Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ethan Hunt & The Power Of Self-Effacement

Art, is always open to new opportunity.

Even when speaking of highly commercial vehicles, often designed as a print making license.

Which is what makes this creature so curious when talking about Tom Cruise, and his artistic management arc throughout the twenty year history of his Mission Impossible film series. We have seen film franchises wear different garb from work to work before, but rarely has it been as varied and telling like Ethan Hunt's globe-trotting adventures with the ever besieged IMF. And with Rogue Nation, the flight pattern turns yet again, into what at last feels like something out of a wholly new cloth from where they started. Sitting in the darkened theater this time, felt so much like a final maturation stage. A means of balancing out all that had come before, in ways that perhaps weren't evident as the series began back with Brian De Palma, back in 1996.

Mission Impossible (1996)

What struck me most about Ethan Hunt's first go-round as point-man, and ultimately leader, is how painterly, and yet eager it was to ease the public into an increasingly complex spy cartoon in lieu of the just-then ending Cold War. Fan-kicking plot twist aside, this first piece is clearly concerned with establishing Cruise as the essential attraction, while De Palma's pastiche does its part to create a comprehensible world despite the often iffy plot mechanics. What results, often feels more akin to a three-stage video game from the Nintendo 64 era. Three major set pieces, barely held together by a plot to make sure this is Ethan Hunt's story. A self-conscious move, perhaps, but a star-laden, often lovely to behold piece of pop silly. It's a shallow ride, but the Prague job and the Langley mission remain worth price of admission.

Mission Impossible 2 (2000)

Made in the eye of the Hollywood/Hong Kong Gush era, John Woo's bizarre entry to the new series finds us in some truly bizarre, and hopelessly idiosyncratic territory. Taking a page from Hitchcock's Notorious, Ethan Hunt's mostly solo outing as a single point in a most awkward love triangle remains the series' most egregious misstep. Instead of offering up more ensemble fun, gadgets, and intrigue, all we get is one confused muddle regarding a killer virus, and a showcase for Cruise to exist in a post-Matrix landscape. He climbs desert cliffs, he wears black, he's got the light of God on his side. It's a bizarre manga wannabe, complete with waltzing cars, goofy dialogue(Wait, Robert Towne was involved?), and some seriously silly multi-camera slow-motion martial arts moves. It's Cruise at his most self-conscious, and as juvenile as the series could possibly be. It's a reminder of an era this Kaijyu has no interest in revisiting, save for the final 25 minutes that are both breathtaking in technique, but laughable in context.

Mission Impossible 3 (2006)

After the perplexing success of MI:2, and the subsequent backlash that resulted, moves were under way to make the third entry something far more urgent and emotional. Enter newbie filmmaker, J.J. Abrams, who brings with him his larger than life television persona to the big screen, and comes out swinging. Ramping up the ridiculousness (Ethan falls in love, attempts to live a double life), somehow, this first round via the Bad Robot team, takes the bombastic Michael Bay approach, and grants the series an emotional pull that propels this into some seriously hectic places. Never not moving, and uncompromisingly dark for a PG-13 film, Abrams and Cruise fashion something that is far more personal than the previous films, and posits a formula that would come to solidify the series from this point going forward. No matter how one feels about Abrams, or his since then well-established form of pop cinema, MI:3 is rough and tumble fun only made more potent by having Philip Seymour Hoffman as your frightening antagonist. Pre-Dark Knight, it made a great case against post 911 policy with a little added burn to spare. And unlike the previous, there is a sense that a more colorful spirit is entering the mix, one that is less about our star, and more about the world he inhabits.

Always a plus.

 Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Four films in, and Cruise and Co. finally strike gold. Three films later, and with the addition of animation genius, Brad Bird, the Bad Robot crew live up to their promise with one wild ride. From a Russian prison break, to infiltrating the Kremlin, to scaling the Burj Khalifa building, to the insane finale in Mumbai, this is classic MI adventure territory here made with almost mathematical care for geography, character, and action. As Ethan finally settles into what becomes an all-new IMF team (featuring welcome additions, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton,  & Jeremy Renner), their existence could not be in greater danger as catastrophic events have rendered the IMF completely disavowed, forcing Hunt and cohorts to scale the world, clear their names, and save the world from nuclear devastation. Still true to the series' more over the top worldview, the Bad Robot approach serves the whole with class and energy. On top of this, Cruise at last feels confident enough to relinquish the reins to an instantly appealing group of characters ready to share the spotlight. It finally feels like the television series on a grand scale, complete with clever fake-outs, wild stuntwork, and crowd-pleasing humor.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Intense to think that this has been going on for nearly two decades, and sees no signs of slowing. Cruise, now with his third collaboration with writer/director Chris McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, Edge Of Tomorrow) finds himself and the franchise wisening like a solid oak. Rogue Nation, while taking a charming look back at the entire series before it, also feels like a proud, experienced veteran, ready to accept age as consequence. In this one, Ethan and what remains of the entire IMF (meaning him and fellow agents) after being quashed by the US government, are forced to contend with their most cunning adversary, a supposedly nonexistent army of once powerful spies bent on destroying the infrastructure from the inside; the IMF's mirror opposite. Not ready to turn in the gear for good, Cruise and company run across a mysteriously solid agent in Rebecca Ferguson, are being dogged by a more than over it CIA head, Alec Baldwin, and troubled by a frighteningly cold Sean Harris. It's a refreshing, ultimately satisfying hybrid of action spectacle, and old fashioned spy yarn of a previous era.

It's so happily old school, that the whole feels just as thrillers once did, granting the audience enough room to breathe before the biggest surprises, which weren't geared toward screaming in our ears. There are also some great hidden easter eggs celebrating the previous films strewn throughout. It's amazing to see such a series turn such a corner, and welcome something more akin to a giddy airport novel, complete with quiet exchanges, dark alleys, and some brutal close-quarters combat. It's as mature as a series like this could be without losing the initial concept's more fun loving spirit. With this film, Cruise and company seem to be acknowledging the ups and downs that have led us here, and it's done with a kind of panache and adventurousness that only comes with growing up. Much like his film equivalent, Cruise is ready for facing insurmountable obstacles, but he sure as hell could not do it alone.

So great to see that revelation expressed with such elegance in what could so easily have ignored it.       

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