29 July 2015

The Road to a Blockbuster: Ed Helms vs. Tom Cruise on the Impossible Vacation

We're coming at you a bit early this week since we have a new flick dropping on a rando Wednesday in July for some reason - Vacation (2015). This flick joins the latest Tom Cruise actioner, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015), which lands on the more traditional Friday, but we'll tackle both here today. It's a strange pairing to be sure, but there may not be many people interested in both.

Actually, there is going to be plenty of people interested in both - even though they would appear pretty different in name and genre, an R-rated Comedy and a PG-13 action flick are both going to attract the same kind of classic young male movie crowd that's actually been pushed aside more than usual this summer. The result of course, has been a lot of movies that have made a lot of money, but you've got to expect Hollywood to head back to the well at some point. Anyway, without further adieu, let's talk about the critical, commercial, and cultural prospects of these two flicks:

First, Vacation. The 1983 movie is a favorite of just about everyone on earth, and is a good reason why even though everyone in Hollywood hates Chevy Chase far more than Dan Aykroyd, he's still gotten pretty steady work in the spotlight for the past thirty years. He was the prototype dad for a few generations, and part of what makes that film so great is that despite the buffoonery, he's always trying to do what's best for his family, and some of it ends up working. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) spawned waaay too many films than it should have, but we at least got one good sequel out of it - the immortal Holiday Flick, Christmas Vacation (1989).
It is literally amazing that Beverly D'Angelo has
stayed pretty true to Chevy Chase all these years.

Now, I'm not totally opposed to sequels or retreads of classic films, although long-range comedy sequels tend to have a ton of problems. In the case of Vacation, though, it's less about trudging out the same actors or even the same characters, and more passing down the traits of the elder Griswolds, and from the looks of the trailers, it seems like this has been updated and even infused with a bit of logic to make the whole thing make some sort of sense from an organic standpoint.

So why don't I still have a good feeling about Vacation? Maybe it's because it's another movie that I just didn't care about them making. I'm not one to get angry or vindictive over these things, but there is a strong sense of "who cares?" at work especially when the original still holds up phenomenally well, in part because dads are stuck in a time lapse so that no matter how old you are, your dad acted like Chevy Chase at some point. More than that, though, is the sense that we've seen that Vacation story a few times now, and we have a pretty clear indication of the Griswold's future.

We've also seen that same "family on a road trip from hell" motif repeatedly since 1983, most recently in We're the Millers (2013), which was an adequate, if not forgettable R-rated flick, not wholly unlike what Vacation is trying to do, especially with its foul-mouthed younger son, who I can see being a highlight, even from the small mount of material we've gotten so far. And yeah, upon hearing that Ed Helms plays Rusty, you think "That's perfect!" Ultimately, though, since this film had an upward battle to begin with, it really needed either some great reviews or a great trailer to put it over the edge. Since it's apparently really really bad, and nothing has appeared to be that funny, I'm thinking it's a solid skip.

But what will the people think? Here's where the marketing has failed a bit, because even when the trailer addresses the fact that no young person has heard of the "original vacaton" (meaning, within the narrative, the trip that Grandpa Clark Griswold took Ellen, Aubrey, and Rusty on), the connection is never actually explained with any degree of confidence. This could be hope that the new film stands on its own, but it ultimately just paints this as another forgettable family road trip comedy.

This ought to have an even tougher time coming after Trainwreck (2015), which is another R-rated vehicle that feels fresh in every way that Vacation feels stale, and ought to hold pretty well with its positive word of mouth and impressive Box Office Debut (it's admittedly odd that you're happy for Trainwreck's $30 mill while TED 2 (2015) clocking in nearly the same is a huge bomb. It's all expectation, I guess). I don't think Vacation will crash and burn, but there are just too many better options out there. And in another thirty years we'll still be remembering Chevy Chase over Ed Helms. A little John Hughes heart goes a long way.

Now we'll shift gears a bit and talk about Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, to which there feels like an endless string of shit to discuss, but there's really not much there. That's a lot like the franchise itself. Heaps of complicated and intricate plot piled on itself belying an ultimately hollow story that bases itself around a few admittedly breathtaking action setpieces and allowing the rest to fall by the wayside.
Yep. That's the money shot.

Rogue Nation is running with this characterization. The series seems to have gained some kind of understanding of its own merits sometime in the wake of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011), maybe because five years on we all remember the Burj Khalifa scene and...not much else. Each film has this, from the iconic wire-hanging to the cliff climbing to uh...yeah the only thing I remember from Mission: Impossible III (2006) is actually Keri Russell's brain turning into putty. In this vein, they've been selling the airplane scene in Rogue Nation pretty hard. And the underwater scene. And the motorcycle scene. And apparently, they're all totally interchangeable.

Part of this works because of that ol' Tom Cruise guarantee. Say what you want about how absolutely insane this guy is, or even the quality of his movies, but he's a superstar for a reason. He's one of a few A-List actors who gives 110% in every single role, with full commitment to stunts. This commitment isn't to like, a fight scene like Hugh Jackman does (also impressive, though). This is commitment to like, actually climb the Burj Khalifa, or actually dangle off of an airplane. I'm sure it's partly due to that craziness, but in a growing age of green screen backdrops (Mad Max: Fury Road 2015] aside), there's something really refreshing about witnessing this kind of spectacle. It's almost as if we've come full circle now - instead of CGI spectacle putting butts in seats, it's now that guarantee of real world danger and practical stunts that attracts attention.

For better or worse, Mission: Impossible has basically become the definitive Tom Cruise franchise. There are probably more memorable or distinctive roles he's had in his long career, but this is the closest he's come to a reliable franchise. It makes it all the more hilarious that there were rumours of the studio grooming Jeremy Renner to replace him. That could maybe still happen, but poor Hawkeye is just going to end up second banana for the rest of his career. It's also fairly odd that at his age and career that Mapother is settling for these insane action projects instead of something a little more challenging acting-wise. It's as if Cruise has the inverse direction of most actors, who do their action films early and eventually settle into taking those more adviserly, older roles, letting the next generation shine.

Instead, Cruise got all his serious acting out of the way early in his career. All those Born on the Fourth of July (1989), A Few Good Men (1992), and Jerry Maguire (1996) movies seem to be behind him. His final dramatic role at this point could well be Valkyrie (2008), which is a pretty underrated film that was more caught up in the sweeping "over it" feeling about Cruise in the mid-aughts, along with the inherently funny "Tom Cruise is a Nazi!" line of jokes. But it is weird that a man who is a legit superstar with a personal life that can't really be criticised or degraded any more than it is doesn't take more risky or challenging roles. He's a good actor, too! You have to think that he's itching for some Academy recognition before his career is over. And yes, at 53 he's still somehow believable as an action hero, but will he be at 63? 73? 83? You know that we're getting Mission: Impossible XXI - Lightning Drops (2045) starring Tom Cruise where he does an actual space jump naked into an electrified pool of lions riding on sharks with machetes for claws.

That's the other thing - Cruise seems reluctant to hand over the reigns of this franchise. He's now played Ethan Hunt five times over the span of 19 years, which is far longer than any other Bond actor, unless you're counting Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again. It's also odd that this franchise has sustained itself for so long considering every single sequel has been pretty long-range. It's almost like the Terminator franchise, which averages like 7 years in between installments. Mission: Impossible has averaged about five years in between sequels, and that's been pretty consistent starting with Mission: Impossible II (2002). It's also had virtually a new cast and a new director each time, with Ving Rhames' Luther being a heavy presence early on, and has popped in here and there since, and Simon Pegg's Benji being the only other consistent presence lately. All this puts the franchise even more solely on Cruise's shoulders.

At any rate, it's totally safe to call Mission: Impossible the most successful old television show adaptation ever, unless you count Star Trek. Simon Pegg makes some good career choices, eh? So, needless to say, I spoke at length about both these films I have no intention of seeing. Rogue Nation I imagine has the same legacy as Ghost Protocol - in four years we'll remember that airplane scene and not much else. Since this summer has been so insular with its blockbuster successes, I also predict that it'll do just fine at the bank. Surfing some surprisingly good reviews ought to help it out, although all Mission: Impossible films seem to have a ceiling around $200 million.

What will you see this weekend? Or today?

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