Sunday, January 20, 2019

"Mission: Impossible" - Ethan Hunt: Depressing Hero

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve already seen the movie. In this case, I mainly write about the first and the most recent Mission: Impossible movies, but I do mention possible SPOILERS for every film in the series.

I’ve been putting off writing about this one for a while now. At first, I just wanted to write about the original Mission: Impossible, but when I finished watching it, I decided to watch all of them again. But I hadn’t seen Fallout at that point, so I put it off until I watched that. Now that I’ve seen Fallout (and purchased it because I loved it), it’s time to write this article. But still, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to say. My first impulse was to do a character study of Ethan Hunt throughout the series, but I’m too lazy for that. Then I thought about doing a complete James Bond comparison, but I don’t know the Bond franchise well enough for that (I like a few of the old Bond movies, and I’ve watched them all since Brosnan was Bond, but I’m not a superfan or anything). I’m still going to draw some comparisons between the two, but in a broad sense.

After rewatching Fallout, it occurred to me what my main topic should be. Fallout is unique in the series in that it feels like an actual sequel rather than just the next mission. Not only do they bring Ethan’s wife back into the mix, but there are also references to the original film, most notably the White Widow being the daughter of Max. I decided to watch the original again before writing this, and even more similarities become apparent. So I’m going to kind of try what I originally wanted to do on a smaller scale. Does that make sense? Or is it as clear as the plot of the first film after your first viewing? Anyway, here goes...

The Mission: Impossible series is completely different from the first film now...except it really isn’t.

When I think of the first film in this series compared to the rest, I tend to consider this film to be an actual spy movie while the rest are increasingly insane action movies. But while no one can deny that the first entry is the most grounded film in the series, there are still plenty of elements that laid the groundwork for the later insanity. For one thing, the helicopter chasing the train in the tunnel ending is totally in keeping with the ridiculous (I mean that in a good way) set pieces the series is known for. On top of that, there is a high-tech, complex heist sequence and masks are used to trick people into confessing crimes. Honestly, the main difference with the new films is that the action is more prominent, and the planning is being phased out.

I’m fine with this, by the way. I love what the series has become. Still, I sometimes like to revisit this film and get a few slow scenes of the team planning out a job or Ethan explaining how they’re going to accomplish something. It’s refreshing now since in the latest entry “I’ll figure it out” is used multiple times when one character asks another how they’re going to get something done.

The first film also introduced the most common plot element in the series: Ethan is falsely accused of being a traitor. This one has been an issue for me for a while with the series. I loved Rogue Nation, but when the CIA started hunting him like he was a terrorist I thought, “What the fuck does this guy have to do to earn the trust of his government?” I get that they can’t just let him do whatever he wants...actually, you know what? Yes, they can. It’s high time Ethan Hunt’s government overlords simply say, “Do what you need to do. Let us know if you need anything.” Hopefully, that scene happens in the next film.

Fallout actually handles my complaint in a clever fashion. Henry Cavill tries to frame Hunt by basically saying, “How many times can you accuse this guy before he actually becomes a traitor?” I just hope they never actually make him a traitor in a future film. Although Cavill has a point. Shouldn’t Hunt be kind of bitter at this point?

Speaking of Cavill, his character in Fallout is a big reason why it’s my second favorite film in the series (the original will always be number one for me). He is essentially a skeptical audience member. He calls out the series for its reliance on masks. Sure, they still use them, and Cavill himself is tricked, but at least something was said. I’ve been a little sick of the masks since the second film, but I do think they’ve done a good job of still making them work.  

While Cavill is partly there to address fan complaints, another character is there to draw a direct connection to the first film. The White Widow is the daughter of Max from the first film. What’s great about this is not that it’s a reference for longtime fans to pick up on; it’s actually a hint for what happens later in the film. The Widow is revealed at the end to be working with the CIA, which the audience should have known since Max is last seen attempting to work out a deal with Kittridge.

The connections don’t end there. One moment that actually fooled me in Fallout was the bombing aftermath scene set up to trick the nuclear physicist. At first, I thought the film went hardcore and some terrible shit actually went down (they did destroy the Kremlin in a previous movie, after all). But I should’ve known it was a set because that’s what the very first scene in the series was.

There are some character qualities of Ethan set up in the first film, as well. I started to dismiss Ethan as a character after the fourth film as it seems he only lives to complete missions. But there’s a reason for that, and it’s not just because of the wife he had to give up. In the first film Ethan’s family is used against him. This is when he learns he must not have personal connections that can be used against him. It’s why he quits when he decides to get married. And it’s why he lets his wife go when he realizes he can’t quit.

Another aspect of Ethan that is focused upon in Fallout is his unwillingness to let team member’s die even if it means saving the world. This was also established in the first film. One of the most shocking elements of the first movie is how nearly the entire team is killed at the beginning of the film. This had a lasting effect on Ethan, and it’s clearly something he will not allow to happen again. Now, team members showing up in one film and never being seen again in subsequent films with no explanation, that’s okay. (Where are you, John Polson, Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner?)

Fallout served as a reminder that this series, though very different now, still owes most of its elements to the excellent first film. It was nice to see some direct connections and hopefully writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (who just agreed to make two more) continues that trend.

Ethan Hunt is possibly the most depressing action hero of all time.

When thinking of the character of Ethan Hunt, my first impulse is to compare him to James Bond, but comparing Hunt to Bond is a bit obvious and has been done before. So I’m not going to try to point out all of the overt similarities, especially since I’m not capable of doing so in a satisfying manner. Instead, I did want to focus on how the characters have been portrayed lately and what’s similar and different about them in that regard.

First off, both Bond and Hunt are machine-like agents who live to complete their mission. Hunt was even described in Rogue Nation as “the living manifestation of destiny.” For the most part, this description is fitting, and it’s also an issue I have with both characters. What is the point of their existence? I know, I know. Protecting the world and all that. But why? Why are they so devoted? I’m not alone in wondering this, and screenwriters have acted accordingly.

This is why the Bond series has recently become more serialized, just as Mission: Impossible has. Characters return from previous films to show that Hunt and Bond do have relationships, and perhaps they are devoted to the mission so that the people they care about will remain safe. That works, but there is one way that Bond is more realistic as a character.

James Bond enjoys himself from time to time. He drinks martinis, has many lady friends, has enough of a life to apparently know something about fashion and fine dining and card-playing. I can imagine him going on vacation, and in Skyfall, not only did he attempt to retire, but we also got to learn a bit about his past.

Hunt, on the other hand, seems to only find joy in work. But can we even call it work? Does he really get a paycheck? Does Hunt have a 401K? Does he have a home? I don’t think so. There has been no mention of his family since the first film, and he stays busy now so that his ex-wife can stay safe. It’s exhausting to even imagine what his life is like.

To be fair, he did go on a vacation in M:I 2 (which was also a vacation of sorts for the series...a vacation from being a good movie [rim shot]), which consisted of him free-climbing before he was interrupted to go on another mission. Now, every time we’re re-introduced to Hunt, he’s mid-mission. He was in Russian prison at the beginning of Ghost Protocol, and I think that might have been the last time he got to truly relax. Think about that: Ethan Hunt has not had a relaxing moment since he was in Russian prison.

He did hide out for a few months in Rogue Nation, but he grew a conspiracy beard and spent all his time tracking down the Syndicate, apparently. I’m not saying we need one of these new films to be a family comedy or something, but it wouldn’t hurt to see Hunt act like a human at the beginning or end of the movie.

Speaking of human-like qualities, Hunt seems to be losing those, too. In the first film, he is subdued by Jon Voight for a moment after taking two elbows in the back. In Rogue Nation, he dies from drowning for a few minutes, then immediately goes on a twenty minute chase that includes flipping end over end in a car multiple times and wiping out on a motorcycle. It’s become a joke within the series as Benji assures Ilsa that Ethan can pretty much do anything necessary for a mission.

When you look at the series as a whole it’s actually been a long, tragic journey for Hunt to end up this way. I’ve already mentioned all the loss he faced in the first film, but I didn’t mention one key element: his mentor and father figure betrayed him and tried to kill him. By the end of that film, Hunt has lost everyone, but he has gained a new lifelong ally in Luther. In the second film, he’s essentially become James Bond, which doesn’t work for him. Which is why by the third film he’s had enough and wants a real life. In fact, he even says of Julia in that film that she represents “life before all this” and it’s “good.” He wants to put his past behind him and finally be a normal person.

When Julia is kidnapped and nearly killed, Ethan realizes he can never have that. This is why he has become a mission-driven robot in every film since then. Julia was even brought back in the most recent film to remind him of his mistake in attempting to have a normal life. He has been taught a lesson: if you have relationships with people outside of this world, then bad things will happen to them. This is why his only friends are his teammates, and it’s why his only potential love interest could be Ilsa, since she can handle herself in this world, and does not need him to save and protect her.

Perhaps Ethan has found a life by not having an actual life. But I wonder if Benji, Luther, and Ilsa are truly his friends. It seems to me that they just have shared experiences. That does create a bond, for sure, but it’s not necessarily a friendship. Aside from a couple of post-mission beers in previous movies, has Ethan ever really just hung out with Luther or Benji? I doubt it. As for Ilsa, Luther tells her that Ethan cares for her, but why? They have a connection and exist within the same world, but do they really know each other at all? Do you think Ethan knows when her birthday is? And what present would he get her anyway?

I think that Ethan has just found in Benji and Luther the closest thing he can to normal friendship. And if Ilsa sticks around for more movies, then he’s found the closest thing to normal relationship he can have now. When you look at the series in this way, it turns out that Mission: Impossible is actually an action-packed character study about a tragic man who is not allowed to have a normal life.

Speaking of not being normal, Ethan has also ramped up his insane feats: scaling the world's tallest building, hanging from the side of a plane as it takes flight, intentionally crashing a helicopter, etc. The common joke has been that Tom Cruise is trying to kill himself with some of these stunts, but what if it's actually about Hunt? Perhaps performing these dangerous acts is his way of trying to kill himself. Obviously he's not traditionally suicidal, or he would already be dead. He is devoted to the mission, and that means he must live. But maybe he's okay with dying since that would mean he, and everyone he cares about, is off the hook. If he's dead, Julia wouldn't have to hide. If he's dead, Luther and Benji can have a normal life again because they seem to only be doing these things because they want to help Ethan. Ethan's death may be the only way out (aside from everyone dying) for all involved.

But I don’t want to end this on such a down note. The dude seems pretty happy with his life. He was laughing at the end of Fallout, and sure, laughing hurt his broken ribs, and he most likely was suffering from three or four consecutive concussions, but he still seemed happy. That’s good enough for me. So I look forward to seeing this miserable bastard save the world at least two more times in the near future. He suffers for us. Wait, is Ethan Hunt a Christ figure? Nope, I’ll leave that for someone else. I’ve written way too much about this already.

Why do I own this?

I love, and own, the entire series, so I’ll always buy these movies. As for this one, I’ve bought it twice now. I find it to be very rewatchable, mainly because I kind of forget the plot after a while, so it’s damn near a new experience every time I watch it. Also, I find it very interesting to compare this relatively tame movie to the action extravaganza the new movies have become.

Random thoughts (These apply primarily to the first movie.)

I first watched this when I was 12. I knew I liked it, but I didn't quite understand the plot.

Very moody, foggy, foreboding.


No way the team dies if this is made today, but this lays the groundwork for why Ethan now is willing to jeopardize missions to protect his team.

De Palma is such a good choice for this.

At least it's very clear what they're after. This turned into kind of an in-joke by the third movie, when they never really explained what one of the devices could do.

The internet stuff is laughable, but it's plausible for the time, since the internet was so incomprehensible to most people. I do find it hilarious that Cruise passes out from exhaustion from typing the same email in multiple languages. Auto translate would have saved him hours!

Also, when he's doing his initial search, Ethan simply typed “” What a ballsy arms dealer, creating a website that is simply their name. Oh, the days before the dark web was necessary for arms dealing!

The fake list was on a 230 MB floppy disk! Don't get me wrong, that's a lot of storage for a floppy disk, but looking at the tech they use in the current films, you'd think this was made fifty years ago, not twenty.

I'm assuming all the technobabble Luther spouts is stuff that my phone can now do faster.

Awesome set pieces, but overall not a very action packed movie, but that's kind of why it's my favorite at this point.

POV shots and whatnot. This is still the best shot film in the series, but you know, it's De Palma.

My favorite quotes:
“They're dead! They're all DEAD!”
“Who are you and ‘huwhat’ are you doing here?”
“Kittridge, you've never seen me very upset.”
“Hi there.”

This movie did set the stage for the future crazy break ins and whatnot with the CIA break-in. Even with all the awesome stuff they're doing now, the CIA break-in is still my favorite scene in the series. Even knowing Cruise is actually doing all the crazy stunts in the new films, this scene is still more tense than anything they've done since.

Not a knife guy, but Jean Reno's knife is bad ass.

“Why, Jim, why?” That line has double meaning as Ethan is playing along with Jim’s bullshit about Kittridge while he's actually working through how Jim did it.

This movie is how I learned about the Gideons putting Bibles in hotel rooms.

Does Ethan have sex with Claire just so he could say, “You earned it,” when he hands her the money?

The masks were cool, but they went overboard with them in the next film. Now they're required in each film, but thankfully they use them sparingly.  In M:I 2, you never knew if anyone was who they appeared to be, which sounds kind of cool, but in practice came across as a cheat to the audience by the end. It was like every time the writers found themselves in a corner, someone would yell, “Mask!”

It's a good thing this wasn't made today because Cruise would insist on really blowing up a helicopter in a train tunnel, and he'd probably get everyone killed.

I actually like the mask work here, because Cruise just has to play a new character, aside from the Jon Voight mask at the end. In the subsequent films, it would always be the actor playing the part themselves, then cut to the mask being ripped off. I like the old way more, especially since it led to Cruise playing an old southern senator arguing with John McLaughlin.

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