Some Stones Unturned

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Mission: Impossible and Getting Around in the City

Note: post contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, as well as descriptions of certain scenes in The Bourne Supremacy and the BBC Sherlock episode A Study in Pink, although I wouldn’t really call the descriptions spoilers.

I saw Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol (Ha.  I didn’t notice until I looked it up just now how they had to use a dash for the subtitle because they already used the colon after Mission.  So many sequels that they’re running out of punctuation!) yesterday.  I really enjoyed it.  They moved around from city to city and I thought it was really interesting how they adapted the action scenes in each city to give them a different feel.

A bit of background from my life (skip ahead two paragraphs if you’re not interested and just want to know about the scenes in the movie): I moved to Toronto from a much smaller town a little over five years ago, not really expecting to like it but ending up pleasantly surprised and really growing into it.  The way that large numbers of people manage to live practically piled on top of one another and make it work fascinates me.  And a big part of that is how to get around efficiently.  Not just public transit, although that is a major method and knowing the major bus routes and subway lines is important, but also moving around the neighbourhood on a smaller scale: walking and biking.  The fastest pedestrian route to the main intersection near me involves crossing through a parking lot, along an alley beside an outdoor pool and then through another parking lot.  Then you cross Yonge street and go into a little mall and you can walk through the mall to get to the subway (Toronto has a very large, confusing set of underground walkways and shopping areas).  When people visit me and I take them this way, there are generally comments.  Why not just walk along the street all the way out to Yonge and then outside down Yonge to the subway entrance?  Well because that’s not the best way; my way is at least 20-30 seconds faster.  And it’s more interesting usually.  I am hardly the only pedestrian taking this route.  Since taking up biking, I’ve noticed these sorts of separate-from-streets routes even more.  There are streets where cars aren’t allowed straight-through but bikes are excepted, shared paths through the park or pedestrian overpasses over railway tracks that you can walk your bike through.

And so when I think about if I had to face off against someone in my neighbourhood, if they weren’t familiar with the area, I think I would do all right if I could get a decent head start, even if that person were a well-trained American movie actor spy.  Streets run in grids and if you’re used to driving then you might see the city as all straight lines and right angles.  But if you walk, you know there’s probably a short cut or alternate route somewhere.

Anyway, the point is that now when I watch movies, I often take note of how exactly they deal with getting around in the city.  Driving a car down a perfectly straight highway with infrequent exits is not necessarily the best way out of town.  It’s obviously one of the fastest, but it’s also the first place anyone would look and the one where it’s easiest to cut someone off because you know which direction they’re headed and there are only so many ways to bail out (assuming you’re not going off-roading).  And Mission Impossible actually makes use of this when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) ends up in a car chase with the bad guy, Hendricks, on a highway out of Dubai.  Hendricks is going from one highway to another, taking an onramp that makes a 270 degree turn.  Rather than follow him directly, Hunt slams on the brakes, turns 90 degrees, goes the wrong direction onto what I presume is the offramp, onto the highway and then goes the wrong direction up the onramp Hendricks is in the course of coming down (if this explanation is as unclear as I think it is, see the potentially equally unclear picture below. #NotAnArtist), so that he can slam their cars together.  This is relatively successful; there aren’t a lot of ways off an onramp after all.  It seems like it would have been better to lay low in the city for a while and hide in amongst all the other people in plain sight (and to be fair there is a foot chase through some area of Dubai that appears to be pedestrian-friendly, although it’s hard to tell because it’s in the middle of a sandstorm).  But, on the other hand, if you’ve got to get out of somewhere fast, speeding down the highway to a ridiculously conspicuous helicopter is probably a better option than hoofing it.  Also it makes for more exciting film viewing.

car crash schematic

Slightly better CGI effects in the actual movie

Contrast this to Russia, where the movie starts.  Judging from the movie, Russia is full of trains.  First a team of agents is sent to steal a set of nuclear codes, which involves finding one man getting off a train in a sea of hundreds and hundreds (at least, I think this train is in Russia.  Apologies if I don’t remember all of the details accurately).  This operation is considered “routine” but involves the use of phones connected to a database that can quickly look up names and give you a picture, as well as contact lenses with facial recognition software.  A train station actually does not seem like an ideal place to find someone you’ve never met to me, although the advantage is that train stations are generally designed to funnel people in one direction and are also full of folks sitting around looking asleep and one more body is unlikely to be noticed (people minding their own business in the city is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse).

Later, Hunt and another character, Brandt, have to get on a moving train (though this appears to be a cargo train rather than a passenger train) because they are meeting other team members there and co-ordinating for their mission.  Hunt and Brandt run through the train yard, dodging cement poles and grabbing onto the old door handles on the car, and when they finally get pulled inside, the sleek look of the inside of the car, filled with video screens, tech stuff and weapons the IMF has stashed there, is jarring compared to the train yard.

Moscow feels distinctly different from Dubai and Mumbai, where the chases involve fancy cars and rotating elevators in parking garages.  It’s not all trains, but overall it does seem to have a starker, older feel.  Moscow is where Hunt escapes from a hospital and runs through side streets and back alleys, managing to steal a shirt and jacket from people’s clotheslines and a set of shoes from a street vendor and so on.  He does this while escaping a Russian who is likely familiar with the area, but the back alleys are presumably too numerous and convoluted for pursuit.  There are also scenes in Russia where Hunt jumps onto the roof of a pretty fancy van, and later Hunt meets the Secretary in a car with a driver that gets shot up, so it’s not like Russia is devoid of action scenes involving personal vehicles or anything, but it’s just a general observation.  Russia is the land of the Cold War and nuclear politics, but Dubai is where they have business meetings in fancy suits (and also really tall buildings.  I am sad that the CN Tower has missed its chance to star in a Mission: Impossible movie as the (former) tallest freestanding structure) and India is the place where telecommunications equipment is bought and run.

One final note is that the idea of cars and traffic being a problem in the city, and the need to know the area and know alternate routes, comes up in Mumbai.  Traffic is bad and Hunt can’t get to the satellite relay fast enough.  They pull up their fancy holographic computer route map and cut through an alley.  This gets them closer, but even then they are held up by a bunch of pedestrians crossing the street and ultimately they fail to get where they need to be in time.  The final fight then takes place in a parking garage where, yes, Hunt and Hendricks fight, but parts of the scene are almost both of them fighting against the parking garage, which is a high-tech thing that delivers cars via an automatic elevator.  The two try to keep the briefcase from getting away from them and also try to figure out where the elevator things are going next.

The chase through the city is a pretty common action movie trope, but some movies seem to take a particular interest in making use of the streets, alleys and architecture of a particular city (note I have not actually been to Moscow, Dubai or Mumbai, so I can’t comment on how accurate Ghost Protocol is in its portrayal of these places).  Other movies and shows that I think did this well include:

1. The Bourne Supremacy: Jason Bourne does a lot of running through streets and, while there are a number of car chases in this series, what stands out is Bourne arranging to meet Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles) in the middle of a square in Berlin.  The CIA puts a bunch of surveillance on Parsons to try to protect her, but the meeting is set to take place in a public square where there is a protest going on that day.

Alexanderplatz

Scene from the Bourne Supremacy

Once Bourne phones Parsons and tells her to get on a tram, the CIA basically has no chance of keeping tabs on her or finding Bourne (As the character who pulls the blueprints for the subway tunnels says “Three levels, fifteen tunnels and they’re all converging in a five block radius”).  Bourne takes Parsons down to subway level and questions her in a room where the wire she’s wearing won’t transmit out.  I have been briefly to Berlin, although not to Alexanderplatz, specifically.  There pretty much did seem to be constant tram activity though and lot of parallel subway lines you could lose yourself in.

2. A Study in Pink (Episode 1 of the BBC’s Sherlock): Sherlock Holmes and Watson, on foot, chase a car through the streets of London.  They take advantage of Holmes’s knowledge of the area to predict the car’s likely route (“Right turn, roadwork, one way, traffic lights, fast lane, pedestrian crossing, left hand only, traffic light, pedestrian crossing, traffic lights.”) and then use the shortcuts available to pedestrians (up some stairs inside a building to the rooftop, jump across to another rooftop, down a fire escape and through a series of alleys) to try to cut the car off.

Car Chase

Route of car through London streets in BBC's Sherlock.

Car Chase

Route Holmes plots to head off car in BBC's Sherlock, including a missed opportunity to stop the car where the lines cross.

When they just miss the car, Holmes is able to re-evaluate on the run and find the next crossing where they’ll likely meet the car.  I don’t know London, but I assume that it’s like most cities in that there are just some areas where it’s tough to get around.  For whatever reason I thought a modernization of Holmes might involve him having the entire London transit schedule and route map memorized because he seems like the transit geek type (and also it’s a good way to keep tabs on what’s going on in the city), but I guess that’s probably not necessary if you have a phone and the transit authority has an accurate schedule online.  And if you think back to the original stories Holmes was always hiring hansom cabs in the city, with the train being for longer journeys.

3. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: Too much to list, but basically this is what it would look like if you enjoyed the idea of a chase through the New York City’s public transit system and alleyways so much that you decided to make an entire movie about it.

I’m sure there are lots of others, but there’s a start.  And I thought Mission: Impossible did a pretty good job of distinguishing different cities based on the layout of the streets and the ease/difficulty of getting around in various ways.

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