For the Thrill of It

May 08, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's a common misconception about film critics - that all we enjoy are stuffy, pretentious films that drag on interminably and are as lively as a stone gargoyle. While that probably describes some of the more esoteric and high-minded critics, it's not an apt descriptor of me. Keep in mind that, as a child, I was weaned on Creature Double Feature. My first indoor theatrical experience was King Kong and my first drive-in (at least the one I didn't fall asleep during) was Star Wars. For many years, I was a borderline obsessive Star Trek fan.

Over the years, my tastes have changed, and I'll be the first to admit that I occasionally slip (almost against my will) into the critic's stereotype. Once in a while, a talky French film works for me. But, in general, I'm not the kind of person who falls for a movie because it's trying to be artsy. I'm perfectly capable of enjoying low-brow entertainment. In my book, Die Hard is a four star movie. The 40-Year Old Virgin is great fun, and an end-of-the-year Top 10 selection. And I enjoy A Fish Called Wanda and Raiders of the Lost Ark more than Citizen Kane. So I'm capable of deriving pleasure from a good thriller. And Mission: Impossible III isn't one.

One could argue that MI3 is a decent action film. It has a lot of pyrotechnics and shooting. But it never crosses the line into the realm of a "thriller," because it's not thrilling. There's no suspense. Everything is predictable. Did anyone, for one minute, think there was a chance that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) was going to end up dead by the end credits? That sort of inevitability goes a long way toward defusing tension.

Action can be exciting, if it's fresh and innovative. When it's routine, however, it becomes boring. Most of MI3's action falls into the latter category. I like the way Roger Ebert described it in his review of the film: "There is a theory that action is exciting and dialogue is boring. My theory is that variety is exciting and sameness is boring. Modern high-tech action sequences are just the same damn thing over and over again: high-speed chases, desperate gun battles, all possible modes of transportation, falls from high places, deadly deadlines, exotic locations and characters who hardly ever say anything interesting." Amen. It's when a movie deviates from the formula and does something unexpected that I sit up, take notice, and applaud. But doing anything out-of-the-ordinary isn't on MI3's agenda.

More than any recent motion picture, the TV show 24 is an example of something that knows how to thrill, and puts that knowledge to use. Of all the criticisms that can be leveled at the "Jack Bauer Power Hour," a lack of suspense isn't among them. Plot contrivances and poor character development take a back seat when the pulse is racing. But for MI3, the pulse stays under the speed limit.

Mission: Impossible III spoilers ahead...

MI3 is guilty of one unforgivable cheat. The film allows us to believe, however briefly, that Ethan Hunt's wife has met a brutal end at the barrel end of a gun. If this was true, it would have been a shocking development, and it would have shown that the filmmakers have guts. Alas, it's cheap theatrics. Ethan's wife is alive - the dead woman is a nameless minor character wearing a latex mask. From this point on, we know nothing bad is going to happen to Ethan or his wife. When a movie kills a character, it creates doubt, and doubt results in suspense. (24 understands this. It kills so many characters that there's a sense that no one is safe.) When a movie goes out of its way to make sure a character survives, it kills suspense because only the most perverse filmmaker would eliminate someone after working so hard to preserve them. On rare occasions, a director will do this, but that takes more chutzpah than to kill the character in the first place.

End spoilers.

So what's my point? My negative reaction to Mission: Impossible III is not the result of some ingrained critical reflex that encourages a positive response to only hopelessly dull arthouse fare. It's the result of a movie that fails to deliver what it promises. It's like that for any genre. A drama is supposed to make the viewer feel something. A thriller is supposed to generate excitement. A horror movie is supposed to create chills and dread. A comedy is supposed to be funny. And a romance is supposed to make us fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with one another. Movies that don't do these things don't work. And that's where negative reviews come from.