This past weekend my wife and son Joshua and I went to see the fifth entry in the popular Mission: Impossible film series, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.
And just as was the case with the previous four movies, I came away with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, it was a fun, entertaining, well-made film... probably the best one in the series so far, in fact, strictly in terms of overall entertainment value. Witty and reasonably intelligent, with strong performances all around and a better-than-average script (despite the fact that the story is essentially just one more variation of the "There’s a traitor in our midst" scenario that has been at the center of every single film in the series), Rogue Nation is what we used to call - back when I was writing movie reviews for the Kankakee Daily Journal - “a darn good popcorn movie.”
On the other hand, the film suffers from the same unfortunate affliction that plagued the previous films in the series. Despite the title, it is NOT REALLY a Mission: Impossible movie.
Allow me to explain...
The product of an era when the success of Sean Connery's film appearances as James Bond had resulted in spies and secret agents replacing cowboys and doctors as the number one heroes on TV (The Man From UNCLE, I Spy, The Avengers, et. al.), the original Mission: Impossible television series stood out from the pack by exchanging Bond-style action, sex appeal and pyrotechnics for complex, compelling, often complicated but for the most part believable plots that actually required some degree of attention on the part of the viewer.
The show rarely employed overt violence – especially after its first season – and the backgrounds and private lives of the recurring heroes, the agents of the Impossible Missions Force, were (with only an occasional exception) deliberately left unexamined over the seven seasons (1966-67 to 1972-73) the series originally aired on CBS. The show’s success was built upon its unique style and attention to plot and detail, and fans responded in a big way; the show ran longer than other similar programs of that era, and its syndicated reruns continued to generate new fans all around the world over the ensuing years.
A revival of the series that ran for two seasons on ABC in the late 1980s was well intentioned and well made but ultimately less successful, in large part because the writers and producers pretty much ignored many of the elements that had made the original such an important part of American pop culture in the first place. That short-lived revival led at least one TV historian to conclude that a complex show like Mission: Impossible simply could not succeed in the post-MTV era of quick sound bites and short audience attention spans. Given the direction the movies have taken, perhaps he was right...
When Tom Cruise obtained the rights to do a film version just a few years later, he claimed to have been a fan of the original series; you sure couldn’t tell it by watching his first entry in the series, though. In that film (released in 1996, exactly 30 years after the TV series first debuted), the character of head agent Jim Phelps – the leader of the IMF team beginning with Season Two, following the departure of the original character of Dan Briggs – was revealed to have turned traitor and in fact was the primary villain of the story. (Peter Graves, who had played the role in the original show, reportedly turned an invitation to return for the movie in disgust - and remained vocally angry over that particular plot twist until the day he died. His role was taken over by Jon Voight for the film.)
While this particular twist did inspire one writer – Yours Truly, to be exact – to compose an essay explaining how such a character transformation might have realistically occurred (if you're interested, this essay can be found on the Internet at http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Phelps.pdf), nearly 20 years later it still seems an unnecessary and ill-advised betrayal of the TV series that inspired the film.
Each of the subsequent sequels have, to varying degrees, taken that betrayal one step further by injecting an overdose of stunt work and explosive special effects. Mission: Impossible II was by far the worst offender in this regard, thanks to a final confrontation between hero and villain involving a lengthy motorcycle battle that just seemed to go on forever. The subsequent films have managed to show some small improvement, each featuring a few moments in which it appeared that the screenwriters might have actually gone back and watched some of the old TV episodes to try and recapture the spirit of the original show.
Mission: Impossible III, for example, features a scene in which the IMF team infiltrates the Vatican; while the fourth movie, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, has agents Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) scam their way into the Kremlin. Both are capers that would have actually done Peter Graves and his team proud. And this latest film even includes a quick shot of what appears to be the black IMF dossier folder that Briggs and Phelps used to carry team members' photographs in back during the original series, which I thought was a nice touch.
But such moments ultimately prove too few and far between, as the pyrotechnics get bigger and louder and the bullets and missiles continue to fly and the crashed cars and motorcycles keep piling up. (In the fourth film, the aforementioned Kremlin scenes actually ends with the Kremlin blowing up!) Exciting as all get-out, to be sure. But it sure isn't the way Dan Briggs or Jim Phelps would have done it...
When I shared this observation in a recent conversation on Facebook, one individual made the following response: "That's what action movies have evolved into. Personally, I'm okay with that, we are in the video game age where we react and use reflexes instead of think. I like fast-paced action movies. Haven't seen the MI TV show in years but would venture to say would find it boring now..."
Boring? I suppose so, to a person who has a attention span that can't exceed five minutes, believes that "drama" means a lot of car chases and loud explosions, or thinks that thinking is somehow a bad thing.
All I know is that my 24-year-old son Josh had just recently watched the entire original series, both seasons of the revival series and the first four movies on DVD before we went to see the new movie. And when he had thus finished the Mission: Impossible series in its entirety and we were walking out of the theatre Saturday afternoon, the first comment that he made came in the form of a question: "Why can't the movies be more like the TV show?"
Joshua gets it. He may be the only one of his generation that does.
Mission: Impossible was never about loud explosions or car chases or running gun battles or getting the girl. It was a cerebral program, a thinking man’s spy show, one that asked the viewer to pay close attention and even think a little bit about what was going on. One step away from the TV to take a phone call in those pre-DVR days, or one extended trip to the bathroom during a commercial break, and you could miss something really important...
Although many stories in the early years were set in somewhat stereotypically fictional European countries, and some of the IMF missions could admittedly get a little far-fetched from time to time, overall the series still felt grounded in a certain sense of reality that I just do not find in the I:M movies, (I mean, come on... blowing up the Kremlin?!? This is Mission: Impossible, not Independence Day.)
And yes, I'll admit it: Even though I'm the guy who came up with the aforementioned reasonable explanation of the circumstances that could have resulted in Jim Phelps actually becoming a turncoat mercenary, that revelation in the first I:M movie still sticks in my craw even after all these years. If dealing with a traitor was the story that Cruise and Company wanted to tell (and apparently it was and still is, given that every single film in the series has been some kind of variation on that theme), why did it have to be Phelps?
They could have told the exact same story - the EXACT SAME STORY - with Jon Voight’s character depicted as Phelps’ successor as head of the IMF team. We already knew that Phelps had left the agency once before; the first episode of the 1980s revival series opened with Phelps coming out of retirement and returning to the IMF after the former protégé who had succeeded him as team leader was murdered. It would have made perfect sense that Phelps would have eventually left the IMF again and be replaced by yet another head agent, and that he - not Phelps - was the traitor.
The main drive of the story would been left intact, and a classic character's reputation would remain unbesmirched. But no...
Friends have asked me why I keep going to see each new I:M movie, given my overall feelings about them. I suppose the answer lies in the old saying: "Hope Springs Eternal." I guess I keep hoping that someday they'll get it right. Hasn't happened yet, and the realist in me understands that it probably never will, but - like the Disney Princess who believes to the core of her being that someday her prince will come, I suppose (and how's THAT for a bizarre analogy?) - I still keep hoping.
Sure, the movies are well made, fun to watch and full of humor, style and nail-biting action/adventure. Cruise as Hunt makes a much better secret agent than I might have guessed when he first announced that he was making an M:I movie, and two of the recurring members of his team - the aforementioned Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell - are just plain fun to watch and often end up the best lines in the movies. Pegg in particular brings the same sense of "Ain't This Cool?" enthusiasm that can be seen in his other continuing role as Scotty in the recent Star Trek reboot films.
(Pegg thus has the distinction of being only the second actor to have recurring roles in both Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, joining Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock and Paris The Great... not such bad company to be in, when you think about it. And when one considers the full history of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible - the fact that the original programs were sister shows on the Desilu-Paramount lot which debuted the same year and shared many of the same production staffers and other behind-the-scenes players, a fact that played no small part in Nimoy making the jump from Trek to M:I in the first place - the modern involvement of Pegg and director-producer J.J. Abrams in the last three M:I films serves to strengthen the already tight bonds between both series, and in fact represents a better tip of the hat toward tradition and continuity than can usually be found in the M:I films themselves.)
And when considered apart from the TV series that spawned them, as more or less generic entries in the cinematic genre of secret agent-espionage movies, the M:I films are right up there with the best of the Bond series or more recent entries like the "Jason Bourne" or "Jack Ryan" films - or even Cruise's recent Jack Reacher, which I have not yet seen myself but which, based on my memory of the TV ads that ran when it was first released, looked like it could have been Mission: Impossible 5.
But, I'm sorry Mr. Cruise, none of those positives can change the biggest negative of all; the sad fact that your Mission: Impossible movies are not really a continuation of the original television program but, rather, a negation of it. If you were really the huge fan of the show that you claimed to be back in 1996, why couldn't you have given us a genuine series of modern - but more traditional - IMF exploits instead of this bombastic collection of often over-the-top adventures fronted by a James Bond wanna-be?
Listen real close; that sound you hear is not that of a tape self-destructing in five seconds. It is the sound of Bruce Geller, the creator of Mission: Impossible, spinning in his grave over what Tom Cruise has done with his concept...
As a postscript, let me add this: If you want to see a show that hews closer to Geller's original series than the movies do, seek out a 1997 episode of the Dick Van Dyke mystery series Diagnosis: Murder entitled "Discards." The episode features actress Barbara Bain reprising her Mission: Impossible role as Cinnamon Carter - the first time she had played the role since leaving M:I at the end of its 1968-69 season. It also features welcome appearances by Robert Culp, Robert Vaughn and Patrick Macnee - the stars of I Spy, The Man From UNCLE and The Avengers, respectively - as characters who may or may not be those they played on those earlier programs.
The episode is a great deal of fun, a veritable trip down Memory Lane for those of us who love those 1960s spy shows. More to the point, though, some fans consider Cinnamon's appearance on Diagnosis: Murder to have been a far more faithful sequel to the original Mission: Impossible than either the 1988 TV revival or, especially, the subsequent Cruise films. For what it's worth, at least as far as the movies are concerned, I count myself among that particular number of fans.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to seek out "Discards: for yourself and make up your own mind...
(Copyright © 2015, by John A. Small)
In : Pop Culture