Editor’s Notes: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation opens in wide theatrical this Friday, July 31st.
Since 1996, Tom Cruise has gifted the world with five Mission: Impossible (loosely based on the 60s TV show) movies, the latest of which is released on July 31st. Few franchises boast such a devoted star/producer, and Cruise’s effort to maintain the series’ energy by hiring a new director for each venture has created one of the most wildly inconsistent franchises in modern Hollywood. Now, we take a look back at the filmic endeavours of Ethan Hunt and his merry band of forgettable team members, invariably dropped between movies…
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Helmed by New Hollywood auteur Brian De Palma, late of horror classics Carrie and Sisters, the inaugural big screen outing for the Impossible Missions Force is a slick, stylish effort with enough directorial wit to disregard the needlessly convoluted script courtesy of David Koepp and Robert Towne. Essentially a guideline for all future instalments, this diverting thriller set the template: Cruise’s absurd running prowess, a team of one-note caricatures, a weasely villain with a ridiculous plan. Despite its many missteps, M:I remains one of the best-loved in the franchise due to De Palma and Cruise’s clear passion for the material. De Palma gives the film a disorientating edge; his horror background becomes abundantly clear in the early scene of Hunt uncovering the truth of his last mission, which stands as the finest sequence in the entire series. The handling of the customary action scenes is excellent; the climactic train sequence is a glorious explosion of unashamed silliness. If the director’s singular vision never quite settles with standard blockbuster trappings, it produced the franchise’s most fascinating watch to date: by turns robustly cliché and confoundingly stylised. An uneasy marriage between director and content that nonetheless stands the test of time, this is a highly entertaining oddity with enough verve and energy to excuse its innumerable faults.
Mission Impossible 2 (2001)
Perversely, M:I 2’s greatest flaw (of which there are many) should be its ultimate strength: it’s transparently, unapologetically a John Woo movie. The undisputed king of 90s action cinema, there’s something about his chaotic style that sits uncomfortably in what many were expecting to be a retread of the previous, more old-school jaunt. This time, Ethan Hunt does battle with the supposedly-maniacal-but-mostly-just-creepy former agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott, sporting a comical Australian-cum-Scottish accent). He’s assisted by the object of their mutual affection, a professional thief played by the stunning Thandie Newton. The fine actress struggles to create a character out of wearing revealing clothing and being completely useless. The first film was thrilling as pure sound and fury, yet Woo even fails in that department, crumbling under the weight of a fantastically unengaging love triangle for the best part of an hour. In a crucial character, Nyah (Newton’s “role”) claims Hunt doesn’t feel as emotionally connected to the relationship as her, yet the preceding scene had them in bed within an hour of first meeting each other. If this truly is a loving partnership based on a bond beyond the physical, Woo neglects to show the audience. Towne returns as script writer, leaving behind the original’s white-knuckle chase for a plodding romance and even less captivating action scenes. Woo is simply incapable of creating nary a hint of intrigue, suspense or fun. This is a nakedly cynical affair bearing next-to-no relation to the first film. They even manage to mishandle Ethan Hunt, the most perfect human being in history. How is that even possible?
Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)
The feature debut of Star Trek-reviver JJ Abrams, the third instalment went back to the franchise’s roots, for better and for worse. This worthy sequel teams Hunt with franchise-regular Luther Stickell (a perfectly cast Ving Rhames), blank-slate agent Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and blank-slate female agent Zhen (Maggie Q). Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the entire franchise in a mould-breaking turn as a sadistic black market tradesman who could finally break Hunt’s impeccable stoicism. Hoffman giving a stand-out performance as about as shocking as the Pope being Catholic, yet the simmering rage he lends an otherwise typical “evil genius” role is nothing short of compelling. Abrams’ kinetic visual style works wonders in the protracted set-pieces, and Cruise continues to impress in his most human turn as Hunt to date. Michelle Monaghan is his ill-fated fiancée and the light in his death-defying life, allowing Cruise to display emotions other than smug and exasperated. It truly is a marvel to behold. Joking aside, M:I 3 rejuvenated the saga with magnificent turns from Hoffman and Cruise, a new-found dramatic urgency and some palm-sweating action scenes. Although it ultimately amounts to very little, there’s no denying just how likable this underrated entry is.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Pixar alumnus Brad Bird reached the peak of his filmmaking prowess in the franchise’s undisputed current high-point. Knowingly camp where its predecessors were needlessly convoluted and swapping one-dimensional vessels for a competent, fully-rounded character for Hunt’s team; Ghost Protocol is a superior effort in almost every conceivable way. The new roster of agents include: computer expert Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, expanding his role from M:I 3), former field operative William Brandt (Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner, flexing his blockbuster muscles before Avengers) and the badass Jane Carter (Paula Patton, whose only real flaw is inspiring ex-husband Robin Thicke’s latest godawful album). This time, a Swedish nuclear expert sets out to start World War 3, with only the newly-disavowed IMF standing in his way. Bird’s direction is a marvel of story-telling efficiency and a masterclass in suspense cinema. Cruise’s insane traversing of the Burj Khalifa is quite possibly the most viscerally thrilling action moment of the decade (at least it did before George Miller blew the entire genre to pieces with his masterful Mad Mad: Fury Road). The only element Bird and writing partners Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec truly misjudge is Michael Nyqvist’s uninspired villain. He hardly has a hint of presence before the final reels, which renders a lot of the heroes’ plight (regardless of how expertly crafted it is) less involving than a more overt antagonist would have provided. Visually stunning and endlessly watchable, Ghost Protocol mitigates its thinly sketched villain with a brilliant cast, fine direction and an unexpected emotional weight.
If it weren’t for Cruise’s devotion to the material, it’s doubtful the Mission: Impossible franchise would have run for this long. With the fifth episode inbound, the series shows little sign of diminishing returns. Here’s to much more of Cruise’s fabulous running! Gripping espionage movies, too, if that’s your bag.