Critic’s Notebook: Tom Cruise, Show Us the Money — but Also the Weirdness

31 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

InterviewCLEVELAND, Ohio – If you didn’t get enough of Tom Cruise repeatedly dying in “Edge of Tomorrow,” you can see him nearly get killed multiple times in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” In the fifth installment of the MI series, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is gassed, smashed, crashed, drowned (temporarily) and fired upon innumerable times.‘When the posters came out, it was me in a jacket, Tom [Cruise] in a jacket, Jeremy [Renner] in a jacket, Ving [Rhames] in a jacket and Rebecca in leather with her [butt] sticking out,’ Simon said.

The 31 year old was picked out of relative obscurity to star alongside Cruise as a mercurial agent with shifting agendas and she’s easily the standout star of the new blockbuster. His true savior in “Rogue Nation” is not his own wits (though those are on display), or his muscles (lots of those, too), or the endlessly accessible stream of high-tech gear that would even strain the budgets of Fortune 500 companies. No Voldemort, no Empire, no Thanos, no dinosaur-inhabited islands off Costa Rica. (Even the James Bond series has evolved toward serialization in the modern era: Quantum of Solace was a franchise-first direct sequel, and Skyfall gave Bond a dead-parent mythology which apparently leads into this fall’s Spectre.) There is no Mission: Impossible mythology, no Mission: Impossible cinematic universe, no long-running mysteries.

The films practically ignore each other: You could watch them in any order and get the same effect.The franchise does remix elements from the original TV show — theme song, masks, one totally fascinating character crossover — but the first film arrived in 1996, before everyone in Hollywood suddenly discovered the concept of a “fanbase,” and so the first movie is built on a plot element that constitutes whatever the precise opposite of “fan service” is. You might argue that the Mission: Impossible franchise is boring, or vanilla, or somehow less complex than the mass of Harry Potters and Lord of the Rings and Marvels and DCs that emerged over the last two decades.

No, this review is all about the heart and soul of Rogue Nation, which is the bromance between Tom Cruise’s super-agent Ethan Hunt and Simon Pegg’s regular-agent Benji Dunn. (We’re sure people are cooking up names for this duo as we speak.) The recent run of Mission movies have largely been posse cuts in which a group of IMF agents pulls off yet another impossible mission. Well actually for me I had talked to my agent right before this and said that we’d done a couple of things on horses, mediaeval things and I wanted to do something action. Hunt’s on the lam, CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is after the IMF and Hunt, Luther (Ving Rhames) is semi-retired, Benji is stuck at a desk, and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is in D.C. trying to keep the Senate from shutting the whole operation down. And that reason (Ethan’s desire to bring down the super-secret Syndicate) fully swings into gear when Ehtan calls on Benji for help with a covert op.

Benji, now very aware Ethan is a wanted man, refuses to leave him behind when the job is done—and thus begins the sweetest I-love-you-man caper you’ll see this summer. Ethan hangs onto the side of an airplane, dives into a giant underwater computer control center and zooms down a harrowing highway on a crazy-fast motorcycle. And most of the best scenes in the franchise come down to a simple equation: Tom Cruise wants something; everything in the world prevents him from getting that thing; crisis ensues.

In coming up with this ranking, I have considered a few key variables: The Quality of Cruise’s Team, because the most intriguing thing about this star-centric franchise is how much it depends on heist-genre democratic ideals of teamwork and collaboration. It’s not the dozen little moments that turned the Burj Khalifa sequence into one of the decade’s defining action setpieces: The elaborate exchange of money and activation codes on multiple floors, the grudge-match showdown between Paula Patton and Lea Seydoux, the sandstorm, Simon Pegg’s bellboy outfit, the declining battery life on Cruise’s magnetic gloves.

He knows how to play off of someone, and Pegg himself has said that Cruise “inspires you to do your best work.” (He also claims that Cruise inspired him to do his own stunts in that flying-car scene.) Somehow this combination has caused a perfect alchemy, and it’s the kind of relationship this franchise needed. The Mission franchise wasn’t entirely secure before Ghost Protocol—the third entry grossed less in 2006 dollars than the first in 1996 dollars — which explains why the fourth film feels like a soft reboot back to basics.

Note that there’s also a rabbit’s foot in this film—likely a sight-gag for those who remember M:I III.) Pegg recently said that he’d be down for a Benji Dunn spin-off movie. So he’s come in and explains the different areas of lung capacity and usually it’s just the knowledge and being relaxed and gradually we’d expand the time. Ghost Protocol promoted Pegg from wacky-hacker pal to field-agent everyguy, and made a serious argument for Paula Patton, Action Hero. (Come on, Hollywood!) And there’s a nice bit of mystery surrounding Jeremy Renner’s character — even if the final reveal is a bit underwhelming. McQuarrie’s real setpiece comes later, in an elaborate opera sequence (with a sniper or three) that feels positively Hitchcockian in its crosscutting complexity. It’s there in the profuse Casablanca references, and the way McQuarrie stitches together remnant franchise sidekicks — all hail the comedy pairing of Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner! — into an IMF all-star team.

I had just popped over to London to meet Tom Cruise to see if the chemistry worked and 12 hours later I’m back on the camel, wrapping up production and I got a phone call. As the Big Bad, Sean Harris is playing a lesser Roger Moore-James Bond villain — Blofeld without the cat — but there’s a real comic tension between his Solomon Lane and Hunt, portrayed here as two chess players trying to think a couple hundred moves ahead. Alec Baldwin plays the head of the CIA as Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock, and Tom Hollander plays the prime minister of the United Kingdom as Simon Foster from In the Loop, and Simon Pegg gets another promotion to full-fledged buddy-cop co-star. Maybe it’s because he gets so many scenes of playing off Pegg, but Cruise looks positively lighthearted: Watch his physical reactions in the big car chase, and marvel at how Cruise is maybe the one person who can play “woozy semi-consciousness” and “ruthlessly efficient badass” at the same time. Just two guys talking in a restaurant, but De Palma films it like a gladiator duel: It’s easy to forget just how clever and unusual this first film is.

What the film does with Phelps is actually quite insidious (SPOILER ALERT) because how many other franchises would dare to make the hero into the villain? I didn’t know this and I called my dad and said ‘apparently I’m competitive?’ and he went ‘no shit, Sherlock!’ So I think Tom’s energy of just enjoying what he does, I mirrored that. The opening embassy sequence is great, and the CIA heist is a marvel; but the final act is a muddle, and Emmanuelle Béart is wasted as an excellent femme fatale in search of a character arc. This is the movie where Cruise indulged himself as a martial-arts maven and a fanboy for Hong Kong cinema, hiring expatriate John Woo and letting him film a spy movie like a glossy gunshot soap opera.

M:I 2 arrived in 2000, which just means it’s the mountaintop peak for 90s Cruise: You can draw a line from the actor’s cocky Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder right to the beginning of the second Mission, where Ethan Hunt goes rock climbing 70 stories high. (His only supplies: A couple carabiners, and his perfect hair.) I won’t try to defend the second Mission on the grounds of logic (the bad guys want stock options?) or subtle storytelling (the evil virus is called Chimera, the antidote is called Bellerophon.) The script is credited to Robert Towne, with a “story by” credit granted to Star Trek wonder team Brannon Braga and (pre-Battlestar Galactica) Ronald D. Actually, this really is the Mission franchise’s 2 Fast 2 Furious: A goofball outlier with a wacky spirit that infuses the later films with an essential sense of cartoony fun. So the third Mission is recognizable as a spiritual sibling to Alias: A spy thriller that treats the central agent as a kind of superhero, alternating between their Normal Life and the Spy World. Monaghan’s fine in a thankless role — her whole purpose is representing “normality” — but their chemistry lacks the sparks of Cruise/Ferguson and the gauzy-goofy melodrama of Cruise/Newton.

The film knocks one scene out of the park — I’d put the Vatican City infiltration in the franchise’s top five setpieces — but Abrams was still a big screen newbie, and the early helicopter-chase sequence feels choppy. (Another Mission that’s a movie of its time: The whole thing plays a bit like a Bourne movie riff, all shaky-cams and monochrome nightscapes.) It’s servicable—and forgettable. Ilsa Faust is a highly trained British Intelligence agent, rootless and when we first meet them the scene you’ve seen – I think Ethan meets his match, as does she. Because we were training and I said ‘No – show me your abs!’ And then I thought I’d show him my abs – so I took a picture of my stomach and I filtered it and highlighted it and I put it in our trailer so when he came into the gym my abs were on display!

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