Then Playing — Four Impossible Missions

Given that he emerged as a movie star in the nineteen-eighties, the era when sequels emerged as Hollywood’s favorite toy, it’s remarkable that Tom Cruise was a solid twenty years into his screen career before he appeared in a film with a roman numeral in the title. Only The Color of Money qualified as a second installment, and that was hardly an eager cash-in on a recent hit. Cruise instead built his filmography like an old school cinematic icon, playing endless variants on his signature persona without ever actually repeating a role.

Whatever kept him from signing on for sequels, it wasn’t until he had a greater stake in the production that he opted for a project that was transparently an attempt at launching a series. The first Mission: Impossible film was also Cruise’s first producing credit, though he surely didn’t foresee that he’d still be donning Ethan Hunt’s masks over twenty years later.

I’m certain I will write about the sixth installment in the Mission: Impossible series in the coming weeks, and I at least touched up the prior entry in this space. The mission I now choose to accept is to complete the set.

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Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996). The introduction of Ethan Hunt and the team within the U.S. government’s Impossible Missions Force arrived when studios were ransacking the big bin of old TV concepts with vigor, inspired in part by the surprise success of the big screen take on The Fugitive, released in 1993. Employing a distinctive director like Brian De Palma suggested a commitment to making the film a little more interesting than the average generic action outing, even if the filmmaker was still recovering from his consensus career nadir (he was coming off a minor comeback hit with Carlito’s Way, but The Bonfire of the Vanities was still visible in his rear view). No matter the hopes and intent, the finished product is shockingly drab. Characteristically, De Palma is only enlivened by his few set pieces, and the film’s script (credited to David Koepp, Steve Zaillian, and Robert Towne) is devoid of wit, unless Emilio Estevez capping an explanation of the detonation of a explosive device by saying, “Hasta lasagna, don’t get any on ya” counts. (Note: It does not count.) Worse yet, the implausibilities peppered throughout play like lazy storytelling instead of a delight in the physically absurd that would someday be the most endearing hallmark of the series.

 

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Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000). A curious trait of the first few Mission: Impossible films is that the personnel involved hint at aspirations towards grand action lunacy that somehow didn’t quite make it to the screen. John Woo was presumably hired on the strength of Face/Off, in which characters played by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage undergoing and entirely convincing surgical transplant of their respective visages might be the least delirious bit of invention among the kinetic loop-the-loops. Again, though, so little of the final effort is actually compelling. There’s a biological weapon at play, along with the inevitable antidote that must be secured to keep the world — and a lovely thief, played by Thandie Newton — out of peril. The script again isn’t good, but Woo’s direction is more problematic, relying on visual symbols and hyperbolic editing techniques that were already growing tired.

 

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Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006). The third volume of the cinematic set serves as the big screen directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, who had just wrapped five seasons of the TV spy romp Alias. Accordingly, he sometimes packs a few weeks worth of gotcha twists into the film without realizing he hasn’t got the time to develop the characters and situations enough to make the surprises impactful. Even so, this is the first film that burbles up with some of gonzo energy to come, with why-the-hell-not details like an stealth excursion into Vatican City and bombs as brain implants. Nabbing Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the chief villain seemed like a major coup at the time (it’s technically his follow-up to Capote), but the acting great signals his disinterest throughout.

 

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Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011). When Ghost Protocol arrived, the inclusion of Jeremy Renner made it seem as if Paramount was easing Cruise out in favor of the younger star, who was already an Avenger and was tapped to take over for Matt Damon in the Bourne films. Instead, Cruise is positively rejuvenated. For the first time, Ethan Hunt is a distinctive character rather than a cipher. And he has flashes of fallibility — not quite making it cleanly through an open window of a daring swoop from the outside of a skyscraper, for instance — heightening the thrill of the stunts. It’s a basic and yet underused strategy in action films. Watching Indiana Jones nurse his wounds in a ship’s cabin or John McClane painfully pick shards of glass out of his feet serves to make the adventure more exciting, not less. Largely putting aside the projection of gleaming invulnerability found in his earlier action performance, Cruise favors a weariness that makes him significantly more interesting. Brad Bird, making his first live action film after a trio of animated triumphs, proves as adept with action staging when he’s working with human beings rather than cels or computer programs. The closing scramble for a metal suitcase that can disable a launched nuclear missile, staged in a massive parking garage with constantly moving car elevators, is a joyful marvel. It took four tries, but finally everyone involved figured out that these movies, above all else, should be relentlessly fun.

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