More noise than signal

Missions Impossible

Repurposed from the show notes for my podcast, Fuds on Film

It seems odd to think that Mission Impossible first appeared on cinema screens nearly two decades ago, but with the release of the fifth outing in the series, Rogue Nation, proving to be one of this year’s most robust performers, we figure the time is right for a quick debrief of the Impossible Mission Force’s adventures.

Mission Impossible

These days it’s difficult to image Brian De Palma being the first choice for a big budget blockbuster, and that’s really today’s loss. Imprinting his own style firmly on the jump from the small screen, we’re introduced to Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as a field agent on an op that goes badly wrong. His entire team is killed, and as the op turned out to be a mole hunt, Ethan’s now branded a traitor and must go rogue, assembling a team of previously disavowed agents to clear his name and uncover the truth. While time has not been kind to either the film’s depiction of computers, or the computer generated imagery used in the finale, the rest of the film holds up surprisingly well. Cruise, as in all of these films, has the charisma and energy to drive the film through, the plot by and large is sensible, well laid out and doesn’t contradict itself after the inevitable reveal, and De Palma’s style and Hitchcockian use of unbalanced angles creates moments of real tension. A much more enjoyable film than I recall.

Mission Impossible 2

MI2, however, is every bit as bad as I remember. While a huge box office success for John Woo, his style clashes quite badly with the material which, in his defence, may have been unsalvageable. This time Ethan’s team is up against Dougray Scott’s, of all people, rogue IMF agent who’s stolen a potent bioweapon with the intent of auctioning it off to the highest bidder. Money, by itself, gives Scott an understandable but completely uninspiring motive, but the more solid hook to his character comes from his prior studies of Ethan Hunt for IMF-sanctioned impersonation purposes, which gives him a unique insight into how Hunt operates and enables him to stay one step ahead of Ethan, in theory. On paper, you can see the outline of a decent film but unfortunately the one that escaped into cinemas is a mess. Woo breaks out the slow motion seemingly at random, and the attempt to make us care about the barely existent bond between Cruise and Thandie Newton is doomed to failure. Elements of the film are shot in Woo’s trademark Heroic Bloodshed style, but with a certification precluding the Bloodshed part of the equation it comes off rather flat, and the stunt work towards the final act is ludicrous for all the wrong reasons. A flat and disappointing second act for the franchise.

Mission Impossible 3

While he now bestrides the cinematic landscape like a colossus built entirely from high denomination currency, there were legitimate questions on handing the franchise over to the then-untested JJ Abrams, and it appears he had thought to assuage any doubt by adding more lens flare in. That aside, it’s a return to form, with Hunt this time squaring off against Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sadistic arms dealer, again in it for the money as he uses Hunt’s wife as leverage to have Hunt lift the “Rabbit’s Foot”, a McGuffin of presumably devastating consequence. This instalment is therefore unique in not involving any rogue or disavowed IMF agents as the opposing force. With much tighter action sequences and smarter infiltration scenes, there’s a lot to like in here. If there’s a weak point, it’s probably the decision to have Hunt attempt to settle down and be a family man at the outset, which seems wildly out of character and ultimately winds up with the same problem MI2‘s relationship detour had. That’s easily ignored, and would have given Ethan a nice, happy ending to the franchise were it halted at three.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Of course it wasn’t, giving the now numeral-shorn Ghost Protocol a problem to solve, which it does very effectively, tying it into the new agent’s, played by Jeremy Renner, back story. This time an ex-Soviet nuclear planner goes rogue, with a plan to start a nuclear war in a bid to ensure world peace, the first element in that plan being to blow up the Kremlin and pin that on Ethan’s team. So we’re back in disavowed agent territory, as they must stop a nuclear attack to clear their name. Simon Pegg gets a vastly expanded role in Brad Bird’s outing, proving comic relief largely to the detriment of the tension it’s trying to build. That aside, there’s some undeniably impressive stunt work and clever use of the franchise’s version of espionage that goes some way to redressing the balance. Even if you feel it’s one of the more flawed entries in the series, it’s still a country mile ahead of the second instalment.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Which brings us up to date with Rogue Nation, with the IMF tasked with taking down the shadowy, generically-named Syndicate, an anti-IMF of sorts, with a hostile US government shutting down the IMF seemingly just to keep up the habit of having Hunt be disavowed. While Sean Harris is of questionable effectiveness as the antagonist, there’s at least, finally, a strong female role for Rebecca Ferguson, and Christopher McQuarrie’s put Simon Pegg on a leash, with a substantial reduction in inappropriate gurning. We also must express our condolences to Alec Baldwin, who is saddled with some of the most ludicrous dialogue the franchise has yet seen. Some might say this is the best in the series, and although we wouldn’t agree we can at least see the argument. Everyone seems to have their own favourite in the series, and we think it’s quite a feat that each instalment has their own strong and weak points, and those don’t often overlap.