Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mission: Rewatchable, Part 1

So, the sixth Mission: Impossible movie is coming out this year, and I haven't seen most of the others since they were in theaters. Well... turns out the box set containing the first five movies was absurdly cheap on Amazon, so...

You get the idea.

Oh, and before you ask in the comments: of course, I thought of doing a "your mission is to re-watch these movies" gag for the intro, but I decided against it because that would be stupid and obvious.

So... nothing's self-destructing, no one's getting disavowed, and nothing at all hinges on whether or not you read this. However, I do have one dramatic thing to say:

*SPOILER WARNING* This movie came out in 1996, if you haven't seen it... you are probably under the age of 20. Regardless, I'll be talking about the plot, so... consider yourself warned.

Let's get started.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

I was kind of shocked to realize this is the only movie in the franchise I didn't originally see on the big screen. I did see it on VHS a few times (side note: it's also the only one in the series I'd seen more than once before last week), but it's been at least fifteen years since I last watched it. And while I remembered liking it, I really didn't expect it to hold up. Not a lot of action movies from the 90's age well.

I'm pleased to report this one doesn't just hold up; it may have improved over time. The cool stuff remains cool, and some of the more awkward elements come off as charming. Yes, a large number of the sets are obviously on sound stages, but the movie infuses these with an astonishing amount of suspense. Moreover, it manages to use this to create a world that feels unreal but believable. Even the ridiculous CG helicopter sequence at the end seems like it belongs.

Of course, not quite everything holds up. The movie is a little too eager to kill off female characters in order to show Ethan Hunt's horror and rage at their deaths. If memory serves, we'll be revisiting this issue in later installments - I seem to remember this franchise having an addiction to fridging characters. That said, it's worth noting there's another side to this here - they may not last long, but the team at the start of Mission: Impossible is split 50/50 male to female. I think that's the only time the series pulled that off.

Speaking of the team not lasting...

Another complaint many people have - or at least had - with this film was its decision to do away with the team dynamic and focus instead on a single action hero. I'll admit it still bugs me a bit. The concept behind the series was for a team of specialists to carry out an elaborate mission making use of their talents. Essentially, it was a perfect blend of the espionage and heist genres. Dropping that idea basically reduces the premise to a Bond knock-off.

But there are a few mediating factors in the movie's favor. First, it's hard to stay disappointed in something like this for two decades. It may have felt like a dramatic departure in the 90's, but by now, it's just kind of a background fact.

More than that, I love how, despite being pushed into the role of a lead, Hunt remains a specialist throughout the film. I'd love this more if the movie didn't downplay it - they actively identify him as the team's "point man." But - and this is to the movie's credit - he's not the point man. He's their gymnast. Aside from throwing on a disguise every now and then, there's not much Hunt does in the film that deviates from this skillset. The scene where he breaks into the Langley server room is of course the most iconic example, but this is true of the train fight and aquarium escape, as well. Even the brief sequences where he fights hand-to-hand rely mostly on kicks and acrobatics. The one time he tries using brute strength, he gets knocked on his ass by a man twice his age. Likewise, Hunt never once fires a gun. He threatens someone with one, but there's never a point where he has to pull the trigger. Hell, for all we know, he's a terrible shot.

My impression is that was intentional: Hunt wasn't a super spy with an infinite catalog of skills to draw on. Sure, he's clever, driven, and resourceful, but at the end of the day, he's a specialist used to relying on a team who's now being forced to go it alone. Obviously, they throw out any limitations (along with his aversion to firearms) in the next movie, but we'll get to that in time. In this installment, he's about as far from the Bond-esque uber-spy as 90's action movies allowed.

This also subverts action movie conventions in a manner that shouldn't be (but sadly is) highly unusual: this film actually seems to treat human life as something with value. I'm not adverse to films with dark tones, but I do have a pet peeve when movies amass huge body counts without consequences. It's typically in there for shock, and it pulls me out of the story when dozens of civilians die without a believable response. This was more or less the default for 90's action, but Mission: Impossible shows admirable restraint. By my count, exactly eight people died over the course of the movie, and all were current or former agents. And if anything, it made the deaths occurring on screen all the more shocking.

I've seen people complain about this movie's plot, but I've never agreed with that. Yes, it's complicated, but that's all part of the fun. If you don't want to follow along, there's nothing stopping you from zoning out and just enjoying the action/adventure elements, but if you're willing to tune in, there's a fun little mystery going on. I'll admit they tipped their hand a little early by giving away the twists through voice-overs and flashbacks, but this didn't really bother me on rewatch.

Mission: Impossible honestly still felt like an exciting, engaging action movie. It's not quite the best of its decade (that title's taken), but it's definitely worth seeing again.

No comments: