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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Oscars Snubs: ‘Mission: Impossible,’ or the right way to blockbuster

Janice Chung | The Observer
Janice Chung | The Observer

Hollywood. It’s a commercial machine, one reliant on tentpole mega-movies that often stick to established narrative conventions and plumb the depths of nostalgia in order to appease a mass audience — anything for a buck. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and no critic worth his salt would dismiss a movie just because of its scope or commercial appeal. Nevertheless, it is impossible to understand contemporary Hollywood without acknowledging the primacy of the blockbuster.

That’s why I’m so surprised “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” failed to net a single Oscar nomination last month. Okay, maybe I’m not entirely surprised, but isn’t the snubbing of movies like “Rogue Nation” a fascinating occurrence? If the Oscars are a glorified party where industry insiders can pat themselves on the back (hint: they are), then why don’t they celebrate good movies that also embody industry imperatives in addition to the middlebrow “prestige pictures” that exist closer to the fringes of Hollywood?

This year has been a step in that direction; the Academy was right to honor crowd-pleasers like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Martian.” But while those movies broke new ground, “Rogue Nation” embraced much of what is often criticized about contemporary Hollywood — it was a derivative and formulaic sequel. It just so happened to also be ludicrously good.

However, a careful examination of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise suggests that last statement is imprecise. “Rogue Nation” did not stumble upon greatness through chance or fate; rather, it expanded on a dynamic blueprint that was developed piece by piece, changing — at times slightly, at others drastically — from movie to movie over a 20-year span. We critics typically hope a movie feels organic, alive or even messy, but the beauty of the “Mission: Impossible” movies is that they prove calculated thrills are nevertheless just that — thrilling.

Consider the directors who have taken us through each iteration of “Mission: Impossible.” Each delivered a movie informed by different epochs of the action and thriller genres. In being derivative, the “Mission: Impossible” movies remind us of what we love about those genres — in their variety they are never quite repetitive, never a bore. The five “Mission: Impossible” movies may not be capital-“O” original, but that is a small quibble when they function as an entertaining film school for lay people.

Brian De Palma’s 1996 “original” (based on the original 1960s television series) was a moody, if at times muddled, affair. Replete with Dutch tilts and clutch stunts, “Mission: Impossible” was equal parts psychological thriller and action flick — it was Hitchcock-lite. John Woo’s sequel spliced the DNA of the original with that of Hong Kong action movies. When Woo’s heightened style verged on expressionism — like when two speeding cars locked together in a slow-motion pirouette of a crash — you almost forgot you were watching a blockbuster, let alone one starring the world’s biggest movie star. With “Mission: Impossible III,” J. J. Abrams brought “Mission” into the “Bourne” era, foregrounding techniques such as the shaky-camera photography and quick editing that were de rigueur for action flicks throughout the 2000s.

The fourth “Mission,” Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol,” was — pardon the cliché — a game-changer. In an era of blockbusters beholden to complexity — of narrative, of character — Bird crafted a tentpole movie that was unabashedly simple.

Admittedly, the best of the recent complex blockbusters surpassed “Ghost Protocol” not only in narrative and thematic ambition, but also in achievement: The chaotic narrative sprawl of “The Dark Knight” and Heath Ledger’s iconic turn as the Joker tapped into the public’s anxiety over terrorism, and “Skyfall” examined the evolution of terrorism in the Information Age through the vehicle of James Bond’s origin story.

But in bringing its franchise into a kind of stasis, Bird’s movie succeeded where “The Dark Knight” and “Skyfall” failed — “Ghost Protocol” set a high bar for its sequel but not one that was impossibly high. Christopher Nolan could never have replicated, let alone topped, the frenetic heights of “The Dark Knight.” Yet the film’s popularity forced him to attempt just that in “The Dark Knight Rises,” rather than take the trilogy in a new direction. It shows: “Rises” is a mess. Its bloated complexity verged on self-parody, and it thus lost the nuance and sense of reality that elevated “The Dark Knight” from popcorn flick to social commentary. Similar problems plagued “Spectre,” which was a continuation of the acclaimed “Skyfall” when it should have been a departure; audiences could only take so much brooding, introspective Bond.

In “Ghost Protocol,” Bird was not concerned with plumbing the depths of his characters or commenting on an ever-changing social climate. The movie never evoked the Hitchcockian paranoia of the original — or of actual Hitchcock movies, for that matter — and that was the point. What Bird did borrow from Hitchcock was structure: “Ghost Protocol,” despite its airy tone, was in many ways a spiritual successor to Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Each uses a thinly plotted structure to construct stunning action set pieces, and each is preposterously enjoyable.

But “North by Northwest,” replete with political overtones, was too complex for Bird to remake note-for-note. Working in the late 1950s, Hitchcock drew on Cold War anxieties to create an antagonist that was relevant to the contemporary audience. Viewers today, decades removed from the Red Scare, might feel the villain in Hitchcock’s film is irrelevant or even forgettable. Yet even for modern audiences, “North by Northwest” is effortlessly re-watchable, a fact that speaks to the greatness of the film’s structure. The string of set pieces sprinkled with bits of melodrama is so thrilling that elements often thought essential — a memorable villain, a coherent plot — become disposable niceties.

When “Ghost Protocol” was released in 2011, the threat of nuclear war was about as far-fetched as the old notion that ducking for cover could save one from such a war. Nonetheless, Bird opted to lift the plot — nondescript foreign agents and an atomic threat — directly from “North by Northwest.” That the threat in “Ghost Protocol” was without the context that accompanied “North by Northwest” was Bird’s way of forcing it out of our memory. The passage of time has shifted focus on Hitchcock’s film from its politics to its mechanics; Bird cut to the chase, offering nothing but mechanics.

In doing so, Bird altered the paradigm for the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Action flicks are so often defined by their villains — there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to Bond villains. Indeed, “Mission: Impossible III” is best remembered as a vehicle for the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as ultra-baddie Owen Davian. Rather than fall into the same trap Christopher Nolan did by attempting to elevate Bane to the level of Ledger’s Joker, Bird didn’t even try to give “Ghost Protocol” a memorable villain. Whereas “Mission: Impossible III” was Ethan Hunt vs. Owen Davian via a string of fabulous stunts on bridges and buildings, “Ghost Protocol” was simply Hunt vs. the bridges and buildings. It was “Mission” at its most elemental: Tom Cruise and stunts.

“Ghost Protocol” was so successful that those raw elements became the formula from which the next installment, “Rogue Nation,” was crafted. Indeed, “Rogue Nation” barely deviates from the formula. But why should it have? Topping the previous installment’s action set pieces was as easy as topping its iconic villain would have been difficult: all the filmmakers had to do was find a taller building to scale, a faster car to crash, a more elaborate safe to hack. “Rogue Nation” is every bit as good as “Ghost Protocol” for the same reason “North by Northwest” is re-watchable after all these years — it’s all thrills.

Or not quite. Writing for the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris argued Cruise’s psychology — his masochism and his ego, each feeding off the other — is what made the stunts in “Ghost Protocol” so great. I’m inclined to agree with Morris; there’s something positively spellbinding about watching the man compulsively dart from one stunt to the next, seemingly without motive other than exertion for exertion’s sake.

And you still get some of that in “Rogue Nation,” but this time out there’s something more. Yes, there’s the ego, the masochism, the coolness — watching all three coalesce as Cruise clings to the side of an airplane, face flapping in the wind, you think he’s man-as-special effect. But watching his conviction and sincerity during a scene in a train station (not on top of a moving train, mind you), when he lets himself be seduced, if only for a moment, by the charm of a woman who is clearly out of his league — that is to say, watching the world’s biggest movie star become vulnerable — you realize that’s merely what he wants you to see. Watching these quiet moments, you understand the je ne sais quoi Cruise brings to the proceedings has less to do with his disregard for the limitations of the human body than it does with the simple fact that he can just plain act.

Cruise doesn’t elevate “Rogue Nation” above the rest of the franchise by himself though. In fact, the best part about “Rogue Nation” is that seductress from the train station. As Ilsa Faust, the auburn-haired Rebecca Ferguson is practically a bottle of peroxide away from being fit to star in a Hitchcock movie. She’s icy, calculating and manipulative — the best femme fatale to come from a mainstream American movie in years.

Ferguson’s performance is as physical as it is psychological; watching her shed her heels before a brawl or slice through an adversary’s throat with a knife, you realize she totally kicks butt. But she knows when to save someone too, and does so on several occasions. The someone in question? Tom Cruise’s. Of “Rogue Nation’s” many triumphs, humanizing Tom may be the most enjoyable, and it is certainly the most important. Cruise is 53 years old now, and convincing the audience he has lost a step — while assuring us he is still supremely cool — is director Christopher McQuarrie’s major contribution to the franchise. Like Bird’s efforts, McQuarrie’s ensure the repeatable excellence of the franchise by controlling the audience’s expectations in a manner that never feels manipulative. Rather, it’s outrageously fun.

That’s really what every studio in the blockbuster game is after — repeatable excellence. Over five films and two decades, the “Mission: Impossible” franchise has evolved into the perfect model of how to achieve that excellence. It’s proof the stringent demands of studios — that sequels exist, that sequels embrace what was successful before — need not stifle quality or fun. So, of all the Best Picture nominees, I have just one question: As the culmination of one of Hollywood’s best franchises, “Rogue Nation” saved the blockbuster — what did you all ever do?