Friday, May 05, 2006

Mission: Impossible 3: Point, Shoot, Reload

(Potential spoilers follow.)

The Mission: Impossible films have been exercises in style from the start. For the "original" film -- ten years ago -- Brian De Palma cut the umbilical cord to the television series, kept only the central character of Ethan Hunt, and reveled in the Hitchcockian gamesmanship for which he's best known. The best-known action scene in the film, a near-silent homage to Jules Dassin's Rififi, proved especially inspired. If Mission impossible wasn't quite up to the gold standard of Carrie and The Untouchables -- or for that matter, as much fun as B-movie trash like Raising Cain and Femme Fatale -- it was at least a taut, well-made popcorn movie. In the second film, Asian director John Woo replaced De Palma's classic-thriller ambience and Jon Voight's memorable villainy with silly Sergio Leone flourishes. The result was a bizarre and not altogether pleasant hybrid of spy flick and spaghetti western that may as well have been called Once Upon a Time in the CIA.

Now we have Mission: Impossible 3, which shows what can happen to a Mission: Impossible film when you suck out the style.

MI3, to use the studio's handy moniker (and thereby avoid the film's most interesting conundrum -- namely, where to put the colon), is directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, creator of the television program Lost. I suspect I'm one of the few Americans never to have seen the show, but I am told that the early episodes are taut, menacing, and mysterious, with a cast of potentially fascinating characters. All these qualities are conspicuously absent from MI3.

The director's roots in television, however, are too clear: MI3 has all the visual spark and cinematic acumen of a TV Movie of the Week. (In a way, that's fitting, since the summer blockbuster season has its own movie-of-the-week mentality.) Depth of field is narrow in most shots, which places all the point-shoot-reload action unnecessarily in the foreground. During action sequences, medium shots and close-ups predominate, even when long shots would give a better sense of the action -- which means that Abrams must edit frantically to cover all the necessary ground. Characters are usually isolated within each shot, although Abrams does use two-shots during the film's depressingly chaste sex scenes. Worst of all, Abrams tends to suffuse the proceedings in a greenish-grey light, so that the actors resemble cadavers. The technical bravura of De Palma's original seems a million miles away: Rarely has a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster looked so cheap.

Still, Abrams has cooked up one hell of a plot: It starts nowhere, ends nowhere, and has plenty of dead spots in between. Ordinarily this would be an excellent description of an Antonioni movie (of which a prime specimen, The Passenger, has just been released on DVD), but the difference is that in an Antonioni movie nothing seems to happen, yet everything does, while in this film everything seems to happen, yet nothing does. MI3 begins with an imperceptibly aging Tom Cruise contemplating marriage and retirement -- always a bad way to start an action flick, and no better here than anywhere else. Yet Cruise's newfound domestic bliss doesn't prevent him from being easily recruited for three successive missions -- that's one for each act, Syd Field fans! -- in which he 1) rescues a captive agent, 2) kidnaps an arms dealer, and 3) retrieves an item called the "Rabbit's Foot." Meanwhile, helpful subtitles alert us whenever the action shifts to "Berlin Germany" and "Shanghai China," just in case the audience gets the impression that Tom Cruise and company have surfaced in Berlin, Maryland, or Shanghai, Kentucky by mistake.

The "Rabbit's Foot" is the sort of plot device that Hitchcock named a MacGuffin, that dimwit Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly called "the big whatsit," and that Humphrey Bogart, speaking the immortal words of Dashiell Hammett, described as "the dingus." I mention these other terms to prove that there is absolutely no reason, ever, to call it a "Rabbit's Foot." As it turns out, this contrivance is linked to another Hollywood plot device -- the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy (VRWC) -- which always tries to ensure American Imperialist Global Hegemony (AIGH). So in MI3, the VRWC sells WMDs to terrorist SOBs for AIGH, and ... well, why not? One expects such cockamamie schemes from spy movies, but this particular one proves that Republicans have officially replaced Soviets and Nazis as Hollywood's villains of choice. Conservatives who go to MI3 expecting two hours of generally apolitical entertainment will be in for a nasty surprise.

Far and away the creepiest element in MI3 is its marriage subplot, which is at once saccharine and sadomasochistic. As Cruise's love interest/wife in the film, Michelle Monaghan bears a disturbing resemblance to Cruise's real-life spouse Katie Holmes, which instantly reminded me of the strange, couch-jumping side of Tom Cruise that nobody likes anymore. In addition, Monaghan is seriously miscast: She looks like she's in her early twenties (even though she's really -- gasp! -- thirty), but her character as written should be in her mid-thirties (at least) and look her age. As a result, this romance feels wrong from the start. That said, Monaghan's doe-eyed stare complements Cruise's vapid Bucky Beaver grin. The two seem to have hatched from the same pod.

There's no doubt as to who will "wear the pants" in this soon-to-be family, either: Cruise is unquestionably the master of both the house and the movie. (He even determines when the wedding will be, usually a bride's prerogative.) Monaghan merely follows orders without even so much as a sideways glance. When she does act on her own, near the end of the film, Cruise looks at her incredulously, as if she were a child, and asks, "You did that?" But this tiny flicker of self-assertion at the end of the film is too little, too late, to save a character whose principal function to the plot -- as far as I can tell -- is to receive horrible abuse from men. It's hard to tell which is worse: the physical restraints and presumed beatings the bad guys inflict on her, or Cruise's subtle verbal and social humiliations. It should be noted, too, that every female character in MI3 -- whether good or bad -- is eventually shot, beaten, maimed, traumatized for life, or killed. (Comparatively few of the film's male characters meet such fates.) One suspects a deep, misogynistic impulse at work here, but whether it belongs to director Abrams or producer/star Cruise is beyond my ken.

To be fair, Abrams invents one nifty gizmo which belongs in a better movie and may eventually find its way there. The ostensible villain -- played with disappointing blandness by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who proved in P.T. Anderson's Punch Drunk Love that he could be really scary) -- has in his arsenal a small explosive capsule which, through mechanisms too complicated to explain, eventually detonates inside the victim's head. (Anyone who tries to find some logic in this movie may feel a similar sensation.) Because characters in action movies are made of bulletproof steel rather than flesh and blood, the explosion is completely and decorously contained within the victim's skull, thus sparing us any Cronenberg-style head trauma. Now the only way for Cruise to foil this evil capsule (?) involves electrocuting the intended victim to death (??), thus "resetting the charge" (???). I suspect this particular cure might be worse than the disease, yet it provides Abrams with a golden opportunity to deploy the hoariest cliche in action moviedom: The Resucitation Scene. The climactic CPR scene in MI3 plays exactly like all the other CPR treatments you've ever seen, right down to the line "Breathe, dammit!" and the desperate chest-pounding which can revive a movie star but in real life merely leads to bruised and cracked ribs.

Mission: Impossible 3 is considered the "inaugural" film of the 2006 summer blockbuster season, and if the borderline-catatonic reactions of the audience with whom I saw the film is an indication, I doubt it will last more than a few weeks. Because most of today's Hollywood blockbusters -- including, sadly, the ones critics claim to recommend -- are bloated, boring and brain-dead affairs, I suppose one shouldn't be altogether disappointed to learn that MI3 follows the general pattern. And although I have no doubt we'll see plenty of multiplex fare as bad as MI3 this summer, I suspect Hollywood filmmakers will have to work double shifts to make a movie more bloated, boring and brain-dead than this one.

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