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Moriarty Decides To Accept MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

Seriously. I got the joy, joy, joy, joy (clap) down in my heart. If this is the way we’re going to kick off the summer of 2006, then the bar has been set fairly high for the season.

And before I can write about M:I3, I have to say... this is the summer of Superman, no matter how SUPERMAN RETURNS is as a film. So much of the dynamic of this summer was dictated by circumstances surrounding the development of a new SUPERMAN film for Warner Bros. We’ve been writing about a new SUPERMAN for as long as there’s been an AICN... a full decade now... and it’s been a fascinating roller-coaster ride. One of the few times I’ve ever had a conversation with VARIETY’s Michael Fleming, it was to talk about all things SUPERMAN one day, and we both agreed... there’s a book in there for anyone willing to wade in and tell every sordid detail of what’s gone on in an effort to revive what is obviously a very important franchise for this studio.

Along the way, I stepped into the SUPERMAN mess a few times, most notably when I reviewed the JJ Abrams draft of SUPERMAN RETURNS in September of 2002. At that point, that film was full speed ahead at Warner Bros., and the studio had just decided to back this film instead of Wolfgang Petersen’s SUPERMAN VS BATMAN, which was written by Andrew Kevin Walker. I knew full well that I was punching buttons with the title of the column, and I set a certain tone right away. That piece was probably one of the most-read AICN articles I’ve ever written, and it certainly set off a wave of fan reaction that spread from here to other sites and even into other media. In the days that followed, Harry first made the cheeky decision to effectively put a geek bounty on the heads of JJ Abrams and Brett Ratner, before he spoke to Abrams and then actually read the script himself.

Now, honestly, this is one of the biggest cases of good cop/bad cop in AICN history, and over the years, it’s become accepted that I hated JJ Abrams and called for the geek nation to attack, and Harry was all peace and flowers and lovey-dovey. Go back and read those articles. That ain’t necessarily the case. Like I said... Harry called out the dogs. All I did was write about the script, making sure to include plenty of comments about what I did like as well as what I didn’t. My review was not completely negative.

For example, this comment is genuinely what I felt about the script as a piece of writing removed from how it was as a SUPERMAN story:

And, hey, if I never read a Superman comic in my life... if I didn’t give a shit about any sort of history to the character... if all of my knowledge came from commercials for SMALLVILLE and vague memories of the Donner film, then maybe I’d look at this script and say, “Well, the scale of it is certainly amazing, and it’s an ambitious story. I can see how you’ve set things up for two other films, and there’s a lot to be done with these characters. Overall, the action is pretty intense, and there is a real energy to the piece. If it works, it’s really going to work. If audiences buy the story, we’ve got two more of these ready and waiting to go, and we can merchandise the living shit out of this.”

JJ Abrams is a franchise builder. Like Joss Whedon right now. It’s a particular skill, and Abrams has proven himself to be very adept at it. What’s funny is, I don’t think he had the experience then that he does now, and I think he is as good as he is now in part because of the experience he had on SUPERMAN.

Another comment I made:

Look... I think JJ Abrams could well be the right guy for the job. I think he might have a great Superman script in him. The moments that are good are so good they make you woozy. This is the Superman that lives right alongside Santa Claus and Bugs Bunny and Luke Skywalker in the inner lives of American children from the last few generations, the simple force of good wrapped in red and blue. If there was an entire film of this stuff, I’d be weeping right now, telling you how we were in for this amazing love letter, this beautiful reintroduction to this classic character.

Hardly me attacking someone across the board.

Over the years, I’ve written about my evolving love of ALIAS, which I didn’t really tune into until DVD, although I did give a fairly positive review to the original pilot when it aired.

And LOST? Fuggetaboutit. I’m a huge LOST fan, and one of the reasons I haven’t written about it on the site is because I’m scared I’ll reveal just how pathetic a nerd I am when I really lurve something. LOST is like crack for me. I’m a raving PRISONER fan from way back, and LOST scratches an itch for me regarding television.

So when Paramount announced Abrams as director of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3, after a long development process that included Frank Darabont, Joe Carnahan, and David Fincher, I was cautiously optimistic.

That development squaredance led to several other people re-aligning in terms of what projects they ended up doing. Because the Abrams script was picked over the Andy Kevin Walker script, Walker was free to go write this summer’s ZODIAC, which was directed by David Fincher, who abandoned the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE job that Abrams took later. Brett Ratner was attached to direct that SUPERMAN, but when he was booted, that cleared the way for Bryan Singer to take over SUPERMAN (after McG flirted with it before his own fear of flying grounded him), which left the director’s chair open on X3, giving Brett Ratner a place to rebound. Wolfgang Petersen, who did not end up making his SUPERMAN VS BATMAN, stayed with Warner Bros. to make POSEIDON.

Dizzying, isn’t it?

All of this is pre-amble so that when I say what I’m going to say, people won’t ask why I “suddenly” like Abrams and his work. I always have. It’s possible to like someone’s work and respect it without always loving everything they do. I have no idea what Frank Darabont’s M:I3 was going to be like, or what Carnahan would have done with it, or what Fincher had planned. I’ve heard vague rumors at best. So I can’t say for sure whether their films would have been radically different. I suspect they would have been, because the M:I3 that is hitting theaters on May 5th feels 100% like the product of JJ Abrams and his trusted team of collaborators.

And I like it.

I like it a lot.

M:I3 is, for all intents and purposes, a really big-budget retelling of the ALIAS pilot with Tom Cruise playing Jennifer Garner in a film that could be subtitled RUN, TOM CRUISE, RUN!! It’s the best piece of film writing so far from Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, and it’s absolutely overstuffed with actors who bring their A-game to the table. Ving Rhames, Keri Russell, Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, Simon Pegg, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Maggie Q... it’s a dense cast, and surprisingly, everybody’s got something to do. Abrams puts the cast to great use in every scene. A few people deserve special note, though, like Michelle Monaghan as Julia, the normal girl who offers Ethan Hunt a way to recapture some of what he left behind when he joined the IMF. She’s great in what could easily be a nothing role, and I think Monaghan’s got the goods after seeing her in this and in KISS KISS BANG BANG. She’s incredibly appealing, and there’s a weight to her that makes her more than just a pretty face. Tom Cruise (personal life tabloids overexposure blah blah blah) tweaks his onscreen image here, turning it up in a way that makes it both very self-aware, but also very real. It’s a tricky balancing act for an actor, and Cruise makes it look easy here, a reminder of just how confident a movie star he is. And finally, there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, fresh off his Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote, playing a villain that is completely unlike the stock big-budget tentpole bad guy, but also totally true to the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE TV show and its archetypes.

The film starts with a great scene, probably the most intense human moment in the whole series. Tom Cruise is tied to a chair. Shackled in place. There’s no getting out of it. And across from him, also shackled into a chair... Julia. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Owen Davian, paces between them, explaining the way things are. He wants something. “The Rabbit’s Foot.” He sent Ethan to get it. Ethan failed. And now, at the count of ten, Owen’s going to shoot Julia in the head unless Ethan tells him where the Rabbit’s Foot is. One... two... three...

No stunts. No special effects. Nothing except three actors, face-to-face, and great, smart dialogue that pulls you right into the situation. And just when you get to the part of the scene where it’s so intense you can barely stand it, the film cuts back in time, and we see Julia and Ethan at their engagement party with friends and family. A happy time rendered almost unwatchably sad by what we’ve just seen before it.

That cut back in time is a favorite trick of JJ’s, and he uses it very well here. Like I said, this is very cleary a JJ Abrams film. Many of his signature touches are in place. One of the guys at the engagement party, for example? Greg Grunberg. Major characters aren’t who they say they are, and aren’t who they appear to be, and good and bad seem to be redefined at least three or four times over the course of the film, something that Abrams loves to do over the course of a season of ALIAS sometimes. And that opening scene... there’s no guarantee of anything as we’re watching it. All you have to do is picture Sydney’s dead fiancée in the tub in that ALIAS pilot, and you know... this could end very, very badly.

The film doesn’t introduce Owen Davian for a long time, though. He’s not the big bad guy of the movie right from the first scene. In fact, at first, Ethan’s not even a field operative. He works to train younger IMF agents. He wants a normal life. He’s trying to start it with Julia, and he has to do a whole hell of a lot of lying to her to pull it off. He’s drawn back into service for one mission, to retrieve a former student of his who has been captured in hostile territory. That mission, since he decides to accept it, kicks his ass in unexpected ways, and it leaves him empty... reeling... looking for some sort of payback.

This film actually works because Abrams plays with three separate levels of iconography here. First, it is a prototypical JJ Abrams piece. Like a lot of guys working right now, Abrams has pretty much created his own sub-genre marked by a certain dialogue style, a storytelling technique, and a recurring cast of actors. It is also a Tom Cruise Movie in a big way. Tom gets to play an intense man of action who isn’t afraid to cry, and he rides a motorcycle ‘cause he’s a rebel, Dottie, a loner. And finally, it works because it is a no-shit-honest-to-God MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film, absolutely faithful to the spirit of the Bruce Geller show.

I spent a couple of years at a closed-captioning company, and one of the shows that we had to caption for an entire summer was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. I think people know the theme song better than they actually know the show, and rewatching them all, I came to an inescapable conclusion... MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is one silly, silly show. It’s a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to have the box sets of the DVDs, but ‘60s TV in general was sort of batshit over the top silly. It’s the era of BATMAN and BEWITCHED and GREEN ACRES and JEANNIE and THE MUNSTERS and THE PRISONER and THE AVENGERS... a time when shows were not terribly interested in reality. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was not an accurate reflection of the way Cold War spies were living. It was fantasy land from frame one. It was a cheap show, so there was no way they were competing with the Bond films. The shows tended to be overly complicated by design, elaborate plots that we would see them put together, then execute. One of the key elements of many of those plans was the poor sap who was just going about his job when the IMF team cracked his skull, tied him up, and stashed him in a closet somewhere while Jim Phelps would put on makeup to look just like the guy. The M:I equivalent of a STAR TREK red shirt. The chump.

So... what Abrams has done in creating his villain for this film... is he’s taken that guy. The chump. The guy who gets played by the team. And he’s made him into a vengeful, connected, deranged individual who is humiliated by the way Ethan Hunt treats him. A guy who won’t put up with being tied up and dangled in an elevator shaft. A guy who won’t put up with being hung out of an airplane. A guy who does not suffer indignity well, and who has the resources to make Ethan Hunt sorry.

His character’s never much deeper than that, and that’s fine. This is not a deep film in terms of world politics or the state of the art of intelligence right now. This is not that movie. The very nature of The Rabbit's Foot, the thing that sort of engines the entire movie, is a mystery even in the final frames, which is fine since that's not what we care about here. This is like the reboot of the M:I franchise. I would like three movies based on this template. The team’s in place. Did I mention how much I like the chemistry between Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q? They work great as support for Ethan Hunt, each of them playing key roles in at least three of the set pieces. Simon Pegg would have to return as this franchise’s answer to Marshall Flinkman or Q, since he’s established so well in his two scenes in this film. This film is about setting up that team, and it’s about finally turning Ethan Hunt into a character. Before this, he’s had no character continuity, or character to speak of. Here, his tragic arc with Julia is defining, his “origin moment” from this point forward. By making this a personal M:I story, Abrams has oddly made it the best team movie. By focusing on a problem for Ethan instead of some global threat, he’s created a more compelling reason for the team to assemble, and the way each of them behaves sets up who they are and how they each relate to Ethan.

Cinematographer Dan Mindel has been revving up to this with the films he’s shot before now... slick commercial fare like DOMINO, THE SKELETON KEY, and STUCK ON YOU. He sets Abrams free in this film, and working with him, he’s created a kinetic vocabulary for the film that is powerfully effective. There’s one moment where Tom Cruise is running (one of many, rest assured), hauling ass along the side of some water way in Shanghai. The film almost becomes abstract motion at that point, light flashing off Cruise as he clears a path, running at top speed. It’s a long way from the budget-conscious visual style of ALIAS, and you can tell that Abrams feels unfettered. When you cut to Shanghai, it’s not downtown Burbank. There’s a sequence set on the roofs of some giant Shanghai skyscrapers that is bewilderingly real. There is a bridge sequence that reminds me of that great “killing box” sequence from CLEAR & PRESENT DANGER, a brutal, frightening set piece. And through it all, Michael Giacchino’s score, frequently incorporating his riffs on Lalo Schifrin’s original theme, absolutely fills in whatever holes Abrams has left over. He’s evolving quickly into one of the best film composers working right now, and his score for this film is further evidence for that.

There are many small things I dug about this film, like finally seeing the device that makes the lifelike masks for the agents in the field, or Keri Russell’s surprisingly kick-ass scene, in which she proves herself ready for an action movie of her own, or the first dead drop meeting in the 7-11. The film’s a real dream for any spy movie geek, because Abrams knows exactly what he likes and what he doesn’t, and he knows what he’s referencing with his movie, but he also makes it all feel organic, like it’s of a piece. It’s an impressive feature debut for Abrams as a director, and I’d say if we’re grading people this summer on how well they’ve survived their brush with SUPERMAN, then Abrams looks like an absolute winner right now.

Earlier tonight, I saw UNITED 93, and I think I need to take a day to chew on it before I write it up. I’ll keep transcribing my other stuff in the meantime, so I’ll have lots more as the week continues. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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