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Remember the Russians?  No, no – not the Russian mobsters from The Sopranos, those free-market capitalists extraordinaire who threatened to make the Mafia look like amateurs.  I’m talking about the communists – the ideologically opposed Evil Empire on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  The guys with the nukes, the ones Sting sang about:  “And what might save us, me and you/Is if the Russians love their children too.”  Yeah, the Russians were a rough bunch – scary, even.  You know, in 1985.

And yet, here the Russians are again, serving as the nuke-happy bad guys in Brad Bird’s live-action directorial debut, Mission Impossible:  Tom Cruise Gets A Haircut.  (Sorry, that’s Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol.  But seriously, Tom – you’re not a young man any more; stop trying to gaze meaningfully out from behind those anime-quality hair shards.)  Not the Russians in the Kremlin, mind you, but a “nuclear extremist,” a rogue evolutionary scientist who thinks that blowing up the world could be good, evolutionarily speaking.  But only if “every soul suffers equally,” a notion which sort of flies in the face of everything about evolution?  And also is the only difference between his speech and the final batshit-hilarious monologue in Dr. Strangelove?  They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.  Here, it’s the other way ‘round.

Is anyone out there really worried about rogue Russian scientists?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Movies are escapism, sure, but they tend to resonate when they touch on actual human hopes and fears.  How many reports do we have to read about Iran’s "Nothing To See Here" nuclear program before some big-budget, mass-market action movie actually makes a rogue Middle Eastern government the bad guy?  [Ed. – Countdown to someone pointing out the glaring oversight in your argument starts…now.] Are you telling me that the guys who directed the Roger Moore Bond films had more narrative guts than we do now?  How about giving us a “nuclear extremist” who wants to bomb the San Fernando Valley so as to stop the spread of Western smut?  (Mission Impossible:  Porno Protection Policy?)

Okay, okay. It could be that I’m approaching this all wrong.  It could be that Bird is mining the past instead of merely aping it.  That he’s giving us a cartoony villain from the days when cartoony villains were acceptable, telling us that we should just relax and enjoy ourselves.  That he wants us to laugh at the Strangelove speech and play along.  That he wants us to see Tom Cruise bouncing a rock off the wall of his prison cell and chuckle over the nod towards Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.  That he wants us to watch Paula Patton go womano y womano with Lea Seydoux and remember the line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in high heels? Okay, fine.  Bird has earned my respect with his previous work (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), so maybe it’ll be enough if he can keep things fun.

He does, mostly, and it is enough, mostly. The movie's two most astonishing sequences - Tom Cruise's Agent Ethan scaling the world's tallest building (in Dubai) and then fighting over a bouncy briefcase in a mechanized parking garage (in Mumbai) - both benefit from Bird's animated background. The absurd levels of physical punishment, the madcap hurtling of bodies, the crazy escalation of complication: it could all be something out of the glory days of Goofy. (I think maybe my favorite moment in the film comes when Cruise executes an impossibly graceful feat of athleticism, only to misjudge his dismount and cold-cock himself.) And Bird keeps the tension mounting through a constant string of failures; as the Crazy Russian comes closer and closer to achieving his nuclear dreams, our heroes come closer and closer to stopping him...

THAT SAID: this is a great big movie, and it may be that Bird had to juggle a few too many balls on his first outing under the bit tent(pole). I spotted draggy pacing, flat dialogue, bloated set-pieces, even some maudlin sentimentality amid the glitter and greasepaint. But that's not what you'll remember. What you'll remember is Tom Cruise, a thousand feet up, every muscle straining, wind whipping at his hair, staring in amused disbelief at a malfunctioning glove.

Reader rating: two stars

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dwbat Dec. 16, 2011 @ 2:58 p.m.

Well, at least Cruise doesn't babble on about Scientology!


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