Friday, December 30, 2011

Should You Choose to Accept It...

Improbably, the fourth Mission: Impossible movie turns out to be pretty good. Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol (2011, directed by Brad Bird) is the most inventive film of the series, one that takes its inspiration not from the contemporary action film, or the Hong Kong New Wave, but from silent comedies. One of the film's major set pieces seem like transliterations from Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. Another seems like a conflation of several Keaton movies, filtered through Chaplin's Modern Times and a few Looney Tunes shorts. The finale, set in an automated car park, bears comparison to some of the loonier set pieces from Pixar. Director Brad Bird is a Pixar alum, after all. This all comes at a cost, of course. Mission: Impossible 4 has a screenplay that seems like it was made in a food processor from a couple of shredded James Bond novels. You can't have everything, I guess.

The story, such as it is, finds our old friend, IMF agent Ethan Hunt, incarcerated in a Russian prison. Upon being sprung from the Russian hoosegow, he's shortly put on the trail of some Russian nuclear launch codes that have been lifted from another IMF operation gone disastrously wrong. Someone is trying to pit the US and Russia against each other (no, really) and in order to find out who, Hunt and his team have to break into the Kremlin. This, too, goes disastrously wrong and soon Hunt and his team find themselves disavowed, but still the only thing standing between the world and nuclear annihilation. The trail then takes them to Dubai, where the operation requires our heroes to conduct two separate transactions at the same time with two enemy agents who are exchanging diamonds for nuclear codes. This involves climbing up the side of the world's tallest building like Spider-man. This, also, goes wrong, and soon, Hunt is chasing the villains through the streets of Dubai during a massive sand storm. Finally, our heroes wind up in Mumbai, where they must break into another secure location to steal yet another set of codes in order to trace the bad guy. Coincidentally, the bad guys are in the same city at the same time, but they've initiated their launch. It becomes a race against time to retrieve the launch device to abort the missile.

This all sounds more coherent than it really is. The plot in this movie exists solely to provide set pieces. All other concerns, including character development and, well, plausibility, are thrown to the wind unless they serve the intricately staged actions scenes. There's nothing wrong with this approach, per se, and it's a hallmark of the series given that all three of the previous entries have had the same problem, but it makes the movie less than it could have been. One element of the previous film in the series that doesn't make the jump to this one is its winking self-awareness of the fact that it doesn't need to be about anything so long as it provides kinetic thrills. I'll sacrifice that self-awareness for creative set-pieces, thank you, because M:I 3 sucked for all its meta noodling while this one, just as empty, is a lot of fun to watch.

Some of this is purely visceral. I've already mentioned the scene at the scene at Dubai's Burj Khalifa Tower. It was filmed in IMAX, though that's not how I saw it; I can only imagine how that would have affected me had I watched it on an IMAX screen. As it was, on a moderately large movie screen, this scene was dizzying. I don't know if there were special effects involved--probably, but the movie's publicity says it was all done as practical stunts, which is awesome. Regardless, this scene has a real feeling of danger as the equipment Tom Cruise's character uses to scale the building begins to malfunction on him. The movie continues to place obstacles in his path that accelerate the scene's feeling of tension. As I say, this is analogous the scene in Safety Last in which Harold Lloyd winds up scaling a building and hanging off a clockface, and like that scene, it's an example of one damned thing after another. The previous Mission: Impossible movies have made a great deal of bank from cool (if fanciful) technologies. This one inverts this by showing what happens when those technologies fail. Very little goes right for our heroes in this movie, and whether or not the plot itself makes any sense (I think it doesn't), watching our heroes improvise when their magic gadgets fail them is a LOT more fun than watching them work like clockwork.

The chase through the streets of Dubai is the film's most elegant action scene. It's a pretty standard chase scene at its base. We've seen hundreds of these chase scenes in the movies, but the filmmakers give this one a twist by changing the environment; by setting it in a sandstorm. This turns the sequence into something new, into something we HAVEN'T seen before, into something exotic, and this is what the movie hinges on. It doesn't provide us with a stock fight scene to end the movie. Instead, it provides us with a sequence in which the main obstacle is an elaborate mechanical environment. There's an enemy to overcome, sure, but the enemy is in the same predicament. It reminds me a bit of the climactic chase scene through the door warehouse in Monsters, Inc. It's an absurd environment that provides the viewer with something they've never seen before and the novelty in itself is exhilarating. It amps up the danger of the scene, too, by putting flesh and blood characters in a kind of situation where animated characters routinely find themselves. When things go wrong, there's a physical reaction that you don't get in a cartoon. Human beings aren't rubbery and invulnerable to cartoon violence. The sound design of this film amplifies this effect, because whenever flesh strikes metal in this scene, the audience winces.

At a base level, though, the complications get the audience--well, this particular member of the audience, at least--thinking that it serves them right for making things over-complicated. The scene in which Jeremy Renner's character is dropped into a fan shaft and supported by a magnetic trolly is a good example. Why the hell is this necessary. Why can't Renner crawl under all that dangerous machinery, given that the team OBVIOUSLY has access to a safer route to his mission objective? This is a scene included for "cool" factor, and it's cathartic when it goes haywire. It should be noted that this applies to the bad guys, too, though the film's attempt to make their schemes overcomplicated backfires a bit, given that they beg questions about the plot that the movie isn't prepared to answer. For instance, when Hunt catches up to Lesinker after chasing him through the streets of Dubai, he's found to be wearing one of the masks that the IMF uses. He's revealed to be Hendricks, the main baddie, in disguise. Why? Both this scene and the scene at the Kremlin suggest that Hendricks has infiltrated the IMF, that nobody can be trusted, but then the movie adamantly refuses to explore these possibilities. This is frustrating and undermines some of the pleasures the movie provides. Worse, the villains are underdeveloped. Michael Nyqvist is a capable actor--as seen in the Swedish Millennium trilogy--but here, he's not given any scenes to play a character. He's a stock villain, intent on starting a nuclear war for the sake of starting a nuclear war. This is another high-stakes action film that seems conveniently free of ideology (lest it play poorly in some foreign markets). This is a movie where the villain himself is the Maguffin, which robs the audience of the pleasures of watching a good actor chew the scenery. Alas.

I'm disappointed at the naked franchise-building going on in this movie, though. The Jeremy Renner character is obviously designed as the eventual successor to Cruise's Ethan Hunt. While the final scene's introduction of the TV's series' main antagonists as a throwaway gag suggests Mission: Impossible movies for the foreseeable future. In spite of this, the end of the movie also spends some time indulging in visual and textual rhymes with the earlier films. The character arc given to Jeremy Renner's character, for instance, is a subtle call-back to the plot of the first film, while the re-appearance of some of the characters from previous films give this one a valedictory feeling. Frankly, if they want to phase Cruise out in favor of Renner, Paula Patton, and Simon Pegg, I'm down with that. They're all pretty good. I don't have any hatred of Cruise even if he is a kook in real life, but he's getting a bit long in the tooth for sequences like hanging off the world's tallest building. It works in this movie, sure, but in another movie four years from now? That's going to reek of desperation.

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