Monday, February 6, 2017

Film Appreciation - The Spy Who Married Me

Cody Hamman accepts the mission to show Film Appreciation for 2006's Mission: Impossible III.

By early 2002, I had become a die hard fan of an actor I had been watching in movies my entire life, Tom Cruise. I liked watching him in dramas, and I also thought it was awesome when he would mix some action in there - at this point in his career, it's kind of the opposite, he is primarily focused on action movies and mixes in some dramas and comedies. I had come to like Mission: Impossible more than I did upon my initial viewings of it in 1996 and 2000's Mission: Impossible II had blown me away with the extended action sequences and the sight of Cruise kicking ass John Woo style.

I was eagerly anticipating news of a Mission: Impossible III and who might be the next director for this "directors showcase" series. Brian De Palma had directed the first film, Woo the second (after Oliver Stone was briefly attached to direct it - imagine how different M:I II would have been with Stone at the helm, especially if the rumor is true that his story involved a "sentient super computer"), who would put their stamp on the series next? In April of '02, there came a report that blew my mind - the next Mission: Impossible film would be directed by David Fincher. I was instantly hyped to see what a Fincher Mission would be like, and my hype went through the roof when I heard that the story Fincher was working on involved the trafficking of human organs in Africa. This sounded dark and messed up, and a Mission: Impossible that dark and messed up wasn't meant to be. Within a year, Fincher had dropped out and was replaced by another interesting choice, a filmmaker who was just working his way up - Joe Carnahan. Carnhan continued to take the sequel down the darker, grittier path, and when he signed on it was expected that the movie would be out in 2004, sticking with a "new Mission every four years" pattern. But the development dragged on bit, multiple drafts of the script were worked on by the likes of Robert Towne, Frank Darabont, Dean Georgaris, and Dan Gilroy, who would go on to work with his brother Tony Gilroy on the spy movie The Bourne Legacy.

Over a year later, and just a month before filming was scheduled to begin for a 2005 release, Carnahan left the project due to creative differences, differences which I think had to do with tone. Carnahan was aiming to make a "punk rock" style film that took on real world issues. Little has leaked about the specifics of Carnahan's story, but he has said that it was, like Fincher's idea, set in Africa, and it dealt with private militaries and "links between arms sales in the States, the Baltic and the African West." Kenneth Branagh was cast to play a villain based on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, with Carrie-Anne Moss also signed on to play an Impossible Missions Force agent named Leah Quint and Scarlett Johansson on board as a new IMF recruit, the protégé of Cruise's veteran spy Ethan Hunt. When Carnahan left, the project was delayed another year and Branagh, Moss, and Johansson all dropped out as well.

The tone and style is different and they don't have those specific story elements, but apparently the final version of Mission: Impossible III as well as the fourth and fifth films, Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, all contain ideas that were originally meant to be in Carnahan's III.

The filmmaker who ended up making the movie was J.J. Abrams, who got his start as a screenwriter and went on to create or co-create some successful television shows like Felicity, Lost, and the spy show Alias. It was after binge watching some Alias that Cruise had the idea of offering Abrams the chance to make M:I III his feature directorial debut. At that point, Abrams' directing credits only consisted of a couple episodes of Felicity, the Lost pilot, and three episodes (the pilot, season one finale, and season two finale) of Alias. This offer was huge, and Abrams took it. And clearly it worked out, with him being one of the biggest names in Hollywood now and all.

Abrams wasn't a big name then, though, and I was a little disappointed that the choice didn't end up being someone with an established name and style like a De Palma, Woo, Stone, Fincher type, but I was a fan of Alias and Lost so I couldn't complain.

With the aid of Alias writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Abrams reworked Mission: Impossible III from the ground up and did indeed put his personal stamp on it, like an M:I director is supposed to. In doing this, he basically blended the concepts of Mission: Impossible and Alias.

When Bruce Geller created the original Mission: Impossible TV series, he had no interest in the personal lives of his characters. The show wasn't about that, it was about their missions. Geller's approach was tossed out the window for M:I III, which is all about the personal life of a former IMF field agent Ethan Hunt, who is now an instructor for the agency. Abrams' show was as much or more about the personal life of its lead spy as it was about her missions, and this was made at a time when character was being made more of priority for action and spy movies in general - James Bond was also about to start having more personal, emotional adventures when Casino Royale was released a few months after M:I III.

After starting off with an intense flash forward, something of an Abrams trademark at the time, M:I III takes us somewhere we had never been before - the Virginia home of Ethan Hunt, a home he now shares with a woman named Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), a nurse he apparently met while on vacation in New Zealand. This first scene at Ethan and Julia's house takes place during their engagement party. Their relationship is likely the reason that Ethan is an instructor now, as he's looking forward to settling into some everyday domestic bliss. Something his fellow agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, reprising his role from the first two movies) doesn't think an IMF agent can actually achieve. As far as Julia knows, Ethan studies traffic patterns for the Department of Transportation.

Luther's theory that the job will ruin a relationship gets some support right up front here, as Ethan has to briefly leave the party when IMF Operations Manager John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) calls him away to give him some troubling news: an agent he trained, basically the protégé role Johansson would have played in Carnahan's version, has been captured while tracking arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Normally IMF protocol is to disavow any agents who are captured, but Davian is an important target and agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) may have information that will help bring him down, so a rescue team has been assembled to retrieve him from where Davian is holding her at an an abandoned factory outside of Berlin. The team consists of Luther, who handles equipment and tech, Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the transportation guy, and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q), whose specialty is combat assault. Musgrave wants Ethan to go back into the field to lead this mission.

Ethan accepts. And the team successfully extracts Lindsey from that factory in the film's first big action sequence, a quick and exciting sequence that partially serves to allow Keri Russell to distance herself from her Felicity days by doing some action heroine stuff and also lets Ethan slide down the side of a building on a rope. If Ethan isn't engaging in some kind of "acrobatic insanity" at some point, it isn't a Mission: Impossible movie, and III has more than just this rope moment. And more than a moment later when he goes up the side of a wall on a rope.

As the team makes their escape, the mission fails. Lindsey dies when a small explosive device implanted in her head is detonated. This is a major failure, but it's just the first time Ethan fails in this film. It will happen several times. Ethan rarely succeeds as planned at anything he tries to do here. In Mission: Impossible II he was the definition of a super spy, extremely capable and nearly untouchable. It's like III is an answer to the criticism that the second film was too much of a vanity project, all about making Cruise look cool and suave. Here Ethan makes several mistakes, has equipment failures, isn't able to make a long jump at an important time, accidentally allows the villain to gain information, loses the villain, can't save people. Ethan fails so badly in this movie that even literally dies at one point. It's an interesting approach to an action movie to have the hero failing at nearly every turn.

With the death of Lindsey, Ethan is now all-in to apprehend Davian and thwart his sale of a mysterious item referred to as the Rabbit's Foot. The Rabbit's Foot is as MacGuffin as a MacGuffin can get. It's so irrelevant what this thing is that its true function is never revealed, and yet the pursuit of this thing and the attempt to keep it out of the wrong hands, hands that would be willing to pay $850 million for it, is a driving force for a large part of the film. All we really have to go on is a theory put forth by IMF tech guy Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, taking on a role he's reprise in future sequels) that it's a device with apocalyptic capabilities. He calls such thing "the Anti-God". Whatever it is, it really doesn't matter. What matters are the character dynamics.

Before going on a mission to infiltrate the Vatican and capture Davian at a party there, Ethan visits Julia at the hospital where she works and decides to have an impromptu wedding right there in the hospital chapel. Our spy hero has gotten married, and if you're familiar with the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service you'll start to get worried for Julia's well-being around this point.

Nabbing Davian at the Vatican is quite an ordeal, as you might expect, one which requires Ethan to wear a Davian mask - and this time around we get to see just how these life-like masks are made and how the people wearing them are able to perfectly duplicate the voice of the person they're trying to pass themselves off as. It's some clever stuff.

The real trouble comes when Davian is in their clutches, though, and this character is what really makes the film as effective as it is. Hoffman's performance as Davian is absolutely incredible. In my book, this guy ranks right up there as one of the best, most chilling villains you could ever hope to see in an action movie. Nothing concerns him. His confidence is unshakable. Even when he finds himself tied up in a cargo plane, prisoner of a group of IMF agents, he still clearly feels like he's in control of the situation. He taunts Ethan, he threatens him and Julia. There is no doubt in his mind that he is going to escape from these people, track down Ethan's loved one, torment her, and kill Ethan in front of her. Or vice versa, if he changes his mind in the moment. He makes Ethan lose his temper in a major way during the flight, and when they land in Virginia his confidence is proven to be well-founded, as a team of rocket-firing, drone-equipped mercenaries pull off a rescue that Ethan is unable to stop.

Davian gets free. He kidnaps Julia. With his life in her hands, he becomes Ethan's puppet master, forcing him and his IMF team to work for him, to steal the Rabbit's Foot from a laboratory in Shanghai. This provides another action sequence that includes Ethan's biggest moment of "acrobatic insanity" when he has to swing from one rooftop on a rope, detach the rope and drop onto the slanted glass roof of another building.

Once the Rabbit's Foot is in Ethan's possession, the stage has been set for an emotionally-charged climax in which Davian has a gun to Julia's head, Ethan has an explosive charge implanted in his own head, and Ethan runs so far out of luck that he's not even alive when the last villain is dispatched. Of course, he's revived, there are more sequels after this one, but this does feature the death of Ethan Hunt.

The version of the Impossible Mission Force presented here basically functions as a CIA-like agency, with a headquarters and a top boss who all of the agents report to, Laurence Fishburne as Theodore Brassel. Brassel is basically one of those "angry captains" you see in cop movies, always dressing down those who serve under him and butting heads with our hero over his methods. As the story goes on, Brassel will even come to suspect that Ethan is a traitor.

Given that the main villains in both Mission: Impossible and Mission: Impossible II were IMF traitors, I went into this one desperately hoping that there would be no traitors. Thankfully we have Davian as the main villain this time, but there is still a traitor working within IMF, which is one of the film's down points for me. Sure, this character doesn't seem himself as a bad guy, he sees himself as a patriot and thinks he's helping his country with his unscrupulous actions, but he's still an IMF-employed villain, and it doesn't seem like a good idea to have traitor after traitor after traitor in these movies.

Regardless of that issue, I still find Mission: Impossible III to be a highly entertaining, deeply emotionally involving film. I would have loved to have seen Fincher's version and Carnahan's version, I'm still very curious to know how they would have played, but I'm happy with the Abrams version we got. It may not be especially dark and gritty, it may not directly deal will real world issues or have a message, but it is a fantastic popcorn action flick that I get totally wrapped up in. Ethan and Julia only get some fleeting moments before he has to go on an intense quest to save her life, but in those moments I come to care for Julia and their relationship. I feel how desperate Ethan is to save her and I get all emotionally worked up about it myself.

This was a great feature debut for Abrams, who was still displaying some television sensibilities, including liking to keep the camera quite close to his actors, but Cruise and Paramount trusted him with a $150 million movie his first time out and he pulled it off like a pro.

M:I III wasn't the movie I thought it would be at any point during that four year wait between the Fincher announcement and its release, but it still turned out to be worth the wait. I didn't get a dark and messed up M:I, but I did get one that affects me emotionally, and I can't knock that.

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