EXT. AUSTRALIAN FARM. A helicopter lands, and LUTHER STICKELL disembarks. Walking a few paces, he steps in feces.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout and its predecessor Rogue Nation are so good, watching them is like going to your happy place. For all the tension they generate, they’re extraordinarily pleasant to watch. In stark contrast, Mission: Impossible 2 is the black sheep of the franchise for good reason, most often embarrassing rather than entertaining. I mean, this is a movie in which (see above) Luther steps in shit and says, “Shit”.
The Name’s Hunt… Ethan Hunt
The film takes quite a bit from the James Bond playbook, but in the most warmed-over, reheated way. There’s a romance of the week (atypical for the Ethan character), scenes highlighting local international festivities (Seville), and Hunt as not so much a skilled asset but a one-man army. There’s a sexy car chase that passes for 95-mph flirting –GoldenEye much? Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) is a character with a lot of potential but becomes slightly edgy Bond girl eye candy. Because the central romance has to be established, the plot starts twice and walks the audience through stuff they’ve already seen after the movie’s done faffing around for the moment.
Romantic spinning of wheels aside, Mission 2 is a pretty inept spy movie. Rogue Nation and Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie has a rule that the maximum number of mask gags you can get away with in one movie is two. There are at least five here, which gets tedious fast. There’s even a five-minute stretch with two mask reveals! (As an interesting aside, the first two Mission movies show the complete unmasking gag in a single shot, while later films almost always cut at a transition point between the actors’ faces.)
But I can’t deny the goofy entertainment to be had at the climax. Take the amazing moment when Ethan and villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) play chicken with motorcycles, then jump off and collide midair. A ridiculous one-on-one fight ensues, with each move more flamboyant than the last. That’s complete with slow motion flying kicks like this is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It’s bonkers; it’s entertaining; it’s not strictly speaking good. At least director John Woo gets his slow motion white dove in there! Even though in its grand entrance it’s made of painful CGI!
Try Hard with a Vengeance
In the opening moments of the movie, we hear the scientist Nekhorvich (Rade Šerbedžija) explain that every hero needs a great villain, in the context of a cure (Bellerophon) for a virus (Chimera). But the subtext is clear; the film itself is announcing a strong villain for Ethan Hunt. It introduces Sean Ambrose wearing a mask of Ethan, a tactic repeated later in the movie. Ambrose is former IMF, and in fact we witness his defection after the spy agency actually orders Ambrose to impersonate Ethan. Clearly Ambrose is intended as a classic foil, but for all of Dougray Scott’s predatory Scottish scenery chewing, Ambrose comes across as a damp squib.
There’s a built-in conflict in the backstory between Ethan and Ambrose, but the film does next to nothing with their former antagonism. John Woo’s movies often excel at depicting duos of driven, strong-willed, totemic men, so when they square off, horizontal in the air, each with guns pointed at the other, there are personal stakes. Ah Jong and Li Ying in The Killer, Tequila and Alan in Hard Boiled, Riley Hale and Vick Deakins in Broken Arrow, and Sean Archer and Castor Troy in Face/Off all fit this pattern. Ethan and Ambrose only stack up in the most perfunctory way. There’s no spark, no fire. And it doesn’t matter how many times the Nekhorvich clip is played (it’s a lot). Repeating the point doesn’t help your case.
(Side note: Mission 2 is famous for being the movie that cost Dougray Scott the role of Wolverine in X-Men. Scott was cast, but Mission overran and on top of that he was injured in a motorbike stunt. And Hugh Jackman became a star. What might have been.)
But the most garish element of Mission 2 is that this is such a bro-y movie, filled with baffling toxic masculinity. As Ambrose’s henchmen are scanning Nyah for bugs, one says, “She’s clean”, and the response is, “All cats are.” What in the living hell does that even mean??? Ethan’s team consists of himself, Luther (Ving Rhames), and pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). Billy, who sticks “mate” at the end of every sentence so you know he’s Australian, makes a leering joke about the emotionally abusive Ambrose’s kiss-first-and-ask-questions-later policy. IMF secretary Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) makes a sexist comment about women’s skills at lying. But the most utterly bizarre sequence comes between Ambrose and right-hand man Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh). It’s a standard setup of the villain punishing his henchman. But then Ambrose gets Stamp in a vice grip and starts breathily monologuing about how “some of us have the burden of sex”, and at the moment of climax Ambrose says he’s “absolutely gagging for it” as he cuts off Stamp’s finger! I guess they were aiming for Frank Booth but they’ve landed on a fourteen-year-old’s idea of edgy sexuality.
When Nyah arrives at Ambrose’s house, she walks toward him in a dragged-out scene partially in slow motion, to the point where the viewer wonders out loud, “Will she ever get there?” The viewer can also wonder, “Will this movie ever get anywhere?”
The Silver Lining in the Sophomore Slump
The most spectacular part of the film is certainly the Utah free-climbing sequence. It’s quite a statement for the introduction for Ethan Hunt, even if the incongruous techno soundtrack doesn’t help. Above the sheer cliff face, an IMF helicopter shoots the mission (recorded on a sweet pair of shades) to Ethan in a rocket, then he throws the exploding sunglasses at the camera leading into the title sequence. That’s the type of self-conscious “cool” that I can get on the wavelength of.
And occasionally the high operatics of the film do take flight. During the showdown in Biocyte, composer Hans Zimmer thinks he’s scoring Gladiator. Similar beats in the score and more vocals by Lisa Gerrard help to elevate the material, at least for a few moments. Other than these fleeting strengths (plus the goofy entertainment value of the climax), it’s tough to pick out positive aspects of the movie. I guess it’s fun to see Cruise’s brother, William Mapother, as a henchman?
Should We Choose to Accept this?
In this sequel, the mission doesn’t seem very impossible. This feeling arises from a dull story. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga of all people (writers of the rushed Star Trek Generations and the excellent Star Trek: First Contact) contributed a story that was scrapped when Woo joined the project; on the evidence of the final product, maybe their services should have been retained. Mission 2, with its overblown villain, hacky screenplay, bizarre sexual subtext, and flat pacing, is as dry as the Australian outback. It fits with the trend of 2000s blockbusters filmed in that country, like Superman Returns or Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, and is of similar quality. Let’s just say that when the Mission: Impossible theme plays in this movie, it’s Limp Bizkit performing it. Do with that what you will.
What more can be said about the original Star Wars? It’s a film so influential and beloved that the film industry and film fandom are still feeling the shockwave from its May 25, 1977 release. The first paragraph of its opening crawl has been adapted into a 2-hour-plus movie. Halfway glimpsed background characters have been turned into sought-after action figures. George Lucas’ tale of underdog rebels battling the evil Empire has spawned an empire of its own, but let’s return to the beginning.
“You Can Type this Shit, George, but You Can’t Say it”
I say beginning, but this is a movie that starts in the middle of a pitched space chase. No one-and-a-half-hour buildup to action; we are dropped in medias res into a star war. The situation is sketched quickly and efficiently. The Empire is an overwhelming dominant force; the Rebellion is skittering away on a little blockade runner.
Lucas has often dismissed the importance of dialogue in favor of visuals, and the film plays into that thesis at many points. When Darth Vader barks orders at his subordinates (“I want them alive!”), John Williams’ score violently crescendos, in the style of a silent movie. During the prison block escape, the dialogue is buried in the sound mix. Two of the most iconic scenes in the movie, the binary sunset and the throne room medal ceremony, lead with visuals and don’t bother with words. When the Imperial Star Destroyers chase the Millennium Falcon near Tatooine, the danger has already been set up by the opening shot.
Lucas’ framing is mostly classical, but filled with visual interest. On the flashier cinematic side of things, my favorite shot in the film is when the camera follows Princess Leia’s cell door closing down to the floor, tracks with an officer’s foot, and adjusts back to eye level.
While there is certainly some excellent dialogue in Lucas’ screenplay, sometimes his words do let the movie down. The most egregious example is his decision to add the Jabba the Hutt scene into the Special Edition, which tediously re-covers the ground from the previous Han/Greedo scene, occasionally using the same phrasing to make the same points (not to mention the awful visual gag of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail).
John Williams’ landmark score constantly complements the words and visuals, telling the story with a punchy, magical soundscape that oddly also sounds excitingly DIY. The magisterial main theme opens the curtains; the ambling Jawa theme fits their silly design perfectly; the Force theme is instantly iconic; the perhaps underused Leia theme provides contrast to all the bombast; the “TIE Fighter Attack” cue remains thrilling; the “Battle of Yavin” music is some of the best action film music ever; and “The Throne Room” is a perfect triumphant dénouement. And: “Binary Sunset”, end of.
“You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me…?”
The cast of characters is painted in broad strokes, as archetypes. There is very little psychological complexity to them yet. But this works for the movie because of the spirit of universal adventure it embodies. Luke is the earnest underdog hero; Leia is the brash and savvy politician of action; Han is the insouciant scoundrel; Obi-Wan is the wise mentor; Vader is the black cloud of evil. Maybe the most complex characters are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who show a whole range of cowardice, bravery, affection, and irritancy.
Vader and Tarkin are an excellent villainous double-act (which one is the film’s main villain…?), with an interesting dynamic between them. Peter Cushing brings a lot of smarm and charm to the role, with his delivery of “you’re far too trusting” being a particular classic. At the time, Lucas even felt that Vader was a weak villain without a Tarkin-type figure to play off of.
Another iconic double-act is Han and Chewbacca. Chewbacca takes the idea of the loyal dog to a fantastical extreme, where he becomes an equal partner. But how much is this true in-universe? After hiding in the smuggling compartments, Han playfully fuzzes up Chewbacca’s head; in a deleted cantina scene, Han strokes Chewbacca under the chin exactly in the manner of a dog. Later films would never literalize the Chewbacca-as-dog dynamic like this again, an indication of this film very much in the process of figuring things out.
Not to mention the crazy-in-retrospect, right there on screen love triangle element between Luke, Leia, and Han, which course-corrects later. Lucas not only categorically saw Luke and Leia as love interest characters at this point, he’s also on record saying that he wanted Leia to “run off with” Chewbacca and that he “wouldn’t mind” killing Leia off. That course correction couldn’t come too soon.
Approaching Tosche Station
A key element of Star Wars, and especially this first movie, is silliness. That’s both intentional screwball humor, and unintentional kitsch. Why do these Imperial officers keep baiting and egging on Vader when he can choke them with his mind? What did Luke hope to accomplish by firing on the sheer face of the Death Star? And most pressing of all, is the VT-16 really quite a thing to see?
Given the controlled chaos of the production (at one point, the Sandcrawler was mistaken for a new type of tank and the movie almost started an international incident), the number of continuity errors is understandable. Greedo is seen walking around after he’s already been killed. A lot of the ADR on the Imperial officers is painfully obvious. At one point Vader’s dialogue and gestures are out of sync. There’s the amazing moment of the stormtrooper bumping his head. You can see David Prowse’s eye a couple times when Vader’s in his TIE Advanced.
But really striking in retrospect are the anachronisms. Luke says there’s nothing C-3PO can do for him “unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock.” Right there you have references to time travel and teleportation, two ideas that have never made it into the Star Wars mythology (Rebels’ World Between Worlds notwithstanding). If Luke has a concept of them, does the galaxy have its own version of science fiction?
Naturally, there are even more anachronisms at a script and draft level, but it’s amusing to look back on them. Vader threatens Leia with, “You will come to know such suffering as only the Master of the Bogan Force can provide…” And check out this little speech from Obi-Wan about Leia:
She’s part of the royal family. They won’t get any information from her… She knows the art of mind control… She’s a swan sensana.
That died a death on the way to the screen, but this description of her mental power does remind me of the bene gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. All the references to spice must also be allusions to Dune, and the concept of a messiah from that novel also finds its way to Lucas’ epigraph on the script: “… and in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as The Son of the Suns. – Journal of the Whills, 3:127”. Suffice to say, we could have had a very different Star Wars saga.
The First Step into a Larger World
George Lucas did revise well, and came out with a screenplay packed with amazing (and funny) lines. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “I’ll be careful.” “You’ll be dead!” For all that the power of the binary sunset scene is wordless, the last time I watched the movie, Owen and Beru’s buildup to it (“he has too much of his father in him”) made me cry while the sunset itself did not. The film, like many first installments, is a marvel of scope if not scale. The Empire Strikes Back probably beats it on a scene-to-scene basis, but the original Star Wars wins out through structural purity. Watching the film now, in light of everything that’s happened with the franchise in the forty-one years since, there’s the sense that Star Wars has outgrown this. The simplicity of the film is pure, but also singular, and not sustainable for an evolving series. But no matter what, the franchise will never stop honoring it. The original Star Wars truly was the first step into a larger world.
2000’s X-Men is an important film. While Blade creaked the comic book movie door ajar, X-Men blew it off its hinges. A great financial success at the time, it directly led to greenlights for Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil, and generally signaled a new era for the superhero film. (The next paradigm shift: Batman Begins.) Additionally, the franchise that grew out of the original film can boast incredible longevity – the multiplex-ruling Marvel Cinematic Universe has only been around half as long. From 2000 to 2016, the X-franchise is still going strong (-ish), with the same continuity (-ish). Of course, the timeline is tortured within an inch of its life to accommodate this, but that doesn’t invalidate it – no true reboot has wiped the slate clean. And with X-Men: Apocalypse currently wandering its way out of theaters, we can look back on the film that started it all. Much and more came from X-Men, but what’s the deal with it? Does it hold up? Is it special in itself, beyond its place in film history?
The X Factor: A Comic Book Film About Something
I think X-Men is special, because this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by “normal” people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. No doubt the concept spoke to director Bryan Singer, who is openly gay.
The opening fifteen minutes or so is a dizzying tour of everything that works about the film. We open on the villain’s backstory as a Jew separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp, establishing Erik Lensherr/Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) motivation. Then, straight into Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatically discovering her power – it’s hard puberty imagery, adding another layer to the film’s relatability. Next comes the Senate committee scene, giving a potted sociopolitical overview of the stigma around mutants. And as the cherry on top, we proceed to a dynamite scene between Erik and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) commenting on humanity, flaunting the incredible acting talent on hand. This is all in the opening salvo of the film! It’s a great statement of purpose.
This desire for meaningfulness is not forgotten afterward, as the finale takes place on Ellis and Liberty Islands in New York, these loaded symbols of the immigrant experience. Speaking of loaded images, a young mutant walks on water with his power. And another fun and unique thing is that the X-Men superheroes themselves are professors. There’s a great moment when their X-Jet takes off from the school and the students look up in awe. Give Ms. Grey an apple.
The People Behind the Powers
So the overall scheme of the film is unique and meaningful, but your X-Men movie also needs some X-Men, so let’s talk characters. The duo of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue provide an excellent outsider’s view of the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Logan’s more feral side is contrasted well by his tender elder-brother-like relationship with Rogue, and their relationship is central to the arc of the film. And Logan’s adamantium claws are a cool power and all, but they are brought down to earth and a human level when he says as an aside that every time they come out, they hurt.
That idea is mirrored in Erik’s eeeevil plan, as his use of the mutant-creating device hurts him terribly. The strength of his convictions outweighs his regard for personal safety. Ian McKellen’s characterization instantly makes Erik an all-timer comic book movie villain, and his antagonistic yet respectful relationship with Charles is the entire franchise’s not-so-secret weapon. Each of the three scenes the two share in this film are brilliant, leaving the audience wanting more. The first posits the two as aloof observers of humanity, Erik the cynic and Charles the optimist. (In a different Marvel universe, this exact dynamic plays out in the brief gem of an exchange between Ultron and the Vision.) Their second scene is the train station showdown, a compelling setpiece where the two generals are buffeted by a force of cops, with a complicated human argument at its core. And the third scene is iconic, two old rivals sharply musing over a game of chess.
But not everyone in the cast is given attention. The weak link is ironically the main X-Men trio of Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Scott… is a plank of wood. And he refers to himself as “a boy like me”? What? Ororo doesn’t have an accent, until she does, more than halfway through the film. Jean’s “romance” with Scott is downplayed to make room for a forced attraction with Logan. So it’s not a great showing for the flagship X-Men. A shame, because most of the characters work a charm.
Is there a Script Doctor in the House?
Most fans of Joss Whedon know that he was brought in to punch up the third act of X-Men, that he went above and beyond the call of duty with a complete pass on the screenplay, and that only a few of those beats were retained in the finished film. And let me tell you, those Whedon-y lines stick out like sore thumbs. “This certainly is a big, round room.” “You’re a dick.” But of course, the most infamous is Storm’s one-liner, “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Halle Berry spectacularly misread the line, proclaiming it grandly rather than throwing it away. This sounds silly, but if I could change one thing about the film, that might be it.
There’s a lot of silly stuff in X-Men. While some of the action has a low-budget elegance to it (especially the way the powers flow into each other in the train station fight), other elements haven’t aged well – blobby Y2K CGI, for one. But other things just need to be preserved as weird little, did-you-see-that moments: The way Toad’s super-jump just crushes a dude into a puddle of mush on the ground! The adamantium middle finger! The look on Logan’s face as he rides Scott’s motorcycle! Mystique morphing from Bobby to her natural state, lingering on a hybrid of the two! Ray Park as Toad referencing his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace! The takeaway is that while X-Men is dealing with weighty themes, it’s also a movie where Toad can spit dumb Nickelodeon green gunk at Jean Grey.
Drawing a Line to the Apocalypse
The original film’s Cerebro sequence is still a great effect, prefiguring the IMAX theaters that are showing 2016’s X-Men Apocalypse today. The latest X-offering is at once an inert and busy film, and one thing it’s juggling is putting a bow on the entire franchise. As such, the original X-Men is explicitly referenced several times (the concentration camp, the mutant cage fight, Charles’ baldness explained just like Rogue’s white streak was, a direct quotation of the “great swell of pity” exchange). And looking back on the original with the knowledge of eight subsequent movies yields enough inconsistencies to fill a whole other essay (that Mystique voice modulator!).
But most of all, reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of “the not too distant future”. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.