Rahul's blog: A series of Impossible Missions
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11 August 2015

Part 1- Chronicling an action star:
The new Mission Impossible is a rock solid action thriller. Right dose of all necessary condiments thrown in and cooked just right too. It never blows you away but always keeps you engaged. Studious but never spectacular. Just getting a bit tired of supersmart villains who run with a nihilistic approach to starting a new world order. I suppose it's a reflection of our times. Nevertheless, something surprised me very pleasantly about the film though. Shocked me almost.

How the leading lady of the film was treated by the script, the director and the producer/ superstar leading man of the film. Before I talk about it, Let's just rewind a bit and take look at, commercially, one of the greatest careers in cinema history.

Tom Cruise in his heyday was the most bankable global star. The staggering number of 100 million hits through the Nineties and Noughties stands proof. I suppose only Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks can match that number. And Hanks was more of an Aamir Khan if you will... Not a Salman. Tom Cruise redefined the image of the action hero back then. He replaced the oak trunk sized bodies, and the 'an action hero can feel no pain, cannot know how to be sensitive without being awkward about it and must not have a range of expressions exceeding a sum total of two' approach of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme. He was short, impossibly good looking to be an action star, had a vulnerability that women loved...pretty hysterically loved back in the 90s...And had too much of a soft and sensitive guy image about him to become a serious action star. I mean, Tom Cruise is Jerry Maguire, he's Charlie from Rain Man or Daniel from A Few Good Men.... He's no action hero material right! But smart Mr Cruise knew every superstar in any industry in the world is an action hero (with the exception of Rajesh Khanna and SRK interestingly). No one becomes a superstar without becoming an action hero. That's where the big bucks lie.

He couldn't alter himself beyond a certain degree. But what he did smartly was that he remodeled the very of image an action hero. And he had some top class directors like Brian De Palma, Spielberg, John Woo and Michael Mann moulding him. Early in his career, the action in his movies when he attempted them came from him flying planes (Top Gun) or driving race cars (Days of Thunder). But he had to graduate from having action in his movies to becoming an action star. The First Mission:Impossible changed everything.

Tom Cruise came to embody this sensitive, vulnerable action hero who could cry like us, have his heart broken like us, who would bleed like us when cut, who felt physical pain like us when struck.... But one who could rise and hit back like only a hero could.

Audiences who were very used to and probably bored of the Stallones of the world, who looked like they could get hit by a truck and not suffer even a sprain, absolutely loved this new vulnerable hero. He seemed much more interesting. He seemed more real... And that made his deeds even more heroic. He replaced strength and size with skill and tenacity of spirit as the new action cool. He became a sort of James Bond with much more emotion. A James Bond who wasn't always in control. A James Bond who was willing to get his tuxedo dirty. And people loved it. And for the first time, a star was pulling millions of women too into the theatres to watch action movies. Teenaged girls went to his movies and wept everytime a villain hurt him. And cheered wildly when he triumphed. Tom Cruise had single handedly increased the market size of what was already the most saleable genre. The studios and suits went cuckoo happy. So much so that a decade later when James Bond was losing relevance and desperately needed reinvention, Bond went the Cruise way.

Achieving this transformation was in itself a Mission:Impossible. But Cruise pulled it off. In hindsight, the title could not have been more apt.

Years later, 'jumping about on Oprah's couch and acting rather strangely for his age' later, a couple of much publicised divorces later, 'his controversial tryst with scientology' later, a rather untimely break from the movies later, Tom Cruise began losing box office relevance. At an alarming rate. Two or three duds happened. His audiences that loved him dearly had grown older and were frequenting theatres much less. The younger audiences had their own generation of newer bunch of tougher, darker or cooler Action heroes. The standard trope of the action hero had evolved. More importantly, superhero movies had taken over box office by then. Cruise didn't have a superhero franchise running. His appeal was way too real to be a superhero anyway.

An almost fifty year old star, whose once glorious cheekbones were headed visibly southward now, had to find his mojo again.

Cruise turned to agent Ethan Hunt again. Hunt chose to accept this Impossible Mission too. Merely the ghost of a once superstar had survived and Hunt had to conduct an immediate CPR. Ghost Protocol, part 4 in the series, was born. And did exactly that. It didn't quite return him to his glory days. But it sure did make him a relevant force at the box office again.

Part 2- This ought to become everyone's Mission

Now finally, coming to the point I made in the opening paragraphs. The latest film successfully carries out a very important Mission:Impossible. I didn't see it coming. It's a very subtle one. Am sure it wasn't a part of their mission statement but it's very evident that it's intentional. No, it has nothing to do with reinventing Tom Cruise's image or furthering his career. It's a far more important stroke in the pop-culture canvas of our times.

The use of leading ladies in big budget, star driven, action movies is an issue across every movie industry across the world. They are reduced to objectified ornaments in most cases. Serve no purpose in scripts except to be an emotional distraction for our heroes or be the damsels in distress wailing and waiting to be rescued. In our own Indian movies, they have the added responsibility of being in 3-4 songs too of course. Let's not not even begin to discuss how sexist the treatment often is in Hollywood or here.

Am not talking about the Arundathis, Kill Bills, Death Proofs or Vijayashanti movies of the 80s. Those were exceptions anyway, not examples. Am talking about their roles in movies that are toplined by a big male star or in a big franchise movie. Like a Megan Fox in Transformers. And one can write a whole book of examples.

There was the recent Mad Max. Considered to be an exception. Some franchise fans even took offence to the fact that Theron had a more important role than Hardy. Firstly, it's not your typical formula action movie. Secondly, I don't fully agree. Theron was a woman trying to do a man's job in action movies but needing the help of a man. She helps him as much with his psychological wounds. But that's a different story.

In the latest MI movie, Rebecca Ferguson plays the most independent and 'equal' character I have seen in such formula movies.

She's a stunningly beautiful woman. But she's never objectified for it barring a throwaway shot. She has a plot of her own. A very intriguing one. An undercover agent stuck with her cover because her boss refuses to bring her in. She deals with her stark situation with dignity.

She does her own stunts. From fighting multiple men to jumping out of speeding cars to high speed motorcycle chases. It was refreshing that she never had to be 'saved' by Cruise. In fact, she rescues him once from his captors and brings him back from certain death another time. And here's what was most heartwarming. She gets her own really badass hand to hand combat with a villain in the grand climactic showdown. How adroit was she with her martial arts moves! Here's what will knock your rockers off! Tom Cruise doesn't get one in the climax! He simply lures the villain into a trap. I almost couldn't believe what I had just seen! But it was done so well no one will ever realise Tom Cruise never got his own fight in the climax and Rebecca did! Just digest that for a second.

It gets better. There's no token smooch in the end to establish how much of a stud Tom is or how much she pines for him. Nothing. Just a platonic hug. And it keeps getting better. She doesn't throw away her life and come running behind Tom to settle with him in some dreamy beach location. She drives away coolly. Tells him he knows where to find her if he wants to. She's her own hero. Heck it's a 'two hero' movie. Think if Sundance kid was a woman. It was done so well, the treatment of her character in the film. With so much dignity. It's pretty pathbreaking in that sense.

Here's to more such characters in mainstream cinema. Let's show little girls watching these movies that they can grow up and be their own people. That their respect is no one's to give. And that their identity doesn't have to be defined by which Knight in shining armour will come riding for them. Virginia Woolf will be proud.

- Rahul Ravindran (Andala Rakshasi, Ala Ela and Tiger)

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