Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

I gave up going to blockbusters after the worthless TWISTER, only breaking my embargo when there seemed something genuinely special on offer from the creative talents involved. And then lapsing a few other times.

Brad Bird’s involvement in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL was enough to draw me in — he’s shaken up the world of feature animation (THE INCREDIBLES, for instance, has no songs, one writer, is two hours long, features numerous deaths, and focuses on its hero’s mid-life crisis) and I was intrigued to see what his live-action debut would be like. How would he handle actors and props and settings and camera moves with their own real physical weight?

The yearning of the flesh to become pixel.

Confession — I have actually seen all the M:I films at the cinema. It’s that “creative talents” clause: Cruise has seriously sought out filmmakers with interesting sensibilities. Weirdly, J.J. Abrams, the least celebrated director, crafted maybe the most satisfying film, maybe because he had the best script. Besides, I liked the way he was able to shoot action scenes where shots served more than a single purpose, even as he cut fast. DePalma’s opening installment seemed tailor-made to offer him some typical set-pieces, such as the hi-tech version of his trademark split-screen sequence. I’ve finally decided I can’t stand John Woo, and anyhow grafting the plot of NOTORIOUS onto an action drama was a dumb move — it makes the fights and chases even more redundant than usual. The writers tried to make it a Woo vehicle by inserting a dove. Big deal. Abrams carries less baggage that those guys, and he had an inventively absurd script to handle (that improvised defibrillator was outrageous).

Bird casts better than any of his predecessors since DePalma: it’s impossible to beat the combo of Ving Rhames and Jean Reno, who have such distinctive comic-book looks, but Bird doesn’t miscast his bad guy as Woo and Abrams did (Dougray Scott is too stolid, Philip Seymour Hoffman is an excellent actor wasted as a cartoon snark) — I didn’t find Michael Nykvist quite as colourful as I’d have liked, but his role is actually less significant than you’d expect, with relatively little screen time. Somebody with more visible derangement or physical threat might have been nice, but it’s no big deal.

The star attraction here is Jeremy Renner, America’s best knobbly actor, who manages to be more intense and dynamic than Cruise and funnier than Simon Pegg. Paula Patton and Lea Seydoux provide requisite glamour, and there are some surprise cameos. But it’s what I enjoyed in M:I III, the enjoyable absurdity, that makes this one the best yet ~

1) Tom Cruise does a lightning sketch in biro on the palm of his hand and Renner positively IDs it, using only the information that it’s a “European male”. This is my new favourite thing ever.

2) Cruise survives AT LEAST four lethal vehicular smash-ups, each more of a sure-death proposition than the one before.

3) He climbs the tallest building in the world using special gloves. Which don’t work. He should’ve tried licking his palms like Steve Martin in THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.

4) He coincidentally finds himself on the run with a man with a secret and tragic link to his past, who also coincidentally was the only survivor of auto smash number 2.

5) Cruise and Pegg sneak around the Kremlin using a portable screen that projects a view of the corridor they’re in, so the security guy can’t see them. This is a digital version of the tunnels Wile E. Coyote would paint on rock faces. I would like one — it would make my living room look bigger.

6) Cruise gains admittance to the Kremlin — basically Moscow’s Disneyland, I believe — by sticking on a false moustache to impersonate a general. Even though he has a machine that makes completely convincing and flexible rubber masks. In fact, these masks are never used in this film, almost as if the writers, Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, thought they were too silly to get away with. Which, in its touchingly naive way, is the most joyously absurd thing of all.

If you like action films at all, you should try this — gleefully O.T.T. mayhem, coherently and dynamically shot, with Michael Giacchino’s score once again channeling the spirit of sixties espionage flicks. But it’s also Bird’s least emotional film to date, which is odd, although I guess it fits the nature of spy films. The attempts at human drama mainly involve backstory and characters from previous entries in the series, so they don’t amount to much. The emotion you will get is the sweaty palms and pounding pulse of suspense, which is the chief reason most people are going to go, I expect.

This movie finally cracks the series’ biggest problem, which is that it’s simultaneously about a TEAM, and a star vehicle for one actor. The balance is finally right, even though, rather weirdly, we end up with more access to Renner’s emotions than Cruise’s, and Renner gets the Big Emotional Backstory scene. A coda tries to hand it back to Cruise, but that’s a little late in the day. Still, this plays along with one of Cruise’s underrated qualities as a star: you’re never quite sure what’s really going on with him.

This is Bird’s first film not ostensibly about a Beautiful Freak or Amazing Genius, though by its nature it’s still a celebration of The Exceptional, just in less overt, didactic form. Maybe that theme needed retired anyway. I’m not 100% sure what this latest film’s theme IS, just as I’m not sure what Ethan Hunt’s appropriation of W’s “Mission accomplished” is meant to tell us…

13 Responses to “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast”

  1. This was so much fun to read, David. I loved Ratatouille; but the movie everyone keeps comparing MI:GP to is The Incredibles. And I am one of the few people in captivity who really, really did not like The Incredibles. Still, you’ve almost got me thinking I should go see this. Been such a long time since I’ve seen a really good action film, one that laughs at reality.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    I would go to any WILLIAM Mapother film. Just not to one of his brother’s. The, you know, totally irony-free brother.

  3. Tom Cruise does do well in Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT, though totally out-acted by everybody else including Sydney Pollack but especially Nicole Kidman.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Correction: cousin, not brother.

  5. I don’t know if it’s his weird discomfort, or the fact that his emotions always seem self-consciously dredged up and pumped up, but yes, TC turned out to be a quintessentially Kubrickian actor.

    For those reasons, I’ve always found it weird and fascinating that he’s so successful as am embodiment of sincerity. Tropic Thunder is the only film where he ever seemed at ease with his character.

    Via his cousin he connects to Lost, which seems to connect all the dots here. Bird shares a regular composer with that show, Abrams directed the pilot, etc. if anyone ever figures that show out, I bet it would explain plenty.

  6. I am one of the only other people who disliked The Incredibles intensely, finding it oddly fascistic in its politics (oddly, that is, coming from the maker of the wonderfully lefty The Iron Giant). Anyway, thanks for this review, David, you had me at Wile E Coyote, I now have to see this damn thing in the cinema with the biggest screen possible.

  7. Politically, the M:I films have tried hard to avoid commitment. I was iffy about them filming in Dubai, and the use of torture is problematic, though par for the genre. There are odd moments when I started to feel the thing was amoral in the way of a Melville thriller, but it didn’t last. It’s a good guys/bad guys romp where the good guys do some bad things.

    I’m intrigued by your take on The Incredibles, which I could quite resolve politically in left-right terms.

  8. Kurbirk’s protagonists are frequently assholes — and so are the actors who play them, eg. Ryan O’Neill in Barry Lyndon, Mapother in Eyes Wide Shut

    Note the near-gay-bashing sceen in the latter.

    Tasty!

  9. The “queer-baiting” scene is apparently there to drive the character on to prove his heterosexuality by cheating on his wife… which he fails to do. Or, rather, which he talks himself out of doing at every opportunity.

    Alex in Clockwork Orange is something worse than an asshole, although he’s the film’s most self-aware character. Which makes him unusual among Kubrick characters. Dr Bill seems to have little or no insight into his Hamlet-like failure to “act.”

  10. This was the first Hollywood blockbuster adventure in many years which was touted as good stupid entertainment and actually did well and stupidly entertain me instead of boring me to intense irritation. Renner makes it, you’re right, and the car wreck that finally manages to damage Cruise (or more exactly rips the knee of his expensive shiny pants) brought sublime memories of The Long Kiss Goodnight‘s “Mommy, I bumped my head!”

    There are several joking references to the rubber masks, but the only character who wears one is OMG SPOILER a villain.

    Cruise isn’t a Beautiful Freak or an Amazing Genius, but by now he’s certainly an Amazing Freak. My companion, film writer Juliet Clark, aptly compared him to Michael Jackson: he’s devoted his life to achieving some imagined idea of perfection while the rest of us recoil in horror at the results.

  11. I was relieved that Cruise shows SOME sign of aging at last, in his features if not in the impossible physical prowess his characters show.

    Cruise’s weirdness certainly emerges in some of those interviews, but it’s harder to define than Jackson’s glaring wrongness, which took on actual physical shape. While the singer was a very modern manifestation of craziness made flesh, I have a harder time knowing just what is the deal with Cruise? Scientology is a big part of it, but what’s that masking? Maybe it’s…nothing.

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