Our correspondent in culture takes on MI franchise starring Tom Cruise

(3 stars out of 4)

 

One of the interesting things about the “Mission: Impossible” films is the way they have come to eclipse the source material that inspired it.  Does anyone still remember the relatively restrained pleasures of the 1960s television show (1966-1973)?  Remember the late Leonard Nimoy, Peter Graves, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Barbara Bain, Lynda Day George and the incomparable Martin Landau?

If you do, I think you’ll find that Tom Cruise’s ultra-high concept action scenes don’t resemble the show (spies, uncannily accurate masks and self-destructing messages notwithstanding) so much as they call to mind the adventures of a more conspicuous onscreen spy, James Bond.  The televisual Impossible Mission Force emphasized the merits of teamwork, while Cruise’s superspy, Ethan Hunt, doesn’t so much have a team as he has people in his orbit who watch or listen through fancy gadgets while Hunt performs the titular impossible mission, sometimes weighing in with a quip or an incredulity.

 


In other words, the “Mission: Impossible” films have for nineteen years been a sort of off-season cinematic placeholder for the James Bond series, something to arrest your addiction long enough to tide you over.  Or, to mix metaphors, it’s a riff on Bond, with a different arrangement and the levels all adjusted.  The differences are admittedly slight, but significant enough to produce a very, very similar but still surprisingly distinct tone.  You know what they say (and I’ll hope you’ll forgive me): Xenu is in the details.   

One of the ways that the “Mission: Impossible” series distinguishes itself from 007 is in the fact of Cruise’s having played the hero through all of the sequels.  At present the series is five films long, and spans nearly two decades.  Roger Moore, who played Bond for more years than any other actor so far only had to do so for 12 years.

Cruise has been acting in these films for longer than that, and has conspicuously maintained his physical condition throughout.  At 53 he is as fit as ever, something that the punctuation-heavy Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation demonstrates with lots of periodic sequences of Cruise’s bare chest, as if to remind you that big, crazy stunts and car chases do not exhaust the range of special effects.  The film seems to have a similar fascination with the legs of his co-star Rebecca Ferguson, last seen opposite The Rock in “Hercules”.

Though Cruise is without a doubt a talented actor, his Mission: Impossible character remains a kind of cypher.  He is intense but not much else, and what he lacks in motivation or depth he makes up for with reckless handsomeness and a propensity for doing at least one big, crazy stunt a movie.  The first had the influential and almost quaint spectacle of Cruise hanging upside down and lowered by wires through a literal web of lasers.

The second had Cruise hanging off the face of a desert cliff suspended only by his biceps, the third a long and nicely filmed sprint down a street in Shanghai (which maybe isn’t much of a stunt for Cruise, but I would have collapsed).  Then the fourth upped the ante by having him scale the world’s tallest building, and now the fifth aims even higher by having Cruise dangling off the side of a cargo plane with a thousand-dollar-a-minute grimace.  This entry’s stunt is suitably thrilling, as images of Cruise torturing himself by doing an elaborate dance with death always are.

Cruise may use these films to exercise his death drive, but his Hunt character doesn’t seem to enjoy murdering people as much as, say, James Bond.  The action scenes in the Mission Impossible films are more likely to be balletic or frantic displays of silly physics than in the Bond films, which tend to exhibit a degree of sadism not seen here.  

When Hunt does have to fight someone he does it quickly and typically shirtless.  When he shoots someone it is as almost as a quick afterthought whereas Bond, probably because he had to go through a long and bureaucratic process to get it, exercises his license to kill like a kid who’s just got his license to drive.  

Which isn’t to say that plenty of people don’t meet their end in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (although nothing as crazy as the Kremlin blowing up; see the last sequel).  Scores of folks are killed.  They are killed on and off of motorcycles, in the rigging of the lighting for a Viennese opera, and in one case, a hip-looking record store.  In every case, those killings are gently, if not completely, reminiscent of something from a Bond movie.

The high speed chase through Morocco recalls a very similar sequence through Istanbul in Skyfall.  The aforementioned opera set-piece is lifted from A Quantum of Solace.  In fact, in that case, M:I – 5 is not content to just ape it, but has the gall to improve on it bigtime, too.  The bad guys, an evil anti-intelligence agency run by the eminently Blofeld-esque Solomon Lane (The Borgia’s Sean Harris), are bad enough, but not given much to make them interesting.  Vague Eurovillains inoffensive to overseas audiences, they upset vague world events without motivation or reason beyond a vague revenge against Western interests provided late in the film.  But more to our point, they are basically exactly the same as the evil, anti-national criminal superspies that Bond will fight in November’s Spectre.      

As the good book reminds us and Mission: Impossible confirms, there is nothing new under the sun.

But none of that really matters to you, dear reader, because you either go in for the spy antics that the films reproduce or you don’t care for them.  If you don’t, or if you prefer the more cerebral pleasures of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Smiley’s People, than M:I – 5 will fail to bring you to the fold.  There isn’t a whole lot to think about.

If you do happen like these kinds of stories (and here I should admit, if it is not already obvious, that I do) than there really isn’t any reason why you won’t enjoy this variation.  It’s funnier than the other movies in the series, and the movie is once again enlivened by the presence of Simon Pegg as techie/audience surrogate Benji Dunn.   And Rebecca Ferguson as the film’s obligatory love interest is more than just a set of stems.  She’s probably the most complicated and competent of the series’ female leads so far, although given these movies’ provenance as high-budget Bond rip-offs maybe that’s not that high of praise.  Regardless, it is a lot of fun, and if the movies really are about tiding people like us over, than it doesn’t even have to work for that long.  Another 1960s spy show is being remade as a film in August, Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  And if that doesn’t do it for you, its only four months until Craig returns as 007 in November.  

Something tells me that M:I – 5 will be a big hit, and not undeservedly.  It is big, loud, funny and stylish, with thrillingly mounted action scenes that distract and delight.  It may not have much for brains, but it’s got brawny set-pieces and imaginative action.  Whatever lapses in logic it contains, and there are a generous helping, are papered over (as they always have been in movies like this ever since the 1960s) with a shiny layer of affluent, exotic violence.  If that sounds fun you should know that I think so too.  Enjoy.

Video Pick of the Week:  The Knick
Steven Soderbergh directs this remarkable television series about a brilliant, troubled doctor at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the century.  Gritty, realistic, stylish and challenging, its good watching for after you tire of motorcycle chases and want to switch to cocaine-addled surgeons navigating the brave new world of modern medicine.

“The Knick" will be available at your local video store (Movie Lovers, of course) on Tuesday, August 4th.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Joseph Shelton is a freelance writer working on his Masters in English Literature at Montana State University.  The only thing better than watching movies, he avers, is arguing about them with like- or unlike-minded folks; drop him a line and tell him just how wrong he is.