Aug 17, 2018

Tradecraft: Bourne Spinoff TV Series TREADSTONE Gets Series Order from USA

USA has given a straight to series pickup to the TV show spun off from the Bourne films, Treadstone, Deadline reports. (This move comes hot on the heels of cancelling another TV series based on a movie based on a popular novel about an assassin, Shooter.) The cable network will bypass a pilot (first announced in April) and go directly to a series in part because of an international deal with Amazon Prime, the trade speculates. In Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (review here), Treadstone 71 was the shadowy intelligence group that David Webb worked for (based out of a New York brownstone), with whom he created and assumed his more famous identity as assassin Jason Bourne. Nebulous and illegal though it may have been, in the book Treadstone's motivations were basically heroic. The Treadstone of the movies, which creates super-assassins through brainwashing and later drugs, is a much more sinister organization. It was also, I believe, officially shut down by Brian Cox's character, Abbott, in The Bourne Supremacy, and then reconstituted as Outcome by Ed Norton's character in The Bourne Legacy (review here). According to the trade, "Treadstone explores the origin story and present-day actions of a CIA black ops program known as Operation Treadstone — a covert program that uses behavior-modification protocol to turn recruits into nearly superhuman assassins. The first season follows sleeper agents across the globe as they’re mysteriously 'awakened' to resume their deadly missions." Assuming the series takes place in the movie universe (which seems likely), then it would make sense for the present-day segments to feature a reactivated Treadstone under new leadership, and the origin sequences to serve as a prequel to the films set in the late 90s or early 2000s. (These parts could even, theoretically, feature a younger Jason Bourne.)

This incarnation of Treadstone was created and written by Heroes showrunner Tim Kring. Keepers of the Ludlum flame Captivate Entertainment are also involved, of course, with Ben Smith and Jeffrey Weiner executive producing on their behalf. (The same role they fill on the Bourne films.) Ramin Bahrani (Fahrenheit 451, 99 Homes) will direct the first episode. I say "this incarnation," because this is not the first attempt to bring Treadstone to television. Back in 2010, CSI creator Anthony Zuiker attempted a Treadstone show for CBS. But when Tony Gilroy came aboard to direct the theatrical spinoff The Bourne Legacy, he didn't want a competing version of the mythology on TV, and made it a condition of his directing that the nascent show be killed.

Aug 16, 2018

Teaser: Disney's New KIM POSSIBLE Live Action Remake

© Disney Channel
Disney Channel has released a first teaser trailer for their upcoming live action reimagining of the groundbreaking early 21st Century animated spy send-up Kim Possible.

Original series creators Mark McCorkle and Bob Schooley penned the script for the remake, along with Josh Cagan. Newcomer Sadie Stanley has the unenviable task of bringing a beloved animated character to life as Kim Possible while Sean Giambrone takes on the role of loyal sidekick Ron Stoppable. Alyson Hannigan, Todd Stashwick, Taylor Ortega, Ciara Wilson, Erika Tham, Issac Ryan Brown, and Connie Ray also star. Last week it was announced that two voice actors from the original cast would also be joining the telefilm. Patton Oswalt will reprise his series role as the villainous Professor Dementor (sort of a poor man's Dr. Drakken, despite Oswalt's considerable talent), and the voice of Kim, Christy Carlson Romano, will have a cameo.

Many adult spy fans may be asking themselves, why does this matter? Why do I bother covering a Disney Channel kids' spy movie? In short, because the original series was brilliant. Kim Possible was one of the sharpest, smartest James Bond parodies ever. It often dealt with the myriad problems of being a Bond-type villain, from the overhead costs of maintaining elaborate underground or underwater bases, to the perfect real estate for said lairs, to the difficulty in finding good help. (Turns out that standard-issue henchmen are provided by an entrepreneur named Jack Hench who runs a large staffing agency.) And it did so even better than the Austin Powers movies ever did, calling out the genre's cliches and turning them over on themselves. At the same time, the love and reverence for the material they spoofed was evident everywhere, from the truly impressive Ken Adam-influenced designs to Adam Berry's music to the Bond-inspired title sequence of the original, animated Kim Possible movie, So the Drama.

In the original show, which was sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets James Bond (with all the high such a comparison implies), Kim was an ordinary teenage girl dealing with ordinary teenage problems like crushes, dating, acne, social hierarchy, cheerleading, and homework... along with less average ones like supervillains, monkeys, ninjas, and monkey ninjas. Because in addition to being a regular full-time high school student, she was also a freelance superspy and crime fighter. (Her genes were in her favor, being the daughter of a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon.) With her best friend and sidekick, the clumsy but utterly loyal Ron Stoppable, his pet naked mole rat Rufus, and 10-year old Q-type gadget genius Wade, she took on the likes of the nefarious Dr. Drakken and his henchwoman Shego (who will both be in the live action movie), Lord Monkey Fist, Señor Senior, Sr. and Señor Senior, Jr--not to mention her cheerleading rival, Mean Girl Bonnie Rockwaller. The series never condescended to its young audience and featured razor-sharp scripts sure to entertain any adult spy fan with humorous send-ups of 007, Mission: Impossible, S.H.I.E.L.D., Alias, and countless more spy standards. Hopefully the live action version will maintain those loving references, and the witty and intelligent scripting fans came to expect. It's honestly hard to tell from this incredibly brief teaser, but this is our first (not entirely inspiring) look at the new, flesh and blood Kim Possible. The telefilm is expected to premiere early next year.

Tradecraft: Lee Daniels Developing TV Remake of 1973 Cult Classic THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR

Deadline reports that Lee Daniels (Empire, Lee Daniels' The Butler) has optioned the rights to Sam Greenlee's revolutionary 1969 spy novel The Spook Who Sat By the Door with the intention of turning it into a TV series for Fox 21 Television Studios. The book was previously, brilliantly filmed as a feature by Ivan Dixon in 1973 (with music by Herbie Hancock). While some are quick to lump it in with the blaxpoitation wave of that era, The Spook Who Sat By the Door was really something much more than that. It's truly revolutionary cinema, and riper than ever for a remake in today's tense racial climate in America. The story follows Dan Freeman, the CIA's first black officer in an affirmative action hiring initiative. After rigorous training in all manner of weapons, unarmed combat, sabotage, and counterinsurgency, Freeman is made "top secret reproduction center section chief..." a task that involves running a photocopier. Fed up, he eventually returns to his hometown of Chicago where he uses his training to militarize a local black street gang and create genuine insurgency in the streets of Nixon's America, figuring the country can't fight wars on two fronts (overseas and at home) simultaneously. Based on the highly effective techniques used on the streets of Chicago, the Intelligence Community (still underestimating Freeman) assumes that it must be Russian agents fomenting discord. (The antihero's backstory and motivation were recently borrowed for the villain in this year's blockbuster Black Panther.) The original film, long suppressed, is a genuine classic deserving of rediscovery, and Daniels is a talented storyteller. I'm really looking forward to seeing what comes of this!

Trailer: Netflix's THE ANGEL

Netflix has unveiled the trailer for their real-life 1970s period spy drama The Angel. Israeli helmer Ariel Vroman (Criminal) directs from a script by David Arata (Children of Men), based on the book by Uri Bar-Joseph, The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel. Marwan Kenzari, Toby Kebbell, Hannah Ware, Waleed Farouq Zuaiter, Maisa Abd Elhadi and Sasson Gabai star in the Middle East-set story of Ashraf Marwan, a spy whose actions demonstrably shaped history. The Angel debuts September 16 on the streaming service.

Aug 10, 2018

Tradecraft: Dave Bautista to Star in Spy Comedy from GET SMART Director

The Hollywood Reporter reports that SPECTRE's Mr. Hinx himself, Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy) will star in his own spy movie for STXfilms. Get Smart director Peter Segal will helm the action-comedy, entitled My Spy. Prolific spy writers Jon and Erich Hoeber (RED) penned the script. According to the trade, "My Spy will tell the story of a hardened CIA operative (Bautista) who finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family."

Aug 9, 2018

James Bond Movies on the Big Screen in Los Angeles; George Lazenby Q&A Tonight

Bond fans in Los Angeles have the opportunity to see 007 on the big screen this month on Thursday nights at Laemmle North Hollywood. Throughout August, their "Throwback Thursdays" series will screen 007 movies. My post comes too late, sadly, to alert readers about Goldfinger, which kicked the series off last week. But On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) will screen tonight... and Mr. Bond himself, George Lazenby, will participate in a Q&A following the feature! Tickets are available through Laemmle's website.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) starring Roger Moore follows next week on Thursday, August 16; Timothy Dalton stars in Licence to Kill (1989), screening on August 23; and Pierce Brosnan's Bond debut, GoldenEye (1995), screens on August 30. While Connery Bond movies play fairly frequently in L.A., films starring the other actors are much rarer, and thus worth seeking out if possible!

All screenings begin at 7:30pm. I presume the format will be DCP.

Aug 7, 2018


Warning: This review does contain some minor spoilers... though not really anything not already spoiled by the trailers. The really fun reveals I try to keep mum on, though I assume most spy fans have had the chance to see the movie by now. 

Christopher McQuarrie’s second Mission movie, Fallout, is the third stellar entry in a row in the Mission: Impossible series... but not quite as stellar as the previous two. Fallout feels a tad overlong, and the score isn't up to par with the best Missions, but it offers more of the excellent action we've come to expect from this series, more of the banter from supporting characters we've come to love, and some unexpected resolution to dangling plot threads from previous entries.

John Woo’s mandate on M:I-2 may have been that he didn’t have to reference events of the first picture, but McQuarrie seems determined to do just the opposite. While Fallout definitely feels most of a piece with its two immediate predecessors, it references events from all of the previous films (well, except M:I-2, whose only legacy on display here is the continued use of the voice strips it introduced as mask accessories), neatly tying together a series that started out deliberately haphazard. In fact, Mission: Impossible – Fallout nicely concludes one particular arc that began over a decade ago in J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, while leaving the door open on another thread that began in McQuarrie’s own Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Sam Mendes attempted a similar feat in the last Bond movie, SPECTRE (2015), trying to sew together events from the previous Daniel Craig films after the fact, but McQuarrie succeeds much more deftly on that front. Still, this franchise wouldn’t even be here without James Bond. While it’s inevitable that every screen spy since Sean Connery lit that first cigarette at the gaming table in Dr. No (1962) has owed something to 007, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is particularly full of bits borrowed from the longer running franchise. (Indeed, it reminds me of the classic South Park episode “Simpsons Already Did It,” in which the South Park writers vent their frustration at following a longer running series that has literally done everything... in a very meta way.) From an early throwaway bit with a BMW controlled remotely by a phone right out of Tomorrow Never Dies (down to the same brand of car!) to a HALO jump into Paris (Tomorrow Never Dies again, mixed with A View to a Kill) to a prisoner escape from a submerged armored truck from Licence to Kill, a variation on a classic villain line from GoldenEye (“Why can’t you just die?!”), a helicopter dogfight filled with improbable aerobatics (SPECTRE), and even a famously deleted scene from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a chase across London rooftops near St. Paul’s Cathedral), Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt relives a lot of classic Bond moments in Fallout… and frequently manages to improve on them. 

Even the best stuntmen and greenscreens can’t compete with an actor who’s willing to actually perform the HALO jump himself… including midair stuntwork on the way down. In other cases, simply the benefit of modern filmmaking techniques gives McQuarrie’s film an edge on the classics. When his transport van plunged off a bridge in Licence to Kill, Sanchez didn’t face the jaw-dropping onslaught of a massive wave flooding the cabin and pouring over him like Sean Harris’s villainous Solomon Lane does in this movie. And even if George Lazenby did insist on performing a lot of his own stunts in OHMSS, he wasn’t insane enough to attempt the sort of leap in which Cruise famously broke his ankle as he fell just short of a rooftop and smashed into the side of a building instead. 

But the Bond movies that McQuarrie clearly has in his head more than any others are Skyfall and SPECTRE. And not their stunts, but the emotional wringer they put James Bond through. Fallout is the Daniel Craig Bond movie of the Mission: Impossible series. This is an emotional journey for Ethan Hunt—more so, even, than when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian kidnapped his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), in Mission: Impossible III. On this front, McQuarrie’s film doesn’t manage to outdo 007, but the effort is appreciated. (I also liked McQuarrie's use of dream sequences to grant us access to Ethan's thoughts and fears. I think that's a first for the series.) While James Bond is a rich character with literary origins dating back more than six decades, Ethan Hunt is more of a deliberate cipher. We’re just not as invested in his psyche; instead of dwelling there, we want to him push the limits of human endurance in his next feat of incredible daring. Still, it’s rewarding to see McQuarrie and Cruise push in this direction, attempting to inject more humanity into a character after five outings. And Cruise deserves credit for his acting as well as his astonishing physical stamina (at 56, no less—the same age Roger Moore was in A View to a Kill, if you can believe it!). He is really excellent in Fallout, from his reaction to seeing Rogue Nation’s Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) again in… surprising circumstances, to his delivery of the line, "Power!" as he formulates a plan on the move, quickly figuring out how to fly a helicopter in order to save the world.

At the beginning of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, IMF team leader Ethan makes a call opting to save the one (longtime friend and teammate Luther Stickell, played once again by the ever reliable Ving Rhames) at the expense of the many (saving Luther requires letting three nuclear devices fall into the hands of terrorists). Not only does this decision set into motion the operational plot of the movie (recovering those nukes and preventing disaster), but it also sets up the character journey. Was that the right call? Would Ethan make it again in similar circumstances? As usual, there’s a bellicose superior who questions his call in the form of Angela Basset’s CIA Director Erica Sloan. Basset is essentially reprising her Alias role of CIA Director Hayden Chase, who had roughly the same relationship to Sidney Bristow that Sloan does to Ethan Hunt. (Interestingly, Basset’s most famous screen husband, Laurence Fishburne, played a variation on this role in Mission: Impossible III.) Former CIA Director, now IMF Secretary (“it was a lateral move”) Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) took a similar view of Ethan’s tactics in Rogue Nation, but has now come fully around to Team Ethan. It’s refreshing to see an IMF Secretary really have his back (like Tom Wilkinson in Ghost Protocol) instead of yelling at him over things beyond his control (like Fishburne), but that point of view is balanced out by Sloan’s blustery disapproval.

Sloan pulls rank on Hunley, and insists that her Special Activities Division blunt instrument (or “plumber,” to use Hunley’s Watergate vernacular) August Walker (Henry Cavill, who took the part of Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. after Cruise dropped out) accompany Ethan on his mission looking out for CIA interests—meaning, making sure that the job gets done, no matter who has to die. "You go rogue, he's authorized to hunt you down and kill you," Hunley points out to Ethan. 

Walker shrugs. "It's the job. No hard feelings."

Sloan is no fan of Ethan Hunt, but then she’s not totally without her reasons. Among other things, she cites his “long and incriminating history of rogue behavior.” You know, that’s fair. Seldom a company man, Ethan has gone rogue in all but one of the movies in this series—that outlier M:I-2. That history gives another character a good framework from which to try to set up Ethan as a traitor in Sloan’s eyes, asking her, “How many times has Hunt’s government betrayed him, disavowed him, cast him aside? And how long before a man like that has had enough?” Erica’s opinion of the IMF at large (later echoed by Walker) is equally withering. “The IMF is Halloween. Nothing but grown men wearing masks.”

And so the IMF have no choice but to reluctantly agree to let Walker tag along on their mission as a new member of the team, but one whom the others mistrust. It’s a good setup, because while there have been team members before who turn out to be surprise traitors, we haven’t previously seen a team member actively pursuing his own agenda not necessarily in keeping with that of the IMF—and the rest of the team knowing that. 

The mission on which Walker accompanies Ethan ties in directly with the previous film, Rogue Nation… and has roots going back even further to the end of the third film, in which the recorded voice warns Ethan of a new terrorist group calling itself “The Syndicate…” and even to the original 1966-73 TV series, in which The Syndicate (albeit one of organized crime rather than terrorism) served as a primary antagonist during the later seasons. At the end of Rogue Nation, Ethan and his team crippled The Syndicate by cutting off its head—capturing founder and former British agent Solomon Lane (Harris). Without Lane to direct them, the former members of The Syndicate (created, per Lane, “to tear [governments] down, brick by brick”), now calling themselves “The Apostles” (perhaps an oblique reference to the Cambridge Spies? Probably not…) have continued to wreak havoc around the world, and are now in possession of the nuclear devices Ethan let slip from his hands. Ethan’s mission (which, obviously, he has no choice but to accept) is to recover those devices, and keep them from getting into the hands of a dangerous anarchist known as John Lark. 

The mission, as always, is a somewhat tedious framework on which to hang lots of exhilarating action setpieces. To that end, Ethan and Walker first need to make a dangerous high altitude, low opening (HALO) parachute jump into Paris to infiltrate an elite gathering hosted by an arms dealer and information broker known as The White Widow. If that sentence rushed by you a bit, it does in the movie too. No, there’s no particularly good reason that the agents need to enter Paris by such a dangerous method, but McQuarrie expertly brushes past that with a single line of exposition you won’t stop to question until well after leaving the theater. And that’s a key function of a good Mission: Impossible director—making the audience overlook the ridiculous. Necessary or not, the HALO jump is a spectacular sequence, following Ethan in more or less real time as he free falls. Adding to that spectacle is the aforementioned fact that it’s very clearly Cruise himself performing the freefall. As spectacular as the freefall fight is at the beginning of Moonraker, it’s clear that the close-ups of Roger Moore are inserts. (Though, for me personally, that Moonraker scene will always be the benchmark for midair action.) It’s not just a fall either. After a lightning strike, Ethan needs to perform a sort of midair CPR on Walker as he plummets, meaning Cruise had to act and fall at the same time, and wasn’t merely pursuing an adrenaline-fueled hobby.

Hot on the heels of the jump, we get another terrific action scene, and once again it’s a variation on a tried and true trope of the spy genre—the bathroom fight. (It’s Cavill’s second, in fact, following The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) But McQuarrie manages to make his own mark on that old familiar standard. As so often happens, Ethan’s plans of drugging their mark with a syringe go quickly out the door, and Walker improvises by whacking the man in the face with the laptop they need to generate a mask for Ethan to impersonate him. They haul him into a stall to attempt that nonetheless (leading to some comedic tension when a group of French ravers notice the multiple sets of feet under the door of the stall and jump to their own conclusions), but he revives and proves quite a formidable opponent. Liang Yang (Skyfall) is a standout, in fact, in this scene. He’s more than a match for both agents, let alone either one, and they take turns fighting him individually and together. They’re only able to win, however, with the unexpected intervention of Ilsa Faust. Rebecca Ferguson proved a terrific addition to the team in Rogue Nation, and it’s wonderful to see her back—the first female team member (well, in an unofficial capacity, anyway) to return. (Which kind of echoes the show, where after Barbara Bain departed, female leads didn’t tend to last more than a season—if that.) Ferguson is a great beauty and a great actress, and Ilsa remains the series’ best female character to date. But she’s hardly alone. 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is packed with good roles for women, all populated by impressive actresses. During production, McQuarrie posted a photograph of them all together looking so formidable, in fact, that I mused this might be a spy movie that actually passes the Bechdel Test. Alas, it isn’t, even despite all these great female roles. But I still think the number of strong, interesting female characters with agency (or running agencies!) in this movie is perhaps a high water mark for female representation in any theatrical spy series. Amid all of these enormously talented actresses, though (including two veterans of the series), newcomer Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) manages to steal the show in a relatively small role. She is terrific as the enigmatic White Widow in her own right, but even more terrific when (or if) you realize that she’s playing the daughter of a fan-favorite character from an earlier film in the series. That revelation is subtle, and easy to miss if you haven’t re-watched the other movies recently or don’t know them by heart. But it’s a rewarding one if you have, or if you do. And Kirby does such a great job channeling the inflections and mannerisms of the renowned thespian who played her parent that she’s entirely convincing as their daughter! (Her eyes are also a perfect genetic match for that star's.) Furthermore, if that Black & Dekker reboot of The Avengers ends up happening, Kirby has secured my vote for the new Emma Peel!

Ethan's meeting with the White Widow starts out with that great sort of probing banter you get in good spy movies as they size each other up, then turns into one of the film's lower key action sequences that still manages to be a highlight. Ethan needs to get her safely out of a black tie party filled with assassins, and he starts off taking them out surreptitiously, then loses the option of discretion. Eventually Walker and Ilsa are both aiding him with impressive moves of their own, and even the Widow herself joins in, producing a stiletto from her garter. There are no freefalls or crashing aircraft in this encounter, but it remains one of the film's most memorable scenes—and wonderfully emblematic of everything I love about the spy genre at large.

The next big setpiece is the movie's major setpiece. It's a 17-minute long chase across Paris comprised of several interlocking action scenes involving all sorts of different vehicles (boats to bikes to trucks to drones) and four (or possibly five) competing parties: Ethan's team (which includes Walker, who obviously has his own agenda to consider as well), the White Widow's team, Ilsa (it's unclear who she's working for at this point), and the Parisian police. The entire sequence, beginning with the armored car breakout, is a masterpiece of a action filmmaking, and accomplished largely without dialogue. It's also composer Lorne Balfe's finest (if most bombastic) moment amidst an otherwise disappointingly generic score. McQuarrie knows not only how to keep the action moving (including the aforementioned, Licence to Kill-inspired underwater springing of Solomon Lane from the transport van, a truck chase, two separate motorcycle chases, a brief, Sergio Leone-style standoff and gundown, and a car chase), but also when to pause a moment and let the film breathe. There are several breathing moments amidst the otherwise relentless action during this 17-minute stretch. In one such moment, a little dramatic scenario plays out involving a brave French policewoman (Alix Bénézech, an actress to keep an eye on) caught in the crossfire. In another, McQuarrie just slows things down for one of those whole-team-on-a-motorboat moments like in Mission: Impossible 3, while Lalo Schifrin’s iconic “The Plot” plays, and the camera lingers on the (relatively) slow Zodiac moving through the Paris sewers. And when the whole epic setpiece is over, he lets the movie breathe for even longer as Ilsa follows Ethan (both exercising good tradecraft) through some columns (maybe the same ones from Charade) and then has a lengthy conversation with him as notable for the feelings not spoken as the exposition that is.

Unlike a lot of modern filmmakers (including the whole Imitation Greengrass contingent), McQuarrie isn’t afraid to let his camera linger. He puts you in the middle of the action, as does Bourne director Paul Greengrass, but in a totally different way. Instead of quick cuts and a camera spinning chaotically out of control, McQuarrie’s action shots are very controlled. He uses plenty of long takes, like when the camera stays on Cruise as he powers his motorcycle through (and against) block after block of Paris traffic. (Again, it helps that it’s clearly really Cruise, even if some of the traffic is probably CGI.) You’re never unsure of the space in any of McQuarrie’s action scenes, which is refreshing in an age when other directors seem to revel in depriving the viewer of spatial relationships (often in an attempt to mask illogical physics).

Speaking of motorcycle chases, yes, there’s another one in this movie. Even though we just had one in the last movie. And that famous (if laughable) one in the second film. But… so what? How many variations have we seen on the car chase? Motorcycles are clearly Ethan Hunt’s favorite mode of transportation, so it seems fitting that he ride them whenever possible. And the bike  chases in Rogue Nation and Fallout are distinct from one another. So are the car chases (even if the BMW brand is feeling a tad over familiar thanks to product placement). There was a BMW chase in the last movie, and there’s a BMW chase in this one, and in both of them the Beamer goes down some stairs… but they’re still each unique! The BMW chase in Fallout is improved by what appears to be a late 1980s 5 Series rather than the latest model. (“Was the little car your idea?” Benji asks Walker as they all pile into it.) Not only does this model just feel appropriate for a Parisian street chase; it also feeds my nostalgia by triggering instant flashbacks to Eighties spy movies like Octopussy or The Holcroft Covenant… even if McQuarrie was obviously going for the more highly regarded touchstone of The French Connection with Ilsa piloting her motorcycle beneath an elevated track.

But this movie doesn't peak in the middle like Ghost Protocol. Even after the masterful Paris sequence, McQuarrie still delivers some more thrills along with cons and double-crosses. This movie's version of series staple The Long Run is a spectacular 7-minute foot chase across the streets, roofs, and interiors of London that once again has Benji in Ethan's ear, directing him as he sprints flat-out. Though Ethan doesn't stay on the ground this time. His dash takes him into a service at St. Paul's Cathedral, up a spiral staircase (prompting Benji, following Ethan's tracker on a 2D display, to ask "Why is he running in circles?"), and onto (and off of!) a progression of rooftops of varying heights. This, of course, is the sequence in which Cruise famously broke his ankle, causing production to shut down for six months while the star recovered. The side-on shot from the trailers where you can clearly see his foot impacting the wall of the building isn't actually in the movie, but the stunt is certainly there (from an overhead angle), as is the shot where Cruise completed it, clearly running on a broken ankle. You've got to give the guy credit for his utter dedication to his craft.

The third act, inevitably, finds the team going rogue, once again, without support. When Luther asks,"Shall we inform the CIA?" (I don't know why he bothers!), Ethan replies, "The CIA's been infiltrated. I don't trust anybody outside this room. We'll have to go it alone." Going it alone takes them to Kashmir, where Ethan will have to play "demolition derby" in helicopters, and the rest of the team will have to defuse two strategically placed nuclear bombs. It also takes them, per Solomon Lane's plan, to Ethan's ex-wife, Julia, whom he still loves. But now she's married to someone else—happily, and making a difference in the world as a doctor without borders. It's a reverse Casablanca situation, where we're emotionally connected to her freedom fighter husband (Ethan as Paul Henreid), rather than her Bogie (Wes Bentley). But making matters murkier, there's another woman in Ethan's life now—Ilsa! (Uh-oh! Better forget the Casablanca analogies, because that name really confuses things.) In a stroke of brilliance, McQuarrie has Julia be the one to spot Ethan when they come together this time, not the other way around. Going in from her perspective gives a different slant on ensuing events than a meeting from his perspective would have.

Luther once again gets to play his role as Ethan's romantic conscience, like he did in Mission: Impossible 3 when he warned Ethan not to get married. He fills in Ilsa (and the audience, who may not recall the relevant tag scene at the end of Ghost Protocol) on Ethan's status with Julia, saying that in all the years he's known Ethan, he's only been serious about two women. (Sorry, Nyah!) One was his wife. (The other, implicitly, is her... which is kind of a new development.) "They were happy for a while, but every time something bad would happen in the world, Ethan would think, 'I should have been there.'" He explains that Julia's a ghost now ("Good at it, too."), occasionally sending up a signal to let Ethan know she's alright... "and that keeps him going." This is a bit of a retcon, but it clarifies the somewhat confusing ending to Brad Bird's movie, in which it appeared that Ethan was creepily stalking his ghost ex. Personally, I appreciate the clarification!

There's a really great dynamic between Ethan and all of the women in this movie. It isn't a Bond thing, where they all fall at his feet, but unique connections with each one. With Julia, the shared connections between two exes who still care about one another is clear. With Ilsa, as he explains it to the inquisitive White Widow, "We have a past. Let's just say it's complicated." To which Kirby's character replies, "Well, I'm going to make it more complicated. The price just went up. Bring her to me... I'd hate for her to come between us." She punctuates this demand with an impulsive, unsolicited kiss. Not because she can't resist him, but because Kirby pulses with the Widow's curiosity and thirst for knowledge. She's testing.

But if these relationships aren't enough of a powderkeg, McQuarrie has concocted an excellent impossible puzzle bomb for the characters to unlock. It consists of two plutonium cores connected to two bombs, in separate locations. "Any attempt to defuse one bomb automatically triggers the other," Luther explains.

Benji even admits at one point, "If there's a way to defuse these bombs, I can't find it." Of course he does find it, but it involves another great little MacGuffin. Not only do he, Luther, Ilsa, and Julia have to locate and defuse both bombs after the countdown has started (a complicated task that involves cutting wires in a certain order and unscrewing things at the same time)... but Ethan needs to deactivate a trigger mechanism before they can do so. This gimmick sets a great clock for the final act, where the characters are out of communication but must rely on one another to do their respective jobs, or else any action they take will result in catastrophe. Of course it's a 15-minute ticking clock that plays out over 23 minutes... but that's easily chalked up to us seeing action that's unfolding simultaneously separately. 

Ethan's part requires him to shimmy up a rope and board a helicopter midair, and then figure out a way to get the trigger from the bad guy in another helicopter. This leads to the movie's final major stunt sequence, in which actor Cruise (of course!) pilots the chopper himself for real. The aerial battle runs a bit long, honestly, but it does showcase the extreme (even preposterous) lengths to which Ethan will go to accomplish the impossible. The villain in the other helicopter can't even believe it when he exclaims, "This crazy son of a bitch is trying to ram us!" Who would ever attempt to ram a helicopter from another helicopter—an action bound to result in both craft plummeting to the earth?? Ethan Hunt, that's who. 

As much as I liked how this stunt defines and serves the character (and vice-versa), it's sort of shame that McQuarrie couldn't leave it as the film's final stunt. Instead, we have to go through an even more preposterous sequence where the two wrecks fall off of cliff after cliff (three times!) with hero and villain trapped inside, and then an anticlimactic fist fight reminiscent of the one on the beach at the end of M:I-2. I wish they'd stop ending Mission: Impossible movies with fist fights. It's never satisfactory. I much preferred the sleight of hand trickery that unexpectedly concluded Rogue Nation, subverting expectations. Fallout, ultimately, plays into them instead.

It's also marred by a serious villain problem. The two best villains were Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III, and Sean Harris, in Rogue Nation. (Hoffman featured in the one final fist fight that actually worked.) Harris, of course, is back for more in this movie, but he is seriously underserved. McQuarrie makes the same mistake that Mendes & Co. made in SPECTRE when they decided that Blofeld's motivations should be all about personal revenge rather than financial gain. So Solomon Lane is now so hung up on revenge against Ethan Hunt that he's incapable of the utterly emotionless, cold logic that drove him to frequently out-think Ethan in Rogue Nation. The other main villain, the inevitable turncoat who turns out to be John Lark, fails to convince in the latter role. I had trouble believing that that character had written the anarchic Lark manifesto so frequently quoted in the film. He comes off as a Jaws, not a Drax.

While the villains were ultimately unsatisfying, I did find the resolution of Ethan's marriage storyline fully satisfying. I hadn't really realized before what a burden J.J. Abrams had created for the series in saddling Ethan with a wife, but I appreciate how McQuarrie ultimately concludes it. (Though it does involve some more convenient retconning. I can't imagine the Julia of Mission: Impossible III, so happy among her large family and friend group, really being as happy as this one claims to be to live off the grid, presumably without access to her nieces and nephews. But that's all wisely ignored.) There is a scene between Julia and Ilsa where they share a whisper we're not privy to. But it's Ilsa who does the whispering, when it seems to me that it would have made more sense the other way around, as it's basically a "He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise" moment, to use an Avengers reference.

For the most part, Mission: Impossible - Fallout is pretty great. But it's got some faults. Balfe's unimaginative score is a real liability, especially compared to Joe Kraemer's wonderfully inventive take on Mission music in the last film. (I sure hope Kraemer gets another shot at this series in the future!) The film, like this review, goes on a bit too long. And the script, in some ways, is actually too twisty—even for a franchise known for twists! This is the opposite script problem of M:I-2. Instead of not trying to con the audience, the filmmakers try to con the audience in essentially every scene. Which plays fine in the course of watching the film once. But as soon as you start to think about it, some things don't stand up to scrutiny. Like, for example, the supposed meeting the White Widow brokered in London where Ethan (believed to be Lark) and Walker were supposed to trade Lane to the Apostles for the nuclear devices. No party (not the IMF, the CIA, the Apostles, or the Widow) was going into that meeting in good faith. In fact, from the point of view of some of the groups, the very existence of the meeting was counterproductive. So why would they have even shown up? Well, that doesn't need to be addressed, because things don't go according to plan and the meeting doesn't happen. But what if it had? Nobody's plot would have worked out. It's a Schrödinger's Cat-like scenario. (And it would fascinate two characters in this series who are fascinated by paradoxes!) Yet it's crucial that all the parties do get themselves to London, behaving as if a meeting was going to occur. Why? The whole house of cards falls apart given too much thought, and hurts the brain. And that's only one example. This is one of those spy movies that tries to get too clever for its own good. But... thankfully, as with the unnecessary HALO jump, McQuarrie keeps the plot moving fast enough that we don't question anything in the course of the movie! Because despite being long, it's so fast-paced, and it's so damn fun. And the action is so damn good. The paradigm of this series may have shifted with a returning director, but Christopher McQuarrie has proven himself the ideal director to return.

Mission Report
TV Moments: A favorite TV con is used pretty much right off the bat.
Dangling: While Ethan does indeed dangle from a helicopter, it's all upright dangling, and there is no instance of his patented horizontal dangling. I think the series has realized it's moved beyond that, and that's a good thing.
Rogue Agents: Yep, there's definitely a rogue amidst the Good Guy intelligence apparatus.
Rogue Ethan: You bet! As usual, he's rogue through most of the second half of the film.
The Long Run: Through London, once again with Benji talking him through it, though McQuarrie adds some humorous twists to this scenario established in Mission: Impossible III.

Read my review of Mission: Impossible III (2006) here.
Read my review of M:I-2 (2000) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible (1996) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.

Aug 3, 2018

Mondo To Release Danny Elfman's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Score on Vinyl... Plus More Info on La La Land's MISSION Plans

Austin-based T-shirt company turned record label Mondo announced today that they would release Danny Elfman's terrific score for Brian De Palma's original 1996 Mission: Impossible movie on vinyl in October. It will be that score's first ever vinyl release, as the film came out between the "death of vinyl" in the early Nineties and the format's miraculous resurrection in the past decade. (The movie's version of "The Mission: Impossible Theme" by U2's Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, however, was released at the time as a 12" single for the DJ market.) Mondo's 2-disc release, sporting a retro-style record sleeve that will make a nice companion piece to the original 1960s Lalo Schifrin Mission: Impossible LPs, and liner notes by Austin composer Brian Satterwhite, will be pressed on 180 Gram colored vinyl. There will be a "Red Light/Green Light" edition (in honor of the film's explosive chewing gum), limited to 1,000 copies, and an unlimited translucent red version. (Hm... that's a tough call!) Both retail for $35, and are available for pre-order on the Mondo website, shipping in October. (Hopefully that gives them time to correct the spelling of Lalo Schifrin's name on the back cover!) Here's the track list:

Side A
01. Sleeping Beauty
02. Mission: Impossible Theme
03. Red Handed
04. Big Trouble

Side B
05. Love Theme?
06. Mole Hunt
07. The Disc
08. Max Found
09. Looking For “Job”

Side C
10. Betrayal
11. The Heist
12. Uh-Oh!
13. Biblical Revelation

Side D
14. Phone Home
15. Train Time
16. Ménage à Trois
17. Zoom A
18. Zoom B

For those who want even more music from that movie, La La Land Records recently mentioned in a post on the Film Score Monthly Forum that they're working on an expanded, double CD release of Elfman's score that was supposed to be out for the 20th anniversary in 2016, but has (obviously) been held up. They hope to have it out next year. That will certainly be exciting! (They also mention they might do an expanded release of Joe Kraemer's score for Rogue Nation... but not until that movie's 10th anniversary in 2025. I would sure love to see all the source music from the opera included on that release should it happen!)

Meanwhile, La La Land's Mission: Impossible - Music from the 1988 Television Series, announced last week, is now available to buy from their website... which also offers some more intel on the album's contents. The 2-disc set seems to include nearly all the music original theme composer Lalo Schifrin (The Liquidator) wrote for the revival series (three episodes' worth) along with a good sampling of Ron Jones' (Star Trek: The Next Generation) work. While the official copy claims this release "showcases the series’ musical highlights over its two season run," all the episodes on the track list are actually from its first year, the 1988-89 TV season. So I remain hopeful (which is to say, greedy!) that perhaps in a few years we'll get a second volume containing some more Jones tunes and a healthy selection of John E. Davis's (Matt Houston) music for that series (a few tracks of which can be found on the GNP album The Best of Mission: Impossible... Then and Now). But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's just be thrilled about what they're offering right now!

Finally, to celebrate the release of that new set, the company are offering their indispensable 6-CD box set from the original series, Mission: Impossible - The Television Scores (normally $100; details here) at the bargain price of just $80. Fewer than a hundred units of the limited run remain, so the fuse is burning rapidly down! The sale price is in effect through August 13.

Thanks to Mike for the heads up about the vinyl!

Read my review of Mission: Impossible III (2006) here.
Read my review of M:I-2 (2000) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible (1996) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.

Jul 31, 2018

Tradecraft: Latest 24 Reboot Attempt to Focus on Young Jack Bauer

Ever since 24 went off the air following its eighth season in 2010, Fox execs have been looking for ways to bring it back. For years they tried to develop a feature film based on the real-time TV series (which I'd still like to see happen!), then eventually brought it back in 2014 as the summer limited series event, 24: Live Another Day. That 12-episode format proved to be a vast improvement on the previous 24-episode format, and after star Kiefer Sutherland announced that he was done playing Jack Bauer, they tried it again with the Bauer-less reboot/revival/sequel series 24: Legacy. That incarnation didn't quite live up to their ratings expectations, but they immediately started plotting another strategy. There were rumors of abandoning the counter-terrorism theme altogether, and rebooting the show as a legal drama that kept only the real-time format. (Indeed, when the series launched in 2001 and the producers weren't certain where it would go, one idea was to make it a real-time anthology show. To that end, Imagine Entertainment optioned The Da Vinci Code as possible source material for a second season of 24. Obviously, that book blew up and instead Imagine turned it into a big screen feature.) Apparently the legal thriller idea (written by longtime 24 producer Howard Gordon and Jeremy Doner, and said to focus on a female lawyer trying to save a client from death row as the clock ticks down) remains a possibility, but Deadline reports that Fox is simultaneously developing another new incarnation of 24 as well: a Jack Bauer prequel series.

Written by Gordon (Homeland, Legends) and original 24 creators Bob Cochran (La Femme Nikita) and Joel Surnow (The Equalizer), "it is said to be in the vein of the original and will trace the origin story of CTU agent Jack Bauer," the trade reports. The network presumably sees this as a way to revisit the iconic, fan-favorite character without depending on Sutherland's involvement. I'm a little torn on this idea myself. While the possibility of seeing Jack Bauer as a young agent in the waning days of the Cold War is certainly appealing (assuming that's the direction they go, rather than rebooting entirely with a younger Bauer active today. a la NBC's Taken prequel series), I just can't imagine any actor beside Sutherland taking on that role. It will all depend on casting. If they can find the right actor, I suppose it just might work.... And who am I kidding? I'll watch a real-time spy series set in the late Eighties no matter who it stars!

Tradecraft: AMC Sets Premiere Date for Le Carré Miniseries THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL

Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
According to Deadline, AMC has set a November premiere date for their flashy BBC co-production The Little Drummer Girl. That's exciting! When it began shooting earlier this year I figured we wouldn't see the latest John le Carré-based miniseries until next year. But the BBC recently released a trailer of its fall premieres, and The Little Drummer Girl was included. Even then, I worried AMC would hold off on U.S. broadcast until early next year, since there was a substantial delay between the UK and U.S. broadcast of the last BBC/AMC le Carré miniseries, The Night Manager. Now we know that won't be the case. (BBC has yet to announce the exact UK broadcast date, but viewers can expect it in the fall.)

Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
Based on le Carré's 1983 novel, The Little Drummer Girl follows Charlie, a naive young English actress recruited by Israeli Intelligence into the "theater of the real"– to infiltrate a Palestinian terror organization. She soon finds herself seduced by both sides and caught in the middle.

Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
Florence Pugh (King Lear) stars as Charlie, Alexander Skarsgård (Big Little Lies) plays Becker, the enigmatic stranger who seduces, recruits, and eventually handles her, and Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) plays a ruthlessly clever, masterfully manipulative, somewhat Smiley-like Mossad spymaster, Kurtz. Most excitingly, the brilliant Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) directs all six episodes. As with The Night Manager, le Carré and his sons  Simon and Stephen Cornwell (principals in the Ink Factory) are among the producers. Locations in the novel include Britain, Greece, Germany, Austria, Israel, and Libya. I'm not sure which ones make it into the miniseries (key book locations were changed and omitted from The Night Manager), but the production definitely filmed at the Acropolis, the first shoot ever to be granted permission to do so.

I can't wait till November!

Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory

Jul 28, 2018

Watch Peter Graves Get a Colonoscopy in Wonderful Seventies American Cancer Society MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE PSA

This is so bizarre it might be the best thing ever. Peter Graves, Greg Morris, and Peter Lupus all participate in this Mission: Impossible-themed PSA for the American Cancer Society from the early Seventies. (Judging by the episode clips, it looks like it was filmed at the beginning of Season 6 around the time of the episode "The Tram.") Graves takes a trip to the proctologist and introduces audiences to the importance of a colonoscopy. No, thankfully we're not actually subjected to watching the actor undergo that particular procedure, but we do see him going over the results with the doctor and marveling at the wonders of modern medicine. He also gets good scenes with Morris and Lupus, affording us a rare and cool glimpse behind the scenes of Mission: Impossible. Even if the interactions are earnestly staged for our benefit, it's still incredible to see onto the set of this wonderful series. And, of course, the message is still important! This really should have been included as an extra on one of the DVD sets. Thank goodness for YouTube! Check it out.

Read my review of Mission: Impossible III (2006) here.
Read my review of M:I-2 (2000) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible (1996) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.

Jul 27, 2018

Movie Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

NOTE: Like a Bruce Geller third act twist, I'm having a lot of technical trouble on this series. I don't know why my screen grabs are appearing squished. I'm trying to fix that, but wanted to go ahead and get this post up anyway for now.

After the first two films helmed by Brian De Palma and John Woo, respectively, the Mission: Impossible film franchise had established itself as a director’s series, attracting well-established auteurs and leaving them free to imprint their own style on the series rather than vice versa. (In fact, for better or worse, I can think of no example of another pre-existing franchise bending to the style of a single director than M:I-2.) In keeping with that tradition, major auteur David Fincher was approached to direct the third film. I’m curious what that would have looked like (especially after his bad experience working on another established franchise), but it wasn’t to be. After Fincher left, Tom Cruise (wearing his producer hat) and then-partner Paula Wagner decided to take a different approach. Instead of going with a well-established director, they’d take a chance on a bold new voice. That voice was Joe Carnahan, who had made a dramatic debut with Narc (2002), a movie Cruise came on board to executive produce. Carnahan’s Mission: Impossible III was all set to go with Kenneth Brannagh and Carrie-Ann Moss… but then it didn’t. The director famously quit the project. Still, Cruise seemed to like the idea of a fresh voice, at least theatrically. One weekend he binge-watched J.J. Abrams’ inventive ABC spy series Alias (of which Abrams had directed several episodes, including the spectacular pilot), and decided that despite having no experience directing feature films, Abrams was the man for the job. Thus the franchise shifted gears, and went from being a playground for veteran auteurs to a showcase for fresh voices, relatively new to live-action features. And in doing so, Mission: Impossible III established J.J. Abrams’ reputation as a director who could reinvigorate stagnant franchises… though always dividing fans. 

After Woo’s all flash, no character (or all style, no substance) approach to M:I-2, Abrams’ third entry begins with a pure character beat, signifying yet another change of direction for the series. Abrams had brought on two of his Alias writers with experience running their own spy series before that (Jack of All Trades), Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, and together they set out to do with Mission: Impossible what they did weekly on Alias, and ground spy action in personal family drama. This approach makes a welcome change from the characterless action histrionics of M:I-2, but also presents its own set of problems. Namely, when it comes to TV origins, Mission: Impossible III feels more like Alias than it does like Mission: Impossible—which has never been a character-driven franchise. But the experiment works, to some degree, like those occasional special, personal episodes of the TV series that I enjoy so much.

That opening character beat comes when the movie begins in media res (a favorite technique of Abrams), and thrusts us into the middle of the drama without knowing how we got there. The scene finds our hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), going through all the stages of grief as the clear villain, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking far more fit than he did in A Most Wanted Man), threatens the woman Ethan loves, Julia (Michelle Monaghan, fresh off of her career-launching turn in the brilliant Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Davian wants to know the location of a MacGuffin called “the Rabbit’s Foot,” and Ethan denies, rages, and bargains for Julia’s life as the villain calmly counts to ten with a gun to her head. Then there’s a shocking gunshot, and we flash back to learn how everyone got to that point. It’s a very formalist script from there on in, and true to Joseph Campbell the hero rejects the call at first. (Which is kind of hard to do in the M:I format wherein he’s asked point blank to accept it!)

The IMF’s top superspy doesn’t want to go back into the field because he’s been domesticated. He’s living a peaceful life as an instructor for new trainees, complete with a beautiful fiancé, Julia (who believes he works for the Department of Transportation), and, when we meet them, a house full of friends and family. (Hers, not his. Apparently the mother and uncle Kittridge used as bait in the first film are no longer with us.) For Alias fans, it’s nice to see series regular Greg Grunberg among those friends. Even at home, Ethan’s superspy skills are still attuned, as demonstrated when he tunes into Julia’s conversation all the way across the room and surprises her friends by chiming in. But a whole movie of this would be pretty boring, so it’s no surprise when Ethan answers the phone and hears a recorded voice using a code phrase and instructing him to go to a nearby convenience store.

It is, of course, a personal thing that lures Ethan back into the field: an agent he trained, the first agent he deemed ready for fieldwork, Lindsey Ferris (a pre-Americans Keri Russell) has been captured by the man her team was investigating—Davian. An old IMF colleague and friend, now superior, John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) wants Ethan to lead the rescue operation. He leaves him a familiar briefing recording in a disposable camera to consider. It’s wheels up in the morning. Will Ethan be there? Of course—and in a nice homage to the Cruise classic Top Gun, he arrives on a motorcycle against the haze of dawn.

The IMF of Mission: Impossible III (whose headquarters is indeed hidden within the façade of the Department of Transportation) is a huge, sprawling bureaucracy where even the disembodied voices who record mission briefings have bosses. And even they report to some sort of upper management  (or board, or whatever) that seems to consist of at least ten people whose job it is to scowl and grumble at lowly field agents. This makes a stark contrast with what was presented as a fairly small division of the CIA in the first movie, and seemed to be fairly small in the second, too, seeing as the boss (Anthony Hopkins) could turn up in the field to provide his own personal briefing in lieu of a tape recorder. The agency may be unlike the IMF of previous films, but it’s very much like SD-6 (or the CIA’s L.A. field office) of Alias. Its head, Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne) presides over it like Ron Rifkin’s Arvin Sloan or Angela Bassett’s Hayden Chase, or Terry O’Quinn’s Assistant Director Kendall—whoever happens to be the yelly boss of a given season. Like his name implies, Brassel is the yelliest of IMF bosses, and this is not a man who would turn up in Seville for an in-person briefing, and unlike Hopkins’ character, seems to have no special regard for Ethan’s talents. There’s a whole tech division, of which resident nerd Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is the star—basically filling the Marshall role from Alias. The office could even be one of the Alias office sets. All of this is illustrative of the larger picture in Mission: Impossible III: it’s basically a mega-budget episode of Alias, with Ethan as Sidney. It explores the same themes of a spy having to choose between work and personal life, except instead of Francie and Will, Ethan has Julia and her huge family and circle of friends.

Even the first mission of the movie, though undeniably spectacular, feels like an Alias mission rather than a Mission: Impossible mission. (Though Alias in turn, of course, owed a huge debt to the original Mission TV show.) Instead of masks and cons, it’s all miniguns (operated by familiar face Luther Strickel, played for the third time straight by the movies’ longest running co-star, Ving Rhames) and martial arts and shooting and exploding, and running around an abandoned warehouse—which, Abrams’ commentary track reveals, actually is actually a reused Alias location, from the pilot! 

But at least there’s a team involved, in true M:I style, and not just Ethan going it solo. Besides Rhames, the team includes Maggie Q (Nikita) as Zhen Lei and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Damascus Cover) as Irish agent Declan Gormley. Both are likable and manage a good repartee, even if their characters are underdeveloped. Like Billy Baird from M:I-2, I’d love to see either or both reappear in a future series installment. 

It’s also great to hear this mission accompanied by strains of not only Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible Theme, but also his distinctive TV track “The Plot,” after a frustrating dearth of both in the previous film! Of course it’s no surprise that composer Michael Giacchino (another Alias alum brought on board by Abrams) is clearly a fan of Schifrin’s music, as he’d already demonstrated his deep affection for Sixties spy sounds with his brilliant John Barry pastiche score for Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004).

In stark contrast to Woo’s movie, this first action setpiece is distinctly character-driven (Abrams’ specialty). As the team flees the warehouse, having rescued Lindsey, in a Huey helicopter piloted by Declan, Ethan has to perform a medical operation on her. While he’s trying to charge his defibrillators, a pursuing Cobra attack helicopter gets missile lock on the team. The combination of extreme physical peril with human drama results in excellent, nail-biting tension more effective than any slow-motion, dove-filled explosion. And we feel Ethan’s torment when, in the midst of the chaos, he loses her. This failure deeply undercuts the team’s momentary elation at evading the Cobra through a field of windmills (which might, in keeping with series tradition, be a Hitchcock reference—to Foreign Correspondent).

Back at IMF Headquarters, Brassel yells at Hunt for things no reasonable boss would yell about, blaming him for Lindsey’s ostensible mission failure since it was Ethan who had deemed her field-ready, and demanding to know why on earth he let her on the helicopter while under fire in a breakneck chase on the mission whose sole objective was to rescue her… without first scanning her head for bombs. As if Ethan was supposed to predict that the villain would have a thing for implanting bombs in people’s heads via their noses just because it had happened on an episode of Alias!

The next setpiece in this mission will be a very traditional Mission: Impossible sequence, but before we get there, Ethan has some more domestic business to take care of. His moodiness after losing Lindsey and his sudden need to travel a lot for work has Julia concerned. He can't tell her what's up, but he asks for her trust. Then, to demonstrate he really means it, he proposes that they just get married on the spot, at the hospital where she works. And right there in the middle of a Mission: Impossible movie, Ethan Hunt gets married. He is now truly invested in these personal stakes. But as Luther tries to tell him, settling down isn't for spies. Somehow, it always falls to Luther to make sense of Ethan's romantic life. After he gives his friend a long lecture on all the reasons a spy should never get married and warns him that Julia will somehow be used against him, Ethan tells him they already got married. After a beat, Luther says, "Congratulations." Of course, he's perfectly right, and Julia will be used against Ethan—sooner rather than later.

Ethan, now firmly back on board thanks to feeling personally responsible for losing Lindsey, leads the team on their next attempt to find Davian and stop him from getting a doomsday device—that "Rabbit's Foot" we heard about in the cold open (it's impossible not to think of this entry like a TV episode), and amusingly never learn the true nature of. This attempt, in great spy fashion, will take place at a black tie benefit gala. And that gala happens to be at the Vatican... because why not? It's a great Mission location!

The Vatican operation really does play out like a traditional Mission: Impossible TV setpiece, and it's highly rewarding for fans of the show. It's a great setpiece with loads of classic spy trappings, accompanied by a great score. Declan creates a diversion by causing a traffic jam outside, enabling Ethan to scurry up the wall. Cruise then does his patented horizontal dangle coming down from the wall inside Vatican City. There's really no reason for belly-flopping into the courtyard like this, other than that the character has a history of it. While in M:I-2 another horizontal, Topkapi-style dangle felt like a tired and inferior rehash of the iconic moment from the first film, this time it feels like a winking, playful reference... and it's fun. After changing disguises, Ethan, in the perfect image of a priest, enters the Vatican itself.

Zhen, meanwhile, makes her splashy entrance in a gaudy (if awesome) orange Lamborghini and a spectacular red dress with flesh-revealing cutouts just perfectly appropriate for a day at the, um, Vatican. As in all the best Mission capers, every team member has a role to play. Zhen covertly photographs Davian's face with her compact camera, beaming the results to Luther and Ethan, lurking in the bowels of the Vatican, so they can 3D print the mask of his face. (And this was still a few years before 3D printing was a widely available technology!)

This is cool new mask technology on display (retaining the voice chipped Band-Aid from M:I-2, but further explaining how it works), but also very classic. Rollin Hand sometimes had to create on-the-go disguises like this on the TV show. Abrams builds suspense with the ticking clock of needing to make the mask before the real Davian enters the bathroom (driven there by Zhen spilling red wine on his shirt), and then throws in that classic Bruce Geller monkey wrench by having a bodyguard check on his boss before Ethan (wearing his Philip Seymour Hoffman mask) has managed to fully synthesize Davian's voice. The team eventually makes a rather spectacular escape, with the real Davian unconscious in their custody, involving the destruction of that Lamborghini, sewers, and a shot that's become sort of a staple of the series—the whole team, looking cool and collected, riding away in a motorboat.

Upon returning to the United States with Davian, Ethan and an IMF convoy are ambushed on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge causeway while transporting the prisoner. (Prisoner transports rarely go well in Mission: Impossible movies.) This was marketed as the film's signature action setpiece, but doesn't rank as highly for me as the Vatican sequence or a car chase to come in Shanghai. The causeway scene is too derivative. It plays like a cross between Clear and Present Danger and True Lies... with a dash of Licence to Kill thrown in. (It also prefigures a better, similar sequence in Fallout.) But it does bring us a few more impressive Cruise stunts, including a leap across a huge gap in the partially decimated bridge, and a leap from an explosion that's more impressive than it sounds owing to the obvious proximity of Cruise to the blast.

Ethan, of course, is blamed for this fiasco, because that's the way things work in Brasell's Alias-style bureaucracy. This time it goes beyond undeserved chewing out, and Ethan is instead trussed up like a cannibal complete with a Hannibal Lechter face mask. This raises a few questions, like why the IMF deems Ethan's mouth a bigger threat than his fingers (which naturally manage to pick the locks binding his hands with some help from his pal Musgrave), and how exactly the HR department manages to be so much more effective than any other in this enormous bureaucracy. Because my experience with large corporations is that it's very hard for anyone to even get fired with all the red tape and worries about discrimination suits. And I would think a government department would be even worse! One would imagine that a lot of paperwork needs to be filed in order to prove an employee was in need of a cannibal mask; otherwise the IMF would be looking at some potentially whopper lawsuits for wrongful restraint. Whether Ethan brings any action against his employers we never learn in the course of this movie, because Abrams wisely decides a more exciting course of action is for him to escape, go rogue (of course), and run off to Shanghai to find the Rabbit's Foot. Because now that Davian knows who he is, Davian (who is just plain evil) has naturally kidnapped Julia and used her for leverage, just as Luther correctly predicted would happen. But sometime during his flight, it must occur to Ethan that one of his bosses has to be a traitor for Davian's group to have found out where to intercept them. Is Brassel's incompetence actually a mask for treachery? Or is the mole Ethan's friend, Musgrave? It's an Ipcress File scenario, where one of the bosses must be bad.

In Hong Kong, the team helps Ethan break into yet another tall building. For a while you couldn't call a Mission: Impossible movie "the one with the skyscraper," because like saying "the Robert Ludlum book with the twins," that wasn't specific enough. Ethan broke into a skyscraper in M:I-2 by jumping from a helicopter. And, of course, the fourth movie easily made itself the definitive Mission: Impossible with the skyscraper when Ethan rappelled outside the world's tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa. So Mission: Impossible III is stuck in the middle, but for my money it's a more creative and thus more enjoyable sequence than the one in M:I-2. Instead of getting in by dangling (since he's already done that for this movie), Ethan gets in by using a fulcrum... or swinging from one tower to another. Sure, it's basically a variation on a dangle, but with more forward momentum, but it's fun to watch. (I also like that his team distracts the guards in advance by launching tennis balls at the building's glass roof.) There's then a pretty exciting bit where Ethan slides headfirst down the sloping glass side of the skyscraper, and even has to shoot some guards while he's sliding towards the perilous precipice, but what I really like about this particular break-in is that we don't follow Ethan inside. Instead Abrams keeps us with Declan and Zhen in a van outside, waiting to aid him in his escape when he base jumps out. They have a genuine tender moment in the midst of this ostensible action scene... only to be interrupted when Ethan, inevitably, comes bursting out of the building in the wrong place and several floors too low, his parachute blowing haphazardly and threatening to fold up on itself. 

There follows a great chase through the streets of Shanghai, first with Declan and Zhen in pursuit of the parachuting Ethan, and then, when the collect him, with Ethan (and obviously Cruise, for real) hanging out of the vehicle shooting backwards at a pursuing car. That's impressive, as is another bit where a giant tanker truck skids sideways over Ethan. It's pretty great action against a pretty great backdrop, and that combination makes it the best sequence in the movie for me. Of course, all this action has only gotten our man the Rabbit's Foot; it hasn't saved Julia. For that, Abrams introduces a scene that will become a new staple of the series: the Long Run.

It could be argued, I suppose, that Ethan's doom-fraught dash through the streets of Prague in the first movie, trying and failing to get to each team member before they're killed, is a Long Run. But it's in too many different directions, with too many different stops along the way. So I'd call it a precursor at best to what Abrams sets up: a sequence in which Cruise needs to run at full bore for a great distance, always moving forward, inevitably against a ticking clock of some sort and ideally with Benji in his ear telling him where to go. This one ticks all those boxes, as Benji, back at headquarters because he is not yet a field operative, directs Ethan as he runs through residential Shanghai neighborhoods to the location where Julia is being held.

While this exciting run is followed by another fist fight (a fairly dull yet all too common ending to M:I movies), this one at least isn't bogged down by the unnecessary flipping and senseless slow motion that hampered Ethan's fight with Ambrose at the end of M:I-2. Instead this is a gritty, nasty throw-down with Davian. Philip Seymour Hoffman may have never actually been a physical match for the always athletic Tom Cruise, but he's a good enough actor that he certainly manages to convince us he is! His performance (reminiscent of his turn in Punch Drunk Love) is just so full of palpable menace that I damn well believe it each time he knocks Ethan down. (The odds are also evened a bit by the fact that Ethan has just run who knows how many blocks and—oh yeah—had one of those nose bombs implanted in his head!) Davian isn't a particularly well-developed character (he remains a cipher, albeit a brutal one), and doesn't even have a lot of scenes in the movie, but Hoffman so thoroughly occupies the ones that he is in that he easily becomes the series' best villain to date. (A record I'd say he probably still holds, though Rogue Nation's Sean Harris at least comes close.)

Despite being a civilian, Julia proves herself a remarkably competent and capable heroine when she basically saves the day after being saved by Ethan. Ethan actually dies for a little while in this movie, and Julia not only manages to (eventually) revive him, but also to slay quite a few more villains (including the turncoat IMF superior) in the time while he's dead! There's a brief moment in Mission: Impossible III where we get to glimpse her hanging out with the whole team (including Benji), and at the time it seemed to portend more... but sadly that wasn't to be, and her character was obviously taken in a different direction.

If M:I-2 suffered from an overabundance of style from a director who was ridiculously self-assured, Mission: Impossible III suffers from a relative lack of style from a director who's just discovering his. Abrams can tell a story like nobody's business (on its own enough to elevate the third film well above the second one), and he's good with character and hence good with actors (much better than Woo on this front), eliciting fine performances from all involved. But he's not (or at least wasn't at this point in his career) a master of building elaborate action scenes. Mind you, he's not bad at it, either, but most of the action direction feels a tad perfunctory. Used to television and having to stretch a small budget, he tends to rely heavily on close-ups during chase scenes and fights that require the camera to occasionally stand back and let the audiences get their bearings. Even simple conversations over-rely on close-ups, cutting from one face to another as dialogue is spoken (again, standard for TV), and rarely giving us a two-shot with both characters in focus at the same time. That said, the editing is good, and the shots are at least reliably steady and never so jerky (like all the imitation Greengrass stuff we see in this genre) that we can't tell what's going on. And I definitely prefer this sort of action to overwrought slow motion. But it would take another movie for us to get back to truly spectacular action where you can always tell who's where. And Abrams' palette is as cool as Woo's was warm, but just as monotonous. I did get a bit sick of blues and greens. 

Overall, Mission: Impossible III is a major step in the right direction. It's more of a team movie, with a few more nods to the TV show than the second movie had. It's got a great score that once again makes ample use of Schifrin, as any M:I score should. And it's got legitimate character development. But it also gets a bit bogged down in that character development. Ethan isn't Sidney Bristow. Audiences don't want to see him torn between action and home life; they just want to see him performing ever more impossible stunts! Abrams did exactly what he knew how to do expertly at that time. He delivered a terrific big-screen Alias movie, with the cast of Mission: Impossible. But even if that formula doesn't make for a perfect Mission, it proved the perfect stepping stone from which both the franchise and Abrams were able to reach stunning new heights.

The DVD and Blu-ray feature a surprisingly in-depth half-hour making-of. Sure, it’s largely EPK footage of people congratulating each other, but it’s also a fly-on-the-wall look at J.J. Abrams’ first feature directing experience. It shows how a lot of the stunts were done, what things were miniatures, and reveals that that Berlin factory where they rescue Lindsey is actually the same building where the pilot of Alias was shot! It's also worth noting that the documentary ends with a  piece of music not found in the movie that uses the Mission: Impossible theme. That's a rap with M:I-related lyrics called “Self Destruct” by Kid Beyond. I can’t find any information about this bizarre track online! With lyrics mentioning, “Retinal scanning procedure” and a chorus that goes, “Get ready for the self-destruct," it has more to do with the series than a lot of the pop songs on the second film's soundtrack.

There are also five short deleted scenes. Most are from the Berlin factory sequence, and it's easy to see why Abrams decided to cut that down and keep things moving quickly through the movie's first action scene. But one scene between Cruise and Crudup proves to be a pretty substantial omission, whose inclusion would have improved the movie's plot. Another shows a lot more of Maggie Q and her Lamborghini (never a bad thing!), which not only provides more eye candy, but also explains how her character gets into the Vatican, something resolved (somewhat confusingly) off-screen in the film.

The commentary with Abrams and Cruise contains many surprising revelations, like the fact that the famous Philip Seymour Hoffman dialogue in the opening scene (that was featured heavily in the film's marketing campaign) was originally shot as Eddie Marsan’s dialogue. Then they realized that it had to be Hoffman speaking and reshot it. Marsan's part became tiny, but it was definitely the right decision because it helps make Hoffman such a great villain. 

Mission Report
TV Moments: Loads—mostly from Alias, though, instead of Mission: Impossible! (Ethan's disguise as a priest does seem vaguely reminiscent of Martin Landau in the episode "The Cardinal," however.)
Dangling: There’s a classic horizontal dangle as Ethan descends the Vatican wall (winkingly acknowledging its own superfluousness, as opposed to M:I-2’s blatant and inferior copying)
Rogue Agents: Yes, it’s pretty clear that one of Ethan’s IMF bosses—Musgrave or Brasell—is a turncoat... sort of an Ipcress File situation.
Rogue Ethan: For sure. Locked up like Hannibal Lechter on nonsense charges by Brasell, he escapes to save his wife and somehow convinces his whole team to go along with him on this unsanctioned, personal mission.
Fashion Alert: Either the 2000s wasn’t a decade of particularly egregious trends, or we’re still too close to realize what was wrong. Happily, Ethan never sports an Ed Hardy T-shirt and neck tattoo, anyway!
The Long Run: Ethan has to run across most of Shanghai as the clock ticks down on Julia, and Benji directs him via cell phone.

Buy Mission: Impossible III on Blu-ray on Amazon.

Read my review of M:I-2 (2000) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible (1996) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fifth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.