Monday, May 2, 2011

Tom Cruise's One-Man "Mission: Impossible"

I saw "Mission:Impossible" twice, but only good company and some excellent sequences made me really enjoy it. I had some issues with it, even as I watched it, but the problems grew the more I thought about them. In short - some joy, but not enough, given the names involved. While Brian De Palma can't be blamed for doing a big-budget feature - his visual style is a blessing here - I can blame the writers for selling out "M:I."

In short, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is a top-notch (of course!) US operative with the IMF ("Impossible Missions Force," not "International Monetary Fund"). He and his team are trying to make the world a better place, but their plans go awry. Ethan is now alone and suspected of treason. He has to find out what happened to his team and clear his name.

The real issue here is that "Mission: Impossible" is not a summer blockbuster. It was an excellent, inventive TV series about a team of skilled field agents who can accomplish anything. These are guys who can make you think that you're the last man alive on the whole planet, the Cubs won the World Series, that you're in Holland 25 years in the future, or that people want you dead. They would travel the world to stop Soviets, arms dealers, terrorists, and mobsters.

Every ep was, at heart, a heist story. Yet The clever tricks and plans were always a backdrop for the team. What really made the show stand out? Leonard Nimoy, Peter Lupus, Martin Landau, Greg Morris, Peter Graves, and many others. Mr. Phelps went into each assignment with a team that could devise and execute plans, but had the skill, nerve, and resolve to adapt if things got tricky. Each member was impressive, but their united efforts were nearly miraculous...

So the 1996 movie is real disappointment on that front.  DePalma gives us two "team sequences" in the beginning, before swiftly moving into "The Tom Cruise Show." Actually, they should've called it "Ethan Hunt and the Mission:Impossible." Tom Cruise is almost always the absolute face-first star of every movie he does, and audiences are forced to accept that for better or worse. But it's not in keeping with the basic concept of "M:I."

Eventually, Ethan needs a second team to help him resolve his problems. He settles on a nice cast: Ving Rhames, Emmanuelle Béart, and Jean Reno (yay!). Béart is a sultry plot device more than a living character. She can act - there are witnesses - but she's also a woman in film so her talents are put into: crying, corrupting people/being corrupted/being suspected of either, giving our hero ":f-me eyes" all the time, being in danger...

What the hell, guys? This is a professional summer blockbuster. How come even the cliches have cliches?!

See? if you block the sign a little higher, everyone will smoke and get a ticket.
Ving Rhames is completely wasted, as I will describe several paragraphs below. Only the great Jean Reno manages to actually act out that whole "team thing" while creating something like a personality. Sure, it's a familiar, possibly stereotypical, slightly threadbare personality, but Reno does a variation on his usual film persona, and it's something that's easy to watch onscreen.

The antagonist (I won't spoil), though, is a total wash. Their corny motivation: a loss of power since the Cold War ended, so "to hell with patriotism, I'm selling out" - and I don't even have the heart to write more of this because it's an insult to my fingers. Every line could have been replaced by the word "blah" or "cliche" and the actor's tone would still sell the non-story that's we're sitting through.

Very subtle.
 This isn't exactly compelling, y'know? Henry Czerny, out of the whole cast, perfectly selling his part and his place here. He has a very controlled and "mannered" performance. The way he manages to be effective to viewers (you'll hope he fails/dies/succeeds/etc.) highlights how poorly the main villain comes off.

Throughout, though, the story is delivered in often crass and almost always world-weary tones. Everyone's "been there," everyone's "done that," - plenty of the interaction comes off a little stiff, and I don't know if that's because of or in spite of the cynicism at play. I guess this makes it all feel lived-in.

The effect, is that it's easy surprisingly easy to not feel engaged outside of the action scenes. It's especially true, as the plots themselves have little meaning. How much of this keeps to the spirit of that classic TV show?

I told you before - it was just for one night, ok?
Still, much of what you'll see - a super-secure location, the operations center of the IMF bosses, a train sequence - is actually pretty cool. And although the final set-piece is way too over the top, there is real excitement in the sequences that are supposed to be exciting. Anyone looking for a mindless action pic will be lulled by the magic-like technology, CGI dangers, and physical... improbability of it all. Yet I'd rather watch fireworks than watch a movie that has no spirit, no point, and no real "oomph."

The best example of my problem with this picture: Hunt recruits an amazing uber-hacker named Luther Stillwell (Rhames). Luther is played by a fine actor... who's reduced to being charismatic and delivering his lines well. When the time comes for Luther to do his job (the biggest "hack" of his career), this is what occurs - unexpectedly, Hunt sees someone types in the needed password; his glasses allow Luther to watch; Luther recites the password to Ethan, who types it.

Well, it's a good thing Hunt hired the best hacker alive, right? What kind of "team movie" is that? It's not one, and I don't like the producers pretending that it was.

Pretty much what it's all about, right there.
"M:I" spawned 2 sequels, with more on the way. Yet it's got 60% on Metacritic, 59% on RT. Those numbers don't always match my opinions, but it's sort of a low score, right? You'd think a big-time over-blown franchise would have a better score, right?

I almost feel bad writing all this about a movie that actually was fun to watch in the theater. I make a deal with a film sometimes, I won't be a hard-ass and I'll be willing to get in the spirit of it - so long as it's clear the makers actually cared about quality and treat the audience with respect. Because of the solid, well-earned reputations of all three - Cruise, DePalma, and "M:I" - I think it's easy to expect/demand better.

Don't call me "lackey." I prefer "minion."
If Paramount wanted a new Tom Cruise action blockbuster, I would've had no problem with that. But if the studio wanted to do a "Mission: Impossible" film, then they should have actually filmed that. The source material was perfectly fine, and what was the result of tampering with its formula? A modest but semi-generic movie that's not so clever; a flick that establishes place and people with cynical dialogue and knowing glances.

I'm not sure if it's worse because "M:I" actually showed a credible, dead-on espionage team for those precious opening minutes. It means the makers knew what they should be doing, then opted to give us a "only the star matters" version of it. I'd like to call it Tom Cruise's One-Man "Action Hamlet." I think it's an appropriate mock title, and sounds funny.

If the film's promising beginning was just a clever trick, then I suppose, in some way, yet another "Mission: Impossible" team pulled off an elaborate and lucrative heist. Better luck next franchise...

To my new movie! And my huge cut of the profits! There's a minor speaking role in it for you too...

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