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Mission: Impossible (Parts 3 and 4)

Halfway into this little franchise recap and I’m starting to wonder why I even bothered.

Two movies in, and the franchise has been struggling to justify its own existence. Aside from Tom Cruise’s mania and Ving Rhames’ need for a paycheck, I fail to understand why anyone keeps making them. Yes, there’s the fact that these movies keep making money, but that really makes no sense. There’s nothing the least bit interesting in the way of world-building or continuity, especially since the franchise has been struggling so hard to find a tone.

That last part was especially prominent with the opening minutes of M:I III, which practically beats you about the head with how gritty it is. There’s none of the first film’s balanced camp or any of the second film’s over-the-top bombast. All of that has been replaced with shaky-cam and harsh lighting, as Tom Cruise is interrogated with a bomb planted in his head, watching as Philip Seymour Hoffman has a gun to the head of some terrified woman.

Until that famous theme popped up, I wasn’t even sure I had rented the right movie. Even after the opening credits, I was watching Ethan Hunt host a huge party with his fiancee who’s never appeared in any previous films, like what the fuck?

Sure enough, it seems that Ethan Hunt has retired from field duty with the IMF, stepping down to train new recruits. This allows for more time to live some facade of a normal life with a woman who’s never been established in any of the previous films. In fact, none of the characters in this movie have been established, and the IMF has apparently changed so much as to be unrecognizable.

So basically, what we’re looking at here is a soft reboot. The two prior films may technically be in continuity, but we can all safely pretend that they never happened. Which seems like the smart approach to take, considering everything that happened in the six-year span between the third film and its prequel. And I’m not even talking about behind-the-scenes changes and the conga line of directors who tried getting this film off the ground. I’m talking about things like 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The whole concept of espionage and covert ops took on a very different meaning after 2001, and the mid-’00s were a much darker time than the optimistic dawn of the 21st century. Those changes are even visible in movies of the time, as Batman Begins and the Jason Bourne films dictated that every blockbuster film had to be “dark” and “gritty” and “grounded”.

The shift in this franchise’s tone reflects that, as the third film is a considerably more dour affair than the two films that came before. IMF agents have died in these movies before, most notably when Ethan’s entire team was killed off over the course of the first movie, but this film really seems to wallow in mortality. A character gets killed off right at the end of the first act, and it casts a pall over the entire story. Moreover, the villain’s motivation smacks of the patriotic cynicism that’s been so in vogue since the Dubya years, the heroes act with a lot more moral flexibility, and there’s a very real sense through pretty much the entire movie that the bad guys might just win this time.

No, the third movie is definitely not all fun and games. But on the other hand, the palpable sense of danger helps to raise the stakes, which makes the action more compelling. And of course, that glimmer of an illusion that the good guys might not win — or at least that they could take heavy losses — keeps the tension good and high.

Then Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol happened.

The series changed directors once again, with Brad Bird stepping in for producer J.J. Abrams. The difference is almost literally night and day. The antagonist in the fourth film is no less credible as a worldwide threat, and the stakes for Ethan Hunt and crew are as high as they’ve ever been, yet Bird somehow succeeds at keeping the proceedings light and fun.

The biggest challenge this franchise has always faced is in balancing action with fun. It’s the challenge of adapting a campy ’60s-era TV show into something that fits our more modern sensibilities. In retrospect, Brad Bird was the absolute perfect choice. He’s always shown a remarkable gift for giving us breathtaking action scenes spiced to perfection with humor, and delivering modern thrills with a subtle retro flavor has been Bird’s calling card since The Iron Giant at least.

Bird’s sense of humor has always been one of his greatest strengths as a director, and that shows with his approach to the comic relief characters. Under his direction (and after four movies’ worth of lunacy to poke fun at), the franchise suddenly became much more self-effacing and eager to embrace its own over-the-top silliness. This mostly came by way of Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg, both of whom do a surprisingly good job of acting as comic relief side characters in a way that doesn’t undercut their competence as agents.

The comic relief did get just a touch annoying at times, but Pegg was still a tremendous upgrade from Ving Rhames, who still hasn’t brought any kind of personality to his character after four freaking movies. Sure, he and Cruise act like old friends, but I don’t feel like seeing the two of them working together over so many films has given me a greater understanding of their partnership. Such a disappointment.

Then we have the matter of Michelle Monaghan. Her chemistry with Cruise in the third film was serviceable enough, which made it all the more disappointing that Monaghan was stuck playing such a weak character. Though she does get a token chance at backing up our hero in the climax, she was clearly designed to be a damsel in distress. She’s effectively useless, so it’s probably for the best that the fourth film left her as an offscreen presence until Monaghan pokes her head in at the very end. It was a very clever way to set that baggage aside without completely negating a whole movie’s worth of development for Ethan Hunt.

Which brings me to the series’ trademark team dynamic. This is really what makes the Mission: Impossible series unique, and the Bad Robot team shows a thorough understanding of that. Both movies have intricate and over-the-top missions carried out by a team of operatives working in perfect sync (sort of like the Fast and Furious movies), but they’re done with style and sophistication that could only come with years of the best government training (as with James Bond).

That said, it’s a shame that more team members aren’t carried over between films, because way too many IMF agents are underdeveloped. Paula Patton and Maggie Q play badass beauties who are practically interchangeable, and fuck if I could tell you the first thing about Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character. Still, all of these characters are at least very good at what they do, and that’s just barely enough to be getting on with.

As for Tom Cruise himself, it’s very obvious that he’s the star of the show. If he’s not the one making the plans, then he’s the one who’s altering the plans at the last minute when something goes wrong and/or when he has a hunch about something. It also doesn’t help that the plot occasionally abandons the team dynamic so Ethan can go be an action hero on his own. Then again, his solo action scene in the climax of the third movie at least made some small effort to let a few supporting characters pitch in. And when Ethan plays lone wolf in the fourth movie, his actions are still only part of a much bigger picture, aside from a very brief negotiation late in the second act.

This brings me to the action, which is exceptional across the board. The effects look great, the stunts are incredible, and even if the story can get downright silly, at least it informs the action instead of the other way around. And as always, the tension is greatly helped by the fact that IMF’s technology is far from infallible. This is especially prominent in the fourth film, when Ethan and company are only left with ill-maintained leftover tech to work with.

This brings me to the masks. They’re still a lazy plot device, though their use in these two films is nowhere near as obnoxious as it was in the first two. In fact, the fourth film was very explicit in making sure the IMF could no longer use the masks (for this movie, at least), and it’s a much stronger movie for it.

Still, the mere fact that these masks exist open up a whole ton of plot holes. They seem to be readily available, to the point where the antagonists of the last three films have been able to make and use them, which begs the question of why EVERYONE in the espionage game isn’t constantly using the stupid things to look like some random schmuck. But that isn’t even the biggest plot hole in these two movies: You’d think that IMF had mastered time travel for how much they can do in only a few hours.

Last but not least, I have to give all due props to Master Michael Giacchino, taking over from Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer to score the Bad Robot M:I films. I’ve yet to hear a single musical score from Giacchino that didn’t further prove why he’s one of the greatest composers working today. Of course, it’s easy to score these movies when you’re building from one of the all-time greatest theme tunes in TV history, but still.

Recapping this franchise was fun, but ultimately pointless. Continuity is obviously such a low priority for this series that I probably could have jumped right into the fifth one and not missed a thing. Hell, I could have skipped the first two films entirely (especially that wretched, godawful second one) and be no worse off.

The upshot is that now, I have a much better understanding about what to look for with the fifth one. Watch for the tightly choreographed operations, and keep a sharp eye out for those times when Tom Cruise hogs too much of the spotlight. Female characters and over-reliance on masks are common weak spots. And hope to God that future directors in this franchise take a few lessons from Brad Bird and bring a sense of humor so we can all have a bit of fun.

The last two movies were considerably better in quality than the first two, and that fourth film perfectly nailed the “enjoyably stupid” vibe that the first film was going for. Last but not least, it’s like the Bad Robot team took the train sequence at the end of the first movie and used that as their baseline for the action scenes moving forward.

Thank you all for joining me in this recap and bearing with me as I prepare to view the fifth and latest entry. I know I’m late to the party on Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but I hope the time spent will be worth it.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation » Movie Curiosities:

    […] folks. I know I’m late to the party on this one. I wanted to catch up on the previous four movies before going in to Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, and I had just finished […]

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