Monday, January 2, 2012

MI4: Three Things They Nailed

Mission Impossible 4 is a Hollywood first for one very important reason.  Never in the history of cinema has the fourth installment in a very tired series been leagues better than all its predecessors.  In fact, I'm looking to buy tickets now for MI5 because of the trend (1 = terrible, 2 = really bad, 3 = barely watchable, 4 = quite good, 5 = ?).

The filmmakers got three things right in this movie:

Bad Guys are bad guys, but physics is much, much worse

There are busloads of bad guys in this movie. You've got Russian prison inmates, foreign police with automatic weapons, arms dealers, femme fatale assassins, body guards, rogue agents, and the list goes on.

Aside from the obligatory strung out fight scene with an old dude who shouldn't be able to fight his way out of a paper bag, the fight scenes and gun battles are very short and very deadly in this movie. Every single agent who gets into a fight finishes it in a few seconds and races to the next challenge. There is only one occasion when someone is "grazed" and it puts her out of commission for the rest of the movie.  Everybody else who is shot dies, painfully and badly.

As usual, the agents are godlike in their martial prowess. No foe (again, except for the old dude at the end) stands a chance against these superheroes. The foes the script throws at them are at best speedbumps burning up precious seconds while the agents race to stop the Big Bad Guy's plans.

While the fight scenes are excellent, they are nothing we haven't seen before. Yet the film reminds us again and again that these superheroes--while unfazed by mere human antagonists--did not stand a chance against ordinary physics.

There is a scene where Tom Cruise is standing on a ledge a measly three stories up looking down into a dumpster filled with large trash bags, while his pursuer looks at him from the window and shakes his head. "Not a good idea." To our amazement, Tom looks down, realizes that if he jumps, he's dead. And he carefully works his way back down the ledge. In any other MI movie (or most anything else churned out by the Hollywood machine these days), he would have jumped, limped for a few steps, then been on his way to the next scene.  We see the look on his face and we know the rules are different here.

Ropes break, gear fails (sometimes spectacularly), debris from explosions actually causes damage, guys who jump out of moving cars limp until they get medical attention. A car's side mirror makes the audience wince when it catches the supposedly invincible protagonist in the face while he's falling.

This went a long way toward making an otherwise throwaway action movie so much more enjoyable. These agents aren't invincible. Somehow, they got me to believe they lived in the same world I do.

You can't account for stakes this high

Mission Impossible is a story franchise that was once built on the premise that guys this good don't need guns.  They are so adept at controlling the environment and planning for every eventuality that they can get the results they want with a minimum of chaos or bloodshed.

MI4 is a major break with this tradition.  Unlike most of the rest of the breaks made earlier in the series, this is one that makes for much more compelling drama.  The movie plays out a mini-script over and over:
  1. Dire situation crops up.
  2. Canny, ultra-capable agents with magical gadgetry set up their plan in an attempt to avert disaster. 
  3. Something unexpected ruins the plan.
  4. Canny agents pull off superhuman alterations to the plan in flight.
  5. Everything STILL goes wrong.
  6. Rinse and repeat.
At this point, sometimes the entire plan fails and somebody dies.  Sometimes the plan turns out not to matter.  Sometimes, they manage to adjust enough so things don't fall completely apart.  The chaos factor is a major appeal in this kind of movie.  No matter how good you are, you have to deal with reality on the ground and with stakes this high, bad things happen and you simply cannot stop all of them.  This turns out to be one of the main themes the filmmakers set out to explore (see below).

It's not about you, Tom Cruise

When the series of Mission Impossible movies first came out, many fans of the original series complained that the movies failed to capture the criticality of teamwork.  As the movies went on, they added a sort of "team", most of which was there in a support role (or worse, as comic relief).

This film centers around the action of Tom Cruise's character, but makes it abundantly clear that if Cruise loses his team, the mission is over.  Not merely at the climax of the film, but at several important junctures, Cruise attempts to jettison his team, partly because he doesn't trust one of them, partly because he doesn't want to further endanger them.  But in each of these cases, he runs into a brick wall.  He simply cannot function without his team.

Gadgets fail.  Plans derail.  All you've got are the people with you, and they aren't perfect either.

The filmmakers even managed to give each of the other agents subplots and interesting roles to play, even while Cruise gets the best action sequences (which also means he takes the biggest beatings, see above).  At the end of the movie, when the dust has settled, Cruise comes out and says it.  "Nothing went right during any of our missions.  In fact, the only thing that did work properly was this team."

Good stuff, Hollywood.  If you can't come up with anything original, then I suppose I'll take this instead.

1 comment:

Jake Shore said...

Great review. I might actually lay down my ten bucks for this one. Wasn't impressed with any of the first three.