The very first adult movie I ever saw was Dr. No, the original 007 film, so that set the standard for me. It was prime pulp done with style, wit, and verve. It gave credence to what Lee Marvin once said: “If you do your cliché straight, they’ll be blinded by your genius.”
Since that landmark, I have, like some sort of cinematic Goldilocks, been repeatedly disappointed by genre films that either make them too hot (overproduction) or, most often, too cold (grudging production). I’m happy to announce that I recently spent five hours in the movie theater with two films that did it “just right.”
Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol was the most surprising, since it was the fourth in the series. Rarely has the fourth in a series been the best one (even James Bond hit his apex with number three, Goldfinger), but now I want producer J.J. Abrams and director Brad Bird to go back and remake every lousy film adaptation of a good television show (especially The Avengers, The Saint, and The Last Airbender).
Their performance is even more impressive since producer/star Tom Cruise’s M:I film series has some major things to answer for. The first two in the series seemed like lampoons of their directors’ styles (Brain DePalma and John Woo, respectively), and because of Cruise’s reported micromanaging of number two, villain Dougray Scott was unable to report to the set of X-Men, thereby losing the role of Wolverine, for which he had been cast (requiring a last second, star-making substitution of Hugh Jackman).
But with M:I3, Abrams was given the director’s chair and the smart, tasteful filmmaker made a collaborator, rather than a boss or enemy, of his famously fastidious star. Now, in partnership with Bird, a hailed animation director (Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) with something live action to prove, they have brought to the franchise (following Abrams’ Star Trek as well) some things missing from all the other TV to film failures: respect and affection.
All too often, makers of TV adaptations clearly show their disdain for the source material with massive changes to the mythology and a resentful screen style. From the opening credits, Abrams, Bird, and scripters Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec (who both worked with J.J. on the TV series Alias) show their regard for producer Bruce Geller’s snappy, smart, complex original, then proceed to do what worked so well with Star Trek – give the characters fresh starts, and, more importantly, believable emotional anchors (rather than superficial, contrived, obvious “arcs”) and interactions.
Then, like Sherlock Holmes 2, they kowtow to the globe-trotting, action-packed shrine of 007, and get on with it — allowing returning cast member Simon Pegg to supply comedy relief and humanize Cruise’s previously watertight Ethan Hunt, while newcomer Jeremy Renner represents the audience by questioning behavior and motivation. That interplay can be broad or subtle, but always welcome.
Another delight is the action, lorded over by a small army of second units and special effects folk. The welcome aspect is that, except in a few obvious cases (i.e. the Kremlin’s detonation and parking lot aftermath), the line between cgi and live action was invisible – especially in the Dubai sequences, where I found myself asking “Did he/they actually do that?!” repeatedly. Not since Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (or much of Jackie Chan’s early oeuvre) have I seriously wondered.
At the end there are two callbacks from previous films, one a “Is that all he gets?” but another that has resonance to what preceded, While I think a thundering after-credit extra scene would’ve been appreciated, M:IGP stands as a legitimately remarkable achievement by all concerned.
Meanwhile, over in theater 7, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a xenophobic hurdle to clear. There already was a film version: a fine 2009 one produced in and populated by Sweden and swedes – the geographic source of the ridiculously best selling novel (original title: Men Who Hate Women) upon which the two films were based. Noomi Rapace became a star in that version and since went on to co-star in Sherlock Holmes 2.
So why was a Western version required? Because the book sold so well in the states that the studio felt that a more accessible American film would reap accolades, awards, and cash. Their masterstroke was to convince David Fincher to direct. Always a supreme stylist of the perverse (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac), it’s a great fit that manages to avoid the Presumed Innocent syndrome. Presumed Innocent was the 1990 film adaptation of Scott Turow’s juicy 1987 mystery novel, which was given a high gloss by Alan J. Pakula (All the Presidents Men) that it didn’t really deserve or require.
Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, however, benefits from the director’s skill, and well communicates why Sweden has one of the world’s highest suicide rates. Fincher, and scripter Steven Zaillian, captures the cold, bleak, depressing aura of the place, where they may or may not have wisely chosen to set the U.S. version.
Keeping things in Northern Europe also rattles the new film’s window, in that the 2009 home brew was filled with actual Swedes who were all strangers to international audiences, so the mystery could breathe. Here, the guessing game of “Spot the Most Recognizable Suspects” (made famous by TV’s Murder She Wrote) can be easily won. Oh, she and/or she looks familiar, therefore he or she must be either the murderer or the victim. The fine cast is also comprised of Americans, Canadians, Englishmen, Croatians, and others, making the Swedish surroundings something of an eclectic bag.
Given the tried and true source material’s popularity, ultimately the movie will, of course, live or die by its stars, and here more coups were scored. Rooney Mara hurled herself into the title role with a brave abandon that dares audiences to deny her — complete with piercings, tattoos, nudity, and repeated sex (both willing and unwilling). Daniel Craig keeps up remarkably well, considering that he made even me forget he’s James Bond. In fact, the most memorable moment for me, in a film well stocked with memorable moments, was his uttering a single word, off-screen yet – a most impressive acting accomplishment in any medium or milieu.
So, finally, not one, but two pulp genre entertainments, made with exactly the right tone and talent! Merry Christmas and happy holidays to me. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you.