I finally got around recently to watching the fifth instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise. As expected, it was slick and high-budget, with impressive real-life stunts. Besides hanging on to moving planes and swerving motorcycles, Tom Cruise is showing his age a little, a rigid expression setting into his normally expressive face, a rictus grin replacing the toothy bluster of his youth, reminding me a bit of old Stoneface himself, the silent movie star Buster Keaton, who also, ironically, did all of his own stunts well into later life. We will see how long Tom lasts.
But back to the film, the problem with which is, to paraphrase the Bard, that it is much ado about nothing. As with so many of its ilk nowadays, such films avoid controversial topics like the plague (and even that topic is handled with the requisite political correctness, as in Matt Damon’s Contagion, basically a two-hour infomercial for the indispensability of the World Health Organization and its byzantine and bloated bureaucracy, which can, of course, solve any world crisis like incurable disease).
But the rub is that without controversy, there is no drama.
Nowhere is the vapidity of modern films more evident than in their choice of the bad guy(s). As Mark Steyn has pointed out, movies used to use real-life enemies to provide the tension: The ‘Japs’ and the ‘Krauts’ in World War II, the ‘Russians’ and the ‘KGB’ during the Cold War, corporate America in ‘Wall Street’ and its ilk.
One might think our films would dramatize evils that we are actually facing: Islamic terrorism comes to mind, or the difficulty of cultural assimilation. But no. Too sensitive for the fragile necks of Hollywood-types, which are not made for sticking out, unless the cause is safe, secure and politically correct, like global warming or black actors deserving Oscars.
So in Mission Impossible we have the go-to ‘rogue agent’, Solomon Lane, a rather pathetic-looking former member of the IMF (I always think of the International Monetary Fund when I hear that acronym, before the Impossible Mission Force reasserts itself, but, then again, they both play in fiction). Well, this agent, who has the defect of a weak chin and a funny nose (the distinctive-nose-syndrome, from Cruise’s own famous irregular schnozz, to the pointy nose of the female uber-agent, stands out in a number of actors in this romp), runs a rogue group bent on world domination, or instability, or something, for purposes that are unclear and ill-defined. Lane and his agents, for all their world-class-agent-skills, also cannot aim a gun, even at close range with an apparently unlimited number of bullets. Ho-hum.
And, speaking of the female British agent, aptly named Ilsa Faust, I guess because she deals in death or has magical skills (?), I have written before on how she implausibly steals the show: In an almost childish ‘everything Tom can do, she can do better’, the film is a montage of her apparent superiority in all things secret-agent-ish, from martial arts, to riding a motorbike, to knife fighting, to marksmanship (or is that markswomanship?), to holding her breath underwater, and so on. Well, it is the age of the Woman, and she has to make up for all those past movies in the age of patriarchy wherein Woman was the helpless rescuee, fainting into the arms of her muscular hero at just the right moment. Now it is Tom who faints into her arms. Yes, the once mighty-mouse Cruise is relegated to the background, looking befuddled and amazed by her excellences. Isla is all buffed up, dispatching rogue agents with various yoga-esque ju-jitsu moves, which involve jumping up and wrapping her legs awkwardly around their necks. I mean, she is attractive in an Swedish-English sort of way, but would secret agents of the male persuasion go so far to stand for such indignity? One wonders.
I am all for films developing what Pope John Paul would call the ‘genius of woman’, but this does not mean their competition on all things masculine. Are women to find their place in society only by becoming more like men? Some degree of the complementarity of man and woman is in order, and there must be a way to do this even in secret agent films.
And speaking of complementarity, the other characters in the IMF are add-ons without much purpose, just to make this a ‘group effort’, I guess to spread the wealth, and so the series does not look too much like Tom Cruise doing James Bond. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames seem to have identical and redundant jobs as the requisite ‘computer whizzes’, and act as though sleepwalking to their impossibly-sized paycheques. The scene where Pegg declares his loyalty to Cruise seems flat; and, as Ving’s character aptly says in one of his few scenes as he works his laptop: “I could have done this from home”. Indeed.
Ah, the vapidity. One could argue people are just looking for entertainment and popcorn and visual spectacle, and well enough, but should we not ask for some degree of thought, background, development, and dramatic tension in our films? I suppose there are always lower depths to plumb compared to which the MI series reads like Shakespeare (and here I think of such things as the Transformers or Avengers). But one must compare excellence to excellence, not to even more mediocre mediocrity.
They are already starting production for the sixth instalment in the financially successful sequels, which make far more money overseas than here (perhaps because they cannot understand the dialogue, and think the movie is about something else). Here’s hoping at the very least that next time they figure out how to portray a real bad guy, and a real woman.