Wednesday 19 August 2015

2015 - The Year of Thespianage. No 2: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

This year of spy movies continues. I've already covered Kingsman- The Secret Service and I now find myself at the latest entry in the Tom Cruise-revamped Mission: Impossible series of films.

After the excellent Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Dir: Brad Bird, 2011), I was looking forward to the next installment of the adventures of Ethan Hunt and his team of IMF operatives. 


Mission: Impossible (Dir: Brian De Palma, 1996)

When I first heard about this film , I had high hopes for it.  Brian De Palma is a very interesting director with a wonderful visual style. While his career has been uneven, he is responsible for such modern classics as Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (-a personal favourite from 1987) and Dressed To Kill, (1980) to name a few. His work is often cited in film study classes due to his Hitcockian style and the psychological themes underlying his films.
De Palma loves using Steadicam in his films. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it's a camera system that is strapped to the cinematographer's chest. Using counterweights and a separate screen for the operator, in the right (and very steady) hands, it can be used to beautifully extraordinary effect, allowing for long takes of scenes (with changes of locations) with no cuts. Martin Scorsese used it in a wonderful restaurant scene in Goodfellas (1990), but De Palma is, in my view, the master of Steadicam and he knows how to use this system to its fullest advantage.                                                                          
I will freely admit that even watching one of his lesser films like Snake Eyes (1998) is worth it. Beautifully shot, with Nicholas Cage at his manic best. Here's the first thirteen minutes of the film in one gloriously orchestrated Steadicam take;
                                                              - Snake Eyes - Opening Scenes

Mission Impossible introduced IMF operative Ethan Hunt, a protege of Jim Phelps, the character from the MI tv series which ran from 1966 to 1973. Commercially, this film did very well, grossing over $457,000,000 worldwide.  Reviews were mixed, but generally positive, although much was said about the convoluted plot.
However, the biggest controversy with this film was the fact that it turned Jim Phelps, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, into a traitor. Fans of the tv show were in uproar. Peter Graves, who played Phelps in the tv series, was offered the role in this film, but he turned it down due to this turncoat aspect of his famous character. The part went to Jon Voigt instead.
Personally, I didn't mind this film. It contains a famous and nail-bitingly tense sequence where Hunt hacks into a computer at CIA Headquarters. Although, I've always felt that the ending seemed a little rushed.
Still, looking back, I think I preferred this first installment to the one that followed it a few years later...

Mission: Impossible 2 (Dir: John Woo, 2000) 

Mission Impossible II.jpgHong Kong action film director John Woo was a Hollywood darling by the time he got the gig to direct this film. Aside from his high-octane and ultra-violent (for their time) films that he'd made back in his homeland, he was now coming off the back of two successful Hollywood actioners, Broken Arrow (1996) and Face/Off (1997). 
It would have seemed a no-brainer to  Hollywood executives to give him this film to direct, but I've always felt that this one (now that we're up to five M:I films) seems out of place with the rest of the series. Gone is the clean-cut Ethan Hunt that we first saw in De Palma's film, replaced with a more rock & roll protagonist, complete with John Woo's trademark motifs (doves) and tropes (hero and villain pointing guns at each other's heads in hard-core Mexican stand-offs). This entry borrowed plot lines from other films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 classic Notorious. Out of all five of these films to date, this is the one that I find hardest to watch. The character of Ethan Hunt in this film is some kind of super-Bond and I'm glad that he was toned down in the successive films. I must say that I have been critical of the next entry in the past...

Mission: Impossible 3 (Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2006)

I said in another post a few years ago...

Smiling In The Dark- A Typecast About Some Movies I've Seen Lately

          ...that J. J. Abrams can't do scale. What I meant by that was that he couldn't give a big action scene the grandeur and scope that it deserved. I hereby retract and apologise for that statement. I think I based it on the first time that I saw the attack-on-the-bridge scene in M:I:3. Watching it again a couple of years ago, I realised how wrong I was. It plays larger the more you watch it. I think I was writing with a mindset relating to his previous work in television, with shows such as Alias (a favourite of mine) and Lost, where budget constraints require smaller scale. While watching this bridge scene again, I realised I was wrong. Abrams delivered a great movie here, and I must say that he is often shows respect to the source material. There are instances in this film where he tips his hat to the series that it's based on. Abrams also got a lot of respect for the way he handled the Star Trek reboot in 2009, so it's no wonder that his new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is the most hotly-anticipated film of 2015. While I'm not a huge fan of the Star Wars franchise, especially now that Disney has it in its Mickey Mouse gloves, I am very curious to see how Mr. Abrams treats it. I think it's in good hands.
Mission: Impossible III was pretty good, made effective in the casting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Owen Davian, an International Arms Dealer and the film's main villain. The screenplay, written by Abrams and his Alias co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, provides a story which moves along at a good clip and provides some tense moments.Thankfully, too, the secret-agent-as-rock-star, as Ethan Hunt was portrayed in John Woo's film, is gone. I'll admit that I haven't seen this film for some time and I'm probably due for a re-watch, but it's a very good entry in the series. This film also marked the introduction of Benji Dunn, the Q-type techie, played for laughs by English actor Simon Pegg, who would have a more expanded role in...

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Dir: Brad Bird, 2011)

A number of years had passed since the last installment of the adventures of Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Missions Force. By now, we had come to realise that these films would generally have  a rotating cast, with Tom Cruise's Hunt at the helm.Simon Pegg was back to provide some more comedy relief and we also saw the great Jeremy Renner in this film, as Brandt, an analyst who is not what he seems. 
Director Brad Bird had already made the fantastic Disney/Pixar animation, The Incredibles in 2004, and that film showed that he knew his way around spy movie tropes and conventions. With this latest M:I film, he didn't disappoint. This one was my favourite of the bunch so far, featuring some clever stunts. Most notable is Hunt scaling the outside of the 123 storey Burj Khalifa building in Dubai. 
I used to have a love/hate opinion of Tom Cruise. I always felt that he took himself too seriously and that the whole Scientology side of him tended to sometimes overshadow his work. Then my wife said one night, while his film Minority Report was on tv; "Regardless of his private life, you have to admit he does work hard." I thought about that and came to the realisation that yes, he does give his roles his fullest and, in recent years, he appears to be having a little more fun with them, too. When I saw his very funny cameo performance in Tropic Thunder (Dir: Ben Stiller, 2008), I wondered why he hasn't done more comedy. 
With this film, too, we see a pattern emerging where the IMF team is cut off from any assistance from other US government agencies. I never saw much of the original tv show, but, aside from the now-familiar 'Your mission, should you choose to accept it' and 'This message will self-destruct in five seconds' motifs, the IMF team were so super-secret that they were always under threat of being 'disavowed' by the US government if their mission failed or they were caught by the enemy. Similar to the first film in this series, Ghost Protocol once again puts Ethan Hunt on the outer, where he has to recruit a specialist team of agents to help him clear his name after he is blamed for an explosion in The Kremlin. The entire IMF agency has been shut down and the one person whom Hunt can trust has been killed. As he and his team are on the run, with no resources or avenues of assistance, they also must prevent the perpetrator of the Kremlin attack from unleashing a nuclear catastrophe which could set off war between the superpowers.
This one is a very slick entry in the series, and it did so well at the box office that Paramount Studios soon announced that another M:I film would soon begin pre-production.


Which brings me to...

Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation (Dir: Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

Christopher McQuarrie came seemingly out of nowhere in 1996 with the screenplay to The Usual Suspects, a very clever crime film directed by his friend Bryan Singer. He would seem to be a good choice for something like a M:I movie.
McQuarrie wrote the screenplay for this one, and it gets off to a great start with Ethan Hunt trying to board a military cargo plane (from the outside) as it begins its take-off. This film is a decent entry in the series, and I daresay I'd probably have to see it again to really make up my mind. However, on one viewing, I will say that the cast seems a little under-utilised in this film. Jeremy Renner appears relegated to cameo status as Brandt, while Simon Pegg's character of Benji gets more screen time, adding further comedy to the proceedings as the still-green field agent. Very impressive, however, is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa, an MI5 operative who infiltrates The Syndicate, the evil organisation that was the main threat in the '60s tv series. Fans of the show would have been glad to finally see the IMF team go up against its arch nemesis. There are some tense moments in this film, most notably an underwater sequence where Hunt must shut down a water-cooled mainframe within three minutes, without the use of air-tanks. This is the kind of stuff I like to see in spy action/adventure films. Shoot-outs are something that I've seen a million times and there aren't really any new spins you can put on those. Whereas, a scene like this can be ramped up to a nerve-wracking level.

There are two recurring tropes that I began to notice in these Mission Impossible movies by now; Tom Cruise will end up without his shirt on at some point, showing us all how fit he looks for a guy over fifty, and, Mr Cruise will end up riding a motorcycle at extreme speeds while not wearing a helmet. In the age of CGI trickery, it is good to see actual stunts still being performed by living, breathing (and downright crazy!) human beings. Cruise apparently did the skyscraper climb for real inGhost Protocol, although there was a safety-wire attached to him, and he also hung onto the outside of the military transport plane in the pre-credits sequence of this film. Again, that safety-wire came in handy.

Regardless, many an actor would have said 'Where's my stunt-double?' for a scene like this. So, I do have to hand it to Mr. Cruise for doing this stuff himself.
Despite the fact that Ethan Hunt does come across as some kind of superman in these films, his character has been toned down a little from the way it was portrayed in the John Woo entry in the series.
At the time of writing, this fifth installment has racked up over $375,000,000USD at the box-office worldwide.* Not bad for a film that was released two weeks ago. Hopefully, this figure will continue to climb, ensuring another entry in this series in a few years.
Personally, this film is pretty good, but right now, I prefer the previous one, Ghost Protocol. Again, this may change after another viewing of this new film, but GP was a smart and slick production, with a nice dynamic among the characters, who all seemed to get equal time on screen. Still, this is a minor gripe.
So, this covers the latest big spy movie release of the year. Next up- Guy Ritchie's take on another classic, 1960s tv spy series, The Man From UNCLE. 

Thanks for reading!

Note; Thanks yet again to and for filling in the blanks when my memory of production dates was sketchy.
Thanks also to vimeo for the video footage from Snake Eyes.
* Box-office figure gleaned from the wonderful

Poster credits;
-Mission:Impossible (
-Mission:Impossible-2 (
-Mission:Impossible-3 (
-Mission:Impossible- Ghost Protocol (
-Mission:Impossible- Rogue Nation  (
Stills from M:I-Rogue Nation ,

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