Mission: Impossible Retrospective: A Durable Franchise Refined Over Time


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Editor’s Notes: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is currently open in wide theatrical release. 

The fuse is lit, and somewhere, sometime soon, a bomb is going off. The hour is late. The clock is ticking. There’s no room for error. Time is running short. The world hangs in the balance. The stakes couldn’t be any higher. The odds are impossible. But someone has to face them.

For almost twenty years, in films that have been released in three decades, the basic format of Mission: Impossible has stayed the same, yet the results have varied wildly. Each film in the series has been helmed by a different director, all names in one sense or another that command attention. Each has starred Tom Cruise, though the actor has gone from young hot shot to disgraced celebrity nut job to celebrated entertainer during the period. The only thing that has remained constant is that the series endeavors, again and again, to top itself. In some sense, a Mission: Impossible movie is only as good as its most gonzo set-piece, which is why it isn’t surprising that most of the films have been built from the spectacle on up, with action sequences laid out and a story super-imposed on top of them. If there is a driving ethos behind the Mission: Impossible franchise, that ethos is adrenaline.

The films are hard-wired to careen from death-defying stunt to hare-brained plot twist and back with reckless abandon. What ties them together more than anything, more even than Cruise’s magnetic performance as Ethan Hunt, is momentum. The films are low-concept thrillers in high-concept packaging, with face masks and gadgets, double crosses and triple crosses, all serving as the veneer beneath which a heart of pure energy beats. The plots and performances are the distraction for the sucker punch each film keeps lying in wait. Looking back on this series and how its evolved over time, its clear that the Mission: Impossible films, far from being a series of diminishing returns, have been refined over time into a durable franchise that has offered several blockbusters that punch well above their weight.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

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“Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

It all started with a clever little potboiler of a television adaptation. Mission: Impossible is a film that is quiet for long stretches, with people whispering to each other about high-level statecraft and espionage. Directed by Brian De Palma, it frequently seems to fancy itself a Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller where the wrong man just happens to also be a superspy. The first Mission: Impossible film is a spy thriller with action trappings; the later installments are action films with elements of spy thrillers.

The film opens with a mission to retrieve a list of IMF agents in the field that goes terribly wrong very quickly. The team includes Kristin Scott-Thomas, Emilion Estevez, and Jon Voight, all of whom are apparently dispatched in short order by unseen forces who knew the IMF was coming and were prepared to shut them down. The brilliance of the casting choices in that early sequence is that we are left actually wanting to watch an espionage thriller with Kristen Scott-Thomas and Emilio Estevez backing Cruise up. The team has such an easy report it is easy to imagine them on a globe-spanning mission to keep deep-cover agents’ identities a secret. The recognizable faces and easy charm makes it hit harder when they are all so casually dispensed with in that opening sequence.

From there, the film pauses to allow us to catch our breath while Ethan Hunt realizes just how screwed he is. The scene where Ethan meets Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) and finds out he is considered a mole is vintage De Palma, with low angle close-ups that build the tension as we realize just how unhinged the world has become for our hero. But really, it’s all building to Ethan’s plan to fake a double cross, steal the Noc list, and pretend to sell it to an arms dealer (Vanessa Redgrave) to draw out his real enemies.

The film builds to a bravura set piece centered on a break in at the CIA and including the iconic moment when Cruise dangles from the ceiling, breaking into a vault so sensitive he cannot touch the floor, make a sound, or even raise the temperature without setting off an alarm. The centrality of a single bead of sweat in the tension of this sequence is ample evidence of the film’s mastery of scale. Mission: Impossible isn’t afraid to go big (see the climactic sequence where a helicopter is pulled by a bullet train into a tunnel while Cruise chases the villain atop the train), but what matters here is the stakes and the iconography more than the spectacle. No city needs to be leveled here, no body count in the thousands is even hinted at. The apex of the film is one man hanging, silent and near motionless, his own life the largest stakes hanging in the balance. Subsequent films would go further and further, strive harder and harder, to extract the white-knuckle tension that this sequence accomplishes. Ghost Protocol gets thrills from Ethan dropping hundreds of feet outside the Burj Khalifa. The most tense moment in Mission: Impossible involves Ethan dropping maybe three feet inside that CIA vault.

Central to the film’s success is Cruise’s easy charm. He plays Ethan as a collected man in a situation shaking his confidence. The scene where Ethan does a little magic routine with the stolen disk, flummoxing Franz (Jean Reno) while eliciting giggles from Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) and Luther (series mainstay Ving Rhames) needs nothing other than Tom Cruise showboating to work. It’s slight and funny, a chance to catch our breaths between the tension of the heist and the bombastic finale.

Mission Impossible moves like a lightning bolt, even as it pauses multiple times for half-whispered exposition. That Cruise and De Palma came up with most of the set-pieces before a script was written linking them makes sense, as the film is fueled by these moments. Each of the big action pieces is so well thought out and executed, the rest of the movie is a well-considered after thought by comparison. The plotting is ultimately fairly simple if you stop for a second to think about it; it’s the execution that proves memorable.

Though the series has arguably done better in later installments, it has never captured the public imagination in as gripping a way as that moment when Cruise dangles, wildly steadying himself with flailing arms, hanging above the pure white floor of that vault. The man breaks into the CIA, and unfortunately for him, he breaks a sweat in the process. Ethan Hunt’s name is cleared, and a franchise is born.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

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“You must recover this, whatever, Chimera, and bring it to us.”

The first Mission: Impossible is an incredibly tight film, building tension expertly and giving off the feeling that no shot or beat is wasted. Everything is where it should be, everything has a purpose and contributes to the whole. M:I 2, by comparison, is a mess, an unwieldy combination of gonzo style, nonsensical plotting, and questionable dialogue. The film doesn’t work, not nearly, but for long stretches it is a fascinating failure, and ultimately, it’s an entertaining film, even if a pretty unforgivably messy one.

M:I 2 carries with it John Woo’s operatic sense of excess, his giddy joy in absurd plot mechanics and a kinetic exploration of the genre’s possibilities. The entire plot, centered around the virus Chimera and antidote Bellerophon, aims gleefully at the mythic with basically zero respect for it. It’s kitsch with delusions of grandeur, brought off with a directorial verve that almost makes the inspired idiocy come off. At every turn, the film tries to sell ridiculous notions with a straight face, as if by just wanting it enough it can become a brilliant, gritty examination of our relationship to our own mortality and an examination of a modern-day hero of legend who strides out of the desert to save us from ourselves, damning himself in the process. It can’t, but it is frequently fun to watch it try.

One of the film’s biggest mistakes (and believe me, there are many), is giving Ethan a love interest in the form of Thandie Newton’s Nyah, a charming thief who luckily has a romantic history with rogue IMF Agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Watching Cruise woo Nyah as he tries to recruit her to assist with his mission is as creepy as it is cheesy, but the film cares not a whit about either aspect of their courtship; mostly what matters here is that it leads to a car chase, and damn it, that works. It’s clear the film wants us to question whether it is immoral for Ethan (who in this film, and only this film, is frequently cast as an amoral, results-oriented Man With No Name type. He exists as a creature of pure action, seeking only effects, untroubled by the causes.) to pull her into his life of near-constant explosions, but the moral quandaries always feel far less developed than the gunplay that creates a cacophony around them. The film is glib in it’s sexism, but then, there’s little it isn’t glib about.

The relationship between Ethan and Nyah makes no sense, a fact that isn’t helped by the complete lack of chemistry between Cruise and Newton. Their pairing is as much a MacGuffin as Chimera, an excuse where stakes should be. Robert Towne’s script cares little about how well the connective tissue works. It sees it as just that—the space between the film’s attempts at pure iconography.

Which is a problem insofar as the film doesn’t really have an idea that comes close to the CIA heist in terms of jaw-dropping stakes or nail-biting tension. The sequel almost exactly recreates the cable drop sequence of the original, but with a skyscraper in place of the room. In this, as in most things, M:I 2 goes bigger for the sake of going bigger, with little reference to why something is supposed to work, or whether it does so. Even the moment where Ethan almost takes a knife to the eye in the final battle is a retread of a helicopter blade in the first film. It’s the same trick without the same effectiveness. It’s an instance of less being less.

The film’s plot makes no sense whatsoever, centering as it does on a man deciding if he immediately reveals a cure to a new super virus he will be paid, rather than arrested as its obvious creator. There’s literally no reason Ethan can’t take Nyah with him after she’s infected with the virus at the end of the second act, except that the movie’s stakes wouldn’t work quite as well if Ethan wasn’t rushing to save his lady love. But Ethan Hunt jumping through an exploding car on a motorcycle is a moment where the film nakedly begs you not to care about whether the plotting makes sense. That isn’t what we’re doing here, and it’s silly to focus too much on whether one thing really follows from another. The final sequence is an action symphony, John Woo cutting loose from all of the things that have dragged the movie down to that point and just doing what he does best.

Approached with the lowered expectations of having tried to absorb M:I 2 straight-forwardly in the past, a lot of the film’s blatant inadequacies are easier to overlook as part of its over-the-top aesthetic. It’s ridiculous, but compellingly so. It leaps into slow motion without a moment’s notice and for no better reason than that slow motion looks cool, even stripped of any context. Woo can’t save this from ridiculousness, but then, it isn’t ever clear he’s trying to. The film falters under the weight of its ambition, but it is trying to be a lot of things that are pretty impressive for a rather perfunctory sequel. The movie is bad, but fascinatingly bad. It’s a glorious sort of stupid, with Woo’s style seeping through every pore. It’s rot papered over with dynamite, and when the whole thing goes off, it’s a firework that burns bright enough to blind a viewer from many of its flaws.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

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“I’m gonna die unless you kill me.”

The third film in the series suffers from a lack of imagination. In that way, its basically every sequel ever, an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle with a flashlight instead of lighting, and a toilet paper tube instead of a bottle. Part of my general ambivalence for the film is likely due to my wary approach to JJ Abrams as both a filmmaker and a cultural touchstone. It’s not that I don’t think Abrams can make good films (2009’s Star Trek was the best TV pilot I saw that year, and I mean that as a compliment), just that I think he fails in uninteresting ways far more often than he succeeds. John Woo’s installment failed from an overabundance of ambition and a sense of joy in what might be accomplished if it all came off. Abrams’ film feels phoned in, like Abrams needed to prove he could direct a blockbuster so he could go off and make movies that really interested him.

Abrams was hired based on Tom Cruise’s appreciation of the first two seasons of Alias (and as someone who has much the same appreciation for those seasons, I understand why Cruise pushed for him), but Abrams doesn’t bring that show’s verve with him so much as he steals some of its best tricks and then does little with them. The film begins in media res, a narrative sleight of hand that Alias used seemingly every week to draw viewers in before throwing up a “12 Hours earlier” title card that made us realize we could probably tune out for a bit before things got interesting again. But it isn’t just stealing from Abrams’ own superior previous work. It lifts from Mission: Impossible as well, involving yet another attempt to recapture the tension of the harness drop, this time inside the walls of the Vatican.

It also follows the lead of its immediate predecessor in giving Ethan another love interest, this time in the form of Julia (Michelle Monaghan), Ethan’s fiancé and eventual wife. Julia is not a character so much as she is stakes trapped in the body of a woefully underused talent. Michelle Monaghan can act when asked to, but here is given nothing to do but be inevitably captured and inevitably rescued. It’s another tedious element in a film that is frequently nothing but.

The lone bright light in the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s phenomenal turn as arms dealer Owen Davian. That Hoffman is one of the greatest actors of all time is basically a given at this point, but it is still amazing what he does with the character. Davian basically requires a titan of stage and screen to work. He’s nothing on the page but bluster, a man who spends two thirds of the film threatening things and only about five minutes actually doing anything. Yet in the hands of Hoffman, he’s imposing as soon as he appears; he’s malevolent the moment he opens his mouth. And when he promises, with such vitriol you can actually feel the hatred, to kill Ethan, it’s the first time in the entire series that this threat seems remotely possible.

That’s not enough to save the film, unfortunately. It M:I 2 is a bad film, M:I 3 is worse: a boring one. This is the Mission: Impossible film that feels the most possible, which really isn’t a good thing. It lacks the daring, both textually and extra-textually, to do anything really interesting. Say what you will about M:I 2, at least it fails with style and the courage of its convictions. M: I 3 has all the courage of a director using it as proving grounds to jump immediately to something better. As that, it worked. As a film, it doesn’t.

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011)

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“Mission Accomplished!”

After years spent in the wilderness and two under-whelming sequels, the anticipation for Ghost Protocol was somewhat tempered. Personally, I was excited to see Brad Bird’s directorial debut, but I ultimately saw the film because the first five minutes of The Dark Knight Rises were premiering before it rather than because I was excited for a third sequel in a franchise that had only one wholly successful film to it’s name. Perhaps the lowered expectations helped some, but even on rewatch, Ghost Protocol is a hell of a movie, surpassing even the original for sheer guts, gumption, and execution.

Everything about Ghost Protocol feels smoother, more confident, and more refined than its two immediate predecessors. Beyond that, it finally refocuses the series on what it does best, what it was always supposed to be doing and somehow forgot about for two installments: it delivers, again and again, in terms of set pieces. From an opening prison break set to “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” to the bravura sequence in which Ethan and Benji (Simon Pegg, the most welcome leftover from Abrams’ film) use a camera and screen to perfectly replicate the hallway behind them as they inch closer to a vault in the Kremlin, to a finale that involves Ethan fighting the villainous Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist) in a mechanized parking garage in Mumbai, each and every set piece nails exactly what its going for.

Of course, the biggest and best of them is the Burj Khalifa sequence, which packs literally everything this series does right into one of the greatest action sequences of this century so far. It’s a complex piece of espionage, with the team rearranging the hotel to infiltrate two separate meetings while posing as the other party in each. It’s a brilliantly tense piece of action filmmaking, as Ethan scales the outside of the world’s tallest building, at different points falling hundreds of feet and literally running down the side of the building). It’s a series of great fight sequences, as things go south and both meetings turn violent. And finally, it’s a phenomenal chase sequence, as Ethan pursues Cobalt by foot and in a vehicle, through a sandstorm.

I cannot overestimate the effect of watching Ethan scale the Burj Khalifa on an IMAX screen. It cannot match the pure iconography of Ethan being lowered into the CIA vault in the first film, but it more than makes up for that in its sheer scale and sense of space. It’s the first time the film recaptures its sense of spectacle and adventure, the idea that a Mission: Impossible film should be full of moments when the characters have to accomplish something mind-boggling just to get through the day, with the knowledge that things are going to go very wrong, very quickly. Ethan making the call to hand Cobalt nuclear codes (even though he doesn’t know quite how directly he is doing it) feels like the moment when Ethan initially decides to pretend to work for Max in the first film, the sort of bold, deliberately risky move someone in Ethan’s line of work would constantly be making.

Ghost Protocol is basically nothing but spectacle, a wall-to-wall parade of “did you see that?” moments that keeps me glued to the screen every time I watch it. The film has a sense of humor, with Jeremy Renner’s incredulous straight man William Brandt being added to Benji’s terrified sarcasm and Ethan’s glib charm, but this is the first film since the original that remembers just how impossible this is all supposed to feel. It’s a master class in blockbuster filmmaking, and a high water mark for the franchise.

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (2015)

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“Your unorthodox methods are indistinguishable from chance.”

When Ethan Hunt first appears in Rogue Nation, clambering over a hill as Brandt, Benji, and Luther all wonder where he is, its an unabashed hero shot. The mission is going south for reasons that matter even less than what the mission is (chemical weapons or something? Who cares, Ethan Hunt is on it, so just sit back and enjoy the ride), but then, there he is, running his Tom Cruise run and barreling into another death-defying stunt, clinging to the side of a plane while exhorting Benji to hack nearly as well as he clings to the outside of a plane climbing higher and higher into the air.

Rogue Nation has higher aims than Ghost Protocol—the former mostly wanted to be the best popcorn movie it could be, and mostly it was—returning again and again to the idea that the IMF is a dangerous organization and that Ethan Hunt’s method of saving the day is unstable at best, and catastrophic at worst. It takes seriously the idea that a man who would gamble handing nuclear codes to a terrorist or selling the identity of every agent in his organization to an arms dealer might not be the best person to have the fate of the world in his hands all the time, and unlike M:I 2, it actually takes the moral consequences of this positioning seriously throughout. Ethan keeps pushing farther, taking bigger and bigger risks, and he has to be right because he is Tom Cruise in a Tom Cruise movie, but also, the film is very aware of how high the human cost will be if he’s wrong.

If this all sounds too high-minded, worry not, there’s plenty of punching things and explosions and sequences packed with things that will drop your jaw. Sure, there’s that time Ethan hangs onto the outside of a plane, or the time a Mexican stand-off via sniper rifle plays out in the eaves of the Vienna Opera House while Turandot is performed below. But there is also a sequence that aims to take out the Burj Khalifa sequence, and almost succeeds, as Ethan dives into a centrifuge chamber full of water to change out a security key, is briefly dead from oxygen deprivation, then pulls himself together for a car chase, should very clearly be dead from car crash, and then gets on a motorcycle. The underwater sequence is incredibly tense, and things just go nuts from there, but the film pauses to make dark jokes of the fact that Ethan’s brain is barely even functioning as he careens through the streets, risking countless lives out of potentially misplaced confidence in his ability to survive.

Rogue Nation is also commendable for having a female character that isn’t just an after thought. Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is the fulcrum on which the film turns, an agent of uncertain alliances who keeps appearing to save and beguile Ethan, and then disappearing making various claims about how necessary it is for her to maintain a cover it is never entirely clear is false. Ferguson is incredible, and the completely platonic bond Ilsa and Ethan form over the course of the film is the series’ best love story by far. Ethan and Ilsa see themselves in each other—they are the eyes in their respective storms, islands of calm understanding in a world of endless chaos, true norths to lost sailors. There’s a moment when she suggests they run away together, and you can almost see it, in a way that Ethan’s love for Nyah or Julia never came close to registering (and poor Paula Patton, who is so wasted in Ghost Protocol she barely has a love interest to avenge). The film doesn’t go out of its way to shoehorn in a love story or to make these two into star-crossed lovers as it easily could have. It simply takes Ilsa seriously as a human being, and places her recognizably in the same category as Ethan Hunt.

Rogue Nation is easily the smartest film since the original, and the one most dedicated to its actual plot mechanics, which center around The Syndicate, a shadowy “anti-IMF.” It all makes enough sense, and seems likely to register in a way the plots of the other films don’t (M:I 2 is the one with the virus, Ghost Protocol is the one with a nuclear bomb, and M:I 3 is the one where I don’t remember anything but Hoffman, even though I watched it three days ago). It also goes toe-to-toe with Ghost Protocol in terms of effectively upping the ante on set pieces and taking things further and further into the realm of the extreme. I’m not sure when Ethan Hunt will finally go to space, but when he does, I have no doubt I’ll be there, clutching my arm rest with a dumb grin on my face, exhilarated by the sheer audacity this series lost and then managed to regain.

When I first decided to write this piece, I thought it would be about the authorial touches brought to bear on this series by each of its directors: De Palma, Woo, Abrams, Bird, and Christopher McQuarrie are all interesting filmmakers whose stylistic obsessions are present in the films. But the directors don’t define Mission: Impossible as a series, nor does Tom Cruise, though he does a lot of the work of selling all of this with a somewhat straight face. No, what matters here is the verve, the sense that the series is taking risks, going further, trying to do more. What makes a Mission: Impossible film a Mission: Impossible film is the sense that the characters will do something that shouldn’t be possible and bring us along for the ride. Each film lights the fuse, but the ones that feel closest to the bomb going off are the ones that stick with you. It shouldn’t be done. It can’t be done. But it will be done, and just in the nick of time. Those are the missions I can’t wait to accept.


About Author

Jordan Ferguson is a lifelong pop culture fan, and would probably never leave his couch if he could get away with it. When he isn’t wasting time “practicing law" in Los Angeles, he writes about film, television, and music. In addition to serving as TV Editor and Senior Staff Film Critic for Next Projection, Jordan is a contributor to various outlets, including his own personal site, Review To Be Named (where he still writes sometimes, promise). Check out more of his work at Reviewtobenamed.com, follow him on twitter @bobchanning, or just yell really loudly on the street. Don’t worry, he’ll hear.