Okay, let’s get this straight: Tom Cruise is a spy trying to retrieve a top-secret thingamabob called a knock list. The double agent who stole it — Jon Voight, unless it turns out to be Henry Czerny or Emmanuelle Beart — plans to sell the list to an evil arms dealer named Max, who turns out to be, er, Vanessa Redgrave? But the double agent hasn’t actually stolen the real knockwurst, um, knock list. So Cruise has to break into a CIA vault, dangle like a dead parakeet from a trapeze wire, and steal the list all over again. The list that was never really stolen in the first place.
Oh, never mind. The point is Mission: Impossible is such a tangled mess of mixed-up plot points you’d need a machete and pith helmet to hack your way to the third act. Whatever else the film has going for it — boffo stunts, Cruise’s star power, a killer theme song — it certainly didn’t become one of the highest-grossing films of the year ($180 million and counting) because of its oft-rewritten-but-still-incoherent screenplay.
But then, lots of movies have audiences scratching their heads these days. Twister had that awesome flying-cow scene, but did anyone really buy its loopy love-among-the-tornados story line? And what about the new Hugh Grant movie, Extreme Measures, in which an evil doctor kidnaps homeless people to perform spinal surgery on them? Uh-huh. It could happen. At least it isn’t any more preposterous than Jean-Claude Van Damme’s latest, Maximum Risk, in which the newly sensitive action hero cries for the camera, bonds with his mom, and kickboxes the Russian mob out of New York. And let’s not even mention The Island of Dr. Moreau, a film so inane not even the sight of Marlon Brando in a wimple and caftan could save it.
The fact is, pretty much all of the big commercial films being released by major studios these days have a certain written-by-chimps-locked-in-a-room-with-a-laptop quality. Story lines veer in nonsensical directions, dialogue is dim or dopey, characters have the heft of balsa wood. Granted, Hollywood has always churned out a bumper crop of stinkers, but this time something different seems to be going on. The rock-bed basics of dramatic writing — the sort of under-the-skin characterization of Taxi Driver, the snappy banter of Double Indemnity, the twisted but ultimately logical plotlines of Chinatown — all these things and more seem to have been forgotten or abandoned by today’s commercial filmmakers. At every studio, in every genre, a great cloud of mediocre writing is hovering overhead, like one of those gigantic alien Frisbees in Independence Day — you know, the movie in which Will Smith helicopters into the rubble of L.A. and instantly finds his girlfriend, his dog, and the First Lady of the United States.
Look at action movies. Not too many years ago they featured gracefully invented heroes with pleasantly textured personalities (James Bond with his vodka martinis, Indiana Jones with his whip and fedora). Today they’re made for generic slabs of beefcake who exist mainly to shuttle the script from one huge explosion to the next (see Schwarzenegger’s Eraser — or was it Stallone’s or Willis’?). Comedies used to be designed like Rube Goldberg contraptions, the jokes coiled into the machinery of the plot (think of Tootsie or Broadcast News). Nowadays they’re little more than stitched-together sketchbooks for former TV comics, sometimes very funny (Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor), sometimes very not (Chris Farley in just about anything). Dramas, meanwhile, have ceased being dramatic. Instead, they’ve become star vehicles, huge performance pieces that promise Big Names doing Serious Acting (like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, playing a sensitive inner-city schoolteacher…who also happens to have one baaad karate kick).