Mission: Impossible is one of the longest running franchises in Hollywood that hasn’t been rebooted. Since the original film’s debut in 1996, Hollywood has given us four different iterations of Batman, three of Spider-Man, and two separate Star Wars trilogies. But Tom Cruise has been consistently upping the ante as Ethan Hunt without interruption through it all. I love the Mission: Impossible franchise, but the first three installments are merely okay at best. Again, I love the franchise, but it didn’t become a truly great franchise until 2011, fifteen years into its run. You may ask; “If it wasn’t great until 2011, how were four movies funded and produced?” The answer to this question comes down to how the franchise embraces its franchise niche.
In other words; why do people like this franchise? Does the film lack understanding behind the scenes? Is a silly movie presented too self-seriously? The answers can be found in different ways throughout the Mission: Impossible franchise.
American James Bond I-III
The first three Mission: Impossible films are good, not great. They have an air of fun about them, but lack exciting originality. They are certainly higher up in the often amiss spy genre, but they fail to stand out spectacularly around other blockbusters. Spy films are always hit and miss. Either they are phenomenal and complex or they are completely messy and all over the place. Most spy franchises fail, though a few such as Bond, Johnny English, Austin Powers, and Mission: Impossible succeed in their own ways. The traditional king of these franchises is James Bond, a franchise that has been going on through various reboots since 1962.
Mission: Impossible (1996) Pt. I
Mission: Impossible launched in 1996 as the Americanized James Bond — after it was adapted from the TV show of course. With prime of his career Tom Cruise as the lead and a down-to-Earth plot, the first entry is a fun spy movie in and of itself. Finding himself disavowed (for the first of many times) and blamed for betraying his team and his country, Ethan Hunt must uncover who is really behind the theft and purchase of the mysterious NOC list.
This plot is one of the more complex of the series, with several satisfying twists and turns throughout. However, the film lacks a sense of style and fun. The original film serves as a solid starting place, but fails to find its franchise niche. Tom Cruise shines brightest, but not enough to solidify the franchise above, or even on par, with something as renowned as James Bond.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
After months of troubled production, Mission: Impossible II came out in 2000 and failed to live up to the goodwill generated by the lovable Mission: Impossible. Featuring a more far-fetched and James Bond-y style doomsday plot, the film was a bust. However, we do owe the failure of MI2 on the grounds that it tied up Dougray Scott long enough for him to lose the role of Wolverine to now famous Hugh Jackman.
Despite delivering us 17 years of Wolverine, the film fails to stand out even amongst its own franchise. The franchise started off slow, and it’s a miracle that it returned at all, much less six years later.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Mission: Impossible III returned the franchise to its down-to-Earth plot and doubled down on the gritty aspect of the spy film genre. With J.J. Abrams’ signature blend of lens flares and mystery boxes, some hope returned to the franchise. However, the American James Bond franchise was still just treading water in a rather empty genre.
I have two problems with this movie:
- J.J. Abrams and Mission: Impossible are incompatible.
- J.J. Abrams is a great director
- Mission: Impossible is a (now) great franchise
- The styles of the director and the franchise just do not blend
- Mission: Impossible III once again fails to find the franchise niche
The film is easily the most intense of the series, but that only makes it feel more like The Bourne Ultimatum. Again, the franchise rides on Tom Cruise’s intensity and prestige instead of finding what the films are good at and unique for having.
Mission: Impossible (1996) Pt. II
The first three films succeeded, but failed to flourish. However, they shined enough in certain ways to keep audiences somewhat engaged and studios interested. Look at it this way. When you think of Mission: Impossible (1996), what scene do you think of?
It’s this scene, right? Yeah, it’s this scene. People don’t remember the NOC List. People don’t remember Jon Voight’s evil plan or how it was executed. What people remember is Tom Cruise rappelling down from the ceiling in a soundless vault. The scene is tense, it’s fun, and it’s like nothing else in movies up until that point. Herein lies the core of what makes Mission: Impossible stand out against a sea of big-budget action movies and other spy movies.
There are two things that everyone knows about Tom Cruise.
- He loves to run on camera (Link Below)
- He does ALL of his own stunts, or at least what his insurance company can’t physically stop him from doing.
By analyzing these two known facts about Tom Cruise, the core of what makes Mission: Impossible stand out as a franchise can be deduced. Over the years, the franchise has produced some of the most insane practical stunts. Tom Cruise doesn’t like to fake it in front of a green screen. Instead, he often risks his life performing whatever the script requires. This includes:
- Rappelling on a wire (Mission: Impossible)
- This scene is 100% Cruise. The actor reportedly used coins placed in his shoes to balance himself out.
- Mountain Climbing (Mission: Impossible II)
- Cruise performed the climb with a harness but sans safety net should the harness fail.
- Climbing the then tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol)
- A harness was once again all that stood between Cruise and a lethal fall. The actor danced precariously across the side of the world’s tallest building all on his own strength.
- Dangling from the side of an airplane (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
- The film BEGINS with Cruise dangling from the side of an actual airplane as it ascends several thousand feet into the air. No CGI. No second chances. A harness was used, but what good does that really do compared to a speeding aircraft and a several thousand foot plunge?
- Holding his breath for six minutes (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
- The climactic “heist” of the film consists of Hunt retrieving a black box from an underwater vault. The catch is that Hunt has to dive without breathing apparatus, so naturally Cruise learned how to dive, swim, and not die underwater for up to six minutes on a single breath.
- Racing motorcycles through Casablanca (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
- Ethan Hunt weaves in and out of oncoming traffic without a helmet. Tom Cruise is sole person behind the handlebars during this sequence. Again, the actor is dedicated to making the franchise’s dangerous stunts practical and above par.
- Piloting a stunt helicopter (Mission: Impossible – Fallout)
- Tom Cruise learned how to fly a helicopter for the new film. He also learned how to pilot a helicopter during dangerous stunt sequences. He performed his own stunt piloting, while acting as Ethan Hunt. As if that wasn’t hard enough, the actor also performs the camera movement during the sequence as no cameraman would be crazy enough to even film this chain of events.
“Mission: Impossible” Finally Means Something
Do you know the entire reason why Ethan Hunt’s fictional Impossible Mission Force exists? The IMF exists because it takes on missions that are literally impossible. They stop doomsday level events with doomsday level tactics. The franchise niche exists within this idea. Unfortunately, the franchise didn’t embrace that idea until 2011. Brad Bird took the reigns of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and threw the franchise’s rule book out the window of a 163-story building. In the absence of that rule book, the game was changed for the better.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Ghost Protocol is my favorite Mission: Impossible movie. It’s tense, it’s fun, and it’s like nothing else in movies until that point. Remember the other time I used this phrase to describe something? It was earlier in this article when I discussed why the rappelling scene in the first film is the quintessential moment in that movie. Ghost: Protocol represents the moment when the franchise decided to embrace everything that it was known for; and most importantly, what it excels at.
The self-seriousness of the first three movies is abandoned for a clichéd “stop the evil guy with the nukes” plot. Despite the conventionality and cheesiness of this oft too repeated doomsday plot, MI4 manages to make something original of it. Instead of attempting a realistic plot with a realistic solution, the film embraces the impossible of it all. The film does so in two major ways.
#1: Reinvigorating the Cast
A major problem with the first three films is the lack of a fun and engaging cast of side characters. Despite talents such as Jon Voight, Thandie Newton, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the performances just aren’t memorable. Even Ethan Hunt’s allies are rather bland and unexcited, save on occasion Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell.
Ghost Protocol boots the boring suits and spices the cast up with talents such as Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Léa Seydoux, and Jeremy Renner. Pegg adds some much-needed comic relief to the absurd franchise that takes itself too seriously in the first three installments. Patton and Seydoux give the film its much-needed femme fatale presence and add a nice cat and mouse subplot to the mix. Renner plays the Hawkeye of the IMF as a wet blanket analyst with a secret.
The new characters aren’t delivered with the most depth, but are done so with the most sincerity. The actors balance the ridiculousness of their fictional predicament with a much-needed dose of humanity. As opposed to the super spies and hackers of the previous installments, these characters feel relatable and even familiar.
#2: Stunts, Stunts, and more Stunts
The entire marketing campaign of this movie is based on Tom Cruise’s climb, jump, and dangle atop the Burj Khalifa. Instead of the stunts just being a cool addition to the franchise, this film embraces them as part of the franchise’s core. In other words Ghost Protocol finds the franchise niche and revolves the film around it.
In addition to Tom Cruise hanging perilously from the side of the worlds tallest building, the film offers up a plethora of other spectacles. The film features a car/foot race through a violent sandstorm. Hunt and the film’s villain, Cobalt, clash in a climactic duel on top of falling cars in a futuristic parking garage. The film also features a daring prison break to open itself and whet the appetites of its viewers.
The stunts are over the top and executed as realistically as possible. The success of these stunts feeds directly into the success of the movie. This film reinvigorates the franchise from its deathbed by leaning into what is impossible and evolving the fictional world of the franchise around that idea.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Whereas Ghost Protocol succeeds by simplifying the narrative and upping the ante on stunts, Rogue Nation succeeds by joining the intensity of MI4 with the complexity and narrative espionage of MII, II, and III. While it is not my favorite film in the franchise, I believe Rogue Nation to be the best installment in terms of how “good” of a film it is. The franchise niche is embraced with MI4, but is fully utilized and explored for the first time with MI5. By weaving the intensity and stunt focus that makes the franchise memorable with the complexity and espionage that makes it interesting, this installment truly stands out.
The addition of Alec Baldwin’s CIA Director Hunley, Rebecca Ferguson’s rogue agent, Ilsa Faust, and Sean Harris’ mysterious Solomon Lane gives the film a healthy dose of tension and suspense not found in the previous installments. The characters brought over from previous installments — Pegg’s Benji, Rhames’ Stickell, and Renner’s Brandt — continue to shine in their own regard as well.
The film pushes each character to their limits as the IMF is disbanded and the characters are left to their own devices, guided by their conscience and pursued by all sides. The film forces its characters to toe the line in an exciting and explosive story that is further enhanced by the insane stunts and action sequences. All in all, Director Christopher McQuarrie pushes the franchise further while delivering on everything that audiences love from its previous installments.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Given the early reviews and the knowledge that McQuarrie is again directing, I have high hopes for MI6. The intensity seems to be upped once more, the action seems just as grounded and exciting as before, and the cast is once again rounded out by the addition of exciting new characters. Hopefully Henry Cavill and his impossible-to-digitally-remove mustache are worth the price that DC paid for them.
The latest three Mission: Impossible movies work for the same reason that the Fast and Furious franchise is still going. Both series are prime examples of a franchise changing course and adapting itself around what audiences love, as well as what about the films work most. For Fast and Furious, the franchise niche is shots of scantily clad women, exploding car chases, and ridiculous fights featuring The Rock. For Mission: Impossible, this franchise niche is found in the series’ stunt work and intense action scenes.
While the Fast and Furious franchise is still a mess, the trimming of its earlier installment’s fat and renewed focus on making cars go boom certainly improves its value as a popcorn flick. For the Mission: Impossible franchise, this trimming of the fat delivers a more streamlined story that is augmented by the insanity of what Tom Cruise is able to put his body through.
Let me preface the application of this idea by saying this; there are plenty of “good” films that are not enjoyable, and there are plenty of “bad” films that are enjoyable. What can save a bad film, such as any film in the Fast and Furious Franchise or the likes of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, is the commitment to which said film leans into its franchise niche. These films aren’t perfected by leaning into their niche, but they are at the very least more enjoyable because of it. A common phrase that reflects this idea is “Write what you know”. You may be a great, an adequate, or a terrible writer; but if you write what you are familiar with and/or a part of, it makes your writing that much more convincing and therefore engaging.
This is the reason that the Mission: Impossible franchise has gone from adequate to exceptional. By leaning into the most exciting and visually intriguing parts of its fictional world, the franchise is able to leave its mark on a vast and often bleak cinematic landscape. What sets Mission: Impossible apart further is that it leans into its niche without retreading old territory. So, while the Fast and Jurassic films find explodier ways to repackage the same envelope, Mission: Impossible instead pushes that envelope further. Mission Accomplished.
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