Unless you’re Fast and Furious, when a franchise hits its fifth installment, it usually signifies a last ditch effort to squeeze a few more dollars out of a dead franchise. At best, franchises this long in the tooth feel a bit repetitive and lazy, mostly because there’s really no story left to tell and everyone involved is simply going through the motions. At worst, slapping a five on the end of the title (or hiding the fact it’s a five through other means) turns the effort into a boring and pathetic cash-grab that pisses all over the treasured memories of a time when everyone cared about the film and its characters. And Hollywood isn’t fooling us when they reclassify a fifth installment as a reboot (or in the case of the Amazing Spider-Man 2, a sequel to a reboot), because usually, they still don’t hold a candle to their original counterparts, leading to the boos and hisses of fans clambering for original material or death to the franchise. That’s why this week was a bit of an enigma in the cinema-verse, as two movies marking the fifth member of their respective franchises somehow found a way (on varying levels) to buck the trend of grating antipathy to deliver on the promise of entertainment.
When the Mission: Impossible series started back in 1996, I wasn’t a fan. I felt the original was slow and plodding, while the second was just all over the place and incoherent, prompting me to entirely skip the third film, despite J.J. Abrams at the helm. Then came Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which blew me away, partially because I had extremely low expectations. Of course, the decision to enhance Simon Pegg’s role and add Jeremy Renner did wonders, mostly because it forced the franchise to jettison the “Tom Cruise Action Showcase” and focus on creating a complete ensemble, at least where working in the field (as opposed to working behind a computer) is concerned. Hunt now relied on his team being with him in the field to complete the mission, allowing Cruise to give his costars a chance to shine in a variety of ways, leading to a generous performance that transfers incredibly well into Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
The energy level couldn’t be higher as Christopher McQuarrie takes over the reigns from Brad Bird and reassembles a stellar cast, including Ving Rhames, who pretty much sat out Ghost Protocol, but is still the only actor other than Cruise to appear in all five films. Rogue Nation begins shortly after the events of Ghost Protocol, as sniveling CIA bureaucrat Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) urges a senate committee to shut down the Impossible Mission Force (or IMF) due to their reckless behavior and unorthodox tactics. At the same time, Ethan Hunt is tracking the leader of a terrorist organization manufacturing events to lead the world into a massive war, which he must now do as a wanted fugitive. Hunt’s reliance on his team becomes even greater now, as his life literally depends on it, especially when he joins forces with a British MI6 operative who may or may not be a double-agent… or triple agent… or quadruple agent… can there even be such a thing? The back and forth of whether she can or can’t be trusted is a little dizzying, but it provides some of the more exciting action set pieces, including a terrific chase sequence. I’m not sure I can say Rogue Nation was better than Ghost Protocol, but the energy and creativeness was definitely on par with its predecessor, making it clear that as long as the filmmakers keep this core group intact, I’m on board for more impossible missions that showcase the electric camaraderie and chemistry the actors have parlayed into a solid formula.
Vacation, on the other hand, isn’t quite able to find its voice. A sequel disguised as a reboot, Vacation is pleasantly surprising — but not enough to rise above its inconsistencies, which puts it at about the same level as the Griswold’s last outing, Vegas Vacation. In other words, it has some terrific moments of inspired comedy, but they aren’t enough to save the film from feeling heavily stale and flat in execution. And this inconsistency begins and ends with one major flaw — Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms).
On the one hand, Rusty is a reincarnation of Clark W. Griswold as portrayed by Chevy Chase, which would be perfect if this was a complete reboot of the original film. Helms channels Chase’s comedy sensibilities to near perfection, delivering a sensible, yet wildly erratic performance. But the film itself makes it incredibly clear that this is, in fact, a sequel, as evidenced by the various references, which include cameo appearances by Chase Beverly D’Angelo as Clark and Ellen Griswold. That means that the representation of Rusty is horribly inaccurate and flawed. Rusty was not meant to be like Clark at all and I had a hard time believing that the self-confident, sarcastic Rusty would eventually grow up to become the same buffoonish, dim-bulb adult. Doing so causes the film to feel heavily repetitive (even when they alter the moments in funny, sometimes sadistic ways) instead of a chance to reinvent the Wally World road trip. If writer/directors Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley had infused this trip as a way for Rusty to not only bond with his family, but also make up for the disaster from his childhood, that would have given the plot a little more juice as it honored the original without completely copying it.
Another major issue that keeps Vacation from rising to the greatness that is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the mind-boggling need to be extra raunchy, at least in terms of attempting to milk laughs through the superfluous use of bathroom humor. There was a pure level of innocence to the original Vacation films. Yes, there were a tremendous amount of sexual references and nudity, some really outrageous dialogue and some shocking moments (anyone still feel for that poor dog?), but it came from a place of respect, simplicity and charm. Clark wasn’t the brightest tool in the shed, but the love he had for his family (and in turn, his family had for one another) was undeniable.
That vibe is sorely missing from this incarnation, making the film feel dirty when it shouldn’t be. When Rusty tells his family he’s taking them to Wally World, he shakes the keys to his newly rented car with pure excitement and runs from the room, expecting his family to follow. They don’t, and in this one simple moment, I saw the brilliant spark of intelligent humor this film needed more of, because when Daley and Goldstein focused on this type of humor, it brought back what I enjoyed so much about the originals. As it is, it’s a decent addition to the franchise, but no amount of Holiday Road can make it worth the trip back to Wally World.
My Grades: M:I – Rogue Nation: A; Vacation: B
Next week, new movies include The Gift, The Fantastic Four, Ricki and the Flash and Shaun the Sheep Movie. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.