Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tiresome tropes: The jabbering coward

I finally caught Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation this week after it had been theaters for nearly a month, and was disappointed by how rote it was. The plot was rote, the dialogue was rote, the characters were rote, even the action set pieces had a certain roteness within their predominating spectacularness. That is to say, they were sort of spectacular, but they were also sort of rote. However, I suppose they were also enough for me to give the movie a marginally positive review.

One of its easiest disappointing aspects to point out was one it shares with most movies of its kind, and even many that are not of its kind. Namely, there has to be some jabbering, blubbering, more cowardly side character alongside the hero, disgorging improbable amounts of nervous, very specific dialogue, even during scenes where the sheer physical circumstances of their predicament would make such verbose nattering highly unlikely.

I'm calling this guy "the jabbering coward," and in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, that thankless role was played by Simon Pegg.

Pegg's Benji probably did the same in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but since I liked that movie much better than this one, I didn't notice it (or don't remember, if I did). After all, he's the comic relief. After all, this is what he does.

The problem with this trope, which appears in almost every movie where there is some kind of buddy dynamic (though the traits can definitely be underplayed, which is a relief), is that the character is not really a coward. In fact, more often than not, this character is about 90% as courageous as the hero, which is a bravery ratio that holds up for Benji and Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt as well.

But strap that guy into a car being driven maniacally through the streets, and all the sudden he'll piss his pants over things that aren't a tenth as threatening as much of what he's just been through.

Perfect case in point, and there are some mild Rogue Nation spoilers to follow if you want to look away.

The notable thing about the scene screen-captured above is that it's one big set piece immediately coming on the heels of another, bigger set piece. For the sake of shorthand, we'll call them "underwater computer" and "car chase turns into motorcycle chase," because really, aren't the set pieces, and their very ability to be distilled down to these short descriptions, the reason for even making this movie in the first place? (And the fact that Cruise is going to do all his own stunts in these set pieces?) Anyway, in "underwater computer," Benji is placing himself in harm's way based on the extremely unlikely prospect that Ethan will disarm some extremely intricate and improbable security system. If Ethan fails -- and there is about a 99.6% chance that he actually will fail -- then Benji will be killed at worst, or never again see the light of day while being tortured round the clock at best. With these kind of odds, this is where Benji should be a sniffling, sniveling mess.

Yet Benji walks through that scenario coolly and collectedly, as he needs to do in order to emerge from it unsuspected. Good on ya, Benji. We wouldn't have expected anything less of you.

Until the movie tells us five minutes later to expect far, far less.

No sooner have all involved emerged (improbably) alive from "underwater computer" than they are thrust into "car chase turns into motorcycle chase." The joke is that Hunt has nearly drowned, so his ability to drive a car should be limited at best -- after all, he's responding erratically to tests of his mental acuity, and he can barely even stand. Yet The Indestructible Ethan Hunt does jump into the driver's seat, perhaps because driving is his forte and it is, um, decidedly not Benji's. That leaves Benji flailing about in the passenger seat, unleashing a stream of steady cautions and expulsions of sheer terror.

Which is really funny, because you figure Benji had probably already been through "car chase turns into motorcycle chase" at least four or five times before, but had likely never experienced an "underwater computer."

If you want to drill down deep and try to discover an actual explanation for this, you might say it's the looming threat of actual physical harm that really scares Benji. In "underwater computer," the threat is far more abstract, so there's no physical stimulus to cause him to shit his pants. Or maybe you could say that he's all the more eager to brown those boxers precisely because he's been holding in his fear for so long during "underwater computer." "Car chase turns into motorcycle chase" is, therefore, a release for him -- a release of tension, a release of bodily fluids, what have you.

But I'm not looking for a logical explanation, because neither is the script. The script is just looking for someone to provide a motormouth running commentary as a car in which he's riding is careening out of control. The script is just looking, for some reason, for someone to provide additional contrast with Cruise, to again show us just how badass Cruise is. It's not enough that he's doing his own stunts, and that "car chase turns into motorcycle chase" is only about the fourth most potentially fatal thing his character (or the actor) has done in this movie. The script has to eradicate that tiny remaining kernel of uncertainty of just how brave Ethan Hunt is by having someone sitting next to him turn into a blubbering mess, just to underscore how grave their situation is.

I say Benji deserves better, but so too does Pegg. Hasn't Pegg come far enough along in his career where he doesn't need to scream "Watch out!" every time Cruise drives through a piazza and is about to kill everyone in it, including the two of them?

I suppose in a way, it's a bit like a laugh track on a TV show. The laugh track is there to tell you when something's funny, and it doesn't have to be a bad thing. I mean, try imagining the classic Seinfeld without a laugh track. Sometimes, you just need it. If there wasn't some fool advertising his horror over what was going on, would we even know it was a dangerous situation? Well, we'd know -- but would we feel like something was missing?

If there's any positive news to the sad inescapability of this trend, it's that at least they're no longer casting actors of color to play this role. Or not as much, anyway. Used to be, the character prognosticating doom and gloom was the black character, and Hollywood thought it was balancing everything out by having this character behave heroically when really put to the test. Not realizing, of course, that it was a pernicious stereotype about black people who talk a lot that caused them to envision this actor in that role in the first place.

To all the Benjis out there, I say: Rise up! Free yourself from the shackles of the role you are required to play. Next time you're in a car and the driver seems a bit unstable, just realize you're in a movie and that you have been through far worse scrapes with this guy before. If you survived those, what makes you think your luck is about to run out now?

Or if you are scared -- as, let's face it, all of us would be -- my God, just keep it to yourself. Your unbecoming shrieking is only going to ruin the driver's concentration anyway, and then you really will crash.


Travis McClain said...

I wasn't as bothered by Benji as you were; for me, it was Renner's Brandt that was the most glaring hole in the ensemble. When we met him in Ghost Protocol, we weren't sure how far we could trust him to be a team player or the extent to which he was a field operative or a desk guy. And here? We aren't sure how far we could trust him to be a team player or the extent to which he was a field operative or a desk guy. Where's the development? What purpose does he even serve here? If the idea of him one day succeeding Cruise's Hunt as the lead of the franchise is still on the table, then I don't see how positing him as Our Guy at the Office advances that. And if all he's going to be is Our Man at the Office, then why do we even need him? Mission: Impossible isn't about bureaucracy. It's about agents out on a limb, up against incredible odds with only each other to rely on (in addition to their outrageous spy-fi gimmicks).

In the final analysis, I can summarize my problem with Rogue Nation with one statement: "I just didn't care." I didn't care who the villain was, what his plan was, what "danger" our guys were in, or anything else. This falls dead last for me in the series, even beneath M:i:III, which you've heard me malign for being so recycled. At least that movie had the screen presence of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and the slick Vatican abduction sequence.

Derek Armstrong said...

Totally. Renner was completely flat. It feels almost as though this guy has entered into some kind of deal with the devil, hitching a ride on The Avengers, the Bourne series and Mission: Impossible without truly being a very charismatic guy. Perhaps, though, this is some incursion of Tom Cruise's ego. Maybe they were grooming him to take over the franchise until Cruise said "NO. I do it until I'm done doing it, and then it ends."

I agree. The movie gives us no reason to care about anything. But Rebecca Ferguson was as good as advertised.

Travis McClain said...

I was "meh" on Renner, but then he went and said those loathsome sexist things about Scarlett Johansson and I went to disliking him. Even if I wasn't already soured on him, I would still say I think both his characters (Brandt and Hawkeye) ought to be killed off because I don't see what value either gives their respective franchises. At least being whacked might give the other characters something to react to; asking us as viewers to care is probably going too far.

(I haven't seen any of the Bourne series, so I don't have an opinion on his role therr.)

Travis McClain said...

*there... Damn phone typing!

Derek Armstrong said...

Hawkeye will seem even more extraneous the more new people they get to join The Avengers. Let's see, so far it's Ant-Man, Spider-Man, some number of the X-Men, the Green Hornet, the Green Lantern, Greedo, Darth Vader, Walrusman, Action Jackson, Lebron James and Elliot Ness. Am I missing anybody?

Travis McClain said...

I'm holding out for Optimus Prime and Mr. Spock to join the team.