I just realized what my first genuine geek moment was, that moment where most other people look at you a bit differently because your passion over something considered trivial by 99 percent of the population. I was 15 and I had just seen the first Mission: Impossible film. I was torn by the film, on one hand, the suspense and action felt true to the spirit of the 1960s show that I had fallen in love with 3 years prior. On the other hand, it had disrespected Jim Phelps, a character that I had seen as one of the coolest cats to ever grace television. I was very outspoken about my feelings among friends, committing the unforgivable sin of spoiling the reveal by accident on one occasion. That said, I have bought the original film more times than any other film as each new format arrived. The only other franchise I did this with was Star Wars.
So what is it about Mission: Impossible that made me such a die-hard fan? If you haven’t seen an episode of the original series, you’d probably never understand. A year ago, I went back to the series on Netflix to see if it still held up and found myself just as engaged now as ever before. The show is simply timeless due to the use of practical con-artist deceptions, practical threats, and a genuine love of Hitchcockian suspense. Every mission lived up to the “impossible” status, requiring that the team use inventive schemes to achieve their goals. There might be a twist or an unforeseeable factor that ruins the plan and sometimes it turns out the part of the plan to begin with. I loved how each episode brought in a mix of popular characters and some rotating guest stars, how this show made in the 60s allowed for minority and female characters to be competent and important parts of the team. The show allowed characters to be familiar with one another but kept the mission front and center (something I would take umbrage with in Mission: Impossible III). Later seasons would have its budget cut and reduced the stakes considerably, but they still work as they added in new wrinkles to keep the story exciting.
But like all good things, the show was canceled, tried to get rebooted in the 80s and failed, all before movie star Tom Cruise, looking to create an action franchise for himself, got the rights and started a chain of films that were both ambitious and unwieldy at times. He got three high caliber screenwriters to pen the first film which upset most of the cast and creators of the original series as the film put more emphasis on action set pieces than the more subtle spy maneuvering that was fresh for the show. The most egregious part was that the final twist would tarnish the memory of one of the most iconic characters of the show. Imagine if the Star Trek reboot had elder Spock to be the overall villain, then you would have an idea how much this upset the originators and their fans alike.
But overall, the film was a huge success, mostly due to the incredibly meticulous set pieces such as the initial embassy sequence, the famous CIA heist and the final train sequence. Tom Cruise came off as a viable action hero. Director Brian DePalma, mostly known for his 70s and 80s suspense thrillers, had a resurgence in his career off the success of this film (which he squandered pretty quickly afterwards). That said, there were more than a few criticisms towards the film, something that would hurt the franchise’s reputations in later installments. The most damning would be that for a series that had always been about teamwork, the film overemphasized Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, a recurring complaint that would rear its head for the next two films. As for myself, I think it was important to Cruise and the franchise that shook things up and recalibrate the film series and the expectations in the first film. If they hadn’t, each upcoming film not only would have to live up to the expectations of the previous film but the show as well. It was also clear that Cruise had a long game for the franchise, though definitely an egocentric one at that.
Once the success of the first film was clear, work on the sequel started. Cruise, being a producer as well as the biggest star in the world at the time, decided that each film in the franchise would have a different director and a different vision. During this time, Hong Kong dynamo John Woo had successfully transferred his talents to Hollywood, an opportunity that Cruise would jump on immediately. Mission: Impossible II would more action-heavy with a reliance on insane action stunts and Woo’s trademark gunfights. Cruise, an actor that aspires to perfection, insisted on being able to do most of the dangerous stunt work himself. Fan favorite from the first film, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), also returned to provide technical backup and provided action support in the climactic action set piece at the end.
The film easily topped the first film at the box office and became an international sensation. The film had critics divided and fans of the show and the original film livid. While it had a nonstop action pace, there was very little in the form of teamwork involved, the story made little sense and there was a stench of misogyny running through it (“To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She’s a woman. She’s got all the training she needs.”). In time, the film would represent what is considered the stereotype of action sequels to the point of being mocked by other films. Personally, the film deserves the derision it got, but I do find myself having a soft spot for a film so unrepentantly gung-ho from the over-the-top stunts to the Metallica-inspired Hans Zimmer score. That said, the film is really stupid and makes the M:I fan in me ashamed that the rest of myself kind of enjoys it.
Due to other commitments and possibly a feeling of embarrassment over how the sequel came out, it would be six years before another Mission: Impossible film would come out. During that time, his marriage to Nicole Kidman had lapsed, his connection to Scientology had been played up in the media, especially after showing erratic behavior during the courtship and marriage to Katie Holmes. The film going public was starting to show fatigue with the star. As a means of turning his career around, Cruise set out to make the next Mission: Impossible film. Between these two films, screenwriter-turned-showrunner JJ Abrams had successfully launched a spy-based TV show called Alias which had a similar approach as the original Mission: Impossible program. Abrams, a lover of thick convoluted plots and twists, not to mention lens flares, wanted to bring back the essence of a team-based Mission: Impossible using the formula that worked for him on Alias. The result would be a hybrid of the two styles.
The critics warmed up to the new approach a little bit, but the North American audiences were not as interested in this product this time around. Between the backlash of the second installment and fatigue of Cruise’s off-screen antics made this the least successful installment, leaving many to question not only the survival of the franchise but of Cruise’s star power. The saving grace for the film was the international market, which had over time become as important to film studios as a means of making back money on films that didn’t so well in North America. As I see it, this film turned me against Cruise and the franchise. This was a copy of the Alias formula, which put too much emphasis on the personal plight of Hunt and not enough on the mission. And while I applaud that the film tried to be more about the team, it still became all about Hunt as everything happening in the film happens to Hunt.
The next five years would be the hardest in Cruise’s career. The semi-failure of M:I III deflated Cruise’s ego as his partnership with Paula Wagner disintegrated, his name became a joke. The beginning of his next chance would actually come from a strange source; Ben Stiller. Stiller put Cruise in a part unlike anything Cruise had ever done before, a foul-tempered, foul-mouthed movie mogul named Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. No one initially going to see Tropic Thunder knew that Cruise was even in the film as his role had be kept secret. When audiences were introduced to this character, very few could even recognize him under the makeup, but he immediately became one of the biggest surprises in the film. This is important for the future of Mission: Impossible as Cruise needed to become a team player in this film instead of the headliner, something that would change how the franchise would move forward.
After a few more films and less off-screen drama had brought more goodwill towards Cruise, he decided to try his hand at another Mission: Impossible film. The problem this time was that his history with Paramount Pictures had been tarnished since the last film, and was only able to get things rolling after JJ Abrams, fresh off the success of his Star Trek reboot, offered to run things through his Bad Robot production team. Many were thinking that this would be the last M:I film for Cruise, that he would hand off the franchise to someone else. Cruise this time recruited Brad Bird to direct. Bird, an iconic animation director, had never made a live action film before. This time, Cruise became the spearhead of the film that allowed many of the subplots to be given to the supporting cast, which included M:I III vet Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and 2-time Oscar nominee and soon-to-be-Avenger Jeremy Renner. That film, subtitled Ghost Protocol, blended some of the most daring stunts with a visual style not seen in the franchise before through the use of IMAX cameras.
Critics were ecstatic of the final result, garnering not just claims of the best film in the franchise, but one of that year’s best films (it was my number 2). Audiences were also very pleased with the final result, making this the second-most successful film of the lot, just behind the second. It also showed a warming of the series towards fans of the show, as the teamwork aspect and the diverse and well-used supporting cast felt more at home with the original series. For the first time in the franchise, there was a near-universal desire for another installment.
During the filming of Ghost Protocol, Cruise made a conscious choice to stay with the series as the lead and not handing the baton to a new generation. While this did ruffle some feathers, the success of the film helped Cruise make his case to continue. But there now came a new problem, time. Cruise was turning 50 and the franchise depends on a reliance of intense stunt work that Cruise will eventually not be able to perform. Given that the actor refuses to let stuntmen do what he can physically do, the question becomes how long can he last before he is no longer able to perform?
Perhaps that is why he selected Christopher McQuarrie to helm the fifth film titled Rogue Nation. McQuarrie, whose screenwriting credits include The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie (which starred Cruise) and directing credits involve Jack Reacher (also with Cruise), is a filmmaker more interested with story than stunts, something clearly visible in the film. The story, which ties most of the other films together, has Hunt tracking down an organized spy ring ala Spectre. Hunt’s team this time around is made up of mostly vets as Rhames, Pegg and Renner return, but adds Rebecca Ferguson as one of the most exciting female action stars since Scarlett Johannsson donned the black jumper.
What is truly fascinating is that Paramount had initially intended to release Rogue Nation one week after Star Wars, a move that most worried would be suicide to the franchise. Instead of moving the film back to the summer of 2016, like most franchises would do, they instead moved the release date UP to the last weekend of July 2015, a move that shows a strong confidence in the material considering that it demanded that Paramount put together a publicity campaign in the course of four months. While it is too early to know exactly how most audiences respond to this film, the extremely high critical response along with the above-expected box office take on its opening weekend bodes well for the fate of the franchise moving forward as Paramount has already claimed that work on the next installment is already under way.
In the next installment, I’m going to discuss the various themes directly in all five films, how they tie together, how the characters have changed with each new film and how the actors have grown with these roles. I’ll also be discussing Rogue Nation in more detail as I dive deeper into what this film does to honor the prior films and how it appears to be a transition to a new kind of franchise moving forward. Thank you for joining me as I contemplate these films.
Pic from cbunye