Ricky Church on the 25th anniversary of the Mission: Impossible movie franchise…
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” 25 years ago today those words were uttered as the action-spy genre was given a shot in the arm with a big screen revitalization of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Based on the 1960s TV series the first film, directed by Brian De Palma, brought Tom Cruise to the franchise as lead hero Ethan Hunt, the best of the CIA’s Impossible Mission Force, as he was framed and sought to uncover the real culprit. Since then, whenever a Mission: Impossible film has been released it has acted as an event with action-packed sequences, mostly interesting plots and, of course, high stake stunts performed by Tom Cruise himself.
1996’s Mission: Impossible served as a worthy introduction to the franchise’s modern audience and what they could expect out of future installments. Rather than focus on or re-imagine the characters of the original series, the film instead introduces a new cast of heroes led by Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, a young, highly skilled and intelligent IMF agent who is devoted both to the completion of the mission and his teammates who he views more as family and friends than colleagues. Though Jon Voight does portray original series member Jim Phelps, the show is entirely Ethan’s as he makes way for a new generation of Mission: Impossible and IMF characters.
Mission: Impossible is unique among the spy genre for its blend of old school technique, high-tech gadgetry and pulse-pounding action. Even the plot is rather muted compared to the modern James Bond films which featured an over-the-top villain bent on either world domination or destruction. Instead, Mission: Impossible sees Ethan on the, ahem, hunt for a mole within the IMF, one who wants to sell a list of all the CIA’s embedded agents to an arms dealer and has orchestrated the deaths of his entire team, framing Ethan for everything in the process. Even though it is not a world-ending scenario like future Mission: Impossible films would delve in, it is still presented as a dire situation due to how deeply personal it affects Ethan.
Even after over two decades, the first film remains one of the best in the franchise. The plot is arguably the most intricate as De Palma and screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne made a complex story full of twists as Ethan searched for the real culprit. From the true purpose of Ethan’s first mission, Max’s identity and the depth of Jim Phelps’ betrayal, the focus was placed solely on the narrative’s mystery over action. In fact, there’s only really one typical action scene at the climax of the film as Ethan tries capturing Jim on top of a high-speed train with a helicopter flying dangerously low to them both.
That is not to say, however, the film is without any tension. For a film that holds out on its major action beat until the climax, it is very impressive how tense it can be without shootouts, fist fights, car chases and a booming score. The opening mission as the team’s success quickly transforms into desperate horror as Ethan watches his team murdered one-by-one sets the tone for what audiences are in for, but nothing can quite match Ethan’s break-in to CIA headquarters and hanging from a tight-rope in the CIA’s most secure room outfitted with a ridiculous level of security. Five films later and it still remains the series’ most tense moment. Who could have known one tiny little bead of sweat could result in so much tension before it could fall on the floor and trigger the alarm? And that is all without a score as the scene remains completely silent save for the character’s voices, scraping of the rope and the small sound of Ethan’s sweat hitting his hand. It is a masterful execution in how to deliver a tense and exciting scene in an unconventional manner.
One of the biggest criticisms of the film though is how it deals with Voight’s Jim Phelps, one of the heroes of the original series who led the team from the second season to its last and came back for the 1980s revival. Peter Graves, Phelps’ actor, even earned the series a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role. Mission: Impossible took its central hero and turned him into a villain who grew disillusioned with the CIA in the aftermath of the Cold War and betrayed his team. It’s a point of contention for older fans of the franchise and even the original cast disagreed with the decision. Graves opted not to reprise his role upon learning what would happen to Phelps and many of the other originals decided not to cameo given the film’s direction. It’s not hard to imagine why so many of the original cast and fans would be upset. Imagine watching a film where James Bond has been the villain all along or Captain America is the one destroying the Avengers. It certainly wouldn’t sit well with longtime fans.
That said, if they had to do away with the original hero to make way for a new one they found a great choice with Ethan Hunt. It might not have worked with a lesser actor, but Tom Cruise was, and continues to be, great in the role. He made Ethan a likeable protagonist with his loyalty and determination to avenge his fallen team, but he’s got quite a few interesting characteristics of his own. This film alone shows Ethan is a very capable spy with his intelligence and ability to put together clues from the smallest bits of information, such as Ethan’s discovery at the meaning behind Job 314 and contact with Max, or his use of old school tactics with new ones. One great little beat is how he uses a broken light bulb to sprinkle along the floor as a way to detect possible assassins or agents.
Then there is his method of planning and executing risky high stakes operations, putting the ‘possible’ in ‘impossible’. It was directly stated by the villain in Mission: Impossible 2, but Ethan has a preference of using subterfuge and diversion in his plans rather than outright attack. Sometimes in the series it has been thought this is more due to Ethan’s ego and desire to show off how good he is, but Fallout delved deeper into this by examining Ethan’s reluctance to put civilians in danger or take any life unless absolutely necessary. Cruise has brought a level of humanity and compassion to Ethan that isn’t usually seen in action blockbusters, showing why Ethan Hunt is worthy of carrying the Mission: Impossible mantle. Not to mention Cruise’s dedication to delivering jaw-dropping stunts in those action sequences, from cliff-climbing, motorcycle riding, running full sprint for miles and even hanging off a departing plane. The fact Cruise said his recent motorcycle stunt for Mission: Impossible 7 is his most dangerous yet raises the question of how that can possibly be after the other stuff he’s done.
Mission: Impossible may be 25 years old, but its relevance has far from diminished. Rogue Nation and Fallout brought some elements back to the original with its references of Ethan’s CIA break-in to the introduction of Max’s children and the upcoming return of Henry Czerny’s CIA director Kittridge in 7 and 8. The first film set the tone for the series, but it is worth noting each entry has had its own voice. From De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie, each director has brought their own unique vision and style to their films. Even McQuarrie, who is the only director to return for more than one Mission: Impossible – and is currently directing 7 and will direct 8 – said he wanted to make Rogue Nation and Fallout distinct from each other to retain the franchise’s individuality for each film.
With both the franchise and Tom Cruise showing no signs of stopping, Mission: Impossible continues to be one of the best action-blockbuster series and it is largely due to this first film, showing its legacy is very significant on this 25th anniversary.
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