If Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation confirms anything, it’s that the Tom Cruise-fronted franchise has spent almost two decades trying to work its way back to Brian De Palma and back to the roots of where the series began.
In some of my previous pieces on the earlier films in the Mission Impossible franchise, one fact that remains true is how the series consistently reinvents itself every few years in order to stay vibrant and relevant, but oddly enough Rogue Nation on reflection is not as bold a reinvention after 2011’s Ghost Protocol as you might remember. There is greater filmmaking skill involved, with Christopher McQuarrie imbuing more heft into his set pieces than Brad Bird managed in the previous film, while McQuarrie’s script (revised after efforts by Will Staples and before that Drew Pearce, with whom he shares a story credit) certainly has more depth to the storytelling. Beyond that, there is a consistency framing itself between this and Ghost Protocol, one which may well carry through into the next film, Fallout.
Rogue Nation is consistent in how it stylistically reaches back to the first film in the franchise while further mythologising Cruise and his character Ethan Hunt.
If you ran a poll asking the average film goer, and indeed the average film critic, which of the Mission Impossible films they considered to be the strongest outing in the franchise, you would have a significant amount point to Ghost Protocol. On the face of it, you can see why. Once you scratch deeper, those reasons become more opaque.
Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.
Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.
The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.
Mission Impossible II is a film that remains eternally fascinating to me, particularly as the demonstrable nadir of, otherwise, one of cinema’s most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises.
The better entries of the Tom Cruise-led modern adaptation of Bruce Geller’s iconic 1960’s espionage TV series are easier to write about, in many respects. You have the Euro-centric, Hitchcockian suspense and classic retro thrills of Brian De Palma’s first 1996 take on the material, and once JJ Abrams and Bad Robot get their hands on the property from 2006’s Mission Impossible III onwards, the franchise becomes a much slicker fusion of all-American spy thrills, combining modern technology, action spectacle and ‘spy-fi’ theatrics. Abrams’ III is an adaptation of his TV series Alias in all but name. John Woo’s II is the clear, harder to define aberration.
In a way, it also remains the most interesting.
Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned *within* the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.
Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me. It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.
Adaptations of successful stage experiences to the silver screen are not always adept at capturing the magic of what drew people to the piece in a theatrical setting. The Woman in Black is probably the best example; widely regarded across the world as one of the most terrifying experiences an audience can have in a theatre, both of its cinematic versions retained for many a sense of atmosphere but lacked the potent dread and fear. The jury will be out as to whether the same is true of Ghost Stories.
Having never seen Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s original play performed on the West End stage, I shall refrain from drawing comparisons between the source material and its adaptation. That can be left for others who have had both experiences. As a piece of cinema, Ghost Stories does manage to capture a level of creeping, dreamlike enigma, shot through with not a little dash of the kind of jet black comedy Dyson added as part of The League of Gentlemen foursome – he was their Terry Gilliam, the unseen on screen writing partner, aside from a cameo – indeed you may spot him in Ghost Stories in a similar function if you’re eagle eyed. Ghost Stories is by no means as broad as the BBC comedy, and is first and foremost a dramatic tale, but there is an undercurrent of gallows humour to the piece which at times grounds it in a sense of normality, as it ventures into strange waters.
It would be tempting to suggest I Kill Giants is a direct result of the critical and commercial success of Patrick Ness & JA Bayona’s A Monster Calls, but given this adaptation of the Joe Kelly & JM Kim Niimura’s indie-graphic novel from 2008 was filmed in September 2016, before A Monster Calls was released, this suggests the two are just a happy, coincidental accident.
I mention this because I Kill Giants owes a huge debt to Bayona’s film, both in terms of narrative structure and thematic sensibility. This is ironic because Kelly & Niimura’s source material was published a good three years before Ness published his novel, which Bayona subsequently made into a film, so in many respects perhaps the inspiration should be flipped on its head. Had I Kill Giants been filmed and released first, that may well have been the case, although somehow I doubt it. For the principal reason that Anders Walter doesn’t nearly manage to evoke the same level of heartfelt anguish, awe and pain from Kelly’s script adaptation of the graphic novel as Bayona managed from Ness’ screenplay adaptation of A Monster Calls. The two may have a great deal of DNA in common, but they are significantly apart in successful execution.