My Misspent Youth — Marvel Treasury Edition #28 by Jim Shooter and John Buscema

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Through a good chunk of the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, Marvel Comics did their best to expand the reach of their comics storytelling, experimenting with different formats and presentations. The Marvel magazines line was fairly robust, in part because it was free from the smothering content controls of Comics Code Authority, which especially benefited the adventures of a certain Cimmerian. Those felt out of reach to me, mostly because they struck me as too adult for a wee lad such as myself. Instead, I longed to get my chunky little hands on the various Marvel Treasury Editions.

The Treasury Editions were essentially oversized comics, printed on heavier paper. Usually they reprinted earlier adventures of the publisher’s most famed characters, occasionally collated according to theme. For the issue that proved to be the last of the series, it was instead a whole new adventure, and a highly significant one. In a rare feat of cross-company cooperation, the most famed superhero in the Marvel stable teamed up with the DC Comics Kryptonian who started it all. At a time when getting a special edition like this required an arduous trip this rare, wondrous place called a comic book shop, I forced a weary adult to take me to shell out a whopping $2.50 to acquire a momentous meeting of Spider-Man and Superman.

A similar unlikely pairing happened five years earlier, and it was a true merging of talent from the two  publishers. In this instance, it was a heavily Marvel affair, which suited my youthful preferences. Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, wrote the story, and mainstay artist John Buscema provided the pencils. Accordingly, it was especially comfortable with the internal lore of the Marvel universe, including a depiction of Peter Parker’s clumsily ineffectual love life, complete with a requisite Elvis Costello reference.

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So this comic was released in 1981, when Costello played three straight nights at the Palladium in support of the very strong album Trust. Squeeze opened, and Glenn Tilbrook routinely came out to join Costello on “From a Whisper to a Scream.” Tickets were $12.50. These were good shows, people. Cindy would probably still be with Peter to this day if he could have scraped up the bread.

Naturally, the story also peeked in on mild-mannered Clark Kent as he went about his day. Superman’s alter ego was a bit more adept at dealing with the nettlesome challenges that came his way.

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With a staggering sixty-two pages of story at their disposal, the creative team was able to pull out all the stops. Besides the main protagonists, other celebrated stalwarts of the respective periodical lines showed up. For example, the eternal schoolyard question as to who would win in a battle between Superman and the incredible Hulk was addressed.

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And ol’ Webhead encountered a certain Amazonian, who offered him some advice about his general sartorial approach.

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This mix and match was highly enjoyable, especially when fellow newspaper employees Kent and Parker participated in a sort of exchange program between the two metropolitan dailies. The main event, though, was the scintillating skirmish with supervillains. Relative obscure Superman foe Parasite represented DC Comics (Lex Luthor, the more obvious choice, was evidently busy with other nefarious endeavors). More to my personal liking, the Marvel baddie who stepped into the fray was none other than the despotic ruler of Latveria, Victor Von Doom.

As a Fantastic Four fanatic from the very beginning of my superhero collecting days, I was always ready to watch Doctor Doom throw down. He wasn’t a prime member of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, but Doom got around. Besides, there was no more fearsome fellow in the mighty Marvel saga. In a story this big, only Doctor Doom would do.

Shooter was often maligned for the mediocre writing he delivered when stepped from behind the editorial desk during his days at Marvel, but he wrote a great Doom.

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In those panels, the dismissiveness of referring to Superman as simply “alien” is bested only by the send-off “Farewell, cretins!” I also loved — even then — that this clash between titans is ended when the villain essentially invokes diplomatic immunity by retreating to the Latverian embassy. Some stories end with a whimper and some with a bang. This ends with a legal technicality.

I added this jumbo story to my collection fairly early in my time obsessively following superheroes, and read and reread this issue until it was as worn as the oldest dishrag in the drawer. Even when I occasionally consume comics these days, I lack the time and wherewithal to consume them at that insatiable level. More than even the comics themselves, I think that craving is what I miss. No matter the competing impulse, I always wanted to read more, even if it meant — especially if it meant — reading a favorite story one more time.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Tried To Love”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

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When Peter Frampton released I’m in You, his fifth solo studio album, he was about as big as a rock star could get. A renowned guitarist with a reasonably healthy career, Frampton went supernova with the 1976 release Frampton Comes Alive! The double live release went platinum several times over — temporarily nabbing the title of best-selling live album ever — spent ten nonconsecutive weeks on top of the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 15 singles.

Then it came time for the dreaded follow-up.

“That was probably the least favorite period of my life,” Frampton recalled later. “The pressure was so great. There was absolutely no need to do I’m in You then and there. The biggest mistake was just not shutting down at that point. I had so much out there. The world was going crazy about Comes Alive! I didn’t need to go and rush into something else. You’re only as good as your last record, so don’t put one out for a while.”

Initially, it seemed I’m in You was going to duplicate the success of its immediate predecessor. The album made it to the runner-up position on the Billboard chart, on its way to platinum status, and the lead single and title cut reached the same numeric peak on the singles chart, actually outperforming all of the Comes Alive! singles.

Things started to slip from there. The third single, “Tried to Love,” couldn’t even push into the Top 40, finishing its climb at #41. Even the backing vocals from no less than Mick Jagger could give it the extra boost it needed.

Frampton only delivered one more Top 40 single — “I Can’t Stand It No More,” from the 1979 album Where I Should Be — before sliding into an enduring status as the poster boy for short-lived rock ‘n’ roll superstardom. He was good on The Simpsons, though.

 

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #888 to #885

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888. She’s Having a Baby soundtrack (1988)

The nineteen-eighties was the era of soundtracks, and John Hughes was one of the great impresarios of the form. Despite the accuracy of that statement, Hughes didn’t actually preside over all that many films that boasted notables soundtracks, but especially with Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful (both of which he wrote, but neither of which he directed), he was credited with setting one of the templates for the form, transferring the modestly successful acts from college radio into the upper reaches of the Billboard album and pop charts.

In 1988, it was time for John Hughes to grow up. After spending most of the decade establishing himself as the auteur of the high school experience (with a diversion into travel-related farce that echoed his most significant introductory step into the movie biz), Hughes wrote and directed She’s Having a Baby. The film addressed the challenges faced by young adults as they shifted from more carefree days into the weightier responsibilities of adulthood, represented most clearly by the family-building noted in the title. Perhaps accordingly, Hughes tried bring a little more thoughtfulness and maturity to the soundtrack, too.

As usual with such efforts, the soundtrack is a decidedly mixed bag, but the lineup is choice, leaning heavily on U.K. acts. Dave Wakeling’s title song has an intro that sounds like it should provide the the background for chatty morning news show’s opening sequence, but it’s hard to deny that the overall track is ridiculously catchy. The requisite covers are provided by Bryan Ferry and Kirsty MacColl. Most impressively, Hughes and the music supervisors coaxed new tracks from the likes of XTC and Everything But the Girl. The soundtrack’s most significant coup is the introduction of Kate Bush’s haunting, elegant “This Woman’s Work,” which was the centerpiece of the film’s most memorable sequence.

 

 

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887. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Kicking Against the Pricks (1986)

It’s perversely fitting the Nick Cave album title that is surely most immediately provoking came straight from the Bible. In the King James Bible, acts 9, verse 5 reads, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Cave’s bible study group has to be a real gas.

The third album from the iconoclastic Australian troubadour and his band the Bad Seeds, Kicking Against the Pricks is comprised entirely of cover songs, which Cave said were essentially selected in a wild melee, with the band honing down to a final track listing based largely on whether or not they were able to sufficiently master the works. The multiple motivations behind the choices — sentiment, a mild disdain for the original versions, an indefinable allure that amounts to an itch Cave and his cohorts felt compelled to scratch — naturally leads to a fairly discombobulated finished product. That probably suits Cave just fine, but it can make for tough sledding as a listener.

Without fail, Cave dominates the songs stylistically rather than lets them guide him. It can lead to bizarre but intriguing scrambles of sensibilities, as when “Hey Joe,” the nineteen-sixties song made famous by Jimi Hendrix, is turned into a dramatic dirge, or the same era’s country ballad “Sleeping Annaleah” winds up sounding like it should only be performed on a haunted carousel. The Velvet Underground’s piercingly beautiful “All Tomorrow’s Parties” becomes a modern pirate shanty peppered with odd sonic squalls. Sometimes Cave’s sense of pronounced irony becomes overwhelming, as on “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.”

Amid the sporadically engaging tomfoolery, Cave offers reminders that he’s a master rock showman at his core. The folk song “Muddy Water” becomes a weary march of grand drama, and Cave’s anxious vocals on “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman” (originally by John Lee Hooker) are a thrilling feat. But the effective tracks largely argue that Cave is simply too distinctive and ferocious to devote his energy to anyone’s songs other than his own, tailored to his significant strengths.

 

 

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886. The Selecter, Too Much Pressure (1980)

The Selecter formed in the English city Coventry in the late nineteen-seventies, taking their name from the Jamaican term for a DJ. Playing jaunty ska music, the group’s timing couldn’t have been better. Just as the band’s lineup solidified — with the crucial addition of lead singer Pauline Black — and they were ready to start recording music, Jerry Dammers founded 2 Tone Records, with a planned specialty in the very sound the Selecter was playing. The label’s first single was “Gangsters,” from Dammers’s band the Special AKA. The Selecter’s eponymous track was on the flip.

One year later, the Selecter’s debut full-length arrived. Too Much Pressure is a perfect expression of the ska genre, certain to enliven the faithful and set the skeptics complaining about a numbing redundancy to the sound. Personally, I have more of a kinship with the latter camp, but I have to admit that the Black goes a long way towards alleviating the album’s problems. The singer brings a welcome brashness to songs, with even a touch of punk punch on “Three Minute Hero.”  On “Time Hard,” when she sings, “Every day/ Things are getting worse,” she sounds pragmatic, certain, and just a little resigned, carrying the song past the pat simplicity (if current high pertinence) of the sentiment.

Although ska is often distinguished by carousing horn blast of energy, a large chunk of Too Much Pressure adheres to an easygoing vibe, which is charming on “My Collie (Not a Dog)” and a dull rut on the title track. “Out on the Streets” tries to pick up the pace with its spirited wanderlust (“Let’s go somewhere, I don’t know where/ Lets go somewhere exciting/ White lies and amber lighting/ Try to seduce me”), but it simply locks in and stays in a slightly more rumbly idle. The looseness occasionally results in unexpected bursts of amusement, as when the album closing cover of the main “James Bond” theme is flavored with added calls of “Thee killahhhhhh…James Bond!”

The Selecter didn’t last long. After a sophomore release, Black split for a solo career. The remaining members quickly realized there was no point going on without her, and the group folded. But, of course, reunions happen.

 

 

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885. Devo, Shout (1984)

By at least one account, the album that basically ended Devo as the prime ongoing concern for its members was done in by a single instrument. The band had just gotten their hands on the relatively new Fairlight CMI synthesizer, which aggressively married a keyboard to a computer. They became so immersed in the strange possibilities of their new toy that no other sparks of inspiration could enter the creative process. Gerald Casale, who joined with Mark Mothersbaugh as the creative core of Devo, later conceded Shout represented the greatest regret of his tenure with the band, saying the instrument took over.

“I mean, I loved the songwriting and the ideas, but the Fairlight kind of really determined the sound,” he later explained.

Devo was built on pop abstraction, but Shout often sounds like it was written and recorded by a nineteen-eighties mall arcade that became sentient after a magical lightning strike. Despite the album’s dire reputation, I don’t think that’s always so bad. “The Satisfied Mind” is an agreeable bit of bounding robotic pop, and “The 4th Dimension” has glimmers of an approachable tune behind the the cacophony of sonic trills, though that might be chalked up to the melody line pilfered from “Day Tripper.” More typical is “C’mon,” which is a fetid stew of video game pings, blips, and trills.

It’s not only uncharitable retrospection that tags Shout as a failure. The album was savaged at the time and was enough of a miserable experience that it was credited with driving drummer Alan Myers to quit the band. Warner Bros. dropped Devo from their roster, and it would be several years before the band had the stomach to again step into a studio together.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

From the Archive — Primeval and Bats

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Sometimes I wish I’d had a silly online outlet for tapping out my impressions of visual entertainment back in the days when my household regularly hosted small, snarky crowds for double features of cinematic misfortune. Sadly, I have no old review of Shadow Conspiracy to share. Technically, Bats was included in one of those original evenings, but I didn’t remember that when we put this combo together several years later. An attendee of the first go-round reminded me, noting it was paired with Lake Placid. Anyway, this very loose reflection was written for and posted at my former online home.

Last night’s Bad Movie Night was more of an impromptu affair than our previous exercise in movie masochism. Our first feature has been on our DVR for a couple weeks now because any movie attached to a poster with that many discarded human skeleton bits on it is a movie that my partner-in-all-things is going to need to watch at some point. After deciding we didn’t have the mental wherewithal for our patiently waiting Netflix DVD and indulging in several minutes of a familiar good movie, we decided it was time for some cinematic ugliness.

We pressed play on Primeval (Michael Katleman, 2007). It begins efficiently enough. The filmmakers have only cursory interest in pesky things like character development and backstory. Instead, they introduce the characters and give them a reason to jet off to Burundi to track down a gigantic killer crocodile. That no-nonsense approach stops when the trio of bickering unlikely adventurers touch down in Africa. More characters get introduced and the filmmakers keep taking stabs at media, social, or geopolitical commentary like a disaffected teen trying on so many interchangeably bland tops at the local ShopKo. When the discernible I.Q. of your film is in the Pauly Shore range, you’re probably better off spending time considering your freakishly large reptile than the smothering danger of man’s inhumanity to man played out across the savanna. That array of jokes that revolve around the way that “croc” rhymes with “cock”? That’s your strong suit.

Avoiding the crocodile is a little more understanding as it moves into the spotlight for its star turn in the second half and the low-budget CGI emerges in all it’s snowy shimmer. The actors do their best, but since the cast is assembled from the sort of aspiring-to-the-B-List, happy-to-be-working variety folks who usually populate these films, best is a very relative term. For all I know, Dominic Purcell is a broody sensation on Fox’s “Prison Break,” but he’ll always be John Doe to me, which means that any of his numerable moments of exposition earns some extra giggles in our household. You can also pass time by considering how recently it was that Orlando Jones was considered someone on the way up in Hollywood.

For the second film (double features are a necessity on Bad Movie Night) we could have gone to one of the sorry standbys. Before pulling that ripcord, we checked the various cable channels to see if there may have been a fortuitous showing of something that would pair nicely with Primeval, which leads us to Bats (Louis Morneau, 1999).

Bats stars Lou Diamond Phillips (perhaps thinking about the days when Oscar votes weren’t an unlikely result of his efforts) as a Texas sheriff working with a foxy chiroptologist to combat an invasion of super-intelligent bats created by every moviegoer’s favorite evil warden. These adversaries with glowing red eyes and glistening fangs seem about as formidable as that rubbery photo above indicates. At one point, Phillip’s character snarls about being up to his chest in bat shot. He could have been speaking for anyone watching the film.

One for Friday — Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers, “I’m Not Your Man”

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Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers released their major label debut, Rumble. Local heroes on the Philadelphia rock scene, Conwell and his cohorts were so popular that a 1987 contest pitched at high schools with a free concert as grand prize resulted in a flood of over eleven million postcard entries. With that sort of grassroots support, the band inevitably found themselves in a bidding war between music biz titans, eventually signing on with Columbia Records, which had recently stirred up surprisingly success with the relatively straightforward blues rock stylings of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. With a little blues, a little rockabilly, and a whole lot of brash young rocker attitude.

“I’m Not Your Man,” the single that introduced Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers to a national audience, was an ideal encapsulation of the band’s sound. After a hearty tumble of an opening guitar riff, Conwell gives it his best ragged snarl as his rebuffs a romantic interest who evidently wants a little more commitment than a vagabond guitar player is likely to give. Indeed, Conwell insists he’s not prepared to settle down until a he spies “a monkey chase a lion up a coconut tree,” an unlikely occurrence, I’m sure you’ll agree.

“I’m Not Your Man” was a healthy hit on album rock radio, topping the relevant Billboard chart for one week before U2 rattled and hummed their way to dominance with a pair of singles that accounted for eleven of the next fifteen weeks in the peak position. For the follow-up single, the label opted for “If We Never Meet Again,” a Jules Shears-penned ballad that was confusingly also an emphasis track for the Shears’s band Reckless Sleepers at precisely the same time. It made the Top 10 on the album rock chart, came reasonably close to the Top 40, and helped land the band on Late Night with David Letterman, where Conwell generously insisted that the proper nomenclature was Tommy Conwell and the Rest of the Young Rumblers.

There was only one more album on Columbia Records before the label lost interest. The band basically shut down, with members going on to other endeavors, including gig for the frontman as a third-grade teacher and a radio DJ. But Philly rock ‘n’ roll fame never quite dies. Earlier this summer, Conwell and his fellow Young Rumblers took the stage at the HoagieNation Festival, an event presented under the aegis of fellow Philadelphians Daryl Hall and John Oates.

Listen or download —> Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers, “I’m Not Your Man”

(Disclaimer: I believe the Young Rumbler records are out of print, at least as physical items than can be purchased in such a way that will provide compensation to both the original artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently owned record store. Conwell does have a load of other material available on his personal website, so go get some of that. Want an “I’m Not Your Man” ringtone? It’s only ninety-nine cents, bucko! There’s no reason to delay. And then go to the record store and buy something there, too. They need your support. Although I believe sharing this song in this space in this way constitutes fair use, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world is asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

The New Releases Shelf — Hell-On

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The notion of rock and pop music as a young person’s game persists, even as a multitude of artists push toward the latter half of middle age while maintaining clearly viable voices. I suspect it’s because so many of the foundational topics of pop music — flaring infatuation, devastating heartbreak, fierce bucking against authority — are bolstered by the passions of youth. It remains true that some sentiments still sound best when delivered by someone with fewer miles on their odometer, but isn’t it reasonable to assume the wisdom an artist accrues can inform songwriting and performance in valuable ways? Maybe it’s still better to burn out than fade away, but a prolonged smolder is an yet superior option.

It’s now been a little more than twenty years since Neko Case took her first spins as a lead singer and quickly moved on to music released under her own name. From there, it’s been a steady march to beloved indie icon status. And through it all, she’s remained fully committed to an uncommon grounded sincerity, honoring collaborative commitments that her career seemed to outgrow and generally delivering a series of fuss-free recordings that merged emotional openness with thorny poetry, pinned to a melancholy tunefulness marinated in classic country music twang.

Hell-On is the seventh studio album that strictly belongs to Case, and the first billed as such in five years. If the layoff could reasonably inspire fretting that Case’s creative impulses were softening a bit, the songs offer a sharp, immediate reassurance the her power as an artist persists.

The opening lines of the album make it clear Case is battle-ready. “God is not a contract or a guy/ God is an unspecified tide,” Case sings on the title cut, ahead of settling on the metaphor she finds even more satisfying. “God is a lusty tire fire,” she insists, and it’s immediately a convincing theological argument. One of Case’s most notable skills as a songwriter is making every assertion resound with a compelling authenticity. Her assertions are plain and true, even as they’re often burrito-wrapped in thorny poetry. Without ever tilting toward the esoteric or elusive, Case often seems to be a conduit of a shared but hidden inner being of humanity. She unlocked mysteries without sharing the specifics of her epiphanies, confident that every will catch up if she’s transparent with her emotions. It’s akin to the way Bob Dylan once revealed the world while keeping his cards pressed so close to his chest that they were inside his vest.

Unlike many of those skilled songwriting predecessors, Case plays well with others, and the album is often a testament to the value of camaraderie. She includes a pair of duets, including one in which she covers the Crooked Fingers song “Sleep All Summer,” recruiting the band’s lead singer Eric Bachman to join her. Case’s crystalline vocal precision and Bachman’s hearty crooning makes the new version perversely and marvelously sound like a 21st century “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” the piercing intimacy of wounded love rendered as grand drama.

Tightly controlled drama is an unexpected Case specialty on Hell-On“Halls of Sarah” is recognizably Case’s refined handwork, yet it also seems inches away from becoming a Stevie Nicks epic. And “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” a duet with Mark Lanegan, has the strange confessional power of a bruising memoir (“In the current of your life/ I was an eyelash in the shipping lanes”). It’s heavy, and yet light as air, buoyed up by a bright, almost offhand expertise, a developed knack for making musical miracles. The alchemy is so powerful that Case can somehow squeeze profundity out of the track “Bad Luck,” even at it simultaneously recalls classic girl group pop and Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” 

Case has been plying this particular trade for quite some time, and Hell-On is right in line with the trajectory she’s long been riding. And yet it still had the surge of discovery to it, a freshness representing a voice undimmed. Let others succumb to career mortality. Case might have it in her to go on making great records forever.

Then Playing — Four Impossible Missions

Given that he emerged as a movie star in the nineteen-eighties, the era when sequels emerged as Hollywood’s favorite toy, it’s remarkable that Tom Cruise was a solid twenty years into his screen career before he appeared in a film with a roman numeral in the title. Only The Color of Money qualified as a second installment, and that was hardly an eager cash-in on a recent hit. Cruise instead built his filmography like an old school cinematic icon, playing endless variants on his signature persona without ever actually repeating a role.

Whatever kept him from signing on for sequels, it wasn’t until he had a greater stake in the production that he opted for a project that was transparently an attempt at launching a series. The first Mission: Impossible film was also Cruise’s first producing credit, though he surely didn’t foresee that he’d still be donning Ethan Hunt’s masks over twenty years later.

I’m certain I will write about the sixth installment in the Mission: Impossible series in the coming weeks, and I at least touched up the prior entry in this space. The mission I now choose to accept is to complete the set.

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Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996). The introduction of Ethan Hunt and the team within the U.S. government’s Impossible Missions Force arrived when studios were ransacking the big bin of old TV concepts with vigor, inspired in part by the surprise success of the big screen take on The Fugitive, released in 1993. Employing a distinctive director like Brian De Palma suggested a commitment to making the film a little more interesting than the average generic action outing, even if the filmmaker was still recovering from his consensus career nadir (he was coming off a minor comeback hit with Carlito’s Way, but The Bonfire of the Vanities was still visible in his rear view). No matter the hopes and intent, the finished product is shockingly drab. Characteristically, De Palma is only enlivened by his few set pieces, and the film’s script (credited to David Koepp, Steve Zaillian, and Robert Towne) is devoid of wit, unless Emilio Estevez capping an explanation of the detonation of a explosive device by saying, “Hasta lasagna, don’t get any on ya” counts. (Note: It does not count.) Worse yet, the implausibilities peppered throughout play like lazy storytelling instead of a delight in the physically absurd that would someday be the most endearing hallmark of the series.

 

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Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000). A curious trait of the first few Mission: Impossible films is that the personnel involved hint at aspirations towards grand action lunacy that somehow didn’t quite make it to the screen. John Woo was presumably hired on the strength of Face/Off, in which characters played by John Travolta and Nicolas Cage undergoing and entirely convincing surgical transplant of their respective visages might be the least delirious bit of invention among the kinetic loop-the-loops. Again, though, so little of the final effort is actually compelling. There’s a biological weapon at play, along with the inevitable antidote that must be secured to keep the world — and a lovely thief, played by Thandie Newton — out of peril. The script again isn’t good, but Woo’s direction is more problematic, relying on visual symbols and hyperbolic editing techniques that were already growing tired.

 

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Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006). The third volume of the cinematic set serves as the big screen directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, who had just wrapped five seasons of the TV spy romp Alias. Accordingly, he sometimes packs a few weeks worth of gotcha twists into the film without realizing he hasn’t got the time to develop the characters and situations enough to make the surprises impactful. Even so, this is the first film that burbles up with some of gonzo energy to come, with why-the-hell-not details like an stealth excursion into Vatican City and bombs as brain implants. Nabbing Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the chief villain seemed like a major coup at the time (it’s technically his follow-up to Capote), but the acting great signals his disinterest throughout.

 

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Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011). When Ghost Protocol arrived, the inclusion of Jeremy Renner made it seem as if Paramount was easing Cruise out in favor of the younger star, who was already an Avenger and was tapped to take over for Matt Damon in the Bourne films. Instead, Cruise is positively rejuvenated. For the first time, Ethan Hunt is a distinctive character rather than a cipher. And he has flashes of fallibility — not quite making it cleanly through an open window of a daring swoop from the outside of a skyscraper, for instance — heightening the thrill of the stunts. It’s a basic and yet underused strategy in action films. Watching Indiana Jones nurse his wounds in a ship’s cabin or John McClane painfully pick shards of glass out of his feet serves to make the adventure more exciting, not less. Largely putting aside the projection of gleaming invulnerability found in his earlier action performance, Cruise favors a weariness that makes him significantly more interesting. Brad Bird, making his first live action film after a trio of animated triumphs, proves as adept with action staging when he’s working with human beings rather than cels or computer programs. The closing scramble for a metal suitcase that can disable a launched nuclear missile, staged in a massive parking garage with constantly moving car elevators, is a joyful marvel. It took four tries, but finally everyone involved figured out that these movies, above all else, should be relentlessly fun.