Fuck, Marry, Kill – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

The general, perhaps hyperbolic consensus about Mission: Impossible – Fallout is that it’s the best action blockbuster to hit the big screen since Mad Max: Fury Road. The two films don’t seem to have much in common beyond being late-in-the-franchise sequels that shrewdly exploit the basic thrills of their shared genre by stringing together a nonstop onslaught of chase sequences through extravagant set pieces. However, they are two pictures that the Swampflix crew was a little too late to the table to add anything substantial to in our coverage. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a great action pic, matching even its predecessor Rogue Nation as one of the best entries in the franchise. As the film was initially released well over a month ago, however, you’ve likely already heard variations of that praise ad nauseam, so instead of properly reviewing the film we’re attempting to avoid excessive critical redundancy by having some late-summer fun objectifying the film’s Hollywood-handsome cast. The series-arcing plot of Mission: Impossible is effectively resettable & amnesia-inducing from film to film; its stunts are technically impressive, but like all amusement park rides are more fun in experience than in description or critique. The only questions we can answer here, then, are which hunky members of the cast we would fuck, which we would marry, and which we would kill.

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Fuck Henry Cavill – This choice seems self-explanatory to me. Henry Cavill looks like he crawled directly out of a Tom of Finland illustration in this picture; he’s just oozing sex. This is easily the most fun he’s been to watch on-screen since The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (my non-apologies to DCEU die-hards who found a way to look past his digitally “removed” mustache in Justice League to see his true inner hunk), but I doubt he’s ever looked sexier, even in U.N.C.L.E.’s swanky 60s garb. Mustachioed meathead brute is a great look for him, one that turns even the nastier close-quarters fist fights into a homoerotic pleasure.

Marry Ving Rhames – This also seems obvious to me, as Rhames is already costumed like your middle-age husband, ready to barbeque a backyard meal while you & The Kids enjoy a swim. Beyond his Cuban button-ups & Target-brand brimmed hats, he’s also the most sensitive member of Ethan Hunt’s crew, shedding a giant man-love tear for his boss/bestie in one of the film’s defining dramatic moments. Rhames is an adorable middle-age teddy bear in Fallout, which promises a more long-lasting love than what Cavill’s mustachioed fuck-monster can likely offer.

Kill Tom Cruise – In deciding who to kill, I think you have to look past what these Hollywood Hunks are offering onscreen here to examine what they’re doing beyond the scenes. Not only is Tom Cruise a high-level operator of a dangerous global cult, but he’s also risking his life with each Mission: Impossible entry by performing a large percentage of his own increasingly dangerous stunts. It’s highly likely that the real-life Tom Cruise is going to die trying to distract his audience from his key role in Scientology through these over-the-top, life-risking stunts, so he might as well be sacrificed to the hypothetical consequences of this frivolous game. If you need that choice to be justified by the text of Fallout, consider that the film asks you to choose sides against anti-institutional anarchists in the favor of international government agents with free reign to interpret & execute the law, most significantly represented by Cruise as Ethan Hunt. It’s a political philosophy that’s tolerable enough in-film, but ultimately ACAB, so Cruise must die no matter the context.

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Fuck Henry Cavill – I mean, pretty much everything Brandon says. It’s not quite a full-blown fetish, but I definitely give extra (sexual) points to a man with a decent mustache*. In a Fuck/Marry/Kill scenario, who wouldn’t take the chance to shag a real-life Tom of Finland illustration?

*The pencil-thin pervert’s mustache and the thick-boi Henry Cavill-style mustache are the only two acceptable styles, however. Walruses, Fu Manchus, and handlebars need not apply.

Marry Simon Peg – He seems like a guy who is good with gadgets and can do a large portion of household maintenance. Even though he’s useless in a fight and lacks the raw sex appeal of pretty much every other guy in this film (background extras included), he seems like he’d be open to some pretty kinky stuff. At the end of the day, a useful pervert is more my speed than a sex idiot (even if it is King Sex Idiot).

Kill Tom Cruise (after fucking him too) – Oh yeah, I’d definitely kill Tom Cruise, but, like, there’s no sense wasting the opportunity to have sex with an ageless cult leader/god. Who knows, maybe magic is real? Let’s be optimistic during the impending End Times.

Adopt Ving Rhames – Ving Rhames and the character he plays in Mission: Impossible both seem like guys who LOVE their mama. I’ve never experienced that level of truly unconditional love and I feel like the intensity of its pure, wholesome light would burn a hole right through my soul – worth it, both for the release from the inescapable ennui of modern life and for how cozy & warm it sounds.

Start a book (wine) club with Michelle Monaghan & Rebecca Ferguson – In the Mission: Impossible movies, these ladies have to put up with so much shit from the men around them. Patriarchy, am I right? Even though one plays a human rights activist/medical doctor, the other plays a super spy, and both are real-life (probably?) wealthy, semi-famous white actresses, I still feel like we’d all have a lot to gab about, like how Henry Cavill is the raw-steak-eaten-while-still-warm-from-the-animal of men and Tom Cruise is a pretty lie we have chosen to believe for far too long. But to make sure we still pass the Bechdel Test when we’re not discussing the Patriarchy, we’d also have books, wine, and the never-ending depths of our existential despair to consider.

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

Oblivion (2013)

One of my greatest personal shames is my unwatched physical media pile. I’m especially embarrassed by the DVDs I have left over from Blockbuster Video’s going-out-of-business sales and, even further back, the video rental chain’s regular 4 for $20 liquidation deals. 2013’s Oblivion is a perfect, distilled example of how a movie can collect dust for so long in these locked-away stashes. I’ve always had a suspicion that Oblivion would appeal to my voracious love of pulpy, highly-stylized sci-fi. Its general reputation is muted-to-negative, though, so I was never inspired to urgently pop it in the DVD player until a recent, especially idle night. Luckily, it turns out I was smart to hold onto that used copy of Oblivion for the last five years, as its reputation is a total injustice. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, whose only previous feature was Tron: Legacy (speaking of trashy sci-fi I seem to love more than the general public), Oblivion is a visually stunning slice of modern pulp that alternates between introspective sci-fi mystery & video game-style action violence. It’s a deeply nerdy graphic novel adaptation masquerading as a mainstream blockbuster, the exact kind of hidden gem that only improves as you get further away from its initial critical reception. As much as I would have loved seeing this film’s technical achievements projected as large & loud as possible in 2013, allowing it to quietly simmer in a stack of fellow forgotten titles instead was probably my best possible chance for falling for its geeky, trashy charms.

Tom Cruise stars as the last man on Earth, a government drone assigned to stay behind on a dying planet to repair & maintain more literal government drones. He shares an Apple Store-esque sky apartment with his coworker/wife as they fill their days completing routine tasks for a menacing, off-planet government/corporation. An untrustworthy history of Earth’s demise is plainly spelled out in an up-front information dump, the preferred exposition delivery system of all trashy sci-fi. Several major twists throughout the story (some also delivered via clunky information dumps) disrupt this early narrative wholesale, to the point where the story bends in on itself for a genuinely surprising development or three. The answers aren’t always as satisfying as the mysteries, but I do appreciate its most substantial gearshift more than most audiences seemed to five years ago. Even if the story were a turn-off, though, I don’t understand how audiences couldn’t help but be impressed by Oblivion’s visual achievements. The special effects have held up incredibly well and are backed up by a slick, modernist production design that proposes what might have happened if Steve Jobs collaborated with Spielberg on the set of A.I. The weaponized drones that serve as the film’s major physical threat are genuinely opposing & unnerving, resembling a flying antithesis to the wholesome cuteness of BB-8. The tension between the sleek, introspective mystery that builds off the machine-like coldness of the film’s design and the PG-13 violence of its sci-fi themed video game action sequences makes for a thoroughly engaging, deeply nerdy blockbuster experience, one I should have pulled the trigger on much sooner.

It’s not all that surprising that The Edge of Tomorrow was the 2010s Tom Cruise sci-fi action blockbuster that broke through critically instead of Oblivion. Oblivion isn’t nearly as cool, clever, or self-aware as that fellow graphic novel adaptation, but that uncoolness is a distinct factor in its charms. One of my favorite pieces of film writing all last year was Emily Yoshida’s article “Why Didn’t Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Find its Audience?” In it, Yoshida bucks against the idea that nerds have won the culture war and that geeky media is now officially cool on its own merit. She writes, “When it comes down to it, most people are so, so scared of seeing something uncool. Audiences are conditioned to dismiss unfamiliar, nerdy shit […] If geek culture truly ruled, it would be possible to launch a big budget genre film without an A-lister and a bucket of glib, self-aware jokes, because people would want to see a bunch of weird aliens on principle. We’d have an Ex Machina-grade middle budget sleeper hit every month and nerd-ass shit like Jupiter Ascending would have three squeals lined up.” While it’s true that Tom Cruise is the epitome of an A-lister and has been for a very long time, I think Oblivion easily qualifies as what Yoshida calls “nerd-ass shit.” The film’s endless mythology of its mandatory “memory wipes,” Saturnal moon colonies, and half-buried NYC monuments are almost embarrassingly geeky. That effect is only amplified by its PG-13 rating, which undercuts its brief indulgences in sex & violence to the level of a preteens-marketed comic book. With more self-aware, glib jokes and a hard-R approach to sex & violence, Oblivion might have snuck by the mainstream’s nerd defenses and become a modest hit. As is, it’s an underappreciated gem of slickly-produced, admirably uncool nerd-ass shit I wish I would have seen big & loud when I had the chance, contemporary reviews be damned.

I should also note that this film predicts that the 2017 Superbowl will be the last before Earth falls into chaos. So, if you’re looking to clear those physical media queues before we all bite the dust, now would be a great time to get started.

-Brandon Ledet

The Reverence & Irreverence for Unicorns in Black Moon (1975) & Legend (1985)

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When we were discussing August’s Movie of the Month, the surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, it was all too easy to pick on the film’s depiction of a plump & frumpy unicorn, since that’s not the image we typically associate the mythical beast with. The movie itself even picks on the unicorn, with its protagonist Lily (one of three Lilys) stating plainly to the poor beast, “You’re not very graceful. In my books unicorns are slim & white.” The Eeyore-esque unicorn then laughs in her face & brays “The most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.” Black Moon playfully subverts the iconic image of a unicorn with what is essentially a horned donkey with a smartass sense of humor. The most realistic depiction of what Lily & ourselves were picturing when we mentally conjured a basic unicorn wouldn’t gallop onto the screen until a decade later in Ridley Scott’s fantasy epic Legend.

As a European art film featuring cross-species breastfeeding & a literal battle of the sexes, Black Moon isn’t at all interested in basic cinematic concerns like clear narrative or commercial appeal. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1980s when American movie studios would start mining the same fantasy realm representation for wide commercial releases, but you can see echoes of the Natural World magic & down-the-rabbit-hole story structure of Black Moon in popular fantasy titles like The Neverending Story, The Labyrinth, and Ladyhawke. Although Legend was an outright commercial flop it was a big studio picture that firmly fit in that category. Legend is more of an adventure epic than Black Moon in a lot of ways, structuring its tale around dual journeys to restore order to a broken world instead staying put & feeling out the weirdo magic vibes of one particular location. Both films do pursue a dead still sense of pacing, though, concerning their narratives more with an overwhelming immersion in Nature than any kind of action-packed pursuit. Legend‘s scope & budget allows for the inclusion of goblins, demons, fairies, zombies, and swamp witches that you aren’t going to see anywhere near Black Moon‘s small scale domestic horrors, but both films do depict a mortal woman in over her head in a magic realm and they do share  a common talisman: the unicorn.

In Black Moon, the unicorn doesn’t do much but trot lazily & crack wise. It’s just one element among many that confounds our hero Lily in her quest for simple answers about where she is & why that world is so hostile. In Legend, on the other hand, unicorns are everything. They’re exactly what Lily was conjuring when she insulted their Black Moon equivalent: slim, white, majestic, and (just like everything else in Legend) slathered in glitter. Lily chases down the Black Moon unicorn out of sheer curiosity and the consequence of the transgression is a line of dismissive insults no worse than anything else she suffers in her newfound home. In Legend, princess & Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend Lili (Mia Sara), lures a unicorn in for an intimate moment, but her indulgence’s consequences are much more severe. When the princess calms the mythical beast into standing still a goblin severs its horn, instigating a fantasy genre version of the Ice Age. There are only two living unicorns in Legend‘s folklore and their existence & health affects the state of the world no less than almighty gods. According to Tom Cruise’s woodland nymph character (who’s a decent stand-in for Black Moon‘s mute Fabio houseboy Lily), the unicorns “speak the language of laughter” & “Dark thoughts are unknown to them.” Furthermore, the princess “risks [her] mortal soul” when she says that she doesn’t care that the creatures are sacred. Like in Black Moon, the unicorns can talk, but they communicate in beautiful whale songs. Everything about them boasts divinity. And when “a mortal laid hands on a Unicorn” the whole world goes to shit.

Recent try-hard films like Deadpool & Suicide Squad and their like-minded internet memes have made the image of the unicorn a sort of cheap visual gag supposedly humorous for its Lisa Frank brand of femininity, a likely result of its brony-based cultural resurgence. Black Moon, similarly (but more purposefully), pokes fun at the divinity & femininity of classic unicorn representations by subverting the mythical creature’s attributes in an image & demeanor that pokes fun at the importance of physical beauty. That subversion wouldn’t mean anything without a unicorn hegemony to buck against, though, and you’ll find its best contrast in the divinity of Legend‘s horned equestrians. Ridley Scott’s mid-80s fantasy epic is maybe a little lacking in pace & plotting, but it’s a jaw-dropping work of gorgeous production design if I’ve ever seen one (I could happily spend 1,000 mall goth lifetimes in Tim Curry’s demon lair if nothing else) and that attention to glitter-coated beauty is a perfect stage for a traditional white unicorn ideal, the exact antithesis of what’s presented for laughs in Black Moon.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, Louis Malle’s surrealist fantasy art piece Black Moon, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

A Latecomer’s Journey through the Mission: Impossible Franchise

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A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation was to be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I couldn’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) was to come to know & understand the series from the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”. It turns out that  the story of the Mission: Impossible series is the story of five wildly different directors adopting five wildly different plans of attack on a franchise that didn’t really come into its own until at least three films in.  It’s also, to an even greater extent, the story of Tom Cruise’s fluctuating hair length.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all five feature films in the Mission: Impossible franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Mission: Impossible world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s classy-trashy beginnings, I highly recommend starting with the third installment & only doubling back to the first two films if your curiosity is piqued by the heights of the most recent three.

Mission: Impossible (1996)
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What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue, but there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

In the director’s chair: Movie of the Month veteran Brian De Palma, who can be credited for elevating this film above the typical 90s action flick through his ludicrously excessive camera work & lack of visual restraint.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Short, conservative, handsome. This may not seem important yet, but I swear it will be soon enough.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

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It turns out that the rap rock garbage fire I was expecting from the first film was actually alive & well in the the second installment of the series, Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-2 ditches the Brian De Palma sense of 60s chic for a laughably bad excess of X-treme 90s bad taste. Almost everything pleasant about the first Mission: Impossible film is absent in the second. De Palma’s over-the-top abuse of camera trickery is replaced by straight-faced action movie blandness accompanied by non-sarcastic record scratches. Any enjoyment derived from the removal of faces in the first film is ruined here by an unrestrained overuse of the gimmick. The Danny Elfman score from the first film was supplanted by (I’m not kidding, here) a goddamn Limp Bizkit cover of the series’ original theme. Even Tom Cruise’s wardrobe was downgraded. He traded in his tux for a leather jacket that he shows off on his super cool motor bike while shooting his gun with wild abandon. God, I hate this movie. Pretty much the only element of the first film that comes through unscathed is Ving Rhames, who remains a delight in every scene he’s afforded.

In the director’s chair: John Woo, who takes such a strong grip on the franchise’s throat that it feels a lot more likely that this is a spiritual sequel to his Nic Cage trashterpiece Face/Off than it having anything to do with Brian De Palma’s film at all.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair:  Along with Cruise’s douchier wardrobe, he also adopts a much less respectable hair length that allows his greasy locks to flow in the wind as he slides around on his motorbike & jams to Limp Bizkit. Blech.

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

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It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for John Woo’s rap rock shit show than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as a late 90s badass so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job. It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the Limp Bizkit abomination). What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology, two Phillip Seymour Hoffmans engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat. Bonus points: this film features the most Ving Rhames content of any Mission: Impossible film to date.

In the director’s chair: JJ Abrams, who had only worked in television before rescuing this troubled project from developmental Hell (at one point David Fincher was attached to direct!?). Abrams not only pulled this series’ shit together against the odds, but he also found a way to make the film’s escapist, popcorn movie action clash effectively with its more disturbing elements, specifically Hoffman’s personification of terror.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Much like the movie as a whole, Cruise’s hairdo ditches the embarrassing crudeness of the second film & returns to the handsome tastefulness of the first. I’m telling you; this hair stuff is important.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

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There’s an admittedly cheap, but remarkably effective result from committing a night at the opera to film. No matter how cynical or out of place its inclusion, the opera elevates cinema, especially genre films that can use a leg up. It elevates the romcom in Moonstruck, the deliberately dumb comedy in the Bob Sagat-directed Norm MacDonald vehicle Dirty Work, the slasher horror in Dario Argento’s (appropriately titled) Opera, and now in the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible series, Rogue Nation, it elevates the super spy action movie. In one of Rogue Nation‘s most elegant sequences our hero & the thorn in the government’s side Ethan Hunt infiltrates an operatic production to put a stop to four separate assassination attempts on a single Austrian dignitary. John Woo (embarrassingly) attempted to invoke a sort of rack rock opera in the climax of Mission: Impossible 2 fifteen years ago, but it wasn’t until Rogue Nation that the series’ operatic ambitions amounted to anything meaningful. The assassination prevention is a ridiculous, impossible mission, but it’s neither the first or the last of the film’s many over the top set pieces. The fact that the film’s literal operatic heights are almost forgettable amongst its other action-laden tangents is merely a testament to how eager it is to please as a popcorn spectacle.

As you may have noticed (presuming anyone out there might be paying attention), I have been superficially tracking my journey through the Mission: Impossible series by the length of Tom Cruise’s hair in the films. In the delightful first & third entries, Cruise was rocking a short, handsome hairdo that conveniently coincided with the films’ somewhat concise approach to action delivery & 60s super spy nostalgia. In the second film his hair got remarkably douchier in length, which was mirrored in the film’s awful late 90s/early 00s aesthetic, a mistake repeated in the fourth installment, Ghost Protocol, which I’m willing to forgive since Cruise begins the film in a Serbian prison. It’s more than excusable. It’s not like he’s the President of the Limp Bizkit Fan Club in the fourth film (I’m assuming he was in the second), so the terrible hairdo can slide. In Rogue Nation, Cruise’s hair length also goes rogue, striking an in-between balance that serves as a nod to both hair styles. Rogue Nation is a satisfying culmination of all the Mission: Impossible films, forming a single entity greater than the sum of its parts & Cruise’s hair length is a nod to that cohesion. You may scoff, but I swear it’s true.

There are, of course, less simplistic & much more dignified ways of tracking the Mission: Impossible franchise’s progress as a whole. For instance, the The Gang’s All Here mentality that never truly solidified until Ghost Protocol was put to to great use in Rogue Nation, at the very least comically speaking. Since the beginning I’ve heralded Ving Rhames’ presence as a saving grace, even through the John Woo dark times, and it’s here that he finally joins the Abbott & Costello duo of Jeremy Renner & Simon Pegg to form some sort of unholy trinity of comic relief. The small taste of Alec Baldwin doing his best Jack Donaghy is merely icing on the already too-sweet cake. Rogue Nation also acknowledges its franchise’s history in the way it combines all of its past female characters (the agent, the double agent, the super sexy/deadly assassin, the love interest & Ethan Hunt’s only hope) into a single convenient package that’s smart enough to take off her heels before battle, unlike one of this summer’s most egregious female leads (who we’ve already effectively ripped to shreds).

What’s most fun about Rogue Nation, though, is that it combines the main selling points of the third & fourth installments (that Ethan Hunt is a divine being among men & that he has a loyal team behind him that helps create the myth of that divinity) into a satisfying, cohesive whole. The Mission: Impossible ball didn’t truly get rolling until the third entry & it somehow didn’t reach its true apex until the fifth. Hunt’s crew of loyal super spies (and Ving Rhames) eat up much of the film’s runtime, but they use that platform to elevate their fearless leader as “The Living Manifestation of Destiny.” By limiting his screen time in favor of letting his talented supporting cast run the show (which as a producer he could’ve easily turned into a vanity project), Cruise made great strides in Rogue Nation to build his character up as something more than just the “dude with a dangerous job” he was in the third film. He’s an impossible character in an improbable world who has to battle an equally impossible “syndicate” of evil spies helmed by a cross between a murderous Steve Jobs & Eddy Redmayne’s wicked, eternally hoarse drag queen from space in Jupiter Ascending. It’s thrilling, but highly goofy stuff.

Cruise has a history of working with an eclectic list of directors in this series (Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird) & here he enlists Christopher McQuarrie, a relative unkown, but longtime collaborator who he’s worked with on in films like Edge of Tomorrow, Jack Reacher, and Valkyrie. McQuarrie holds his own here, not only crafting one of the most enjoyable entries in the franchise to date, but also continuing to solidify a somewhat messy series of films as a recognizably unique intellectual property. Rogue Nation is a relentlessly fun action pic that Cruise & McQuarrie should be proud of bringing to the screen, both as a campy espionage spectacle and as a continuation of a decades-old franchise that has finally reached the operatic heights it promised way back when rap rock was still a viable commodity.

-Brandon Ledet

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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If the third Mission: Impossible movie was an instance of the series suddenly pulling its shit together by making its protagonist Ethan Hunt out to be a real human being, the fourth film takes that cohesion a step further by helping define the team behind Ethan’s success. There have been so many face-removing, duplicitous double crossings in the series’ past that it’s been difficult to trust anyone at all, but Ghost Protocol finally eliminates that sense of distrust by shrinking Ethan’s team into a core group of murderous super spies with hearts of gold. Unfortunately, Ving Rhames is missing from this team almost completely (he at least drops in for a last second cameo), but picking up the wisecracking slack are Simon Pegg & Jeremy Renner, who both deliver some great tension-relieving one-liners, sometimes in unison. Besides these two sarcastic goofs, Cruise’s also backed by Paula Patton, the badass lady antidote to the franchise’s serious damsel-in-distress problem of the past. Once Rhames (hopefully) rejoins this ragtag crew in future installments, the series will almost certainly hit its pinnacle. Honestly, it’s kind of exciting to think that the best is still yet to come.

Besides honing in on the perfect small crew to back up Ethan’s world-saving espionage, Ghost Protocol also tightens up the series’ action. After the grossly excessive shoot-em-ups of the Limp Bizkit-soundtracked second film, the series has been moving more towards the large-scale, remote warfare that makes a lot more sense for international super spies to be wrapped up in. The attacks of violence in Ghost Protocol are unexpected bursts of terror that serve as shocks to the system, with or without Renner & Pegg’s nervous joking to break up the tension. There are some ridiculously over-the-top sequences that feature Cruise running down the side of a skyscraper in Dubai or somehow outrunning a sandstorm or Renner physically hacking into a gigantic supercomputer, but those more fanciful tangents are mixed in the real life dangers like car crashes & embassy bombings.

One element that got way less real (but very much appropriate for a throwback espionage franchise) was the film’s supervillains, which shifted from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s nightmarish turn in Mission: Impossible 3 to a stunningly beautiful super model assassin & a “nuclear extremist” who wants to achieve peace on Earth by obliterating the human race. These cartoonish elements, along with more overreaching gadgetry (like a real-life invisibility cloak), clash very well with the movie’s more gritty, violent sequences and leave the impression of a well-rounded, but highly ridiculous action flick in their wake.

Cruise continued his hiring of disparate, auteur directors here by giving the project to Brad Bird (who is typically associated with children’s media like Ratatouille, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Tomorrowland). The list of directors who’ve worked on the Mission: Impossible films so far (Bird, Abrams, Woo, De Palma) have all brought unique (and varyingly successful) takes on the series to the table, which is highly unusual for this type of popcorn action flick. It’ll certainly be interesting to see where the director of the fifth installment, Christopher McQuarrie, will take the direction of the franchise when Rogue Nation hits the theaters. McQuarrie is a relatively unknown director, but he has worked with Cruise before on two of his more interesting recent projects – the Werner Herzog as a fingerless villain Jack Reacher & the Groundhog’s Day meets Starship Troopers sci-fi action flick Edge of Tomorrow.

It’ll also be interesting to see what haircut Cruise brings to the next flick (I’m serious!), because it really makes a difference. He did slip back into his awful M:I 2 hair in Ghost Protocol, but since he begins the film in a Serbian prison & Bird did a much better job with the material than Woo (I’m serious!) I’ll let it slide for now. Adjusting some major problems in a relatively short amount of runtime, Mission: Impossible 3 & Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol have together unmistakably set the series up for future success. It has so much potential to reach new heights in the next installment that I’m hoping with the right amount of Ving Rhames, the perfect over-the-top villain, and a tasteful length for Cruise’s hair, Rogue Nation just might be the best in the series so far. We’ll see.

-Brandon Ledet

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

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It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for the rap rock shit show that was Mission: Impossible 2 than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as Limp Bizkit-lovin’, motorbike-ridin’, late 90s badass while some slow motion doves flew around him & everything about him was so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job.

It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the rap rock version from John Woo’s film). M:I 3 even brought back Tom Cruise’s more handsome, less cringe-worthy hair from the first film that was absent in the second, a seemingly shallow detail that I promise makes all the difference. What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology allows for two Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s to engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat.

In addition to the strength of its antagonist & the newfound humanity of its central spy, M:I 3 also intensifies the sheer spectacle of its action sequences. The first film in the series was more or less three great action sequences & some dull filler while the second was a slow build that amounted to one really ludicrous third act. Mission: Impossible 3, on the other hand, features at least seven ludicrous action sequences by my count. There’s some ridiculous use of wind turbines, exploding bridges, and missile-dodging that makes this easily the most over-the-top entry of the series so far in terms of action. These escapist, popcorn movie moments clash very well with the more legitimately thrilling performance from Hoffman & some disturbing imagery like Cruise’s mortified face when his fiancé is in danger or a kinky, horse-shaped leather mask that is used to subdue him.

It’s pretty incredible that Mission: Impossible 3 was so adept at bringing the series back to life, when all signs pointed to it being a doomed project. Released soon after the Scientology-ridicule started troubling Cruise’s career after an especially memorable Oprah appearance, the movie went through two directors (one would’ve been David Fincher, which is almost too good to be true) before landing on JJ Abrams, who had never directed a feature film before. Abrams, perhaps confident due to his extensive work in television, succeeded at the very difficult task of not only pulling this series’ shit together, but also rescuing a troubled project already years in the making. It’s pretty incredible the quality & range of directors Cruise has hired as a producer to helm these films, but it’s even more incredible how much Abrams was able to hold his own in that arena, topping even Brian De Palma’s entry in the franchise by making the best Mission: Impossible film to date.

Side note: In addition to being the best so far, this film also featured the most Ving Rhames content in any Mission: Impossible film to date, which I assure you was not a coincidence.

-Brandon Ledet

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

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When I began watching the Mission: Impossible movies recently, I expected a similar trajectory for the series that I experienced with The Fast & The Furious. I assumed that the Tom Cruise super spy franchise would start with an ungodly mess of rap rock era machismo, but eventually find its way into something a little more respectable & cohesive. What I found was that the first film was a surprisingly classy action flick from a precious moment in pop culture that came just before America’s rap rock dark times. The first Mission: Impossible film was campy, sure, but it was also excessive & dated in an entirely enjoyable way that I thought wouldn’t come until much later into the series.

It turns out that the rap rock garbage fire I was expecting from the first film was actually well & alive in the the second installment in the series, Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-2 ditches the Brian De Palma sense of 60s chic for a laughably bad excess of X-treme 90s bad taste helmed by John Woo. The drop in quality from the first film to the next was so drastic that it’d almost be more believable if M:I-2 were a spiritual sequel to Woo’s ludicrous Nic Cage trashterpiece Face/Off than it having anything to do with Brian De Palma’s film at all. He even recycled the slow-motion dove flapping from Face/Off, which was released just a few years before this stinker.

Almost everything pleasant about the first Mission:Impossible film is absent in the second. De Palma’s over-the-top abuse of camera trickery is replaced by straight-faced action movie blandness accompanied by non-sarcastic record scratches. Any enjoyment derived from the removal of faces in the first film is ruined here by an unrestrained overuse of the gimmick (this really should’ve been a second Face/Off film). The Danny Elfman score from the first film was supplanted by (I’m not kidding, here) a goddamn Limp Bizkit cover of the film’s original theme. Even Tom Cruise’s hair got douchier. He’s got these awful, long-flowing locks that swing in the breeze as he shows off his leather jacket on his super cool motor bike that he slides around on while shooting his gun with wild abandon. God, I hate this movie. Pretty much the only element of the first film that comes through unscathed is Ving Rhames, who remains a delight in every scene he’s afforded.

Here’s to hoping that the series bounces back from what has got to be its darkest hour. In the year 2000, when this film was released, I was a dumb kid who probably would’ve loved a Limp Bizkit soundtracked love letter to late 90s X-treme marketing & Tom Cruise’s shitty, shitty hair, but fifteen years later I’m desperately missing the campy, but classy 60s super spy homage of the first film. If the series somehow keeps spiraling down in quality this drastically (an Impossible proposition if I’ve ever heard one), I don’t think I’m going to make it to the other side.

-Brandon Ledet

Mission: Impossible (1996)

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A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation will be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I can’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) is to come to know & understand the series form the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”.

What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a unnecessarily intricate mood piece espionage film helmed by (former Movie of the Month) director Brian De Palma, arguably the king of unnecessarily intricate mood pieces. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. In other words, why did I wait so long to watch this? I wasn’t absolutely floored by what basically amounted to a love letter to the same 60s super spy media that the incredibly funny Spy spoofed earlier this year, but I was at the very least pleasantly surprised by how well-executed it was. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back ,in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery.

A lot, if not all, of the film’s success could be attributed to Brian De Palma. The needlessly complicated camera work he throws into this film elevates the material immeasurably. Within the first major sequence alone the eye is overwhelmed by an onslaught of tracking shots, Dutch angles, first person POV, ridiculous Old Hollywood noir lighting, etc. De Palma is known for his tendency towards excess and Mission: Impossible definitely has him operating at his least inhibited, displaying the same lack of good taste & visual restraint that he brought to the ridiculous Nic Cage thriller Snake Eyes. It’s a genuine treat. There’s some other cool, big ideas at work here, like the way the movie poses espionage as a form of theater (at one point a character lays out a secret plan as “Here’s the plot . . .”), but it’s really De Palma’s overreaching visual style that makes the movie special.

That being said, a 60’s sense of class & an overenthusiastic De Palma can’t save the movie from its own action movie trashiness entirely. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue and there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect with Mission: Impossible, but I was pleasantly surprised. I honestly think it’s super cool that a franchise that Tom Cruise pays for & stars in himself has such a classy, but (intentionally) campy beginning. As far as super star vanity projects go, you could do much worse than a cheesy Brian De Palma action flick starring Ving Rhames & an exploding helicopter. It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here, but for now I’m really liking what I’m seeing.

-Brandon Ledet

Jack Reacher (2012)

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Imagine a world without Scientology, a world without Katie Holmes, a world without Oprah’s couch. In this alternate universe Tom Cruise’s decade-old public meltdown never happened. Cruise is still top gun in all of our hearts. Every film he stars in is a major success. Beautiful women throw themselves at his feet. He merely needs to show up & wink at the camera to win us all over and collect his giant paycheck.

This isn’t a world we get to live in all the time, but we are allowed to visit. For instance, last year’s surprisingly entertaining Edge of Tomorrow saw Tom Cruise in full movie star mode, smooching ladies & killing space aliens in a violent version of Groundhog Day. Even Edge of Tomorrow is a little too eccentric to recall vintage Tom Cruise, though. If you’re looking for purely smug, top-of-the-world, Days of Thunder Cruise you have to go back to 2012’s Jack Reacher.

Jack Reacher is a straight-forward Tom Cruise vehicle. It’s not stylish. It’s not cool. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: a loud & dumb action movie. Think less The Guest and more Face/Off or Road House. Cruise, who of course plays the titular Jack Reacher, is so deliciously full of his smugly sexy self here. He drives maniacally, flirts with co-star Rosamund Pike like she owes him something, has the problem solving skills & inherent knowledge of an omnipotent god, and delivers smartass one-liners before every inevitable kill (those one-liners take a nastily sexist left turn in a particularly anachronistic bar fight scene). If you have any affection or nostalgia for Cruise before Oprah’s couch outed him as a total weirdo, Jack Reacher is a sight for sore eyes.

Bonus Points: All of this Tom Cruise talk is truly burying the lede. The real Jack Reacher story is that auteur director Werner Herzog plays the movie’s villain. Herzog’s role is minimized in the film the same way it’s minimized in this review. He doesn’t appear onscreen until nearly an hour in and delivers maybe one or two speeches, but the potency even a couple lines from Evil Herzog is something to be cherished. If you have no affection for vintage Cruise (or loud, dumb action movies in general) you owe it to yourself to at least watch Evil Werner Herzog perform here in the film’s best two minutes.

Brandon Ledet

Jack Reacher is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.