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A Lit Fuse: The History of the Mission: Impossible Franchise

With this week’s release of “Mission: Impossible - Fallout,” it is time to accept an increasingly undeniable fact—the “Mission: Impossible” series is quite possibly the standout film franchise of its time. From a financial standpoint, its significance cannot be denied; the first five films in the series—“Mission: Impossible” (1996), “Mission: Impossible II” (2000), “Mission: Impossible III” (2006), “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” (2011) and “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” (2015)—have pulled in over $2.7 billion dollars and, barring some unforeseen disaster, the new one should put it well over the $3 billion mark. With grosses like that, it would be easy to simply treat the series as a sort of annuity that one could return to every couple of years to make a lot of money simply by repeating the basic formula established by the previous films for as long as audiences are will to pay to see them. And yet, thanks to the combination of things up by adding new and intriguing elements to the mix each time, the unique approaches to the basic material employed by a strong and eclectic string of directors and, of course, the indefatigable efforts of producer/star Tom Cruise to thrill moviegoers by any means necessary, a series that should by all means have become creatively moribund years ago has instead gotten better, craftier and more entertaining with age. If all blockbuster-sized entertainments were even half as ambitious and ingenious as these films have been, moviegoers would be infinitely better off.

The inspiration for the series is, of course, the long-running television series that aired between 1966-1973 that chronicled the globe-trotting adventures of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), a secret quasi-government organization of secret agents who went out on missions, should they choose to accept them, that found them going up against enemy spies, dictators and, once budget cuts forced the producers to reduce the scope in later years, homegrown criminal organizations. In the first year of the series, the group was led by Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) but in the second season, the character was dropped and replaced with Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), who would lead the team for the remainder of the series as well as a short-lived revival of the show that appeared in the late 1980s. 

Seen through today’s eyes, the show is more than a bit odd—this was a program in which most of the episodes seemed to involve the IMF working on assassination plots (though in nearly every case, it would be left to someone else to actually pull the trigger so as not to sully the reputations of our heroes) but the terse approach to the material—the characters were all business and almost never delved into their personal lives—was interesting, the labyrinthine plots (which often included multiple layers of deception and elaborate disguises) were fairly complex by contemporary television standards, the cast (which also included the likes of Barbara Bain, Martin Landau, Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott, Greg Morris and Peter Lupus) did solid work and the theme song by Lalo Schifrin remains a stone-cold classic. 

In the Eighties going into the Nineties, spurned on by the success of the “Star Trek” movies, making big screen versions out of familiar small screen titles suddenly became the rage for a while. With its well-known title and memorable theme music, Paramount Pictures was keen to make a “Mission: Impossible” film but the project remained in limbo until Tom Cruise, at the very apex of his stardom, decided not only to do it but to make it the first effort from his newly-formed production company. Sydney Pollack was attached to the project for a while but eventually it went to Brian De Palma—the notion of the generally iconoclastic filmmaker doing a potential tentpole project of this sort must have seemed strange at the time but his last major box-office success had been an adaptation of another television show, “The Untouchables” (1987). A number of top writers, including Robert Towne, Steve Zaillian and David Koepp, worked on the script but it reportedly went into production without a completed screenplay. There were also rumors of friction during the shoot between Cruise and De Palma that appeared to be tacitly confirmed when De Palma dropped out of the film’s press junket on the eve of its opening.

When audiences first sat down to watch “Mission: Impossible” in May 1996, those with an actual working knowledge of the series must have felt right at home. From the start, the film trotted out the most familiar ingredients—the theme, the opening credits featuring a rapid-fire assortment of clips from the story we were about to see and, most of all, an IMF team once again led by veteran Jim Phelps (now played by Jon Voight) and including his wife, Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), and various experts in their respective fields (played by such familiar faces as Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez). Most importantly, there was point man Ethan Hunt (Cruise) choosing to accept a mission in Prague to recover a top secret list of CIA agents from the American Embassy that requires clever moves, hi-tech gadgetry and, of course, an elaborate disguise or two. Then, in classic De Palma fashion, things quickly go sideways and the once-cocky Ethan is left standing helpless as the rest of his team is killed off one by one and the list vanishes. To make matters worse, when Hunt reports to his superior (Henry Czerny) for debriefing, he learns that the entire mission was a ruse designed to ferret out a mole who was intending on stealing and selling the list to a secretive arms dealer known only as Max—since he was the only survivor, the assumption is that Ethan was the guilty party. He escapes easily enough and, after putting together an ad-hoc team consisting of a couple of disgraced former IMF operatives, computer genius Luther Stickey (Ving Rhames) and pilot Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), and Claire, who survived the attack after all, creates an elaborate plan to steal the real list himself in order to lure the person who framed him while at the same time escaping the pursuit of his former employers. 

The film got reviews that were decent but hardly spectacular with many of them complaining that the storyline was too convoluted for its own good. Therefore, it may come as a shock to people revisiting it for the first time in a while (or those who have never seen it before) to discover just how strong it really is. Yes, the systematic destruction of the IMF team in the opening scenes, coupled with the later revelation that—Spoiler Alert!—it was Phelps himself who was the mole, shocked and outraged fans of the original show (not to mention some of the original stars, who gave interviews to show their displeasure with the film). And yet, this move proved to be as dramatically clever as it was audacious. The times had changed considerably in the years since the original series went off the air and the notion of a clandestine spy agency going on officially unsanctioned missions to mess around in other countries was simply not going to play in the same fashion. By blowing things up in this way, the film managed to clear the decks for a “Mission: Impossible” designed for the current world while managing to throw most moviegoers for a loop early on in the proceedings. 

It is funny to note that this film was once derided for its alleged incoherence because the narrative seems remarkably clean and efficiently told, especially in comparison to what passes for blockbuster filmmaking these days. When it is seen a second time—and this is the rare modern screen spectacular that actually plays better on repeat viewings—one can more clearly see just how smartly written it really is. (I especially love the scene in which Ethan and Phelps reunite and catch each other up on what is happening and Ethan quietly realizing that he is being lied to by his former mentor.) The performances are also quite good as well, which also comes as a surprise since quality acting is not usually the highest priority in films like this. Cruise does an excellent job of playing against his generally cocksure screen persona, Voight adds weight and even a slight degree of poignance to his turn as Phelps and as the mysterious Max, Vanessa Redgrave turns up in a couple of scenes and pretty much steals the show—when she and Cruise have their big scene together, the screen crackles with so much electricity that one wishes that someone could have found a project that would have given them more chances to play off of each other. (The only sort-of disappointment in the cast is Beart, who is nowhere near as electrifying here as she was in films like “Manon of the Spring” or “La Belle Noisseuse” [1991], though that might have something to do with the last-minute deletion of scenes suggest a love triangle between Claire, her husband and Ethan.)

The best thing about “Mission: Impossible”—not to mention one of the key elements that would go on to drive the subsequent films—is the way that a film that was presumably launched primarily as a star project managed to morph, with the approval of the star/producer, into perhaps the most auteur-friendly franchise in operation today. Since it is a film where he was hired to interpret someone else’s material, this is clearly not a “pure” Brian De Palma movie in the manner of such self-generated projects as “Dressed to Kill” (1980), “Blow Out” (1981) or “Femme Fatale” (2002). However, this is one of his most successful attempts at channeling his own particular obsessions into a more overtly commercial framework than is usually found in his more personal efforts. Although not necessarily the kind of story that he might have designed wholly on his own, this story allowed De Palma to tackle subject matter that has long fascinated him, such as voyeurism, technology, mistrust of the very organizations that are supposedly there to protect us and stories that feature unreliable narrators. The film also allows him to demonstrate once again that he is one of the great visual storytellers of our time and includes some of the most memorable extended set pieces of his career. Under normal circumstances, either the opening sabotage in Prague or the climactic fight aboard and on top of a train speeding through the Chunnel would be duly enshrined as the absolute peak moments in the career of an ordinary filmmaker. With De Palma, they aren’t even the high point of the film thanks to the masterful sequence depicting Ethan and his team infiltrating CIA headquarters to steal the list of spies from a room rigged to sound off alarms at even the slightest hint of an intruder in the room—even a simple drop of sweat could do the trick. The entire sequence is a breathtaking wonder that is pretty much a master class in filmmaking all by itself.

When “Mission: Impossible II” came around, Robert Towne was once again pulled into the fold to write the screenplay but the directing reins were passed on to John Woo, the Hong Kong filmmaker who dazzled audiences around the world with such jaw-droppers as “A Better Tomorrow” (1986), “The Killer” (1989) and “Hard Boiled” (1992) before going to Hollywood to make “Hard Target” (1993) and the smash hit “Face/Off” (1997). This time around, the story revolves around Ethan being sent off to track down Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a rogue IMF agent who has stolen both a deadly virus and its cure, planning to release the former into the world and sell the latter to the highest bidder. To accomplish this, Ethan recruits professional thief and former Ambrose flame Nyah (Thandie Newton) to seduce her one-time lover and help him recover the virus and antidote—complications inevitably arise when Ethan winds up falling in love with Nyah himself. Yes, this is roughly the same plot as the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Notorious” (1946), though to be fair, “Notorious” did not contain nearly the amount of crazy stunts or over-the-top fight scenes on display here.

“Mission: Impossible II” is usually considered to be the weakest entry in the series but while it is undeniably not quite as good as its predecessor, it is still better than its reputation might otherwise suggest. The story is not much to speak of but it is presented with enough style and energy to keep things humming along nicely enough. The action sequences, starting with the sight of Cruise doing a free solo climb in Moab, Utah and climaxing with a crazy-ass duel with motorcycles, are appropriately hair-raising as well. Most significantly, the series has once again allowed a noted filmmaker to play to their strengths and idiosyncrasies instead of trying to tamp them down. This may not be a great John Woo film in the way that “The Killer” or “Hard Boiled” are but, as was the case with De Palma, he manages to make a film that is undeniably his while still serving the basic needs of any tentpole project. Woo has always been a filmmaker with a taste for grandly melodramatic stories and the swoony romantic triangle at the center of the narrative, not to mention the notion of good and evil being separated by only the thinnest of lines (illustrated at a couple of points by having Ambrose donning a mask to make himself look like Ethan), certainly accomplishes that here. 

After flirtations with David Fincher and Joe Carnahan, it was J.J. Abrams, then riding high on the twin successes of “Alias” and “Lost," who was brought on to make his feature directorial debut with “Mission: Impossible III.” In this installment, Ethan has finally left the field work behind in order to train new agents for their own future missions and is even engaged to marry Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who is under the impression that he works for the DMV. During his engagement party, he is informed that one of his trainees (Keri Russell, perhaps inevitably) has been taken captive by international bad guy Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He and his team (including Jonathan Rhys Myers, Maggie Q and Rhames) swoop in to make a rescue, but it all goes wrong and Ethan finds himself under suspicion from the new IMF head (Laurence Fishburne). Without official authorization, Ethan and the team set off to nab Davian and while they are initially successful, things once again fall apart and the fates of both the world in general and Julia in particular are at stake. 

“Mission: Impossible III” is easily the most mixed bag of the entire series. Part of the problem with this one is that the main story too often comes across as a rehash of the first film’s plot without any of the genuinely surprising twists or narrative drive that its predecessor demonstrated in spades. The bigger issue is that while Abrams has gone on to direct some of the biggest films imaginable (he is the only guy to direct installments of both the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” franchises), he was just taking his first tentative steps into telling stories on that scale here and it shows. The action scenes are fast and noisy and frantic but for the most part, they lack the style and precision that De Palma and Woo brought to their set pieces, though comparing the efforts of a relative novice to experts like those two may be a little unfair. That said, Abrams seems more at home with the material involving Ethan’s personal life and the seeming impossibility of balancing a normal life with being called upon to save the world on a regular basis, which was also one of the key themes behind “Alias.” He also injects the series with a much-needed sense of humor courtesy of the introduction of Simon Pegg as a nerdy tech guy who would go on to become a series regular. The most significant aspect of the film, however, is the presence of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain. This was offbeat casting, to be sure, but it proved to be an extraordinarily effective choice—he is such a genuinely menacing presence throughout that even though you pretty much know going in that Hunt will indeed save the day, Hoffman forces you to consider the possibility that maybe he won’t after all.

When “Mission: Impossible III” was released in the summer of 2006, it came at a time when Tom Cruise’s stock as a star had dipped (this was the period of his sofa-hopping antics and the like) and while it was a success, it would prove to be the lowest-grossing entry in the series. Perhaps in response to this, “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” (2011) made a couple of additional tweaks to the formula that might have seemed risky—both literally and metaphorically—at the time but which proved to inject some needed energy into the franchise. The storyline was not necessarily a departure from the usual array of international goings-on: after being falsely accused of blowing up the Kremlin while on a mission to spring a key information source from a Moscow prison, Ethan and his officially disavowed team (which adds Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner with newly promoted Pegg) are assigned to pursue a Russian nuclear strategist (Michael Nyqvist) who is responsible for the bombing and who is hellbent on kicking off a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. But this was arguably the first time that the mission had the feel of a team effort that allowed everyone a moment to shine, from the suspiciously adept defensive moves from seemingly ordinary analyst Renner to the thrilling brawl between Patton and deadly assassin Lea Seydoux that might have been the unquestioned highlight of an ordinary movie. 

This is not to say that Cruise was exactly slacking off this time around. While he had always been a galvanizing physical presence in the previous films—one of the reasons that the stunts had such a visceral impact was that he was clearly doing the vast majority of them himself—perhaps he knew with this one that he had something to prove to audiences who might have thought that the series was beginning to die out. In turn, Cruise goes the extra mile with results that are both exhilarating and exhausting to watch. In the film's most famous moment, we see him climbing on the outside of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building. Sure, he was strapped to the building with numerous cables that were later removed in post-production but the sight of a real person hanging from a real building over a great height has a weight and gravity to it that the grandest of CGI spectacles can hardly hope to approach.

The film marked the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird, who had previously made a name for himself for helming the beloved animated features “The Iron Giant” (1999), “The Incredibles” (2004) and “Ratatouille” (2007). Once again, the decision to put such a huge project in the hands of someone who had never made a film of this size or scope raised more than a few eyebrows at the time, but that was nothing compared to the amount of eyeballs that popped upon seeing what he had done with it. Bird brought his animator’s eye to the staging of the massive action sequences and part of the fun of the film was watching all of the disparate elements come together with a great degree of humor, split-second timing and a remarkable degree of clarity (which included the smart decision to eschew 3-D for the more impressive visual gimmick of shooting a chunk of the film in the high-resolution IMAX format). From the opening Russian jailbreak to the centerpiece Dubai segment (which eventually expands to include both a high-speed chase and a giant sandstorm) to the climax in which Ethan and the big bad guy do battle in an automatic car park in Mumbai that finds both fists and automobiles flying with carefully calibrated abandon, the film feels at times as if it is indeed a live-action cartoon (in the best sense of the word). Even at its most outlandish, however, there is still a human element at its center that keeps both the story and the character grounded at all times, at least metaphorically.

“Ghost Protocol” instantly reenergized the “Mission: Impossible” series (it would prove to be the most successful of the films to date as well as Cruise’s biggest hit) but it did it so well that it almost seemed to paint the franchise into a corner—just the idea of trying to top it in terms of thrills and spectacle seemed to be a doomed prospect. And yet, not only did “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” live up to those expectations, it somehow managed to exceed them. Taking over the co-writing and directing chores this time around was Christopher McQuarrie (who had worked with Cruise before on “Valkyrie” [2008], “Jack Reacher” [2012] and “Edge of Tomorrow” [2014] and who did uncredited rewrites on “Ghost Protocol”) and tell a story that tie in together rather than acting as stand-alone narratives. In “Rogue Nation,” with the IMF once again disavowed and placed under the aegis of the head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin), Ethan goes off on his own to investigate The Syndicate, a shadowy organization comprised of presumed-dead agents from around the world to serve as a sort of ad hoc terrorist group. Although old colleagues like Luther and Benji, now officially part of the CIA, turn up to help him prove the existence of the Syndicate and clear his name, Ethan also receives assistance from Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious assassin who is either a British intelligence agent posing as a Syndicate operative or vice versa. 

More so than any of the previous sequels, “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” did the best job since the original of balancing the white-knuckle action scenes with a story that served as more than just a laundry line to connect the setpieces. Much of the promotional hype surrounding the film was based around the opening sequence in which Cruise is seen dangling from the outside of an airbus in flight. This was a knockout scene to be sure but McQuarrie managed to top those later on with a couple of equally amazing scenes—one involving an extended brawl with a sniper in the wings above the Vienna State Opera during a production of “Turandot” and the other involving Ethan infiltrating Syndicate headquarters by swimming through a pressurized underwater cavern and reprogramming a computer in under three minutes and without the use of air tanks—that demonstrated a heretofore unexpected flair for action filmmaking that rivaled anything seen in the series, or anywhere else for that matter. The writing was just as strong—the chief villain, a former MI6 agent named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who seizes control of the Syndicate for his own means, is more interesting than usual, the narrative unfolds in a manner that is complex and twisty without slipping into confusion and contains some very funny moments to help lighten the mood—my favorite is an apparent homage to the old “Scenes We’d Like To See” feature from Mad Magazine that finds the IMF in front of a government commission to answer for the destruction they caused over the course of the earlier films. Best of all is the inclusion of the Ilsa Faust character, a real wild card who, thanks to Ferguson’s star-making performance, serves as both Hunt’s equal and a possible romantic foil, not that they have much time for anything like that here.

Which brings us, at long last, to “Mission: Impossible - Fallout,” which, in a break with tradition, finds McQuarrie returning to write and direct a story that ties directly into its predecessor and while I suppose that the original film remains my favorite of the franchise thanks to the contributions of De Palma, this one is a legitimate work of grand popular art that serves as a wonderful payoff for longtime fans of the series and as a top-notch entertainment on its own. You have no doubt heard about many—though hopefully not all—of the jaw-dropping stunts on display and they all live up to the hoopla. Needless to say, this is one of those movies that needs to be seen in the theatre, preferably on the biggest possible screen. At the same time, the screenplay does an equally impressive job of telling a complex and consistently surprising story that meets all of the genre requirements and still leaves room to allow us to get a better idea of who Hunt is and what it is that drives him. The film even takes time to acknowledge its own now-considerable history with nicely done moments that do everything from pay homage to Max from the first film to resolving the relationship between Ethan and Julia that had been left in a sort of limbo after “Mission: Impossible III.”

And then there is Cruise, whose luster may have dimmed a bit in recent years with such misfires as “The Mummy” but who once again reminds us of the very qualities that made him one of the biggest movie stars around in the first place. Physically, he throws himself into the proceedings with a heedlessness that is bracing to behold—just watching him as he goes about his running and jumping will be enough to exhaust most viewers—but for the first time in the films, he is willing to acknowledge, albeit subtly, that he is getting older, an interesting move for someone who normally plays up his youthful nature whenever he can. He puts just as much effort into the dramatic beats as well and while this is not the kind of performance that will go on to win any awards, I cannot imagine anyone inhabiting the role with even a sliver of the conviction that he continues to bring to it even after all these years. As long as he remains its driving force, the “Mission: Impossible” franchise will hopefully maintain the absurdly high standards that it has already set for itself. However, as many have noted, he is getting up there in years, at least by action hero standards—is there a possibility that he might step away from the series anytime soon? No one can say for sure right now, but I suspect that if you listen to his last line of dialogue in the film, you will have your answer.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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