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Posts Tagged ‘Mission: Impossible’

It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind of film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

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Things change. Once upon a time I was somewhat given to commenting on the rather languid pace at which the makers of the Mission: Impossible movies produced their wares: six year gaps between instalments not being unusual. These days, however, they’re coming out nearly as often as Bond films – though, again, the once regular-as-clockwork schedule of Eon’s franchise has rather slipped in recent years.

Even so, nineteen years on from Brian de Palma’s original movie, they’re still only up to number 5, or Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (he of The Usual Suspects renown, should the name occasion a tinkle). This time around, the story is – well, to be perfectly honest, it’s very much like the story in the last couple of films in its general tone and so on, but the particularities are as follows.

Following a preposterous sequence with Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a plane in flight (this is the one you may have seen in the trailers and so forth; it has virtually no connection to the main plot), the Impossible Mission Force’s government overseers come to the not-unreasonable conclusion that Cruise is raving mad and shut the whole agency down. However, Cruise has come across the existence of a secret organisation dedicated to counter-intelligence, terrorism, revenge, and extortion, though it’s obviously not That One, and refuses to be packed off to the padded cell the CIA have got ready for him. (Cruise goes on the run from his own bosses with such tedious regularity in these films that it’s practically his standard operating procedure.)

Six months pass, with, we are invited to infer, Cruise leading the ham-fisted regular spooks a merry dance around the world, while back home his usual associates (primarily Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames) take a lot of stick from the new boss (Alec Baldwin) on his behalf. Anyway, Cruise invites Pegg to the opera in Vienna, not for a cultural night out but because he believes beastliness is afoot.

Of course Cruise is right and there follows a preposterous sequence in which no fewer than five people try to either shoot or blow up the Austrian Chancellor, and it seems like every loose object in the opera house contains a concealed weapon of some kind. Cruise and Pegg make contact with enigmatic British agent Rebecca Ferguson (the only female main character, and the only one required to do a scene in her pants, in case you were wondering), and this leads to the obligatory sequence in which an impregnable bank vault must be robbed. It is, naturally, preposterous.

There is a motorbike chase and then a preposterous climax based around Cruise and the gang sticking up the British Prime Minister (the PM is played by Tom Hollander as a vague and comical figure, though of course he doesn’t approach the wretchedness of the genuine article), and then… well, let’s just say that Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme gets played a lot.

It is all, in case you hadn’t noticed, very preposterous stuff, but then that’s what people seem to want, as it is raking in the readies and Mission: Impossible 6 is already on the drawing board. This series has become the purest of popcorn entertainment, owing no great loyalty to Bruce Geller’s classic TV series: people just go along to see each new film because it’s big and slick and loud entertainment, and it’s got some reliable, familiar faces in it.

Chief amongst those is, of course, Tom Cruise, although the confusion amongst some commentators as to what exactly’s going on with Tom Cruise’s face is not without foundation – he may well be in alarmingly good shape for a man of his age, but his face does seem, um, variable at different points of the film. Nevertheless, this remains at heart a Tom Cruise vehicle, with all the baggage that comes with it – scenes where characters exclaim that he’s a deranged obsessive take on a whole extra meaning, for instance. Early on someone says of him, ‘I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true,’ which again suggests someone somewhere is being a bit playful. Regardless, the godlike essence of Cruise and his character is ultimately confirmed – he is, apparently, ‘the living embodiment of destiny’, or words to that effect, and this is said by someone who doesn’t even like him very much. (One wonders whether the increased frequency of Cruise’s Impossible excursions may be at all linked to a slight but definite fading in his star power.)

Business as usual continues elsewhere, with much of the film’s heart and warmth coming from supporting bananas such as Pegg and Renner. Rhames gets a couple of nice moments but it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s mainly there to provide a link with previous films. There is the faintest sense of this being something of a greatest hits package, incorporating as it does a number of bits very reminiscent of previous films – bike chases, locations, and so on. There are also possibly-ominous signs of the undertaking running out of ideas – there’s a long scene expositing the plot in the third act, and I caught myself thinking ‘that guy there is going to whip off a rubber mask and reveal himself to be Tom Cruise in a minute’, and – lo! – it came to pass pretty much as I expected.

Possibly the only real innovation this time is the fact that we are back in a position where the bad guys are British. Well, not everyone from the UK turns out to be a bad guy (and the question of what someone as audibly British as Simon Pegg is doing working for the CIA is never really addressed), but the British authorities are presented as being variously corrupt, ruthless, foolish, and self-centred. All very charming I’m sure, and perhaps in some way indicative of the fact that various companies in the Middle East and Asia co-financed this movie.

But, as I believe I said, this movie is preposterous, so it’s quite difficult to get genuinely annoyed with it. It’s a good kind of preposterous, anyway – you don’t actually question the plot while it’s slipping by so agreeably, and if you won’t remember the details of the plot a couple of weeks later, so what? It’s undeniably fun while it’s in front of you, but not much more.

 

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I’ve always had a sort of soft spot for the Mission: Impossible movies, partly because I like the TV show but mainly because when the first film came along I was at a bit of a low ebb and generally not feeling very good about myself – Brian de Palma’s movie made me forget all that, really cheered me up, and somehow set the tone for a summer which ultimately turned out to be much better than I could have expected. As a result it may be that I am prone to grant subsequent installments an easier ride than I would usually in the case of vacuous studio cash cows possibly coming around the block once too often.

Which brings us to Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, possibly the most punctuation-intensive title for a sequel since the last Tomb Raider movie. If you think that sounds more like a computer game than a movie, then – hmm, your Jedi powers stand you in good stead.

It all kicks off with junior Impossibles Simon Pegg (Mission Specialities: Geekiness and Comic Relief) and Paula Patton (Mission Specialities: Decorativeness and Ticking Diversity Boxes) busting Tom Cruise (Mission Specialities: [deleted on the advice of our lawyers after a close reading of the libel laws]) out of a Russian nick (since the last movie Pegg has passed the exam letting him participate in the main plot). Cruise is in there for a reason, but we needn’t worry too much about that.

Cruise and his new team are required to infiltrate the Kremlin (parts of which appear to have been sneakily disguised as Prague Castle – oh, those Russians!) in search of information as to the identity of a nutty boffin intent on starting a nuclear war in the name of progress. (The whole film operates on this kind of level, in case you were wondering.) But the boffin is onto them, blows up the Kremlin (but not Prague Castle, thankfully) and pins it on Tom and the gang. Caught up along with them is honorary Impossible on secondment from HQ Jeremy Renner (Mission Specialities: Worrying and Having A Mysterious Past).

With the superpowers bracing themselves for war (not that anyone outside the team seems particularly exercised by this) and Tom and the Impossibles disowned and hunted by their own government (though not very hard on the evidence we’re presented with – there’s a Russian cop who keeps popping up, though), stopping the boffin from setting off the nukes is going to be a challenge. But, as Sir Tony observed a couple of sequels ago, it’s not called Mission: Difficult

Ghost Protocol proudly introduces itself as A Tom Cruise Production, and if productions take after their producers in the same way that pets take after their owners, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this movie is utterly bonkers. Not necessarily in a bad way, but you should sever all links with reality before taking your seat. The first couple of M:I movies, at least, were moderately implausible action thrillers with a techno bent – but somewhere along the line a border has been sneakily crossed and by any reasonable definition this movie is really very silly SF. Spider-Man-style adhesive gauntlets, magnetic levitation kits, laser saws, and holographic wallpaper – they’re all here.

To accommodate all the gadgets the script isn’t really very much more than a succession of massively implausible set-pieces – you may well have seen the one with Cruise hanging off the side of a hotel in Dubai, but there are a number of others of broadly the same character. Alarm bells may be starting to ring, but do not be too hasty – crucially, Pixar alumnus Bird knows how to put together a polished and intricate spectacle, and the movie’s money sequences all hold together with every impression of effortlessness. It all still boils down to the Impossibles hurling themselves down ventilator shafts, dangling out of windows, and pretending to be people they’re not (not so much business with masks this time round, however), but it’s done with the greatest of style and energy.

Unfortunately, although this is obviously not the kind of film in which the participants are gunning for acting awards, what it really needs in order to wholly satisfy as a piece of breathless entertainment is a protagonist who can really invest it with some warmth and humanity. And what it has is Tom Cruise. General perceptions of Cruise, whether accurate or not, long ago reached the point where they colour every film he makes – and shall we just say that this doesn’t synergise well with his playing an obsessive, slightly ludicrous figure, as he does here? It’s not even as though he gives much of a performance, anyway – he’s a clenched, impassive lump at the centre of the film (clearly a lump with a good personal trainer, of course), hardly showing any emotion for most of it. As a result, scenes (and a whole subplot) dealing with Cruise’s emotional life and history just seem a bit superfluous – it also feels as if they may be there just to explain how this film connects to Mission: Impossible 3, and I for one wasn’t that bothered about that.

Nevertheless, the rest of the team do sterling work in propping Cruise and the movie up. Jeremy Renner is, as usual, rock-solidly reliable in support. Simon Pegg’s increased visibility reflects the rise of his star in recent years – although it seemed to me he was almost doing a bit too much in the way of comic relief in an attempt to personalise the movie. Paula Patton also carries out her duties commendably (I’m not saying this is a film with somewhat unreconstructed attitudes, and will leave you to discover for yourself which of the four leads is the one required to do a scene in their underthings).

The last two Mission: Impossibles whipped by enjoyably enough without leaving much of an impression on me. It’s early days with regard to Ghost Protocol, but I enjoyed it at the time – a slick, silly, very professionally assembled piece of blockbuster product, with lots of nice bits (not least the unusual sound of Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme played on the sitar). I’ve no idea whether this series has anything left in the tank – I suspect that will rather depend on Tom Cruise’s career trajectory – but Brad Bird’s achievements, at least, are rather impressive, and I’ll be interested to see what he does next.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 18th 2006:

[Originally following a review of Slither.]

Funnily enough, we go from a film about bizarre and unnatural methods of reproduction to Tom Cruise’s latest project. (Yeah, yeah, bring on your lawyers: you ain’t got nothing on me!) This is Mission: Impossible 3, as if you didn’t already know, co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost. This is one franchise which isn’t afraid to drag its feet while the Cruiser gets on with other things – it’s ten years since Brian de Palma’s (quite nifty) original, and six since John Woo’s (kinetic but soulless) follow-up. Well anyway, clearly it has been decreed it’s time for a third installment and our presence in the multiplex is clearly expected.

As you would expect given the director’s pedigree, this latest outing finds Tom Cruise stranded on a tropical island with an invisible monster and a female student who’s secretly a top spy. Ha! Ha! Oh, my sides. All right – it doesn’t really. Instead, our toothsome inch-high superspy has gone into semi-retirement as a trainer of other agents and is all set for domestic bliss with his fiancee – no, it’s not Thandie Newton from the last movie, she clearly got sick of never being allowed to wear heels, it’s someone new. But then – wouldn’t you know it! – one of Tom’s trainees gets into trouble and he’s sent in to rescue her. This does not go entirely to plan and Tom finds himself on the wrong side of lardy arms dealer Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose main hobby is putting bombs up peoples’ noses. A fink within the IMF eventually gives Hoffman the forwarding address of Tom’s new bride and our hero finds himself having to nick a crucial plot device Macguffin for him before his wife gets put six feet under and his own sinuses get decongested with extreme prejudice…

Despite what you may be thinking, Abrams does work fairly hard to make this more than just a cynical cash-in on the Mission: Impossible name. The premise of the show (each week a disparate team of Impossible Missionaries got sent on an unfeasibly complicated, er, mission) is reflected in the structure of the movie – obviously Tom is the Chief Impossible, aided by Deputy Impossible Ving Rhames (yup, back again, still with moustache) and Assistant Impossibles Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Our own Simon Pegg pops up in a couple of scenes as a very junior Impossible who isn’t let out of HQ, presumably because his costume isn’t stylish enough.) Anyway the film is written so Tom and the gang have to go Impossibling in a different location every thirty minutes or so – there is a good deal of globe-trotting involved in this but with the exception of a ridiculous caper inside the Vatican all the locations are used strictly as ‘colour’ – apart from the trip to Rome, they could probably have set the whole film within thirty miles of Birmingham without it needing very much in the way of rewriting. Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme gets blasted out fairly regularly too, which is nice, but the classic ‘your mission, if you choose to accept it…’ schtick is very nearly abandoned, which isn’t.

The plot is fairly bonkers, but acceptably so, and the film only really gets dull in between bouts of Impossibling. At these points Tom hangs out with Ving Rhames (who used to be an ace hacker but who, to judge from his interest in Tom’s personal life, has since retrained as a relationship counsellor) or gets dragged over the coals by snippy IMF boss Laurence Fishburne, who appears to have been on the pies since finishing the Matrix trilogy. Both of these are fairly grim but much, much worse are the segments where we get to see Tom and his missus hanging out and generally just being in love with each other. Yes, Tom’s teeth go into overdrive, flashing and pulsating away like an Aldis lamp. To be fair, his performance throughout is also quite acceptable but the fact remains that when on screen, no matter what the movie, he frequently looks completely nuts – and when, as in this case, the script does not address that fact, the results are rarely entirely satisfying. Hoffman, who’s a much more versatile performer, gets considerably less screentime and his part is so thinly written even an actor of his abilities struggles to really make an impression.

JJ Abrams does a decent job as a debut director, with a fair eye for a striking composition. He achieves some neat effects, too: in particular a sequence where real-live-Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is seamlessly replaced by Hoffman himself playing Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is very neatly done. He seems to be aware of the dangers of franchise fatigue as well – one of the set-piece bits of Impossibling here is dangerously similar to one from earlier in the series, and Abrams handles it in an unexpected way that keeps it relatively fresh. He also handles the blatant nature of the central Macguffin with amusing impudence – though whether this is done as a post-modern in-joke or as an act of sheer desperation I don’t know. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but only if he explains what those ruddy numbers are all about by the end of the year…

In the end, though, this is a fairly sterile and mechanical piece of entertainment. The individual bits of Impossibling are entertaining and amusing and there are some effective bits of action along the way – but the climax is rather low-key, and the film’s attempts to be politically relevant come across as strained and spurious. It doesn’t play with the audience’s expectations in the way the first film did, and doesn’t have much in the way of novelty value either. As a popcorn movie, it works, and I expect it will do very well at the box office. But the prospect of a six year wait before the next instalment doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

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