Monday, 2 January 2012

'Mission: Impossible 4' vs 'The Bourne Supremacy' - Solving the Relationship Problem

The following contains *SPOILERS* for the new Mission: Impossible as well as some older action series, notably the Bourne films.

It's a no-brainer, but action movie protagonists exist predominately as vessels for wish fulfilment and escapism. James Bond, to give one enduring example, is sexy, smart, strong, competent in almost every discipline, fluent in every language, capable of piloting any vehicle and firing every kind of weapon. He also always gets the girl(s); a different girl every episode. Christ, Connery starts 'Goldfinger' in bed with one woman (who soon becomes a literal object) and later beds the lesbian Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). When they end the film together at some island retreat we know that we will never see her again. She has already served her purpose: she has been conquered by Bond.

It's a habit 007 shares with most of his action hero brethren, but this constant bed hopping, from sequel to sequel, doesn't exist only in the name of misogyny or even in the appeal of sexual promiscuity. It's commonplace for two much more practical reasons. Firstly, studios are understandably reluctant to change a winning formula. Bond was single in the last ten films? Why write him as in a relationship now? (In fact why change him at all?) The second reason, I believe, is because writers don't know how to write stable relationships within this kind of story.

It's for these reasons that the romantic prize in one action flick is then killed off or, more commonly, ignored in the follow-up - undermining the previous film's pretence that their encounter was any more than an erotic frisson.

This is not a phenomena restricted to straight macho action stuff - or indeed to motion pictures - with screen and comic book/TV versions of superheroes existing in various states of "will they, won't they?" relationship stasis. Tim Burton notably didn't retain Kim Basinger's services for 'Batman Returns' - an absence dismissed with a passing line delivered by the hero's butler. It's a perfect example of my previous point: why is Vicki Vale the fabled "one" in the first movie - even trusted with Batman's secret identity - yet so easily dismissed by the time of the second? She's a non-character: the writers didn't know what to do with her and the fans didn't miss her. She had been conquered.

If on rare occasions an action hero is shown to be in a stable, long-term relationship, it is either to derive comedy from the incongruity of mixing marriage (boring domesticity) with a life of excitement (see 'Mr & Mrs Smith') or to give him (or her, but usually him) someone to rescue. When a relationship survives into a sequel, one of the few options considered by writers is to give the couple a child to freshen up the dynamic (see 'The Mummy Returns').

The other common option, as explored in 'Romancing the Stone' sequel 'The Jewel of the Nile', is to pull the lovebirds apart and make them do that same crazy love dance all over again (the equilibrium being disrupted and restored in the great movie tradition). This is the preferred solution in instances where the franchise is dependant on the continued presence of two stars. It's what would have happened if anybody had cared enough for them to make a 'Knight and Day 2'.

Sometimes these hero-heroine relationships are handled a bit better. Lawrence Kasdan still provides the best written example of a decent romantic relationship working within a major studio blockbuster sequel: as evidenced in the great chemistry between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in 'The Empire Strikes Back'. However, the next 'Star Wars' film, 'Return of the Jedi' is less successful, half-heartedly disrupting this relationship via the world's worst plot device: frustratingly easily explained misunderstanding. Here Han strops off because he becomes convinced Leia is more interested in Luke (unbeknownst to him, her brother) before they kiss and make up at the end.

It's worth mentioning that women aren't the only victims of this imagination vacuum when it comes to on-screen relationships. Michael Biehn's Corporal Hicks is established as a love interest for Signourney Weaver's Ripley in 'Aliens' only to be killed off within the opening credits of 'Alien 3'. Incumbent Bond Daniel Craig also suffered this ignominy, being excluded from the 'Tomb Raider' sequel after serving as Angelina Jolie's piece of hunk-candy in the original video game adaptation.

I bring this issue up because of similarities between two films I saw just this last week: 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' and 2004's 'The Bourne Supremacy' - two action sequels which carry over relationships from previous instalments with mixed success/integrity. Neither buck the trends of the action genre wholly, with both partner's effectively written out of the story so as to keep our hero mobile, yet it's nevertheless interesting how they both go about overcoming the "problem" of the hero relationship.

In 'The Bourne Identity' Matt Damon's Jason Bourne takes a familiar action hero route - bumping into Franka Potente's Marie by chance, inadvertently drawing her into his dangerous life (where she is often literally a passenger) and, naturally, forming a romantic attachment. The film ends with the characters a couple - apparently living together in Greece. Writer Tony Gilroy has Franka Potente killed off within twenty minutes of the first sequel, 'The Bourne Supremacy' - shot in the head and left at the bottom of a river.

This serves a dual purpose: it gives Bourne a clear motive to come out of hiding and resume his feud (just as Craig's Bond did at the tail-end of 'Casino Royale') and also frees him up for more globe-trotting, wish fulfilment action. In this way it's routine, but it's elevated above the convention by Gilroy, who ensures Marie is present throughout 'Supremacy' and even the trilogy's concluding chapter, 'The Bourne Ultimatum'. For one thing he doesn't put Bourne anywhere near a romantic situation in either sequel, with the hero's grief lasting and tangible. Bourne pointedly keeps a photo of Marie even as he burns everything else. In this way Gilroy ensures Potente's memorable, capable and intensely likable character did not exist for nothing.

Killing her off is still an undeniably cynical move, but he does it smartly and with no small amount of class. For instance, Marie is shot whilst driving during a high-speed car chase, which is a fitting climax to her arc seeing as how she entered Bourne's story as a driver in the first place. It is also thrilling that she is given such a great action sequence (to me the best in by far the strongest Bourne film) prior to her demise. Throughout these early scenes we also feel that time has passed and that both characters have grown in each other's company, becoming a functioning unit dependant on one another.

The same can not be said for the equivalent bit of 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol'. The fourth 'Mission' movie breaks franchise tradition by taking a stab at something like overarching continuity and character development by retaining Ethan Hunt's (Tom Cruise) wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) from 'Mission: Impossible 3'. But, in contrast to 'The Bourne Supremacy', this continuation feels strained and disingenuous (however much I enjoyed the film overall). Basically writers André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum were written into a corner by the third movie, which ended with Ethan and Julia a happily married couple. This could not be outright ignored in the traditional way, as it might have been were the characters merely getting it on (as with Thandie Newton's heroine in 'Mission: Impossible 2').

Remember: Monaghan, as a supporting cast member, is not essential to the franchise so, by law, she has to go. Their solution to the relationship problem? Ignore Julia until the very end of the movie - in a scene so tacked on it could be deleted without even slight damage to preceding two hours (in fact it might improve the film). Sure, they talk about her a few times in the body of the movie, saying that she died between films, but her "death" mostly serves as a convenient hook to connect Hunt with new buddy Brandt (Jeremy Renner) - who blames himself for reasons that are too convoluted to explain.

Though ultimately it's revealed that Ethan has faked her death in order to protect her from the harm that comes from a life on the edge with the Cruiser (begging the obvious question: why did he marry her in the first place?). This device enables Hunt to remain blemish free as a character (he hasn't betrayed his marriage or failed to protect his wife), whilst freeing him up for future hijinks in which (I guarantee) Julia will play no part. The film's concluding moments, and with them Ethan Hunt's entire marriage up to this point, feel false.

I joined Bourne in mourning for Marie who I hoped would stick around a bit longer, however much I knew she had to go. I wanted Jason Bourne to be happy and to live a life with her because I believed that's what he genuinely wanted. I believed it's what Marie wanted too. By comparison, I couldn't care less about Julia and I only imagine Ethan does because we're told this is the case. Julia was invented to be a kidnap victim in the third film: to make things "personal" for our Tom in the most hackneyed possible way. At the end of that entry she suddenly, from nowhere, exhibits major gun skills, offing two trained killers. She just as suddenly disappears from her husband's life in time for the sequel and her absence is hardly felt.

It's no reflection on Monaghan at all, but Julia isn't a character: she's a plot catalyst who stopped being necessary the moment she was rescued. Her continued existence at the end of the fourth film is simply a means to an end - a way of filling in a gaping continuity hole. And that's all. And we feel it. Marie and Julia are written out of their respective movies for the same basic storytelling reasons. Yet Gilroy's resolution (or lack thereof, with Bourne still alone, lost and grieving) is far more interesting and emotional.

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