Tom Jolliffe looks at the three major action heroes of the 21st century…
As we sit and bask in the aftermath of the most recent Mission: Impossible instalment, it seems as good a time as any to take a look at three of the most prolific government Assassins of the last couple of decades. Mr James Bond of course has been running around since the 60’s (earlier of course if you look beyond his cinematic legacy), but I’ll be looking at the most recent JB, as played by Daniel Craig.
In each franchise, the high points have proven to be some of the best of the century so far, in a genre which has largely fallen some way short of the golden era of action cinema. Craig burst onto the scene with Casino Royale. It’s a film that set a high bar, not only for his follow ups, but the rest of the action genre. The first Bourne trilogy was really strong, culminating in The Bourne Ultimatum, which was an absolute master-class in action pacing and taut editing. At the same time Casino Royale, and the entire Bourne trilogy arc saw interesting and engaging arcs for the central characters.
Then you’ve got Ethan Hunt. What is pretty interesting to see as far as the film franchises go, is that at a certain point, the Bourne films took a nose-dive, with a spin-off that wasn’t needed and is largely forgotten already, and a revisit sequel that proved to be flat. In fact Jason Bourne was a film that surprised me. The reviews had been fairly middling. I wasn’t expecting much but in all honesty, from the tired and rote screenplay, to flat uninspired performances from almost every major player in the film, to action scenes that were too over the top to fit in with the grounded normality of Bourne (and thus made the shaky cam stylistics feel unwarranted), the film for me was shockingly poor. It felt in every conceivable way like a bad Bourne copycat, only this was actually supposed to be Bourne. I had to wonder when watching whether I’d accidentally slipped Stratton on instead. I hadn’t.
Lets be fair though, they’ve all had low points. Quantum Of Solace was pretty dull with too many overtly ‘Bourne’ stylistics, which weren’t only ill-fitting for Bond, but poorly done. Spectre was pretty awful aside from a great opening that promised so much. It also wasted a great cast and Daniel Craig seemed thoroughly bored throughout. As Quantum really underwhelmed following an exceptional Royale, Spectre really hit a duff note following the superb Skyfall.
Mission: Impossible likewise has the now rather camp and near spoof level exercise in egotistic and stylistic excess, with Mission: Impossible 2. A film where the most memorable sequence, Cruise’s rock climbing theatrics, comes at the beginning and is a little pointless ultimately. It’s a sequence showing Hunt just chillin…on a fucking mountain…As a revisit piece, it’s really dull inbetween the theatrical moments which are both classic John Woo and Woo pastiche, whilst Cruise has never had such an ego driven role than playing Hunt in his second outing. The perma-tan, shades and pouting were almost Zoolander worthy.
Here’s the thing…every long running franchise has defining moments. You have franchise lulls, or franchise killing moments. Occasionally though, and you could argue that the MCU in their universe has found this, you get a level of consistency. Hunt’s escapades have now found consistency. They took the best parts of the third film, refined, honed and altered them and from Ghost Protocol, through to Fallout, it has now become THE action franchise. Whilst Bond seems to hit then miss, and Bourne has now had his time and become outdated quite quickly, the desire to see more Hunt heroics is high.
What makes the M:I franchise special now? Well largely it rests on the sheer determination and unrivaled dedication that Tom Cruise (or Tommy C as I call him) invests into each film. Set pieces here, actually draw you in because they have a build up and the films have opted for more focus on the team behind the theatrics than any specific McGuffin each entry may include. The M:I films are all pretty simple. Retrieve something or someone to stop something or someone. That’s it. Done. However, a team with a good chemistry, which still works even when we have a few interchange, and a charismatic lead (who is always engaged) make the films tick. Lets face it, whether you look at a tired and half-hearted Matt Damon in the recent Jason Bourne, or Daniel Craig in Spectre (with an air like he’s above doing this any more and bored witless) it’s stark contrast to Tommy C risking life and limb in another Hunt film.
To an extent, Bond is always a sure-fire money-maker. The last Bourne did absolutely nothing new to draw in punters, merely lazily reheating some formula elements without any engaging character work. They simply felt people would watch it any way. Tom Cruise isn’t the same box office draw he used to be. His non-Hunt excursions show that. M:I isn’t a sure-fire money spinner. It lives and dies on its marketing and what it promises. So Tommy C realises this and he gives absolutely everything to ensure the film will do well enough to see a follow up is greenlit and then the cycle repeats.
The key selling point in each instalment now appears to be the ‘big stunt(s)’ that Cruise will perform. Be it scaling one of the worlds tallest buildings, hanging out of a plane or helicopter, or skydiving from 25 thousand feet, or leaping from building to building (and breaking his leg doing so), Cruise almost maniacally approaches the action to each film. He ups the ante every time and finds a new way to make an audience gasp and they do, because you can see it’s him, out, live, in action, doing the stunt. It’s not a stunt guy with a superimposed Cruise face, or a green screen backdrop. It’s Cruise, jumping out of a plane. That’s hard to compete with.
However, all these moments would merely raise a slight murmur of pulse if we weren’t engaged with the characters and their quest. From the third instalment onward they sensibly decided to pit Hunt against his enemies with a team in tow and it works brilliantly. From Simon Pegg to the recurring appearance of Ving Rhames, and the enthralling Rebecca Ferguson, we like the IMF, so no matter how vague the focus of their quest might be, we’re fully along for the ride.
In addition it’s the team behind camera that also gives this franchise a distinct advantage over the others. Even switching directors, they (Woo aside) make interesting and engaging choices. The films always look great and the preference for old fashioned stunt work over CGI offers a nice antithesis to the comic book films. Fallout was a gorgeous film. The best looking M:I since Brian De Palma’s gloriously retro first. It also had a fantastic score that did interesting twists on the theme but also made the film feel bigger. If Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation were two of the best action films of the 21st century, Fallout comes in and teabags the pair of them. It’s a fantastic piece of action cinema. I’m genuinely torn on whether it’s my favourite of the century. It really pushes Casino Royale hard (as well as The Dark Knight). Time and repeat value will tell.
As Bond finds himself gearing up for Bond 25, and Bourne lies dormant (for now), my thoughts turn far more to just what Ethan Hunt will get up to next in Mission: Impossible 7 and Mission: Impossible 8, because he’s the 21st century’s ultimate action hero.
A version of this article was posted in August 2018.