Honestly, I could not tell you a thing about the Mission: Impossible television show that you couldn’t Google yourself. In fact, I’m sure several readers here checked the series out for themselves, and would be able to sniff out a fraud in half a sentence. However, I can tell you a great deal about May 5th, 2006, the night that I saw J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3 for the first time. I was ten years old, living in Fort Lauderdale. My grandfather and I had recently started bonding over going to the movies together. Seeing as the first one we checked out was Sahara (back when Matthew McConaughey did exclusively terrible films) there was nowhere to go but up. We didn’t care, as long as it was an action movie, it was for us. So naturally, seeing as the trailers for Impossible 3 promised the biggest adventure of the summer, it was high on the list. As we entered the Muvico Pompano 18, the motorcycle ridden by Tom Cruise in the film stood outside to greet us, almost serving as a bookmark for how important this night would be. You see while Sam Rami’s Spider-Man was the film that kickstarted my lifelong passion, Mission: Impossible 3 was the one that flipped another switch in my ten-year-old brain. From then on, I wanted to make action movies.
I might be getting a little ahead of myself. Much like Abrams’ film, I’m starting in the middle of the story of the Mission films, which began exactly twenty years ago today with Brian De Palma’s quietly intense and narratively dense espionage thriller. At the time, the project was seen as simply an excuse to dig up an old property as a star vehicle for Cruise, who was at the top of the Hollywood food chain. However, the product that De Palma and Cruise delivered was something so much richer than that, which is all the more amazing considering that the story was essentially written around the set-pieces. The final product is closer to a noir mystery than a flashy spy blockbuster. A great deal of screen time is spent with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) decoding the clues that follow the deaths of his entire team during a mission that leads him down an admittedly convoluted rabbit hole. It’s a movie that is at it’s best when things are slowed down, and De Palma can ratchet up the suspense. This is most eloquently demonstrated in the sequence where Hunt repels into Langley to steal an important list, knowing that an alarm will be set off if there is too much motion or sound. Not only is Cruise’s performance of the stunt admirable and authentic (a virtue that would define the rest of the series), but the way De Palma works with the emptiness and silence in a room that will derail everything if triggered is nothing short of brilliant. Of course, as a kid going back to re-watch the original two films after the highly frenetic third installment, I found myself more confused and bored by the whole thing, but that in a way is what is so fantastic about this franchise. Since each film (up until the upcoming 6th installment) has been made by a different director, they all take on their own style and feel like radically different films.
This is most radically and unfortunately demonstrated in Mission: Impossible 2, directed by John Woo. Of course, the suits decided that it was time to ditch all the smart stuff for what needed to be a bigger, and “better” sequel. As such, it’s a highly confused film that’s trying to evolve a franchise into blockbuster territory without a style that fits. While it’s fantastic that every Impossible film has its own tone, it still needs to make a bit of sense in the context of a spy thriller. It’s a case of simply picking the wrong director. The whole film is full of Woo-isms, with Cruise and his hilariously long hair getting involved in slow motion gunfights while leaping into cover and walking near droves of floating doves. Of course, this was also the one I preferred over the first one as a kid, but this was back during the time where the closest thing I had to an Avengers movie was The Incredible Hulk Returns, so clearly I just didn’t know what I was missing.
In fact, it’s practically perfect in every way that I discovered the franchise with Abrams’ third installment because that is where it discovered itself. Placing the series under his Bad Robot production company, Abrams brought the series into the modern blockbuster age in what just may be his finest and most underrated work as a director. This is a taut, tense, edge of your seat thriller that goes the extra mile to really delve into Ethan Hunt as a character. Before this, he had been a more enigmatic, James Bond type. While that is certainly a valid approach, giving him something to lose in Michelle Monaghan’s Julia makes him a great deal more relatable. There’s also undoubtedly the series’ best villain in the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian. He’s not in the movie a ton, but when he is there, his threatening presence and chilling dialogue create a force to be reckoned with. Abrams also finally brings the team into play, with Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q getting to tag along during Abrams’ frenetic action sequences. There’s a real sense of camaraderie built throughout the film, something that all the future Mission films would also employ. During its release, the film under-performed likely due to Tom Cruise’s strange behavior at that time but is really worth revisiting. It might not be as incredible to fresh eyes as it was to me in that movie theater ten years ago, but it’s still by far the most dramatically compelling of all the movies in the series.
Then in 2011 and 2015 came Ghost Protocol and Rouge Nation, directed by Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie respectively. Interestingly enough, these two films were both such massive hits, that it allowed a franchise to really hit its stride both comically and critically in the fourth and fifth installments. It’s easy to see why. Ghost Protocol is just a big barrel of fun, with Bird merging his love of more classic Hollywood blockbusters with spine churning stunts and action sequences. I remember getting a legitimate feeling of vertigo as Cruise crawled along the Burj Khalifa in IMAX. Meanwhile, Rouge Nation injects things with a bit more of a Tom Clancy feel. Everything is a bit more modern, gritty and brutal while still maintaining the breezy tone of Ghost Protocol. In fact, the most surprising part of this film is that the big stunt, involving Cruise hanging off the side of a plane, is not the most impressive sequence in the movie by a long shot. That honor goes to an incredible infiltration sequence inside of an opera house, where Hunt has to prevent an assassination. It’s a beautifully shot, suspenseful sequence in which McQuarrie shows shades of Hitchcock and ironically enough, De Palma. The film also earns major points for introducing the best female character of the series so far in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, a cunning saboteur who I believe could take down Black Widow any day of the week.
Now, we’ve arrived at 2016, the twenty-year mark. Currently, there’s a sixth installment in pre-production with McQuarrie returning as director. While I absolutely adore the job he did on Rouge Nation this worries me a little. Having a different director come on for each film has been a key piece of what makes this series so successful. Each outing is freshly stylized, allowing Cruise and his team to do their thing in radically different contexts. However, now that Rouge Nation was such a success this will be the first film in the series to feel like a direct sequel, and time will tell if that is good or bad. However, I will be a fan of these movies for as long as they make them. Not only have they provided a great outlet for Tom Cruise to garner enough success to fund other projects, but they’ve been an exciting and influential piece of my filmmaking education. What I’m trying to say is mission accomplished.
Happy 20th Birthday Mission Impossible.