Periscope Depth

shooting from the hip, yeah boy, I shoot to kill

I saw Mission Impossible 4: Spooky Operating Procedure with Sylvia over the holiday weekend. A slam-bang action flick, to use the Variety term, but a little breathless in the writing. And I use that in both the laudatory and pejorative senses: the action never lets up, but the speech gets a little nasally as a result.

Nonetheless it’s probably not my favorite M:I film. Every successive entry in the franchise makes me miss what I liked about the previous entry. I liked Brian de Palma’s velvety style; I liked John Woo’s balletic action; I liked J.J. Abrams’ efficient storytelling. Bird is more efficient at building tension without making it seem as ridiculous as Abrams does, and he can frame a fight scene without it becoming a clash of jumpy visual images. But he needed a better writer.

At first blush, writing a neo-noir crime thriller (like the sequel to Too Close to Miss) is nothing like writing a high-budget action flick. But the same principles of tension, danger and pacing apply, albeit on different scales. I was taking mental notes on things the writers might have done better; perhaps we can compare.

Three Things Ghost Protocol Got Wrong That It’s Not Hard to Get Right

1. Where’s Poochie?

Homer: One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking “Where’s Poochie”? Three…

Myers: Great, great. Just leave them right there on the floor on your way out.

- The Simpsons, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show

Tom Cruise’s character of Ethan Hunt has always been the star of the franchise. But somehow that’s never felt quite as staged as it did in this installment, where nobody can shut up about how awesome Hunt is and how tragic his circumstances are. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) literally can’t shut up about how awesome it is to be working with Ethan Hunt. Agent Carter (Paula Patton) doesn’t have the same dialogue, but she favors Hunt with a lot of hurt stares, wondering at how he can deal with all that pain.

But it’s particularly galling with newcomer William Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Brandt is set up to be at least as interesting as Hunt: athletic, good sense of humor, driven, photographic memory. And it turns out (in a twist that the trailer reveals, so I don’t feel bad about spoiling it) that Brandt may secretly be a competent field agent as well. But after we discover the extent of Brandt’s talents, he spends the entire next scene … talking about Ethan Hunt.

How to Fix: Show, don’t tell. Ethan Hunt doesn’t do anything particularly impressive for the first twenty minutes of the movie, aside from one artfully choreographed fight scene. Demonstrate the man’s competence and make him admirable, rather than having characters stand around and admire him.

2. Make Your Villains Interesting

Who was the villain of MI4GP? A former Swiss something who was a Russian somebody who wanted to blow up the world. Why? His motives get revealed in a speech, which we watch on video, delivered to the most boring looking government body ever. He’s literally talking about nuking the planet and no one in his audience even blinks.

Compare that to MI2, where our introduction to the villain is through his wicked Tom Cruise impersonation (“that was the hardest part about having to portray you, grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes”). Or to MI3; Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t look very engaged with the role, but at least he gets the best dialogue (“You can tell a lot about a person’s character by how they treat people they don’t have to treat well”). Compare that to Dr. No, or Die Hard, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Dark Knight or any of the classic thrillers.

How to Fix: as I said, give your villain the best dialogue. Give him at least one scene to gloat, even if it’s a little unrealistic. Or give him some humanizing or admirable touch, even if it’s just thumbing his nose at social conventions (which we all want to do, deep down).

3. They’re Called Plot Twists, Not Plot Roundabouts

I’m going to spoil a bit of the Act 2 setpiece here, but hopefully most of you have seen the movie already. If not, you’ll still enjoy it even if you know the following.

In act 2, our heroes are stationed at the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, the tallest building in the world. They have to intercept a set of Russian nuclear launch codes before they pass from an assassin to one of the villain’s henchmen. Their plan is to send both the assassin and the henchman to the wrong rooms, with members of the team posing as each, to fake both the handoff and the payoff.

BUT, things get complicated when both the assassin and the henchman show up early. THEN, things get more complicated when Benji can’t hack the hotel’s servers, requiring Ethan to scale the outside of the hotel to break into the server room. AND THEN things get even more complicated when the mask-making machine breaks down, forcing the team to take the chance that the assassin and the henchman have never met each other. BUT THEN things get still more complicated when it turns out that the henchman is bringing a nuclear launch security expert with him, who can verify the codes onsite, preventing Hunt from handing off phony codes to the henchman. AND THEN …

All this in the space of ten minutes. Before the audience can even get a handle on what’s going on, the direction changes. The plot isn’t twisting at this point; it’s turning in a steady spiral. The result is dizziness, not breathlessness.

How to Fix: tension is a function of uncertainty and stakes. Uncertainty requires a baseline of certainty to spring off of: the audience has to think they know what’s likely before you can start changing likelihoods. Get them comfortable before you start tugging on the rug. The M:I series should be ripe for this. There’s lots of opportunity for teams to play with gadgets, monitor surveillance and form plans, developing a scenario to its natural conclusion. Then, just before the end, throw in a plot twist.

By calling out these three points, I don’t mean to imply that the writers of Mission Impossible 4: Haunted Three-Ring Binder are morons or that I’m some master auteur. I’m still learning. But part of the learning process means being an informed audience member and taking notes.

Anyone else seen MI4GP yet? What were your thoughts?

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