(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 theatres, June 2010) A breezy summer action comedy doesn’t have to do much to charm me, but the mess that is Knight and Day tests the limits of my indulgence when it comes to those kinds of would-be summer blockbusters. It’s not that the film isn’t enjoyable: It’s good-natured, leaves its stars free to grin madly and does present an enjoyable escapist fantasy. There are interesting things to see in the action sequences, and a few laughs here and there. But something feels off about the way the film is directed and edited: Director James Mangold has an intriguing way of showing (or rather, not showing) what happens in the film, but this kind of experimentation doesn’t fit with the far more conventional thrust of the movie and is hampered by some fairly obvious CGI work. Furthermore, the editing is so choppy that it feels as if crucial connective tissue has been left out of the script or the final cut: Knight and Day feels rushed and borderline incoherent, in-between zippy changes of scenery, abrupt shifts in tone and characters whose unhinged nature seems more forced by dialogue rewrites than anything like psychological complexity. (Even the title almost defies explanation, and you have to squint really hard at the last lines of dialogue to figure it out.) So far removed from the moviemaking process, it’s tough for viewers to know where to assign blame: the script was reportedly re-written almost a dozen times, passing through a number of proposed stars before settling on Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Neither do too badly, although Cruise overdoes his preening while Diaz seems happy to squeal dizzily through much of the film. The result is about a third good, a third charming and a third mystifying: not exactly the ideal mixture for a formula movie that should have been an easy slam-dunk.
(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.