Sunday, August 9, 2015

Impossible Week, part III: I'll die unless you kill me!


You've laughed, you've cried, and you've seen them fall in lovebut can Ethan and Julia Hunt survive the world's worst honeymoon?  Tune in and find out.

Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams
With Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Michelle Monaghan (Julia Hunt), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Keri Russell (Lindsey Farris), Maggie Q (Zhen Lei), Jonathan Rhys Davies (Declan Gormley), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Billy Crudup (John Musgrave), Laurence Fishburne (Theodore Brassel), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Owen Davian)

Spoiler alert: severe

When your thesis for the Mission: Impossible series is that it is equally the creation of its lead actor and producer, Tom Cruise, and the auteur directors he kept hiring (and losing), you know from the outset that you're going to run up against Mission: Impossible IIIand J.J. Abramsand finally be forced to explain yourself.  I'm well aware the man's directorial voice is not universally favored; but a style doesn't stop being stylish just because you hate it.

It might be more profitably argued that there's no particular style to Abrams' flourish, given how he incurs his debts all across the cinematic spectrum.  But can we really say Abrams is a mere mimic?  Can we just disregard such copious lens flare?  Or all those men fighting other men with their elbows?  And what is any 21st century artist but an aggregation of influences, anyway?  We live in well-mapped times.  Well, whatever you want to call Abrams' filmmaking, I like itand I'd like it even better, were it more routinely applied to stories worth filming in the first place.  Fortunately, M:I 3 is in the top half of Abrams' four motion picturesthat is, the ones that weren't desecrations of the world's second-most beloved nerd phenomenon.

And as long as he manages to stay away from anything with "Star" in its title, everything should be fine.

Two men tower above all others in Abrams' syncretic visual religion.  The first, obviously, is Steven Spielberg.  But the second, seemingly incompatibly, is none other than Tony Scott.  If his only other legitimately good film, Super 8, kneels to Spielberg, things tilt decisively the other way here.  M:I 3's violent joy is only distinguishable from Scott's action-noirs by the PG-13 rating.  (And just whom do we find shooting M:I 3, in its Scottlike constrast between oversaturated action kaleidoscopes and steely technoscapes?  Why, none other than Daniel MindelDP of Enemy of the State and freaking Domino.)

Beyond purely visual concerns, Abrams shares with Scott a narrative focus, too, delighting in the exploitation of grim and grit.  In Super 8 Abrams reimagines our old friend E.T. as an alien murderbeast; while in his Star Trek pictures no less than planetary genocides and decade-late Al-Qaeda allegories obtain.  And, just as Scott often did, Abrams makes movies about manliness that express themselves in a register that comes off as downright childish.  (That's how I hesitate to say that Abrams is also a student of Michael Mann, although the visual influence is surely there.  Yet Abrams' own adolescent predilictions likely owe just as much to his frequent collaborations with Hollywood's highest-paid 13 year old boys, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.  They share Abrams' screenplay credit here.)

Of course, both Abrams and Scott found their ideal subject in the form of Tom Cruise.

In the same way as Scott's own 21st century output, Abrams' films can be the most enjoyable kind of juvenile grimdark fun.  Such is Abrams' M:I 3right up until its very final seconds, that is, where its abject immaturity probably would have made even old Tony roll his eyes.

So, let's get to it.  Like every entry in the Impossible seriesright up until the one I refuse to talk about just yetM:I 3 stabs out its own path, opening with a trick already cliche by 2006, but still damnably useful:

In medias res and apropos of absolutely nothing we've seen in the series so far, we begin with Ethan Hunt's battered, terrified face, while Owen Davian, Ethan's vilest enemy, holds an interrogation.  His leverage: Ethan's brand new wife Julia, gun to her head, sobbing incoherently beneath duct tape.  Ethan also has a bomb in his headlet's not forget that detail.  Davian asks questions.  Ethan can't give the right answers.  A gunshot cries out.  The opening credits roll.

And with one stroke, Abrams has already gotten the wheels spinning fullspeed.  We ask ourselves desperately: did Tom Cruise really just make a movie about marrying a pretty brunette who immediately had cause to regret it?

This fulfills the legal requirement for all reviews to make at least one (1) reference to Cruise's personal affairs.  We can now move on.

Having set the tone and presumably piqued our interest, Abrams wrenches us back to see how we got here.  Ethan has finally retired from field work, withdrawing to the IMF academy, where he instructs a new generation of secret agents in the right way to hang from the ceiling.  Having discovered domesticity at last, the most important part of Ethan's new life is Julia, soon to be his eloping bride.  It's only too bad, one supposes, that Ethan can't tell her the truth.  To Julia, he's just a weirdly enthusiastic traffic analyst for the DoT, with an added passion for peak physical fitness.  But what's the difference? one imagines Ethan asking himself.  He's out.

Until, inevitably, he's pulled back in.  With Ethan's favorite student held captive by rogue arms merchant Davian, IMF underboss Musgrave offers him a place on the rescue team.  But the operation comes to nothing when Ethan's student's brain gets popped by an explosive implantseconds before she can tell Ethan the most important secret in the world.

Ethan seeks vengeance, tracking Davian to Vatican Citywhere he captures him, seemingly ending the movie.  But things are never that easy, and Davian's mercenaries soon secure their paymaster's freedom.  Naturally, Ethan winds up framed as Davian's accomplice; but he doesn't have the time to repeat the plot of the first film.  Davian has stolen Julia, and to get her back Ethan must bring Davian what he likewise desires most: the mysterious anti-god of secret weapons, the so-called "Rabbit's Foot."  With Musgrave's loyal assistance, Ethan escapes the IMF's dungeonand heads to Shanghai to do exactly as Davian told him.  Luckily, Ethan has a plan... right?


Now that we're up to speed, we realize with a start that M:I 3's screenplay is barely more sophisticated than a Dudley Do-right cartoon.  Yet there's a confidence to how Abrams employs his TV trainingas if this installment of the Impossible franchise were instead the season finale to a show we've never seen (because it never existed!), offering up a thrilling conclusion to Ethan and Julia's romantic arc, while acting like it's our fault for not knowing who the fuck these people actually are.  That's how Abrams expected to get away with forcing Ethan Hunt into a shape he was never intended to takebut which, in his formless Cruiseness, he could assume without difficulty.  And, with the addition of Michelle Monaghan, the hot woman who shares enough chemistry with Cruise that we get the picture, Abrams frankly succeeds.

To answer the film's central question, "Can Ethan save his wife?", well, of course he canthis movie can't be De Palma-gritty.  The more complete answer, however, is that Abrams saves her himself, with blunt cinematic dishonesty (one of the director's single most-favored tools, it turns out).  Yet it's all still awfully effective: bluntness, cheapness, and simplicity work when they're anchored by talent.

Consider Davian, consensus pick for the franchise's best villain.  But why?  He's the antagonist from a lazily-conceived comic book, without a program or even a personality, beyond his capacity for cruelty.  When faced with an obstacle, his first resort is to put the obstacle's woman in a refrigerator.  He is elemental—and devastatingly dull.  Imagine any lesser actor in the role, and Davian becomes a sucking void, no more interesting than the maguffin, the Rabbit's Foot, Abrams' littlest mystery box.  Fortunately, Davian is not portrayed by a lesser actor, but by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the banality of Hoffman's evil is genuinely distressing, even terrifying.

Talent underpins M:I 3's simplicity, making it a strength.  More than any other Impossible film, M:I 3's stakes are defined in absolute termswe can see exactly what Ethan stands to lose, sitting right there with a look of terror in her eyesand maybe more than any other Impossible film until the next one, M:I 3 is naught but a scaffold for ingenious setpieces.  On this latter count, Abrams exceeds every expectation, trafficking in truly gorgeous brutality: a helicopter duel amidst soaring windmills; the horror-tinged, cross-eyed demise of Ethan's protege; the spy-thriller delight of Vatican City; Ethan's adrenaline-soaked battle against a drone on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; the sublime epileptic poetry of the heist-gone-wrong in Shanghai.

Above all, there is that climactic long take.  Not impressive for a moment on the basis of its camerawork, Abrams knows the canniest choices can sometimes be the easiestand very few things in this series have been as intense as watching Cruise sprint for what seems like forever while Ethan's time runs out.  That's without even mentioning my personal favorite moment, that had me laughing for minutes after I saw it: when a car stops so short in front of a genuinely-surprised Cruise that his latent instinct for self-preservation sees his upraised hand bounce off the bumper.

And despite the film's dependence on the filmmaker's worst enemieshandheld camerawork and quick-cuttingit never comes close to decohering itself out of existence, as so many action films of its era do.  Abrams has never worked with any other film editors besides the team of Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, and it's very easy to see why: M:I 3 is a miracle of continuity editing, masquerading as chaos.  Altogether, M:I 3's action might be smaller than what would come laterbut it's as effective as anything the franchise has ever offered.

Still: let's not drown Abrams with overpraise here.  In fact, let's get mean, and ask if this fucker had ever seen a human head occupy an anamorphic frame before.  Whenever M:I 3 slows down, Abrams' downright perverse love of closeups and shot-reverse-shot schemes dominates, his sensibility occasionally so misguided that it's hard believe the same person who oversaw the awesome 95% of M:I 3 was also responsible for the 5% that barely functions at all.  Abrams' amateur-hour attempts at tenderness still sometimes play, but the best is, I'm desperately certain, a total accident: when Ethan and Julia wed, he places their profiles onto each side of the screennot unlike the famous bit from The Electric Companyand it's so closed-in and assaultive that it functions better as a dire reminder of what comes next.

That loops us right back to the beginning again, which means it's time to talk about how M:I 3 ends.  Vastly more damaging than Abrams' growing pains are the script's final, mishandled moments.  The very best thing you can say about M:I 3's denouement is that it's brief.

Apparently obligated to force happiness into the last place it belonged, Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman close with Ethan and Julia walking away from their ordeal, a spring in their step and smiles on their facesflatly abandoning their film's clear thesis that Ethan has done his wife horribly wrong, and apparently under the mistaken impression that we've just watched True Lies.  The couple's dumbassed, chipper banteroccupying the space where the brittle analysis of Ethan's betrayal should bewinds up so discordant and unearned that, amazingly, just killing the woman to change our hero would still have been more respectful of her character.  For a story that had previously required us to assume a basic humanity in its characters, it's honestly infuriating that it ends with the demand that we cheer the enduring love of two grinning marionettes instead.  (Five years later, Brad Bird would pointedly clean up Abrams' thematic hot mess.)

These last moments do sour the experiencebut they couldn't destroy it.  Though Abrams was far from Cruise's first choice to keep the Impossible series rolling, M:I 3 heralded the arrival of a major talent.  Thrown into the deep end of big-budget filmmaking, he didn't just survive, he triumphedfor better and for worse.

But as for this franchise, the future was looking brighter all the time...

Score:  8/10

Other reviews in this series:
Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible 2
Mission: ImpossibleGhost Protocol
Mission: ImpossibleRogue Nation

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