Geekly Mailbag: In defense of 'Mission: Impossible 2' (and a definitive franchise ranking)
2015 isn’t even a week old, and the fights are already starting! In the comment boards of my “Resolutions” column, readers shared some high-impact thoughts on the upcoming Mockingjay finale and the neverending gritty/goofy superhero debate. But first and foremost, we need to address the elephant in the room of our culture: Mission: Impossible 2. In my Resolutions column, I mentioned that JJ Abrams directed the fourth-best Mission: Impossible movie. Them’s fighting words, says Commenter #1:
In what universe is John Woo’s flaming mess of a Mission: Impossible 2 better than JJ Abrams’ totally and completely acceptable Mission: Impossible 3?
This is an important thing that we need to talk about. Because I have heard some variation of this argument constantly for going on nine years now. The conventional wisdom, in a nutshell: Mission 2 is an incoherent action film with a ludicrous plot and bad acting; Mission 3 is a solid Bourne-era shaky-cam spy movie with a good plot and a great villain. Some people even go so far as to say that Mission: Impossible 3 is their favorite of the franchise.
Let’s throw out that chestnut right here. Ghost Protocol is the best Mission: Impossible movie. It’s arguably the least Tom Cruise-y of the bunch: By the fourth movie, Ethan Hunt is a semi-emotionless action-bot. But as directed by Brad Bird, Ghost Protocol is a film made out of one great setpiece after another. Bird has an animator’s gift for beautiful geometry: Cruise fighting his way down a corridor in the prison sequence, Cruise fighting his way through every level of a parking garage in the climax. But Ghost Protocol is also the only film in the franchise where the whole Mission squad matters; Cruise’s low-key performance leaves plenty of room for Simon Pegg as the comedy relief, Paula Patton as the badass, and Jeremy Renner as the Cruise-in-training.
Nobody loves or hates the first Mission: Impossible, and nobody really talks about it anymore. Which is too bad. The first film deserves more credit for starting off with such a fakeout. You think you’re watching a movie about a squad of jocular superspies on a mission that requires cool makeup and subterfuge. And then by the half-hour mark, the whole squad’s dead. (They didn’t just kill Kristin Scott Thomas; they killed Emilio Estevez.) Director Brian De Palma always loved the first-act Psycho twist—see Sisters, see Dressed To Kill—and so the first Mission: Impossible has one of the great left-turns in any vanilla-blockbuster. As a bonus, Mission: Impossible turns one of the franchise’s most iconic characters into a bad guy—the kind of bold storytelling choice that franchises used to make before everyone got too scared of fanboy freakouts.
Thus, Mission: Impossible 2. This is the movie where Tom Cruise has beautiful flowing long hair and climbs a mountain with his bare hands (just like Shatner in Final Frontier.) This is the movie where Tom Cruise falls in love with Thandie Newton, but then sends her undercover to spy on her ex-boyfriend, charisma vacuum Dougray Scott. This is the movie where the bad guy’s plot focuses on stock options, and the movie where Cruise defeats the bad guy by driving a motorcycle really fast.
Or something: The plot doesn’t really matter, because the plot never really matters in Mission: Impossible movies, because honestly “plot” is maybe the eighth most important part of a movie. (Things it’s behind, in no order: Characters, Casting, Dialogue, Cinematography, Music, Lighting, THEMES.)
The Mission movies give good directors big budgets and let them explore their peculiar fascinations in the context of a boring spy thriller, and Mission is the last great gasp of John Woo in the John Woo Era: The period of time when the Hong Kong director was everyone’s favorite cult-action obsession. All of Woo’s movies are bonkers if you read the plot summaries, but Woo’s style is still sui generis even after everyone ripped off The Matrix ripping off John Woo. Woo is dude who loves dudes with guns, but he’s also a hopeless romantic who loves soft-focus shots of lovers in love, and he has a ludicrously precise aesthetic but he was making movies pre-digital so his precision isn’t antiseptic (like the Wachowskis.)
So Mission 2 is ludicrous, and wonderfully so. Cruise and Newton flirt via car chase, and nothing isn’t in slow motion. There’s a central weirdness to the Cruise-Newton-Scott triangle: Scott is sort of an Evil Cruise, and sometimes he even puts on Cruise’s face, and there’s a weird sense that Scott and Cruise are both just using Newton as neutral territory where they can fight. (As played by Richard Roxburgh, Hugh is one of the great vaguely-homoerotic henchmen in action-movie history.) There are a couple of Meth Woo scenes, like when Cruise emerges from an explosion flanked by a dove because Catholicism. The final action sequence is a motorcycle chase that turns into a martial arts fight, except it’s “martial arts” being fought by two identical-looking white dudes. Mission 2 was written by Robert Towne, and Towne basically just took Notorious and deleted half the dialogue. It’s not good but it’s completely unfiltered, and it’s a prime expression of Cruisedom at its peak: When Cruise dies eighty years from now, every obituary will mention Cruise climbing the Mission 2 mountain by the end of the second paragraph.
Everything about Mission 3 makes more sense, and nothing about Mission 3 is remotely as fun. After a high-tension flashforward opening, the movie flashes back to an interminable first act. Cruise is getting married! To a boring nurse played boringly by Michelle Monaghan! Cruise has a boring squad—pre-Nikita Maggie Q looking great and pre-Tudors Jonathan Rhys Meyers looking angry—and they set off on a mission to rescue the only cool character in the movie, a pre-Americans Keri Russell. Russell dies immediately, but not before Abrams films a helicopter chase through a bunch of windmills that is one of the most incoherent action scenes not filmed by Michael Bay.
This was Abrams’ first movie, and he hadn’t quite developed his style for the big screen. So there are a lot of visual choices in Mission 3 that feel TV-like in the worst way—close-ups and shaky cameras, the weird bluescale mid-00s monochrome that made every big-budget action movie looks like the Michael Douglas scenes from Traffic. The movie often suggests an episode of 24 with more explosions and zero moral ambiguity. The exception is the Vatican City scene, an excellent setpiece that also features the genuinely strange vision of Tom Cruise’s face being molded into Philip Seymour Hoffman’s face.
Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman is good—and most people who love Mission 3 credit him as a chief reason for that love. Hoffman’s a great villain and he makes every line sting. But as a character, Owen Davian is boring boring boring. (The bad guy in Ghost Protocol is boring, too, but he has barely any screen time and hardly ever talks; also, you could argue that the bad guy in Ghost Protocol is The Abstract Concept Of Chaos, as Ethan Hunt and his agents of Order constantly wage a losing battle against malfunctioning technology and robotically-controlled parking garages and freaking sandstorms.)
The whole movie depends on Tom Cruise and Michelle Monaghan having awesome chemistry, which they don’t. Mission 3 isn’t brave enough to be a genuine mess—this is one of those blockbuster movies where people explain and explain and explain things, round and round again. But it’s a mess all the same. There’s a random scene inter spliced in to the movie where Myers and Q have a random conversation that only underscores how boring their characters are:
Zhen Lei: “When I was little I had a cat. He used to run away all the time. It’s just a prayer I would say to bring him home.”
Declan Gormley: “Teach it to me.”
I wrote out their character names only because I think it’s important to know that there is a small-but-fervent Declan-Zhen ‘shipper fan base, which proves once again that we live in a nation of strangers.
Some people probably love Mission 3 because of the central cuteness of its Macguffin: Everyone is chasing after the Rabbit’s Foot, and you never actually learn what the Rabbit’s Foot is. That would be a cool storytelling trick if this was a Hitchcock movie and the characters were cool and the cinematography was interesting and the actors had chemistry. Instead, the Rabbit’s Foot is mainly useful as a metaphor for Abrams’ storytelling style: Incredible tease, zero follow-through.
Everything is subjective, but here is the definitive ranking of the Mission movies; only eleven months until Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible 5!
1. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol
2. Mission: Impossible
3. Mission: Impossible 2
4. Joe Carnahan’s unfilmed Mission: Impossible 3, which would’ve co-starred Kenneth Branagh, post-Matrix Carrie-Anne Moss, pre-Match Point Scarlett Johansson, and would’ve apparently been the “punk-rock” version of Mission: Impossible.
5. JJ Abrams’ filmed Mission: Impossible 3, a.k.a. pop-punk version of Mission: Impossible.
Why is a crime drama version of Daredevil a good thing? We need to move away from dark, gritty “realistic” superheroes and embrace the campy, over-the-top theatricality of it all. Both The Flash and Gotham do a great job with that. The world we live in is a dark, dreary, hateful place—we don’t need to be reminded of that in our superhero shows.
So much to take in here. Let’s first of all segment out “dark, gritty” from the phrase “crime drama.” “Dark” and “gritty” at this point are meaningless buzzwords, because every hack director who goes to Comic-Con swears that their movie is a darker/grittier version of whatever. Like, everything that “dark” and “gritty” are supposed to mean can be summed up in the first picture Zack Snyder tweeted of Ben Affleck’s Batman costume, reproduced below in its original form:
But “crime drama” does not necessarily mean “dark” nor “gritty.” Law & Order is a crime drama, but it is a fast-paced and sardonic drama, and when it was good, it was the great ’90s no-bull network procedural: Jerry Orbach was the amused detective, Sam Waterston was the gasbag with a conscience, and a rotating all-star cast of New York-based guest stars played every element of seedy NYC society. The Wire is a crime drama, but it is a leisurely paced Shakespearean tragicomedy, with a byzantine plot and a cast of hundreds and beautiful profane dialogue poetry and characters out of Greek myth. If Daredevil is either of those things, it would be great.
I share Alistair’s grit fatigue, but there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Brian Michael Bendis/Alex Maleev run on Daredevil is a crime drama that feels “dark” and “gritty,” but Bendis has a keen ear for dialogue and Maleev’s art is “realistic” the way that Monet’s flowers were “realistic.” The Flash isn’t realistic, and power to it. Gotham isn’t realistic, and it is terrible.
I do, however, take serious issue with the final line: The notion that our superhero shows should be purely escapist. First of all: Geez, dude, do you need a hug? The world is dark, dreary and hateful; it’s also bright, cheerful, and lovable. Entertainment can reflect any part of the world, and the best entertainments reflect every part of the world. (The worst entertainments are Gotham.)
Ten-year anniversary of “Shadow of the Colossus,” which means it will be the fourth anniversary of the version that runs well. Such a great game, such technical issues on the PS2.
(It’lll also be the 30th anniversary of “Super Mario Bros.” and the arrival of the NES in the U.S.)
I’ll be honest: I played Shadow of the Colossus at least three times through on the PS2, and I never had any technical issues with it. Not one. The graphics weren’t as “good-looking” as other graphics at that time, but I always figured that was sort of the point: Like Ico, the game’s style is subdued and monochrome. (ASIDE: I realize I’m praising Shadow of the Colossus for its mid-00s subdued-monochrome aesthetic just a few paragraphs after damning Mission 3 for that same aesthetic. But this is just another reminder that games/movies/TV shows are about more than how they look. Everything about Shadow of the Colossus is subdued, so the visuals make sense; everything on the level of character/story in Mission 3 is goofy mess. END OF ASIDE.)
If I think I really hard, I guess I can remember some visual glitches, like the main character’s body suddenly phasing through some of the Colossi’s fur. I dunno. It never really bothered me. Weirdly, I actually preferred the original PS2 version to the HD version; somehow, in HD, the game looked a little bit plastic. I think about this a lot, because I’ve spent close to a decade looking for a game that carries me away as completely as Shadow of the Colossus. (Some of the games that came close: Red Dead Redemption, Skyward Sword, Braid, the Mass Effect trilogy, Gone Home, Far Cry 3, the back half of Arkham City, Grand Theft Auto except for when anyone was talking, Dark Souls before I just gave up, Dishonored when I didn’t kill anyone, BioShock Infinite before the ending, and Journey.)
Shadow of the Colossus was one of the best gaming experiences since Ico.
Marry me, Tralfaz.
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF MOCKINGJAY BELOW! DO NOT READ ON UNLESS YOU HAVE ALREADY READ MOCKINGJAY!
Mockingjay ending was so badass. I agree that I do not think they’ll hold to it, especially Katniss’ “vote.”
I think they’ll make concessions, too. It’s all about appealing for maximum commercial value and instilling audiences with easily digestible pap versus thought provoking ideas. Nope, the important thing is that the Capitol is bad! Bad, bad, bad!!!
Some context: I had mentioned my fears that Mockingjay 2 will soften the nuclear impact of the book’s ending. Book-Mockingjay ends with one brutal calamity after another, all of which I am about to spoil so seriously just go read it because books are almost always better!
Prim gets killed, probably as a scheme concocted by “good guy” President Coin, a scheme that was at least indirectly helped along by “good guy”/love interest Gale. Katniss is even more of a PTSD case than usual—and it’s at this point that the victorious President Coin announces that she has an awesome plan to “punish” the Capitol by forcing the Capitol kids to participate in a new Hunger Games. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: You realize suddenly that the forces of good weren’t trying to replace tyranny, they just wanted to be in the tyranny driver’s seat.
Katniss is supposed to execute President Snow. Instead, she kills President Coin. Katniss is banished to the ruins of District 12, where her and Peeta collaborate on a book about their horrible experiences, partially so people know the truth about the revolution and really just so people don’t forget everyone who died making a new society. Years later, they have kids, and Panem seems to be a relatively democratic society, and Katniss is psychologically damaged by everything that happened to her but is also tough enough to believe there is good in the world but also sad that, someday, her happy children will learn about every awful thing that ever happened to her, and on that day her happy little children will realize just how dark and dreary the world can be.
This is an awesome way to end a series. It is also way more interesting than the ending of any major blockbuster franchise in recent memory. Like, people always say that the Dark Knight trilogy is “dark and gritty,” but Dark Knight Rises ended with Batman retiring to a life of Parisian cafes with Catwoman.
Francis Lawrence has done a pretty decent job of translating the books’ somber tone to the big screen. The best part of Mockingjay 1 was the visit to District 12, when Katniss walked through the ruins of her home and sang a (top 40!) song. I am always optimistic about everything, but I am also skeptical of everything to do with PG-13 blockbuster franchises, and so I kind of roll with TallGent and Matt on this one. There is an image from Mockingjay that haunts my brain, something so bleak and funny that I can’t believe it’ll be in the movie but I really hope it is: President Snow, at his execution, laughing and laughing and coughing up blood and laughing as the mob kills him. That’s how you kill off the bad guy with zero catharsis; that’s how you leave your readers wondering how the real bad guy was.