Saturday, February 11, 2012

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it does.

I have a hazy memory from when I was a very small fry. It was probably from shortly after our house was burglarized while we were on vacation, with no sign of efforts from our dachshund Noodle S. Romanoff III to prevent the dastardly deed. The notion of dogs being used as deterrents to burglars was being discussed with one of my parents. Mom or Dad mentioned the tactic of the burglars' tossing a piece of meat to a guard dog to keep it occupied and feeling friendly. After puzzling for a moment, I proposed, "Well, we could find out where the burglars live and then go to their house and steal all their meat." I don't quite remember what the response was, although I do recall, in my defense, that it occurred to me quite quickly that they could just buy more meat.

I'll give the guy one thing: he does (a lot of) his own stunts, as here...
(image: Paramount Pictures)
This story came back to me while contemplating, in a blissful post-screening afterglow, the mechanics of world-saving international espionage as portrayed in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. The operational instincts of the superspy heroes operate along similarly childish-magical lines, with bluntly direct solutions that require a breathtakingly long and unlikely - if not impossible - series of steps to make them work. Which is almost like being complicated, but not quite. 

Allow me to elucidate with my favorite example: You have to intercept a meeting between enemy agents who plan to exchange a briefcase containing stolen nuclear launch codes, and snatch the codes away while leaving your nemeses none the wiser so you can continue to track them. What do you do? Why, you show up early to the hotel, disguise yourselves with hyperrealistic masks, disguise one whole floor as another,  take over the elevators to send one of your targets to this wrong floor, and carry on two separate sham versions of the meeting simultaneously. Of course!

The idiot-savant genius of this scheme is only enriched when it goes awry at every step ("How could such an idea fail?!" you gasp, but it's true!), requiring expedients such as a more-or-less free-climbing trip up the glass face of the world's tallest building. Behold the power of the Absurd! It defeats not only a moviegoer's logical objections, but his or her likely revulsion against L. Ron Cruise, star and producer, and eternal runner-up to Mel Gibson in the career-crippling self-delusion sweepstakes. 

... and here...
(image: David James/Paramount Pictures & New York Times)

To be fair, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Rider (or M:I4 as I'll call it from here, just because it's shorter) has other virtues going for it besides high-concept nuttiness, or it wouldn't be a peak example - a likely classic - of the Hollywood action blockbuster form, a movie that can largely hold its own against a Raiders of the Lost Ark or a Die Hard. [Insert standard complaint here about how action movies now are all chaotically shot and edited to the point where you can't tell who's hitting whom. Contrast with M:I4. There, that's out of the way.] I'll get to some of those others further below, but the main thing I want to focus on is the underappreciated grace and skill of the writers who can pull off this sort of "and then this happens and then THIS happens and..." sort of plotting.

Even people who enjoy action films will often chortle at the notion of an action film screenplay - the genre seems, on the surface at least, so defiantly unliterary. The assumption is that the writer of such a story merely provides the requisite downtime and minimal connective tissue between big scenes where stuff blows up - scenes which are the real point of the movie, and the province of the director and stunt coordinator and other technical and visual craftspeople. And of course that's often true. But there's another type of action story where the headlong but precise unfolding of plot points, like the exploding of a perfectly timed chain of firecrackers, is a big part of the thrill. M:I4 has this virtue in spades, and it's not an easy one to cultivate, although it's part of the writers' job to keep you from noticing the effort involved.

The writers here are Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec, a team who got plenty of experience with this sort of story while writing and producing on the espionage TV series Alias (credit here also to that show's creator, J.J. Abrams, who directed M:I3 and co-produces the fourth film, also contributing his favorite composer, Michael Giacchino, and a cameo from one of his Lost TV stars, Josh Holloway). There's never any feeling that they're willing to say "This is good enough because we're just building a basic frame for action scenes." Their moment-to-moment invention is dazzling - never more so than, once again, in the pivotal mid-movie suspense sequence in the towering hotel that I described above. The basic conception of the sequence would have been amusing enough if carried off well, but Applebaum and Nemec throw a new monkeywrench into the works every other minute, ratcheting up the stakes and the tension every time you think they can't go higher. Of particular note is the tendency of the Impossible Mission Force's trademark high-tech equipment to malfunction at the worst moments. It's a running gag, but also a practical means to generate maximum thrills: gadgets are a hoot, but human beings relying on their own muscles and brains are far more exciting. This operating principle carries over into the macro-level plotting - as others have pointed out, having the heroes falsely accused of a terrorist bombing and hunted as rogues is basically a move to extract them from the protective cushion of the intelligence network they work for - the worse the circumstances for them, the better for the audience. The writers can keep upping the ante on their cornered desperation at carefully timed intervals (just when the audience is in danger of relaxing too much), without any escape hatch. 

...and here...
(image: Paramount & WondrousPics)

To carry off something like this, Applebaum and Nemec must write with huge flow charts on the walls above their computer monitors. It is, to a great extent, a traffic cop's job, monitoring the ebb and flow of narrative options: every step in the story - or moment in an action setpiece - opens up a branching of options, and closes off some others, and the successful writer has to seize the right ones, get the most out of them possible while leaving open other pathways, then move on to one of the new options, and repeat, over and over. This is true of most or all storytelling, but it's intensified in this genre, where breathless pace and a series of twists are both de rigeur, and keeping the audience's attention constantly riveted is job #1.

This is the same thing you'll see happening in older favorites of roughly this type like the aforementioned Raiders or Die Hard (it's a larger job to trace the connections with a show like Alias or Lost, which operates in the same way but at a slower pace and on a grander scale). The only thing keeping it from quite matching these two is the lack of a central protagonist as memorably human as Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones or Bruce Willis's John McClane. Instead, it has Tom Cruise, who as so often is such a black hole for recognizable feelings that he may as well be playing the Terminator or RoboCop. The one note of dour intensity that he plays best has been shaped and directed to better ends in a few previous movies, like Rain Man or Eyes Wide Shut or Magnolia, films where he isn't supposed to be particularly likeable and the need to unclench his sphincter is a big part of his character's arc, or Born on the Fourth of July, where he's supposed to be a bit of an icon, a bit of a fanatic, and both more than a human being. The M:I movies try sometimes to make his character, Ethan Hunt, a James Bondian debonair, and other times a Hitchcockian everyman in desperate circumstances, but he's not up to it. Instead, Hunt comes across the kind of company automaton who lives only for his soul-sucking job and the ever-increasing levels of mental and physical perfection he can achieve in the course of it. He probably gets up at 4:00 a.m. every day (weekends included) and eats wheat germ for breakfast, then does chin-ups on a bar in his bedroom doorway with a book in one hand practicing foreign languages or codebreaking or something. 

This line of thought suggests a more interesting and funnier direction for the character, if Cruise and his writers and directors would stop fighting it - Ethan Hunt the lonely grind, the guy that you want backing you up in a duel of wits or fists with a deadly enemy, but that you don't really want to have a beer with when it's all over. I haven't seen the third movie, which supposedly deals with Hunt's married domestic life and his struggle to keep it separate from his work, so maybe some of this is addressed there. It's hard to imagine the guy marrying anybody, though, or more to the point, anybody marrying him.

...and here.
(image: Here Comes Treble)
All that said, this is far less of a problem in Mission: Impossible - Space Ghost than in a lot of Cruise vehicles (including the first M:I), as the new film embeds him in an ensemble of genuinely charming co-stars/sidekicks and gives them lots of screen time and plenty of business, much of it quite funny. The audience engagement that would flow through Ford or Willis is here split among four performers - the other three being Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton - pulling focus from the nominal star's dullness. Renner in particular really shows up Cruise. He plays the movie's other square-jawed good guy with an effortless humanity, and before the movie was over I noticed that I was starting to regard him as the hero. I'm not the first nor the last person to remark that in a better world they would hand over the franchise to Renner (although in the event, he's getting the Bourne franchise instead). For that matter, Patton, credibly tough and physically skilled as well as physically stunning, should get her own action movie, too, although that's a rare prize for a woman in Hollywood.
(image: Paramount and PeepRead)
Maybe that's the greatest complement I can pay to Mission: Inconceivable - Ghost Protocol: even with Tom Cruise, I'd still look forward to the fifth movie, assuming largely the same behind-the-camera talent. If they're looking for plot ideas, I have some nifty ideas sketched out involving the infiltration of a burglary ring's secret meat locker...

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