(Video on Demand, March 2016) It’s a minor miracle that the Mission: Impossible series is still going strong after five instalments, but after the near-death-by-ridiculousness of the second movie, the series has managed to hit upon a winning formula that still keeps it going nearly twenty years later. The formula is getting a bit repetitive (can we stand another of those “Ethan Hunt must operate without official support!” plot point?) but nearly everyone understands that plotting in this series is really about getting from one action set-piece to the next, and in this regard Rogue Nation is as good as any other instalment in the series. Tom Cruise’s ridiculously effective charisma helps, and so does the work of the series’ usual supporting players, but this time around the film can count upon a fully fleshed action heroine played by Rebecca Ferguson (too bad she won’t show up for the next instalment, as is custom), straightforward action direction by Christopher McQuarrie, and a pretty enjoyable supporting performance by Alec Baldwin, making the most out of a villainous persona. Good action set pieces include a complex opera house sequence and a frantic car chase in which the pursuer isn’t completely back from the dead. On the flip side, the computer break-in sequence is piled-up nonsense that borrows a bit too much from the first movie, and the final act of the film doesn’t have a strong action sequence as a send-off. The fantasy version of the espionage craft displayed by the series also cuts both ways, either as an escapist bonus, or as a regrettable absurdity when a bit more plotting realism would help anchor the delirious action sequences. This being said, Rogue Nation has the benefit of meticulously planned sequences and a controlled tone throughout—making it stand a bit above most of the other spy movies of 2015’s anno furtivus—yes, even better than Spectre, with which it shared a striking number of plot points. What’s left to do but anticipate the next instalment?
(In theaters, December 2011) The Mission: Impossible series has never been about realism, and this fourth entry continues to deliver the kind of spying-fantasy action that the franchise does so well. While it would be correct to bemoan the series’ lack of real-world themes or relevance, it’s also missing the point: Mission Impossible is about featuring visually dynamic action directors, giving Tom Cruise a rock-solid star vehicle, and having just enough plot to run through a series of action/heist set-pieces. It works pretty well: Brad Bird’s live-action debut as a director show his skill in handling complex sequences mixing together wide-screen locales around the world, high-tech equipment (which, hilariously enough, always seems to be failing), movie-slick stars and a good sense of rhythm. The series has been good at showcasing innovative action sequences and Ghost Protocol does well in setting a chase inside a sandstorm and then later on a fight in an automated parking garage. What’s somewhat new is a tenuous amount of continuity with the previous installment: just enough to give the actors something to do during the dialogue scenes, but also in terms of visual continuity, much stronger between the third and fourth film than any of the previous entries. While Ghost Protocol doesn’t have a villain as strong as Philip Seymour Hoffman in the third installment, it’s good enough to give a little bit more of what has been good about the series so far. While Cruise is now pushing credibility as an action hero (the next ten years are going to be tough for him as he’ll have to let go of his boyish grin), the Mission: Impossible series is still his most reliable, most audience-friendly franchise. Expect another installment within a few years… and expect it to be decent.
(In theaters, May 2006) Sure, Tom Cruise is a loon. But now that we’ve disposed of the obvious, let’s look at Mission: Impossible 3 as a movie rather than a star vehicle. It’s certainly a different film from the first two movies in the series: Here, the team is back in action, leading to a number of crunchy heist sequences that don’t just bask in the glory of Tom Cruise. Similarly, we can sense that some care has been given to the script underlying the entire film: Director J.J. Abrams is a veteran of such TV shows as Alias, and this go-for-broke intensity is one of the most pleasant aspects of Mission: Impossible 3. As the often-ludicrous twists pile up, the film speeds up and acquires a pleasant velocity. It brings some of TV’s best tricks to the bigger-budgeted world of action movies and at least gives the illusion of doing something new. Seymour Philip Hoffman’s villain is a case in point: a role that may have been ridiculous in the hands of another actor is here exploited to its most vicious extent by an Oscar-winning actor seemingly having some fun. Even the dramatic underpinnings of the story make sense (though that’s not always the case with the details) despite overly-maudlin romantic moments and some eye-rolling twists. From the electric opening sequence to some of the best action scenes of the year (that Chesapeake Bay Bridge action sequence, complete with armed UAV and palpable desperation, is a piece of art), Mission: Impossible 3 is a crowd pleaser that delivers exactly what it intends. Heck, it even has the potential to revive a moribund franchise.
(In theaters, May 2000) Frustrating because it is, at the same time, so bad and so good. The script is one of the sorriest excuse for an “action” film I’ve seen in a blockbuster for a long, long time. Say what you want about Armageddon, at least it had pacing on its side. Not so with Mission: Impossible 2: If the first fifteen minutes are pretty enjoyable, the following hour drags on like molasses, with a complete lack of any action. That dreadful hour is further drawn-out by nauseatingly trite dialogue, obvious “surprises” and bland scripting. But, forty-five minutes before the end, Ethan Hunt finally gets to act like the James-Bond clone he has so obviously become, and only then does Mission: Impossible 2 become a thrill ride. That’s when characters stop speaking and start shooting, all sumptuously directed by John Woo. Slow-Motion bullet ballet, a wonderful motorcycle chase worth the price of admission in itself and a superb hand-combat sequence complete the film. A shame you have to slog through so much… emptiness in order to get to it. Tom Cruise is irreproachable -as is Anthony Hopkins’ cameo- but the rest of the actors get short thrift and Thandie Newton’s character is atrociously written. So much good stuff, so much bad stuff… and Hollywood suddenly asks itself why we think its summer blockbusters suck.
(Second viewing, On TV, November 1998) Pure and complete nonsense, but intentionally so. Going from set-piece to set-piece, this thriller never pauses long enough to allow viewers to realize that what they’ve just seen is not complex, but senseless. Still, it might be foolishness, but director Brain DePalma has too much experience to let it be anything but good-looking foolishness. Tom Cruise makes a convincing action hero, and the superb action sequences are simply remarkable. (Even knowing where special effects were used didn’t diminish the enjoyment one bit) Disclosure: A previous viewing had prepared me to accept the lousy script and enjoy the good bits.