Look, academically I can absolutely appreciate it’s the worst one. It’s awful. The plot is a re-tread of that film with Dustin Hoffman and a monkey and, all things considered, it’s the monkey who makes it out with the most artistic integrity. It’s a shiny, soulless, cynical morass. It’s a mess of explody, car-flipping, gun toting clichés, and Tom Cruise’s ridiculously flippy hairstyle was rejected from a Pantene advert for being unconvincingly shiny. It makes MI:1 look like a cross between Shakespeare and a 1970’s BBC Play for Today in its restraint. If #1 was the dignified uncle, #3 was the serious dad and #4 was the cool older brother, then #2 is the adolescent everyone would really rather forget.
But I don’t care. It’s my favourite. Ladies and gentleman, I present my case as follows:
- The opening sequence.
Still amazing. Some of it’s real, some of it isn’t, and I still can’t tell which bits are which and I just don’t care. Tom Cruise can shimmy around impossible rocks with authentically chapped knuckles and a disregard for safety equipment all day for my money. Unexpectedly joyful calypso accompaniment is just an added bonus. Flawless. I’m not even interested in recapping the other examples.
Winner by no contest.
- ‘Your mission, should you chose to accept it’
Look, this is the only iconic bit of the whole original premise, guys. You can’t fuck about with it. #1 delivers it by retro cassette – cute, but it’s not Tom Cruise who’s even listening so nil points there, and I don’t care about the tacked on end bit so don’t start. In #3 I think he’s too busy being disavowed or whatever to even get one? I’m sure it’s in there somewhere but I blinked and missed it. In #4 he gets it from an out of order payphone, for goodness sake. Seriously guys, are you even trying? I know you can do better because in #2 a pair of exploding Oakleys lands at his feet on a mountaintop eerie after being shot out of a helicopter. No wonder they didn’t bother putting much effort into the others.
Winner by a mile.
- The title sequence.
OK, this is rubbish. I’m mean, they’re all rubbish, like they aspire to adapt the James Bond gold standard to the ‘match to a fuse’ concept but they leave it too late every time and at the last minute end up commissioning a first year graphic design student on their reading week. This example has subliminally brief flashes of – I think a Roman Gladiator? Who appears to share the same haircut with his horse? Whatever, it’s no Goldfinger but no worse (and at the very least, shorter) than any of the other sorry examples.
Winner via sheer apathy.
- The woman
You know by now all I’m really looking for is a strong independent woman to carry a film undefined by her sexual relationship to the leading man, right? But I recognise that modern Hollywood is only going to take me so far to this utopian pipe dream. Did you know the Hunger Games was the first film with a solo female lead to be the top grossing US box office movie since 1977? And that was Linda Blair in the Exorcist so hardly a covetable role model for womanliness. But if I have to put up with this second fiddle in a frock bullshit then Thandie Newton has my vote every time. She’s sarky, she’s unamused (check out her face on the balcony while Tom does his ‘shag your psychotic ex for a government that isn’t even yours’ sell), she does a mean raised eyebrow, she’s got pickpocketing skills Matt Damon in Ocean’s 11 can only dream of and she wears what remains, 15 years later, my platonic ideal of a cocktail dress.
Yes, she’s been recruited entirely for her poor taste in ex-boyfriends and yes, she’s reduced in the second half to a slightly feverish damsel in distress who is so second string it’s not even Tom Cruise who bothers rescuing her (‘Send the minion’, you can hear the script writers shrug, ‘Tom’s got Dougray Scott in a passionate choke hold on a beach somewhere’). However, at least the film doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable and ongoing sexual politics of this basic premise, and given her competition – #1: Emmanuelle Beart (pouty, treacherous), #3: Michelle Monahan (limpid, unconvincing) and #4: (Simon Pegg), it’s a no-brainer.
An inevitable Bechtel Test failing win.
As always, somehow more disappointing than they should be, but at least we’ve got Utah rock formations, a slightly medieval looking Spain, the barren majesty of an Australian cattle ranch and the slick harbour views of modern Sydney. Still comfortably ahead of #1 (Prague in the drizzle), #3: (the Vatican’s service corridors; a wind farm) and #4: (Invisible Dubai).
A solid win
- Proper actors slumming it
One of the finest traditions of the franchise, and a controversial one here: I think Anthony Hopkins’ uncredited near-cameo beats Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s baddie in #3 simply because I don’t want to think of serious actors having to stoop so low as an actual part in these things. #1 is a strong contender for Kirsten Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez flirting in a lift shaft, but ultimately loses out due to their swift and gory deaths. #3 mercilessly underuses both Lawrence Fishburne and Billy Crudup (aside from Fishburne’s magnificently narky delivery of the ‘Don’t interrupt me when I’m asking rhetorical questions’ line). But Anthony Hopkins pops in unannounced, does his syncopated not–quite-Welsh thing, slimes about the place for precisely the amount of time it takes to earn his next mortgage payment (‘To go to bed with a man and lie to him – she’s a woman, that’s all the training she needs’) and makes a graceful retreat, integrity intact and pay packet in hand. They must have kept Poor old PSH locked up in a trailer for months.
An equivocal winner
- The tech
By the time they got to #4 they were so bored with the gadgets that the only running and not terribly funny joke was that they kept malfunctioning. But #2 was the high point for ridiculously brilliant stuff, chiefly the best use of the signature rubber mask disguises which add a vocal widget here to turn Dougray Scott’s Hibernian burr into Tom Cruise’s Californian drawl. This is alongside other treats including injectable and undetectable tracking devices (it took until the Daniel Craig era for Bond to catch onto that one), futuristic viral-delivery systems apparently disguised as see-through handguns full of luminous green goo and charmingly outdated satellite imaging tech. It’s also got the advantage of not being #1 (where the laughably dated web searches put it up there with the Sandra Bullock opus ‘The Net’ as the most quickly aging film ever and its only defence is underwhelming exploding chewing gum) or #3 (Exploding nasal implants: not underwhelming as much as gross. Poor old Keri Russell and her wonky pupils).
Winner through glee factor
- Recurring Characters
#2 is the goldilocks of the franchise in having just the right amount of Ving Rhames. Not too little (#4, a pointless cameo for form’s sake), not too much (#3: too many team members, not enough to do. Poor old Jonathan Rhys Meyers, I bet he was really excited to get a part in that. I bet he thought his character would have an actual role to play and everything. Nope). #1 is fine but whatever, I’m calling it.
A lazy win
- The Villain
Dougray Scott is Wolverine. Or he would have been, if shooting on this hadn’t overrun. It might have felt a blow at the time but at least he isn’t even now being forced by Marvel executives at gunpoint to exist on daily mountains of skinless chicken to maintain the body of a 20-year old at the age of 47. And Hugh Jackman probably sends him a fruit basket every time he gets paid.
Anyway, that’s by-the-by – obviously Phillip Seymour Hoffman would be due this crown, if only by virtue of a fond memorial, but as I said above, I don’t approve of serious thesps in major studio roles. Vanessa Redgrave in #1 so far outclasses the actual villain that I’m not even prepared to put him in the running. I’m still unclear who the villain is in #4. Was it everyone in the whole world? Anyway Scott is certainly creepy enough here, drooling over Newton, sporting a frumpy M&S dressing gown and then undercutting the effect by slicing off a minion’s finger with a cigar cutter in a jump shot I’m still not prepared to watch with fully open eyes.
A cringing win
- The plot
Oh seriously, who cares? By #3 they certainly didn’t. They replaced it with a 15-second monologue by Simon Pegg. Actually, #3 may have tipped this – just by attempting an actual plot line (how bourgeois), #2 may have failed at the first fence after all.
Side note: Other awful things we must set aside:
- Tom Cruise’s hair, obviously (I know I’ve mentioned it, but like falling in love with a girl, it surely bears repeating)
- Slow-mo car crash faces
- Thandie’s unconvincing vocalisation while hanging out of a car door over a ravine (mildly stressed guinea pig)
- Most of the script, but especially the cringingly awful ‘Damn you’re beautiful’ line directly after the big love scene. Remember what your grandma always said girls: never believe anything a man tells you when you’re naked. (NB this extends to claims of belonging to any covert government agency)
- All of the last 20 minutes, which is surely the dullest anti-climax of all extended action sequences ever, just a mulchy blur of motorbike fights and barrel rolling cars and explosions and a bit when someone nearly sticks a knife in Tom Cruise’s eye which has been done before and better a million times.
- A special mention for the faintly bizarre final face-off (wait no, I’m mixing my John Woo’s) of Dougray and Tom on a random beach somewhere. Impeccable fight choreography and sharp cutting somehow combine to make something which reminds me of nothing so much as High Grant and Colin Firth’s inexpert fountain wrestling in Bridget Jones.
OK, so it’s definitely not the best. I might even have convinced myself. That’s probably #3, which has the benefit of JJ Abrams directing pre-Star Trek, PSH (OK yes he’s ace) and an occasional feeling of actual tension. I should have guessed really, given it’s the only one not available for free on Netflix.
But still, at the end of a weary day, when all I want is to watch something which in no way reminds me of the real world, I know what I’ll be reaching for.
And even if we must agree to disagree here, I trust we can all join together on one point – the next one looks rubbish.