Martin Landau, one of the mainstays of the original series on which this $3.6bn franchise is based, walked out of the production of the first film. He said that it was too different from the original premise of the show. Instead of covert operations, he felt that the film was going for all out action. That aspect has become one of the major selling points of these films over the last 23 years, making Mission: Impossible Paramount Pictures’ only guaranteed hit machine (Transformers is all but done now, surely, and there are no more Star Trek films in the pipeline unless Tarantino can make something happen in that universe).
Where most film franchises fade away in terms of quality until they are eventually rebooted or retired, Mission: Impossible has gone from strength to strength over the years. The use of different directors for the first five films was something of a trademark, but the formula Cruise and Co. have hit on with Usual Suspects helmer Christopher McQuarrie seems to have taken off and he has become the first person to direct two of the films. Indeed, he is signed on to film the next two instalments back to back for release in 2021 and 2022. It could be that Paramount is taking a swipe at the Infinity War blueprint with a continuing story over the two films. The stories have become more episodic as they have gone along, with organisations like The Syndicate emerging to act as Spectre to Ethan Hunt’s Bond. Let’s look back over the history of the series…
In terms of big-budget action franchises, there aren’t many out there that aren’t owned by Disney. Star Wars and the MCU occupy the throne but for anyone that isn’t into the science fantasy of the Skywalker saga and doesn’t like superheroes, what else is there? When the first Mission: Impossible film was released in 1996, the only real action franchise in god shape was James Bond. Pierce Brosnan had re-energised that sleeping giant after a six year hiatus the year before. Outside of Bond, the big action films of the time were the likes of Independence Day, Michael Bay’s The Rock, disaster movie Twister and, dare I say it, Broken Arrow. Mission: Impossible, Brian de Palma’s initial entry in the series stands up fairly well when watched again today. The train scene at the end suffers from the limitations of CGI at the time but mostly the film is very slick-looking. The iconic break-in scene at Langley is a particular highlight and sets the tone for the various ‘impossible’ scenarios that are to recur throughout the series. The always brilliant Ving Rhames, Jean Reno and Emmanuelle Beart offer good support throughout, as does Jon Voight (even if many fans of the original series despised the idea of Jim Phelps being a traitorous villain).
Mission: Impossible II
Four years later, John Woo took the helm of Mission: Impossible 2. This film has its share of critics, it’s fair to say, and this is without a doubt the weakest entry in the series. Woo’s first cut of the film was a three and a half hour, R-rated feat of violence which the studio insisted was cut down to two hours. This hacking up of the idea is what contributes to how the film has so many holes and feels a bit disjointed. There are too many clichés to wade through and far too much time spent on slow motion and other ‘style over substance’ tricks. That said, there is lots to like about the film. the central premise is pretty good, there are some gorgeous locations and there are some great performances from a star-studded cast. Brendan Gleeson is always worth watching, John Polson brings some well-written light relief as Billy Baird but the real standout is Dougray Scott. He steals the show as rogue agent and main antagonist Sean Ambrose with some deliciously over the top acting that really helps in a film that seems to take itself way too seriously at times. It went on to become the highest grossing film of 2000 ahead of Russell Crowe’s Gladiator but there wasn’t a whole lot of competition. Brian Singer’s X-Men made half of M:I2’s gross, showing how the superhero market was still a growing concern at the time. You have to give credit to Cruise for his commitment to the series. He paid for the production overrun costs out of his own pocket and lied to insurers about doing the stunts himself. He insisted on hanging off cliffs and riding motorbikes through fire so that it would look real.
Mission: Impossible III
Between the second and third instalments in the series, there were some interesting developments in the ‘spy/action’ genre. Jason Bourne entered the arena and set a new benchmark for visceral action, then the James Bond franchise was revamped and followed suit with parkour and bone-crunching fight scenes. Things all got a bit real. How was the Mission: Impossible franchise going to keep up? In 2006, we found out. JJ Abrams took the director’s chair (his first feature film) for the third outing and raised the stakes considerably. He introduced a fiancée for Tom Cruise’s lead character and then put her in immediate peril. He also showed us a very real and believable villain who was the intellectual better of our main character. Call this a rip-off of Blofeld if you want, but the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Owen Davian (a role initially slated for Kenneth Branagh) is nothing short of brilliant. He sells the menace and detachment brilliantly and is the perfect foil for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt.
Once again, the film treats us to some gorgeous locations like Rome and Shanghai, and spectacular action sequences, but it also puts the hero through the mill in a way that the series had not done to this point. The attack on the bridge is particularly brutal. There’s the damsel in distress element to things, which feels a bit tired, but that is balanced out by the other female characters, played by Keri Russell and Maggie Q, who are well utilised.
In the wake of the masterpiece that was Casino Royale, this was a good response and it set the tone for what followed.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
In 2011, Brad Bird was given the chance to direct the next instalment in the series. Bird came off two hugely successful animated projects (Ratatouille and The Incredibles) but this was his first live action feature. JJ Abrams brought him in when there were a few different versions of the script floating around. They worked out the details and came up with this film, which is a delight from start to finish. There is never a let up in the action as we move from one problem to the next. This is demonstrated beautifully in the opening sequence. After Lost‘s Josh Holloway appears and then is dispatched very suddenly, we move on to a successful jailbreak featuring Cruise and the returning Simon Pegg. From there you expect to have a breather, however the team are then given only hours to break into the Kremlin. This pace is maintained throughout and it really adds to the fun of the film. This is one of my favourite entries in the series. Never one to shy away from stunt work, Cruise insisted on climbing around on the outside of the Burj Khalifa (at a height of over 500m) so that they didn’t have to worry about camera angles.
One thing that is particularly good about this film is that it doesn’t try to ram a love-interest story down the viewer’s throat. For once, we have a male and female lead who are just content to work together. This, in addition to the elements mentioned above, makes for a very direct, streamlined experience. Paula Patton does a great job, as does series newcomer Jeremy Renner.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Sean Harris (who had a great turn in TV’s The Borgias) takes on villain duties in this fifth instalment, Alec Baldwin is wonderful as the CIA chief with IMF in his sights and the series also welcomes the brilliant Rebecca Ferguson as British agent Ilsa Faust. You’ll be seeing her in next year’s Denis Villeneuve-helmed Dune reboot as the Lady Jessica and she is a great addition to this ensemble. The great thing about her character is that she is played on an equal footing with Ethan Hunt and, although there is a sexual tension between the pair, this is never overplayed to the point where it intrudes on the plot or action.
All the trademarks of the series are present under the expert hand of director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) who Cruise had worked with on Valkyrie, Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow. Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg have plenty to do. Pegg in particular plays a very good role in this film, proving that he can handle being more than just comic relief. It also helps that the stakes are raised fairly early on with a cold-blooded execution of someone in front of Hunt’s eyes. He’s not perfect and people are not necessarily safe just because he is present. The action sequences are beautifully shot, especially the opera scene, and the film enjoys high ratings on iMDB. Cruise kept up his insistence on doing his own stunts, trying to outdo his Burj Khalifa climb by hanging off an Airbus in mid-flight. He had to wear special lenses in order to keep his eyes open and protected.
There are some nice nods to the original series (The Syndicate, for example) along with a few references to other film series’ such as James Bond (an Aston Martin DB5 appears at one point and Sean Harris’ character, Solomon Lane wears a Nehru dress coat like Blofeld) but this film stands on its own as a wonderful entry in the series and a fantastic action film. It’s fun, has high stakes and uses the skills of all involved to their limit.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
For the first time in the series, a director returned to direct the sequel to their own film. Christopher McQuarrie, having perfected the formula for the series in Rogue Nation, brought a lot of the same elements back for Fallout and was just as successful. It enjoys the highest rating of any film in the series (7.8 on iMDB) and was widely lauded by critics for its no nonsense action. There are some simply stunning set pieces including a HALO jump which Tom Cruise trained over a year for. Rebecca Ferguson returns alongside the others with Henry Cavill joining the team.
During filming, Tom Cruise injured his ankle performing one of the insane stunts; jumping from one building to another. With a broken ankle, he got up and kept running in order to complete the shot. That’s another mark of his commitment to his craft. He’s a true movie star in every sense of the word and that always shows through in his work.
Fallout is the longest film in the series at two and a half hours but it never feels like it. It’s just a breathtaking ride from start to finish.
The title of this piece asks if this is the best action series going. I genuinely think the answer is yes. The latest Bond outings have been hit and miss in my opinion but Mission: Impossible just keeps on delivering, building on what works well time and time again in order to keep things fresh even within the same formula.
The next two films, if they should be the last (they may well be for Cruise who will be nearly 60 when the eighth is released) are certainly something to look forward to. I feel a lot more confident paying money to see these at the cinema than I do for Bond or any other franchise currently going. If you disagree, feel free to tell me why in the comments. these are just opinions and everyone has them.
When I watch films like this, I want to be entertained, thrilled and I want to be on th edge of my seat. More with Mission: Impossible than with any other films (not including Free Solo which is just plain insane tension) I feel all those things. Can’t wait for 7 and 8!
Thanks for reading,
You can check out some of my other posts by following the links below. You can follow me on Twitter @richardfaustin or follow this website.