Thursday, September 24, 2009

Memo to JJ Abrams

To: JJ Abrams
From: Brian O'Rourke, A Moviegoer Of Little To No Importance
Date: 9/20/09
RE: Mission: Impossible IV

There's been a lot of buzz recently about two sequels: Star Trek 2 and Mission: Impossible IV. Mr. Abrams, you are no doubt receiving more advice, ideas, and feedback than you know what to do with regarding Star Trek 2, so I won't burden you with more of the same. I was wondering, however, if you'd care to listen to some advice on how to make the next installment of the bumpy and uneven series that is Mission: Impossible into a really good movie.

To begin with, let's recap the series thus far. 1996's Mission: Impossible turned the concept of the TV series on its head. In the first twenty minutes of the movie, Ethan Hunt, our hero, watches helplessly as each member of his team dies pretty a horrific death while on a very important mission. To make matters worse, after Hunt has seen all this happen, the brass accuse him of the murders and of being a double agent, selling secrets on the side. I say this movie turned the series on its head because Mission: Impossible the TV series had always been more of a team show. The better episodes employed intricate plotting, where each character had an important role in the mission, and thus the stories had many moving parts. This really amped up the suspense and the fun of the show. By virtue of killing off Hunt's team in the beginning of the 1996 film, the movie necessarily became more of a one-man show. On the whole, the first film is well-shot (of course it is, because the underrated Brian DePalma directed it) and well-acted, and the opening thirty minutes of the movie create a real sense of paranoia in the spy world of smoke and mirrors. There is a great set piece in the middle of the film, too, where Hunt manages to break into the CIA, which has been parodied time and time again in the ensuing thirteen years. It's a decent film that comes off the rails toward the end because of hopelessly convoluted plotting and the ridiculous final action set piece.

Without exaggeration, MI: II is one of the worst movies I've ever seen in the theater. The sequel essentially turns Hunt into an American James Bond, a somewhat roguish agent who bickers with his handler, and who of course manages to find the time while on a mission to meet and fall in love with a beautiful woman. John Woo sticks to his own rule of having at least three chase scenes in every movie he makes, and really does little else. The mask trick is overused in this movie and that unfortunately carries through to the next film. And gone again is the team aspect that made the series so cool: Hunt, a larger-than-life super spy, braves it mostly alone throughout. and the usually cool Ving Rhames is along for the ride only to remind us of how dangerous and cool Hunt is.

MI: III is the best of the series. Its plot is more plausible than the first film; the action, while over-the-top, isn't overblown like in the second film; and Abrams allows most of his characters to develop into people with real interpersonal relationships. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laurence Fishburne make the most of relatively small parts, and the plot has some really good turns. Still, though, Cruise dominates the story, and much of the plot is devoted to Hunt balancing the demands of his career with a normal married existence. The film could have been called Family Life: Impossible, and the title would have been just as appropriate.

So, what do I have by way of advice for MI: IV? If you haven't already guessed it, here it is: go back to the concept of the TV show. Make the mission the most important thing going on in the plot and allow it to dominate the second act. Make this next film into more of a team effort, where every character has an important job to do, as opposed to just waiting around for Hunt to work his magic and scrambling to keep up with him while he's working. Put all of the characters in danger. Make us think the mission could go wrong at any juncture, not just when Hunt is involved. Make it so the mission really does seem impossible.

Each movie so far has shown Hunt at odds with his administration. Let's not go there again. Let the focus be on the enemies from without, as opposed to the enemies from within. A good old-fashioned good guys versus bad guys scenario will actually be a breath of fresh air in this series.

Finally, you transformed super spy Hunt into a seemingly real person in MI: III. Bravo, well done. That was a nice counterpoint to the cartoonery of MI: II. But we don't need any more of that. If you want to continue the spy managing a real home life thread, by all means do so, but don't make it the point of the movie. If you want, turn Hunt into the next Jim Phelps, a character the series has been sorely missing, a true leader, not a maverick agent who occasionally needs help from other spies.

Or, just go ahead and do what you want because you seem to know exactly what you're doing, if Star Trek's box office is any indication.