victor Garber) was also a CIA mole within SD-6. Meanwhile, she tried to balance her spy responsibilities with her studies and social life, while keeping her secrets both from her college friends (Bradley Cooper and Merrin Dungey) and her fellow SD-6 coworkers who still thought they were working for the good guys, including her partner Dixon (a shamefully underused Carl Lumbly) and comic-relief tech guy Marshall (Kevin Weisman). It was an incredibly convoluted premise to begin with, and the spy missions often focused on Milo Rambaldi, a 15th-century Leonardo/Nostradamus mashup who made accurate prophecies and invented technologies centuries ahead of their time. Sloane was obsessed with Rambaldi artifacts, and so were most of the villains over the course of the series. It was an odd fantasy element to build the spy stories around, and I always found it rather silly. Sloane also cared for Sydney as if she were his own daughter, although this wasn’t established until midway through the first season. But it helped explain how Sydney got away with sabotaging all her SD-6 missions without being exposed as a mole, since Sloane, her worst enemy, was also her staunchest defender. Rather convenient, but it helped add to the nuances that made Sloane the most interesting character on the show.

Garner was at the center, though, and the series focused heavily on her multiple disguises and sexy role-playing in her spy work; but I never found her all that impressive as an actress, or even all that sexy (definitely quite attractive and fit, but never really intriguing me as much as her female co-stars did). In the early episodes, she was ridiculously broad and overemotional in a way that no experienced professional would ever be — so much so that they actually did an episode midway through season 1 in which Vaughn taught Syd to control her emotions to pass a lie-detector test, after which she was more believably restrained. As for the rest of the cast, the standouts were Garber and Rifkin. Jack was a cold, often ruthless character who gradually softened toward his daughter but remained a nasty piece of work otherwise, but Garber did a superb job and I admired his acting even when I grew to hate his character. And Rifkin did a great job making Sloane a complex and sympathetic villain. At the start of the second season, Lena Olin was added to the cast as Sydney’s mother, an enemy agent named Irina Derevko, and did very well as a nuanced, ambiguous character who gradually won over her daughter and ex-husband but still had her own hidden agendas.

Midway through season 2, ABC apparently ordered a retool to resolve the complex ongoing arc, and SD-6 and the criminal Alliance it worked for were brought down with implausible haste, although it was justified in that Sloane himself — who turned out to be aware that Sydney was a double agent — engineered the fall of the Alliance for his own reasons. For the rest of season 2, Sloane became a more overt villain and the stories got a little more unfocused. The episode right after the end of the SD-6 arc was particularly random, with the characters going on an out-of-the-blue mission with no explanation for why they in particular were assigned to it. I think it was a Super Bowl episode, which was why it was so standalone, but it was a weird and pointless interlude between the end of one phase of the story and the beginning of the next — although it did introduce an advanced disguise technology that would be relevant later in the series.

The next retool was at the end of season 2, where Sydney was abducted and woke up 2 years later with no memory of the intervening time. She came back to find Vaughn married to Lauren Reed (the gorgeous Melissa George, who has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard), who naturally turned out to be evil eventually. And Sloane, in a deeply implausible plot twist, had been pardoned in exchange for his testimony and become the leader of a charity. It was unclear whether he’d really reformed or was just putting on an act. Irina was gone due to Lena Olin’s desire to spend more time with her family, so they invented a sister Katya (Isabella Rosselini) to fill in for her from time to time. The season focused on the pursuit of new villains (Lauren’s employers) for the most part, but late in the season, Sloane discovered his and Irina’s illegitimate daughter Nadia (Mia Maestro), i.e. Syd’s half-sister, whom he thought was the key to Rambaldi’s secrets, so he went bad again and abducted and used her to find the ultimate Rambaldi treasure.

The biggest, most whiplash-inducing retool came between seasons 3 and 4, though. In the season 3 finale, Lauren told Syd about a secret document revealing something that had been done to her and Nadia as children, explaining why they had both ended up becoming spies. The file was dated in the 1970s and clearly involved something unforgiveable that Jack had done at the time. And yet, when season 4 began, this was incredibly clumsily retconned to be a file stating that Jack had recently had Irina assassinated (though of course she later came back). Moreover, Sloane had apparently renounced Rambaldi for good and not only been re-pardoned, but actually put in charge of APO (Authorized Personnel Only), an SD-6 like group that actually was working for the CIA this time, and that incorporated all the major SD-6 and CIA characters in its roster. It was a really, really clumsy and implausible attempt to return the show to its roots, albeit with Nadia now a regular character.

And yet, it turned out to be my favorite season of the series. Despite the dumb setup, the writing was better (thanks largely to Drew Goddard’s addition to the staff) and the missions were a lot of fun, often with a strong Mission: Impossible vibe. The complex interplay between Syd, Nadia, and Sloane was intriguing, as Syd was torn between her love for her half-sister and her hatred and distrust for the father that Nadia loved. But it seemed that fatherhood had genuinely transformed Sloane. I liked Sloane as a repentant man trying to make amends for his past much better than I liked him as a villain.

The fifth season went through more changes, partly since network-mandated budget cuts required cast changes, but also because of Jennifer Garner’s pregnancy. Rachel Nichols, later of Continuum, was brought in as novice agent Rachel Gibson, who started out as a parallel for Syd (working for bad guys she thought were the good guys), and bore the brunt of the action during Garner’s pregnancy. Nichols was luminously beautiful and charming in the role, and I would’ve been happy to see her replace Garner completely. However, the back end of the season was delayed for months to coincide with Garner’s maternity leave, so Rachel ended up getting sidelined in the final episodes.

Also, they treated Nadia awfully, putting her in a coma for the majority of the final season and giving her story an unfortunate end. Not only that, but the season’s villains co-opted Sloane and lured him back to the dark side in exchange for the promise to cure Nadia. In the final few episodes, the writers basically discarded all of Sloane’s character-building, revealed that he’d been obsessed with Rambaldi all along, and reduced him to a cartoony big bad in the final few episodes — although Irina became an even more cartoony archvillain at the end, her whole personality tossed aside to accommodate a by-the-numbers good-vs.-evil final battle. And the series finale gave us another facepalm-inducing retcon. Late in season 4, when Sloane had confronted a villain who’d been pursuing Rambaldi technology, he asked why he’d been drawn into it and, when the man said he’d been promised eternal life, Sloane was disgusted that anyone could think Rambaldi’s endgame had been anything as jejune as immortality. And yet, in the series finale, the ultimate Rambaldi achievement that Sloane had been pursuing for most of his life was revealed to be… an immortality potion. Arrrggghhh!! The show really lost it at the end.

Overall, the main thing I enjoyed about Alias — aside from the cast members I praised above and others like Gina Torres and Amy Acker — was the music by Michael Giacchino, a big, bold adventure score that I really enjoyed, built around the kind of melodic leitmotifs that had fallen out of favor in live-action TV/film scoring before Giacchino brought them back with a vengeance. Actually the music in the first three seasons often frustrated me, because there was heavy dependence on pop songs, and all the orchestral action music was accompanied by a relentless, repetitive synth percussion beat like that used in the very mediocre title theme composed by Abrams. I often found myself wishing I could hear the orchestral score without the synth beat getting in the way. Fortunately, in the final two seasons, they finally let Giacchino drop the synth beat and just go wild with his fantastic orchestral scoring, which was heavily influenced by Mission: Impossible and foreshadowed Giacchino’s future work in the film franchise of the same name. The “APO era” featured a new recurring motif which strongly evoked Lalo Schifrin’s M:I theme and served much the same role as Schifrin’s “The Plot” motif in M:I, accompanying the scenes of the spy capers unfolding. Its apotheosis was in the opening of the 2-part series finale, where it’s gloriously developed in a cue that’s fully six and a third minutes long (7:10 if you count the prelude before the caper theme kicks in) as the APO team tracks down the leaders of the evil organization and takes photos of them. The sequence makes no damn sense from a story standpoint — how do they know where to find the leaders and photograph them if they don’t already know who they are? — but it’s a lot of fun and the music is fantastic. I wish there were a soundtrack release of it, but unfortunately the only score releases were from the first two seasons.

So all in all, Alias was a deeply inconsistent series with parts that were very entertaining and parts that were frustrating and disappointing. Jennifer Garner herself was one of its weakest links, not nearly as versatile an actress as was called for by her master-of-disguises role or the emotional roller coaster her character routinely went through. The frequent retools and absurd plot twists that justified them were hard to swallow as well. I’m glad I got to see (and hear) the good parts again, but I had to wade through a lot of bad parts.

I moved on to Fringe because I wanted something similar, but it proved a very different experience. It focused on an FBI team dedicated to investigating “fringe science” phenomena, weird sci-fi cases in an X-Files sort of vein. Australian actress Anna Torv starred as FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, with Joshua Jackson as genius con artist Peter Bishop, whom Olivia co-opted as keeper for her fringe-science consultant, his father Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a mentally unstable genius (frankly, a mad scientist) whose past work turned out to have connections to a lot of the fringe cases, particularly the work he did with his old partner William Bell (Leonard Nimoy, in infrequent appearances) before Bell went on to found Massive Dynamic, the most advanced tech firm on the planet, run in Bell’s absence by the morally ambiguous Nina Sharp (Blair Brown). Lance Reddick struck an imposing presence as the Fringe team’s boss, Agent Phillip Broyles, and Jasika Nicole played Walter’s adorable and long-suffering assistant Astrid Farnsworth.

This is a show that also evolved and changed format a lot over its 5-year run. The first season is the least interesting and least cohesive, built around horrific weird-science crimes-of-the-week that have tenuous and unclear goals underlying them, along with the mystery behind the betrayal of Olivia’s dead boyfriend John Scott (the perennially wooden Mark Valley), whose evil in the pilot episode (including a cold-blooded murder) was sloppily and unsatisfactorily retconned to redeem him as a double agent within the villains’ organization.

By the end of season 1, the villains behind most of the weird crimes were revealed as a group believing our universe was threatened by invaders from a parallel reality, as predicted in a manifesto that Walter himself wrote, though he’d long since forgotten it. They were trying both to get the manifesto author’s attention with their public and shocking science crimes, and to “activate” certain people that Walter and Bell had experimented on as children, giving them cortexiphan, a fictional drug that awakened various mental superpowers, in an attempt to create supersoldiers to fight the coming war. In a coincidence that was never adequately explained, Olivia herself turned out to be one of Walter’s cortexiphan test subjects, something neither of them remembered when Olivia first chose to bring Walter in as a consultant. (I suppose it’s possible, though, that Olivia had some subconscious memory that drew her to Walter, and perhaps that Nina Sharp had pulled some strings to get her assigned in the first place. But the show itself never addressed the contrivance.) This put the core group of Olivia, Walter, and Peter at the heart of everything that was going on. The season finale had Bell bringing Olivia to “The Other Side” — an alternate universe where the World Trade Center’s twin towers are still standing and people travel in zeppelins, because alternate universes always need zeppelins — to explain the nature of the coming war, although she conveniently forgot what he’d told her once she returned, only gradually recovering the memories.

The transition to season 2 is actually pretty sloppy, with an apparent discontinuity in the events of Olivia’s transition between universes, and with an abortive attempt to introduce a new supporting character who’s set up in the first two episodes as a major player but then abruptly vanishes. (Also, in DVD/Netflix order, there’s a “leftover” season 1 episode, “Unearthed,” between the season 1 finale and the season 2 premiere. It doesn’t belong there, and was originally aired midway through season 2, where it was even more out of place. It’s completely standalone and can be watched just about anywhere in mid-season 1, or skipped altogether.) But the season advances the story by having the invaders from the other universe start to appear, in the form of cyborg shapeshifters, since most people can’t safely cross over. More importantly, this is the season where we learn the truth of how Walter is responsible for the whole crisis in the first place, and how, in his effort to save the life of his son, he inadvertently caused his alternate self (nicknamed “Walternate”) to lose his own Peter and caused increasing damage to the fabric of the universe on the other side. By the end of the season, we discover that Walternate and those on the other side see themselves as defending against invaders from our universe.

And it’s in the season 2 finale that the series finally starts to get awesome. Much of it is from the perspective of the alternate Fringe team, including a version of Olivia (nicknamed Fauxlivia) who’s far more upbeat and cheerful than our version, having never gone through the cortexiphan trials and other tragedies. At the very end, Fauxlivia abducts Olivia and takes her place, and the first third of season 3 is amazing as it alternates between episodes set on our side (with Fauxlivia impersonating Olivia and becoming romantically involved with Peter) and episodes set on the other side (with Walternate brainwashing Olivia to believe she is Fauxlivia, so that he can convince her to use her cortexiphan-enabled universe-crossing powers for his benefit). Anna Torv does an amazing job playing effectively four distinct personalities (the two very different Oliviae as themselves and as each other) and differentiating them marvelously. It rivals Tatiana Maslany’s astonishing work playing multiple clones on Orphan Black. Also, the alternate Fringe team is arguably even more likeable than the main team, and the worldbuilding of the other side is really creative and interesting. Even when the Oliviae switch back, we still get periodic episodes set on the other side as both sides build up toward the ultimate confrontation and our two sets of heroes try to avert the destruction of one or both universes.

Which leads to the next reinvention in season 4, where the show does much the same thing Eureka did in its fourth season, rewriting the timeline and carrying forward in a permanently altered history. But, whereas in Eureka the main regulars all retained their memories, in this case only Peter remembers the original timeline, and he isn’t even present for the first several episodes. Both universes are still in play, interacting more regularly, but both remember their history differently due to the changes, and several characters are substantially different. Eventually, due to cortexiphan weirdness, Olivia recovers her original memories, and she and Peter end up together. Unfortunately, the main villain of season 4 — actually an altered-history version of a villain killed off in season 1, since season 4 digs deep into the show’s history and makes the first couple of seasons feel more cohesive in retrospect — has a plan to destroy both universes and start over, and saving the universes requires isolating them once again, bringing the two-universes arc to a conclusion.

Which is an understandable decision, since the show was on the bubble of cancellation at this point. But FOX was no longer run by the same executives that fandom blames for cancelling Firefly, and the new executives gave the series every chance to survive and complete its run. So they let the series do an abbreviated final season which introduced a whole new twist on reality. Now, the show jumped forward in time a quarter-century, to a dystopian future in which the Observers — mysterious, detached bald guys in suits who were present as enigmatic watchers in many of the series’ events since the very beginning, and who turned out to be time-jumping scouts from the future — invaded our era in force and conquered the world. (At least one Observer, usually the main one played by Michael Cerveris, had at least a cameo appearance in every episode of the show, one of many hidden Easter eggs that the puzzle-loving Abrams put in the series.)  Our main cast was conveniently in suspended animation the whole time and thus didn’t age, although Broyles and Nina were reduced to recurring roles due to the slashed budget. Still, they were able to tell an effective miniseries about the struggle against the invaders, one that again dug deep into the show’s early continuity and brought everything together so neatly that it felt like they’d planned it that way all along, even though they probably hadn’t. The season also added Georgina Haig as Olivia and Peter’s grown-up daughter, which was great casting; she was both utterly gorgeous and utterly convincing as Olivia’s daughter in appearance and performance.

All told, I found Fringe very impressive on a revisit. On the initial run, the show often felt unfocused to me; for some reason, I had a pretty poor memory for past episodes, so when a character or plot point recurred, I’d struggle to remember it. But on a binge-rewatch, I can see how it all ties together and it feels like a cohesive saga. It reinvented itself as frequently as Alias did, but in a way that felt far more organic and unified. Not to mention far bolder and more creative in the way the producers played around with the nature of the show’s reality. Not only did they jump between alternate universes and alter the timeline, but they’d do occasional episodes set in the past before jumping to the future. Not to mention the occasional episode built around Walter’s fondness for psychedelic drugs. (This includes the show’s biggest misfire, an anemic attempt at a musical episode called “Brown Betty,” but works out much better in the final season’s “Black Blotter.”) They even did a hallucinatory episode that was largely an animated cartoon — evidently to deal with Nimoy’s inability to appear in person in a William Bell-heavy episode, since only the scenes featuring Bell were animated. Unfortunately, it was rather clunky cel-shaded 3D done by Zoic Studios. Which was frustrating, since Fringe was a Warner Bros. show, and WB Television Animation is one of the best 2D animation studios around. I always wondered why they didn’t take advantage of that.

The show’s main title sequence even changed to fit the varying settings in time and space. The blue-tinged titles became red-tinged in the parallel universe and gold-tinged in the altered reality of season 4; there was an ’80s-CGI-styled title sequence for the two ’80s-flashback episodes; and the titles for the future-dystopia episodes were redesigned to suit that setting, gray and oppressive with the fringe-science topics flashed onscreen in earlier seasons (stuff like “Astral Projection” and “Clairvoyance”) replaced with words like “Due Process” and “Freedom” — conveying that those things were now seen as fringe ideas and improbable myths. It was fun to see the ways they played around with their own format, and it’s one of the things that made the show so distinctive.

The cast deserves a lot of credit. I’ve already mentioned how impressive Anna Torv was as the various incarnations of Olivia — and I haven’t even mentioned the episodes where Olivia was possessed by William Bell and Torv did a superb, often eerily perfect Leonard Nimoy impression. Jennifer Garner fell far short playing a master of disguise and impersonation, but Anna Torv was everything Garner failed to be. John Noble was amazing as Walter Bishop, a reformed mad scientist racked with guilt and self-doubt, childlike and struggling with sanity, and driven by deep devotion to his son. Those two really carried the show, since Joshua Jackson was a rather bland, monotonous performer by contrast. But it had a solid supporting cast, also including Kirk Acevedo and Seth Gabel. The music, by Giacchino and his orchestrator Chris Tilton, is subtler than Giacchino’s Alias scores, often in the sort of eerie horror/thriller vein that I’m not too fond of, but with some effective thematic work, including a leitmotif for the protagonists that uses the same chord structure as Abrams’s main title theme (which is much better than his annoying Alias theme), and a recurring Observer motif that becomes more villainous in the final season.

Watching Alias and Fringe back-to-back, I noticed that they both followed similar beats with their main characters’ romantic lives. In both series, the female lead has her pre-existing love interest die in the pilot, then works platonically with the male lead until they begin to act on their attraction toward the end of season 2. Then something happens to separate them, and when she returns, she finds that he’s been sleeping with another woman who turns out to have been working for the enemy; but they’re back together by the end of season 3. Later, the leading lady is separated from her love interest for most of a season, although Alias waits until season 5 while Fringe does it in season 4. And both couples end up becoming parents, though it unfolds quite differently in the two cases. Also, the main parental figure in Alias is the female lead’s father, but in Fringe it’s the male lead’s father, and the two couldn’t be more opposite in temperament. Although in both series, everything that happens, no matter how global or cosmic its impact, ends up revolving around the family of one of the leads. In many ways, the shows couldn’t be more different, but that’s why the recurring patterns struck me.

When I first started watching Fringe, I wondered if I could pretend that it and Alias were in the same universe — maybe all that silly Rambaldi stuff in the earlier show could be justified as a consequence of the time travels and weird science of the later show. There aren’t any real points of overlap between the two, nothing where they either reinforce or contradict each other. And for two consecutive shows from the same producers, they’re surprisingly lacking in common actors, the only one I noticed being Kevin Weisman, who appeared as an evil shapeshifter in one episode of Fringe. (No doubt largely because Alias was filmed in LA while Fringe was filmed in New York City in season 1 and Vancouver thereafter.) So I suppose one could pretend they went together if one wanted, but they don’t really feel like they go together. And I liked Fringe so much better than Alias that I ultimately didn’t want to bother. Let them stay separate.

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-long-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.

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