Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Business Case

Mission Impossible 4 is a fascinating project from a commercial and a demographic point of view.

But is the fourth outing in the highly successful spy franchise the right vehicle to give Tom Cruise the hit he so desperately needs, and does Brad Bird have what it takes to helm a multi-million dollar live-action Hollywood blockbuster?

There is a lot resting on this film - namely, the ailing career of one of the brightest stars of American cinema of the last 20 years and the fledging career of one of America's most talented mainstream movie directors; not to mention the fate of Paramount Studios, which has bet the farm.

Tom Cruise arguably hasn't had a hit since the last Mission Impossible film, five years ago. His sometimes wild and exuberant interviews have also damaged his all-American boy image and his high-profile support of a dubious West Coast religion, fashionable among the super rich, has made him a target of ridicule and derision.

Age is certainly against him - his face has lost much of its boyish quality over the last few years - as is the amount of time he has been at the top. Tom Cruise has been there longer than most - Cruise contemporaries such as Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts have been playing middle aged for a while now and although all four are still capable of 'opening' a film, a new crop of stars have already usurped them in the money making stakes. Johnny Depp, Matt Damon and Will Smith. Very few Hollywood leading men have lasted into a third decade without loosing their box office draw: John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood, all of which were best known for playing cowboys, that enduring image of the mythic American hero.

If an actor like Cruise has an equivalen persona, it is probably the character of Ethan Hunt. Something of a blank slate, who changes his emotional palette based on the tastes of the director and what each episode in the series requires, while also enabling Cruise to show off his (movie star) athletic prowess, hanging from tall structures, riding motorcycles, etc. But Ethan Hunt is hardly an American icon - in many ways he is as enigmatic as Cruise himself who, in an era of 24 hour news coverage, Twitter and Facebook, has remained commendably private off screen. But will the American public still buy Cruise as an action hero?

Brad Bird is also an interest case. Early on in his career, he leant style, class and a sense of cinematic ingenuity to the Simpsons. (Any sequence you remember from seasons one to eight that had a distinctive sense of visual flair, you can be pretty sure he had a hand in). As an animation director, he has made two near-perfect films, one traditional hand drawn animation and the other rendered digitally by a computer: The Iron Giant, a heart-breaking fable about the stupidity of authority figures who think the answer is always military; and The Incredibles, about a superhero family with real world problems who propose the dangerously elitist view that if you work hard at something and you have the talent it is possible to achieve great things. But what of his record as a director of live action feature films? He must have one. Hollywood studios do not let first time directors behind the camera of multimillion dollar franchise sequels with a major star and god only knows how many advertising and corporate sponsorship deals... What do you mean they did?... Oh.

Even the franchise itself is interesting; it has not been completely polished and planned by committee from inception to completion. Like the Alien series before it, while each new episode is clearly part of a continuum, each has had a different director, who has been allowed to bring their personality to bear on the final production. Brian de Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables) was first out to bat and made what I still consider to be the best film in the series. John Woo tried to bring his balletic style of Hong Kong gunplay to the second but, from what I have read, had the film taken away from him in the edit. JJ Abrams did a very professional job with the third film, giving Philip Seymour Hoffman the chance to ham with the best as the evil Owen Davian.

So that is the business case. Will Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol justify that big build up? We'll find out in - The Business Case - Keyword description


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