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Mission: Impossible (Parts 1 and 2)

Everyone has pop culture blind spots. Much as we’d like to think that there are some media landmarks so crucial to our everyday parlance that everyone should be familiar with them, there are only so many hours in the day and no one can get around to everything.

This is problematic in our franchise-based film industry, which assumes that anyone going into just about any blockbuster movie has some prior knowledge of the films (or TV shows, as with Entourage or Veronica Mars) that came before.

In my case, most of my franchise blind spots are intentional. I never would have guessed that Divergent or The Maze Runner would become viable franchises, which is why I’m not in the stock market. I’ve seen a couple of entries in the Transformers and Hunger Games series, and I have no interest in seeing the remainder of either. I’ve never even started on the Despicable Me or 50 Shades franchises, and I’m determined to give both of them a wide berth (for entirely different reasons) no matter what. And of course Paranormal Activity is dead to me, as part of my self-imposed moratorium on “found footage” horror films.

But there’s one franchise that keeps popping up, and it’s getting to be a very serious problem for me as a film critic. I was nine years old when the first Mission: Impossible film came out, and I’ve never had any cause to see it in the years since. I’m at a loss to explain how the franchise is still viable twenty years later, in large part because I haven’t seen the films. Time to correct that, I think.

After seeing the first two movies back-to-back, I’m struck by how they show such a contrast in approaches to brain-dead cinema. And make no mistake, the first movie was enjoyably stupid. There were plot holes, there were contrivances, and characters switch motivations on a dime. Yet the film was quite recognizable as a spy thriller/heist thriller hybrid. The various twists and turns varied in plausibility and coherence, but there was enough connective tissue to keep the plot moving forward and bring the audience along for the ride.

By contrast, the plot to the second film is damn near incoherent. To be brutally honest, I had to bail on M:I2 at the halfway point, because watching the “CGI mask fake-out” trick get pulled twice in a row was just too much for me to take. Using that impostor gag as a cheap narrative crutch was simply unpardonable, especially when the plot had already been padded to an inch of its life. The plot is anywhere from glacially paced to nonexistent, such that it’s barely even recognizable as a heist story, a spy story, or any kind of story at all.

I mean, sure, the first film had various gadgets and devices, but it wasn’t so pathetically lazy in using them. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the gadgets weren’t going to work perfectly, which created some degree of tension even as we knew our heroes would make it out in the end. Hell, that’s a huge part of why the vault scene became so iconic and widely imitated throughout the next several years.

More than that, the first film showed a very strong team dynamic, which I understand was emblematic of the source TV show. Granted, we don’t follow the same team throughout the movie, but again, the team shifted with every episode in the original TV show (so far as I’ve heard, anyway). On the other hand, the only more or less constant presence through the original show was Jim Phelps, played here by Jon Voight. And (*SPOILER ALERT*) he turns out to be the bad guy. Moreover, after the various heists and plot turns have played themselves out, pretty much everyone on the team is either dead and/or turned traitor.

The film completely destroyed its own reliance of the “team dynamic” gimmick, with consequences that are clearly visible in the sequel. It’s very much Tom Cruise’s show at this point, with fellow survivor Ving Rhames relegated to little more than the token black second fiddle. Then we’ve got an annoying comic relief played by John Polson, a useless love interest played by Thandie Newton, and that’s it.

Newton’s character sounds solid enough in theory, since she’s a professional thief who’s ideally placed as an old beloved flame of our villain. In practice, however, she proves to be a thoroughly stupid woman who’s always getting into trouble, treated as little more than a fragile trophy by her male costars. Disgraceful.

The action bears consideration as well. In the first film, the action moved along at a very brisk clip, paced in such a way that we could pretty much always keep a decent track of so many simultaneous things happening at once. Far more importantly, the action was done in such a way that it advanced the story. It was all about sneaking in someplace, completing a mission, and escaping without leaving a trace. Simple. And given the stakes both global and personal, compelling.

Compare that to the action in the second film, which is overblown in all the wrong ways. The one “heist” scene that I saw didn’t come until the 50-minute mark, and it was so laughably fast and simple that it wasn’t any fun to watch. Well, unless we’re counting the airplane flim-flam at the start of the movie, which might have been far more effective if it wasn’t for that bullshit Tom Cruise bait-and-switch.

Otherwise, the action that I saw was purely gratuitous. From the pointless opening credits sequence of Cruise climbing a rock cliff to that stupid and unnecessary car chase between him and Newton, the action had absolutely no bearing on the story.

Granted, the first film had certain stylistic flourishes, but at least they were all based in story. There was a reason why Dutch angles were used to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. There was a reason why the camera moved a certain way and scenes were cut a certain way, the better to obscure certain details and prolong the mystery. There’s a reason why the mid-90s CGI looks so dated, though admittedly, I’m sure that wasn’t intentional on the filmmakers’ part.

Compare that to the second film, with its use of overlays, slow-motion, CGI explosions, camera zooms, and so many other stylistic fluorishes that are not based in story to any degree whatsoever. Indeed, they serve primarily to keep the viewer at such a distance that not only do we learn nothing about the story or the characters, we’re given no reason to care.

Yes, I know it’s a brainless action film, but we still need some baseline of logic in order to understand what’s going on. And yes, I know that CGI extravaganzas are inherently artificial, but some semblance of reality is crucial. A film has to draw us in and make us feel the thrill of really being there in the chase. Without immersive action, and without an understanding of what’s going on, we’re left without any reason to care. It’s a low bar, don’t get me wrong, but the second film falls well short of even that low standard.

Now, a lot of the differences between these two films come back to the different directors. Brian De Palma has had his stinkers (in all fairness, Mission to Mars didn’t happen until four years later), but I don’t think there’s any doubt that he knows his way around a camera. Likewise, no one can deny that John Woo is a pioneer of action cinema, especially action cinema from his native Hong Kong.

But this property needed someone who could take the campiness of a TV show that ran in the ’60s and ’70s (the same era that gave us “Gilligan’s Island,” and the Adam West take on Batman, remember) and make it thrilling enough for a more modern audience. Handing that assignment off to the guy who directed Carrie makes a lot of sense. Handing it to the guy who made Face/Off, not so much.

It’s like Woo took all the worst aspects of the first film and doubled down on them. That ridiculous mask gag? Make it even more ridiculous and overly convenient. Those bizarre camera angles? Make it so the camera is actively sabotaging the movie. Stupid plot? Just keep on insulting the viewers’ intelligence, burying them in so much stupid that we’d need waders and pruning shears to find the plot.

The first film was stylish in a way that was fast-paced and fun. The second film was stylish in a way that’s pretentious and impenetrable.

Mission: Impossible is hardly perfect, but I’m sure its story-driven and more tactile approach to action was a welcome change of pace, compared to other films of the time. Remember, 1996 was also the year that gave us Independence DayTwister, and Mars Attacks!, all clearly designed to be CGI spectacles first and stories later (if at all).

I’m not at all surprised that the first film did well enough to warrant a sequel. But I am surprised that Mission: Impossible 2 screwed the pooch so hard. It’s abundantly clear that nobody behind the scenes had any idea what story they wanted to tell with the sequel — otherwise, they would have given the sequel to a director who had the first clue of what to do with it.

Little surprise, then, that the third movie spent six years going through a revolving door of directors. It was ultimately J.J. Abrams who signed on to get the franchise back on track, and his Bad Robot shingle has been overseeing the series ever since. Next time, we’ll see how the third and fourth movies turned out. See you then.

One Comment

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