Saturday, May 06, 2006

Why I Hate Tom Cruise

I went to see Mission: Impossible 3 yesterday at the Arclight theater. Paid my $11 bucks and got a great seat. Unfortunately I didn't see the movie inside the world-famous Cinerama Dome, but there's always better movies for that.

Seeing the title of today's post and one would wonder why I hate Tom Cruise (or TomKat or Xenu or whatever he's calling himself these days). The fact is that I don't H-A-T-E the man or anything - I'm merely disappointed with his story sense and choices. Of course I am the mad, pulp bastard so I have to lead with a strong title.

If it isn't already apparent from previous posts let me be perfectly clear: I am a HUGE fan of Mission: Impossible -- from the title itself, to the concept to the execution of the TV series. It is brilliance, and I don't use that word lightly. Bruce Geller, the series creator, came up with an ingenious concept for a show that exploited all of the cliches of the superspy era, and then smashed them to bits.

Story-wise, M:I was a groundbreaker. It is truly a show with no first act or inciting incident to it. The story for the audience begins after the villain has already done his dastardly deed and the IMF team have to go in and save the day. Talk about starting your show at the last possible moment!

Everything the audience needed to know - the villain and the stakes - were set up in the teaser. We knew that every time Jim Phelps played that tape the team were going to take their lives in their hands., and that they had an impossible mission ahead.

In addition, M:I wasn't a show that dealt with huge action setups or overt action by our team - they were better than that. Much better. They were like con men in that they let the villain destroy himself rather than put a bullet in his head. I suppose that's why I like the show Hustle so much - many of the same dynamics are at play in that series.

So the show was never a whodunnit - we knew who the villain was or at least had a round of suspects. No, this show was a howtheygonnadoit always served with a wonderful twist ending showing the villain getting his comeuppance.

The thing was that the show was a puzzle, a game:
Not only between the IMF team and the villain, but more importantly between the writers and the audience. That was the fun of M:I - the cerebral back-and-forth to find out who was smarter.

Another aspect to the TV series that really made it worthwhile was the fact that we knew very little about the characters themselves - what made them tick personally. We knew them through the jobs they performed. This lack of characterization actually deepened the mystery of the characters and made them work. We really didn't want to see them getting up in the morning and brushing their teeth. We wanted to see them doing what they do best. There are those who complain that the cast of M:I were little more than cyphers. I say that was information we didn't need to know - we needed the juice and not the rind. To know more about the characters would have lessened their iconic stature.

What we did learn about character-wise was the villains. We learned their secrets, their habits, their foibles - all in that little briefing section when the IMF team was assembled. The villains were the three dimensional characters, the passionate ones. That's what made them great.

This is what made M:I a thrilling spy television series that was engaging and fresh - intriguing plots with mysterious characters who do fantastic things to keep us safe - wrapped up with a bow of a twist ending.

You'll notice I said television series and not movie series when i said, "engaging and fresh."
(Hear that Mr. Cruise? That's the sound of the other shoe dropping)

******** SPOILERS AHEAD*******

I have to say that the M:I movie series has for the most part eschewed the qualities that made the TV series such a hit and gone in an almost completely opposite direction. In these three movies we set aside complex plot for deeper character and no twist endings.

Mission:Impossible - the Movie

The first movie was an interesting experiment to translate a successful TV concept to the big screen with a mega star in the lead. That's interesting in and of itself because part of the charm of the orignal M:I was the fact that the cast wasn't comprised of superstars. How do superstars fade back into the shadows?

The plot concerns a "mole hunt" a concept and motif borrowed from the John Le Carre' Smiley novels. Ethan Hunt is accused of killing his team to cover up the fact he's a double agent trying to sell a NOC (Non-Official Covert) list of agents to the highest bidder. Long story short, Ethan must track down the real mole and expose him in order to clear his name. Ethan does so by recruiting a new team and stealing a real NOC list as bait to lure out the mole - who turns out to be his mentor and friend Jim Phelps. One helicopter crash into a train later and Ethan clears his name and sets himself up for a sequel.

What's interesting is he fact that with a few tweaks here and there - this movie could have been an almost perfect M:I concept. There are a lot of things to recommend about it - the opening credits sequence for one where we get an idea of what's going to happen and who the players are. Where it fails is by embracing new concepts instead of sticking to the tried and true and amping that up. For example:

1) In the TV M:I we never knew exactly what the characters were thinking - their subtext. No emotional outbursts. No dream sequences. No inner monologue. This kept the suspense going because you never knew what they were thinking or what they were going to do next. In the Movie, we have a whole sequence where Ethan Hunt puts together what happened in his mind!

2) Related to this is the fact that there was no twist ending. Incredible action sequence yes, but no twist.

Imagine how much better this movie would have been if the following took place:

Emanuelle Beart's character goes to the luggage area of the train and confronts Jim Phelps, only to discover it's Ethan. No prior mind sequence where Ethan puts it together. Ethan explains it all and we see it in that flashback.

They get Jim Phelps as the mole. They get the arms dealer, Max trying to buy the list...

But then, as a kicker, we see the entire team who we thought were killed by Jim Phelps, alive and well. It was all a setup to flush out the mole. Ethan volunteered for the assignment because he owed it to Jim Phelps to clear his name or bring him in. Phelps, the chess master, has been checkmated by his protege'.

Jim tries to get away and we go through the whole action sequence again with the helicopter and train. Ethan destroys his mentor. Game over.

Now I realize I'm going out on a limb here and rewriting David Koepp and director Brian DePalma, but I think history (and critics) have proved me right - it did well, but it wasn't Mission:Impossible.

Mission: Impossible - 2

This second movie totally ignored what made M:I great and put Tom Cruise center stage as an action hero in the John Woo tradition. This was a star and director film and could just as easily been made without the M:I monicker.

The less said about this one the better, which leads us to...

Mission: Impossible 3 -

This is a a movie that belends a lot of what director JJ Abrams was doing in Alias with the M:I franchise - often with mixed results.

What's good:

Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a bad guy - he's calm, collected, beefy and bad. There's also a sense of sarcasm about his ruthlessness (I recognize it because it's the same sarcasm I channel) .

The bridge ambush sequence - Abrams outdoes himself here with a well executed set piece that hits a lot of very good action beats.

Keri Russell - awesome. I want to see her in an action movie.

What's bad:

Again, its too personal and delves too much into the characters. The plot is there to serve the characters (read Tom Cruise) instead of a good M:I story where the characters serve the plot. Cruise is good enough to have pulled it off if he wanted to. Obviously, he doesn't.

The direction is okay, with occaisional bouts of brilliance (the bridge). The problem is we've seen all these beats before when Jennifer Garner was doing them (better). What JJ needs to do is an entirely different approach to the characters in order to make this movie different enough from his previous efforts. He doesn't. Example: Tom Cruise struts across the Vatican (insert Sydney Bristow strut here) as does his team mate Maggie Q (in a stunning red dress ala Alias). It's those things scattered throughout the picture that give you the feeling Abrams is playing the same tune on a different (and more expensive) piano.

No twist ending. No plan. Tom Cruise is reacting to everything that the bad guys are doing instead of planning and outthinking every other player in the game. The revelations in this movie are all choreographed far in advance and aren't stunning. They're predictable.

Which is the kiss of death for any M:I story.

What's really bad about this movie is that Ethan and Julie walk off into the sunset together. She knows everything about his IMF work - she's even been to the office! Ugh...

These movies have cool things about them. I've outlined a few here, but overall these movies shouldn't be tied to the M:I franchise...

Because they jettison the core concept of what makes the stories work.

But of course, that's just one mad, pulp bastard's opinion.


DecoderRing said...

Yeah, it's really damming the movie with Sith praise to say it's better than the second one. It's entertaining enough, and as you say has some very nice moments - but it's infuriatingly thin. I felt like I got my money's worth, but probably only because my expectations were quite low (see above, re: craptacular pt 2).

monicker said...

Oh, I couldn't agree with you more. Especially about the hating Tom Cruise part.