Split Decision: On a Mission

We are celebrating the Christmas in July that is the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout all week long! Click on the image for all of the entries:

Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!

This week’s question:

As part of Mission: Impossible Week, what is your favorite “man on a mission” film?

I am going to cheat and say La Mission, Peter Bratt’s outstanding and criminally underseen drama set in the Mission district of San Francisco. An ex-con (Benjamin Bratt) comes into conflict with his son Jes (Jeremy Ray Valdez), who he discovers is gay. The film speaks volumes about family and identity as well as issues of race, class, and sexuality. It’s a real sleeper. —Gary Kramer

I’m gonna swoop in and steal The Big Lebowski here. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski is on a mission- to be compensated for the rug that a few hired goons pissed on in an incident of mistaken identity. You see, it really tied the room together. Yes, it’s one of the greatest movies of the last 25 years, and all the action stems from a guy who just wants justice served for his urine stained rug. Does he get reimbursed? I don’t even remember, and that’s part of what makes this movie great.–Andy Elijah

A few movies jump to mind, as I love this subgenre, but I’ll step outside of the box to defend John Q, a 2002 Denzel Washington vehicle that few will remember.

The gist is, John Quincy Archibald (Denzel) is a working-class family man trying his damnedest to make ends meet and provide his wife and son. When his son collapses on a baseball field and John discovers that the insurance he works so hard for doesn’t cover the operation, he takes an emergency room hostage in an effort to get a heart transplant for his son. The cast also includes Robert Duvall as the lead hostage negotiator, Anne Heche as the hospital’s insurance person, and James Woods as one of the head doctors.

The vibe is Dog Day Afternoon meets Days of Our Lives; the pedestrian script clearly had an agenda waged at Big Insurance, the supporting characters seem like they are out of a high school play, and yet… Why am I bringing up this movie? Two words: Denzel Washington.

Denzel delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in John Q.  Every scene he is in, from the quick glimpses you get with his family pre-tragedy, to the overtaking of the hospital, to the self reflection scenes he has near the end of the film, clearly outline a good man on a noble mission, doing a clearly wrong thing in the service of greater good.  The tears that are shed in this film get me every time, and it’s all due to Denzel’s ability to elevate otherwise average material with a fully fleshed out performance.

John Q is certainly not the best man-on-a-mission movie, but it’s one that deserves more attention.–Jeff Piotrowski

From the Director I Wish Would Make Another Movie/Director I Would Spit On If We Met file, we get the first thing that came to mind: Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ‘66. The big mission is to shoot a former NFL pro for bungling a field goal in a Super Bowl Gallo’s character had placed a bet on (both this and Ace Ventura were based on the same real-life play, which is a little like finding out Requiem for a Dream and Half Baked are based on the same dude’s drug experiences).

The more important mission is the one that takes up the first scenes of the movie: Gallo’s character gets out of jail and has to pee. Bathrooms are locked, other people are around, etc. I didn’t care if a football player got shot in this movie. I’d rather he survived our sociopath protagonist’s misguided attempts at revenge. But damn did I want that protagonist to find a place he could go to the bathroom. The discomfort is as visceral as anything in any horror movie, perhaps because I don’t know what it’s like to get shot or punched in the face, but I know what it’s like to need an open toilet. Of course, this is Vincent Gallo, so another character has to stop him to admire the size of his penis. Dude could write a Disney movie and the first thing out of the princess’ mouth would be “If only I had a prince who looked like Vincent Gallo.”–Alex Rudolph

Creed! The story of a man on a mission to prove that he’s not just the product of an affair, not just a stain on his father’s legacy, and not some privileged kid with a manufactured struggle. Adonis Creed needs to prove to the world that he’s worthy of his name and worthy of his own existence. Just like Rocky Balboa before him, his mission, which he has chosen to accept, is to transcend limitations and assumptions by going the distance!
Dan Scully

As much as I enjoy the idea of a straightforward character(s)-on-a-mission movie, I must confess my penchant for them being imbued with a dash of sociology and/or psychology, something to amplify the action with additional stakes (be they personal or situational) rather than the movie merely settling on the innate strength and thrust of the character’s external goal. Preferably, this added flourish would be realized through understatement rather than explicated through dialogue or obvious/schematic signposting.

In Chinatown, Jake Gittes seeks to unravel a tangled web of murder, lies, and deceit, but he’s also motivated by a desire to assert his own proficiency and sense of correctness; fueled by intelligence and egotism, Jake is out to prove he’s no fool after being taken for one earlier in the movie. (Director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne enforce a deliberate subjectivity throughout, never breaking from Gittes’ POV and only twice employing dramatic irony via. staging.) Furthermore, consider the existential and sociopolitical underpinnings of Friedkin’s Sorcerer, wherein four first-world criminals, on the lam in the poverty-stricken town of Porvenir, in a country under military-dictatorial rule, are tasked with driving truckloads of unstable nitroglycerin across the jungle so a greedy American oil company can extinguish a fire at one of their rigs. Finally, there’s the spiritual journey infusing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which the three protagonists’ quest for the Room serves as one of self-reflection, philosophical inquiry, and an escape from the harsh reality that prevails outside the Zone.

Two other “mission” films I adore are Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, in which conquistadors seal their fates amid an expedition for the city of El Dorado, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which blends Conradian mythos with the turmoil of Vietnam.

In short, there are too many good “on-a-mission” movies. I’m ashamed it took me this long (and with so few words) to mention Howard Hawks’ classic Only Angels Have Wings and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s minimalist masterpiece Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. So many missions, so little time.–Dan Santelli

I have to go with a cheat and say it’s a tie between Blade Runner 2049 and Atomic Blonde. I love both of these movies dearly. Blade Runner 2049 is a much better film. But Atomic Blonde is all kinds of fun. These are both recent but they both are exactly what I think of as a person on a mission. More so James Bond or Mission: Impossible, in both BR2049 and Atomic Blonde the two main characters go to work and have their world rocked.

The mission in both of these movies takes over it’s characters lives. In Blade Runner 2049, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K runs into a personal thread which makes him think he might be part of the mystery he is trying to solve. Like a classic noir everyone ends up being after him. His purpose and the exact mystery he has trying to accomplish becomes more clear as he goes. He finds himself and his mission through his work, and his mission might also fundamentally change the world he lives in. At first he does not know what he is looking for and what it means, but by the end he is completely dedicated to his cause. Blade Runner 2049 is one of my favorite all around movies, but the schmuck replicant cop going to work and working a case aspect of it is a highlight.

As Charlize Theron’s protagonist says in Atomic Blonde, her mission sends her into “a fucking hornet’s nest.” She is immediately in the line of fire and fighting for her life. I think this movie does all the best of James Bond, with tremendous action sequences and stunts. The big setpiece where Loraine is defending the spy she is trying to protect really reminds me of a Captain America of Daredevil fight scene. She is not going to let any of these dudes keep her from her goal. The mission is twisty, takes an enormous toll, and does not become clear until the end, but it’s a thrilling one.

And now that I think about, John Wick. —Jacob Harrington

While I was tempted to be a little cheeky and choose Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a masterpiece following two Jesuit missionaries about the nature of faith, but then I realized this would be a good excuse to write about The Rock. Because The Rock is awesome. My favorite film from Michael Bay, it weaves together multiple conspiracy theories, a sympathetically-motivated villain, and amazing action into a perfectly improbably mission. —Ryan Silberstein

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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