This summer brought us not one super spy film, but two, with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and when the holiday movie months arrived, it was once again time for another entry in the James Bond franchise: Spectre. Instead of reviewing these three films separately I decided to pit them against each other in a no-holds barred fight to the death. Let’s see who’s left standing when the dust clears.
Every film needs them, and Mission Impossible has a couple, but they’re all pretty bland. It feels like they all have interesting back stories and relationships that have happened off screen, I just wish they could have happened on screen instead. Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg play their parts amiably, and Tom Cruise’s Agent Ethan Hunt is steely eyed and daring as ever but not much else. Many of the characters in this film were introduced in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but then as now they had little depth or development. For such a huge franchise, it feels like an opportunity to create enduring screen characters has been wasted.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fares much better with it’s characters. It’s trio, played by Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander, have plenty of fun scenes together, and the film seems more interested in developing their characters than anything else. Unfortunately, Spectre gets the lowest ranking in terms of character. Craig is great as Bond, as burly and volatile as ever, but the rest of the characters kind of just lie there, from a bland bond girl to a villain with zero motivation and nothing to do. It’s kind of sad really.
Winner: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The action in U.N.C.L.E. is fast and hard to follow. It relies heavily on computer graphics and flashy editing and seems to be more of an afterthought than anything else. Imposible‘s action on the other hand is jaw-droppingly awesome. It’s so well paced and so exciting that it trumps everything else in the film. Cruise does a lot of his own stunts and it really helps sell the shots. We get to see him hanging from a real airplane in flight, racing down precarious mountain roads on a motorcycle without a helmet, and enduring one of the hardest to watch underwater scenes in movie history. There’s also some excellent hand to hand combat, both by Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson.
The action in Spectre is pretty good too, with plenty of exciting set pieces in exotic locales and a climactic escape scene. That being said, it just doesn’t have the style, grace or raw energy of Impossible’s action.
Winner: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Spy films thrive on overly convoluted, improbable plotting, and all three of these films suffered from just that–but which had the best? The plots in both Impossible and U.N.C.L.E. seemed to exist solely to forward the action and character building. Both were hard to follow and kind of fell apart when you thought about them, and neither had very interesting protagonists. The convolution in Impossible was a bit more annoying than U.N.C.L.E.‘s because it took itself more seriously without having the actual dramatic weight to justify it. Spectre also had an overly serious and problematic plot. Plot points were set up then dropped halfway through the film and a big reveal at the end didn’t really thrill any but the most die hard Bond fans. It also attempted and and failed to tie plot threads of the three previous Craig Bond films together, making for quite a mess of a story.
Now, as much as I liked the simplicity and lightness of U.N.C.L.E.’s plot. Impossible’s tangled web of intruge still made for a more enjoyable ride with higher emotional stakes. So as much as it annoyed me, I have the concede that it probably was the best of the lot.
Winner: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The opening for U.N.C.L.E. is beautifully shot to appear as if it’s a Cold War news reel. Even after this conceit fades to a more polished look, the film maintains it’s 60’s aesthetic, right down to grainy film, gaudy colors, whip zooms and long tracking shots. The costumes and sets are impeccable and the lighting strikes just the right mix of classic studio and modern realism. Impossible is more polished, with lots of swooping aerial shots and shiny spy interiors. That being said, there are some very beautifully stylized scenes including a knife fight performed mostly in silhouette and a protracted sniper scene in the dimply lit catwalks above an opera.
Our underdog Spectre has a surprising comeback here! As beautiful as the opera scene was in Impossible, Spectre blows it away with the beauty of its every shot. The film opens with an impressive single take of a Day of The Dead parade in Mexico City, and then takes us to a brooding Italian city at night, a gorgeous mountain lake in winter, a dusty Eastern city at sunset, and a bizarre technological citadel in the middle of nowhere. The set and costume design are superb, and the cinematography just sparkles. If only the film could have been as good as it looked.
And the Winner Is… Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol!
I’ve read a couple reviews arguing that the Mission Impossible franchise has stolen the mantle of best super spy series from James Bond, and I have to admit, I kind of agree. Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the previous film, Rogue Nation was a pleasure to see in theaters, and a classy endeavor at that. As Bond continues to seduce the ladies and play with weird gadgets, its nice to see a series that takes the theme of spying a bit more seriously without losing the fun of a Bond film or entering the dark dramatic grounds of the Bourne series. Even though I’m not huge fan of the franchise, I’m looking forward to watching Agent Ethan Hunt’s next adventure.