If it’s not apparent yet, I am a connoisseur of all things cinema, but I have a particularly fond appreciation for genre films. For those unfamiliar with the fine lingo, a genre film is a work that typically follows a particular formula of narrative, either loosely or obsessively, while not being an outright comedy or drama, outright.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: secret agency has a problem; to solve that problem, they put a team together of powerful societal misfits to fight said problem, and in the process save the world. I’ve just described easily a dozen movies made since the 1970s, including one of the most popular genre films ever made: 2012’s The Avengers.
One of my favorite examples of a true, blue genre film is the 1986 release Big Trouble in Little China. A burly all-American trucker loses his truck in a series of mishaps in Chinatown. Later, he teams up with a low-brow, ragtag group of fighters to not only find his truck, but they happen to save a pair of kidnapped girls from a cursed mystical Chinese sorcerer in the process. While a comedy of sorts, the plot also tosses in elements of fantasy and adventure, making this a defining example of a genre film.
Many genre films are part of franchises, and today, your humble contributor is to examine and discuss the merits and history of one of cinema’s strange little successes, the Mission: IMPOSSIBLE franchise.
In the beginning, there was a television show. Starting in 1966 and running until 1973, the initial show was practically an instant classic, cementing several spy tropes in the public memory: “This message will self-destruct…”, the elaborate use of hyper-realistic masks and simplistic gadgetry, and the tension of a mission that could easily go wrong, but rarely did.
This was the daddy of all great spy shows, inspiring countless others from JJ Abrams’ ALIAS to the USA serial Covert Affairs. It was so popular, it was revived briefly in the late 80s, when the Cold War was winding down, to mediocre success, running only 2 brief seasons. Fun fact: I was raised on this series before I had seen any single frame of the movies, so I am very familiar with the formula and execution of some very classy 60s television in addition to the landmark film franchise.
A film adaptation of the series had been pitched as early as 1978, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the world finally experienced Mission: IMPOSSIBLE on the big ol’ silver screen.
The 1996 film is a very different creature from the initial television series. There are elements that are the same, including the use of masks and absurdly effective tension throughout the mission, but the initial series was heavy on thrills, low on action. Heck, most episodes didn’t even feature a car chase or a gunfight.
The first movie installment in the series opts for a classic action-adventure approach; plenty of stunts, running, a few explosions here and there, plus a slight bit of gore to pay homage to director Brian de Palma’s big start in the horror business [Carrie, Sisters]. Its plot is convoluted enough to keep audiences scratching their heads, even after the movie has wrapped itself up in a nice, tidy bow, which can be a good thing. Overall, the first film remains a splendid, perfectly serviceable action-thriller that paved the way for even more adventures…four to be exact!
The second adventure was even more different than the first one, opting for less suspense, and going for the throat with fiery action scenes galore. M:I-2 was helmed by Hong Kong action virtuoso John Woo, fresh off of Face/Off. While his visions were spectacular to say the least, the film itself falls apart without his signature mayhem. The plot is a cheap rip-off of the James Bond flick, GoldenEye, and the film’s pace veers and brakes like a truck driven by a coke-head epileptic.
Critics and retrospective audiences weren’t that enthused with it for its seemingly unending tirade of set-pieces without much substance beneath the shenanigans. Movies are an illusion, held together by characters, music, and some sense of pacing, graciously given in the editing room, usually. This movie just ended up being concussive and not much else. Even acclaimed character-actor Brendan Gleeson couldn’t save this movie, and he was Mad Eye freaking Moody!
My take on it is as follows: it was colorful, and relentless in its pursuit of adrenaline, but the movie just ends up being a chore to sit through, having no center or sense of balance. Afterwards, the series went into hibernation for six years, before some new blood could revive the stuck series.
2006 was a big year for action. Fresh off the heels of 2005’s Batman Begins revitalizing the comic book movie market, alongside Sin City, comic book flicks and franchise pictures were everywhere. X3, V for Vendetta, Superman Returns, and even James Bond rebooted himself with the stellar Casino Royale.
JJ Abrams, he of aforementioned ALIAS fame, was given the reins of the third entry in the series, M:I-3. This was a big turning point in the series, taking it back to its taut, tension-filled roots, but still managing to keep some big action sequences without overpowering the audience. Holding the film together is undoubtedly the best villain in the series, Owen Davian, played with vicious gravitas by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Davian is even more haunting than most any Bond villain, carrying an aura of menace usually reserved for undead counts and real-life serial kidnappers. The man outright promises, not threatens, to find that someone that our hero, Ethan Hunt, cares for, following up with, “I’m gonna hurt her. I’m gonna make her bleed, and cry, and call out your name. And then I’m gonna find you, and kill you right in front of her.” Can you feel goosebumps or is that just me?
Granted, there were other things that worked, such as an insane “fulcrum” jump from one skyscraper to another, and a race through Shanghai towards the end that should leave most audiences breathless. Needless to say, critics and audiences went nuts for a much more mature handling of the spy franchise that was sorely missing from the second film. My personal fave of the bunch.
Where to next? How about atop the tallest building the world knew at the time?
In a previous review of Tomorrowland, I noted my adoration of wizard/wunderkind director-creator Brad Bird. His first live-action feature was the fourth entry in the series, Ghost Protocol, the first one to warrant a subtitle, because you oughta be prepared when ghosts happen.
This film was a bit bigger in scope than the previous one, riding on the fact that Tom Cruise climbs the tallest building in the world with only a pair of sticky gloves! Wouldn’t that catch anyone’s attention? But they didn’t just ride on that big stunt, no sir! Not only does Tom Cruise’s avatar climb tall stuff, he outruns bomb blasts at other famous landmarks, crashes expensive sports cars, escaping unscathed of course, and chases baddies in the middle of a Fury Road-esque dust storm. Yeesh!
Overall, the film was mucho successful at the box office, being the most money-making entry in the franchise thusfar, as well as the most profitable Tom Cruise movie ever, even taking into account Top Gun re-releases! It also had Jeremy Renner in it, which is always a plus.
As for me, I thought this film was passable action fare, seeming a step down from the adrenaline-injected menace of the previous entry. Aside from some of the set-pieces, I don’t remember much of anything besides Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg were in it.
What does this mean for the future of the series? Who knows? All we can hope for is previous along with fresher elements of all the films will collide together and form more fun entries in the coming years. Perhaps there will be that stand-out entry that will stand out for all history as a definitive spy thriller. Hey, I hear good things about the newest one. -Wink Wink-