After Mission: Impossible 5, which made brief, impotent stabs at attempting to add some emotional stakes for main character Ethan Hunt—which were ineffective due to their half-measure execution—I became curious to re-watch this one, which explicitly examines the emotional connections of a super spy, and in fact tries to make it the main gimmick. This is the first feature film by JJ Abrams, and is written by his hack crew of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, whose screenplays [and worldview, if we speculate] consist exclusively of clichés and recycled scenes from pre-existing entertainments, shuffled into new order to make them “different.” It contains a lot of great stuff that is unfortunately muted by a bunch of poor decisions, leaving this film the most ‘eh’ of the series [at least you can passionately hate MI2]. So let’s rip it apart, shall we?
This one opens with a flash-forward of Ethan being threatened with his wife having her head blown off if he doesn’t reveal the whereabouts of the “rabbit’s foot,” this film’s macguffin. It left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth that we’re trying to goose the excitement with the threat of an innocent woman being executed. After the lamest credit sequence of the bunch, we find Ethan in domestic bliss with Michelle Monaghan as Jules, with whom he is engaged to be married. Now, this movie dates from around the time Cruise was “shopping for a wife” and just before he jumped on Oprah’s couch, so it’s not surprising to find him portrayed as the ultimate romantic catch, and have an insert where woman 1 says “I’d marry him!” and woman 2 responds: “Me too!” The self-aggrandizing in the MI series reached its apotheosis in No. 5, by the way, in which Ethan is referred to as “the living embodiment of destiny,” whatever the fuck that means [although it sounds like some Scientology bullshit, am I right?].
Anyway, an agent Ethan trained [a very good Keri Russell] is in trouble, and he assembles a team [including Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Myers] to save her, which they do, only to have her die when a charge in her head explodes. This is one of the great elements that gets lost in the overall, and it’s refreshing to see Ethan lose for once. Blah, blah, now Ethan wants to go after the baddie, which he does after a rushed marriage to Jules, in a hospital chapel with 2 witnesses, which is supposed to be charming, but the bottom line is that we just don’t buy their emotional commitment, and thus the stakes the movie tries to raise just don’t cohere. Anyway, off to the mission, which is to get Philip Seymour Hoffman [inspired casting] as Davian.
SPOILERS > > > So they get Davian, whereupon he threatens immediately to go kill Ethan’s wife, a rather on-point threat, given the larger plot. They lose Davian [in the gun battle on the long bridge that has the big trailer moment… that’s not all that big], and he takes off immediately to go get Jules. Before Ethan can save her, he’s apprehended by his own people [do they ever support him? His own agency is against him in EVERY movie] and taken in, where a very good Billy Crudup gives him the means to escape from the evil Laurence Fishburne, whom we have been informed is working with Davian. This scene is one of the excellent elements that is somehow undone by the overall. Ethan goes to Shanghai, where, in another excellent bit, he’s going to steal the rabbit’s foot [RF… what Davian is after] no matter how it’s defended, out of sheer desperation. This leads to a good stunt [great idea, somehow muffled by the execution] in which Ethan has to swing from one skyscraper to the top of another, which has an angled glass roof he slides down, barely catching himself on a rail. Great idea, somehow is just okay in reality. Then… the movie makes a really poor decision that contributes strongly to its shooting itself in the foot.
We don’t see Ethan steal the rabbit’s foot [we don’t know what the RF is yet, by the way]. We just see him come out, having stolen it. This, somehow, is a betrayal of our unspoken compact with the filmmakers, and it cripples the whole movie. It breaks the continuity, it leaves out what we came to see [the awesome espionage sequences], and it just leaves you with a big “Huh?” This will go in the category of the film trying to be clever, and ending up being too clever for its own good, which we’ll come back to. Anyway, it’s followed by a could-have-been brilliant sequence in which the RF, which might be a biological weapon, skitters through traffic as several people try to get it. Only we don’t care, because we don’t know what it is, so there’s no threat, and no stakes.
We find out that Davian doesn’t actually kill Julia, it was someone else in one of those masks, which raises a moment of “so that makes it okay?” But she is in Shanghai, so Ethan has to find her, in a quite-good sequence where he runs through a dense city while getting GPS map info via headphone. Then she has to kill him and bring him back in order to deactivate the chip in his brain [which should have a lot more emotional weight than it does], and—oh by the way, we’ve found out that it’s not Fishburne but Crudup that’s the real bad guy [i.e. too clever]—so Jules ends up killing the real bad guy, which also diminishes the whole film. Ethan went through all this and then he doesn’t even save the day? < < < SPOILERS END
So to me the hallmark of these guys [Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, Lindelof] is that they keep going back to conceits that WOULD be really awesome IF the audience buys into some other elaborate conceit. Like Kirk’s death at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness would be really awesome IF you were to accept this whole elaborate bullshit about the same events happening across multiple timelines [which is a DUMB IDEA… Btw, I actually count smelling the stink on Lost from the first episode and avoiding it entirely as one of the smartest decisions of my life]. But anyway! The point is, people DON’T buy into their dumb conceits, and [many of] their sequences fail, which one suspects makes them just think that they’re simply too clever for those fools in the viewing audience.
Which is a lot of the issue here. It’s just trying to be too clever, and barely skirts insulting the audience, although the filmmaker’s disdain is felt. Case in point: we never find out what the rabbit’s foot is. It is an obvious macguffin, and we’re all supposed to have a laugh at how clever-clever their movie is that we never find out. Only, guess what, guys? Your movie is a failure because it has no stakes, regardless of how the audience are idiots—just absolute idiots—for wanting some arbitrary reason for motivating their plots. And all the other “Oh, aren’t we just so beyond this, people” elements like skipping the whole scene in which Ethan steals the RF, and having the bad guy not be the bad guy, don’t help.
It’s too bad, because there really are great sequences in here that are among the best in the series, they just get lost in the overall muffle of the whole thing. This is perfectly fine if you need bright colored images to play in front of your eyeballs, and passes time as well as anything else, but I doubt it’s anyone’s favorite film.