Coming up to 25 years after the release of Mission: Impossible, Tom Jolliffe looks back at the franchise that is still going strong…
In the mid 9’s, modern adaptations of old TV shows tended to be a mixed bag. More often than not, the update didn’t match the popularity of the source. Whether it was The Saint with Val Kilmer, or The Avengers with Uma Thurman, the films never captured the audience studios hoped. There was one major exception to the rule though… Mission: Impossible. If Kilmer wasn’t necessarily a major box office, and Thurman hadn’t hit the level she might have expected after Pulp Fiction, Tom Cruise was very much the mega movie star. There weren’t many stars as financially magnetic as Cruise at the time, so Mission: Impossible came with the hefty fan-base of Tom Cruise behind it.
As we come to 25 years of this franchise, there are no signs of slowing. Six movies in and there are two to follow. Recently it was announced, to little surprise in current circumstances, that Mission: Impossible 7 would be delayed a year (due now in May 2022). There’s now an expectation that comes with every new entry, but let’s take things right back to the genesis of a franchise that saw the original show’s hero turn villain, as Tom Cruise’ Ethan Hunt became our leading hero in place of Jim Phelps.
Brian De Palma was tasked with turning a long dormant spy show into a modern blockbuster to rival a rejuvenated Bond, and a shift to movie star actors becoming action heroes (see Nicolas Cage, Will Smith et al). De Palma’s very distinct style seemed perfectly balanced to carefully mix old fashioned, with modern aesthetics. From his stark Dutch angles to his visceral set pieces, De Palma crafted a stylish spy thriller with a particularly great opening, and memorable middle and end set pieces. Whilst it lagged in the connective tissues, the results were clear; Ethan Hunt was an engaging hero and Cruise a magnetic action hero. He’d made Top Gun, but Mission: Impossible kick-started the Cruise/action connection that would see him progressively push himself to the limits. Cruise is now synonymous with his stunt work, and the first film features an array of physical feats, that aren’t quite hanging out of airplanes, or scaling skyscrapers, but impressive regardless. The impressive cast was brimming with fantastic character actors, including Jean Reno, Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgrave, Kristen Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez, Ving Rhames and Henry Czerny.
Mission: Impossible 2 doubled down with trademark style, and if the first film wasn’t evidence enough that this was a Cruise star vehicle, the sequel was certainly abundantly clear. With John Woo and his Dove collection at the helm, Mission: Impossible 2 is an overblown, under-plotted caricature of Woo’s balletic heroism. It’s oozing ego, as whether intended or not, it has an adoring gaze perpetually upon Cruise (and his pantene-sheen long locks). As ridiculously overblown as it is, the film still manages to be an enjoyable slice of action packed hokum. It’s crammed with deliriously Woo styled action scenes and it truly cemented Cruise as a fearless performer of eye-catching stunts. The gratuitous mountain climbing and other dare devil heroics, with Cruise front and center were truly impressive. Though the film, and the franchise trademark of McGuffin (over)usage weren’t quite so engaging. Still, Dougray Scott revels in villainy here.
Speaking of villainy, if the franchise has lacked something, it’s often been truly outstanding villains. We’ve not often had a Joker level baddie to hiss at, though many fine actors have slipped in and out of the franchise and been serviceable against limited screen-time and occasionally weak reliance on the same McGuffin lead plot recycled. Mission: Impossible 3 however is something of an exception. The film itself feels kind of forgettable. It’s one I never quite remember. The action scenes in J.J. Abrams’ entry didn’t have the crisp clarity of the other instalments. It’s certainly a better film than the second, but not as dazzling, and not as finely tuned, as the following three. Philip Seymour Hoffman however, really makes for an engaging and intense villain. For the first time (maybe the last) we felt true threat and fear for Hunt. He was at his most vulnerable, because Hoffman provides the kind of gritty intensity we hadn’t seen to that point (and not since).
If you can sum up the opening three film in this franchise in one word, it would be ‘inconsistent.’ They were wildly different in style and tone, even if the ultimate goal felt similar in the second and third in particular. With Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol the series was on something of a knife edge. Cruise had suffered a dip in popularity, particularly in the wake of all the Scientology leaks (and couchgate). The third had certainly repaired some damage financially, but the series needed to kick forward again. The fourth film proved a marked step forward in overall consistent quality. Brad Bird didn’t overwhelm the film with his style, and it became even more of a Bond-esque globetrotting adventure. Likewise, the film pushed more firmly into a team ensemble once more, rather than seeing Hunt always running solo. Again, this was a continuation on some groundwork laid in the third, but perfected.
Rogue Nation and Fallout kept the momentum going and importantly, garnered impressive numbers. Now, in a time when the Fast franchise is making huge numbers and Daniel Craig’s Bond era grew exponentially across the world, Mission: Impossible could have been in danger of feeling second tier. With Cruise’s popularity going up this past decade, boosted by an admiration to his dedication (particularly to his stunt work), the franchise has become one of THE action franchises. It’s aided by consistency now too (Christopher McQuarrie seems to be firmly entrenched in the director’s chair), with the last three films maintaining a pretty high bar (whereas Bond dips up and down, and the Fast films have grown a little wearisomely silly). It’s become a fairground ride – in the best possible sense – which maintains its enjoyability by the always engaging Cruise. What insane stunt will he perform next? They’ve become legitimately big scale blockbusters, with a nice balance of espionage in moderation and action in abundance. It tends to feature engagingly strong female characters too, probably more so than Bond and the Fast films (with a few exceptions like Eva Green). It would be fair to say too, that the prospect of Mission: Impossible 7 is probably that little bit more exciting than Daniel Craig’s final fling as Bond this Autumn with No Time To Die.
What are your thoughts on the Mission: Impossible franchise? Which one is the best? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.