Not only have the winds of popular culture caused audiences to storm the cinema, but the box office returns have blown away movie moguls. Euphoric over the reception of the season's first films, Twister and Mission Impossible, each of which precipitated over $100 million in the first two weeks of release, studio executives made the headlines of Variety with predictions of a $2.5 billion summertime windfall.
What generated-and continues to inspire-such a reaction among movie-goers? Action-adventures. It would seem that Shakespeare's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing" formula is an extremely successful plot device.
Twister, as already noted by WORLD, is a special-effects spectacle of terrifying glory. Those in the industry say tornadoes are among the most difficult special effects to create with a sense of believability. Technically, the movies-particularly those with the Amblin or Industrial Light and Magic label-have come a long way from Wizard of Oz.
Too bad the stories have not kept pace with the technology. Twister was another production of the Michael Crichton/Steven Spielberg affiliation, and its storyline contains almost all of the homogenized earmarks of a Spielberg movie: cliched characters with shallow marital bonds, casual attitudes concerning love and divorce, an abiding allegation of evil within the bounds of business corporations, a benevolent old New Age lady, and a smattering of self-conscious references to past movies.
On the plus side, the movie does celebrate American ingenuity and old-fashioned American food. And, whenever the sappy story threatens to drag the film down, along comes a mighty wind to blow us away.
Another purloiner of the box office purse is clever Tom Cruise as star and co-producer of Mission Impossible. Beginning with the premise of the old television program of the same name, but introducing new characters and updating the politics, Mr. Cruise takes audiences on a spymaster's roller- coaster ride around the new world order. The only character from the original series who remains-in name only-is Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), who organizes and assigns "impossible" tasks to an elite, unnamed team of U.S. intelligence agents.
Whereas in the TV show of the Cold War era the American government represented the "good guys" arrayed against communist dictators, the film reflects the new cynicism about our nation's institutions. In the post-Cold War world, the movie suggests, the main enemy of the United States is itself. The story turns on the assumption that all people-including those we once trusted-may well be motivated only by money and power.
Unlike many action films, Mission Impossible is not only a special-effects extravaganza-it actually has an intricate plot, full of twists and intrigues. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, a hotshot, is sent to retrieve a stolen disk containing the complete list of all our undercover agents and their true identities. Instead, he finds himself set up for a fall amidst the spilling of much blood. (Filmgoers have to observe at least half a dozen gruesome endings on this mission, some of which are replayed in the process of dissecting the plot.)
As if Mr. Cruise's character didn't have enough trouble, his dour agency boss Kittridge (Henry Czerny) concludes that he has become a double agent and must be tracked down. The trouble to which Ethan goes to clear his name, avenge the murder of his cohorts, and save the undercover agents is something to watch. Interestingly, the key to the mystery is contained in a Bible.
Director Brian De Palma is a talented filmmaker (plagued by generally poor script selection) and is a serious student of the techniques of master-of-suspense Alfred Hitchcock. The best segment of the film is Ethan's break-in at the CIA headquarters and his manipulation of their master computer while dangling in mid-air to avoid the surrounding alarm systems. The scene is shot in perfect, suspense-filled silence. Everything is made to hinge on an extreme-closeup drop of sweat that-if it falls-will set off the alarms. Mr. De Palma's dramatic camera work, fast-paced editing, and carefully calculated pacing show that a popular action flick can still be something of a work of art.
This movie-should you choose to accept it-is satisfactory for those who don't object to the trade-off of dead bodies for spectacular stunts and mind games.
Again hitting on the theme of undercover government operations, Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage, and Ed Harris are rounded up by producers (the late) Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer in an assault on The Rock. Mr. Harris, playing dissatisfied superpatriot Brigadier General Hummel, hatches a scheme to force the U.S. government to make reparations to the widows and families of soldiers who died in top secret maneuvers under his command.
With his band of outlaw Marines, he captures Alcatraz Island and threatens not only to do away with his tourist hostages but to wipe out the population of San Francisco with his stolen batch of rockets loaded with deadly V.X. liquid gas. Happily for the citizens by the bay, his unstable character-another example of Hollywood's right-winger-as-bad-guy motif-is countered by a solid team of Navy SEALs assembled to save the day.
Only one man knows how to break through the bowels of Alcatraz: its lone escapee, John Mason, played with droll humor and directness by Sean Connery. And only one man knows how to handle the nasty V.X. liquid: Nicholas Cage as chemicals expert nerd Stanley Goodspeed.
Mr. Cage-another serious actor making the obligatory action flick-plays Goodspeed with disarming humor, tolerance for tetanus-laced sets, and calculated concentration. (The only drawback of his character is an extraneous relationship with his live-in girlfriend who announces her pregnancy just as Stanley declares having babies "an act of cruelty.") The two misfits are sent under the protection of the SEALs to disarm the rockets and capture the renegades. It turns into a mutual military massacre and Goodspeed and Mason are left alone to save San Francisco
In spite of fine acting, the storyline occasionally stumbles over obvious contrivances such as the obligatory chase through the kitchen of a swanky hotel. Along with gaping holes in logic, the story is punctuated with various violent and odious demises, earning it an R-rating.
Action movies can be fun, but they don't leave viewers with much after the adrenaline-rush dies down. Better to have vibrant action than boring gabfests, but technological prowess by itself is still no substitute for real drama, the kind that conveys some truth or at least leaves audiences thinking.