The Last Days Appendix II: Mission: Impossible (1996 – Brian De Palma)

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So if Arnold Schwarzenegger is the penultimate movie star… then who is the last movie star?   Whilst there are still bankable, charismatic actors working today (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington spring to mind) there are none who are able to get funding for their films on their name alone.  Even our subject has had to rely on building a handful of franchises (of which this film can retrospectively be seen as the first entry in one) in order to maintain the level of funding to which he is accustomed.  Tom Cruise is our last movie star.  In itself this is a curious statement; why are we assuming that there won’t be any more after him?  Star actors are so necessary to the success of movies.  Why is it that we have devalued them so?  I’m as big an auteurist as the next person, but that central, charismatic performance is what drives cinema.  You can choose your angles and edit your footage as much as you want, but we go to the movies to see the close-ups of these impossibly beautiful, deeply captivating actors.

It’s strange to think that as Cruise has got older, he has become a more physical performer.  Nowadays, the vast bulk of his career is consumed with action pictures, each one containing an extremely dangerous set-piece that Cruise performed himself.  He is one of the most reliable performers in the business, and even when the film as a whole does not add up to that much, there is a certainty that Cruise will be giving it his all, and watching him will be a pleasure.  But in the early days of his career, Cruise actively distanced himself from the action genre.  Instead, he chose to serve a form of apprenticeship, choosing to take parts in the films of notable, established directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack.  It was a bold decision, especially when we consider that the ideal of stardom (that of Schwarzenegger) was utterly concerned with stunts, explosions and running very fast.

Indeed, once Cruise finally took the plunge into the action genre he chose an established, New Hollywood director to helm it.  Even today, he prefers to work with stolid, workman-like directors (your Christopher McQuarries and Ed Zwicks), rather than anyone too flashy – Cruise has always been a classicist at heart.  Mission: Impossible was our first sight of Cruise pushing himself physically, and from this point, there would be no going back to understated supporting roles.  Cruise has a total commitment to verisimilitude; if there is a stunt or action he can do himself, he will.  This allows the directors he works with to have a greater freedom of shots – they can place the camera close to him during his performances, and in doing so, draw us closer in to him.  We are drawn to Cruise because on the big screen we can glimpse what he is capable of, and understand the genuine danger he is in during these moments.

Whilst the action sequences in Mission: Impossible may feature fewer explosions and car chases than the other films of the nineties, they annihilate them when it comes to inducing tension in the audience.  The meticulous planning and choreography of De Palma ensured that a simple act of Cruise abseiling down into a room became almost iconographic in its execution.  Using the heist sequence of Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) as a launching pad (in itself a quiet rebuke to those who dismiss De Palma as a mere Hitchcock rip-off), De Palma ensured that a simple bead of sweat could cause us to grasp the armrests of our chairs.

And that is the great beauty of this film.  It does not fully reveal to us what Tom Cruise would ultimately become capable of in his career, but it does show us how pace, close-ups and the simple cut from shot to shot can cause us to be enthralled.  The first thirty minutes of this film are about as perfect a sequence in the history of cinema.  From the very start, a complex web of screens, masks and lies indicate that there will be a level of unreality to the film.  As the IMF team handle their heist upon the elite party, we realised as an audience that there are things going on in the background of shots that are as important as what is happening in the foreground.  De Palma cemented his use of the split-diopter lense into the very narrative of the film.  In doing so, he reminded us of the great pleasure of his films; that his tricks, his use of the camera, is the vehicle for telling the story.

Many of these tricks, particularly his use of first-person shots, lent themselves well to the spy genre.  And like all of De Palma’s method, it’s invisible until you start to look for it.  Mission: Impossible is one of many entries in this genre that occurred in the nineties; films such as Patriot Games (1992 – Philip Noyce), The Peacemaker (1997 – Mimi Leder) and The Saint (1997 – Noyce again) followed the form, or used the narrative tropes of multiple identities, double-crossing and isolated agents to tell their stories.  They also feature a retrospectively charming understanding of the still infant internet within their plots; Mission: Impossible has a sequence where Cruise posts on usenet bulletin boards.  But the constantly escalating narrative of ‘missions gone wrong’ became highly influential in itself.

(Indeed, one of the loveliest aspects of this movie was the fact that the masks worn by Cruise within the film ensured that the studio prevented Val Kilmer from using too many false identities in The Saint, thus denying us all of too much of a good thing…)

The emphasis on carefully constructed set-pieces in action movies was broadly rejected by the industry – one only has to watch Mission: Impossible 2 (2000 – John Woo) to see how little impact it made – but it did seem to open the door for Tom Cruise to explore how pure physical performance was essential to being a star.  In that sense, Cruise recalls the great performers such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.  For that we can be truly grateful.  But for a survey of the action genre in the nineties, Cruise simply did not have any great impact.  It would only be in the decades to come (perversely as he got much older) that we began to see Cruise emerge as one of the greatest physical performers of all time.

J. J. Abrams as director 1 – Mission: Impossible III (2006)

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There are many complaints I have about cinema; its timidity, its intolerance of appetite, its dependence on established ideas.  (These stand opposed to my complaints about cinemas – lack of visible seating plans, tolerance of people putting their feet up on the seats in front, beautiful London theatres partitioned off leading to tiny screens).  I sometimes place too much weight on that last complaint.  Movies have always been remade, they have always been based upon established properties (chiefly, literature).  I remember reading an issue on Empire back in in 2003 (where I was already at an age where I should have known better) and it complained of the dependency on sequels in that summer’s prospects.  If only they could see what it looks like now.

I also have complaints about complaints.  Aside from the insufferable dick-waving one-upmanship of who is the most woke film writer (‘I’m so woke I won’t even contemplate sex or race or gender’ is the new dominant theme), there is the intolerable fallow-minded argument of the current superiority of television.  Television operates as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome media – spend enough time with a TV series and you will love it regardless of its flaws.  Television will always appear to have greater depth than cinema, simply because it has a longer running time.  It operates within tedious parameters that never have to apply to cinema – the sound design on television has to be set at a certain level to hear dialogue, for instance.  The most recent season of Master of None proved how tedious, how pseudo-intellectual (black-and-white episode, working-class people episode – yuck, yuck, yuck) even an intermittently entertaining programme can be.

So we have a cinematic landscape that simultaneously aspires to be televisual whilst maintaining established intellectual properties… it’s not a promising landscape (it’s a bit like Dymchurch in that sense).   But one man has been able to straddle this vast unpromising chasm… J. J. Abrams.  And so I complain about him.  Because it’s kind of unbearable to me that one man could be the ‘New New Spielberg’ and waste that influence on existing properties.  (Of course, M. Night Shyamalan was the ‘New Spielberg’ – though it occurs to me, what was Robert Zemeckis?)  Five movies now, and only one of them has been an idea of his own – though in all fairness, he has produced a greater number of films by other directors that are based on original ideas.  But within his own body of work, he has explicitly re-trod the ground worn by others, bringing little to the table except an excess of lens-flare.

But is this fair?  Or like all prejudices, is it something we need to examine and challenge?  Because as much as I like to dismiss his films, as much as I like to play the contrarian and claim that a George Lucas Force Awakens would be better than an Abrams Force Awakens, I can’t help but begrudgingly like his movies to one degree or another.

So it’s come to this… Abrams as an auteur.  But is he worthwhile?

* * *

 

In 2017, Tom Cruise is determined to hold onto his stardom.  His career is now dependent on the franchises he has to his name – his woefully mis-cast Jack Reacher (great first film, terrible sequel) series, the Dark Universe (whatever the fuck that is?) series and Mission: Impossible.  It is the position he has been forced into by an unimaginative industry.  The last couple of times he has tried to build something new in the film industry – the science-fiction double of Oblivion (2013 – Joseph Kosinski) and Edge of Tomorrow (posthumously retitled as Live. Die. Repeat.) (2014 – Doug Liman) – are unfairly perceived to be failures.  But back in 2006, it would be unfair to call Mission: Impossible a franchise by our modern standards.

Cruise had long resisted the action picture in the early part of his career, instead choosing to spend his time working with as many established directors as he could.  Even when he finally took the plunge, he insisted on an old-school director – Brian De Palma – helming the nominally action based movie.  Cruise is a traditionalist – one of the uncommented aspects of his career is his insistence on shooting his movies on celluloid, and he annually contributes at least one million dollars to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.  The follow up, M:I-2 (2000) is one of the more disappointing entries in John Woo’s foray into Hollywood (better than Windtalkers though).  But neither of these films suggested a franchise, and Cruise’s interest in having a different director shoot each entry with little continuity between each instalment seems to actively work against any idea of a ‘shared universe’ (these habits have only recently been abandoned as Christopher McQuarrie returns to direct M:I 6).

Cruise’s choice to place Abrams as director of Mission: Impossible III belies the televisual beginnings of the concept.  Abrams was an established television showrunner, at the time living off the heat from Alias and Lost, and at times, M:I III feels like an episode of some sixties super-spy series.  The Vatican heist, in particular with its ludicrous costume changes and relatively basic technology could easily have been a sequence in one of the original television shows.  If we’re being clever, we could imagine this as some kind of meta-commentary on the film series, but in reality, Abrams has a curious tendency to throw away key action sequences in his film.  His set-pieces never feel like set-pieces, such is his unwillingness to revel in the spectacle of what’s in front of him.  His reliance on a close-up, shaky-cam style of framing denies the audience any opportunity to gain a coherent understanding of what’s going on in front of him.  It is something, that on the advice of cartoonist Bryan Hitch, he rectifies for the Enterprise shots in Star Trek (2009).

It’s strange, because of all of his years in television, we don’t treat M:I III as a first film. Because it very much feels like one.  As a visual stylist, Abrams is very much unformed at this stage.  His aforementioned tics – his irritating use of lens-flare in particular – don’t feel out of place within mainstream, big budget cinema.  It’s just… it feels a little ‘hack-y’.  Like its some photocopied, bootleg version of a visual style.  There are moments when Abrams presents unseen flashbacks (these are technically flashbacks-within-flashbacks as the majority of the film is leading up to a moment we have already seen), but he does so with little cause or intent.  So we over-emphasise, the choices he does make, such as the pseudo-mythical ‘rabbit’s foot’ MacGuffin that drives the plot of this film.  It is at times like this when I despair of auteur theory, how it forces us to over-praise even the most insignificant thematic or visual iconography that any director employs across a body of work.

At the heart of all the Mission: Impossible films lies Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.  Like all great cinematic spies, he is a blank slate – a character without character.  The qualities that we give to him – decency, bravery, trustworthiness – are painted with the broadest of brushes.  Hunt, with his constant apparatus of masks and false identities, remains more vague and ill-defined than any Bonds, Bournes or Saints.  It just seems that Abrams took this to heart, and became a blank slate himself.  Mission: Impossible III is about as competent a film as is possible.  It is momentarily exciting, compelling and well-performed.  But there is nothing in it which is even occasionally dangerous or messy.  So Abrams becomes ‘a safe pair-of-hands’.

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – no Jaws sequels – vol. IV

Sequels, prequels and remakes.  One of the greatest pleasures of movie obsession is seeing the films you love reimagined, seeing how different directors bring their own peccadillos to the proceedings.  Remaking movies is as old as cinema itself, so quite why the concept is so frowned upon nowadays, I have no idea.  Anyways.  These are my personal favourites (though it bears underlining that in nearly every case the original movie is superior.)  No Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg) sequels though because they’re all terrible.

41.Mission: Impossible II (2000 – John Woo)

 

Sequel to Mission: Impossible (1996 – Brian De Palma)

 

Somewhat maligned, John Woo’s deliriously hazy action movie downplays the paranoid interactions of De Palma’s opening entry but ramps up the action.  It represents the moment that Tom Cruise chose to become an action star; up until this point he was content to work with as many ‘great’ directors as possible, but he saw that come the new millennium, auteur theory was an irrelevance, and the only way to stay alive was to remain number one at the box office.  It’s a preposterous spectacle, but a spectacle nonetheless, with Cruise determined to punish his body within the red/green light of Woo’s fantasy milieu.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) has its moments, but like all J. J. Abrams’ films, one that trades on the half-remembered successes of other, better directors.

 

42. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011 – Brad Bird)

 

Fourth in the Mission: Impossible series

A film that succeeds largely with the confidence in which it defines its space.  Car parks, motorways, skyscrapers are tangible locations – fully realised, they allow the body (Cruise’s lithe frame stretching with age) to presented compulsively with danger, largely the risk of falling from a great height.  Cinema screens are so tall, it is strange that they rarely exploit the fear of falling.  In a world of quick-cut, incomprehensible punch-ups, the film becomes a treasure, a rare jewel… something coherent.

43. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015 – Christopher McQuarrie)

 

Fifth in the Mission: Impossible series

The series’ endearing commitment to employing different directors for each entry ensures a distinct identity for each film.  McQuarrie chooses to push the series as close to Bond as it can go, tuxedos, ballgowns and astonishing car chases.  The Mission: Impossible series has never crept into the hostile misogyny that creeps within every entry in their canon – despite some skeevy bikini shots, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is a fully realised woman, with agency and ability.  Limited only by the supporting cast lack of range (shouting is the only way to convey emotion apparently) it is an intensely gripping blockbuster.

44. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980 – Irvin Kershner)

 

Sequel to Star Wars (1977 – George Lucas) and fifth in the Star Wars series

One of the most dispiriting waves of recent cinephilia has been the glee with which the new Star Wars films have been greeted – the pleasure with which the homogenized, micro-managed Disney product is presented as having been saved from the inanity of George Lucas.

Yet Lucas is a visionary.  A pioneer of new technology, a disciple of space and form that harkens back the days of silent cinema, and a true iconoclast.  Never again will we see independent films made free from studio interference with blockbuster budgets.  The films are painfully personal – the hope of the initial entry is replaced with the disdain of the sequel once his marriage to Marcia Lucas breaks down (an individual who is key to the success of these first few films).  The later prequel series present a man fully aware of powerful economic forces and how they can control and degrade an individual.  They reduce performance to its broadest strokes, choosing instead to focus on classical movements of image, combining model shots, CGI, and reality against each other to create fully realised worlds.  It was an unpopular vision (though unsurprising – Mark Hamill is hardly a charismatic screen presence), and whilst the now annual visit to the Star Wars universe is entertaining, it will never again be visionary, and thus of limited interest outside the simplistic guttural pleasures that come from the multiplex.

It is particularly pedestrian to state that Empire Strikes Back (or Star Wars II as I sometimes like to call it when feeling particularly contrary) is the strongest entry, but please don’t write those prequels off… they’re obsolete enough as it is.

45. Psycho II (1983 – Richard Franklin)

 

Sequel to Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)

 

With some particularly fantastic kills, and a genuinely unsettling insight into a psychopath, Psycho II is a delight, not least for the very pure pleasure of Anthony Perkins reprising his role as cinema’s most likeable serial killer (suck it Hopkins!).  Taking the intrinsic sympathy we felt for Bates as he discussed his mother with Janet Leigh over sandwiches, milk and taxidermy to its limit, we are forced to occasionally believe that this man was maybe the victim after all.  Maybe that final scene in the basement in Psycho wasn’t real?  Maybe that ridiculous explanation for his behaviour given in the parent film was a lie?  Rare that it is that a sequel so confounds our expectations for the entirety of its running time.

 

 46. Psycho III (1986 – Anthony Perkins)

 

Third in the Psycho series

Imagining living as an icon who wasn’t you.  Typecasting is increasingly an irrelevance, so desperately we adore even the most minor of a celebrity, but in the past, some actors suffered in the shadow of one good role.  Here, Perkins refuses to make it a millstone, and acts and directs in a dynamic exploration of living in the detritus of both his legendary role, and the director who begat his whole career.

47. Psycho (1998 – Gus Van Sant)

 

Remake of Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)

 

Van Sant’s colour cover version remains interesting for the ways in which it deviates from its source text as much as follows it.  Where Psycho is a queer film made by a heterosexual (disgustingly so as it appears) filmmaker, this is a heteronormative film made by a gay filmmaker, and as such, a more accurate depiction of the reality of murder within our world.  The flashes of blue sky within the infamous shower scene underline the power of the Saul Bass structured cuts and emphasise the universality of women being destroyed by men.

 

 48. Aliens (1986 – James Cameron)

 

Sequel to Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)

 

Cameron explores the emotional depravity that comes from returning to trauma, yet provides catharsis in the sublimation of this trauma when presented with the maternal instinct.  The Alien, the ultimate expression of both penile and vaginal horror overwhelms any construct of society, as if sex is unstoppable.  The need to procreate is necessary and instinctive and no intellectual (or religious artificial construct of asceticism found in the next film in the series) can escape it.  Cameron transforms the deliberate horror of the first film into a glorious, visceral survival story.

 

 49. Alien3 (1992 – David Fincher)

 

Third in the Alien franchise

There is a great pleasure is seeing Hollywood’s one pessimist David Fincher destroy the peace provided by its ultimate optimist (Cameron) explored in the previous film in the series. Until this point the Alien films had explored the fear of sex that many secretly feel.  So naturally a film has to come along and impose a religious doctrine upon it.  The sex/death drive is ultimately stronger than the imaginative drive that fuels religion – it occurs later in our evolutionary development as a species.  But the semi-monastic ramblings of the penal colony are unable to dominate, and even the fiery crucifixion of Ripley cannot provide atonement.

50. Prometheus (2012 – Ridley Scott)

 

Prequel to Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott has little interest in scripts.  He takes them as they come, choosing to focus on the images he can construct for the big screen.  He is a master co-ordinator, and able to produce a big budget film at nearly 80 years of age.  As such, his films show little thematic consistency – the overt (and nauseous) Christianity of Prometheus, sits against the timid atheism of Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).  The banal explorations of faith are peculiar within a film that features the ultimate expression of a cruel, senseless universe that seeks to kill lesser beings in the form of the Alien.  Despite this, the film has moments of extra-ordinary body horror, portrayed by a range of fine character actors.  And Noomi Rapace.