‘Poseidon’ is a disaster, and it’s no Cruise liner

BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - May 12, 2006 - 12:00am
You know that clever little narrative device that J.J. Abrams uses at the very beginning of many Alias episodes?

The one where Sydney is being beaten up while tied to a chair or about to fall off a train or in some other dire FCC-certified life-or-death situation, and right before that one cathartic release of tension that we all know is inevitable, as our darling spy chick is holding on for dear life, Abrams pulls us back 72 hours to explain how said situation has come to occur?

Remember, right?

It’s in Mission: Impossible III.

So is the MacGuffin (another chemical weapon, natch) that needs retrieval and prompts all the jetsetting shoot-‘em-up set pieces to exotic-enough-for-L.A. locales like Berlin and Shanghai.

And did I mention Greg Grunberg? Yep, Agent Weiss makes an all-too-brief cameo in Abrams’ feature film debut.

Not that Abrams doesn’t have the experience: the guy’s been doing the whole spy-fi thing since Alias premiered on ABC in 2001 and became one of the indisputably greatest TV series of the 21st century. He’s now moved on to Lost, another contender on the list, and with three more episodes to go before Alias ends its rigorous yet wholly brilliant five-season run, he’s got Tom Cruise in the Jennifer Garner role. Six years after his second go-around, Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, the IMF agent who scales the sides of terra cotta mountains in a single bound. He’s now engaged, but after Owen Davian, an arms magnate (Philip Seymour Hoffman, splendidly smarmy in all the right places), kidnaps his fiancée for the sought-after Rabbit’s Foot, Hunt comes out of retirement to save the day – from Davian, body thetans, and quite possibly, the evil Lord Xenu.

By now, it’s an impossible task to take away "Tom Cruise the Celebrity" from "Tom Cruise the Actor." I never saw Ethan Hunt in the film; it was always couch-jumping, ultrasound-operating, Brooke Shields-fighting Tom Cruise, which is why it is a wonder Mission: Impossible III works despite it starring the world’s easiest punch line. But Abrams knows the spy genre well, and acknowledges the advantages – and the stakes at risk – for the 10-year-old franchise. Unlike its predecessors, Mission: Impossible III hardly takes itself too seriously: the plot is involving enough to keep you on your toes while being simple enough so as to not get in the way of the popcorn. It’s a shrewd film that knows when to have fun; instead of reinventing the wheel, Abrams sets it on fire, all to the limber organic-meets-strobe score by endlessly inspired Alias and Lost composer Michael Giacchino.

Much more than Brian De Palma or John Woo before him, Abrams penetrates his Mission: Impossible with his cleverly discrete stamp on the perennial spy genre without compromising the Mission: Impossible brand. James Bond has the classy gadgetry, and Jason Bourne has the rough-and-tumble espionage; Ethan Hunt never really had any distinction before Abrams’ exhilaratingly slick role-playing. Think of it as an Alias episode on steroids, only without much of the challenging narrative density or emotional complexity; even the frequent agent-handler rendezvous that Sydney and Vaughn once had in the closest gas station convenience store are recreated with Cruise and Billy Crudup, who I’m glad to see onscreen again. This is one impeccably cast combustion of astute action choreography and genuine thrills that completely satisfies the requirements of the just-arrived summer movie season.

I cannot say the same for Poseidon, a frustrating and useless remake of the 1972 disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure. This is Hollywood regurgitation at its utmost worst, frivolous tripe aimlessly looking direction an hour into the film. "You know disaster scenarios," says the Captain (Andre Braugher) to Robert (Kurt Russell) after a rogue tidal wave capsizes their enormous cruise ship; yes, Captain, he does, and so do we.

Disaster film vet Wolfgang Petersen batters an unlikable cast that includes Russell; Josh Lucas, looking like a hungry vulture; Richard Dreyfuss; and Emmy Rossum as they try to survive tedium and redundancy from one anticlimactic water-tank set piece to the next. It’s amazing these cardboard cut-outs don’t go soggy. Everything seems so familiar – three cups of Titanic, a tablespoon of Petersen’s own Das Boot, a dash of the original Adventure – and remarkably passionless, turning itself into a grossly dull Universal Studios ride within the first 20 minutes. Roland Emmerlich would’ve processed this remake into a proper individually wrapped slice of cheesy Velveeta goodness; Petersen ends up with a can of aerosol Easy Cheese made from stale gruyère.

Where was the screenplay in Poseidon? The excitement? The tension? The terror? Or at the very least, the sense of entertainment amid the destruction? Seldom does a film this god-awful lack even the camp or humor or heart that made The Poseidon Adventure a classic. It’s a terrible, terrible film; a piece of ship, to be exact.

Mission: Impossible III: B+

Poseidon: C-
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For comments, e-mail me at lanz_ys@yahoo.com.

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